June 22, 2024

Chemistry Professor Sparks Alumna’s Career Success

When Marilyn Shull Black ’69 remembers Mary Washington, she pictures herself back in chemistry class in Combs Hall listening to an enthusiastic professor with a funny, Bostonian accent. The accent was especially noticeable to Marilyn since she was a Southern girl from Rock Hill, S.C., but it was more than the accent that caught her attention.

“Dr. Mahoney had an outgoing personality, he was engaging, and he showed me I could actually solve problems,” says Marilyn. “His passion for chemistry was the spark that ignited my future.” After working with Dr. Mahoney on her honors thesis – and being granted access to an atomic absorption spectrometer to measure the relationship between trace metals in children’s blood and their health impact – Marilyn decided to pursue a career in medical research.

This newly illuminated path led to a master’s degree from the University of Florida and a Ph.D. in chemistry from Georgia Tech. Through the years, Marilyn held numerous research positions, including jobs at the Aerospace Medical Research Laboratories, Harvard School of Public Health, and Environmental Research and Technology. In 1989, she founded Air Quality Sciences Inc. (AQS), which rapidly became the leading testing and research company focused on reducing chemical and biological indoor air pollution.

In 2001, Marilyn founded the GREENGUARD Environmental Institute, a worldwide, non-profit, voluntary product certification program that works with more than 600 manufacturers. Today, she is Vice President and Senior Technical Advisor for Underwriter Laboratories.

“I love children and I love being a mother and grandmother,” says Marilyn. “I’ve spent all my career in chemical and environmental sciences specifically measuring indoor air quality and its impact on children’s health. The more I learned about contaminants, environmental exposure, and their connection to children’s health, the harder I worked to find solutions.”

Marilyn explains that adults get about 75 percent of environmental exposure to contaminants from the air they breathe. Since children breathe faster and have less body weight, they get even higher doses of contaminants, which can negatively impact brain development.

To show gratitude for Dr. Mahoney’s positive influence on her education, life, and overall career, Marilyn recently established the Bernard L. Mahoney Jr. Student Research Fellowship in Science. Dr. Mahoney retired from Mary Washington in 2002 and was granted emeritus status in recognition of his 39 years of service. He was honored to learn about the new endowment named for him that will offer assistance to UMW students majoring in a natural or physical science discipline. Selected students can receive stipends and essential support for research equipment, supplies, and/or approved conferences. At the conclusion of each Mahoney Fellowship, students will submit a summary report and showcase the final results.

Marilyn’s gift to fund the Mahoney endowment came through the Khaos Foundation, an Atlanta-based, non-profit organization she founded and named in reference to the mythological goddess of air. “I hope the new endowment in honor of Dr. Mahoney will serve as a catalyst to spark passion in others,” says Marilyn. “Perhaps they can continue to research problems and find real solutions that make a difference in our society.”

For information about giving opportunities, contact the UMW Office of Advancement at 540-654-2059.