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An NJIT Innovator Shares His Craft

Reginald Farrow, a research professor of physics at NJIT, and U.S. Rep. Michael Honda, a former science teacher who represents the Silicon Valley region of California, building a microscope from paper at the U.S. Patent and Trade Office's its inaugural National Summer Teacher Institute on Innovation, STEM, and Intellectual Property.

How do you teach innovation?

One approach, taken by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), is to enlist innovators themselves to talk about the inspiration, work culture, and dogged determination that led to their groundbreaking inventions.

Reginald Farrow, a research professor of physics at NJIT and the holder of 13 patents, was among the creative luminaries tapped by the agency to weigh in on inventiveness at its inaugural National Summer Teacher Institute on Innovation, STEM, and Intellectual Property in Santa Clara, Calif. this August. His audience was middle and high school STEM teachers charged with incorporating “making, inventing, and intellectual property creation and protection” into classroom instruction.

Farrow, whose career began at the nerve center of American innovation, Bell Labs, focuses on the interface between nanotechnology and biophysics. Among his inventions is the world’s smallest biofuel cell, which converts glucose into electricity. The power it produces could run biomedical devices such as pacemakers indefinitely.

“I’m not sure I could teach innovation, but I can describe what it is,” Farrow notes of his creative processes, while naming curiosity, a sense of wonder, an open mind, and the spirit of adventure as essential ingredients.

“I always say that growing up is overblown,” he laughs.

His initial idea was to invent an array of biological probes so tiny that the device could float among cells and observe and communicate with them from many positions. 

“I wanted to make it smaller and smaller and this presented a real challenge,” he recounts. “At that time, making something this small was something no one really could do.”

One of the principal insights came from his earlier work at Bell Labs aligning integrated circuits.

"We have known for some time that as features get smaller, their alignment would have to be adaptive, maybe even self-assembled,” he notes. “That is what we used to make this device.”

Working with an NJIT colleague, Zafar Iqbal, a research professor in the Department of Chemistry and Environmental Science, the probe idea evolved into a biofuel cell constructed with carbon nanotubes. They demonstrated that the carbon nanotubes could not only act as probes, but could be made sensitive to specific molecules such as glucose, which can be converted into electricity.

Farrow stresses that the world’s great discoveries are not the acts of lone geniuses, but rather of creative, highly focused groups.

“We tend to celebrate this notion of the charismatic individual, but it’s not really accurate. It does take a team. I try to bring together as many smart people as possible,” he says, adding that he tells teachers who are trying to nurture innovation to “at a minimum, keep your students working in teams – diverse teams. It’s so important for them to learn how to listen and respond.”

At the same time, they should also cultivate independent thinking.

“Students start with a clear advantage – an open mind about solving problems. I know a student will do well if they’re willing to argue with me,” he says.

The USPTO, which reviews patents and trademarks, is a division of the U.S. Commerce Department, and “the agency’s idea is to promote businesses built around innovative ideas,” Farrow notes. At the kickoff event this summer, he sat with U.S. Rep. Michael Honda, a former science teacher who represents the Silicon Valley region of California.

The training session grew out of a program called “Science of Innovation,” an 11-part series produced by NBC Learn, the educational arm of NBC News, in partnership with the National Science Foundation, and the USPTO, that explored the processes that helped bring about important innovations. Other scientists in the series – and presenters in the recent summer session – included Evangelyn Alocilja of Michigan State University, who invented nano-biosensors for use in detecting counterfeit products, and Homayoon Kazerooni of the University of California, Berkeley, who invented exoskeletons that responds to nerve impulses, helping the disabled to move.