Virginia Cunningham, M.B.A, Ph.D.
One of the things Dr. Virginia Cunningham ’69 values about her years at Immaculata is the exposure to “the whole liberal arts experience,” and she credits that introduction to many different areas of interest as having served her well.
“In pursuing a chemistry career, you can get so focused on the technical issues in that kind of a job,” said Cunningham. “But when I did want to spring off to something different, I had some sort of foundation. That’s the basis of lifelong learning and it’s so important.”
Cunningham also remembers a particularly pivotal classroom moment at Immaculata. “My freshman chemistry professor, Dr. Mary Dugan, got me interested in the very area of chemistry that I’ve spent my life pursuing,” said Cunningham. “The memory is very strong. She was talking about the structure of water and how its properties make life possible, and I went on to specialize in understanding how molecular structure influences function.”
Cunningham graduated from Immaculata summa cum laude with an A.B. in chemistry; earned a Ph.D. in physical organic chemistry from Bryn Mawr College; and an M.B.A. in finance and management from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
Cunningham assumed she would pursue an academic career because, as she admitted, “I didn’t know what industry did, so my ending up in the chemical industry was really an accident.”
When she was finishing up at Bryn Mawr in 1973, “The whole environmental movement was just starting.” Cunningham’s research director suggested she talk with an interviewer who happened to be on campus; she did, and Rohm and Haas ended up offering her a job.
“The job was in ion exchange, which I didn’t know anything about,” she said, “but I wasn’t expecting it to be a long-term thing. I decided I would just take this job and see what happens.”
When Cunningham showed up for work that June, the company had created a new department called Pollution Control Research to work on the application of their product line to pollution control problems. “That’s how I got into the field,” said Cunningham.
When Cunningham switched to working for a Rohm and Haas department making herbicides, “This involved more real organic chemistry, but because I was coming from this pollution group, I became in charge of the waste streams, as well as chemical process-related issues.
“At that time,” she said, “EPA regulations were coming in and I was learning as I went along what were the important issues.”
According to Cunningham, “The biggest change came in 1980 when I had an opportunity to join Smith Kline & French Laboratories and create my own lab in R&D. That was very interesting in that nobody at that time in that company was worrying about pharmaceuticals in the environment.
“I had all these resources at my disposal,” said Cunningham, “and I was able to create a lab to study how these molecules interacted with the environment.”
Cunningham’s work focused on “environmental fate,” where these biologically active and complex molecules went in the environment, and how they reacted. “I was trying to figure out what I needed to know to answer those questions, and that was it for the next 30 years.”
In 1987, the FDA began to require this kind of information for new drugs and products, and they wanted reports. “All of a sudden, I became much more visible,” said Cunningham, “both within the company and within the industry.”
Most of Cunningham’s major work and contributions have been through working with others in the industry, and with the FDA and EPA. She was able to influence industry thinking, educating companies about how to do what was required, about what was important and what wasn’t. Eventually, she went on to “a more corporate job that was less hands-on experimental, more ‘big picture,’ more focused on how to reduce the ‘footprint’ of products.”
Cunningham was involved in joint projects to develop ways to estimate the concentrations of pharmaceuticals in the country’s waterways. She also knew that when drugs were ingested and metabolized, compounds would be excreted and discharged into waste water treatment plants.
“We developed a model to predict concentrations in the rivers in the United States,” said Cunningham, whose most recent paper uses that model to predict concentrations of trace organics in the sewage sludge from treatment plants that tend to land farm their chemicals.
“I find myself going from studying something very detailed, such as molecular structure, to looking at the whole country. The kind of position I ended up in allowed me to do that,” she said.
After retiring in 2007 from GlaxoSmithKline, where she was director of Environmental Sustainability Sciences, Corporate Environment, Health and Safety, Cunningham is currently president, Sustainability Sciences, LLC, providing scientific consulting services primarily in the area of the environmental impact of pharmaceuticals.
Cunningham’s life has been informed by a commitment to rigor and meticulousness, and she traces some of that back to her as experiences at Immaculata.
“One of the things about Immaculata that really affected me was the general culture of doing things right, of taking the time to do them properly,” said Cunningham.
“Everything was clean, neat, the absolute opposite of disorganized. Even when we had receptions, they used china. There was just a certain grace to it. We were shown that there is a proper way of doing things, and that has stayed with me.”
Cunningham also considers herself fortunate to have been given the opportunity as a student to return to the campus in the summers to conduct research funded by the Chemistry Department. “It was an extension of the whole ambiance of Immaculata, if you will,” said Cunningham, “being able to go back and conduct research in a modern lab. It rubbed off on everything I did.”
These days, when she is not working, Cunningham serves as treasurer for the Lemur Conservation Foundation, having served on the board for several years, and she just finished phase one of the Penn State Master Gardener program. “I’m an apprentice now,” she said.
And while she will be fulfilling volunteer obligations connected with the Master Gardeners, Cunningham confessed, “I’m really into my own garden, trying new things there. That’s the experimentalist in me!”