Left to his own devices

Thursday, July 25, 2019 11:04 am CDT

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3M interns don’t make copies and fetch coffee. They are placed into the heart of projects that have the potential to impact future products, and eventually the world. For 3M intern Zach Ingram, his impact has been significant, possibly leading to his first patent.

The University of Iowa senior, an intern this summer in 3M’s Medical Solutions Division (MSD), improved the design of an in-development medical device so significantly that the company will likely pursue further intellectual property rights for the invention.

“It’s a huge increase over what 3M researchers were planning,” said Audrey Sherman, 3M scientist in MSD and Zach’s advisor for the summer. “This contribution is big.”

It’s the kind of story that happens when an intellectually curious student, an enthusiastic mentor and an environment where innovative thinking is rewarded come together.

“I’m not going to tell you what to do,” Audrey recalls telling Zach when he arrived in the lab in May. “I’m telling you where we’re going. And what we do tomorrow is dictated by today’s work.”

It was the perfect approach for Zach.

“She likes to think outside the box when she sees different problems that need to be solved. That’s what I hope to take away from this – to think outside the box and not always go with what you know,” says Zach.

Before going outside the box, though, the intern had to figure out the shape of the box – using data.

Getting answers

Audrey and team had a gut feeling about the device, but no data. Enter Zach. On day one, he got tasked with figuring out how the team was going to measure device performance and then get the data.

Audrey says her direction to Zach was simple: He wasn’t just there to chug through numbers. If he saw something out of the ordinary, chase it down and find out what’s causing it.

“In our job, there are no answers to the odd numbers in the back of the book. We’re building the book here,” Audrey says.

After giving Zach the equipment that would measure the device’s performance, Audrey left on a vacation.

Zach dug in. “It was definitely a challenge having to come up with my own plan, but I had been introduced to so many people, and they were all telling me where I could go [to research and test the device],” he says.

That included Alex Plasencia, a technical aide and University of Minnesota senior who has worked with Audrey for the past three years.

“Zach and I gelled from the first day we worked together,” says Alex. “He brought in a great knowledge of computer-aided design and design principles, and I brought what I’ve learned here at 3M and in school regarding various materials and adhesives.”

It was a productive combination.

“On one of the best days, I sent a bunch of data to Audrey,” Zach says. “True to Audrey’s humor, all I got back was a picture of her in front of the Eiffel Tower.”

Audrey knew her pictures couldn’t compare to good research. In her 34 years at 3M, she’s garnered more than 100 patents herself and has mentored two previous students who also earned their own patents.

“I’m sending pictures of me at the Eiffel tower, and he’s sending back data, and I’m going, ‘His stuff is way better. Way better!’”

It was the kind of data that made her want to get back to 3M as soon as possible. Audrey says Zach’s design improvement increased device performance by 30%, “a huge increase over what 3M researchers were planning,” she says.

Beyond the data

The team plans on starting the long process of securing a patent on the device, but it can take up to three years to attain. “I told him, ‘We’ll find you wherever you are in three years, because you have to sign papers,’” laughs Audrey.

 “I definitely could see myself working at 3M,” Zach says. “The unique thing about this internship is that it’s so open-ended. Here, I’ve been able to be creative and plan out where I want to go with this project. I feel like I’m working on something that has a real chance to make a positive impact on people, and I am grateful to be able to play an important role in it.”

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