October 12, 2022

Inventing the Future: Corinna Lathan, Ph.D.

Hey everybody, welcome back to another episode of the Author Hour Podcast. As always, I’m your host, Gunnar Rogers. I am joined today by the brilliant, the intelligent, and the optimistic, Dr. Cori Lathan. This woman has accomplished so much in a very little bit of time in her career in STEM and in sciences and mathematics, and her new book, Inventing the Future: Stories from a Techno Optimist, is available today and for this week and this week only, the Kindle version is discounted to 99 cents. So, make sure you go check out her book today, take advantage of that discount and without further ado, here’s the wonderful, Dr. Cori Lathan.

Gunnar Rogers: All right everybody, as I said in the intro, I am super honored today to be joined by the brilliant, the intelligent, and the wonderful, Dr. Cori Lathan. Her new book, Inventing the Future: Stories from a Techno Optimist is out today on Amazon. Before you go check out a copy though, I am, like I said, honored to be joined by her for the Author Hour Podcast. Dr. Lathan, how are you doing today?

Dr. Corinna Lathan: I am doing great Gunnar, thank you so much. Also, feel free to call me Cori.

Gunnar Rogers: Gosh again, I was raised in West Texas, so if there’s a doctor in front of the name, I was raised to use it, but I’ll do my best, but awesome. Once again, thank you so much for joining me today. So many things I want to talk about, not just from your career but about the content of the book.

But something I really liked even early on in the intro, you really begin to bring this idea to the forefront of creativity, being something that is inventive. You talk a lot about artistic talents and for you specifically, did you always know or feel that your artistic talents lay in mathematics and science or did that sort of come about later on in your life?

Dr. Corinna Lathan: I’ve always been good at math and science, and I took that for granted for a really long time. You know, if you look at the profiles of the research that’s been done on women in STEM, I was good at math and science, I had a mother who was a mathematician, I played sports. I mean, I fit the exact profile of someone who actually stayed in STEM, and I took that in a STEM career, and I took that for granted actually for a very long time.

I don’t think I really realized that there was a dearth of women and other underrepresented groups in STEM field until probably grad school. I mean, it really took me a long time to clue in.

Gunnar Rogers: Got you, and what was it that made you clue in? Just what made that click?

Dr. Corinna Lathan: Well, I think I couldn’t deny the obvious anymore when I got to graduate school at MIT and I was the only girl in many of my classes and there were only two of us in the graduate program, the PhD program I had entered, two out of about twelve. So, I sort of couldn’t deny the obvious and then, I talk about the quote in my book later on actually and I think the last chapter, I talk about reading the American Association of University — oh shoot, I’m not going to remember the name of it.

The American Association of University Women released a report about that time that I was a young graduate student, and there’s a quote by Mira Sadker, a sociologist and she said that, “If the cure for cancer is in the mind of a girl, it’s less likely that it’s going to come to fruition.” That’s paraphrasing but it knocked me over. Like, it just really, I couldn’t avoid, or not avoid, and it’s not that I was avoiding, I couldn’t stay passive any longer. 

I couldn’t just do my thing and not address that the cure for cancer might be in one of our young girls or underrepresented minorities, and we were not tapping that potential. So right then and there I started a program, Keys to Empowering Youth for Middle School Girls with some other graduate students in MIT, and it’s still going to this day.

Gunnar Rogers: That’s awesome. Through that program but also just through, over the years, beginning to bring that issue to the forefront as far as these underrepresented groups, being in the same community, how have you seen that change and where are we at as of today? 

Dr. Corinna Lathan: Yeah, I don’t have the numbers and statistics in front of me, but I have to say, I was discouraged; certainly, before writing the book. Part of what prompted me to write the book is that I hadn’t seen a lot of change in terms of the numbers, in terms of the numbers of girls going into STEM careers. It felt like we haven’t moved the needle that much in the same questions we were still asking, and the same struggles. I was seeing my—as my daughters were going through high school, I was seeing them and their friends get discouraged in STEM areas and for simple things like, they didn’t do well in a math class.

I mean, somehow, we’ve convinced students in our country that if they don’t do well in algebra or pre-calculus that they’re not STEM material and that’s just insane. So, I think that unfortunately is very discouraging and we’ve doubled down on it. Now, high schools have all these magnet programs where they immediately have to excel in physics and pre-calculus and if they don’t do well, they think they can’t be an inventor or an engineer or a scientist. 

Gunnar Rogers: Yeah, they’re funneled right into the liberal arts because they can’t go the STEM route.

Dr. Corinna Lathan: Right, so that is super discouraging. On the flip side, I will say, I’m encouraged that there’s more visibility of role models, I would include myself in that. I’m trying to be more visible.

Gunnar Rogers: I would include you in that very much. 

Dr. Corinna Lathan: Well, I mean, in terms of meeting my efforts to be visible, you know? I mean, I’m not trying to be overly humble, but a lot of women don’t put themselves out there and myself included. I just want to invent my stuff, I just want to do cool things. And so for twenty years, I really did that and this was really my effort to give back, to say, “Hey, there’s – you can do cool projects and I’m someone who really loved the past twenty years of inventing, and I want to share that passion for inventing with you.”

Anyone Can Be an Inventor

Gunnar Rogers: I love that, and reading through the book, it’s so clear from the beginning but throughout, there’s this common thread of basically, our current perception of who an inventor is or the characteristics of people in the STEM community or people who get to be a part of that community are a little off, and you do this great job of presenting like, if you’re creative, you can be an inventor. So, why do you believe most people don’t consider themselves an inventor or don’t consider themselves capable of inventing anything?

Dr. Corinna Lathan: Yeah, no. It’s a really interesting question because there’s been a big movement to bring A, arts, into STEM and make it STEAM and actually, I mentioned my friend and colleague David Newman in my book where she adds the D, so it’s STEAMD, which I loved because we’re also angry that we’re not reaching more kids.

So, I love the concept of STEM with art and design and STEM united. Another positive trend that I’ve seen is this concept of the maker movement. That started, I don’t know, almost twenty years ago as well but really gained momentum in the past ten years or so and the idea of a maker became immediately accessible to the kids doing Legos, to the kids decorating a cake. 

I mean, this idea of making became very inclusive and so, I think what many organizations and parents and teachers, they’ve really been able to leverage this concept of making to be more inclusive, but you know what’s funny? When I was doing some sort of initial interviews of maybe high school, college-age students, both boys and girls, men and women for my book, I would say to them, “Are you a maker?” and immediately, they would say yes. 

And then I would say, “Are you an inventor?” They would hesitate and they’d have to kind of talk themselves into the concept of inventing. It’s really interesting and I think again, it’s this idea that inventing has to be almost something patentable. You know, unless you have a patent, you’re not an inventor. It was a really super high bar. 

So, I think the good thing is that we’re starting to see that everyone considers themselves makers, that they can see themselves with that description, with that creativity, the curiosity, that concept of inventing but they’re still kind of shy about calling it inventing.

Gunnar Rogers: I love that. So, for everyone listening, you are an inventor. So just please lean into that, starting now. 

Dr. Corinna Lathan: Yes, maybe think every day, invent something every day, whether it’s—even an idea, you know? Just think of something cool, you know? Keep a little journal and write down something new every day.

Gunnar Rogers: I love that. I think I’m going to start doing that so I can be an inventor and Dr. Lathan, you have invented many things in your life and in your career and I ask this for anybody listening who still might be a little intimidated. For you personally, what was your first invention and specifically, what was the idea and what was the final result?

Dr. Corinna Lathan: I don’t know about the first. I guess I’d have to, you know, I’d like to think that I was a young maker. I mean, I remember I used to do really elaborate Halloween costumes and so I remember putting together chicken wire to do a garbage can and be Oscar the Grouch, you know? So, I remember doing just fun things like that which, I don’t know I would call those inventions, right? 

If I’m arguing from my last comment but I would say, for me, it all came together. It’s really the first chapter of my book where I talk about [how] I thought I wanted to be a professor and I was teaching and I loved students and I love teaching but I really discovered that I wanted to create something that could solve a problem I was seeing in the world, and I saw that kids with disabilities were having a hard time accessing computers. 

For example, they were having a hard time reaching their developmental goals because it was hard for—they had the same potential as a child without a disability, but their capabilities were different and so they needed new tools to actually reach their full potential, and I saw that the technology available to them was very simple and really wasn’t solving the real problems they had. 

Of course, you’ll have to read the whole chapter to get the details but the bottom line is that, we looked at the need that the kids had, we talked to their parents, we talked to their clinicians and discovered that what a lot of kids with developmental disabilities needed was a technology that could help them with physical therapy, for example because a lot of these kids had physical disabilities and they could also do their homework and their cognitive development at the same time. 

So, we created Cosmo Bot, the robot who could actually work with these kids as an unassuming almost, I don’t want to say peer but an unassuming toy and prompt and companion and friend, to help guide them through whatever developmental goals they were working on, and for some kids, it might just be cause and effect. If you could dance with Cosmo Bot and make Cosmo Bot dance, you would understand that you actually had agency in this world. 

That you could have an effect on the world and that is a very basic developmental goal. For some kids, it was following directions like a Simon Says game and we could focus on upper arm strength and mobility. So, most of the Simon Says games could involve raising your arms, which is actually something that kids need to, with cerebral palsy, maybe need to do to increase their range of motion. 

So anyway, I think for me, the idea of being an inventor really clicked in when I said, “There’s a problem out there and I know I have the tools to help solve that problem, and I need to go do that.” That for me was really the, I think the first time when I soup-to-nuts said, “I need to invent something, and I have some ideas.” So, it is a very long answer to your question but—

Gunnar Rogers: Hey, I love that answer. One, it points to a quote that I pulled out that gave me an idea for a question that I would love to hear your thoughts on. You say in the book, technology should enable human capability and that invention most certainly enables human capability and solves a problem and helps people, it is wonderful. It does seem like the general population believes technology should replace human capability. Why do you believe that is and how did you come to a different conclusion? 

Dr. Corinna Lathan: Yeah, so the guiding principle behind everything I have done is that technology can be the bridge, it can be the bridge between what we can currently do and what we want to do, what we’re capable of doing. One of the examples that I used is exploring space. We couldn’t explore space without technology. Now, that is not a replacement. I mean, we couldn’t do it if we didn’t have technology. 

So, I think you’re right, there’s this general feeling that technology is OK as long as it is restoring function or replacing lost function. We think of things like prosthetics, or we think of eyeglasses. That’s the general public’s idea of human enhancement technology or human capability. We don’t often think about how technology can expand our capability even though we do that all the time. 

When I try to reach a high shelf, you know I might use a reacher, I mean, or stand on a stool. I mean, maybe you wouldn’t call a stool or reacher technology, but it is the same concept that technology absolutely should expand human capability. 

Inventing the Future

Gunnar Rogers: I love that, and then looking forward, you are a techno-optimist and you have written this wonderful book displaying the future of creativity and the future of technology and how it does enhance our human capabilities. What is one invention that you are most excited about looking into the future? 

Dr. Corinna Lathan: Oh gosh, I am excited about so many things, but I’ll talk about one of them that’s in the book, electroceuticals. Electroceuticals are in contrast to pharmaceuticals. Instead of using drugs to treat disease, we can use our body’s own electrical system, our nervous system to treat disease and even more, we can use electroceuticals to remain healthy, so for wellness and prevention unlike pharmaceuticals, which generally are only for treating illness, disease, that sort of thing. 

So electroceuticals, you know, a simple example that some people might be familiar with is a TENS unit, a transcutaneous electrical neurostimulator that maybe if you go to the chiropractor or a physical therapist they might put it on your back for back pain or you can just — you know, I went on Amazon for your muscle pain but there is a whole wealth of bioelectronics medicine and that I’ve been working for the past few years now with some of the scientists behind bioelectronics medicine. 

Including Dr. Kevin Tracy at North Well who discovered that the nervous system actually is connected to our immune system and that if you stimulate the vagus nerve, which is the longest nerve in the body, it goes from your brain stem to almost all your organs and back again, that if you stimulate the vagus nerve, you actually can—you can control the inflammatory reflex and you can reduce inflammation. 

So, there’s quite a few people in this field, including myself, who are now working toward how can we use this to address disease states like rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s, even things like depression and then you can use, potentially use, vagus nerve stimulation to just keep your body healthy before the inflammatory reflex gets out of balance. There are many inventions that are coming along related to bioelectronics medicine or electroceuticals. The words are interchangeable, and I am really excited about the future of that. 

Gunnar Rogers: I love that, and I am excited about that now, I had no idea that was a thing. So, thank you for sharing with us and then the book is out now. It’s available on Amazon, everybody listening, make sure you go get a copy. Your parents were amazing and played a pivotal role in your life and had a really amazing influence on your life and so sorry to read about your mother passing during COVID. If you could give her a copy of this book, what would you say to her?

Dr. Corinna Lathan: As I mention in the book, I lost both my parents during COVID and they knew I was writing the book and they were incredibly proud and supportive and I think if I can hand them a book, I wouldn’t have to say anything. They know how much they meant to me, and they would love the book. They would just love it. 

Gunnar Rogers: They influenced and have raised a wonderful woman as well, so I am very thankful for them as well. So just thank you for sharing and thank you for continuing to write in the midst of what I’m positive was a horrendous and not very fun period of life. And now that the book is out, what impact are you working for it to have? 

Dr. Corinna Lathan: Yeah, so writing the book during the COVID-19 pandemic and going through loss, it actually was very cathartic. I mean, so much of my parents ended up in the book. I don’t know if that would have happened, and I think it’s if they were still here. So I think that’s a really important part of the story that came through that might not have otherwise and to your question of what do I hope out of it now, you know, I did this to give back. 

I am donating all the proceeds from the book to STEM organizations and nonprofits, and I am hoping that anyone who reads it — I mean, I think my target is really young professionals in STEM if I could pick one but of course, I’d love for everyone to read it but particularly young professionals in STEM to know that the journey evolves. The journey is fraught with politics and personal loss and lots of personal gain and lots of professional gain. 

It is a journey that I’m just excited to share with people and hope that at least some part of it resonates and helps them on their journey whatever that may be. 

Gunnar Rogers: Oh, I love that and that is a great segue into my next question. Once people read the book, because they’re definitely going to go read it after this interview, what are the best next steps readers can take as far as they read the book, they’re inspired, they have some new perspective and inspiration to continue their journey in inventing and being a creator, what are some of the best next steps you recommend they take? 

Dr. Corinna Lathan: Oh, next steps. I think if you are a young professional in STEM, look for great people to work with and look for great projects to do. That’s just my number one advice, that’s my number one piece of advice for pretty much anyone. If you’re not working with cool people and doing something that you really enjoy, maybe you need to keep looking and that doesn’t mean that every part of your job is always going to be fantastic. 

Sometimes, you know there is grunt work and sometimes it’s not very glamorous but particularly in the STEM fields, what problem do you want to solve and then how can technology help you solve it? Maybe that’s good advice for everyone, technology is your friend and the more we make it our friend, the more technology will be put to good use and invent the future we want to see. 

Gunnar Rogers: Oh, I love that. I love that so much and then one last question, again everybody, the book is available today, make sure you go check it out. Once people read it, once we take our next steps, how can readers find you? Where can we engage with you? How can we continue following your journey of inventing and how you’re just making this world honestly a better place? 

Dr. Corinna Lathan: Yeah, great. Well, I’m at [email protected]. You also can just go to https://inventthefuture.tech/ website to reach me, and I’m on Twitter, I’m on LinkedIn. I think Twitter I am @clathan, on Instagram I’m @drcoril, but I am not great at Instagram although my kids are going to help me get better. I’m pretty easy to find. 

Gunnar Rogers: There you go, they’re going to advance a good future there.

Dr. Corinna Lathan: I am pretty easy to find. 

Gunnar Rogers: Awesome. Well, once again everybody, the book is titled, Inventing the Future: Stories from a Techno Optimist, and not just from a techno-optimist but a brilliant and wonderful person. Dr. Cori Lathan, thank you so much for your time today. We really appreciate you. 

Dr. Corinna Lathan: Thank you so much Gunnar, this has been really fun.