By Cindy Patman
A chemist at heart, Martha Collins, director of technology innovation for Halliburton, thinks of a laboratory as her natural habitat. But one of her roles is to work with the Company’s open innovation team, looking for potentially useful technologies anywhere but in a lab — or at Halliburton, or even in the oil and gas industry.
She refers to this as boundary spanning, and, building on colleague Gene Slowinski’s ideas, she uses a four-point system for doing it: want-find-get-manage. Know what you want. Find it. Get it. Manage it.
Looking at her career — starting as far back as when she was advised by a high school teacher that she should teach English (because teaching was what females did) — it is clear that Martha has been spanning boundaries for a long time.
She’s had a keen interest in fabrics — their textures and designs, the nature of fibers — as long as she can remember. In high school, she loved her science classes, but she also excelled in math (earning her school’s highest score on the standardized math test she took in her senior year). She started to envision a career that had something to do with the textile industry, or maybe the design industry. That’s when she received her first bit of wrongheaded advice from a sort of reverse mentor, who told Martha she should become a teacher.
She went to college to learn how to be a teacher. But something was off. She finally figured out what it was: she did not want to be a teacher. With that, she accomplished the first step in the boundary-spanning process: Know what you want (and, of course, its corollary, know what you don’t want).
A positive mentor was right there when she needed one. Dr. Howard Needles was a professor of textiles at University of California, Davis. Based on her interest in fabrics, he pointed her toward textiles — the science aspect, not the design aspect — and she found her intellectual home. Dr. Needles became her official advisor for her undergraduate studies. She had accomplished the second step in boundary-spanning: Find it.
Martha ate, slept, dreamed and generally lived textiles. She became leader of the textiles student group. As she completed her Bachelor of Science, one of her professors, Dr. S. Haig Zeronian, suggested that she stay on at UC Davis and earn a doctorate. Why not, she thought, and, by combining the math and science requirements for a master’s degree with her Ph.D. studies, went right ahead to earn her doctorate. Step three, done: Get it.
If her academic success was how she “got” what she wanted, her professional career could be considered her Step Four, managing it. Straight out of school, she was offered a faculty position in fiber science at Cornell University. She declined — the geography didn’t work for her family — but she didn’t have much of a wait before Union Carbide hired her as a polymer scientist.
Since that first job, Martha has spent 26 years in the chemical industry, working at Eastman Chemical Company, where she began her shift from research into large program management, and at Air Products and Chemicals, Inc., where she moved into management of research and development. Over the course of her career, she has accumulated 14 patents.
In 2014, she joined Halliburton as director of technology innovation, bringing along her broad experience — and her penchant for boundary-spanning.
Since her high school days when girls were rarely pointed toward textile science — or any science, for that matter — Martha has found an interesting new way to look at diversity. There are no solo scientists, she says. Science and research are all about teams — people interacting, exchanging ideas and perspectives, and using what they learn to reshape their understanding of every challenge.
She has taught a first-time innovation class at Halliburton, and while she admires the progress the company has made in expanding its diversity, she also noted that there is ample room for continued growth.
“In my class on leadership development for technology employees, all the students except one were male,” she recalled. “That one woman, however, was quite confident making herself heard.”
That’s an area where women can make an improvement themselves, Martha believes.
“We need to be heard, and not be shy about asserting our ideas,” she said. “A network like Pink Petro gives women the opportunity to make new contacts among a broad range of people from all over the globe, to share ideas and, most importantly, to help us learn not to be influenced by ‘boundaries.’”
The most important thing to figure out, she says, is not just who you are, but how you are. What subjects are you drawn to? What stimulates your curiosity? What makes you feel confident? How can you be successful being you?
“You shouldn’t have to come to work and not be you,” Martha said. “The sooner you figure out who your ‘you’ is, the better.”