MADDIE SOFIA, Host:
You are listening to shortwave …
(Music sound bite)
Sophia: … from NPR.
Earlier this month I got on my laptop and started the recorder …
James West: 1, 2, 3. OK, it’s working.
West: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
Sophia: … to talk to James West …
Nishi: Yeah, I’m at a good level.
SOFIA: … scientists and inventors.
Perfect, perfect. I felt I would get it.
It was very cool because what he co-invented decades ago helped make this interview possible.
It’s used in many things, so could you list some of the ones used today?
Nishi: I’m good at telling you why it’s not used.
Sophia: (laughs) Yes, yes, yes.
WEST: But since 1968, it has been a major microphone for communications, professional studios and toys. Whatever you need a mic, it’s a good place to find an electret mic (ph).
SOFIA: We are talking about hearing aids, baby monitors and smartphones. Inside, technology based on the foil electret microphone, a device co-invented with Gerhard Sessler in 1962 at the Bell Labs, a hub of innovation in the 20th century, or, as Jim calls it, everything. There is a sandbox equipped. Toys that you want to play with, especially for someone like him who just graduated from college.
Nishi: Why did you choose Bell Labs? Well, it’s a great place to offer the opportunity. I think few people refuse it.
Sophia: That’s right.
Nishi: But the reasons for accepting a job at Bell Labs were quite different. That’s because I saw people like I wanted to be when I grew up.
Sophia: I mean, another black scientist. And for Jim, invention and inclusion are inextricably linked from the beginning.
From everything I read about you, Jim, you’ve been involved in bringing people of color, women, and marginalized backgrounds to STEM for most of your career. So do you have any speculation about the number of people you have brought into life or science? And don’t be humble, Jim. Don’t be humble. Well, you know …
Nishi: It’s scary to put numbers on it.
Nishi: But there are many.
SOFIA: Today’s show is Jim West, an avid mentor, scientist and inventor. I’m Madisofia. You are listening to NPR’s daily science podcast, SHORTWAVE.
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Sophia: James West was born in 1931 and grew up in Prince Edward County, Virginia. Before jumping into his research and working as a mentor, I wanted to know more about the relationship between young child Jim and his science.
Nishi: My biggest motivation was the desire to know how things work and why they work. I forgot this completely on purpose, but I disassembled 105 of my grandfather’s pocket watches, but I couldn’t put them back and suffered quite severe punishment. But it didn’t interfere with my desire to know and understand how things work. So I was told that I could only disassemble what wasn’t working. And that was wrong to tell me. Because if I could break it, I could get into it.
Sophia: (laughs) Oh, I see. So now you are breaking things. You look Because it doesn’t work …
Nishi: That’s right. So now I can disassemble it. correct. exactly.
Sophia: I see. So (laughs) Did your parents support your interest in engineering and science?
Nishi: Absolutely not. I became a doctor, my brother became a dentist, and vice versa. They didn’t care which direction it went, only that it went in either of those two directions. And when I told my father to change my major from biology to physics, he gave me two blacks with a PhD in chemistry working at a post office or railroad pullman porter. I introduced a man. I taught get in high school, but I didn’t have enough money to support my family. And he thought I was on the road to becoming one of them because you could be a preacher, teacher, lawyer, doctor, but it was a black man in Prince Edward County, Virginia. It was about that about the profession.
Sophia: But in the face of all that, Jim stuck with it. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physics from Temple University and then worked at Bell Labs for over 40 years. And his big invention with the foil electret mic Gerhard didn’t come from trying to solve one particular problem.
West: I didn’t-I don’t think either of us sat down and said, let’s invent a better mic. That wasn’t the motive at all. The motivation was why nature behaves that way. And if you can understand it, how can you apply it to improve your knowledge, make things better or last longer, in this case to extend your life?
Sophia: That’s right. Okay, so-‘because I understand it-it’s like this, Jim. And you can score me. I’m worried about my grades (laughs). But basically this is really basic, but the microphone converts the sound into an electrical signal, right?
Nishi: That’s right.
Sophia: It takes power to do that. And you two found material that could be basically permanent. That is, you are basically charged permanently. So, instead of inevitably needing a spare battery there, you know you have it without it. And the material you found was essentially Teflon foil.
Nishi: You got A Plus.
Sophia: Yeah (laughs). Was found was found. Now that I have the A-plus of science, let’s talk more about pulling people (laughing) into STEM. Because that’s what you’re passionate about, and what I’m passionate about. So, in your experience, do you know what works, or what doesn’t work if you feel it’s more important when trying to pull people into STEM?
West: Well, I think honesty is a very important role. It’s not all roses. So we also get some thorns. Nature does not always behave as you think. And I think honesty is important because you want to succeed. And if you know that nature doesn’t always work the way you think, this gives you the courage to continue-keep looking for solutions to your research or specific problems. In other words, the story has two sides. There is a glorious side, then a grunge side. But more importantly, science and technology have led us to our present location. And that’s the only thing that can take us further or free us from any difficulties we face-global warming, all these problems.
STEM needs more diversity. Diversity is shown as follows-there are advantages. I was once worried about the brainstorming sessions where all white men are here, and I was here. But guess where the solution was-somewhere in between. And this is when I learned to think differently as a white male student and a black male, even though I took the same course and, despite being in the same field you know. ..
Nishi: But this diversification makes this country wonderful. And what is very worrisome is that we are not fully utilizing natural resources. It is a person who can work and be productive in this area. And this is why I keep pushing to make it available.
Sophia: And Jim has been pushing for a long time. His efforts can be traced back to Jim’s work with graduate students at Johns Hopkins University and a non-profit organization called the Ingenuity Project, when he helped establish the Black Institute Employees Association at Bell Labs in 1970. I will. They offer math and science programs to students at Baltimore Public School. Jim talked about joining the board in 2014.
WEST: When asked if I was interested in joining the board, I wanted to know what the program really was. And what I found was that the majority of the students in the program were white men, which did not represent the demographics of the city of Baltimore. So I said, look; you can put me on the board, but I’m going to make some changes. This is not representative of the city of Baltimore and I am a change agent here as there are not enough blacks and women in this program.
But today, the program is underestimated by 80% being minorities and women.
Sophia: A big change.
Nishi: Not only that, but when we last saw it two years ago, we graduated from 100 students.
Nishi: All of them got scholarships and scholarships.
Nishi: Seven people were hospitalized in Johns Hopkins. By the way, these changes were made without touching on the program requirements.
Sophia: I see.
Nishi: So what does this say to you? This shows that there are talented people out there that we are not using. If we can make such a change in the city of Baltimore within a finite number of years, this certainly shows that the minority and women who love science and are looking for a real opportunity to enter are undervalued. .. .. And the Ingenuity Project made that offer, and they took us on to it. And I’m very happy they did.
Sophia: I see. So Jim, I hope I’m willing to share this. Tell me if you don’t want it in the episode. But by the time this interview comes out, you will be 90 years old. Congratulations. Happy Birthday.
West: Well, thank you.
Sophia: So what advice do you give to young scientists and perhaps young inventors who see themselves in you? What advice do you give them?
West: Well, there are many things I can think of, but more importantly, to follow your star. As you know, whoever made me say, I’m going to make a scientist, and I’ll fulfill that responsibility. So I think a happy person is someone who is doing what he likes. And if it’s science, it’s great. But often you don’t know if it’s science because you haven’t been exposed …
Sophia: That’s right.
West: … it will tell you if there is something you want to do. So, museums, books, over and over again-learn as much as you can as soon as possible. And the only major, major advice is to learn all the math you can probably do because it’s a language of science.
Sophia: Yeah, yeah. In other words, that’s a good thing (laughs). I feel I’m going to send this episode to my dad, and he’s going to say, do you know? What did I say to you? Jim West will tell you to learn math.
SOFIA: Special thanks to Jim West for coming to the show and spending time with us.
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SOFIA: This episode was produced by Berly McCoy and Brit Hanson, edited by Viet Le, and fact-checked by Rasha Aridi. I’m Madisofia. Tomorrow, we’ll be back with SHORTWAVE, NPR’s daily science podcast.
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