I’ve never been afraid to do new things. In fact, I like to do new things.”
So once said Mary Lowe Good of a remarkable career and equally remarkable life. In a 2012 film by the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF), she’s described as “university professor, industry maverick and government leader.”
In her own words, she summed herself up simply as someone “willing to take a chance.”
“I don’t mind jumping into something I know not very much about and I believe I’ll be able to learn it,” she said. “I think that’s really a big piece of it,”
The daughter of schoolteachers, Good’s intellectual curiosity blossomed early. Her first flirtation with science was to create a homemade photo lab in the cellar, complete with chemicals she researched and mixed herself.
This early project was more hobby than vocation, however, and when she reported to Arkansas State Teacher’s College (now the University of Central Arkansas) it was to earn what seemed a more-marketable home economics degree. Passion would soon trump practicality.
“I had a fabulous elderly man that taught freshman chemistry and I was intrigued by it,” she said in the CHF film. “I just thought it was the most interesting thing I’d ever had anything to do with. My time as a home ec major was one semester.”
After she earned her Bachelor of Science in chemistry and physics in 1950, Good’s professors urged her to attend graduate school, where she studied radiochemistry at the University of Arkansas. Despite being not yet 18, the protégé didn’t disappoint: One research breakthrough changed the field of medicine and remains a mainstay in treating thyroid disorders.
“People had been using iodine — radioactive iodine — to treat thyroid disorders, and it was the wrong chemistry for the thyroid to pick up,” she told CHF. “So all we had to do was add a little bit of iodide to it. That stabilized the radioactive isotope and it handled it very well.”
By age 19, she was an atomic energy research assistant with her first Q-level government clearance. In 1952, she married Bill Good, a fellow graduate student in physics, and by 1955 had earned her masters, her doctorate and the mantle of motherhood.
Her graduate education completed and family in tow, Good began a 25-year teaching and research career in the Louisiana State University System, both at LSU in Baton Rouge and at the University of New Orleans. In 1958, the Goods were both offered positions at a new campus, Louisiana State University New Orleans.
Though her mere presence in the department made her stand out, Good was determined as well to distinguish herself through her work in radiochemistry, using spectroscopy to study inorganic compounds and molecular bonding both in solutions and solid states.
“In those days, there were almost no women in the business,” she told CHF. “That didn’t bother me much. I never got entangled in that.”
She ultimately attained the office Boyd Professor of Chemistry, the first woman to achieve the university’s most distinguished rank. In 1978, she returned to LSU where she developed a new program as the Boyd Professor of Materials Science, Division of Engineering Research.
By 1980, executives from Universal Oil Products in Chicago came calling. Making the leap to the private sector, Good built an impressive career in a field that kindled both her competitive spirit and her intellect.
“UOP (made) a living by licensing technology. You have to have the best technology and you have to have it first,” she told CHF. “So that’s kind of a fun and challenging thing to do and I enjoyed that very much.”
The final act in her career was in government. She served four presidents — on the National Science Board under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, the Council of Advisors on Science and Technology for President George H.W. Bush and in 1993, undersecretary for technology in the Department of Commerce under President Bill Clinton.
Research projects under her watch ultimately gave us satellite navigation and hybrid cars, to name just two.
In 1997 Good came home to teaching, this time as founding dean of the UA Donaghey College of Engineering and Information Technology in Little Rock, a position she held until 2011. Not one to retire completely, she’s since served a variety of advisory roles in higher education, business and economic development.
Among her many accolades are being the first woman to receive the IRI Medal (1991), Glenn T Seaborg Medal (1996), AAAS Phillip Hauge Abelson Prize (1998) and — from the American Chemical Society — The Charles Lathrop Parsons Award for Public Service (1991) and its highest honor, the Priestly Medal (1997). In 2004 Good received the Vannevar Bush Award, the National Science Foundation’s highest honor and in 2012 was one of five inaugural honorees of the U.S. News STEM Leadership Hall of Fame.
“There’s been a lot of emphasis in later years on figuring out what you want to do and going for it. And the world’s not like that,” Good told CHF. “You’ve got to take the opportunities as they appear, not worry so much about plotting out your life.
“You can’t predict today what the opportunities are going to be 10 years from now. You do the best you can with what’s available and then if other opportunities come, go for them. I think that’s really a big piece of it — it’s just being willing to take a chance.”