Published: Aug. 27, 2013
Kris Thunhorst

Kris Thunhorst received her PhD in 1998 under the direction of Professors Chris Bowman and Rich Noble. Now a Senior Research Specialist in 3M’s Industrial Adhesives and Tape (IATD) Division, she serves as the Technical Program Manager for the Compressed Natural Gas Pressure Vessel Product portfolio.  This is an important and very new business for 3M, and Kris was instrumental in the development of the nanoparticle matrix resin technology which enables the vessels to be approximately 30 percent lighter and 10 percent larger in volume than the market-leading competitor.

In her 15 years at 3M, Kris has contributed to a number of different businesses and laboratories at 3M including Corporate Research Process Laboratory, Construction and Home Improvement Division, and Optical Systems Division. She has 15 issued patents to date, and her work has been recognized with a number of awards including the Corporate Circle of Technical Excellence and Innovation (3M's highest technical honor) in both 2011 (Individual) and 2012 (Team), the PSI Leadership award in 2012, and Best Overall Technical Paper Award at ACMA (American Composite Manufacturer’s Association) in 2011.

We spoke with Kris about her experiences at CU and beyond.

Can you briefly describe your graduate research?
I was fortunate enough to as graduate advisors Rich Noble, who has expertise in transport and membranes, and Chris Bowman, who has expertise in photopolymerization.  I leveraged the knowledge of both advisors by making functionalized membranes using photopolymerization and photo-grafting techniques.  I then used the membranes to study active transport mechanisms of metal ions from simulated wastewater.  I also benefitted from having been a part of the CSTF (Center for Separations using Thin Films) while in graduate school.  Working on a Center-sponsored project meant industrial partners selected, partially funded, and reviewed the projects on a bi-annual basis.  The interactions with the industrial Center sponsors also provided the opportunity for graduate students to be mentored by industrial representatives, and for students to develop relationships with industrial sponsors. 

What have you been doing since leaving graduate school (both professionally and personally)?
When I left graduate school, I immediately went to work at the 3M Company in the Corporate Research organization in the Radiation Processing Group.  It was a wonderful transition from graduate school because I was introduced to a new and dynamic environment that provided opportunity to learn about unique industrial equipment, innovative approaches to problem-solving, and intricate manufacturing challenges.  Each career step since has loosely connected to the business before it, by one of 3M’s more than 40 proprietary technologies. 

Around 2002, I began intensive training to become a Six Sigma Black Belt.  This assignment translated into a rich learning experience, enabling me to develop new skills in team leadership and project management.  Although it was a departure from the hard-core technical work defining my career to that point (I even ran a project on advertising!), my role as a Six Sigma Black Belt allowed me to assimilate valuable tools to inspire team potential and successful outcome.  Such leadership skills, of course, are so important no matter what one’s role may be within an organization, technical or otherwise.   

Personally, I have enjoyed doing a bit of educational outreach through 3M’s Visiting Wizard program, which brings 3M scientists into schools.  I especially have fun demonstrating Cryogenics to school children.  I fulfilled a life-long dream by acquiring my first horse after graduate school.  I currently train and show a half-Clydesdale mare (she looks just like the Budweiser horses, but smaller) in dressage.  I work with her 3-5 days each week, all year long.  Once a week for the past six and a half years, we have teamed up to do therapeutic riding with a little boy who had a traumatic brain injury.  Being a part of his verbal, mental and physical progress has brought me both amazement and joy.

Can you describe 3M’s new natural gas tanks and your involvement in this project?
One of the things that surprises customers and visitors about 3M is the breadth and depth of our portfolio of technology platforms, which we often represent in the format of a “periodic table of technologies”.  With more than 40 core technologies that are shared across the company, the 3M technical community actively engages in cross-pollination of ideas, expertise and problem-solving.  There are numerous stories of how one technology has found its way into a completely new and, seemingly unrelated, industry or business area.  My research group in the IATD (Industrial Adhesives and Tapes) Division focuses on 3M’s  “nanotechnology” platform (represented by Nt in our periodic table).  3M has a strong history of utilizing nanotechnology across multiple product categories, ranging from tooth restoratives to optical enhancement products, and even to sporting goods.  A few years ago, I was working in the area of nanotechnology for low viscosity epoxy resins for use in traditional (fibrous) composites.  Through some initial experiments, I learned that our resins made some quite unexpected improvements in the performance of pressure vessels.    With the technical performance benefits of the resin in hand, a team was assembled to investigate making a completely new business – one in which we would sell the finished pressure vessels.

Just as important as the technical developments and technology, understanding the market needs, timing, and regulations/specifications is essential for successful products.   In this case, we learned that we had caught the comet by the tail, as pressure vessels represented a rapidly-growing market, particularly in the transportation area.  Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) is a domestically-available fuel with reserves estimated at 100-400 years of consumption (depending on the source).  It burns much cleaner than diesel fuel and gasoline, so it has positive effects on climate change and pollution reduction. By using a domestic fuel, we can reduce our dependence on foreign energy imports and foster new employment opportunity.  The economics of using natural gas as a fuel, especially in high mileage transportation routes (such as semi-trucks), or where the vehicles get very low mileage (such as refuse trucks) were quite impressive.  Natural gas runs approximately 50% of the cost of gasoline on a gallon-gas-equivalent basis.  With all these benefits, it was evident that our nanotechnology had a welcome outlet in the CNG pressure vessel for transportation arena.

As the Technical Program Manager for the design and certification of 3M’s CNG pressure vessel products, I had the opportunity to lead an intrepid, and very hard-working team through our first few product introductions in early 2013.  Product development, certification, and product introduction are incredibly difficult and challenging processes even in the best of circumstances.  Our team brought 3M’s first CNG pressure vessel to market in less than 1 year, opening business opportunity in a completely new area for 3M.  For our efforts, the development team was selected as the single domestic team receiving 3M’s highest technical honor, the Circle of Technical Excellence Team Driven Technical Achievement award for 2012.

The most important learning was that it takes more than just time, effort and talent to introduce a product and a new business.  The challenges require faith, perseverance, a hearty helping of self-sacrifice, as well as an authentic spirit of collaboration among many job functions to pull it all together.  Product development is definitely a team sport.

[Editor's note: watch the Motley Fool (DailyFinance) video about 3M's entry into CNG.]

What is your most vivid ChBE-related memory from your time as a student?
Graduate school was a time in my life that I’ll always treasure.  I will never forget how the first-year graduate students had a picnic in the mountains just west of Boulder on the weekend before school started.  The weather was so hot that we wore tank tops and shorts to the picnic.  Just two days later, there was 6 inches of snow on the ground in Boulder.  Of course the snow didn’t last long, but the rapid weather changes were something that I hadn’t experienced before.  When people asked what I thought of Boulder, I would always explain that I would wake up every morning to the sunshine (on one of the ~ 330 days of the year when it’s sunny in Boulder) and head toward campus with the beautiful Flatirons forming the campus backdrop.  I do not think there is anyone alive who could fail to be inspired by the awesome setting of CU Boulder.

Do you have any funny stories from graduate school?
When you are in grad school, I think everyone believes that things will be so different when you graduate into the working world.   The joke for all of us is that the same types of people and things happen in the “real world” as they did in grad school.   I remember one lab-mate who seemed like he could never get anything done until the absolute last minute, and how he would be there all night to meet the deadline the next day.  It seemed that somehow his inspiration only came in the wee hours of the morning.  I also distinctly remember cleaning up a heavily-used piece of analytical equipment on the night-shift one evening (before I could use it), and making a tidy pile of the messy samples on the offending student’s chair.  That student is now a professor, and tells his own students that story.

What do engineers need to learn beyond coursework to succeed in industry?
I cannot emphasize enough that most of industry today is a team environment.  Developing and introducing products is a team sport.  Investing in yourself by honing your presentation, communication, and influencing skills will pay unbelievable dividends in your career.  Being able to clearly present, in a truthful and compelling manner, and to convince/entice others to collaborate with you, fund you, or support you is a life skill.  Being a good team member is also very important.  Be humble and open to learning from others.   It’s absolutely amazing what you’ll learn by asking, “What do you think?” and “Do you have any ideas or suggestions?”.  I always tell the new graduates who join 3M that, even if they are the most brilliant person 3M has ever hired, if they can’t communicate their ideas and collaborate with others to make them a reality, they will not be successful.

Students also need to realize that hard work is not a sole predictor of success.  It is, however, a pre-requisite for success.

I’d like to take a quote from Bruce Benson, the CU President,  “… Perhaps the best advice I can offer our graduates is that their honesty, their word, their reputation and their integrity are their most important assets.  Each must be thoughtfully nurtured and carefully guarded.  They are the foundation for success in life.”

What advice would you give to students?
I’ve always said that success in engineering is 99% sweat and 1% smarts.  By the time students get to their second year of engineering school, everyone remaining is smart.  I think that students, especially undergraduate students, need to use their time in school to learn how to plan, how to refine their work ethic, and how to meet deadlines and deliverables. 

For graduate students, they should know that if they choose an industrial career path rather than an academic one, it is very unlikely that they will be employed doing exactly what they did in graduate school.  In the working world, there is frequently a difference of priority and sense of urgency. 

For all students, my perspective of school is that you are learning how to learn.  Much of the practical knowledge will be gained on the job after graduation.  What the new graduates will leverage strongly is the ability to sort through details of the problem/challenge/obstacle, determine the most critical items, identify and involve people of complementary skills whose expertise is needed, develop a path of action, drive things all the way to completion, and to communicate relentlessly along the way.

Do you have any closing thoughts to share?
Success in your career requires balancing many elements.  Ensuring that you choose an employer with values that match your own will provide the best chance of success.  Being honest with yourself and understanding what you really need to be happy in your work is a first step.  Do you need more direction, or do you like to be managed very “hands-off”?  Do you like to lead, follow, contribute from the sidelines, or be a subject matter expert?  Is it important to you to be able to point to a product on a shelf and say, “that’s a reality because I contributed to it”, or are you driven to know that have educated another generation of students who will be unleashed on the world to make their own impact?  Do you feel that you need to research things to the “nth” degree, or is it sufficient for you to know how to work around the obstacle?

I think it is important to realize that all undergraduate and all graduate education is a type of sprint race.  It comes in semester blocks and can be achieved with bursts of energy a few months long.  During the sprint, there are many opportunities for feedback, like receiving grades, passing a defense, having a paper accepted at a national technical meeting.  The success in school is largely also individually determined.  There are also discrete stopping points or clear destinations at the end of each semester or school year.  

A career, however, is more like a marathon.  Energy, motivation, and drive need to be sustained over years, and even over decades.  Feedback is less frequent, sometimes less formal, and not only dependent on the person’s own accomplishments, but their team members’ contributions as well.  In a career, there are a lot of other external factors like market and budget cycles which can also affect success.  Students should be mentally prepared for the marathon when they graduate.  They need to keep their heads up, breathe regularly, try to choose good running partners, and enjoy the scenery along the way.  Once they graduate, life is more about the journey than about the destination.