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Laura Lackey poses with elephants on the other side of a body of water.

Real Problems, Real Change

By Meghan McDonald

“I’ve never been more proud to bleed orange,” said Laura Lackey, “than I was when Tennessee Athletics and student–athletes peacefully protested to support Black Lives Matter.” Lackey, the Dean of Engineering at Mercer University, received her bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in chemical engineering from UT. Here, she learned the fundamentals of engineering—and of inspiring students to venture outside what they know and where they feel comfortable.

Lackey found her way into chemical engineering largely due to the influence of her father (a materials engineering professor and the “coolest guy I know”) and her high school chemistry teacher. Despite her skill in math and chemistry, she seriously struggled in her first chemical engineering course.

In fact, she told her professor she hadn’t earned the C+ he’d given her. “Dr. Clark’s response was, ‘You did earn it. You never missed a class. You studied hard. You will be the first female executive of a big chemical company.’ That made me believe I could do it,” Lackey said. “It was transformational.”

When other faculty members suggested she consider graduate work, she accepted the challenge. “By that time, I understood the influence a faculty member could have on a young person,” Lackey said. She credits her advisors and her dad with inspiring her decision to go into academics.

The environmental applications of Lackey’s graduate research opened the door for her to join Mercer’s faculty. “My dad sent me the posting for an environmental engineering position with a note: ‘I have found you the perfect job. Love, Dad.’ That was 23 years ago.”

Laura Lackey sits at an exterior table working on a laptop.

Mercer’s focus on undergraduates really was the bullseye for Lackey. “As much as I enjoyed PhD-level research,” she said, “I enjoy pulling undergrads into applied research more…watching them start to understand the impact they can have.”

In 2007, the university minister asked Lackey if she wanted to participate in the new Mercer On Mission program. She said yes before he could finish explaining this combination of study abroad and service-learning.

“The goal of it, in my mind, is social justice,” Lackey said. Another bullseye. “We’re using university intellectual property to try to affect change.”

Each Mercer On Mission class starts with two weeks of intensive coursework before the group heads to another country to tackle a real-world engineering problem for three weeks. R&D takes place in the lab and in the community.

Laura Lackey poses with several teenagers.

For years, Lackey took students to Sub-Saharan Africa to develop point-of-use water filtration methods and improve manual well drilling techniques.

Four years ago, Lackey shifted her focus to South America: reducing mercury emissions from artisanal and small-scale gold mining processes. She now guides students in designing and testing mercury capture systems that miners and gold shop owners can use to more safely separate mercury from gold ore.

The shops they’ve worked with stand across the street from a school and a health clinic, meaning reducing mercury emissions enough could significantly improve local conditions.

“We design, build, and test systems right there to fit specific needs,” she said. “I’ve never seen students so engaged. I have to tell them at 10 p.m. to stop working!”

Ask Lackey why she takes students on these adventures, and she’ll recall a hot, dusty bus ride through Kenya. “A student poked me in the back and said, ‘I finally get why you do this. There’s no way to understand unless you bring us.’”

The student was exactly right. “I hope the technologies we develop are impactful,” Lackey said. “More than that, I know that teaching students what it’s like to work as an engineer in this liminal space, with beautiful folks who are so culturally different, transforms them forever.”