When Christine Kennedy ’93 was finishing her chemical engineering degree at the University of New Haven, “sustainability” and “carbon footprints” were terms the average person had never even heard of, much less discussed with family and friends.
How things have changed. Today, people around the world strive to reduce, reuse and recycle daily for a brighter future, and Kennedy credits her education with providing her the critical problem-solving skills necessary to tackle this very current issue. Her job as R&D sustainability manager at Unilever, a multinational consumer goods company, involves looking at the products she manages as a whole system – from production to consumption to disposal.
“It’s where the ingredients come from and how they are manufactured,” Kennedy says. “It’s also how we get them to the consumers, and then, finally, how the consumers use them. As we ask in engineering school, ‘What are the inputs and outputs of the problem?’ Then we apply the engineering mentality to solve it.”
Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan calls for the company to reduce its global carbon footprint by half. The company is involving its suppliers, distributors and customers in the plan. “The approach on the part of a for-profit business is unique,” says Kennedy. “Growing the business, but in a sustainable way without a government mandate, is a major change in attitude on the part of a global corporation.”
Kennedy is able to examine her products through this lens because, she explains, her entire final year at UNH was spent in a similar fashion: problem solving by taking everything she had studied and tying it all together for a bigger picture.
“Chemical Engineering was a small department and we all had the same classes. We spent many hours in the lab together,” she says. “We bonded as a group. Dr. Collura was a great educator, and I was honored when he asked me to be part of an advisory board to guide the department and mentor students several years after I graduated.”
Close to 20 years later, although the problems have changed, Kennedy and her team at Unilever employ similar brainstorming and experimenting techniques to come up with game-changing ideas.
“Today, computer programs can solve complex mathematical equations to help engineers work out problems,” she says. “But you will find my workspace littered with pieces of paper that I’ve jotted notes on. There’s something about physically writing things down that helps me focus.”
Keeping focus has never been too much of a struggle for Kennedy. She graduated magna cum laude from the challenging chemical engineering program – one that few women venture into – while working full time. And what she’s doing at work holds her concentration in a similar fashion, not only because she deals with complicated mathematical problems, but also because of the implications they hold for the betterment of society.
“I’m proud to be with a company such as Unilever that acknowledges we can no longer run any business in a purely consumption mode,” says Kennedy. “I find it profoundly rewarding to be part of solving a major world crisis and improving the health and quality of life for individuals and the planet.”
Posted Fall 2012