Class of 1982, BS; Class of 1987, Ph.D.
Lori Wagner is anything but stereotypical.
A tall, attractive blonde, she was a majorette in high school. But after school hours and on weekends, the teenager would work alongside her dad, operating power equipment as they constructed a new deck or some other homeowner’s project. She really preferred the times they greased their hands, working on engines.
She attended a high school in the 1970s in Connecticut where some 90 percent went on to college, but her math and science teachers were not exactly shining stars of equal opportunities. Despite Lori’s expressed interest in chemical engineering, her authoritative math teacher literally informed her that she “would never become an engineer,” and that she “should consider something else.”
One teacher even labeled her as a “girlie girl.” Her mother thought otherwise, and mothers are usually right.
Today, Dr. Wagner’s name appears on more than 30 patents. She has a security clearance to conduct some of her work at Honeywell. When she meets a soldier who says the material she helped produce and commercialize saved a life, she is energized.
Higher education was of prominent importance to the Wagner family. When Lori and her younger brother were born, their parents did not have college degrees but her dad possessed a great skill set as a repair technician for Xerox. Lori’s mother worked at the University of Hartford, providing her with an opportunity to attend college at night and get an associate degree.
So there was never a question that Lori would attend college; only a matter of where in the northeast she might go. Her parents organized her weekend tours to visit some two dozen colleges and universities, ranging from preppy schools to MIT. Her mom even devised a matrix of what was important for the final decision.
But before she committed to a school, a family friend told her and her parents she needed to check out Virginia Tech. Her parents argued the distance was too great, but they eventually relented. These northerners had never seen redbuds before and Interstate 81 in Virginia was lined with these eye-catching, red-pink flowering small trees as they drove south to Blacksburg in April. By the time they drove the 600 miles back, Lori had narrowed her choices to MIT and Virginia Tech.
A weekend at MIT cemented her choice. The Boston school provided an escort service, not allowing its recruits to walk alone in the city. “That was a huge change for me and I decided I couldn’t live in that environment. It was a defining moment,” Wagner recalled. So, she collected her National Merit Scholarship, added on a Pratt Scholarship from Virginia Tech, and moved in to the seventh floor of West Ambler Johnson dormitory.
In terms of academics, she admitted she was “a bit of a nerd” constantly studying while the rest of the girls on her hall pursued other majors. “I made some great girl friends, but in terms of engineering classes, I only had guys as friends.” That was because in the late 1970s, only about 10 percent of her chemical engineering classmates were female.
As Lori completed her bachelor’s degree, so did her mother at Rhode Island College. In tandem, they went on for graduate degrees. “My mother hammered the Ph.D. into my head. She had a goal for me, and I said simply, ‘Okay, Mom.’”
Despite looking at numerous universities around the country to do her graduate work, Lori found that all conversations pointed back to Virginia Tech. “I wanted to do polymer extrusion, and everyone told me I needed to talk to Don Baird,” Wagner said. “I knew I wanted to go into industry, and do more applied work than theoretical, but I also knew the Ph.D. would help if I ever did want to return to education.”
She started her graduate work with Baird, a chaired professor at Virginia Tech, in 1982, but became a little sidetracked, marrying her husband of now 30 years in November of 1985. Steve, also a chemical engineering graduate, had already taken a job in Richmond with AT&T.
After they wed, she returned to Blacksburg for six months, not particularly enamored with starting her marriage some 200 miles from her husband. “I lived in a furnished studio apartment, really a one-room converted hotel room. I was doing something I liked at work so I think I lived with a glaze on during that time. We would do some 48-hour runs, get results, analyze, and sometimes rerun.”
Wagner found a way to join her husband before her Ph.D. defense occurred, landing the job with Allied of Richmond, Virginia. She took the position on blind faith because she trusted the person who would become her boss. Her first task was a secret research and development project on a new high performance material. All the newlywed asked was, “an assurance that what I would be exposed to” would not be harmful. She defended her doctorate some six months after she started working.
Wagner’s work at Allied has transferred through two buyouts. First, the company was sold and became Allied Signal. Subsequently, Honeywell assumed ownership. Her first position was a process engineer that gave her the opportunity she craved, evolving products from the pilot stages to commercial production. Her Ph.D. in polymer extrusion was paying dividends.
She moved into her first management position within four years, supervising the process development group for Spectra® fiber and Spectra Shield® materials. Four years later she became technology manager of these Spectra® lines, equipped with a $3.5 million budget for the product and application development for the Rope, Cut, and Armor market segments for Spectra®. After two years, she became the PEN technical manager, leading the scale-up efforts for the commercial production of PEN fiber.
Other positions in the company allowed her to be the senior customer technical representative with key tire accounts such as Firestone, move into global business and applications for the performance fibers group, manage an $8.4 million budget for the advanced fibers and composites group, and become the armor industry technical leader for the advanced fibers and composites group. In the latter position, Wagner served as the key project manager for innovative new technologies for the military and law enforcement agencies.
After she commercialized three new hard armor products and two new soft armor products related to the SPEAR vest program, Honeywell named Wagner the special projects leader for the advanced fibers and composites group in 2012. She now works on intellectual property for Honeywell, investigates possible mergers and acquisitions, develops new funding mechanisms and business relationships, and leads key project initiatives. “I was able to move into bigger roles as I got involved with new products,” Wagner explained. “I needed to understand the market place … and the marketing in conjunction with the technologies.”
As her positions evolved, Wagner became a recognized expert in her field of supplying high-performance fibers that make bulletproof fabrics. The various forms of body armor have saved hundreds of lives in recent wars including Afghanistan and Iraq, and are also now being used by first responders and civilian defense team members.
The Spectra® product lines for Honeywell include blast-containment blankets, blast resistant suits, commercial airline cockpit doors, and armor plating for police and military vehicles. A number of these patents contain Wagner’s name. “We have had a number of breakthroughs in terms of our work. And getting the products from a pilot scale to a promotional scale has allowed us to get volumes of our products penetrating the commercial marketplace,” Wagner said.
Along the way she has met a few more folks like her high school math and science teachers. The first time she held a technical lead for a scale-up of some equipment, she was ten weeks pregnant with her first daughter Samantha, and had not yet told anyone of the new addition. One of her co-workers, as soon as her pregnancy was announced, asked when she would be leaving the company. She recalled today how she said, “having a baby is not a death sentence” and went on to fulfill the requirements of her employment. Her second daughter, Sierra, was born three years later. Both went on to join the Hokies, with Samantha becoming engaged at a Wagner family football tailgate party in 2014.
“Dr. Wagner has given unusually strong service to her alma mater. This service began in the Department of Chemical Engineering, continued as a member and chair of the College of Engineering Advisory Board, and then rose to membership of the University’s Board of Visitors,” said David Cox, chemical engineering department head. In fact, Wagner helped found the chemical engineering advisory board at the request of former department head Bill Conger. Her bosses were supportive of her spending more time on campus because since the start of her career, she served as Allied’s liaison to Virginia Tech, and continued in that role with Honeywell. She had developed a great pipeline, attracting top performing Hokies to her company.
Today, she remains an active part of the department’s board, but she has rotated off her stints on the BOV and the college board. On the former, Wagner chaired the academic affairs committee and, on the latter, she served one year as chair. She also was a member of the Minorities in Engineering Advisory Board, again spending one year as chair.
She received the Richmond Joint Engineering Council Engineer of the Year award in 2007, the Outstanding Service Award from Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering in 2001, and its Outstanding Woman Graduate in 1996.
Class of 1982, 1987
Year Inducted into Academy: 2015