When Great Inventors Encourage Future Innovators

I knew when attending the White House ceremony for the latest class of National Medal of Technology and Innovation (NMTI) winners a week before Thanksgiving that I would have to blog on the experience. A logical narrative line to craft would have been the dramatic overlap in creative approaches pursued by NMTI awardees and the varied artists featured in my new book Committed: A Memoir of the Artist’s Road.

And I had a natural avenue to tell that story. At the black-tie dinner honoring the winners that night, I learned in a video biography that one of that day’s NMTI winners, physicist Cherry Murray, had a particular connection to the arts. Dr. Cherry, a pioneer in the field of light scattering, might have examined the color palette in a different capacity. From Harvard Magazine

In an interview with the American Physical Society—she served as its president in 2009—Murray said that she had been raised by a family of artists and expected to become one herself. Then two things happened: her high-school chemistry teacher awoke her interest in science, and her older brother told her she would never succeed in physics—and certainly not at MIT—which spurred her to do just that.

 

My non-professional photo of Edith Flanigen receiving the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Barack Obama.

My non-professional photo of Edith Flanigen receiving the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Barack Obama.

But I have written about the nexus between creatives in the arts and sciences before. Instead I found myself drawn to the story of another new NMTI laureate, molecular chemist Edith Flanigen. Edith’s legacy is long, legendary, and very much continuing. She is the inventor of a molecular sieve that converts crude oil into gasoline, an accomplishment that led to her induction in the National Inventors Hall of Fame (NIHF) in 2002. Her technology now is in use cleaning contaminated water at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Flanigen was accompanied at the White House and later dinner by more than thirty friends and family. But she had arrived in Washington, D.C., nearly a week earlier. Four days before the White House ceremony in the National Inventors Hall of Fame Museum I welcomed her to Alexandria, Virginia, along with the other judges for this year’s Collegiate Inventors Competition (CIC). Flanigen was joined by nearly a dozen other NIHF winners, including a colleague who would also be receiving an NMTI medal at the White House later that week, Dr. Thomas Fogarty, whose balloon catheter has saved countless lives through the removal of blood clots.

2014 Collegiate Inventors Competition finalists (photo courtesy USPTO, Amando Carigo)

2014 Collegiate Inventors Competition finalists (photo courtesy USPTO, Amando Carigo)

These NIHF and NMTI winners had all committed several days of their time to judge inventions by the next generation of innovators, undergraduate and graduate students also looking to change the world. Not only did they spend time examining each invention as judges, they dedicated a part of their third day in Alexandria meeting individually with each finalist team, to provide guidance that might lead those inventors to someday to be inducted in NIHF or be honored with an NMTI medal.

In my work with these great inventors I continually see selfless acts such as this. Consider another CIC judge this year, Steve Sasson, inventor of the digital camera and star of a recent Mazda commercial celebrating his inventiveness. Like Flanigen and Fogarty, he is both a NIHF inductee and an NMTI medalist. I saw Sasson earlier this year in Alexandria visiting with grade-school aspiring inventors at a Camp Invention. He spent the day with several dozen students, answering questions about the creative process and examining their inventor logs, explaining how he too had sketched out ideas in a journal that eventually led to his groundbreaking invention.

Steve Sasson, inventor of the digital camera, talks with future inventors at a Camp Invention in Alexandria, Virginia.

Steve Sasson, inventor of the digital camera, talks with future inventors at a Camp Invention in Alexandria, Virginia (photo courtesy of Camp Invention’s Facebook feed).

Many of the artistic creatives I interviewed on my 2010 cross-country road trip, captured in Committed, similarly found ways to give back. Sioux Falls, South Dakota, oil painter Andrew Barney, for example, mentors art students at a local high school.

Committed wouldn’t exist without the guidance of accomplished memoirists who choose to teach in the Vermont College of Fine Arts low-residency program while simultaneously pursuing other creative and educational obligations. They often analyzed my writing submissions over weekends or late at night. It was clear to me they took on this added obligation not for the modest amount of additional income VCFA provided but instead for the opportunity to assist aspiring creative writers. I will be forever grateful for their dedication to that prospect.

So it is with a personal passion that I salute Edith Flanigen, Thomas Fogarty, Steve Sasson and other creative geniuses who seek to inspire and mentor other creative thinkers.

Feel free to attend the White House ceremony yourself by watching this video:

 

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

2 Responses to “When Great Inventors Encourage Future Innovators”

  1. Creative, inventive people should be honored in this way (and others), I think. Some acknowledgement to their contributions. Looks like a great day was had!

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