Bio-based foam samples in the laboratory.
Courtesy Ford Motor Co.

Mielewski has since taken on that role for Angela Harris, the team’s newest employee. In high school, Harris interned for Mielewski, then attended the University of Michigan on Mielewski’s recommendation. After graduating in 2003, Harris returned to Mielewski’s team. “Working in a lab environment at age 16 was the best practical ­experience,” Harris says. “I saw what it would be like to have a job running experiments that developed future technologies.”

Fifteen years later, Mielewski continues to serve as a role model for Harris. “It helps me to see all that she has accomplished,” Harris says. “Watching her continue to advance encourages me that it is possible to have a rewarding career.”

In the summer of 2012, Mielewski and her team were recognized by the Smithsonian Museum Conversation Institute, where they were asked to share their research at “The Age of Plastics” symposium in Washington, D.C. The conference weighed the life-altering benefits of plastics — like blood bags and space suits — against the less-vital applications, such as grocery bags. Ford was one of three corporations, and the only Fortune 500 company, in attendance. “Debbie’s goals are to do something sustainable for the planet, and she is doing it within Ford Motor Co., where the performance requirements are really challenging,” says Odile Madden, the research scientist at the Smithsonian who invited Mielewski. “She can’t just green-wash the car by adding a token ‘green’ plastic. These plastics really have to work.”

Mielewski and her team have begun brainstorming about the next round of materials they plan to salvage, and that list includes their own inventions. “I’m working on breaking down the soy-based foam so that at end of life, we don’t put it into a landfill,” she says. “I would like to use it for a brand-new seat cushion. As long as it makes sense, we are going to use it.”

MATT MCCUE is a writer living in New York. He is the author of An Honorable Run and has contributed to ESPN The Magazine, The Wall Street Journal and New York magazine.