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Neela White: AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors Get “To Speak to Their Passion”

Neela White, Program Manager for the AAAS Education and Human Resources Programs and the Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity

It’s June—and it’s time for a new batch of AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors to start making the rounds.

The newly chosen ambassadors will spend the next year and beyond as high-profile boosters of invention, including new technology, education, and innovation. And shepherding them through that role will be Neela White, who is on the team that oversees the program for AAAS.

The program is named for Jerome Lemelson, an independent inventor with more than 600 patents to his credit, and supported by the family foundation that bears his name. This year’s class is the program’s fourth, with a total of 31 ambassadors chosen to date.

White joined AAAS fulltime in 2010 and is a member of the AAAS Capacity Center team that has overseen the Invention Ambassadors program since its launch in 2014. She recently talked with MemberCentral about the program, the selection process, and how they’ve evolved over the years.


Q: How are the ambassadors selected?

White: Each year we open our applications roughly around November, and our new class is announced each June. All year long we seek out ambassadors on our own. We try to find inventors who are doing outstanding things. We enjoy having diverse inventors who come from various fields. We look at academic inventors, industry inventors, inventors who may be in the entertainment industry. We like very junior inventors to those who are very senior in their careers. And then we have our friends—supporters of the program and alumni—who also nominate or recommend folks they’d like to have apply.

Between the application period of November through April, interested applicants fill out an application online. We review the applications beginning in March. In April, a review is conducted by our selection committee, which is made up of members of our advisory committee, interview committee, and the AAAS team. A selection committee meeting is held in early May to determine which of the applicants will move on to the final, interview round. During interviews, our selection committee asks questions to determine which of the finalists best align with the vision and goals for our program. The Ambassadors who are selected are those who best articulate how they can inspire a new generation of inventors dedicated to solving difficult global challenges; inform the public about the components needed to create inventions that sustainably solve global problems; and influence policy makers, thought leaders, and the public.

This year, we had dozens of inventors who completed applications. Twenty-one were selected for the  second round. Based on the reviews of the selection committee, 12 finalists were selected for interviews that took place on May 18 and 19.  Following the interviews, the committee determined that seven Ambassadors would be selected for the 2017-2018 Class.

Q: There are no specific educational criteria or patents required. Why is that?

White: One of the main goals of the program is to highlight inventors as everyday people. Inventors that range from the mom who invents a device that helps her nurse her baby or an inventor such as Ayanna Howard, who has invented in the robotics space to help young people with learning disabilities.  We also want to showcase that prolific inventors may not pursue conventional education pathways to their professions. Inaugural Advisory Committee member [Engineer and Segway inventor] Dean Kamen is a perfect example—he performed poorly in high school and he did not initially graduate. At the other end, we have inventors who have multiple Ph.Ds. Our vision is that this program will showcase the human face of inventors. Our inventors can have one patent, no patents or 800 patents like Rick Hamilton, who is a 2016-2017 Ambassador.

Q: It seems like there’s no shortage of new gadgets out there. Why is a program like this needed?

We’re giving invention ambassadors the opportunity to speak to their passions, their interests, and to what invention means to them. To some, it’s the gadget. To others, they’re inventing to help save lives, improve quality of life, to save the environment. This program allows all types of inventors to share their work and speak to the public.

We have an inventor, Suzie Pun, who is creating life-saving devices to help victims in police work or in the military, when they’ve been injured or have a traumatic injury, to stop the bleeding and save lives. This is an invention with global impact, yet when you speak to Suzie, she is most passionate about her role as a mentor to her students at the University of Washington. She is inspiring the next generation of inventors and researchers and motivating them to invent for a better quality of life for our society.

Q: How have some of the previous ambassadors used their platform to address something close to them?

White: Paul Stamets is using mycelium to help cure diseases, to help save the environment. He’s really focused right now on how mushrooms can save the bees from colony collapse. He has innovative and inventive ways of making our lives better, and he’s going to save the world, in his words. This program allows him to get in front of people who may not already have been his audience. He expressed that it was an honor for him to speak here on the AAAS stage for our Celebrate Invention event and to speak at  IBM Almaden during a AAAS annual meeting.

Q: There’s a special emphasis on environmental applications. How did that come about?

White: The emphasis is constantly thinking about the impact that inventions have on the environment and how invention can help create a better planet. This emphasis has been a part of our requirements since the inception of the program and our partnership with The Lemelson Foundation. The Lemelson Foundation and AAAS both believe in taking care of our environment.

Q: How has the program changed since it got started?

A: One of the biggest changes was we started off with six males and one female inventor. We understood that if we were showcasing the human face on invention, we needed to change the demographics of our program. We needed diversity. Initially, we had no Ambassadors who were African-Americans or Latinos. So we reached out to various organizations such as the Association for Women in Science and the National Society of Black Engineers to identify more inventors. We take great pride in looking at the group of 31 that we currently have and seeing a diverse group of inventors.  

And initially, each Ambassador was asked to do two speaking engagements. We planned to place each Ambassador at a speaking engagement individually. We honestly thought we could place Paul Stamets at one event, Sorin Grama in one place, Karen Burg at another. But during our inaugural orientation, we realized the inventor community is one that likes to be together. So we’ve changed from having individual speaking engagements to bringing the Ambassadors together as a group.

And some of our ambassadors have busy schedules, so we allow Ambassadors to do a talk and a written piece if they prefer. I think Ambassadors have had two placements in Science magazine.

Initially, we wanted collaborators and have found many. One of our biggest collaborators has been the National Academy of Inventors. Alumni Ambassador Paul Sanberg is the president and founder, and we have contributed articles to their magazine, Technology and Innovation, each year since the program’s inception.


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<p>Neela White, Program Manager for the AAAS Education and Human Resources Programs and the Center for Advancing Science &amp; Engineering Capacity</p>
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Matt Smith

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