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Rust-Oleum internship gives biomed engineering student inside look at industry

| Denise Olson

Photo caption: Located near Milwaukee in Pleasant Prairie, Rust-Oleum is just one of many industry leaders looking to hire Blugolds like Katie Feuker as summer interns doing valuable work on their teams.

Summer internships are just one of the high-impact practices available to students at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, summer employment that gives ambitious Blugolds across all majors firsthand industry and organizational experience that will set them apart as graduate school or job applicants.

Junior biomedical engineering major Kate Feuker is currently working as an intern at a Pleasant Prairie manufacturing facility for Rust-Oleum, a global producer of protective paints and coatings for home and industrial applications.

After meeting a company representative in her sophomore engineering seminar in the fall of 2021, Feuker decided to apply for the open position as a research and development intern.

“This position is a lot heavier on the chemistry side of things than the work I plan to pursue after graduation, but they offered an incredible internship opportunity I just couldn’t pass up,” says the Elmwood native.

“Our program works really hard to help us find internships if we’re interested, and I had multiple offers,” Feuker says. “To be totally honest, I was leaning toward staying closer to home, but I’m so glad I took the leap to go with Rust-Oleum working in their research and development lab.”

Taking that leap to a summer spent living in housing provided at the UW-Parkside campus far from the comforts of home was one Feuker admits she made after a needed “nudge” from Dr. Matthew Evans, professor of physics.

“It was Dr. Evans who helped most in my decision to go,” she says. “I had talked with him about the various offers and said I was planning to stay closer to home. He just said “Hey, you gotta grow up sometime — why not go to Milwaukee?’ And he was right.”

Feuker says this summer opportunity has indeed offered her many opportunities for growth, both in her academic and future professional path, but also in some of the more general aspects of life working in a large industry organization like Rust-Oleum.

Learning about lab science and workplace dynamics

female student in chemistry lab

Working in the colors lab at Rust-Oleum, summer intern Katie Feuker prepares color samples for measurements in a spectrophotometer to assess the proper fineness of particles for optimal paint consistency.

As an intern in a research and development lab at Rust-Oleum, Feuker’s job is all about testing and analyzing paint products and manufacturing procedures to make potential improvements.

“Each lab has different areas of research, and I am working with the color groups. The main goal of our research is to determine exactly what level of grind in the pigments is optimal for the performance of the paint,” she says, referring to the individual pigment particles and how fine is “too fine” when run through the milling process.   

"We work to find the best and most efficient process to refine the pigments. In the end, it's about making the best paint product which makes for the happiest customers." 

An unexpected element of R&D work, Feuker says, has been witnessing a workplace dynamic that she admits she was somewhat surprised by — the influential element of human emotion and personality in workplace communication.

“We're collecting all this data to try and improve a process, but then once you have enough data to tell somebody that, OK, we need to change how we do this — that information is not always well received,” Feuker says. “We might be telling someone who’s been doing things a certain way for 20 years.”

Feuker says that while she knew on some level that subjectivity and opinion will play into almost any workplace, she wasn’t aware of just how prevalent it can become.  

“I’ve been surprised to see just how strongly and quickly a person’s emotions can influence a conversation and impact efficiency in making change,” she says.

Feuker does not see this observation as necessarily a negative because she believes it’s simply “human nature” and the issue likely exists in all organizations and industries. She says she’s seeing it as another asset she is gaining as an intern in this pre-career phase of learning.

“The other interns and I are treated as valued employees as Rust-Oleum,” she says. “We feel like we are really part of the team. Seeing all aspects of how a team operates, including potential for communication barriers, it’s all super useful experience.”

Key player in Blugold research team

When it comes to working on a team in the STEM field, Feuker has had additional undergraduate experience as part of a biomedical engineering research team in the laboratory of Dr. Michael Walsh.

“We work with human tissue cells and measure growth in various media,” Feuker says. “My job is to work with malignant breast cancer cells, MCF7 cells, to determine how they grow in high glucose versus low glucose media.”

Walsh says that in his lab, as well as in her role as president of the newly formed Biomedical Engineering Society, Feuker demonstrates leadership and is highly skilled and respected among her peers.

“Katie has been an outstanding member of the spectral pathology research lab since she started in spring 2021,” he says. “She has been working on several exciting research projects with a focus on developing cell and tissue engineering systems towards better understanding diabetic disease in the kidney. Using IR spectroscopic imaging she is creating a model system to recreate diabetes and determine how the cells and tissue change biochemically. The overall goal is to improve our understanding of diabetic kidney disease which can lead to earlier diagnosis and treatment of people with end stage renal disease.”

As she enters her junior year, Feuker is excited to tackle both the upper level courses in her biomedical engineering program and the next phases of her research projects. She says she’s thankful for the caring and diligent work of the faculty in this program who she says will help her find the best path to her goal of working in the medical technology field.  

“Dr. Walsh has accomplished amazing things in his lab, which has only been running for two years,” Feuker says.

“From internships and research opportunities to our life off campus, our biomed faculty all show us how much they understand that there’s so much more to this journey than what happens in the classroom — they are always approachable and supportive, so incredibly nice.”