Growing up in China, Lanhe Zhang, 34, saw her mother reuse plastic bottles in creative ways: "An emptied plastic soda bottle served as a soy sauce container; cut in half, part of the bottle served as pencil holders and the other was used as a funnel." It was her mother who supported Zhang in pursuing her dreams to study overseas after high school.
Zhang earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Mount Holyoke College and doctoral degree in materials science and engineering from Northwestern University. Upon graduation, she joined the Polyethylene Product Research and Development area within Dow Inc.'s Packaging and Specialty Plastics business, where she was responsible for developing new products for applications such as diaper backsheets for the health and hygiene market and artificial turf for the infrastructure market segments.
"My work, in collaboration with the fiber and nonwovens team, resulted in prototyping of the first all-polyethylene diaper," said the research scientist.
"The simple yet versatile nature of polyethylene promises new developmental opportunities for innovation. This triggered my interest to join the plastics industry, and within the past five years I have been dedicated to product development," Zhang said.
Zhang attends meetings for the Nonwovens Institute Industrial Advisory Board to help review project progress, and she is a reviewer for Carbohydrate Polymers.
"Plastics sustainability should be a lifestyle, a mindset and an opportunity for re-education from all aspects of society. It should be embraced with radical innovations that give lucrative returns," she said. "In my current role, I explore, shape and support projects to investigate breakthrough chemistries in designing sustainable polyethylene."
Read about more of our 2023 Rising Stars
Q: What is your greatest achievement?
Zhang: Through my five years at Dow, I have led multiple technical projects and several multifunctional platform projects, collaborating with business and marketing teams. It is very fulfilling to see the products resulting from these projects being commercialized and being used to improve the well-being of the consumers.
In addition to delivering a product, I achieve a sense of fulfillment when I am sought out for mentorship by my peers. Mentorship is a two-way street. Being able to share my experiences, successes and frustrations helps me to reflect on the past and improve the future.
In teaching someone how to approach a problem, providing an alternative way of thinking, and advising on skills to acquire and people to network with gives me a sense of giving back to the group. I am also able to watch people's growth, celebrate their successes and build a stronger relationship that opens more doors for collaboration.
Q: If you were CEO of a company, what would you do first?
Zhang: The polymer industry has embraced its first disruption between 1920 to 2000 when a majority of new polymers and production technologies were invented, optimized and commercialized. Eventually polymer discovery and product invention have slowed down with incremental technology development as the industry has moved into a mature stage. Other disruptions such as rapidly growing demand, economy of scale, licensing, low-cost feedstocks from oil and gas, etc., have played more critical roles in sustaining industrial growth.
Today, we live in times with unprecedented challenges, and the industry faces many disruptions including social and geopolitical uncertainties, environmental policies and regulations, energy crisis, etc. The first thing I would do as a CEO would be to create a task force that contemplates the challenges holistically and assesses the risks associated with these disruptions to the entire industry in the long run.
The company must not assume all challenges and plan to win every battle. Instead, a clear understanding of the company's strengths and weaknesses (technological, feedstock, end markets, etc.) would secure competitive advantages and establish strategic partnerships. A long-term strategy should focus to proactively address the risks and opportunities so that the company not only has resiliency when facing a disruption but is a first-mover as a technology leader.
Q: What should the plastics industry do to expand its efforts in diversity and inclusion?
Zhang: Having diversity in the higher education pipeline in the STEM field is critical to expand diversity and inclusion (D&I) in the plastics industry. The various plastics industry organizations could set up programs that reach out to targeted colleges (women's colleges, historically Black colleges and universities, etc.) to raise awareness, to establish sponsorship and to attract diverse talent.
More than gender, race and background, being diverse and inclusive is about people expressing their ideas and voices and leading with equity. The plastics organization may set up educational/training programs that are not only for stakeholders and leaders but also for the many working professionals in the industry. Everyone should practice D&I and feel empowered to lead and to champion others.