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Scholars of Note: Chemical Engineering

Chemical EngineeringA Sense Of MasteryPaula Hammond CunninghamTitle: Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Education: Ph.D., Massachusetts Institute of Technology; M.S., Georgia Institute of Technology; S.B., Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Age: 40Chemistry has been nearly a lifelong love for Dr. Paula Hammond Cunningham, but it wasn’t her first love. “I was into books and reading,” she recalls. “I was going to be a writer of children’s books.”
And this despite the fact that she was immersed in science as a child. Her father had a Ph.D. in biochemistry and was the director of Health Laboratories in Detroit, and her mother was a registered nurse — indeed the dean of the nursing school at Wayne County Community College and the founder of the program.
Cunningham’s “conversion” to science didn’t come until her junior year in high school — when a “very traditional” teacher at her Catholic girls’ institution initiated her into the mysteries of chemistry.
“Not too many girls at that time were even remotely considering careers in science. But I loved chemistry. I loved the course. Then my teacher spoke to me after class one day about becoming a chemical engineer or a chemist,” Cunningham says.
That was all it took to pique her interest. “I started to investigate. I asked my parents if they knew any engineers. They dug out their phone books, and we started to make calls.” What she learned through that process sounded interesting, even exciting, and the next thing she knew, she had applied and been admitted to MIT.
At MIT, Cunningham found herself surrounded by a warm and supportive community. “I was definitely one of those students who studied all the time. I had a good time getting to know everyone, and I did well,” Cunningham says. “I didn’t ace everything — was just a strong, stable student.”
By the time Cunningham graduated, her professors, in polymer science particularly, were urging her to go to graduate school. But Cunningham was engaged to another MIT student, and they had decided to marry, work for a few years and then think about graduate school.
So at age 20, Cunningham moved to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to take a job at Motorola as a process engineer. She recalls being excited about the move.
Cunningham and her husband stayed only two years in South Florida and pulled up stakes and moved to Atlanta, where she worked as a research engineer at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI), a grant-based contract engineering group that’s an affiliate arm of the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Suddenly Cunningham found herself surrounded by not only Black engineers, but Black female engineers.
“I began to feel this strong sense of comfort. I decided that I really wanted to be in academia,” Cunningham says.
Her reasons were many. She loved “being able to control exactly what you study. I guess you could say I’m a bit of a control freak,” she says.
But even more that that, she says, “I loved the interactions with students. I loved the fact that there are these intense young minds, always probing and seeking, that you can inspire them and watch them getting excited about their work. The other element is what they give back to you. They call your attention to things you wouldn’t have thought of. They have ideas about my ideas, take what I give them and create something new.
“It creates this feeling of community that is just so strong. And you can’t have those relationships in corporate culture to the same degree,” Cunningham says.
So in 1988, Cunningham found herself returning to Cambridge and MIT, this time with a new attitude. “The first time I bonded with my classmates; I was scared all the time. This time, I felt a real sense of mastery of my environment — not just, ‘I can do this,’ but ‘I can do this really well, and maybe this is the thing I was meant to do.’ “
Again, the faculty at MIT agreed. She roared through her Ph.D. training, receiving the degree in 1993 despite the birth of her child, Therese, halfway through the program. She was interviewing for permanent positions that she would take after completing a postdoc at Harvard, in the research group of the legendary chemist Dr. George Whitesides, when suddenly she found herself being wooed by her soon-to-be alma mater.
There probably wasn’t much question that she would accept the offer. “There was just such a strong connection with the faculty. I was made to feel extremely welcome, that people were really enthusiastic about having me,” she says.
Cunningham sounds both amused and bemused that she’s spent 17 years of her life at MIT. But it certainly sounds as if the match between the scholar and the institution has been mutually beneficial. Her current work on layer-by-layer assembly in nanoscale phenomena and the properties and controlled release of polymers has applications that range from the fanciful — for example, the creation of electronic newspapers — to the life-saving — for example, the delivery of extremely targeted cancer treatments. She’s become a world-renowned scholar — lecturing widely in the United States, Japan, Sweden and Germany — who brings millions of dollars in grant funding to her institution.
Cunningham says the secret to her success is simple. She’s had excellent mentorship, people who have given specific and detailed advice, which she has followed. But also, she says, “If you really think that each of us is here for a reason and that we have a purpose, which I do — I’m a Christian and I believe my talent should be shared — then I’ve found my purpose.”— By Kendra Hamilton

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