Product Development and Saving Lives

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin‐Milwaukee Master’s Program in Biology, I was offered a product development job at 3M in the Medical Division. A significant portion of my new job required the application of microbiology skills and knowledge. I joined the Henrici Society for Microbiologists, a local microbiology association, to connect with others in the field and keep up on current trends.

In school, I had purposely graduated with a Biology degree, instead of microbiology, which allowed me to take a broader range of courses and graduate earlier. While in graduate school, I knew that product development was my career path, and upon graduation, I chose product development in the health care field as a way to make an impact.

The division I am currently working in is focused on reducing the number of hospital‐associated infections. This vision of saving lives drives what I do every day. I am constantly looking at ways to improve our current products and develop new ones that are of value to our customers.

My day-to-day tasks have many similarities and differences to those in academic research. I design experiments (ELISA, Enzyme Assays, etc.), run them, analyze the results, and make decisions about what to do next. The main difference in product development is that at the end of the project, there is a final product that is sold to a customer. Oftentimes during development, new interesting tangential discoveries are made. These discoveries, unless directly related to the project, are documented and either handed to someone else to pursue or set aside for later. While I am privileged to work at 3M where every employee is encouraged to take some time for side projects, we still need to keep our priority projects on track. There are often strict deadlines and specific deliverables that are required in product development.

I spend a considerable amount of time at the bench, but I also have responsibilities outside of the laboratory. I attend meetings about project planning, company and project updates, and general business meetings. I am also responsible for knowing the standards, journal publications, patent literature, FDA documents, and competitive activities for my projects.

An important part of my role in product development is staying current in my field. The NRCM exam provided me an opportunity to gain additional knowledge and credibility as a microbiologist inside and outside of 3M. While studying for and taking the NRCM exam, I was exposed to many new standards, procedures, and techniques that I had missed by pursing a biology degree.

The NRCM has helped tremendously in my product development role. While I was studying for the exam, I transferred to a new group within the Infection Prevention Division of 3M. I began to work on our biological indicator line of products used by hospital and industrial customers to validate their sterilization process. With this move, it was necessary for me to learn all of the AAMI and USP standards that relate to sterilization processes, a topic also required by the NRCM. Not only was I able to immediately put into practice my new knowledge on sterilization but I was exposed to additional USP and other standards that have helped me.

I would strongly urge any microbiologist who works in product development to take the NRCM certification exam. The NRCM exam expanded my knowledge in microbiology and also introduced a world of techniques, standards, and procedures that I may not have otherwise learned.

Heather Webb, RM(NRCM), Senior Molecular Biologist, 3M Infection Prevention Division, St. Paul, MN; she was certified by the NRCM in 2008.

Copyright© National Registry of Certified Microbiologists. Reprinted from The Loop, 2009, Issue 3.