Exposure to influential professor inspires UMW alumna

by | Feb 28, 2018 | Uncategorized

From the University of Mary Washington

Chemist. Researcher. Entrepreneur. Benefactor. Catalyst. Mother. Grandmother.

Marilyn Shull Black ’69 has taken on many roles since her undergraduate days at Mary Washington, but it’s the last two that have had the greatest influence on her career.

“I love children, and I love being a mother and grandmother,” Black said. “I’ve spent all my career in chemical and environmental sciences – specifically, measuring indoor air quality and its impact on children’s health.”

She said the environmental exposure to contaminants from the air is highest in children because they breathe faster and have less body weight. High doses of such contaminants can negatively impact brain development.

“The more I learned about contaminants, environmental exposure, and their connection to children’s health,” Black said, “the harder I worked to find solutions.”

And that diligence shows. Black has held numerous research positions, including with Aerospace Medical Research Laboratories, Harvard School of Public Health, and Environmental Research and Technology. 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, she went a step farther. She founded the GREENGUARD Environmental Institute, a worldwide nonprofit, voluntary product certification program that works with more than 600 manufacturers. Today, she is vice president and senior technical advisor for Underwriter Laboratories.

When she reflects back on her days at Mary Washington, she pictures herself in a chemistry class in Combs Hall listening to an enthusiastic professor with a funny, Bostonian accent. The accent was especially noticeable to Black, a girl from Rock Hill, S.C.

But it was more than the professor’s dropped r’s that caught her attention.

“Dr. Mahoney had an outgoing personality; he was engaging, and he showed me I could actually solve problems,” Black said. “His passion for chemistry was the spark that ignited my future.”

Distinguished Professor of Chemistry Bernard L. Mahoney Jr. served at Mary Washington for more than 35 years. He earned emeritus status in 2002 and still lives in Fredericksburg. After working with 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 – Black 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.

To show gratitude for Mahoney’s positive influence on her education, career, and quality of life, Black recently made a significant gift to establish the Bernard L. Mahoney Jr. Student Research Fellowship in Science. This endowment will offer assistance to UMW students majoring in a natural or physical science discipline. Selected students can receive stipends and support for essential research equipment and supplies, and/or attendance at approved conferences. At the conclusion of each Mahoney Fellowship, students will submit a summary report and showcase the final results.

Black’s gift came through the Khaos Foundation, an Atlanta-based nonprofit she founded and named in reference to the mythological goddess of air. “I hope the new endowment in honor of Mahoney will serve as a catalyst to spark passion in others,” Black said, adding that her dream is for these students to “find real solutions that make a difference in our society.”

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