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April 2022: Kathy Collen Gisser '83

The proud holder of 12 patents and a Sherwin-Williams Research Fellow, Kathy Collen Gisser ’83 credits the willingness to be wrong, the persistence to figure out what is right and collaboration with colleagues as the most important behaviors for discovery. Many ideas for new products she has worked on have come from colleagues in marketing who understand the customers’ problems. Then Kathy leads teams who conduct experiments and analyze data,  coming up with new product solutions such as the first EPA-registered microbicidal paint! As the leader of new product development teams, Kathy relies not only on her STEM skills, but her love of learning, reading and writing honed at Laurel and as a double chemistry and classical civilization major at Yale University. Her diverse interests and the ability to learn new skills has been critical to her success from working on photographic/film technology at Kodak to developing paint technology at Sherwin-Williams. Read on to find out more about everything from working on a product that won a technical Oscar® to her biggest career surprise.

If you could describe your time at Laurel as a paint color, what would you call it and what color would it be?
My time would (of course) be colored Green and White.
 
You earned a bachelor’s degree from Yale University double majoring in classical civilization and chemistry, which seem like very disparate subjects. What drew you to study both and were there any overlapping themes? 
I started down the road to both of my majors at Laurel.
 
I always wanted to be a scientist. From the first weeks in Mrs. Daley’s Upper School chemistry class I knew that I wanted to be a chemist. I heard a Senior Speech about summer internships in a lab at CWRU that inspired me to do the same thing. I extended that experience to working in a university chemistry lab for my Senior project. 
 
My interest in Greek and Roman civilization also comes from my days at Laurel. I took five years of Latin, culminating in reading The Aeneid with Dr. Barthelmess. The classics department at Yale offered many interesting and outstanding courses. By my Senior year at Yale the only additional coursework I needed for the classical civilization major was a tutorial class and the senior essay. The tutorial course (meeting weekly with a professor to discuss readings) sounded fun so I went ahead and added classical civilization as a second major.
 
Obviously chemistry and classical civilization are very different fields. But from each I learned to think rigorously and analytically. From each I learned to conduct independent study and research. I learned to learn.
 
One of the great things about universities with a strong liberal arts curriculum is that they encourage students to explore new and disparate fields.
 
You received your Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and then your first job out of graduate school was with Eastman Kodak in Rochester, NY. What can you share about working with film?   
When their house is on fire, people rush to save their photographs. It’s a great experience to work on the technology that helps people save their memories and make the movies that we all love.
 
One of the unusual things about working on photographic film was that I had learn to do labwork in a pitch-black laboratory. Photographic film was a declining technology the 14 years I was at Kodak. Everyone needed to continue learning new skills to maintain their employability. At Laurel, I began learning to learn, which has been critical to my ability to change fields. My graduate work was on metals and semiconductors, my work at Kodak was on photographic film and now I work in paint technology.
 
But even in a declining industry it is possible to succeed. A new movie film product I worked on at Kodak won a technical Oscar®. Do you remember how old movies had scratches and pops and dirt? I helped fix that.
 
Now you are a Research Fellow at Sherwin-Williams here in Cleveland. Can you describe what a typical day looks like? What kinds of new technologies and products do you help develop?  
I have led many new product development teams at Sherwin-Williams. New product development typically requires a team of scientists, engineers and marketing professionals.  Each person brings their own expertise and perspective. Together, we make data-based decisions about the performance of new paints and coatings. 
 
Although many scientists enjoy jobs where they continue to do labwork throughout their careers, I moved away from regular lab work after my early career. As a project leader, I spent most days organizing the team’s work to deliver a new product. Many days include designing experiments and analyzing data from them to answer the questions that will move the project forward. It is the project leader’s responsibility to help the team come to a consensus about what to do next based on the data we have at the time. 
 
I also communicate the results and progress of the project beyond the team, writing reports for the R&D organization and, through oral presentations and discussions, helping our management make better decisions. Four years of Mrs. Schenk’s speech class was invaluable preparation for this element of my work. I have worked on several products that bring new performance features to paint, including Harmony® with Formaldehyde Reducing Technology and Paint Shield® Microbicidal Interior Latex.
 
In my current job (Innovation Partnerships) I work with many different product development teams to help identify and evaluate new technologies that they would find useful. Most of my days are filled with talking, reading and writing.   
 
Congratulations on receiving Sherwin-Williams’ annual Percy Neyman Award in both 2017 and 2020! The Award, named after the company’s first chemist, recognizes employee activities and behaviors that drive technical discovery and achievement. What activities and behaviors would you define as being essential for driving discovery? 
One of the most important behaviors for discovery is the willingness to be wrong, often, and to be persistent enough to figure out what is right.
 
You hold an impressive number of patents! Where do you get your ideas for a new product? Is there one of which you are particularly proud? 
Thank you. To date I have been awarded 12 patents and I have several more in progress. Over my career most of the ideas for new products have come from my colleagues in marketing, rather than my own technical inspirations. Marketing professionals understand the customers’ problems that need to be solved. My patents are mostly for inventing new and practical approaches to address known problems or filling known customer needs. I am most proud of the patents that describe the inventions of Paint Shield, the first EPA-registered microbicidal paint. I heard, “That will never work” many times while we worked on Paint Shield. We persevered and found a way.
 
On the flip side, not all experiments or product ideas are successes. How do you manage failure and what has been the biggest challenge of your career? 
We rarely do a one-off experiment. Rather, each experiment is part of a longer product development strategy. As a project leader, I spend much of my time developing those longer plans. Most experiments are failures, but each failure gets us that much closer to a success. We learn, even from our "failures." A well-designed experiment is set up so that even if it doesn't work, we learn and it moves us forward. Because the success rate is low, I make sure to celebrate the successes. 
 
You helped create and continue to help lead the Senior Technical Council at Sherwin-Williams, which allows for organized mentoring and  knowledge sharing. Can you talk about the importance of mentorship and collaboration?  
Mentoring has been critical to my career. I started at Kodak in a program where new employees were matched with two mentors in two different technical areas. My mentors inspired and supported me over my whole career. My mentors have connected me to important resources, helped me brainstorm solutions to technical problems and have offered perspective on workplace issues. It’s important to cultivate people who are more experienced and who know your work but are not deeply engaged in it. 
 
Collaboration has been central to my approach of making new products and solving technical problems. I prefer to work on problems that are big enough to be important. These large projects require the breadth of experience and knowledge of a team. 
 
One of our new Lyman Circles groups is centered around alums who are in traditionally male-dominated spaces. As a scientist, would you consider yourself in a traditionally male-dominated space? What has that experience been like?
My experience working in a traditionally male-dominated space has been quite good. Nationally, roughly 30-40% of chemistry graduate students have been female since I received my Ph.D. So there’s not equal representation, but there are many female chemists, and my work life has been full of female colleagues.
 
It’s important to continue to identify organizational issues, cultural issues and the occasional person that stand in the way of women having the careers they would like in STEM, and it’s important to continue attacking those problems. But it’s also important to celebrate the long history of women with successful STEM careers. 
 
My parents were always sure I would succeed as a scientist, and going to Laurel normalized the idea of girls interested in science. Many of my Laurel classmates have had careers in STEM. It wasn’t considered unusual or out of reach for us.
 
Your story was featured in Find Your Path: Unconventional Lessons from 36 Leading Scientists and Engineers by Daniel Goodman, and published by M.I.T. Press in 2019. What unconventional lessons have you learned?
The biggest career surprise I had was in graduate school. When I started graduate school I planned to become a professor at a research-focused university. Then my graduate work connected me to a five-person technology startup company (this was before the days of the internet and venture capital). The work I did with them, supported by a U.S. Small Business Innovation Research grant, opened my eyes to working in industry and working with a cross-functional team. That experience changed the trajectory of my career and I refocused on working in industry. 
 
Outside of work, what else are your hobbies and interests?
Like many chemists I love to cook. And like many folks over the last two years I have added bread-baking to my hobbies. My husband, Dan, and I enjoy gardening. He grows the vegetables and I grow the flowers and shrubs. Dan was my high school sweetheart (some of my classmates may remember him). We love the outdoors. Almost every weekend we walk in the Metroparks or Cuyahoga Valley National Park and in the summer we make good use of the biking trails. In the winter we vacation in northern Ontario, going snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. I also enjoy VR gaming and anyone who wishes to join me in a round of multiplayer Beat Saber is welcome to reach out.
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