Given AAAS Member Corinna (Cori) Lathan’s contrasting interests, career endeavors and achievements, it is no easy feat to professionally define her. Lathan, who holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience, is also a technology entrepreneur, an inventor, an author, a biomedical engineer, a role model, and a AAAS IF/THEN Ambassador.
When defining herself, however, she uses the term “techno-optimist,” or someone who sees that technology can be used not only for good, but will be used for good, and that we can play a role in making that happen. “I’ve always been inspired by technology and how it can solve problems,” says Lathan. “I think techno-optimism is the belief that we are in control of our destiny and the future we want to invent,” states Lathan.
She traces the origins of her techno-optimism to her mother, who was a mathematician, computer scientist and teacher of robotics. Lathan also credits her father, who was an English major with a love of opera and acting, with the development of her writing skills. Together, her parents taught her “that math, science, philosophy and music are essential human pursuits, and they are all needed to create the future we want to see. I think that’s why I became an inventor,” writes Lathan in her new book, “Inventing the Future: Stories from a Techno-Optimist.”
The book includes a foreword by renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, which, at first glance, may seem like a curious choice. But after looking a little further into Lathan’s projects and passions, the connections become clear. “The common theme is that we believe that technology is a work of art,” affirms Lathan. “[Yo-Yo Ma] and I believe that inventions are another creative outlet, just like a musical composition or a piece of art. These are all artistic creations that can build community,” she says. “You can have as much potential of having a shared experience through a piece of art as you do through an invention.”
In school, Lathan continued to forge untrodden paths and create in various spaces. “Labels don’t work for me,” declares Lathan. While pursuing her undergraduate degree at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, her major was biopsychology and mathematics. “I slapped together all the classes that I thought were cool and made it into a major,” she recalls. She went on to study aerospace engineering and neuroscience at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Lathan later co-founded AnthroTronix, Inc., a technology company that has made a myriad of innovations in digital health, wearable tech, robotics and augmented reality. One of the company’s products is called CosmoBot, a robot that helps kids with disabilities. Another is known as the Acceleglove, which is a sensor glove that can be used in countless applications, such as training surgeons or helping patients in medical rehabilitation. Most recently, AnthroTronix has developed DANA Brain Vital, a FDA-approved mobile digital software that enables users to evaluate brain health.
At AnthroTronix and beyond, Lathan believes that creation and discovery are what matter, not the label. “My biggest advice to students is, don’t worry about what you want to be; find stuff to do.”
Through her participation in programs such as AAAS’ IF/THEN initiative and her work as a board member at places like the KID Museum in Bethesda, Md., the biggest dedicated makerspace in the U.S. for K-12 kids, she continues to be a STEM advocate. “I coached my daughter’s robotics team for six or seven years and I saw a lot of her friends who loved STEM get discouraged and not stay in it,” notes Lathan.
Of her IF/THEN Ambassador experience, Lathan says, “It was incredible to meet all those amazing women from such diverse field and backgrounds … and the AAAS team really inspired us with what we, as contemporary women in STEM, could get involved with.” She was so moved by her experience that she decided to end each chapter of her book with an insightful nugget of positivity she learned from her time as an ambassador, such as, “IF you give kids the right tools, THEN you enable them to reach their full potential.”
Viewed through the prism of this techno-optimist, the future looks hopeful and bright. “My philosophy is, technology should make us healthier and stronger and better,” says Lathan. “It should enable us to do things that we couldn’t do before we had technology, and technology should create an equitable future.” With leaders like Lathan at the helm, these possibilities seem attainable, perhaps even inevitable.