Friday, February 06, 2015
AMHERST — A tinkerer and creative thinker, soon-to-be National Academy of Inventors fellow Alfred J. Crosby said one of the greatest things you can do as an inventor is tell your idea to someone else.
“Your idea is not fully mature when it is first made,” said the University of Massachusetts professor of polymer science and engineering. “It becomes mature by others asking questions back at you.”
Co-inventor of Geckskin, an industrial-strength adhesive modeled after gecko feet, Crosby, 40, will be honored next month as a fellow of the Florida-based National Academy of Inventors.
The risk of someone stealing an idea is far lower than the potential for someone else to help make the idea better, Crosby said at a recent interview in his office on the third floor of the Silvio O. Conte National Center for Polymer Research at UMass. Crosby, who has been at UMass since 2002, and heads a team of about 20 doctoral and post-doctoral students and undergraduates who have produced many inventions, mostly inspired by biology.
“It is better to create a team and get people believing in you than to work in isolation,” Crosby said.
That idea, which he tries to pass on to his students, is based on a concept passed on to him from his own doctoral adviser, who told him that it was better to be known as someone with many ideas than someone with none, he said.
Crosby discovered his passion in kindergarten and first grade. “I don’t know if I ever said the words ‘I want to be an inventor,’ but I always liked tinkering and building different things,” he said.
He continued tinkering through high school and considered studying engineering. What distinguished that path from his other front-runners — law and architecture — was that it involved forcing himself to explain what he was doing.
“That’s the greatest difference between art and engineering,” Crosby said. “Both require a lot of creativity ... In engineering and science, you ask the questions of ‘Why did that work?’ and ‘How did it work?’ so you can actually use those principles again and do something else with them.”
Machines in labs
The four labs Crosby runs at the Conte Research Center are filled with different machines to encourage his graduate students and others who work with him to tinker and experiment.
One features a drill press, a sewing machine, and a three-dimensional printer. Another is a wet lab filled with chemicals, microscopes and burners.
“One of the things I tell my students when they join our group is that we have a lot of toys ... and they can put them together in different ways and hopefully something comes out, but if something comes out, they have to explain it,” Crosby said.
One invention currently in the works has to do with creating a material that can snap itself closed when triggered by internal sensors like a Venus flytrap.
The most celebrated invention is Geckskin, which Crosby co-developed with UMass biology professor Duncan J. Irschick and a handful of researchers in 2009. They published their findings in 2012. A human-hand-sized sheet of the material can hold nearly 700 pounds, and can be easily removed from a surface and reused, Crosby said.
“Geckskin has been quite a ride,” Crosby said. “One of the biggest impacts for me is the amount of phone calls and letters — actual snail-mail letters — that come from people all over the world.”
One email came from a father of a 6-year-old daughter who loves geckos. The man thanked Crosby and the team for developing Geckskin, which gave the father the opportunity to talk about science and engineering with his daughter.
The father told Crosby his daughter hadn’t stopped talking about it for a week.
The fact that a young person became interested in science due to his work is a big deal for Crosby, who said he works to instill acceptance and openness among his students.
Rather than spending his time in his labs, Crosby mostly talks to his students and helps them to come up with their own ideas.
“My job is creating a culture in our group that is inventive or creative,” Crosby said.
Just a small fraction of ideas are good enough to become viable inventions, but the creative process of exploring all ideas is key to finding the good ones, he said.
Marcos A. Reyes-Martínez, a graduate researcher in Crosby’s lab, said he felt an instant connection to Crosby and his way of working when he met him five years ago.
Originally pursuing organic electronics, Reyes-Martínez altered his field so that he could work with Crosby, he said.
“It’s a very important relationship in life when trying to find an adviser,” said Reyes-Martínez, who is from the Dominican Republic. “Talking to him that first time, I just knew it would work.”
Reyes-Martínez, whose research is on materials that can be used to create bendable electronics, said Crosby is skilled in explaining complicated science in simple terms. He leads students in finding their own solutions rather than spelling out answers for them.
He noted that Hispanics are few and far between in his field, so the Dominican Republic native was concerned he might feel isolated. But being a part of Crosby’s team helped him feel like he had a place to thrive.
“That’s all I wanted, just to do science, and that is what being in this group has allowed me to do,” he said.
The recent recipient of a doctorate now also has another desire — he wants to be a balanced and creative professor. “I would like to be like Al Crosby,” he said.
On March 20, Crosby will join fellow UMass Polymer Science and Engineering Professor Todd Emrick, who was inducted last year, as a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors.
Crosby said the establishment of the National Academy of Inventors in 2010 was important because it recognizes the work of inventors. In higher education, inventions have often played second fiddle to scholarly papers, he said.
But Crosby said he feels no such judgment from his department at UMass, which he said is of the of the reasons it is successful. Ideas are shared among colleagues, and many researchers work in multiple laboratories.
“People share their skills with no protectiveness over their ideas,” Crosby said of UMass. “That is not the case at all universities.”
Crosby said his wife, Kerry Crosby, will accompany him to the induction ceremony. He said that one of the things that has allowed him to be successful is to balance his time in the lab with family time. The couple has three children, Kyle, 10, Jill, 8, and Drew, 4.
Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.