That’s Ms. Edison, to You
These women engineers will change any stereotypes you harbor about inventors
by Maureen Vaught
Does the word inventor conjure up images of nerdy-looking guys whose inventions inevitably result in children shrinking, ghosts being busted or entire cities losing power? Then you haven't heard about these inventors. Not only are they not nerdy-looking guys, these female inventors are creating things that have the potential to improve the lives of people all over the world.
Whether they were the result of a desire to help those in need, a mistake that turned into a success or simply the result of trying to improve on the mundane, the inventions created by today's female inventors are not your standard "new and improved" mousetrap. Take Gayle Naughton, who created a process by which human organs can be produced for transplantation. Or Amy Smith, who invented a mill to help women in developing countries grind grain more efficiently. And then there's Leah Maxwell, who took your everyday soybean and made it into a moldable plastic.
These women, like so many other female engineers, saw a problem and then set out to solve it. And although each of these inventors is as unique as their creations, a common thread runs through all of them—a belief in themselves and in the possibilities of their ideas.
Gail K. Naughton—Career Inventor
Gail K. Naughton, Ph.D., and president of Advanced Tissue Sciences, Inc., became the first individual woman to win the National Inventor of the Year Award in June 2000 for her work in tissue engineering. The Intellectual Property Owners Association (IPO) gives the award each year to an American inventor who has patented an invention or first commercialized a patented invention within the past four years of the award selection. "[The invention to create human tissues and organs outside of the human body] was my first patented invention," explains Naughton. "Now 15 years later, I have 29 U.S. patents and 42 foreign patents."
With its potential for helping mankind, one would have thought that finding supporters for this invention would have been a snap—not so.
"When I first came to the patent office with my invention, I was 30. I said look at this, we're growing tissues that could be used for drug screening and new drug development and maybe even for transplantation. And they said to me, quote: 'If it was a good idea someone would have already thought of it.'"
Even after Naughton co-founded Advanced Tissue Sciences, there were skeptics. "When we went public in 1988, the first analysts' report in '89 said, "Great company, but the patent is their Achilles heel. We don't think they're ever going to be able to get a patent.' And now the company, in total, has over 130," Naughton says. Advanced Tissue Sciences manufactures two products: TransCyteTM, a product used to treat burn patients, and Dermagraft®, a product for treating diabetic foot ulcer patients. So much for vulnerable spots.
So how did Naughton get past such critics and naysayers? "I just reminded myself of all of the inventions, medical and otherwise, that never, ever would have happened if people believed what others were telling them." With Advanced Tissue Sciences posting recent quarterly earnings of over $10 million, having a successful business hasn't hurt either.
Today, Naughton spends her days meeting with various departments within her organization, as well as interacting with the press, potential investors and institutions with which Advanced Tissue Sciences collaborates. "Additional meetings each week include integrated product development gate reviews for key projects, meetings on my most crucial initiatives (collagen upscaling project, values committee and knowledge management) and a weekly IR/PR meeting," adds Naughton. Giving presentations on tissue engineering and Advanced Tissue Sciences to hospitals, new investors, universities and the National Institute of Health, often keeps her on the road.
Naughton's advice to engineering and computer science students is to get as much exposure to different internships and different programs as possible. "In order to be competitive, just being in a really good program and publishing isn't enough," she says. "If you can get industry experience, or do a sabbatical or even a semester at another laboratory, these experiences will help broaden your horizons and thinking, as well as beef up your resume."
Amy Smith—Grad School Inventor
Amy Smith could have rested on her laurels after inventing and patenting the ultimate brownie baking machine, but she had ambitions to help humanity in far more significant ways. "It was one of those devices that I would never, ever own in a million years, but it was really very interesting to design because the user interface is so important—the control system and the hardware—it was a nice project to work on."
U.S. patent #5,460,209, automatic dispenser for dry ingredients, was designed to allow the user to specify a recipe for a particular baked good and have the dispenser automatically measure and assemble the necessary dry ingredients. Got a craving for chocolate chip cookies? Simply press the "controller," which activates the "vibrators," thus exciting at least one of the "baffles," resulting in the requested ingredients making their journey through the respective passageways, out of the chamber and into your mixing bowl. Voila!
But it was Smith's inventions to help developing countries that motivated her to enter two competitions that resulted in her winning the top prize in both. "I decided that what I want to do with my life is not make yuppy kitchenware but actually do something that might have some benefit down the line," she explains. "So I thought why not enter the competition with a project that I would really like to see succeed."
In 1999, Smith's invention, an Amtek phase-change incubator for use in areas without electricity, won her the Collegiate Inventors Competition (C.I.C.) and $7,500 (since that time the award prize has increased to $20,000). "The incubator, in its current role, encubates water sample for conducting tests of water quality," explains Smith. This national competition, which is sponsored by Hewlett-Packard, Corning, The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., and the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, is a program of the National Inventors' Hall of Fame.
A year later, Smith won the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for her engineering know-how in creating inventions designed to help others, including her grain mill and her incubator. According to Lester C. Thurow, chairman of the Lemelson-MIT Awards Board, "Amy Smith is the perfect example of an inventor-innovator who's using technology to close the [digital divide]. Amy's mechanical designs could benefit thousands."
Winning these awards also gave Smith the credibility that she felt was lacking despite her degrees and inventions. "There was this sort of hesitation to look at me as an equal engineer. Generally, people were glad I was doing the work, but there was this sense that maybe it wasn't real engineering.
"Now having won the Lemelson prize, people take itfor granted that I'm an engineer who also happens to do development work—instead of [looking at me as] someone who is interested in development, but are not sure how good anengineer I am."
Smith, who graduated from MIT in 1995 with a master's and in 1984 with a bachelor's degree, both in mechanical engineering, is an instructor at the school's Edgerton Center where she is involved in the school's Service Learning program. Through MIT's Public Service Center, Service Learning classes offer students the opportunity to combine community service with education. "We're trying to look at ways of bringing projects from community organizations into the curriculum at MIT. So if you're learning electronics, you're actually designing for kids with learning disabilities."
Smith continues to work on improving her incubator so that one day it can be used as intended, to help people in developing worlds. Using her award monies, Smith also hopes to start a non-profit organization that will help communities use technology to monitor and maintain their own drinking water supplies.
"I feel it is so important to like what you're doing," Smith says. "Pursue what you're passionate about and everything else will work out."
Leah Maxwell—Undergrad Inventor
Despite Indiana's #4 ranking in the nation for soybean production, most Purdue students probably never think twice about this commonplace crop. Not Leah Maxwell. As a junior majoring in biological engineering and biochemistry, Maxwell was this year's second prizewinner in the school's New Uses for Soybeans Student Contest.
Leah Maxwell & friends
Maxwell and her two team members (Erica Clerc of Elkhart, Ind., and Karen Lewis of Seymour, Ind.) won $2,400 for their invention of a process for a plastic made with a soybean derivative, called Soyastic: The Homemade Plastic. "The plastic is soft and moldable, but it hardens in response to UV light," says Maxwell. "We were just informed that Purdue voted to promote our technology to industry."
Maxwell believes that this contest, sponsored by the university and the Indiana Soybean Board, offers undergrad students learning experiences that they might not otherwise have. "It gives undergrads an opportunity to work with graduate students and observe the research process," she explains. "In addition, we were responsible for developing a marketing strategy. This also was something new to learn about."
And Maxwell adds that graduate students, as well as professors and faculty members, were all very willing to help with any questions she had. "As an undergraduate, I had no idea what would go into the invention process, and I knew I needed help.
"I found Purdue to be very accommodating of undergraduates with interests in inventing, from financial support to work space to agreeing to market the technology to industry," she adds.Finding time to invent while carrying a full load of classes is especially difficult for undergrad students who are in the midst of just learning the basics. "For instance, it was tough to choose studying for a thermodynamics test when what I really wanted to do was check out the results of one of the product's experiments," laments Maxwell. (Maxwell chose studying for the test.)
"But, I think that doing well at the undergraduate level will prepare me for better inventions in the future."
Maxwell admits that although she's always been interested in how things work, she never gave much thought to inventing until she entered this contest. "But it was such an empowering experience that I plan to try again in the future," she adds. "I thought that as a female sophomore at Purdue that there was nothing I could bring to help the invention," says Maxwell. "The ideas must be way over my head. But then I started thinking.
"Everybody has to start somewhere and I might as well start learning now."
Do a search for inventions and a gazillion Web sites pop up with answers to any patent question you might have. Below is our list of some of the more useful ones. (Ok, so the Absurd Inventions isn't necessarily useful, but it's worth a look.)
The Lemelson-MIT Prize Program's Handbook for Inventors
This online handbook was created by the Lemelson-MIT Prize Program to answer any questions an aspiring inventor might have, from conducting a patent search to raising capital, the information on this Web site can help you turn your idea into a reality.
U.S. Patent & Trandmark Office
The Patent and Trademark Office is an agency of the United States Department of Commerce and has been helping inventors obtain exclusive rights to their creations for over 200 years. If you have a patent application in process, you can check on its status by simply entering the application number into this Web site.
The National Inventors Hall of Fame
The National Inventors Hall of Fame was established in 1973 by the National Council of Patent Law Associations and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to recognize and honor successful inventors. In addition to learning more about inventors who have been inducted into the Hall of Fame, including several female inventors, you can also find out about the Collegiate Inventors Competition and Camp Invention, a one-week day camp for elementary school inventors.
The Patent Cafe
PatentCafe.com, Inc. bills itself as the world's leading developer and distributor of products, services and information management tools for inventors, independent or commercial, looking for information related to patents, trademarks and copyright.
Totally Absurd Inventions
What more can I say? Each week, totallyabsurd.com features its "current reigning absurd patent." Yes, patented invention. As of this writing, the featured invention was a Tricycle Lawnmower. Talk about your child labor.
FIRST Robotics Competition 2002
This annual design competition is a program of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a nonprofit organization founded by Dean Kamen, the creator of the Segway Human Transportor. Students and professionals join together in teams, and over a period of six weeks, design and build a robot that solves an engineering design problem. Over $1.2 million in scholarships were awarded to students at the 2001 Championship.
Hammacher Schlemmer SEARCH for INVENTION
Past winners of this contest, which is sponsored by Hammacher Schlemmer, the oldest catalog company in the U.S., have found their inventions featured on the pages of the catalog. Over 550 inventors participated in the 2001 competition with the overall winner receiving a grant for $5,000 and a coveted display location at the company's New York store.
Collegiate Inventors Competition
The CIC is a program of the National Inventors Hall of Fame and is designed to recognize and reward students and their advisors for their innovative research and design. A maximum of six winners, or six winning teams, are chosen each year. Student winners receive $20,000 and their advisors receive an honorarium of $10,000. The competition is open to both undergraduate and graduate students.
The national Lemelson-MIT Awards offers the world's largest single prize for invention: $500,000. The Lemelson-MIT Student Prize, while not as grand, is pretty impressive, too. Each year, an MIT senior or graduate student is awarded a $30,000 cash award for "demonstrating remarkable inventiveness."
Theta Tau Fraternity National Rube Goldbergª Machine Contest
In keeping with our nation's patriotic yearnings, the 2002 Rube Goldbergª challenge is to secure, raise and wave a national flag in not less than twenty steps. Sound simple? Well, that's the beauty of this competition. Each year, teams of college students participate in local contests across the country in hopes of qualifying for the national contest. And each year, the task, while simple on the surface, requires the creative and technical talents of each team member. The contest, organized by student members of the Purdue University chapter of Theta Tau Fraternity, honors the late cartoonist Rube Goldberg, who specialized in drawing whimsical, yet complicated machines to perform simple tasks.
New Uses for Soybeans Student Contest
If you thought tofu was the only good thing that came out of soybeansÑwell, we won't go there. But we will tell you that the Indiana Soybean Board is so convinced that the humble soybean is the answer to our prayers that they've organized this contest to prove it. And so far, the results have been pretty convincing! Each year, students are challenged to come up with a new use for soybeans that has commercial possibilities. Past inventions have included soybean crayons, soy fire log, soy ski wax, and this year's winner, soy home heating fuel oil.
Maureen Vaught is the copy editor of Graduating Engineer & Computer Careers.
* Special thanks to Ray DePuy, C.I.C. Program Coordinator; Michael McNally, Program Officer of the Lemelson-MIT Program; and Beth Holloway, Director of the Women in Engineering Program at Purdue University.
Dr. Gail Naughton ( Left )
Amy Smith ( Right )
' Engineers and Inventors '
By Maureen Vaught