Discovering my Inventor Superpower

On April 28, National Superhero Day, we celebrate not only comic book heroes, but also real-life heroes of science, engineering, and ingenuity.
SWE Magazine: Shaping Tomorrow's History Today

Read more about SWE Members Honored at National Inventors Hall of Fame in the Spring issue of SWE Magazine. You can access the issue on your mobile device by downloading our app on iTunes or Google PlayClick here to view on a desktop or laptop. SWE Magazine's Spring 2018 issue is digital only but is available via Amazon with a print-on-demand option. Visit here to purchase. 

By Anne Perusek, SWE Director of Editorial and Publications

National Superhero Day in the United States began in 1995, inspired by a group of employees at Marvel Comics who took to the streets dressed in superhero capes, to ask people to name their favorite comic book heroes and say which superhero qualities they would most like to have.

For my part, I spent time with STEM superheroes during my visit last month to the National Inventors Hall of Fame Museum in Alexandria, Virginia. And there, I discovered which inventor superhero I most closely identified with.

Housed in the United States National Patent and Trademark Office’s Madison Building, the National Inventors Hall of Fame Museum celebrates the contributions of its inductees. I was there with SWE President-elect Penny Wirsing, along with SWE staff members Troy Eller, archivist, and Roberta Rincon, Ph.D., senior manager of research. We toured the museum’s permanent collection and viewed the Women’s History Month special exhibit, which featured four SWE members — Achievement Award recipients and Hall of Fame inductees — whose inventions have changed society.

The interactive display, inviting visitors to discover their inventor superpower, featured SWE members Kristina Johnson, Ph.D., left, and Yvonne Brill, right, rendered as superhero cartoon characters. Dr. Johnson received SWE’s Achievement Award in 2004 for significant contributions to optoelectronic processing systems and liquid crystal devices. Brill’s achievements are detailed below.

The special exhibit included displays about Beatrice Hicks, SWE’s first president; and members Mildred Dresselhaus, Ph.D.; Yvonne Brill, F.SWE; and Frances Arnold, Ph.D. The panels conveyed SWE’s history and purpose, as well as each woman’s invention, patent application, and social impact. Because I had written about all of these woman forSWE Magazine,and talked with some of them in person, the exhibit felt both familiar and awe-inspiring.

Discovering my Inventor Superpower

From left, SWE staff members Roberta Rincon, Ph.D., senior manager of research, and Troy Eller English, archivist, with SWE President-elect Penny Wirsing, F.SWE, and Anne Perusek, director of editorial and publications, view the SWE-sponsored Women’s History Month exhibit featuring four SWE Achievement Award recipients and National Inventors Hall of Fame inductees. CREDIT: Jay Premack/USPTO.

Our SWE group was animated and excited as we explored the collections. Then, turning a corner, I saw it  — a large panel that included Hall of Fame inductees and SWE members Kristina Johnson, Ph.D., and Yvonne Brill, F.SWE, among others, dressed in superhero garb. Beneath their images was a directive: Discover Your Inventor Superpower Here!

By answering a series of questions that matched my personal characteristics and problem-solving approaches with one of the superheroes, I found out that I identified with none other than Yvonne Brill! Of the SWE members inducted in the Hall of Fame, and of the four featured in the Women’s History Month exhibit, I have been honored to know Brill the longest, beginning when she received SWE’s Resnik Challenger Medal in 1993, at one of the first annual conferences I attended. We became better acquainted over the years through our mutual involvement with the now-retired archives committee, plus two visits to the Kennedy Space Center. On one of these visits, we attended, along with other SWE members, events surrounding the first shuttle launch commanded by a female astronaut.  And we had many engaging conversations in the Over The Hill Suite at SWE’s annual conferences.

I am fortunate to have known such an “Inventor Superpower/Superhero” as Yvonne Brill. And I feel equally fortunate to know the “everyday heroes” in engineering — women using their engineering skills to make the world a better place.

Inventor Superheroes

The Women’s History Month exhibit celebration at the National Inventors Hall of Fame featured the following four SWE members -- all SWE Achievement Award recipients and National Inventor Hall of Fame Inductees.

Beatrice Hicks, Device for Sensing Gas Density (1919-1979; Inducted to the NIHF in 2017).
Hicks invented a gas density sensor for use in devices that relied on gas-phase materials as insulators or fuels. Her sensor activated a switch when the density reached a critical value — an innovation that made possible the development of advanced technologies of the time, and it was a critical breakthrough to enabling space travel.

Mildred Dresselhaus, Ph.D., Superlattice Structures for Thermoelectric Devices (1930-2017; Inducted to the NIHF in 2014).
Dr. Dresselhaus, often called the “Queen of Carbon Science,” started studying carbon when few researchers had any interest in this important element. An expert on all forms of carbon, her work explained the nanoscale properties of materials; laid the groundwork for later discoveries concerning carbon nanotubes, graphene, and buckyballs; and developed the foundations for technologies that led to lithium-ion batteries.

Frances Arnold, Ph.D., Directed Evolution of Enzymes (Inducted to the NIHF in 2014).
Dr. Arnold is a pioneer of directed evolution, a process for “breeding” scientifically interesting or technologically useful proteins by mutating and recombining their DNA sequences and screening for desired properties. Dr. Arnold’s methods are used for developing new biological routes to making pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals, consumer chemicals, and biofuels.

Yvonne Brill, F.SWE, Electrothermal Hydrazine Resistojet (1924-2013; Inducted to the NIHF in 2010).
Brill is known for her innovations in rocket propulsion. Her most important contributions are advancements in rocket propulsion systems for geosynchronous communications satellites in the form of the hydrazine resistojet propulsion system, or the electrothermal hydrazine thruster, which keeps satellites in orbit.