Erin Satterwhite’s career has been an uncanny combination of fortuitous timing with solid preparation, a willingness to step forward, and a passion for science. The year before she completed her Master of Biological Sciences degree in the U’s College of Continuing Education, she became manager of a team of seven scientists at 3M.
She earned a B.S. at the College of Biological Sciences majoring in biochemistry, with a minor in chemistry. “I am fascinated by science, by its challenges and complexity,” Satterwhite says. “I knew I wanted to have a career in the health sciences but I wasn’t sure where that would go.”
She was planning on graduate school but, in part because of her love for travel, first took a research internship in southern Germany that involved research on bacterial biofilms. On her return to the Twin Cities, she found herself outside of the grad school application cycle and thought it might be a good time for a temporary job. She heard about a technical aide position at 3M, but just as she put in her application, she learned it had been filled.
Someone at 3M liked her resume though, and she ended up with an unexpected offer of an entry-level job in the 3M Corporate Research Labs that was significantly better than the tech aide position. “I wasn’t really prepared to commit to a serious position, but I thought if I passed on this, I would regret it,” Satterwhite says. So putting aside the idea of graduate school for the time being, she began her new job in 2006 in a lab that was working on novel antimicrobial and antifouling materials to prevent bacterial growth on surfaces.
“It has been amazing,” she says. “I’ve been able to collaborate with people from all over the world.” With 3M’s support, she completed coursework for her master’s degree in biological science in 2010 and did her thesis last year in CBS. At the same time, leadership at 3M was encouraging her to apply for a management position in 3M’s Infection Prevention Division to do early stage product development. “I thought I was too young and hadn’t been here long enough,” Satterwhite says. But again she decided it was an opportunity she should step up to and she has found herself in a leadership position with a staff of seven direct reports.
“We’re working on technologies to serve the acute care market,” she says. “Products to prevent cross-contamination, maintain sterility and disinfect skin, among other things are in the scope of her team’s efforts. It’s a $1.5 billion business that is relying on this front-end innovation team to grow. We spend a lot of time doing research in hospitals, observing how people function in specific situations, what their problems are, and how they work, in order to get inspiration for new product concepts.”
Satterwhite compares her team to a group of entrepreneurs. “I need to have people who think about addressing challenges in a scientific way, who are problem solvers. They also need to think about what we’re doing in the context of developing intellectual property and medical products. It’s very exciting. We’re on the cutting edge.”
She may be young for a senior leadership role but has had no hesitation in stepping up to the job. “I love being responsible for and being part of an innovation team,” she says with obvious enthusiasm. “To be at the intersection where innovations are turned into products that drive growth and improve patient outcomes is a wonderful opportunity.”
Satterwhite says she’s always known she wanted to be at the forefront of scientific discovery. “I have a passion for doing new things. It’s the romance of science. I love having the identity of scientist and innovator.” – Peggy Rader