Meet the 3M Mentor: Dr. Kathleen Shafer

Kim Moldofsky is the publisher of The Maker Mom and STEM Kids Chicago.

Connecting with a scientist mentor from 3M is a highlight for the Young Scientist Challenge finalists. It turns out that getting to work with eager young scientists is also a great experience for the adult mentors. I'm pleased to introduce you to Dr. Kathleen Shafer, the 3M mentor who helped Gitanjali Rao earn the title of 2017's Discovery Education 3M Top Young Scientist. Read on to learn about Dr. Shafer's background, early influencers, and her work with young people.

Tell me about your work as a research specialist in the 3M Corporate Research Materials Laboratory.

As a scientist in 3M's Corporate Research Laboratory, my job is to experiment with and invent new polymer materials (also called plastics) that will ultimately help create new 3M products. My particular research focus is photopolymerized materials, where we use light to start chemical reactions that turn a liquid into a solid in just seconds. If you've ever been to a dentist or orthodontist, and they used a light to repair your tooth or attach your braces, then you’ve experienced photopolymerization firsthand!

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in science?

My teachers and parents were the biggest influences on my career choice. In 6th grade, one of my teachers encouraged me to consider becoming a scientist or engineer, and that suggestion stuck with me. My fascination with chemistry really developed in middle school when my mom signed me up for an Expanding Your Horizons workshop. We experimented with using red cabbage juice as an acid/base indicator, and also learned that hydrangeas grown in different pH soil have different color flowers. That really piqued my curiosity about chemistry in the world around me, which has been a theme of my scientific interests ever since!

You do a lot of work with middle and high school students. What do you find most rewarding about that?

When I lead workshops or mentor students, I am always impressed by their engagement, enthusiasm, and resourcefulness! My own interest in science was strengthened by scientists who made the time to share their expertise and excitement with me, so I really see my own efforts as a way to continue that tradition. As a mentor for the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, one very rewarding aspect is helping our mentees work through roadblocks that develop during their summer research. By asking questions or providing some insights, we can often help them consider the situation from a different perspective, which enables them to think of new ways to attack the issue.

What was your favorite part about mentoring a young scientist in this challenge? What was most challenging? (Along those lines, did Gitanjali talk as rapidly in real life as she did in her entry video?)

There are so many highlights as a mentor for the Young Scientist Challenge! I really enjoy the final event in St. Paul where we meet our mentees in person for the first time. During those two days, we are consistently impressed by what the finalists create as they work together in teams for the on-site challenges. We’re then wowed by their final presentations as they share how they developed their innovations over the summer. It is a challenging ask for the finalists to fit planning, experimentation, and presentation prep into ~3 months, but they always do a fantastic job!

 And no…Anjali doesn't speak as fast in-person as she did in her entry video.

What advice would you offer to a student who is on the fence about whether to enter the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge?

The Young Scientist Challenge is an incredible opportunity to pursue a project that you find meaningful and could make a real difference in the world around you. If you have an idea of how to use science to solve a problem, and you're excited to spend next summer advancing that concept, then definitely submit a video for 2018!