Mel Visser's 36-year career with The Upjohn Company began in 1959 in Kalamazoo, MI. He joined the company as a Chemical Development Engineer upon graduation from Michigan Technological University and worked on scaling up chemical reactions into production, process trouble shooting and process improvement — skills that formed the foundation of his long and successful career with Upjohn.
"I joined Upjohn," explained Mel, "because it offered extensive entry-level training and because of the challenges we were presented with to produce corticosteroids, the 'miracle drugs' of the day."
In the early days, Mel enjoyed being mentored during tours of duty in the departments and in the shops and working alongside engineers and scientists. "After exposure to so many parts of the business, I fell in love with chemical manufacturing and the process development that went into that," recalls Mel.
"I have to admit that I fought for a while to stay away from management during my career," notes Mel, "but when given to the opportunity to manage an antibiotics separation plant, it was so enjoyable that I continued in management from there on out." As a manager, Mel developed and mentored people. That was the fun part of the job — watching people grow and develop.
Mel retired in 1995 as vice president of environmental health and safety, after working in various areas of the company – from chemical development engineering to manufacturing of antibiotics, to production planning for the chemical group, to engineering and construction management.
Mel retired in 1995. He especially appreciated working with a diverse group of people with scientific and engineering expertise to tackle business and environmental problems.
One such problem turned out to be the most memorable event of Mel's career. He described an environmental cleanup effort he led back in 1983 in Puerto Rico resulting from a spill of carbon tetrachloride into a drinking water acquifier. Necessity being the mother of invention, Mel quickly responded, suggesting that his team use a simple vacuum pump that was purchased for another purpose but was not in use yet, to pump air from above the water aquifer where a drill team was conducting tests and complained of odor.
While being "chewed out" by the EPA in New York for the spill, Mel received a call from the field to applaud how well his "Soil Vapor Extraction" experiment was working in removing 800 pounds of contamination per day!
The process, which Mel patented, laid the foundation for not only the establishment of the process as a standard used at gas stations everywhere, but also for the creation of a new global business formed by the contractor used to handle the cleanup.
Mel emphasized, "It was such an exciting time in the environmental area, with new laws focused on clean-ups. The problem was the technology wasn't available yet to satisfy these new laws, so we had to do a lot of creative things."
It was during his work in environmental health and safety that Mel gained a broader understanding of contaminants in the environment. When he retired, Mel found time to begin to investigate things that didn't make sense to him – like why do PCBs and other containments remain in the waters of Lake Superior when those chemicals were banned years ago? And what effect do they continue to have on the environment and the lives of the people who live near and around those waters?
In his quest to find answers to these questions and unravel this mystery, Mel began a 10-year research effort that culminated in the writing of his book, "Cold, Clear and Deadly: Unraveling a Toxic Legacy," which is now available in book stores and on line. Mel is maintaining a web log on the topic at www.coldclearanddeadly.com.
His research took him to fascinating parts of the world that most people never get to see like Coburg Island, Baffin Island, Pond Inlet, and preserved forests believed to be 50 million years old. Mel lived with and studied the culture of the aboriginal people of the area and came face to face with polar bears, walrus and many other types of wildlife.
In his spare time — as if there is any left — Mel enjoys his monthly breakfast meetings with retired colleagues, taking aerobics classes, skiing, kayaking, roller-blading, and long, fast hikes in the woods. He also enjoys attending the annual picnics in Kalamazoo where he connects with lots of friends.