What’s cooler than getting your first patent? Being the only female inventor in 3M’s 116-year history to hold over 100 patents. Cooler still? Starting your record-breaking journey as a junior in high school. Innovative girls everywhere, listen up. You’ve got to meet the division scientist holding 131 patents, Audrey Sherman.
Ê: We’re crazy excited to talk to you, especially because you started working at 3M when you were our age! Asking on behalf of other middle and high school girls…how did that even happen?
AS: Nice to talk to you too! During my junior year of high school, a 3M scientist walked into my chemistry class and said her job consisted of cooking up molecules and driving a sports car. Well…that. I thought to myself. That’s what I want to do.
Ê: What happened next?
AS: I knew that 3M had a wonderful pre-college STEM program that placed high school students in labs alongside 3M scientists, and I immediately applied. I was accepted, and that summer I worked with the scientist that visited my chem class, Rebecca Kreckel. I carpooled with her since I was too young to drive and she became my first mentor. She was also instrumental to my learning about patents.
Ê: Right, patents! We know they protect inventions and that they give creators, for a certain amount of time, control over how their inventions are used. When did you realize their importance in science and what was your first patented idea?
AS: By my sophomore year in college I had interned with 3M for four years, and they said, “Just come work here already.” I was balancing 3M projects with the rest of my college classes, and in one lab experiment our tests weren’t producing the results we expected. I suggested a new way and my boss said, “Write that down.” It wound up being the key to getting our process to work, and we filed for the patent.
Ê: What did that moment mean to you?
AS: I saw how important it was important to protect what your team discovers. I also realized that I wasn’t too young to contribute. Even the PhDs didn’t necessarily have all the answers and I saw that good work at any age could be valuable. That’s something to remember, girls…anyone can contribute to the learning.
Ê: We read that you asked your first boss how many patents you should aim to earn and he told you one patent per year. We’re pretty good at math…that seems like you averaged around 5 times that for the next 26 years!
AS: Yes. After he said that I thought, Boy, I’ve really got to speed things up! If I’ve been here five years and I only have one patent, I’m already behind! I decided I wanted to work with every senior scientist at 3M to see how many new ideas we could generate. And you know what? Turns out if you focus on collaborating, amazing things happen. No one said no when I asked to work with them, and this new way of networking led to more innovation than I ever could have predicted.
Ê: Is that type of environment unique to 3M or do you think most scientists are open to new ideas and willing to collaborate?
AS: 3M certainly has that culture, but I think science is full of team players. You’re always chasing new discoveries, and to do that you need diverse minds and voices. I’ve found that collaboration just makes good ideas better.
Ê: We heard that there is no minimum age to apply for a patent. What would you say to girls our age who have a cool idea they want to bring to market?
AS: I would say three things: First, your idea has to be new. My test for that is simple: you shouldn’t be able to find it on Google. Search hard, and basically look for what is not there. Second, don’t be afraid to team up with people who can help bring your new idea to the next stage. The concept is one thing, but then you need a usable prototype you can hold in your hands. Finally, if you are confident your idea is both unique and useful, convince everyone around you. Start talking about it and don’t stop.
Ê: Great advice, especially from someone who holds 131 patents! Where, um, do you keep them all?
AS: Believe it or not, they’re in my staircase at home. 3M rewards patent holders with commemorative brass plaques that are presented at group meetings. I started bringing them home from work and my husband said, “You have to do something with these.” So we hung them in the staircase…like a home museum of inspiration.
Ê: Best. Staircase. EVER. Is there one of those plaques that stands out for you as the most memorable?
AS: I’ll give you two. Certainly the 100th patent stands out, although I wasn’t counting at the time. I had no idea how many I had, but I guess someone else was counting and I was gratified that the scientist I was working with on that one was also a woman — Wendi Winkler. Interestingly, she received her B.S. in Chemistry while working at 3M just like I did! More recently, a memorable patent was for a mirror-wrapped Lamborghini.
Ê: Say that again?
AS: A mirror-wrapped Lamborghini. We developed an adhesive material that worked in the electrical space, and another team needed something similar that would stick to metal without corroding. They called me, and I thought it might work. This is the finished product.
If someone had told me when I was in that high school chem class, dreaming about molecules and sports cars, that I would patent inventions like this — I never would have believed it.
Ê: Our minds are blown. And our time is up. We’re so grateful we got to speak with you. If you could tell today’s innovative girls one last thing, what would you say to them?
AS: I would say this — invention is a little spark that has to light, so never get discouraged. When I was first looking at a career as a corporate scientist, someone told me not to aim too high. “I just don’t want you to be disappointed,” he said. I looked at him and said, “I need to aim that high. I’ll only be disappointed if I don’t aim that high.” Always look for the farthest point — the goal you can’t even imagine yet — and aim there.
To learn about 3M STEM opportunities in middle school and high school, explore 3M’s Science Training Encouragement Program (STEP), Technical Teams Encouraging Career Horizons (TECH) and Visiting Wizards. Être is grateful to Audrey Sherman for her ideas and insight, and to all 3M role models for inspiring tomorrow’s girls in STEM.