When Dr Ellen Burts accepted a job at 3M (St. Paul, MN), she was attracted to the company's deep involvement in its community as well as the fascinating work she could do there. "I needed to know about the company's commitment to the community before I made a decision," Burts says. "Community is such a big part of my life."
At the end of 2005, Burts became the resident Six Sigma master black belt in 3M's electronics markets materials division. She manages other black belts who lead process improvement projects and projects that accelerate new product commercialization.
The division develops materials for electronic devices for the semiconductor, hard disc drive, mobile communications, display and computer industries. To do her job, Burts needs broad familiarity with components like adhesives, tapes, conductive materials and chemicals, as well as with the semiconductor manufacturing process.
"We have people who are experts in each of the technologies and markets, and then there are the black belts, who work across all those disciplines," Burts explains.
There's only one master black belt in each of 3M's divisions. They're seen as valuable resources: consultants who help the company continuously improve its processes. In her work, Burts compares notes with the other master black belts. "Sometimes it's a little difficult. The principles are consistent throughout the company, but the application varies to meet the business needs," she says.
Burts has been in the electronics markets materials division for five years. Most recently, she was customer apps group manager. Before that she was a project manager in the hard disk drive market segment.
She started in the electronics markets materials division as a senior product development chemist in the electronics adhesives and specialties lab, and lead product developer for electronics-grade thermally and electrically conductive adhesives and gaskets.
Burts notes that after grad school she went directly to hands-on R&D; at 3M. "Most of my projects in grad school were focused very closely with customers, so I had to think about the customer even then. It was a relatively easy transition for me to come right into a business to do product development," she says.
She completed her PhD in polymer/
organic chemistry at Virginia Tech in 2000. Her 1996 BS in chemistry is from Stillman College (Tuscaloosa, AL). She's scheduled to receive her MBA from the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota this December.
In college and grad school Burts did an interesting variety of technical work. She was a tech associate at Lucent Technologies/Bell Labs (Murray Hill, NJ), a research assistant in Virginia Tech's chemistry department and even taught high school chemistry for a year.
One summer during college she was an NSF intern at the University of Alabama. It gave her an exciting overview of technical possibilities. She evaluated carbon-13 and proton spectra, developed a library of organic compound spectra, and established an electronic database and computerized network for three other colleges. "I absolutely loved it. It was a wonderful experience," she says.
But industry won out. "I liked the idea of working with customers to commercialize products that go into a marketplace," she says.
Burts grew up in Birmingham, AL, and started college as a business major. But her focus changed when she met Dr Charlotte Carter, an African American chemist.
Carter encouraged Burts to consider chemistry. And she was a role model: "I thought, 'Maybe I can do that too,'" Burts remembers.
When Burts got to Virginia Tech, she found that she was one of just a few black PhD candidates. "I quickly developed a support network of other grad students of color, and that helped a lot," she says. "The encouragement I received from my graduate advisor, Dr Judy S. Riffle, was also invaluable."
When 3M came recruiting on campus, the career opportunity seemed perfect. "The company's diverse technology portfolio was exciting. I thought there were so many things I could do here. And I was right: I've had the opportunity to explore a real variety of technologies in the electronics area," she says with a smile.
Mentoring and more
Besides her technical work at 3M, Burts takes time to talk with diverse job candidates, answering their questions about 3M and the Twin Cities area. She works intensively with the 3M Science Training Encouragement Program (STEP) for high school kids considering a career in science. She's also a Multicultural Excellence program mentor, and she's on the 3M Ingenuity Grant selection committee for St. Paul Public Schools.
In the wider community, she's on the boards of St. Paul Partners for Violence Prevention, Metropolitan Minority Outreach, and St. Francis of Assisi Animal Rescue.
With work, volunteer activities and a home life with her husband and two big Labrador retrievers, Burts says she has her hands full. But she's taken time to become a therapy dog handler for children.
And she informally advises a number of people, both at 3M and in the community. "I find I'm emulating the mentors who inspired me in my career," she says.