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Two Ohio State engineers elected to National Academy of Inventors

Inventions improved technology access for disabled children; made better pacemakers

Two engineering faculty at The Ohio State University College of Engineering have been elected to the National Academy of Inventors (NAI) 2021 class of fellows.

Ayanna Howard, dean of the College of Engineering, and Stuart Cooper, distinguished professor of chemical engineering, join a class of 164 academic innovators representing universities and governmental or nonprofit research institutes named to the Fellows program this year. They are the 13th and 14th Ohio State inventors to be chosen as NAI fellows.

“The work done by our newest NAI Fellows demonstrates the breadth and depth of research and innovation expertise that can be found at Ohio State,” said Grace Wang, executive vice president, enterprise for research, innovation and knowledge. “Dr. Howard and Dr. Cooper’s work continues to positively impact people’s lives, and I’m pleased that the National Academy of Inventors is recognizing their efforts.”

Ayanna Howard

Howard, an accomplished roboticist, entrepreneur and educator, joined Ohio State on March 1 as the first woman to lead the university’s College of Engineering. Howard, whose career has included stints in higher education, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and in the private sector, has also focused on inclusiveness and diversity in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). She came to Ohio State from Georgia Tech, where she was chair of the School of Interactive Computing in the College of Computing, as well as founder and director of the Human-Automation Systems Lab (HumAnS).

While at Georgia Tech, Howard ran STEM camps for students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

One of the people she met there was an intelligent young woman whose visual impairment prevented her from communicating her ideas through computers and tablets.

“It baffled me that we had this bright mind and she couldn’t communicate, and that’s when I started thinking about how we design technology,” Howard said. “I’ve always been interested in making the world accessible through education, and when I thought about diversity, I’d always thought about gender, race and ethnicity. And I realized this world of disability was an area of diversity that doesn’t get discussed enough.”

Howard developed an algorithm and the electronics for a device that allowed children who had difficulty pinching and swiping on a tablet or other touchscreen to manipulate those screens.

She created a toy controller for a tablet that would also allow for adaptive use: The controller looks like a stuffed animal but has buttons that allow children to control apps on computers, tablets and phones. Her motivation: To make sure that a physical disability doesn’t prevent a child from interacting with STEM education. The work led to a spinoff company, Zyrobotics, which develops mobile therapy and educational products for children with special needs. Howard is the company’s founder and president of its board of directors.

“It is our responsibility to ensure that when we talk about making STEM diverse for ‘everyone’ we really talk about everyone, whether they have a disability or anything else that keeps them from participating,” she said.

Howard has received numerous accolades and honors for her work. In 2018, Forbes named her to its America’s Top 50 Women in Tech list. In May of this year, she was named the Association for Computing Machinery’s Athena Lecturer in recognition of fundamental contributions to the development of accessible human-robotic systems and artificial intelligence, along with forging new paths to broaden participation in computing.

Stuart Cooper

Cooper joined the Ohio State College of Engineering faculty in 2004 as chair of the department of chemical and biomolecular engineering. His long career has focused largely on polymer science and engineering and on the structural integrity of polyurethanes. His work has had many notable applications, but he is perhaps best known for research that showed polyurethane thermoplastic elastomers are suitable materials for a variety of blood and tissue contact applications. These include angioplasty catheters, blood pump components, balloon pumps and pacemaker insulation.

“Regarding pacemaker insulation, the use of polyurethane was a breakthrough because the previous material, silicone rubber, was weak and difficult to insert into the arteries,” Cooper said. “Polyurethane can be made thinner and stronger; it’s more cut resistant and more suturable.”

Now a distinguished professor of engineering at Ohio State, his work was critical in laying the foundation for future biomedical engineers to understand how polyurethane chemistry influences the solid-state structure and how polyurethane modifications could be used in antimicrobial applications, drug release and potentially in such critical applications as polymeric heart valve leaflets.

In his time at Ohio State, Cooper played a significant role in the design team that oversaw the construction of Koffolt Laboratories and the new Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and Chemistry building, Ohio State’s only Silver LEED-certified laboratory building, which opened in 2015.

He has been elected to the National Academy of Engineering, is a founding fellow of The American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering and is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Chemical Society, the American Physical Society, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and the Society for Biomaterials. He served as president of the Society for Biomaterials and recently as the president of Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Honor Society.

The NAI Fellows Program highlights academic inventors who have demonstrated a spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development and the welfare of society. To date, NAI Fellows hold more than 48,000 issued U.S. patents, which have generated over 13,000 licensed technologies and companies, and created more than 1 million jobs. In addition, over $3 trillion in revenue has been generated based on NAI Fellow discoveries.

The 2021 Fellows will be inducted in a ceremony at the 11th Annual Meeting of the National Academy of Inventors in June in Phoenix, Arizona.

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