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Invention Ambassadors Take On Society’s Challenges

Disinfectant with a blue additive being used in Conakry, Guinea, shows when clothing and surfaces are clean so disease does not spread. | Laura Stana

Over the past few years, inventor Jason Kang says he has developed his love for the “tangibility” of inventing, while discovering the impact he can have on the lives of others. At age 23, he has been involved in three startup companies and has helped invent an additive for disinfectants to combat life-threatening infectious diseases such as Ebola more effectively. 

It was not until Kang became a AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassador this past spring, however, joining an elite group of inventors chosen to communicate the value of innovation to society, that he took on another major responsibility — to help make sure that government supports innovation. 

“The government is incredibly influential in advancing technology — they’re the ones who take the risks — with National Institutes of Health funding, Small Business Innovation Research grants and so on — that allow crazy, new ideas to be tested to eventually get funded by the private sector,” Kang said. “If we want to see this progress continue to accelerate and we want more innovators who are equipped with relevant skills and educations, we as scientists, engineers and inventors need to step up and take more action within the political world.” 

The AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors program began in 2014 to encourage a new and diverse generation of inventors, while increasing global understanding of the role of invention and innovation in creating products and businesses — and building economies. The program assists the selected inventors by connecting them with government, industry, nonprofits, academia and funding organizations, said Neela White, senior program associate with AAAS Education and Human Resources, “allowing them to have the audiences and platforms that speak to their passions.”

In the process, the inventors themselves bring recognition to the value of innovation, serving as living examples of what an inventor can accomplish in terms of solving problems that confront society, as well as advocating for the support of innovation through prerequisites such as strong STEM education and sustained government funding of science and technology. 

Among this year’s group of Invention Ambassadors is Sanna Gaspard, who is working to commercialize a low-cost, easy-to-use device that can detect bedsores in patients before the wounds become a serious problem. Although such sores can lead to severe infection and even death, no reliable method has previously existed for early detection, Gaspard said. 

Like the other inventors in the program, Gaspard has a strong commitment to solving problems to improve the lives of others. A native of the island nation of Saint Lucia, she says that becoming a AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassador has made her more aware of how innovation can support economic development around the world, and she is consciously accepting a role as a promoter of that phenomenon. 

“Meeting the network of other ambassadors and the Lemelson network helped me to understand that as an ambassador, I am part of a larger community focused on a national and international mission to support inventors,” Gaspard said. 

Furthermore, she sees her role as extending to young students. “I now try to actively encourage young people to look at things like an inventor, and try to teach them the process so it’s less intimidating,” she said. 

The AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors came to AAAS in July to tell the public about their inventions and to meet with representatives of federal agencies such as the Patent and Trademark Office and the Small Business Administration, as well as with Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.), a physicist and inventor who serves on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. 

As part of the three-day session, the Invention Ambassadors received public engagement training from biologist-turned-filmmaker Randy Olson, who helped them shape their experience as inventors into compelling narratives. 

Invention Ambassador Luis Almodovar, who is currently working on an advanced tool that can suture within the human heart via a catheter without opening the chest, gave a presentation at AAAS with the entertainment value of a standup comedy routine. He explained later that it was the very first time he had delivered such a presentation, abandoning the data-heavy scientific journal presentation format he is more accustomed to in his day job as a neurosurgeon. 

Almodovar said Olson helped him with tweaks to what came off as an upbeat, moving pitch “right up to the day of the presentation.” This year’s class of inventors, as well as program alumni, often mentioned the camaraderie and refreshing feeling of belonging associated with the experience of being a AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassador. Being an inventor can mean a solitary existence, several of them said. 

“It felt wonderful to meet part of our tribe,” said Diana Yousef, who with fellow ambassador Huda Elasaad is working to commercialize a waterless toilet for use in areas with no sewage systems. “The journey to this point had, in the past, been a fairly lonely and challenging one, and it was really energizing to meet others who’ve experienced the same or similar pathways.” 

“There were no ego issues,” said Almodovar, “quite the contrary. We shared and had a great time. For me, I loved it.” 

While this year’s inventors were already talking about possible collaborations among the group, 2015-16 ambassadors Juan Gilbert, whose inventions include a universally designed voting technology; Lisa DeLuca, who is IBM’s most prolific female inventor; and Michael Smith, who is director of the Intel Academic Program for Data Science and the Internet of Things, said the friendships and networks begun during the program will endure. 

“The Invention Ambassadors are a very diverse group of individuals. Through my experience as an ambassador, I was reminded that invention takes place in many forms and disciplines,” said Smith, who has helped educational institutions around the world to include data science, artificial intelligence and green technologies in their course offerings. “My path as an inventor has expanded beyond my core expertise.” 

Together, the AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors show a profound commitment to building support for scientific and technological innovation to help society. 

“An inventor is someone who solves problems and advances civilization,” said Kang, “and this requires a commitment to encouraging the inventiveness of society as a whole. If you can imagine one inventor coming up with solutions to some of the world’s hardest problems—the Nikola Teslas, the Thomas Alva Edisons, the Elon Musks of the world—just imagine what an entire society of inventors could come up with. As inventors, we have an obligation to pass on what we’ve learned and encourage future generations.”

A version of this article appeared in AAAS News & Notes in the August 25, 2017, issue of Science.

[Associated image: Ellie Fini, a 2017-18 Lemelson Invention Ambassador, gave a presentation at AAAS on a technology she invented that breaks down pig waste and converts it into asphalt-binding adhesive. | Timothy Barker]