How Three Women Beat The Odds To Become Award-Winning Inventors
More women around the world are patenting their inventions. That’s what the World Intellectual Property Organization reported earlier this year on World IP Day. Of the 243,500 international patent applications published in 2017, 31% included women – nearly 10% more than a decade ago.
Interestingly, half of all PCT applications filed by the academic sector included women inventors, compared to only 30% for the business sector.
I’ve been inventing products for my entire career. Over the past two decades, I’ve helped inventors from more than 60 different countries. Some are as young as 15 and others as old as 82. They are doctors, lawyers, dentists, plumbers, toy inventors, professional athletes, famous actors, construction workers, housewives, nurses, patent attorneys, app developers – you name it.
What they share in common is a desire to bring their inventions to market.
Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know a group of inventors who are not motivated by commercial gain. Not whatsoever. Nurse Rachel Walker, senior solutions architect Florence Lu, and chemist Mary Kombolias want to make the world a better, more efficient and empathetic place by solving the challenges around them. This summer, their stories of perseverance struck me at an event celebrating invention hosted by the AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassador program. (I am honored to be among the cohort of 2018-2019 Invention Ambassadors.)
In our society today, inventors are largely invisible. We benefit from their efforts day in and day out, but we don’t know their names. That’s a shame, because the dedication and passion inventors have to keep inventing is inspiring. They’re our heroes.
In their own words, discover how these women became inventors, the obstacles they’ve overcome, and their advice for the next generation.
Florence Lu, Senior Solution Architect, IBM Research
Inventions: 150+ technology and computer programming patent applications filed, including a Credibility Enhancement for Online Comments and Recommendations and a Public Speaking Self Evaluation tool.
Mary Kombolias, Senior Chemist, United States Government Publishing Office and Guest Researcher at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)
Rachel Walker, Assistant Professor, College of Nursing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass) and Associate Director at the Center for Personalized Health Monitoring
Inventions: Portable, self-contained IV fluid-generating system for disaster aid, self-care toolkit for breast cancer survivors, eyeglasses for fatigue self-management, lab-on-a-chip devices for detecting harmful byproducts of chemotherapy.
What is your process of invention?
RW: In nursing, our inspiration for the problem we want to solve comes directly from patients. I’m also inspired by my colleagues in UMass’s 40 departments. In UMass’ Institute for Applied Life Sciences, we all work collaboratively. My team members range from people in chemical engineering, computer science, neuroscience, molecular biology, oncology, kinesiology, public health, epidemiology – all the way through to theater studies and philosophy. We’re inclusive in our way of thinking about who can contribute. Often I’ll hear something that a person is doing, or a type of method they’re using, and I’ll be inspired.
FL: My process involves observing challenges around me – from my work or day-to-day life. I try to figure out how I can overcome these and make things easier. I’ve also collaborated with people both inside and outside my department within IBM, from all different disciplines. Everybody is intelligent and has experience in their own domain, and we’re able to come together and build strong solutions.
MK: I came up with my invention because, at the United States Government Publishing Office and everywhere, we were still using a manual, wet bench method of fiber analysis that was developed 80 – 90 years ago. That needed to change.
My invention was definitely a collaborative effort, as it was at the nexus between chemistry, botany, material science, and electrical engineering. That’s why I tried for several years to get my foot in the door as a guest researcher at NIST, because this was something that I knew I couldn’t do alone.
How do you find the right collaborators to birth inventions?
MK: For about two years I didn’t know where to go, or who to talk to, about my idea. I didn’t really have a wide scientific network. Government is so big, and communication can sometimes take a little bit more time. It was luck that I met one of my collaborators at NIST. From 2012 to 2016, my journey was the very slow battle of actually getting into NIST, to work collaboratively with their scientists.
RW: In the type of work we do here at UMass, we think about invention as a process that doesn’t end with the idea, but with the implementation of that idea. You can have a ‘spark of an idea’ but it generally takes a team to pull it off. We’re not going to be able to evaluate how it’s going to impact work flows and be disseminated in the world, without input from patients, clinicians and community members.
I’ve recently become aware of this term, “unicorn team.” One person, or ‘a unicorn’ can very rarely do everything, but when you have a team of people, that whole team can be a unicorn. I like the team approach, too, because even if I have a great idea about how best to do that, my idea is limited by my perspective and privilege. We need diversity, and we need reflexivity – someone else to bounce things back to us. We can’t do it by ourselves, it has to be a team effort.
What was critical to you getting where you are today, as an AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassador?
FL: Thomas Edison was one of them. I was always inspired by scientists in history … this group of people who’ve helped humanity. Also annual science fairs, where we could learn from and be inspired by others. IBM also has this system that supports all inventors who file patents through IBM. That’s why I’ve been able to keep filing more and more patents over the past 16 years. That kind of supporting and helpful environment, it really encourages inventors to keep going.
RW: I’m lucky to have had a supportive family and some really fantastic mentors. Especially some of the incredible nurses I’ve worked with in my clinical practice, and in my graduate studies.
Did you have a life-changing moment that impacted your desire to invent?
FL: When I started my invention journey, I was not sure of the processes, like how to file a patent. It was finding myself a mentor within IBM that really got me started, but it was definitely a steep learning curve. Now, I’m able to mentor other people.
MK: I encountered people and opportunities at very critical times that helped me along the way, and I just look at it as fate. For me, the opportunity to become an inventor was purely through my employment with the US federal government, which has traditionally taken chances on groups of people, including women, long before the private sector did. While walking through NIST, I discovered the portrait of a woman, Mary Rollins, who was working for the National Bureau of Standards – a precursor of NIST – as an expert in paper fiber testing in 1937. I really can’t think of any private company, doing any kind of scientific work, who was hiring female scientists in 1937. Government may be a little bit slow at times, but government does give tremendous opportunity to many groups of people.
What personal characteristics should an inventor possess?
FL: Discipline and passion.
RW: Creativity, curiosity, compassion and context. I really believe that everyone I encounter has the capability and the capacity to be an inventor. But how far someone gets in that process, and whether they’re even inspired in the first place to have that curiosity – to ask the questions that lead to the ideas – is also a product of context.
Studies show that women are more likely than men to actively be dissuaded out of making their ideas a reality. What are your thoughts on this?
RW: The nurse who founded the first modern hospice, Dame Cecily Saunders, was told that if her idea was any good, it would come from a doctor. She had to go to medical school before she was allowed to open it. And Pema Chödrön, a Buddhist nun, says that, “Fear is the natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.” I know a lot of women who look fearless on the outside, but are actually terrified everyday, and make the choice to show up. So, I would say don’t be dissuaded. We all get scared sometimes, some of us are just better at hiding it than others.
Why do you think there are so few female inventors?
RW: Coming from a nursing background, we don’t necessarily have that kind of invention ecosystem that other disciplines have built into the system. “Inventor” was not a label that I had even imagined applying to myself until I got to UMass. Even so, nurses are rarely taught to protect to their intellectual property – we just release it into the world for everyone to use. That’s enough for nurses, and typically our institutions don’t incentivize us to protect our IP either.
However, this year, there have been incentives to encourage nurses, particularly to think in the mode of innovators, inventors and entrepreneurs. The American Nurses Association just launched the Innovation Awards. Historically, if anybody got involved in this process, it was really the male physicians. There are insidious barriers to inventions, too. Problems that we’re trying to solve are typically seen from a white, male perspective, which means there are huge areas that aren’t getting noticed, because they’re not considered a problem for the typical inventor.
In the traditional STEM disciplines, there’s an embedded culture – that what they’re developing could be put into the world as inventions. They’re speaking invention language, and because they’re identifying that way, there are lots of resources. There are seed funds, partnerships, fellowships, etc.
However, nursing and other historically female-centric areas don’t often use that invention language, so they’re not thinking about invention as a possibility. Now, we’re more aware of those disparities, and we’re starting to think about building an ecosystem for nurses to participate and be recognized in the process.
FL: From my observations, people sell themselves short. They think that you can only invent if you have a specific background. They don’t realize anyone can invent. No matter what job you do, there are always challenges around you that you can try to resolve with invention. Some people come up with excellent ideas but they don’t know the process, or the importance of IP. It’s important to create an ecosystem that promotes all aspects of invention.
MK: It’s important to study the past, but we can’t change it. All of our efforts now have to be put towards the future and making things better, making things more accessible, making things more democratic. It’s going to be an incremental process. Nothing dramatic is going to happen overnight – these things take time. We just have to encourage people and cultivate supportive and empathetic behavior to give more opportunity for all people, men and women.
What are the challenges to cultivating the next generation of inventors, and how can we encourage them along the path?
MK: Unfortunately, the distribution of opportunities are very skewed. Comparing schools in DC, where I work now, and Louisiana, where I grew up – they have very different access to resources, especially scientific resources. If we had more exposure, maybe more people would get into science sooner. It’s a challenge that we all need to be working on as a society.
RW: I think that anytime younger people are empowered to think creatively, to pursue problems on their own, and build the knowledge for themselves, it tends to result in good outcomes. I think part of forming excellent scientists, inventors and people, is giving students and people at every stage of this educational process, opportunities to also practice empathy.
What’s your advice for aspiring inventors?
MK: Play the long game. What happens, happens. You will fail, but you have to keep moving. Be rigorous, kinetic and stay in motion. Don’t allow anybody or anything to take away your momentum – just keep moving forward.
FL: I would encourage everybody to start thinking about inventing. I think we should be giving young children STEM-related projects that create a curious minds. Children need to do research, and to think about and present solutions. But no matter what solutions they come up with, they should always be commended. We should always encourage people to think from different perspectives, to see new challenges.
RW: I would say: You have permission to call yourself an inventor. That’s an identity you are allowed to claim. You have permission to use that label if that’s what you see yourself as. Be unapologetic about it. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people, because you never know what’s going to come back. Those people can become advocates and allies. If you’re aware of others who you think could be good guides in your path to success – reach out. Many opportunities will come out of that network of support and mentorship.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and The Lemelson Foundation developed the AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassador program to celebrate the human face of inventors. The first class of Ambassadors was announced in 2014.
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