As a girl, Audrey Sherman ’97 loved science classes so much that there was no hesitation when her college-student mother asked for help with her own science classes. Going to local lakes and ponds together to collect water specimens, examining them under microscopes, and then recording the findings gave Sherman a taste of what her own college experience might be like. But she didn’t expect to someday become an inventor!
One day in her junior year of high school, Sherman heard a pitch about a program that tickled that love of science—a program that would lead her to the career of her dreams. The speaker was describing the STEP program, a science encouragement program sponsored by 3M, the global St. Paul-based company famous for innovations such as Scotch tape, Post-It Notes, and over 60,000 other products.
Sherman was told that, in a 3M classroom, she and other high school students would learn from 3M scientists about chemistry, math, and polymers; learn how to do research; and at the end of the sessions, have an opportunity to interview for a full-time paid summer job in the 3M laboratories.
Becky Kreckel, the woman introducing the STEP program, described the joy of cooking with chemicals and making new molecules, outlined the opportunities that science could offer, and—the clincher for Sherman—talked about the sports car she owned. Sherman liked the idea of making new things, and being rewarded for it, and she was hooked.
Not only did Kreckel end up being one of Sherman’s instructors in the 3M classes, as well as her supervisor for the summer lab position at 3M; she also provided rides to and from 3M (in the sports car, of course) since Sherman didn’t yet have a driver’s license. In her second year of the STEP program, Sherman was able to do a full research program.
After her senior year, and a second summer at 3M, she began college studies at the University of Minnesota, transferring two years later to Augsburg, where she earned her B.S. in Chemistry. While at the U, she applied to 3M for a full-time position as a chemical technician, which resulted in work under the supervision of Charlie Leir, a world-class organic chemist turned polymer chemist.
One day, she and Leir were struggling to isolate a compound, and Sherman suggested a solvent choice that she thought had all the necessary properties. Right away, Leir told her to write her idea down, and when they tried it, it worked. It “broke the whole area open,” Sherman said. And the best part of all for her: their work resulted in many new products that “people loved.” Her idea made it into the claims of the filing for a patent. At age 20, Sherman had become an inventor!
To date, Sherman is credited with nearly 80 patents, and the most recent one, which was among those that put 3M over the 100,000 mark, is for a material with fascinating versatility, including the potential to improve cosmetics, insulation wrapping, and electronics. Two of her favorite patents involve using pressure-sensitive adhesives to transport light, and making a solvent-free duct tape. She also helped discover a new solution for restickable diaper tape. Not easily discouraged by those who said an idea wouldn’t work, she would usually find a way.
Some of Sherman’s patents were filed with other Augsburg graduates who work at 3M. She is grateful that the attention she received from her Augsburg instructors was similar to her STEP training at 3M in that she was able to work elbow to elbow with professors. She also feels that her Augsburg minor in Art has been an important factor in pursuing her inventions, enabling her to blend creativity with her skills in chemistry.
Sherman has found ways to “give back” by mentoring St. Paul high school students interested in science, and by giving talks to junior-high and middle-school students about careers in science and technology. She has discovered she cannot always anticipate students’ questions and concerns, but she takes great satisfaction in having made a difference, addressing their concerns honestly and clearly, and helping them to discern if a science career is something they should pursue.
Sherman has been married to Frank Sherman for 31 years and is mother of three sons, James, Gregory, and Daniel. A Staff Scientist at 3M now, she hopes to soon become a Corporate Scientist there. She continues to work hard and is “almost there.”
—by Cheryl Crockett ‘89