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Finding The Lost Einsteins: How to Make Academic Inventing More Inclusive, Invent Together

June 24, 2020

If more Americans were empowered to identify as inventors and share their inventive ideas, how would our world be different? Because innovation drives our economy, this is a critically important question for all of us. In 2018, a landmark study about who patents inventions in America documented a startling reality, which is that many would-be inventors are being left out of the innovation ecosystem.

By linking patent records to income tax records, researchers found that the socioeconomic class, race, and gender of a child in the United States at birth is a better predictor of their likelihood of getting a patent than aptitude or interest. Exposing more young children to inventing — especially girls, minorities, and children from low-income families — would increase innovative output, the researchers conclude.

To be honest, these facts are dismaying but not surprising. I believe everyone is capable of being inventive, because creativity is innate. There is no special set of skills required to become an inventor, only the willingness to fail and try again. That said, representation matters. I have many patents, but I still struggle to identify with the word ‘inventor’ because I’m not an engineer and I have no technical skills.

By honoring and elevating the voices of a diverse group of inspiring inventors, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors program is leading the effort to address the imbalances in inventing and patenting. At the annual AAAS meeting earlier this year, three academic inventors came together to discuss how they promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in inventing.

I caught up with these leaders in science and engineering to learn what can be done to diversify the pipeline of future inventors. (Full disclosure: In 2018-2019, I served as an AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassador.)

Karen Burg, Harbor Lights Chair in Biomedical Research and Professor of Small Animal Medicine and Surgery at the University of Georgia and Professor Emerita at Clemson University

Inventions: Materials transport device for diagnostic and tissue engineering applications, Co-culture bioreactor system, Anchored multi-phasic osteochondral construct, Three-dimensional ex vivo system, Apparatus and method for biomaterial assay, Tissue engineering composite, Absorbable tissue expander tissue reconstruction and device

Karen Burg is a biomedical engineer who thrives at the intersection of different disciplines. She invented and developed a bench-top engineered tissue system that allows the customization and personalization of therapies to a specific patient. Tunable and modular, her innovation has been commercialized for diagnostic purposes so diseases can be more quickly identified and combatted on the front end. More than 50 graduate students and 80 undergraduates assisted in the design and analysis of the engineered tissues.

Rory Cooper, Associate Dean for Inclusion, School of Health, Rehabilitation Sciences, FISA/Paralyzed Veterans of America Distinguished Professor, and Founding Director and VA Senior Research Career Scientist of the Human Engineering Research Laboratories at the University of Pittsburg

Inventions: Robotic strong arm, Variable compliance joystick with compensation algorithms, Personal vehicle, Wheelchair pushrim, Oblique angled suspension caster fork for wheelchairs, Wheelchair hand rim

Rory Cooper is an engineer who has been instrumental in making wheelchairs more accessible, functional, and easier to use so veterans and disabled people all over the world can lead fuller lives. Dr. Cooper’s inventions include hand chairs, motorized chairs, wheelchairs that can step up and down, waterproof wheelchairs, and inexpensive designs for low-income countries. The team of inventors he directs at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania also develops robotics, cognitive aids, prosthetics, virtual reality tools, and training protocols.

Juan Gilbert, Andrew Banks Family Preeminence Endowed Professor & Chair Computer & Information Science & Engineering Department at the University of Florida

Inventions: Nominal population metric: clustering of nominal application attributes, Prime III, Application Quest, Virtual Traffic Stop

Juan Gilbert is a computer scientist whose invention Prime III makes voting accessible to all people, including people with disabilities. Voters who can’t read, hear, have visual impairments or physical impairments, can still vote using Prime III. Prime III is the only open source voting system that has been used in state, federal, and local elections in the United States. His research integrates people, technology, information, policy, and culture to address societal issues, including diversity in STEM.

Was there an inspirational event in your life that led you to where you are today?

KB: During my senior year of college, my undergraduate academic ‘advisor’ looked at my grade point average and told me I should seek an Mrs., not an MS (true story!), while an academic mentor looked holistically at my abilities and potential and urged me not to let others (like my advisor) define my destiny.

This advice from my mentor was pivotal, caused me to believe in myself and to identify my own strengths (hands-on, creative work) and weaknesses (textbook learning), and motivated me to demonstrate my potential to my advisor. I earned an MS, a PhD, and, yes, I also acquired an Mrs.

Since that time, a diverse group of mentors — none of whom share my technical or cultural background — have provided me with creative opportunities and given their time and energy to me. I have sought to be like my mentors and identify Lost Einsteins who need that pivotal conversation and continued support.

RC: The most defining moment for me was when I suffered a spinal cord injury. During my rehabilitation, I was provided my first wheelchair, which weighed nearly 80 pounds and was essentially impossible for me to propel or load into a car. I simply had to create something better for myself and for others.

Fortunately, my parents had an automotive machine shop, and my grandfather and the engineering faculty at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo were very supportive of my desire to invent and solve the problems facing me and other people with disabilities.

JG: There were two turning points that got me here. Both happened when I was an undergraduate at Miami, Ohio. I started out as a chemistry major and took advanced chemistry courses as a freshman. A senior said that since I was doing so well, I was probably going to graduate and go to graduate school. In my mind I wasn’t going to college to go to graduate school, I was going to get a job! At the time I didn’t even really understand what graduate school was.

So, the first turning point happened – I switched my major to systems analysis to avoid going down the graduate school path. Then in my junior year, a faculty member said that I’d make a good professor and encouraged me to pursue a PhD. I had never even considered this an option because I had never seen an African-American professor in computer science. But that was the second turning point

What characteristics do you look for in students who are trying to become inventors?

JG: What I look for is passion and resiliency, students who are relentless in the pursuit of what they’re doing. I call it the “video game” effect – if a parent tells a kid that it’s time to stop playing video games because they’ve been playing for 90 minutes, the kid’s response is going to be something along the lines of “but I just started!” I want to see the same response from kids when they’re working on their research projects.

KB: A mediocre grade point average is very enticing to me as it strongly implies the student is not constrained by the facts in a textbook! Students who don’t fear lack of information and who are “street smart” are more likely to be great inventors and innovators. I look for students who have passion, tenacity, and logic, who embrace problems as challenges and love brainstorming possible solutions. Students who have hobbies or jobs that involve building and creating, like art, woodworking, automotive repair, and model airplane construction have skills that translate really well toward invention.

RC: I look for creativity, drive, resilience, tenacity, and desire. Of course, they need to work hard and to be smart. They don’t need to be like me or want to do what I do, but they need a passion to make a difference in the world.

What has been key to your success in cultivating the talent of student inventors from diverse backgrounds?

RC: The key for me is to create a welcoming environment that values everyone’s talents, views, and opinions. It is also critical to provide opportunities for people from under-represented populations by working with diverse groups, empowering people, and providing opportunities. I make it a point to stay engaged with a wide range of organizations for people with disabilities, veterans, and other underrepresented populations.

JG: The biggest thing is to make students aware that they are not alone and that they’re capable. It’s on us as educators to take away the isolation, actively make them part of the community, and provide them the necessary training and opportunities to be successful.

One thing that can easily be done is to recruit students from traditionally underrepresented groups in pairs – never create a situation where someone will be the “only.” Another thing you can do is to give students opportunities to participate in events that celebrate diversity — especially if your campus isn’t particularly diverse — so they can find community virtually and nationally.

KB: Letting them know my weaknesses, letting them know it’s okay and in fact important to fail, celebrating their talents, expecting from them what I expect from every other student: Their best. Impressing upon them that they are welcome in the inventor community, that there is a welcome mat, and I will escort them over the welcome mat, plug them into a supportive network, and move them past the normal trepidations of unfamiliar space.

Is there a particular student inventor who you have worked with whose story illustrates the impact of cultivating talent from diverse backgrounds?

KB: Eighty five percent of the 81 or so undergraduate researchers I have formally mentored through one or more experiential learning/creative inquiry projects are from underrepresented or minority populations in STEM.

At least half are first-generation college students, many from economically disadvantaged homes in very rural locations. These students are scrappy, smart, and innovative, not because they chose this as a luxury skillset, but because they’ve had to be to simply survive life. Many of them are already inventors, all are innovators, but none self-identify as such because innovation to them is inherent to survival, similar to taking a breath of air.

They have not been afforded the tools or opportunities that students from middle and upper class or higher education legacy homes expect. These inventors are often overlooked because they are quiet, often suspicious, hard to quickly get to know. They are mysterious and ‘different.’

The impact of these found Lost Einsteins is enormous, because they have moved on to become faculty members and industry leaders, creative thinkers, inventors, and mentors. Most importantly, they are connected to, embraced by, and serve as inspiration to their home communities.

RC: There have been several students that I can recall. I have a current student who has formed a company ATIMIZE. This student uses an electric-powered wheelchair due to a cervical spinal cord injury. He earned his undergraduate degree in engineering from Pennsylvania State University. He came to work with me on his MS and PhD degrees. His doctoral work focused on the design, development, and testing of pneumatically powered wheelchairs and scooters.

His company brought pneumatically powered scooters and powered wheelchairs to market through a licensing agreement. The pneumatically powered wheelchairs are used at waterparks for individuals with special needs to allow children to participate with their families and friends.

In addition, prototypes of the pneumatically powered scooters are in use at local Giant Eagle grocery stores to test their feasibility, which would provide increased accessibility in an environmentally sustainable manner.

JG: I met two of my most memorable students when they were both undergrads at the University of Alabama and Kean University respectively. They came to work in the lab one summer, and both ended up returning to the University of Florida for their PhDs. They wanted to do brain-computer interface research, where you would connect to a drone and fly it with your thoughts. I was in a position to enable them to explore that area where no one else was working. I wasn’t even working in that area, but I gave them that space to pursue their ideas.

The University of Florida ended up hosting the first brain drone race in 2014 based on the work they did, and it was actually the top media story out of the university! Both of them are now assistant professors.

What is the most important step that other academic inventors can take to promote an equitable and inclusive culture to harness the diverse talent in the U.S.?

JG: It’s important as an academic inventor to remember that you’re not trying to replicate yourself, you’re trying to let students create themselves. Your job is to enable them to be the best that they can be and help facilitate that process.

Equally important is to acknowledge that there are differences between you and some of these people and those differences aren’t bad – they will make you, your research, and ultimately society, better. Once that’s understood, that becomes a space where you can allow the best of people to arise.

In order for us as a country to be the best that we can be and compete globally, we have to bring in ideas from different people, and that can start in academic spaces. The benefit of diversity in invention is to the benefit of all.

KB: Commit to taking action, no matter how small. If everyone commits to one small action, collectively we will be in a much better space. For example, reach out to one student who does not share your background, does not look or think like you, who is quiet, maybe doesn’t make eye contact, doesn’t ask questions, and encourage them, listen to their story, invite them to participate in a creative inquiry project, etc.

RC: Academic inventors need to provide opportunities for underrepresented students through internships, cooperative learning opportunities, graduate studies, post-doctoral studies, and other means to work together. It takes a long-term commitment and dedication to what is right and just.

Academic inventors need to serve as role models and create environments with equitable and inclusive cultures within their institutions by educating and working with academic leaders to see the value and the responsibility. It is also critical to share connections and resources to help people be successful and to find their path to innovation, invention, and happiness.