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Spotlight

Mary K. McMahon

Director of Finance and Operations
Electrical Engineering
Story originally published on Jun 2022
In the electrical engineering department, my job is basically to keep the train going down the track – making sure the administrative side of the department runs smoothly.

I don’t handle everything directly, but it’s my job to make sure everything is operating so that our students and faculty can focus on what they do best. It’s like running a business, but what we’re producing is research and education.

At the start of my career, I was producing something entirely different: chewing gum. The summer after my freshman year of college, I started working at Wrigley’s gum in Chicago and I was one of the first women involved in the actual gum-making process. I used to drive forklifts and roll 300-pound barrels of sugar on the factory floor. The pay was great for a 19-year-old and I didn’t have a particular passion I wanted to pursue, so I ended up dropping out of college after my second year and working at Wrigley’s full time.

Eventually, I moved off the factory floor and into quality assurance and packaging. Wrigley’s paid for me to finish my degree in business management, but after a certain point there wasn’t a lot more room for upward mobility. I moved on to a few other industry jobs, including running the accounts for a small plant that manufactured wallpaper paste, before I transitioned into managing in academia.

I love being in academia. In industry, you’re making a product. Here, you’re making a difference in people’s lives. I get to see these students come in, learn all they can, and use that knowledge to move on to new opportunities. I get to work with faculty who are trying to make the world a better place. It’s really gratifying to know my efforts support all that. When you stand back and look at how many lives you’ve touched, you know you’re doing something worthwhile.

I worked in the division of endocrinology at Northwestern University for the better part of a decade. I really enjoyed it, but at some point I realized that I had let the job take over my whole life: It seemed like I was always working, or thinking about work, or seeing friends from work. So when my best friend finished her PhD and moved to California, I decided to upend my life and follow her. I took a job at Stanford in 2002 and, before I’d even started, signed up for a ceramics class at the Palo Alto Art Center.

My friends in the clay world have helped keep me from being dragged back into the lopsided work-life balance I had in Chicago. I specialize in hand-building plates and I paint each one individually, usually while watching TV at home. I sell them once a year at a show in November. It’s not something I’d ever want to turn into a job, but I love having a creative outlet and a second community to be a part of.

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