Plastics Engineering Alumna Wants to Provide the Support She Got as a Student

Ailleen Turnbull
Turnbull now leads the corporate Quality Management System group and the central Commercial Quality Services group.

By Jill Gambon

As a high school student in the late 1980s, Aileen Turnbull spent two years as a member of the boys’ soccer team.

Driven by a desire to compete and backed by supportive parents, she was unfazed by being the only girl on the field.

“It was definitely unusual, but I wanted to play. I think the other teams were more uncomfortable, but I used it to my advantage,” Turnbull recalls. “I told myself: ‘I can do this.’”

That same clear sense of purpose and a firm confidence in her abilities have guided Turnbull from her days as a plastics engineering undergraduate to her current job as vice president for commercial and enterprise quality at Johnson & Johnson.

“I was taught to go after what I wanted to do,” she says. “I chose my own path.”

Turnbull now leads the corporate Quality Management System group and the central Commercial Quality Services group for the health care giant. She is dedicated to driving improvements in processes, products and services for patients and customers in a business where quality and compliance are imperative.

“At J&J, quality is everyone’s job,” she says.

She started her career with Tyco Healthcare as a research and development engineer, and later moved up to plant quality manager in the Sharps Safety division in California. Upon completing several assignments with Tyco Healthcare, she moved back East in 2002 to join DePuy Orthopaedics, a division of Johnson & Johnson, as quality engineering plant manager.

Over the past 20 years, Turnbull has held roles with increasing responsibilities across the Johnson & Johnson family of companies. Along the way, she earned an MBA from Boston College. Throughout her career, a focus on quality has been a through line.

“For me, the question is really about decision-making. It’s the challenging work of what makes sense from a business perspective, where high quality and compliance are needed.” -Ailleen Turnbull
“For me, the question is really about decision-making,” she says. “It’s the challenging work of what makes sense from a business perspective, where high quality and compliance are needed.

Building a Network of Connections 

Turnbull’s experience on the high school soccer field was good preparation for studying engineering. She says she was among just a handful of women in her graduating class to major in plastics engineering. The tight-knit plastics engineering faculty and the school’s alumni network were always there to help, she says.

“The professors were great. Professors [Stephen] Orroth and [Steven] Grossman were both very supportive. Whatever you needed, you just had to ask. And they tried to make it fun,” she says.

She also got involved in campus life and made great friends. In her senior year, she was elected class president.

“It was a great experience. It was a lot of work, but it gave you the visibility to connect with a whole different array of people,” she says. “It opened doors.”

One of those doors led to summer housing in Fox Hall, which allowed her to take an internship with a company in Manchester, New Hampshire, a city 90 miles from her home in Mansfield, Massachusetts. Serving as class president, she got to know Larry Siegel, who was then director of residence life for the university. (Siegel went on to become vice chancellor for student affairs and university events before retiring last year.) Turnbull was looking for housing, and Siegel mentioned that rooms in Fox Hall were available as summer rentals. Suddenly, Turnbull’s plans fell into place.

During her internship, Turnbull did all aspects of the work at the small extrusion company, where the general manager was a UML plastics engineering alumnus. The experience turned out to be great career preparation.

“Going into my first job, I wasn’t afraid to get my hands dirty,” she says.

Setting an Example 

Turnbull now lives in her hometown of Mansfield with her husband and 12-year-old twin daughters. Every other week, she travels by high-speed train to work in Johnson & Johnson’s offices in Bridgewater, New Jersey.

Like so many, Turnbull’s life was turned upside down by the pandemic. Before COVID-19, she spent 70% of her work time traveling. When COVID swept through, she suddenly found herself marooned at home, working remotely.

It was an adjustment, she says.

On the upside, she was able to coach her daughters’ soccer team for the first time. And she appreciates being able to spend more time with the girls during their crucial middle school years.

“Middle school is a tough time, especially for girls, and I got to be at home,” she says. “It really bonded us.”

As a working mother, Turnbull wants to set an example for her daughters and for young women who are interested in pursuing careers in STEM. Since 2018, she has served on the Francis College of Engineering’sBiomedical Engineering Industrial Advisory Board. She wants to do what she can to offer the same support she got as a student and ensure there is diversity in the engineering pipeline.

“That’s why I’m trying to get involved, to give back,” she says.

Turnbull was recently back on campus for the UMass Lowell Women’s Leadership Conference, where she participated in a panel on women leading sustainability efforts in their organizations. She enjoys visiting the campus and seeing how the university has grown, from the gleaming new buildings to the updated amenities.

“It’s amazing. They didn’t have Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts on campus when I was a student,” she laughs. “I text pictures to my college roommates.”