Hieu McElroy

Associate Research Scientist
Dow

How is your job related to climate and/or sustainability?

Dow’s ambition is to become the most innovative, customer-centric, inclusive and sustainable materials science company in the world. Sustainability is a key pillar in everything we do at Dow and in every project I have worked on. As a research scientist in the Corporate Research and Development organization at Dow, I work with different technologies and multiple businesses to support the development of various polymeric materials (polyolefins, polyurethanes, and silicones). This work is in the context of design and development of different end-use applications including transportation, construction, packaging, foams, and adhesives. In each case, sustainability is either a project goal or a design constraint.

Since joining Dow in 2016, I have been involved in developing sustainable solutions for flexible packaging either through down-gauging (reducing use of plastic materials) or using mono-material to develop fully recyclable flexible packaging while maintaining the package mechanical integrity and barrier properties. I have also worked on improving materials and package designs that are suitable for high-pressure processing, a cold pasteurization process aimed to reduce food waste.

Additionally, I have worked on energy-efficient insulation technology for commercial and institutional buildings. I lead a team of engineers and scientists around the globe to investigate the root causes and proposed design and processing solutions to solve an industry-wide challenge in metal-faced polyurethane foam sandwich insulation panels. This work involves performing extensive material characterization and finite element analysis. Similarly, I led a project with our Polyurethanes business to assist Dow’s customers in the manufactured housing industry to improve efficiency and reduce waste in the adhesive spraying process. This work involved developing an innovative apparatus leveraging Dow Core R&D’s engineering, analysis, design, and prototyping capabilities.

Besides working with Dow’s customers on different end-use applications that use Dow’s materials, I worked on an internal innovation project to develop a new ethylene production technology. For this project, I led a thermal-mechanical modeling effort to design, develop and ensure the safe and effective operation of a lab-scale reactor. One of the goals of this process development project is to reduce CO2 emissions associated with the production process by 50%.

More broadly, I contribute to Dow’s innovation pipeline in sustainability by constantly looking for new opportunities and needs in the industry and daily life, proposing and leading proof of concept projects such as developing novel solutions for reusable packaging, leading an Idea Creation team to evaluate technology gaps; markets; and business strategies, and proposing sustainability-related ideas and solutions for Dow. In support of these activities, I serve on the steering team of Dow’s internal Sustainability R&D network, facilitate brainstorming sessions and cross-functional tech exchange events for Dow.

I also volunteer every year to work with a team to organize the annual Earth Day celebration at Dow to bring awareness to various sustainability efforts that Dow employees carry out around the world. The Dow Earth Day celebration also highlights how Dow works with local organizations such as the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory and local wildlife refuges, Dow’s engagement with external organizations such as Ocean Conservancy and Nature Conservancy, and how Dow leaders participate in discussions with policymakers to develop sustainable solutions and climate actions around the globe.

Outside of work, with the full support of Dow leadership, I spend a lot of time as a Dow STEM Ambassador volunteering at STEM and educational events. At these events, I discuss sustainability and climate issues and provide mentoring to local students to help develop young talents and foster a new generation of scientists and engineers who are passionate about science and sustainability. For example, I volunteered and served as a Judge in the Environmental Sciences category at the Science & Engineering Fair in Houston, Texas, and had meaningful discussions with student participants about sustainability.

What training was particularly important to enabling your work?

My first direct training/experience related to climate and sustainability was an undergraduate research experience at the Energy Systems Laboratory at Texas A&M University where I worked with a research engineer to collect and analyze data on energy use and carbon footprints for a community college system in Texas. This brought climate change issues to my attention and created an initial understanding of carbon footprints and things we can do to make a difference and reduce carbon emissions.

However, it is the technical background and skills I gained from graduate studies in material science, adhesion and fracture mechanics, computational mechanics, finite element analysis, material fabrication and material characterization techniques that lay the foundation for my work at Dow. During my M.S. and Ph.D. studies in Mechanical Engineering from Texas A&M University, I performed research on composite materials that are used for light-weighting aerospace applications, thus reducing fuel use and emissions. I spent over a year at NASA Langley Research Center and the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands where I worked with and learned tremendously from world-leading engineers and scientists in the aerospace and composites fields. Besides technical knowledge, my Ph.D. training helped me develop important research and critical thinking skills such as how to start tackling problems and ask the right questions and where to start looking for answers to technical questions. My Ph.D. training also helped me develop soft skills for effective communications and teamwork, as well as habits like big-picture thinking and attention to detail. These skills and habits are extremely valuable no matter what field in which I work.

Learning on the job through projects and working with subject matter experts in the organization is also essential in enabling my work at Dow. Additionally, spending extra time outside of normal working hours to take online courses on platforms such as Edx.org and Coursera.org was very valuable in gaining new knowledge for my work. Moreover, reading books, the MIT Technology Review, newspapers and journal articles, and United Nations publications helped broaden my horizons in technology, trends, and progress in sustainability. Finally, volunteering work and learning from connections at external organizations helped develop more understanding of sustainability and climate.

What advice do you have for people looking for careers in climate and/or sustainability? 

Besides sharpening technical skills, students should have at least basic knowledge in economics and social sciences, develop a big-picture understanding of what society needs and how organizations and policymakers make decisions as well as key factors that influence decision-making in real life. Also, develop life-cycle thinking, think long term, read a lot and spend time thinking about what issues/challenges students want to devote their time and energy to. At the end of the day, one has limited time, energy, and resources so, given these constraints, think carefully and decide how to best contribute and make our society and planet a better place. Be proactive and attend conferences or join discussion groups on climate and/or sustainability. Also, teamwork and communication are probably the most important interpersonal skills in the workforce. One cannot solve problems alone and no matter where and in what field they work, they will work with multidisciplinary teams so make sure to develop effective teamwork and communication skills.