A fascination for conducting polymers coupled with an interest in languages prepared Liz Mallen for a successful career with a global silicones supplier, writes Yfke Hager

A fascination for conducting polymers coupled with an interest in languages prepared Liz Mallen for a successful career with a global silicones supplier, writes Yfke Hager

Liz Mallen’s career spans two decades and a dizzying range of products, from household and cleaning solutions to high-performance impact protection body armour. It may sound like a job hopper’s dream, yet Mallen carved a niche for herself through unwavering loyalty to a single employer.


The diverse interests that were to shape Mallen’s career became apparent at an early stage. ’What I enjoyed most at school was languages and maths,’ she recalls. Taking a practical approach, she decided to study science but nurture her interest in languages outside formal education. Towards the end of her chemistry degree at Bristol University, she became fascinated by conducting polymers, the topic of her final year research project. ’It seemed a shame not to continue,’ she says. After completing a PhD on conducting polymer bilayer electrodes, Mallen decided to enter the business world. ’I wanted to focus on applied science, and felt most suited to an industrial environment.’

She applied for a job at Dow Corning, a world leader in silicon-based technology, and was offered the choice of a position in the UK or Belgium. ’The job in Belgium sounded wonderful, and gave me the opportunity to develop my language skills too,’ Mallen says. ’I thought I’d go for a year, see how it went. I ended up staying for 11 years.’ As a development chemist at Dow Corning Europe in Brussels, Belgium, she worked closely with commercial colleagues in the life sciences sector, developing innovative household care applications.

Mallen soon moved to a technical service role. ’I loved the interaction with customers, understanding their needs, and taking that information back to the lab to find ways to meet those needs.’ She spent four years leading European development groups before making the transition to technical services leader for the textiles and leather market. ’Up to then, my roles always had a strong technology focus, but I had gradually been growing closer to our customers.’ She returned to the UK in 2000, and became a key customer manager in 2001. Customer management is much more than just sales, she explains. ’You’re responsible for building long-term relationships with customers and identifying new business opportunities.’

Following two years as marketing leader for textiles and leather, Mallen took on her present role as business development manager for the impact protection innovation program. Dow Corning’s patented Active Protection System is a textile technology designed to protect the human body from impacts. ’It’s a very versatile technology,’ Mallen explains. ’It can be used in protective body armour in a variety of sports, in personal protective equipment in the workplace, military and civil defence applications, and in medical devices to help protect vulnerable people.’

In 2007, she was a member of the team awarded the RSC’s Teamwork in Industry award. ’Innovation is at the core of everything we do at Dow Corning,’ she says. ’I think we won the award because we showed that our company can go outside its comfort zone when innovating.’ She stresses that the achievement was a true team effort, with contributions from research, development, manufacturing and commercial team members.

Looking back, Mallen feels that her career progression has been very smooth. ’All the role changes were so gradual, they just seemed the obvious thing to do at the time. Maybe I’ve just been very lucky so far,’ she laughs. With Dow Corning continuously expanding its outlook on innovation, she plans to stay in the innovation field. ’It’s just so much fun. The range of expertise you need for a job in innovation means that you have to be flexible. One day I could be having a detailed technical conversation with a customer, and the next I could be negotiating a price. I love that my job varies on a daily basis.’

For chemists tempted by a transition to a commercial role, a strong technical background can be an enormous asset. ’A business development role can be a really interesting career option if you enjoy networking and have a good technical background,’ says Mallen. ’You can always test the waters in a technical service role first - I found my earlier experiences in technical service invaluable to learn how to interact with customers and watch my commercial colleagues at work.’

Yfke Hager is a freelance writer based in Manchester, UK.