Inventing the Future Together
Three decades ago, Jeff Gorski was a young geoengineering student who was introduced to an oil field services company called Schlumberger at an informational meeting at the University of Minnesota.
The career pitch obviously made an impression. Now as vice president of global accounts, Gorski has spent the last 28 years with the company in a career that has taken him all over the world. Minnesota doesn’t offer much in terms of oil, but Gorski and his employer keep coming back in search of another resource—human talent.
Like many alumni, Gorski maintains close ties with the University’s College of Science and Engineering (CSE) on behalf of his company. He assists with recruiting, speaks to students about technical fields, and serves on the CSE Dean’s Advisory Board. These pursuits keep the pipeline of talent and technology flowing.
It is one example of the symbiotic ties CSE has with global corporations including General Mills, Boston Scientific, St. Jude Medical, Exxon Mobil, 3M, and more. These companies provide jobs, internships and co-op opportunities for CSE students and graduates. They fund academic programs, research, scholarships, and facilities. They help translate university technologies into marketable products. Senior managers provide expert advice about how the University should prepare its graduates, academic programs, and facilities for future challenges.
In turn, these corporations reap many benefits from their ties with CSE. It gives them a rich pool of employees, access to labs and testing facilities, academic expertise, and more.
"We feel a particular affinity and kinship with the College of Science and Engineering...mostly driven by a long history of getting good people out of there." -John Mendesh
Mark Sorenson-Wagner, director of the Career Center for Science and Engineering, sums up: “It’s a win for everyone involved.”
St. Jude Medical: Transforming Medical Technology
This year St. Jude Medical marked its two millionth implant of a bi-leaflet mechanical heart valve. This milestone in medical devices underscores the company’s symbiotic relationship with the University of Minnesota, since much of the preclinical work for the heart valve was performed at the U.
“Like the pacemaker, there aren’t many novel devices that have stood the test of time like the mechanical heart valve, and have saved literally hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives,” said Philip Ebeling, a 1995 chemical engineering graduate and senior vice president of cardiovascular research and development at St. Jude Medical. “The U, based on the preclinical work we’ve done over the years, has been at the center of that.”
Ebeling should know. His team (which is responsible for developing devices in vascular, and structural heart therapies) frequently collaborates with colleagues in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, the Medical Devices Center, Department of Biomedical Engineering, and Experimental Surgical Services.
“It’s hard for me to imagine we would be as successful without support from the University,” Ebeling said. “I’d like to think that’s true on the other side.”
Intellectual property is only part of the relationship; an additionally important element is human talent. The 140-person St. Jude Medical Research and Development team hires five to 10 CSE graduates every year. At any given time, it also hosts 10 or 15 undergraduate or graduate students in internship or co-op programs.
Katherine Ahmann, who earned a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering in 2010, illustrates the talent pipeline at work. As Ahmann neared the end of her doctoral program, her advisor, Robert Tranquillo, a professor in biomedical engineering, called Ebeling with an inside tip: he had a dynamite candidate who would be a great fit for St. Jude Medical.
"We hire from a lot of places. But we look at the College of Science and Engineering as one of our premium recruiting schools." -Rich Kruger
After a few interviews, the company agreed. Ahmann now works on developing a transcatheter heart valve.
“It’s a great example of how the industry relationship with the U works well,” Ebeling said. “Katie has proven to be as advertised—one of the top 1 percent.”
General Mills: Nourishing Lives
If you’ve shopped for cereal in the supermarket aisles, a College of Science and Engineering graduate probably helped fill your bowl. General Mills is one of the top cereal companies in the world and its 30 brands represent about one third of the market.
John Mendesh, who received a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in 1979, is one of the engineers behind the box. Mendesh serves as vice president of research and development for the General Mills cereal division. His team is responsible for technical activities from recipes to manufacturing processes to packaging. Their portfolio includes household name brands such as Cheerios, Trix, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Cocoa Puffs, and Fiber One. Mendesh says any of these products “probably has a CSE engineer’s fingerprints on it in some way.”
All told, about 300 University of Minnesota grads work in the General Mills division that covers research, development, quality, and regulatory operations. The Trix mascot may be a rabbit, but the workforce behind it is filled with Gophers.
“We feel a particular affinity and kinship with the College of Science and Engineering,” explained Mendesh, “partly because it’s in our backyard, but mostly driven by a long history of getting good people out of there.”
To that end, the company has made a concerted effort to brand itself to University students. The art of recruiting has changed greatly in the three decades since Mendesh came on board (he cut his teeth at the company developing Cinnamon Toast Crunch in the 1980s). Now the company engages at many touchpoints well before the formal hiring process begins. These efforts include teaching appointments, presentations to student groups, financial support for the solar vehicle project team, and much more.
“It’s as competitive as ever to find really good talent,” says Mendesh. “It requires that we really ratchet up our game in pursuit of that.”
"It's almost a brand. When I buy Apple, I'm buying a good brand. When I buy the College of Science and Engineering, I'm buying a good brand." -Ken Pucel
This broadening of the university-corporation relationship is common at many companies. Corporations may send employees to speak to university students about technical careers or job search skills or serve as mentors. Employers can use these appearances to brand themselves to students and earn a reputation as a desirable place to work—all of which ultimately helps recruiting.
At some companies, the relationship with CSE is so strong that it may hire several dozen graduates in any given year. In recent years, these relationships have extended well beyond recruiting as both sides take a more comprehensive approach that includes philanthropy, research collaboration, and other interactions.
“They don’t just want to show up once or twice for an interview,” Sorenson-Wagner said. “They want to have a relationship with the campus.”
Schlumberger: Fueling the Future
Jeff Gorski and his employer, Schlumberger, agree. About five years ago, the company tapped Gorski to be a “focus sponsor” to the College of Science and Engineering. The company commonly assigns employees to act as liaisons with their alma maters in order to bolster the relationship outside normal recruiting.
Gorski says his company has established a close relationship with CSE because it has proved to be a reliable source of good employees. CSE grads tend to have solid technical skills, a strong work ethic, and come from diverse backgrounds (a plus for a global company that employs 140 nationalities and has offices worldwide).
“As soon as they finish their engineering training, many of these individuals are dealing with multimillion dollar projects,” Gorski said. “They’re managing projects within a year after college that a lot of people don’t see until later in life.”
Marissa Ebert, a 2001 geoengineering graduate, is living proof.
In her sophomore year, she stopped by the Schlumberger table at a career fair and the company appealed to her interest in geology, physics, and chemistry. She also liked the opportunity to work outdoors and face new challenges every day. “They said you’ll never be bored,” Ebert said. “That has pretty much rung true for the 10 years I’ve been working for them.”
The career has taken Ebert to a variety of roles in field engineering, communications, and sales. She also spent three years as a recruiter and hired 191 people—including dozens from her alma mater.
“I hired more people than anyone else in Schlumberger history—a lot of those people came from the College of Science and Engineering,” she said. “It was one of my best schools, especially for diversity.”
Schlumberger has deemed Minnesota one of a small number of “focus universities.” Ebert said the company recruits heavily from CSE because its graduates have signature traits: solid foundation in the technical subjects like geology and engineering plus a certain self-reliance and adaptability.
“The college pushes you to be persistent, not give up and develop independently because it’s a large university and you don’t have somebody looking over your shoulder all the time, which is exactly how it is when you start a job,” says Ebert. “The number one thing CSE taught me was taking initiative.”
ExxonMobil: Taking on the world’s toughest energy challenges
Thirty years ago, Rich Kruger received a surprise call. A recruiter from Exxon called and said the company would be visiting campus and wanted to talk to Kruger, then a young mechanical engineering student. Would he be willing to sit for an interview?
Kruger hadn’t entertained the idea of the oil business. “Being the polite Minnesotan that I was, I didn’t know how to say no,” he recalled. “I went in there out of courtesy.” The half-hour meeting changed his life. The interview captured the imagination of the young engineer and was the beginning of a 30-year career with the company that has taken him to five continents and to the highest echelons of the world’s largest non-state oil company. Today, Kruger serves as president of ExxonMobil Production Company, which is responsible for all its oil and gas production around the world.
Kruger is one of hundreds of CSE alumni who work for ExxonMobil. They include former CEO Lee Raymond, who earned his Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the College of Science and Engineering in 1963.
“A company as big and international as we are, we hire from a lot of places,” said Kruger, who spent five years as an alumni recruiter at his alma mater. “But we look at the College of Science and Engineering as one of our premium recruiting schools.”
Looking back, Kruger believes his CSE degree prepared him in three important ways.
First, it gave him a top-notch education. Second, it supplemented his academic training with practical work experience. Kruger spent two years in a co-op program with the Eaton Corporation, where he gained experience in drafting, testing, and engineering. In one project, his team developed a hydraulic propulsion system for the Minnesota Zoo monorail. The experience showed him he liked mechanical engineering, teamwork, and projects with real-world applications.
Third, it also allowed him to develop leadership skills. As a student, Kruger worked on designing an energy efficient vehicle. He spent his first year working on the power transmission team; the second year he was elected leader of the same team.
Today, Kruger maintains close ties with his alma mater and sits on the CSE Dean’s Advisory Board. He was awarded the University’s Outstanding Achievement Award in 2005 and has endowed a scholarship fund for CSE students. His company maintains many other ties with the University. For example, ExxonMobil is collaborating with the Saint Anthony Falls Laboratory in one research project that examines how the geologic deposits at river deltas may create deposits for oil and gas.
“The connections help us improve our business, provide us access to outstanding facilities, and provide wonderful development experiences for undergraduate or graduate students who are working on special projects,” Kruger said. “We fund them, of course. We look at those as win-win situations.”
Boston Scientific: Defining Tomorrow, Today
Ken Pucel is leading Boston Scientific into a new era of innovation—and he’s counting on the College of Science and Engineering for help.
Pucel, a 1989 mechanical engineering graduate, serves as executive vice president of Global Operations and Technology for Boston Scientific. He is responsible for the company’s global supply chain, manufacturing, technology, product research, and development.
He’s also overseeing a shift in how the company approaches research and development. Like many companies, Boston Scientific is moving toward a model of open innovation. It no longer views product development as something that happens in-house; rather, it looks for ideas from external sources—such as universities, hospitals, other companies, or inventors. The College of Science and Engineering occupies a unique place in this vision.
“I view the college as an extension of my engineering capabilities,” Pucel said.
As Pucel explained, “The University of Minnesota is one of a single-digit number of universities in the world that have all the disciplines we’re interested in within the same university.”
Boston Scientific maintains close relationships with a handful of top research universities such as Stanford, MIT, and the University of Missouri, but these tend to focus on narrow specialties. The relationship with Minnesota is both broad and deep, with multiple collaborations involving research, technology, biomedical engineering, medical devices, the veterinary school, hospitals and the Carlson School of Management.
“It’s win-win,” Pucel said. “In the future, universities and corporations that have collaborations can exponentially expand their capabilities…In a world that’s connected in real time by a web of information, if you’re not having these types of relationships, you’re not going to be as competitive as those who can.” Even as Pucel leads his company to new frontiers, he is treading on familiar ground. His father was a professor of vocational education and his uncle is dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine. “It was almost predetermined that I would go to the University,” he said.
Pucel graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering with a biomedical focus and got a job with a company that was later acquired by Boston Scientific. He planned to go to medical school or graduate school but repeatedly got caught up in new business initiatives and had his supervisors talk him into staying another year.
Pucel never went back to school but has kept giving back. He now sits on the CSE Dean’s Advisory Board. Members of his team also are represented on numerous other University advisory boards in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, Medical Devices Center, Institute for Engineering in Medicine, and Carlson School of Management Medical Industry Leadership Institute.
This underscores the vital role that business leaders play in advising the University. The CSE Dean’s Advisory Board includes about 30 members from companies such as 3M, ExxonMobil, Schlumberger, General Mills, Honeywell, and Boston Scientific. These industry leaders help the college plan for the technical skills and transferrable skills students will need in tomorrow’s workforce. Corporate representatives also serve similar roles on collegewide and departmental boards.
“The advice they provide the dean and the leaderships really helps us know what industry is looking for in terms of how we educate our students,” said Kim Dockter, CSE director of external relations. “That advice and feedback from industry is really beneficial, not only to the dean but also to department heads.”
Boston Scientific has a long history of hiring CSE alumni. Pucel estimates that he has hired about two dozen alumni and worked alongside many, many more. Over the years, he has come to recognize signature traits of the Minnesota-educated engineer—broad technical competency, practical problem-solving skills, and an independent and creative approach.
“There is a certain standard of excellence in the profile of the student we get from the College of Science and Engineering,” Pucel said. “It’s almost a brand. When I buy Apple, I’m buying a good brand. When I buy the College of Science and Engineering, I’m buying a good brand.”