In some ways, Jennifer Schumacher can attribute her career to a rat. As an undergraduate researcher, she worked in a lab developing better prosthetics by combining neuroscience and engineering—which required performing delicate brain surgery on the lab’s rats. After practicing on “lots of bananas and hard-boiled eggs,” Schumacher was ready for the big time as the lead surgeon for the hourslong operation, conducted in a special rat surgical suite in the lab. After drilling into the skull and skillfully nicking the membrane surrounding the brain, she carefully lowered the electrodes that would be used to communicate with prosthetic devices. When the patient woke up healthy, Schumacher was elated. “This was my proudest moment as an undergrad researcher, to have the living rat,” she recalls. And she recognized in herself “the thrill of discovery and the realization that this could be my career.” In other words, the surgery was transformative.
For Schumacher, transforming is a way of life. As a self-described military “brat,” her family constantly moved throughout her childhood, across the United States and across the world. “Our family theme was to adapt and transform,” she recalls. Each time she found herself in a new place, she learned to first spend time listening and observing until she felt comfortable with the local customs and expectations. “I have a strong base of who I am,” she explains, “but I integrate into the local culture, which influences me and makes me a better version of myself.”
She also learned that the influence could go both ways: She could bring her experiences, knowledge, and perspective to bear in new surroundings. She recalls how, when she started a new school for third grade after her family had moved once again, the other kids had not yet learned cursive. “They thought I was writing in a foreign language,” she says with a laugh. Seeing that she had something to offer her new classmates “helped me open up and not stay in that perception stage too long,” she says, referring to the information gathering mode she typically goes into when she arrives in a new environment.
This perspective has served her well as she has transformed multiple times throughout her career, from biochemistry to bioengineering to neuroscience to data science and artificial intelligence (AI), and from academia to industry. Now a research specialist on 3M’s AI research team—which she co-founded—her success has been driven by “lots of observation and listening for a time until I feel comfortable,” she says. “Then I start to probe the system to make sure I understand that subculture. I integrate the pieces I find most interesting into who I am to start changing my mindset.”
Bio and beyond
In the beginning, there was biochemistry. Schumacher’s high school biology teacher dazzled the class with tales of all that was left to discover about the biological world, leaving Schumacher starry-eyed and fired up. But an opportunity to conduct research in a university biochemistry lab while she was in high school left her wanting more. “Day to day, it was a lot of pipetting and waiting,” she says. “I learned quickly I don’t have the patience. … I realized biochemistry was not right for my personality.” However, she didn’t view it as a negative experience. “I felt it was a great new data point. … It was motivating to me to explore new areas and transform again.”
When she enrolled at Arizona State University and found her way to the neuroprosthesis lab, she was intrigued. She asked the professor what she needed to major in to be able to work in the lab. The answer was electrical engineering or bioengineering, and that was all the impetus Schumacher needed. She chose bioengineering and was invited to work in the lab, where she remained for the entirety of her undergraduate career.
But when it came time to choose a graduate school program, Schumacher was ready for another transformation. “I just wanted to focus on the brain!” she exclaims, explaining why she chose to study neuroscience at the University of Minnesota. Moving from an engineering degree into a pure science program was a challenge, but she drew on her experience adapting and transforming to make it work. She asked her new classmates for help when she needed it, and—just as she had seen when she was in elementary school—she found that her transformation was valuable to her classmates too. When those with more typical biology or neuroscience backgrounds struggled with math or programming, she was there to help. “It was a two-way street,” she says.
Her next transformation would be from academia to industry. As a grad student studying how the brain transforms signals into visual information, she was recruited for an internship at 3M in St. Paul, Minnesota, when she was just a few years into her doctoral program. “I didn’t know a lot about 3M, so the joke was that I’d be picking out colors of Post-it notes,” she says. Once the internship started, though, she was thrilled by the wealth of opportunities. “I felt I had a lot to learn from the people there, but I felt I could also share knowledge as well.” The experience left her interested in pursuing a career in corporate research. As she wrapped up her Ph.D. a few years later, she got an R&D job with the company. “I had enough experience at that point to know I wanted to do applied science,” she says. “I appreciate basic science—it just wasn’t for me.”
It wasn’t long into her tenure at 3M when she was asked to launch a new research group dedicated to AI and data science. “It was a new frontier,” she says—and another opportunity to apply the lessons she had learned in a lifetime of adapting to new environments. “I knew I would have to do a lot of learning on my own to catch up with these experts who had spent their whole education on this. There was a realization that I would never have their level of expertise because I didn’t have that training, and I came to accept that. On the other hand, I had a perspective they didn’t and we could come together as a team and be successful.”
Schumacher launched her team in 2011 with one other colleague. Today, the team consists of 15 scientists and engineers who serve essentially as an internal consulting arm for 3M, and it is involved in data science elements of projects across the industrial spectrum. Schumacher has worked on anti-counterfeiting, body armor, human vision, and even dental projects. As she migrates across these diverse areas, working on multiple projects at any given time, her experience as a transformer helps her to be creative and productive. As her supervisor and mentor, Robert (Denny) Lorentz, puts it simply, she “is a quick study.” And her strengths go beyond technical know-how, he continues, noting her effective leadership, teambuilding, and ability to see all the angles of a project at once. “Which means no matter what the challenge, it is a smart move to have Jennifer involved,” he adds.
The transformer is not sure where her career will take her next. “I am driven by the thrill of discovery. New frontiers really excite me.” Of her AI work at 3M, she says, “I appreciate the new knowledge I gained, and even if I am not going to do this for a career, I feel it was a worthy endeavor and I can take this to whatever frontier I am exploring next.” As she considers the next career frontier, Schumacher advises others to contemplate how they can leverage their unique assets to become transformers too. “Nothing should be wasted. Everything is a useful experience. It will come in handy and give you a new perspective that you can bring to the team. … It makes you different from everyone else.”