On Being A Scientist (And Patent Holder) At Any Age

17:15 minutes

The cloud of space debris that Amber Yang tracked with her artificial neural network system. Credit: Amber Yang

It’s estimated that nearly 500,000 pieces of space junk—often debris from broken satellites— pose a threat to spacecraft. Overcrowding in near-Earth orbit is a real problem that scientists are working to solve, and in 2014, high school sophomore Amber Yang set out to help find a solution. That year, debris from an old Chinese satellite collided with an active Russian satellite, and the remains of the collision threatened millions of dollars’ worth of U.S. space instruments.

Currently, tracking space junk relies on a statistical mathematical model that is continuously updated. However, a lot of debris travels in a nonlinear orbit, influenced by solar radiation, solar wind, and Earth’s gravity, and its path can change in unpredictable ways. Amber decided to develop a better tracking method. Using a computer program in MatLab, and drawing from community forums and open-source data sets, she created a program that relies on an artificial neural network, which, like the human brain, constantly updates itself with new information. By recognizing patterns and learning how space debris orbits are changing, her program can predict the future position of space junk with 98 percent accuracy. Amber joins Ira to discuss her award-winning science project.

[Tech giants gear up for patent battle.]

Plus, can young scientists doing industry-level work keep their ideas from getting stolen? Joyce Ward, the director of education for the United States Patent and Trade Office, explains how students can protect their intellectual property and earn a patent at any age.

Segment Guests

Amber Yang

Amber Yang is a 2017 Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award Winner. She’s based in Windermere, Florida.

Joyce Ward

Joyce Ward is the Director of Education and Outreach at the United States Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Virginia.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. 18-year-old Amber Yang is this year’s winner of the Intel Young Scientist Award. Her achievement, a computer program for tracking space debris using neural networks– pretty heavy stuff out there. But what’s more impressive to me as I watched her Ted Talk on her project was not only her passion for science, but her outrage at the injustice faced by a young female scientist whose male peers refuse to believe that a woman could be a talented mathematician and programmer. And she’s here to tell us about that and her award winning project. Amber Yang, winner of the 2017 Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award. Welcome to Science Friday.

AMBER YANG: Hi, thank you for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, you’re very welcome. I mean, you are certainly incredibly accomplished for your age, and I have been trying to muddle through your project, which I want to get to a little bit later. But I want to really first talk about your passion for science and math, and talking about how some people didn’t think that you, a young woman, could be a computer programmer, especially the boys.

AMBER YANG: Yeah, sure. So definitely. I think that in today’s society a lot of young girls are discouraged from entering the science field. And even though the path to success in science is very non-linear, I’m here standing today as the Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award winner. But my path, and all of the obstacles I had to overcome in my own self-confidence, has been really something that has allowed me to achieve this amount of success, and to ultimately build up a confidence and a love for science that I’m hoping to continue in the future.

IRA FLATOW: You said your mom, if I remember correctly, was a computer programmer. Is that correct?

AMBER YANG: Yes, that’s correct.

IRA FLATOW: Was she put in helping to inspire you along the way here. Did she console you and encourage you when your classmates sort of ignored you?

AMBER YANG: Yeah, definitely. My mother, in her office right now, is the only female. She’s a software engineer. And a lot of times she comes back to me when I was younger. And she told me all the stories about how a lot of times in meetings she was ignored when there is a room full of men. And so I think my mother has really been the biggest inspiration for me in pursuing these– a lot of male dominated science fields.

And I remember clearly there’s an instance, when I was younger. I have this poster in my room with all of the most notable scientists. And I was around five or six years old, and I asked my mother, why aren’t there that many female scientists on this poster? And so the conversations that I’ve been able to have with my mother, and her always supporting me and encouraging me as a young woman in science has really given me the leverage to continue in the future.

IRA FLATOW: And you talk a lot about your robotics club, and how the experience– what a terrific experience for you that was.

AMBER YANG: Yeah, when I joined the middle school robotics team when I was in middle school, I was the only girl. And when I went in on the first day, my science teacher said, look around us, we finally have a girl on the team. And I was really excited. I was very interested in the field of robotics at the time. And a lot of the boys on the team would just gather around each other, and only talk amongst each other, and exclude me from the conversation.

I also think that something that’s really big is that boys– especially younger boys– will only try to listen to their own ideas, and not try to get the voice of a minority, which in this case was me, the only female.

IRA FLATOW: Did this anger you, or just make you resolve to do even more?

AMBER YANG: It actually had a big toll on my own self-confidence as a young middle school girl in science. But ultimately, it really gave me the drive and the determination to go and learn things for myself, to do things separately from the group. And that ultimately gave me this passion to learn for myself.

IRA FLATOW: OK, let’s geek out a little bit because we like to do that here on Science Friday. Your work paid off this year. As we said before, you won the Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award with the space debris tracking program. What got you interested? Where– you said in your talk that it was the movie Gravity that finally focused your attention. Tell us that story.

AMBER YANG: Yeah, so actually, the story really begins in 2007 when China actually exploded one of its satellites, and all of the fragmentation from that was making the United States really concerned about the billions of dollars we have up there in space. And so I saw this reaching headlines in the news about how the US was so worried about our functioning spacecraft. And that really got me interested in this field of astrophysics and the problem of space debris.

And as you mentioned, in around the ninth grade, when I was in the ninth grade, the movie Gravity came out. And Gravity is based on that whole scenario of how space debris could utterly destroy the International Space Station and pose really big dangers to astronauts in space. So my project really stems from this drive for me to try to better the safety of space travel. I created a collision avoidance system that can predict where space debris will go in the future so things like the International Space Station, things like function spacecraft, have time to move out of collisions way to avoid all of this destruction.

IRA FLATOW: Can you– what is the algorithm for that? How does it know how to do that? You say that you first have to track where the objects have come from and then predict where they’re going.

AMBER YANG: Sure. So I actually created an algorithm that’s based off of artificial neural networks. So artificial neural networks is based off of artificial intelligence, and the fact that they can learn from past data, and they can take basically patterns of where space debris has been in the past to make better predictions of how much the positions of the space debris will change in the future.

The current methods of tracking space debris rely on a statistical mathematical model that is constantly being manually updated whenever the space debris orbit changes. The really novel thing about applying artificial neural networks is that they can learn by themselves without a manual update about how much the debris positions have been changing for better predictions ultimately in the future.

IRA FLATOW: And your predictions turned out to be very accurate, didn’t they?

AMBER YANG: Yes, so they were within 10 arcseconds of where the space 3 actually was. This corresponds to less than 0.1 kilometers of tracking error. And current methods that are being used have around a 30 to 50 arcsecond tracking error. So this is definitely a significant improvement in accuracy. And I’m really looking forward to doing more experimentation with my neural networks to validate that.

IRA FLATOW: Would it be right to say that, in lay language, that’s like about 98% or 99% accurate?

AMBER YANG: Yeah, that’s correct. And the really beautiful thing about neural networks is that they can always improve on their accuracy through retraining. They learn from their mistakes. So the accuracy can always improve upon itself.

IRA FLATOW: Well, you know, what I like about the way your attitude is– and a lot of things about your attitude– but you talk about, you know, I had a hurdle. I didn’t know anything about programming. So I just taught myself to be a computer programmer, coder.

AMBER YANG: Yeah. That’s correct. I did not really have any experience with MATLAB, which is the computer program that I used. MATLAB actually has a neural network toolkit. And so I got to experiment and play around with it a lot by myself. And I just basically came up with this project from there.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. I’m just kind of move on because I want to talk about– you talked about improving your product. With students like you producing such high caliber work at science fairs, I know that they’re actually competing with professional scientists and engineers with advanced degrees for these ideas. And a lot of students might not be aware that they can patent their projects to protect their intellectual property just like professional researchers do. And my next guest is here to help explain how they can do that. Joyce Ward is director of education and outreach for the US Patent and Trademark Office. Welcome to Science Friday.

JOYCE WARD: Thank you. Hi, Amber.


IRA FLATOW: What would what would be your first recommendation to give to Amber if she wants to patent what she’s doing, or trademark it or what?

JOYCE WARD: So certainly, I think, just in terms of the first thing is to figure out what exactly– what exactly she has, and what the invention is. The other thing is, I confess, I watched Amber’s Ted Talk. And I know that she is definitely a researcher. And so one thing that I would suggest is that students consider looking at previous patnets that have been issued or have been filed for technology similar to what they’re doing or that’s in the field.

IRA FLATOW: Is there a lower age limit for applying for a patent?

JOYCE WARD: No. I’m sorry.

IRA FLATOW: No, I’m sorry. I just stepped on your box, like I do unfortunately to a lot of people. Do you have to be 18 or older, something like that?

JOYCE WARD: No, absolutely not. There’s not an age restriction or requirement to file a patent. The important thing is that you are actually the inventor.

IRA FLATOW: So let’s say someone saw a project like Amber is that the Intel Science Fair and tried to claim it as their own. Would this protect her from that? Would she be protected?

JOYCE WARD: So Amber– I mean, just in terms of having, if she has– if she’s taken steps to try to protect her invention idea, then she may have some– she has more ability to stop other people from making or using or taking something that she has developed, and using it as their own. Now, one important thing to remember about patents is that you have to actually– the idea has to be beyond a concept. You actually have to show some embodiment, that it’s actually possible to make or to reproduce this.

So say, for instance, if someone gets an idea, they’re motivated because they learn something at a science fair, that’s one thing. If a person literally takes a project that a student has developed and attempts to claim it as their own, then certainly that student would want to try to take steps to stop them, or to say to the US Patent and Trademark Office hey, wait a minute. That’s not novel. That’s not new. That’s something that I came up with. And–

IRA FLATOW: Amber, did you plan on taking out a patent or protecting your intellectual property on this?

AMBER YANG: Definitely. As I move forward into college, I’m really looking into how I can protect the intellectual property on this. I think, definitely, I will either try to get my work published in a journal or actually pursue a patent so I can begin licensing my work out to companies who might be interested. And I actually did have a question for you. A lot of times there’s a trade into when would be the best time to pursue the patent. So the patent application takes a long time. And it’s really important to get it published– to get it approved when an idea is novel. But in terms of actually getting it to a stage where it would be approved readily, when do you think would be the best time to pursue a patent?

JOYCE WARD: Well, I mean, just from the standpoint of when you have– for instance, if you’re out at the Science Fair, like you were at Intel, if you are describing your work in enough detail that someone of ordinary skill in your particular area would be able to reproduce it, then you– actually, the time starts ticking. You actually have one year from the date that you publicly disclose this information to file an application for a patent.

Now, again, it depends on the level of detail. If the information you’re disclosing is an abstract or it provides general information, there’s not enough information for someone with knowledge in that area to be able to replicate to reproduce, to duplicate those efforts, then that may or may not be a disclosure. We have a number of resources at the US Patent and Trademark Office that are there to help students and to help independent inventors to think about or think through some of the procedural aspects of filing a patent. And a lot of these resources are– well, all of the resources that the US Patent and Trademark Office are free and readily available. And so that’s something that we always encourage students as well as teachers to be aware of.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Talking with Amber Yang and Joyce Ward. And we have links for the patenting information if USPTO is a little difficult to remember. Sciencefriday.com/patent. We have some stuff up there. My own advice– I’ll just jump in because I’ve had some experience with this– is Amber, get a lawyer, a patent attorney.

JOYCE WARD: I second that.

IRA FLATOW: If you have any questions, they know what to do because the actual fee of filing the patent is going to be minuscule compared to the lawyering that’s going to go on to protect your patents. There’s a lot of stuff that has to go on there. Right, you say you second that, Joyce?

JOYCE WARD: Right. No, I absolutely second that advice. I do certainly want to make sure that that Amber and students like her are aware, though, that there are resources to help you prepare, or to get more information so that when you go to the patent attorney, you have a better understanding of the process, and also have some ideas about what’s out there.

For some students, in particular, it may be cost prohibitive to go out and hire a patent attorney, or a patent agent. And so the USPTO has some programs that are out there. We work in cooperation with pro-bono programs around the country that have the ability to help with that for people who may be under-resourced, who are seeking patent protection.

We also work with a number of law schools across the country with the law school certification program. And these are law schools who actually will take on people as clients to help them obtain patents or to register trademarks. And so those are resources that that sometimes people don’t know about. And sometimes they may say, oh, wait a minute. It cost a lot to file a patent application. And I don’t have that.

The other thing I definitely think that especially students and teachers should be aware of is that the USPTO does have rates that are designed for small entities or micro entities or for independent inventors. And those rates are much lower than what they would be for say, a large company or corporation.

IRA FLATOW: Mhm. Ready to do that, Amber? Ready to–

AMBER YANG: Yeah. Sure. Take

IRA FLATOW: Take that knowledge. And once again, we have a link on our website at sciencefriday.com/patent if you want some more of that information. So Amber, what do you want students, especially girls in STEM, to take away from hearing about your experience?

AMBER YANG: Yeah. I really think the best way to increase this girl pipeline into STEM is to have really good role models for young girls to look up to. So I think that, taking away from my win, I want girls to know that, no matter the difficulties, no matter what people say to you, no matter what discouragements may be going on in the classroom, outside the classroom, you can ultimately achieve the amount of scientific success if you really dedicate yourself and follow your love and passion for science.

It takes a lot of hard work. It’s not a very easy process. There will be people who try to discourage you. But the important thing is to always follow your heart and to believe in yourself. Put in a lot of hard work. And having role models to look up to and making sure you’re always communicating with other women scientists, with other adults, that will really help you in pursuing your love for science.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you very much. And good luck to you, Amber. Stay in touch, OK? I would like to keep track of how well your work is going. Amber Yang, 2017 winner of the Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award. And also you, Joyce. Joyce Ward is director of education and outreach for the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Thank you both for taking time to be with us. Have a good holiday weekend.

AMBER YANG: Thank you so much.

JOYCE WARD: Thank you so much.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. And as I said before, there is more information about intellectual property for students. You can visit our website site at sciencefriday.com/patent.

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