After she earned her bachelor's degree in chemistry from Baylor University, Sonya Benson was unsure of the direction she wanted her career to take. She took a break in between pursuing graduate school to understand what she wanted to study and joined a company that produced polystyrene products.
"That was my first introduction into polymers and plastics, and from there I became more and more interested in all of the uses of these types of materials and how they help consumers in a diversity of applications. I knew I wanted to study these connections in greater detail, and so I pursued a Ph.D. in that subject and went into a career in plastics and packaging," she said.
Benson said her Ph.D. in macromolecular science and engineering from Virginia Tech is her greatest achievement.
When she worked at PepsiCo Inc., she helped develop environmentally conscious packaging solutions that could deliver nutritious meals to children. "I also worked to develop next-generation bio-based polymer blends for thin-film snack packaging applications," she said.
Now the manager of technology and lab manager, Flexible Poly, for Shields, part of the Novolex family of companies, Benson works across design, product testing, marketing, sales, and research and development to create sustainable packaging options for consumers.
"One of my favorite aspects of my job at Novolex, and one that may surprise people, is the global opportunities that can come as part of the packaging industry. Because of our global footprint and range of products, I have been able to travel and see the world, which was an incredible experience for me personally," she said. "I also enjoy working with a diverse team, visiting different research labs and developing new products."
Benson is involved with Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Inc. and the Association of Plastic Recyclers as well as various church and community organizations to support STEM-based activities for students.
Q: What is your personal "mold" that you are breaking?
Benson: When I was younger, I spent a lot of time with my dad working on the car or building something in the yard. He introduced me to ideas and projects that weren't necessarily "traditional" for a young girl to do. Eventually, it just became part of my personality to be OK breaking a box or existing without a box. So, whatever I must do to continue that environment my family cultivated, the environment of being able to try to tackle any issue, shake up any area and take an opportunity to have a different perspective, I always lean into the challenge.
Q: What is the best advice you have ever received?
Benson: The advice I would repeat over and over again is that it's never too late. Throughout my educational and professional development, I have never tried to lock myself into being stagnant or in a place where it's too late for me to pursue something new. In our field of innovation, especially, it is a professional mandate to continue to be curious and driven. No matter what the role, I encourage others to adopt that mentality of being eager to learn.
Q: What's an accomplishment of yours that most people don't know about, either for work or in your personal life?
Benson: When I was pursuing my Ph.D., I was also a mother. There was always a community, a village, that was part of every process and goal I have been able to achieve. Over the years and in all my professional roles, I feel that I've taken my family along with me on these fantastic journeys. It's been a shared family experience, and I would never have been able to accomplish what I have without their support.