Assuming you were already born, what were you doing in 1966?
Designer Mary Quant introduced the mini skirt, Simon & Garfunkel reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with their iconic hit, “The Sound of Silence,” and both the Star Trek and Batman series debuted on TV.
And if your name was Linda Lorenz, you were fresh out of college, starting your first day as a chemist at the Forest Products Laboratory.
Linda is still here, conducting her experiments and celebrating her 55th anniversary at FPL.
Linda knew from a very young age that she wanted to go into chemistry.
“I think I was about 13 and had expressed interest in science in general and chemistry in particular, so I got a chemistry set for Christmas. I’ve heard a lot of other chemists say the same thing. It was fun, and I didn’t blow anything up. Chemistry sets for kids in those days were a lot riskier than the ones you can buy today!”
She is the eldest of three sisters and two brothers, some of whom also went into chemistry and electronics.
Linda left her hometown of Rockford, Illinois for the first time to attend the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where she has lived ever since. In addition to chemistry, she enjoyed courses in bacteriology, genetics – and art.
“I took art classes and especially enjoyed drawing architecture in one class. It was a fun class, and I got an ‘A’ because I liked it so much.”
These days, Linda also enjoys photography, skiing, and hiking.
Starting her work at FPL in 1966 with the study of wood preservatives, Linda has been part of the adhesives research group since 1986.
“There are a lot of pluses to staying with a job,” she observed.
Linda reminisced about what the environment at FPL was like in the late ‘60s.
“Everybody was in this building, because buildings 33 and 34, across the parking lot, were just starting to be built. Then people from here started moving there. Before all that, you could walk up and down the hallway and smell chemicals – I mean it was obvious that there were chemistry labs upstairs! But once all the chemists moved over to the other buildings, there were no more chemical smells.”
Unfortunately, life as a female chemist 55 years ago had its drawbacks.
“Yeah, way back, I had a supervisor who was … let’s say, not helpful. He always promoted some young man who came over from the university before he would ever even consider promoting a woman who was already on the team. He said some things to me that I thought were misogynistic, but of course I couldn’t prove anything.”
There has long been very low turnover at FPL. Why do people like working here so much?
“Well, for the most part, it’s always been a great group of people and we have this research tradition here, and a lot of people hear about that and come here because the lab is what it is. They know it’s a great place to work and they want to be part of it, and they stay.”
International relations is also part of it.
“We collaborate with scientists all over the world. Research having to do with wood has its own set of conferences and meetings, and we all know each other. We’ve had a lot of visiting scientists, even during the pandemic, who are always interested in coming here and doing research, and some of our researchers travel internationally as well.”
What really strikes Linda as a big change since she started at the FPL 55 years ago?
“I think not replacing people who’ve retired,” she said. “We’ve shrunk down to such a small size. I don’t know where the critical mass is, but you have to have a certain number of people to maintain research. Congress needs to know more about the important work we do.”
How long does she see herself continuing here?
Linda laughed heartily.
“A couple of years ago, at the last length of service award we had here, there was somebody from the Northern Research Station who had 65 years. I don’t know if he’s still working or not, but I thought, okay, I’ve got a new goal to go for. It’s only 10 years away!
“I’ve stayed at the lab for my whole career because I worked in several groups doing analytical chemistry, microbiology, chromatography, and synthetic chemistry, among other things, and it was all very interesting. And the people have been good to work with.”
The bottom line?
“I’m not planning to retire any time soon, that’s for sure. I plan to keep doing chemistry, which is fun. There are some people who can’t wait to retire, but others like it here so much that they become volunteers after retirement. For my part, I plan on staying healthy and doing chemistry.”