While working as an engineer at NASA, Negus Adefris got a phone call from Minnesota.

The caller was a manager at 3M who had heard good things about Adefris and wanted to bring him to Minnesota for a job in the company's abrasives division.

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Years later, Adefris laughed as he recalled his response to the offer.

"You know, the only thing I know about abrasives is that I use them," he said, repeating the response.

He's learned a lot about 3M's abrasive products since then, spending more than 18 years with the company. And he's got the hardware to prove it.

Adefris, a Woodbury resident and native of Ethiopia, received the Black Engineer of the Year Award for Outstanding Technical Contribution-Industry in February at a national conference in Philadelphia.

"The (Black Engineer of the Year Award) is one of the most prestigious and competitive honors in science, engineering and technology management," according to an in-house 3M publication.

He is the first 3M employee to receive the award in that category.

The award has drawn applause from around the world, Adefris said. He said he even received a congratulatory call from the Ethiopian ambassador to the United States.

The call took him by surprise, to say the least.

"As first I thought, 'Someone's playing a trick on me,'" he said.

Adefris was honored for his work on Cubitron II, a 3M product used for sanding and grinding. The product was considered a breakthrough since the grains used in it last longer while working faster.

"It takes it to the next level," Adefris said.

He was one of five people who developed the idea for what would become Cubitron II. The product was commercialized about two years after the idea was hatched - an unusually fast turnaround, Adefris said.

He received his mechanical engineering degree at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia before being awarded his master's degree in the same discipline at a Kenyan university.

From there, Adefris came to the United States, where he attended Georgia Tech University. He received his doctorate in fracture mechanics there in 1988.

His job history includes working in the Rolls Royce jet engine division, in addition to NASA.

He has worked at 3M since 1994.

Adefris said he finds engineering stimulating because of the impact it can make.

"So many little things," he said, "and how they can kind of improve people's life and almost touch every household."

He said he hopes the award he received helps draw attention to the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

"It's important to encourage people to get into the sciences," Adefris said.

Technology fosters commerce, he noted, but warned that the United States is lagging behind countries like China when it comes to the number of people in STEM-related jobs.

"When nations are lagging in commerce, they lag in leading," he said.

He reminded that great empires have fallen over the ages after losing their grip on commerce.

"You see, the same thing could happen here," he said.