1. A Scientist’s Grandmother Inspires Her to Break Barriers in Science
  • A Scientist’s Grandmother Inspires Her to Break Barriers in Science

    March 8, 2017

    By Kelly Hall/3M Storyteller and Monica Hanson/3M Videographer

    Nancy Ruther

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    Photo: Nancy Ruther

    • Liz Johnson's fascination with science started with a third grade science project.

      "We did an experiment on spider plants, where you can cut off a clipping from one of them and put it in water, and it will re-root and grow," she says. "I brought it home on the school bus in a styrofoam cup with a little dirt."

      Liz's parents in Boston still have that original plant from third grade, and Liz's kids have taken an offshoot to create a plant in Minnesota.

      But as an excited third grader sitting on that bus, Liz didn't imagine that something else would take root, too. The journey she was starting with that plant – and bug and rock collections, space camp and other childhood explorations – would be one that stretches across generations.

      As a child, Liz created, imagined, and played pretend, sometimes during long walks with her grandmother. She recalls her grandmother's encouragement to be creative. When she found herself wondering about the complexities of nature and why things were the way they were, she would simply look to her grandmother for answers without thinking twice about the knowledge her grandmother would provide.

      "To me growing up, my grandmother was my grandmother," says Liz. "I didn't realize that she had a past life before she was my grandmother."

      Years later and without expecting it, Liz would see how her grandmother's life story would someday inspire her own career trajectory.

    Liz Johnson as a young child, exploring nature with her grandmother

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    Photo: Liz Johnson as a young child, exploring nature with her grandmother

    • Nancy Ruther and her family as she graduated from the University of Pittsburgh

      With the vision of becoming a doctor, Liz’s grandmother, Nancy Ruther, studied at the University of Pittsburgh and graduated in three years with a dual degree in biology and chemistry. Just as she was graduating, the reality of the time period immediately began to set in.

      It was World War II.

      Nancy envisioned ways she could apply her education toward helping to improve lives and often spoke about her dreams with her husband Frank.

      “Nancy told me that she wanted to be a doctor, but the war was making it doubly difficult,” Frank wrote in a journal. “In normal times, it was difficult for a woman to get into medical school, but with the big war going on, all of the slots for medical schools were going to men.”

      Nancy was faced with disappointment and confronted with a frightening reality.

      “I abandoned any idea of medical school and realized I would be looking for a job and that my degree had better prove useful,” says Nancy.

      “She didn’t have very many women role models ahead of her to show her what career paths could be,” adds Liz.

      Nancy’s solution? She became her own role model and created her own formula for success. She pursued a career in science and worked as a chemist, which was somewhat unchartered territory.

    Liz Johnson in the lab

    Photo: Liz Johnson, 3M scientist, in a lab where she has worked on adhesives for tapes

    • Liz Johnson as she graduated from the University of Washington

      Similar to her grandmother’s journey, Liz continues creating her own path. In high school, she already knew she wanted to study chemistry in college. “I took a different twist on it. I have a Bachelor of Arts with a major in chemistry, because I still love the humanities, and I have almost a full minor in anthropology as well,” she says. She was unsure of what she wanted to study in graduate school.

      “I was pretty sure I wanted a Ph.D. in science, but I did not want to be an organic chemist, which is the only thing I really knew to be at that point,” she says.

      Liz decided to take some time off after college. She lived with her grandmother while working as a chemist at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. During this time, Nancy’s stories slowly began to unfold. The details of Nancy’s past in science and Liz’s future began to intersect. “I think more than ever, that piece of her life became a big piece of my life and a really big motivation,” says Liz. “I never heard her complain, blame anybody, or ever talk about the past in a negative way. She’s only ever talked about the opportunities she did have and what she did with them.” This open mindset helped Liz navigate through the different avenues in her career. One lesson she learned is not to shy away from new challenges.

      “Anytime a new opportunity or experience is presented to you, take it,” says Liz.

      While working on alternative energy solutions for the U.S. Air Force, Liz met a group of scientists who introduced her to bioengineering and biomaterials, two fields she previously never knew existed, but ones that quickly captivated her. She decided to study biomaterials engineering as a graduate student at the University of Washington.

      Her research captured the attention of President Jimmy Carter. The topic? Ways to replace damaged cardiac tissue following a heart attack. As Liz presented her research to the former President, she stood in awe as he held two glass jars with samples of her cardiac tissue scaffolds inside.

    Liz Johnson presenting to President Jimmy Carter

    • Liz Johnson and Mahfuza Ali, 3M scientists

      Making a transition into her career at 3M, Liz applied her expertise in polymeric biomaterials to adhesives, first for drug delivery applications and later to masking adhesives. Liz collaborated with her mentor and 3M Corporate Scientist, Mahfuza Ali, to design adhesives.

      "Mahfuza has always encouraged and supported me," says Liz. "She is both an inspiring chemist and a role model for me as a working mother."

      Together, Liz and Mahfuza became co-inventors of a new-to-the-world adhesive – something that takes more than you might realize.

      Liz is about to embark on another new career journey at 3M as a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt.

      She will learn to lead diverse, cross-functional teams to solve difficult problems more efficiently and learn about roles and functions outside of her own area of expertise. As she makes this transition, she finds herself following her grandmother's advice to embrace the unknown. With that, Liz also has advice for the next generation: "Ask questions, and never be afraid when you get a question you don't know the answer to … Just be brave and know that people will help you along the way."

    Liz Johnson in the lab

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