When you think of great inventors, you might picture Nikola Tesla with his walrus mustache, or the stoic expression of Thomas Edison. But even if you think of someone less famous, research indicates that, more than likely, you’d be hard-pressed to picture an inventor who is female. Women inventors face many challenges on the path to recognition; data suggest women make up less than 15 percent of the invention community and are less likely to protect their ideas through patenting. Just as in the fields of science, law and business, the participation and representation of women as inventors still has a long way to go.
Fortunately, change is on the horizon. Three women—Florence Lu, Rachel Walker and Mary Kombolias—have been named in the newest cohort of AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors, helping promote invention and change the perception of what an “inventor” looks like. These women will be important catalysts in the gradual progression to erase stereotypes and gender bias in the field of inventing.
A nurse with a doctorate, an IBM Master Inventor and a paper fiber analysis expert in the federal government: these female inventors are living proof that invention can happen anywhere.
Fang (Florence) Lu
Senior Solution Architect and IBM Master Inventor, IBM Research
Florence Lu has filed more than 150 patent applications for IBM, covering a broad sweep of areas including social software, Internet of Things, health care analytics, accessibility and security.
Lu’s best ideas come from simply observing challenges around her, whether that’s work or something she notices in her day-to-day life. The perfect example: Before Lu had children, and thus had more free time, she would test her public speaking skills at Toastmasters events. As time became a luxury, however, she was unable to continue her regular sessions.
So what did a busy software architect do? Invent a public speaking self-evaluation tool, of course. This tool provides instant feedback to the presenter, advises on grammar mistakes and even comments on the level of eye contact.
Lu believes the fuel behind every successful inventor is passion—a burning desire to build something useful for our society and to help others. This mindset has resulted in multiple successes, including two other patents that were bought by a company who wanted to implement the features into their speech recognition software.
Lu teaches STEM-based activities in her local community to encourage children’s interest in STEM and also contributes to multiple youth STEM events. She believes in inspiring children while they’re young.
Her tip to encourage future inventors: appeal to their curiosity by talking about the inventor as “magician” and always offering impactful feedback. “It’s about looking at the same problem from a different angle,” she says.
Assistant Professor University of Massachusetts-Amherst College of Nursing and Associate Director at the Center for Personalized Health Monitoring,University of Massachusetts-Amherst College of Nursing
Rachel Walker used to work in medical and disaster relief with organizations like the U.S. Peace Corps. Now she develops technology, models of care and innovations that support cancer symptom self-management and quality of life.
What nurtures and inspires her inventive mind? Patients and other people she has encountered through her nursing practice. The power of brilliant minds from different backgrounds and disciplines, together in one room, helping transform challenges into opportunities.
For Walker, inclusion and diversity are critical ingredients for ideas to translate to positive impacts. She brings together patients’ and families’ perspectives on a problem with nursing knowledge and other areas such as the humanities, chemistry and engineering, to ensure understanding of a problem and potential solutions is fully developed. Even if an idea sparks in her brain, Walker believes it always takes a team to create the best results.
“Even if I have a great idea about how to promote wellness during cancer, my idea is limited by my perspective, my privilege,” she says.
This inventor touches on a word that doesn’t often come up as a value in science: Empathy. Walker is a wonderful example of a someone coming at invention with compassion. And she has pushed for all young future scientists to develop their own empathy, through an open letter to the CoSTEM body responsible for the federal strategic plan for STEM education. She believes the inclusion of lessons in the practice of compassion is critical to the process of building good inventors.
Walker talks about the importance of calling yourself an inventor, unapologetically. She also encourages people to reach out for guidance. “We get rock-star complexes over certain leaders who we admire,” she says. “We assume they won’t help, but just ask. These people can become your advocates.”
This nurse-inventor celebrates the power of women showing up. Quoting one of her favorite female voices on navigating life with compassion, Pema Chodron: “Fear is the natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.”
Senior Chemist, United States Government Publishing Office and Guest Researcher, National Institute of Standards and Technology
Mary Kombolias’ invention is a non-destructive means of fiber analysis. Besides detecting and quantifying the amount of recycled fiber in paper, this method can also provide a way to date documents of historical and cultural significance.
A one week-long course changed the trajectory of Kombolias’ life at fiber school, where she memorized the morphology of fibers—a method that she later found out was developed nearly a century ago. That nagging question, “why are we still doing things this way,” and a curious mind led her to develop a contactless, non-destructive method for fiber analysis.
What’s the one sure thing to happen if you’re an inventor? Well, failure. This scientist believes you’ve just got to keep moving and play the long game. “You have to be rigorous, kinetic and stay in motion … and you certainly can’t let anyone take away your momentum,” she says.
Stunned by the discovery of a female “fiber testing expert” who helped pioneer the traditional fiber analysis at NIST back in 1937 (when it was known as the National Bureau of Standards), Kombolias is a big believer in the opportunities that government can provide. “Who else would be hiring women as working scientists in 1937?” she asked. Because of the opportunities made available to her by working in the government, Kombolias encourages women to consider government as an option to make their ideas a reality.
To learn more about these women inventors and their amazing inventions, watch their “Celebrate Invention” speeches on the AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors Program YouTube page.