WESTBROOK – For 26 years, Micki Meggison has made her mark on the world as an engineer at Sappi Fine Paper in Westbrook. The company operates a mill that has been a fixture in the city for over 100 years, and now Meggison is helping the University of Southern Maine start a new tradition.

Last month, the school named Meggison a scientist/engineer-in-residence at its College of Science, Technology, and Health. The position is the first of its kind at USM, and is geared toward bringing examples of real-world engineering experience to the classroom.

Meggison, 48, grew up in Randolph, and graduated from the University of Maine in 1986 with a bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering. She also studied electrical engineering at the school part time from 1999-2002. She moved quickly up Sappi’s ranks, eventually joining operations management. Since 2008, she has been director of technical and process improvement at Sappi.

She took some time this week to talk about her new role at USM.

Q: What sort of responsibilities will you have as an engineer-in-residence?

A: The main idea of this role is to provide a connection between local industry and the Department of Engineering at USM. I have office hours in the John Mitchell Center each Tuesday afternoon for meeting with students and professors. The engineering faculty extended open invitations to attend their weekly meeting as well as classes and labs. I participated in a meeting of the officers of the engineering students committee and helped them with charter and activity development. Some of the professors have specific requests for seminars: I recently delivered a project management overview for Dr. (James) Smith’s Junior Design and Engineering Profession class. I’m currently developing a presentation on sustainability in the paper industry for Dr. (Lin) Lin’s Built Environment: Energy course. We’re also working to identify a project that would help solve a problem in the mill and give students practical experience in the field.

Q: Have you ever worked in an academic setting? Is there anything you expect to be a particular challenge?

A: I’ve not worked in a college setting except as a tutor. I took a year off when I was at UMaine, during which I had the opportunity to substitute in my high school when a math teacher left mid-year. I taught algebra and calculus for about eight weeks until the school filled the open position, so I’ve had real experience with developing lesson plans, homework assignments, and exams, and with managing a classroom full of teenagers. That was long before computers, Internet, and the explosion of information and technology we seem to take for granted today. So my challenge in this role is to keep pace with the intellectual curiosity and thirst for knowledge and experience of these students and their professors – they are just so far ahead of where I was in college, and it’s truly exciting.

Q: This is the first time USM has done anything like this. Are you concerned about being the “guinea pig” for the program?

A: I’m not really concerned about being a guinea pig – I’ve been “the first” to do a lot of things in my life and career that were all enriching experiences. I’m just hoping to provide some value to USM, to the students and faculty, and help get the program off to a solid start. The next person in this role will surely bring another set of experiences and improvement to the program.

Q: What do you hope the students will be able to learn from your involvement?

A: From a selfish perspective, I want students to understand that the paper industry is alive and well and, in the case of Sappi Fine Paper North America, growing. I want to tell them about what we do at the Westbrook mill with release paper and texture and how exciting the future will be with us. We are facing a significant loss of talent in the next five to 10 years as our more seasoned employees pursue retirement, so we are competing in the employment market for these future engineers and technologists. More generally, I hope to share real-life experience from my 25-plus years as an engineer in a manufacturing facility, and be a mentor for the students.

Q: Did you have any guidance from engineers in the field as you were learning your trade? What do you remember the most about what they taught you?

A: I was fortunate to co-op (intern) at the Westbrook mill for two terms when I was in college and worked closely with engineers and chemists. I was also a member of the student chapters of a couple of paper industry professional organizations that brought me into contact with many others. The best guidance I received then, and still value today: No matter how good you may be, there’s a competitor who’s doing his best to get ahead of you. Always strive for continual improvement and growth. (And carry a big flashlight on the night shift in case of wildlife.)

Q: Even in today’s world, men often outnumber women in engineering fields. As a woman who has succeeded as an engineer, do you hope to set a unique example, or is that not something that will factor into your time at USM?

A: Maybe the uniqueness is the lack of gender bias I’ve experienced in my career. There are many successful women at all levels in my company, top leadership included. However, I recognize that not all organizations are this progressive yet, so it’s still important to present this example. My observation of the new generation is they are increasingly gender-blind when it comes to work relationships – we’re all engineers, not male and female engineers. And that’s good news.

“My challenge is to keep pace with the intellectual curiosity and thirst for knowledge and experience of these students and their professors,” says Micki Meggison, director of technical and process improvement at Sappi Fine Paper, and now the first scientist/engineer-in-residence at the University of Southern Maine. (Courtesy photo)

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