Down for the People: Sam Lee and Her Unexpected Breakthrough

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Have you ever thought about the individual behind the development of the technology in your outdoor gear? Not just the person who manufactured it, sewing the baffles in a sleeping bag or seam-sealing a tent, but the actual person whose careful research and intellectual property are responsible for the functionality of your favorite product?

As of Fall 2018, there’s a chance you’ll soon be wearing or sleeping with a new innovation called PFC-free water-repellent down, created in part by Sam Lee.

Lee grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, and while she and her family took occasional camping and skiing trips along the East Coast, she says her love of the outdoors really took shape in college.

While pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in chemical and biological engineering at Princeton University, Lee started leading backpacking courses for incoming freshmen. She loved facilitating relationships and team building alongside the students without the presence of technology.

“Being outside is so important to relationship building because you have this isolation, no cell phones,” Lee says. “People have to rely on each other to survive, to create fire and build shelters. You’re doing primitive things together, and I think that’s vital to relationships.”

As her college graduation drew closer, Lee decided she wanted to use her skills and education to work for an outdoor retailer like L.L. Bean. Her dad suggested joining a company that worked on the development of gear because it would allow Lee to combine her love of engineering with the outdoors.

Lee reached out to Sustainable Down Source, one of the outdoor industry’s largest suppliers of down, with a simple question: “How can I help you?” That question sparked an immediate response and new internship at the company, where Lee helped test formulas for a PFC-free water-repellent down.

PFCs, also known as perfluorinated chemicals, are man-made compounds that have been used since the 1950s to repel grease and create non-stick surfaces. These chemicals break down and enter the water supply, where they can have a negative effect on human and animal fertility, fetal growth and endocrine systems, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. As consumers became more outspoken about their values and industry sustainability standards changed, Sustainable Down Source needed to update DownTekTM, their water-repellent down.

Lee began researching cluster properties and chemicals that have a history of adhering well to down. She contacted authors of scientific papers on the subject and asked what techniques they’d used. From those conversations, she walked away with too many variables to tweak individually, so she turned to an online course on experiment principles to set values for properties like shake time, pH and cure time.

Lee says, “Down is a 3D anomaly structure with a lot of surface area. The coating would be different than for other textiles.” She was truly starting from scratch.

With her research complete, Lee began experimenting in the lab. Throughout two months, she ran variations on an experiment to see how long it would take two grams of a version of PFC-free, durable, water-repellent down to sink in 400 milliliters of water agitated using a shake machine. Her goal? Discover a solution that would last longer than 16.6 hours to surpass the durable, water-repellent down that contained PFCs.

In July 2017, Lee tested a formula—and it worked. The down stayed dry for just under 36 hours. Lee was wary of the success, as such results are not always reproducible, so she ran the experiment a second time. Same results.

That same day, as Lee’s excitement grew, lightning struck the lab, sparking a fire in the building. “I was in the middle of doing a test when I heard the alarm, so I dropped everything and ran out,” Lee recalls. She’d left her notebook with handwritten notes from the trials inside. “Thankfully, it was okay,” she says. “If that had blown up, it would’ve been very disappointing.”

That same PFC-free water-repellent formula for down is now used in DownTekTM ZeroPFC™, found in products made by Big Agnes, Brooks-Range Mountaineering Equipment, Enlightened Equipment and L.L. Bean.

Today, 22-year-old Lee is an associate with W.L. Gore and is interested in combining corporate leadership and outdoor mentorship. While she’s not sure what industries she’ll find herself in for the rest of her career, Lee wants to be a leader. “I want to have the influence to mentor others and watch them grow,” she says. “I’m passionate about using my experience to help people launch their careers.”

This story first appeared in RANGE Magazine Issue 10, which is dedicated to the idea of progress. Get your hands on a copy HERE.

XX Hatie Parmeter