Interview: Dr. Jayshree Seth (3M, Chem- 1989)

Corporate Scientist is a designation people may want to hear twice to understand correctly. How did the domains of corporate and research come together during your career progression? 

I currently have two roles at 3M, that of Corporate Scientist and Chief Science Advocate. After my PhD, I joined 3M as a Senior Product Development Engineer and rose through the ranks to now be at the highest level in R&D, that of Corporate Scientist. The designation indicates that my work impacts the corporation, not just my specific Business Unit or Division. I currently lead technology development for sustainable products for our Industrial Adhesive and Tapes Division. In this role, I work with other engineers and scientists to break down complex problems and conduct research and development to find innovative solutions. It’s what I call my “day job” and has inspired me for the past 25+ years at 3M. I also participate in Corporate level projects and planning given the Corporate Scientist role.

My role of Chief Science Advocate is a bit different. In this role, I lead important conversations with various audiences worldwide on the importance and benefits of science in everyday life. As a career scientist, I know how important science is, so I love playing my part in making science more relatable and encouraging a new generation of scientists and science advocates. My role as 3M’s Chief Science Advocate feels more relevant today than ever before. It is essential to continue to advocate for science, as we will need it to help solve global issues such as ongoing health crises and climate change.

Most students pursue a doctoral degree in an attempt to enter academia. What was your motivation behind choosing a corporate career post-PhD?

I grew up in Roorkee in India, a town that has a premier engineering institute, so I was surrounded by engineers, and STEM education was highly valued. In fact, many of the parents where I grew up encouraged their daughters to get into the field of engineering (primarily so they would stay close to home), so many of my friends and I ended up pursuing engineering. After receiving my undergrad in Chemical Engineering, I came to the US to pursue graduate school, and I got my Master’s degree and PhD here. I leaned towards a career in corporate science because I wanted to apply my scientific credentials to solve problems, identify opportunities, and drive real impact across many areas – from industrial manufacturing to consumer products. 

I started my career at 3M (in 1993) in what used to be 3M’s Disposable Products Division. I worked on components for disposable soft goods, and some of my first patents were to help diapers stay put on wiggly babies! In 2006, I moved to the Industrial Adhesive and Tapes Division, and I work on developing new adhesive and tape solutions.

What do you feel is the most exciting and challenging part of your job that continues to engage you every day? 

The ability to identify the problems that need to be solved and then work with a team to collaborate and solve them to develop innovative solutions that help our customers.

70 patents is a remarkable achievement. Briefly describe your journey with patenting your research work.

I have worked in many different product areas and have come up with many innovative concepts that we have subsequently patented. I believe that if you develop a keen understanding of what the problems are and then find the right technical solution to solve them innovatively, you can get patentable ideas and concepts. 

Based on your experience, how do you think companies should proceed with their R&D efforts and their business needs and strike a balance? 

I don’t think they are mutually exclusive: R&D plays a huge role in the corporate world and is the genesis for New Product Initiatives and corporate innovation. So, I see them as being inextricably linked, and in many ways, co-dependent.

What were the challenges raised from the tectonic shift in demand for masks, shields, and other PPE critical to fighting this pandemic? How did you tackle them?

It’s a great question. Let me start by putting it into the context of why it matters. The number one issue that people around the world want to solve is COVID-19 – and 92% agree we should follow the science to contain the spread. We discovered this through our original research – the State of Science Index. Science is essential to containing the spread, and 3M has been stepping up to do its part. 

I personally do not work in the PPE area, but I am aware of 3M’s efforts. Globally, we’ve doubled the global output of N95 and other respirators to a rate of more than 1 billion per year at global manufacturing facilities, including in the U.S., Asia, and Europe, and have taken additional measures to double N95 and other respirator capacities to 2 billion globally by the end of this year. In addition to N95 respirators, 3M has maximized the production of other solutions used in the response to COVID-19, including biopharma filtration, hand sanitizers, and disinfectants. 

3M is committed to supporting the public health and government response to the pandemic and continues to monitor the situation closely. 

Consumer-centric adhesive products like tapes, diapers, and stickers are by-and-large used as single-use items. Does 3M plan to introduce reusability and sustainability in this product market sector? 

The world is united in wanting science to solve big challenges, and finding sustainable solutions are still a clear priority, even amidst COVID-19. In fact, this was one of four underpinning themes in this year’s State of Science Index

At 3M, our sustainability goals reflect a heightened commitment to thinking holistically about how our operations and products can drive change for a sustainable future. Every new product that enters our product commercialization process must have a Sustainability Value Commitment, demonstrating how it drives impact for the greater good. Our mission at 3M to improve lives through scientific innovation is at the core of everything we are doing. Our sustainability framework is centered around science for circular, science for climate, and science for community. Virtually all of my products have had a sustainability element associated with them – lower waste, lower material usage, solvent elimination, biobased content, etc., and we are continually striving to develop more sustainable products.

As a company committed to responsible environmental stewardship, we take seriously our responsibility to our customers, our employees, their families, and the communities where we live and operate. 

These days very few people stay in the same company they start in for maybe more than two years. What motivated you to continue to work with 3M?

It is certainly the people and culture of empowerment at 3M that has kept me here. I am constantly amazed by the power of collaboration and uncommon connections that can be made given the variety of businesses we are in and the depth of our 51 technology platforms, Healthcare, Industrial, Safety, Graphics, Electronics, Transportation, Consumer. I think it’s one reason why 3M has remained so vibrant and relevant for more than 117 years.

Given your admirable position amongst the top ranks of 3M, we imagine it’d be a tough time to take a breather from the hustle and bustle of your work. What is your ideal retreat to let some steam off? 

It’s not feasible to travel right now with the pandemic, so I’ve been exploring creative pursuits; this includes anything from writing poetry and articles to cooking. Most recently, in November 2020, I published my first book, called “The Heart of Science – Engineering Footprints, Fingerprints and Imprints” – this is an ambition I was able to achieve because during the pandemic, I found it to be pleasurable and cathartic. Also, I enjoy what I call creative cooking – exploring new techniques and recipes –it follows the scientific method and allows me to pursue that same creative mindset from work and home! Cooking is also a great way to get kids involved in science, which is something I’ve done at home when my kids were younger. 

How would you describe your association with The Society of Women Engineers?

I believe very strongly in The Society of Women Engineers’ mission – striving to highlight the impact and importance of women in engineering across the globe, leading by example, and demonstrating that a career in engineering can be a fulfilling, rewarding pursuit for women of any background. This is something I am personally and professionally passionate about. 

I was honored to learn that I was being recognized with The Society of Women Engineers’ Achievement Award this year. For the last 27 years, I have collaborated with others in the company to help improve lives, and I’m so humbled that through this award, more people will see the greater good we strive to contribute to as a company. I’m also honored by the book we have created and published together – The Heart of Science. This is a proud moment not just for me but for the many inspirational women scientists and engineers I have encountered in my career, and I wrote the book for the others who will follow behind us to continue the job we have begun.  

Despite progress in technology and education, women still are an under-represented community in STEM. Even though many women start out in entry-level positions, there is a lack of women in the top leadership positions. What do you think are the reasons for this? How do you think it can be combated? What steps has your organization taken to address the issue?

There is absolutely a gender gap. Looking back, I was the only woman in my Master’s program. Today, I’m one of only two women Corporate Scientists, at the highest level in the company, at 3M. Things are changing for the better; 3M has a goal of doubling the pipeline of diverse talent in management by 2025, and we are already making significant strides against that goal.    

More broadly, a lack of access to a good STEM education, especially among underrepresented minority groups, is a barrier to future advancements in science and technology. And the world sees this too — the pandemic has made global citizens more likely to agree that the world needs more people pursuing STEM-related careers to benefit society’s future (74%), and a strong STEM education for students is crucial (73%). 

3M has a long history of investing in STEM education – last year alone, we donated $42M. In addition to supporting organizations that have STEM as their mission, we have a few programs of our own that are designed to encourage interest in science:

  • We launched “Science at Home” in response to the pandemic and distance learning. An online science experiment video series for middle schoolers, Science at Home features real 3M scientists – and a few famous scientists – doing experiments that can be replicated at home. 
  • Each year we announce America’s Top Young Scientist in our months-long competition known as the Young Scientist Challenge. This year’s winner, Anika Chebrolu, is 14 years old and discovered a molecule that can potentially bind to the Spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 to present a potential antiviral treatment by stopping the virus from spreading in the body. Truly inspiring to see such young minds encouraged and invigorated to improve the lives and communities around them.

And, as 3M’s Chief Science Advocate, it is my mission to not only foster conversations on the importance and benefits of science in everyday life but to also make science more accessible for a new generation of science advocates.

What is your advice to young women who want to reach the top positions in their respective industries? Could you elaborate on any challenges you may have faced and how you overcame the same? What are some things that one should and should not compromise on when working in the corporate world?

Studies show that women tend to underestimate their own intelligence and abilities, yet the quality of performance between men and women is essentially the same. I have had many women mentees, co-workers, and teammates over the course of my career admit that they have felt unsure of themselves when embarking on a new endeavor. Sure, these are normal feelings but how we manage these feelings when they emerge is what matters. As women, we must be comfortable with who we are and trust in our ability to succeed. When we have moments of doubt, we need to listen to that inner voice telling us – “you can do this” and believe it. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy, but it is possible. 

I too, have experienced my fair share of challenges, but instead of seeing them as challenges I look at them as learning opportunities. I have had many what I call ‘crucible experiences,’ and they have shaped me into who I am today, personally and professionally. 

My advice to other young women would be to make the best decision for you for right now; don’t overthink or worry too much about the future. Don’t compromise yourself. Bringing your most authentic self and being comfortable with who you are is a form of confidence in itself.

Also, don’t select yourself out of STEM careers or science professions. I never thought I was the “engineering type,” but I’ve found an exciting and fulfilling career in science. Go for it, do as much as you can, try different things, and you may be surprised where life will lead you.

What’s your fondest memory from college, one that has stuck to you even after three decades of life?

My fondest memories are certainly the time spent at Opal Hostel with my friends from all over India – long hours of chatting, studying together, watching TV, and singing songs when the electricity went out!

This interview is the first in our series of Women in STEM interviews.

Stay tuned for more!

Dr. Jayshree Seth can be reached at LinkedIn.

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