BSE ChE '92, MSE ChE '95
Distinguished Scientist and Bakken Fellow
Dr. Kimberly (McCall) Chaffin (BSE ’92, MSE ’95) is a Distinguished Scientist and Bakken Fellow at Medtronic. She is currently on assignment in Zurich, Switzerland with her husband, Paul, and her two children, Cole (age 13) and Julia (age 11). She wrote the following note to young alumni from the French Mediterranean in August.
It seems that cardiologists pick the best locations for their conferences. So here I sit, on the French coast overlooking the Mediterranean, writing this account of my story. I have spent the day talking to doctors who want to understand polymer science, of all things. How they decide to treat their patients depends on me explaining my research to them in a way they can understand and translate into recommendations and treatments that will keep their patients safe.
I could never have imagined, in my wildest dreams 26 years ago, that this girl from Hastings, Michigan, who only had a vague idea of what chemical engineering actually was, would now be in this very interesting place as a scientist. My emotions are mixed. I feel a huge sense of achievement knowing that the results of our research have had a profound effect on the medical device industry and the field of polymer science. However, I also feel anxious. Our research results have implications for real people. I know that my comments about the long-term stability of these polymers need to be measured and framed appropriately to prevent overreaction, which could put patients at risk. These situations must be carefully navigated. My Michigan training has prepared me for times like this and I am thankful.
Michigan…what an awesome institution to be from! As these physicians probe my credibility, asking questions about my pedigree, I can see how the mention of the University of Michigan impresses them. Of course, shortly after mentioning Michigan, someone will ask when I was last in the Big House. I always find this line of questioning interesting—the quick transition between Michigan academics and sports. Clearly, both combine to form a unique Michigan legacy.
Mine was the era of the Fab Five (Chris, Jalen, Juwan, Jimmy, and Ray) and Heisman Trophy winner, Charles Woodson. During my time as a student, the Wolverines became one of 10 schools in NCAA history to win Division I titles in both football and basketball in the same year. While I will forever associate the connectedness that supporting a winning team brings with my student days in Ann Arbor, these sports legacies are a ‘flash in the pan.’ The real heroes of Michigan are the engineers, doctors, and scientists who have truly changed the world by inching forward the frontiers of knowledge, building upon the fundamentals that only top-notch institutions like Michigan instill. While receiving less flash and media attention than our athletic colleagues, many brilliant Michigan alumni have changed our lives in ways that are often not recognized until years after their graduation. This great institution and our brilliant predecessors have given those of us who follow a gift, the gift of starting our careers at a highly regarded establishment.
I earned both my BSE and MSE in chemical engineering at Michigan. After receiving my bachelor’s degree, I took a job with Corporate Research at Ford Motor Company—for those fellow Ford employees, I worked in SciLabs where I did adhesion research in the Polymer Department. I had a fantastic boss who encouraged me to continue my academic studies, so I completed my master’s on a part-time basis while working. Later in a career development discussion, this same selfless boss told me that I needed a PhD. My husband, who has two degrees from Michigan, had an opportunity to work in Minneapolis so I enrolled in a PhD program in chemical engineering at the University of Minnesota. Upon graduation from ‘the other’ U–M, where my thesis topic was in the field of polymer thermodynamics, I began my second career at Medtronic, Inc., a medical device company.
I have spent the last 15 years performing polymer research for Medtronic. I joined the company at a very interesting time for a polymer scientist. Breast implant litigation coincided with a cardiac lead recall. As a result, the major polymer manufacturers terminated their supply agreements with implantable medical device companies, taking with them their very large polymer research programs. With established polymer producers opting out of implantable applications, small start-ups filled the void. This change shifted the research responsibility to the device manufacturers. What a wonderful opportunity for me! I have spent these years learning, teaching, researching, and guiding our product designs to assure that the associated use-conditions remain within the capability of the polymer components.
Now as I defend an accelerated testing protocol that predicts unfavorable long-term performance, I think back to those famous Michigan ChE Open Ended Problems (OEPs). Remember those real world projects? They took too much time; the problem solving methodology was never in the textbook; the assigned working group was always a bit dysfunctional; they were graded too harshly. I have never said it but THANK YOU for the OEP experience. I can’t think of a better training platform for what I must do today.
It is time to go and make a difference, not looking for short-term glory, but seeking ways that will have a lasting impact on the world, securing the Michigan gift for those who follow…the gift of credibility that their Michigan pedigree offers. Go Blue!