James West On Invention And Inclusion In STEM : Short Wave James West has been a curious tinkerer since he was a child, always wondering how things worked. Throughout his long career in STEM, he's also been an advocate for diversity and inclusion — from co-founding the Association for Black Laboratory Employees in 1970 to his work today with The Ingenuity Project, a non-profit that cultivates math and science skills in middle and high school students in Baltimore public schools.

Host Maddie Sofia talks to him about his life, career, and about how a device he helped invent in the 60's made their interview possible.

Email us at shortwave@npr.org.

James West On Invention And Inclusion In Science

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You're listening to SHORT WAVE...


SOFIA: ...From NPR.

Earlier this month, I got on my laptop, started my recorder...

JAMES WEST: One, two, three. OK, it's working.

SOFIA: Awesome.

WEST: One, two, three, four, five.

SOFIA: ...To talk to James West...

WEST: Yeah, and I have good level.

SOFIA: ...A scientist and inventor.

Perfect, perfect. I had a feeling we'd get it.

It was extremely cool because the thing he co-invented decades ago helped make this interview possible.

Can you list some of the things that it's used in today, because it's used in a lot of stuff?

WEST: I'd be better at telling you what it's not used in.

SOFIA: (Laughter) Right, right, right.

WEST: But since 1968, it has been the major microphone for communications, for professional studios, for toys. Anything that requires a microphone, you're more than apt (ph) to find an electret microphone.

SOFIA: We're talking hearing aids, baby monitors, smartphones. Inside, you'll probably find technology based off the foil electret microphone, a device he co-invented with Gerhard Sessler in 1962 at Bell Laboratories, a hub of 20th century tech innovation, or, as Jim calls it, a sandbox with all the toys you could ever want to play with, especially for somebody like him, just out of college.

WEST: Why did I choose Bell Labs? Well, it's a wonderful place that offered an opportunity. I think there'll be very few people that would turn it down.

SOFIA: Right.

WEST: But I had a totally different reason for accepting a position at Bell Labs, and that was I saw people there that looked like me that I wanted to be when I grew up.

SOFIA: That is, other Black scientists. And for Jim, invention and inclusion have gone hand in hand since the very beginning.

From everything that I've read about you, Jim, I mean, you've been involved in bringing people of color, women, people from marginalized backgrounds into STEM over a large part of your career. I mean, do you have any guess of how many lives you've touched or people that you've brought into science? And don't be humble, Jim. Don't be humble. Well, you know...

WEST: I'd be afraid to put a number on that.

SOFIA: Yeah.

WEST: But it's a lot.

SOFIA: So today on the show, Jim West, avid mentor, scientist and inventor. I'm Maddie Sofia, and you're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.


SOFIA: James West was born in 1931 and grew up in Prince Edward County, Va. And before we dove into his research and work as a mentor, I wanted to know more about little kid Jim and his relationship to science.

WEST: The desire to know how things work and why they work was my biggest motivator. And I completely forgot about this on purpose, but I took my grandfather's pocket watch apart - 105 pieces in it - but I couldn't get it back together, which resulted in rather severe punishment. But it didn't deter my desire to know and understand how things work. And so I was told that I could only take things apart that weren't working. And that was the wrong thing to say to me because if I could break it, I did so I could get in it.

SOFIA: (Laughter) Oh, I see. So now you're breaking stuff. You're like, look; it doesn't work, so...

WEST: Right. So now I can take it apart. Right. Exactly.

SOFIA: OK. I mean, (laughter) were your parents supportive of your interest in engineering and science?

WEST: Absolutely not. I was going to be the doctor, and my brother the dentist, or vice versa. They didn't care which way it went, only that it went in one of those two directions. And when I told my father that I was changing my major from biology to physics, he introduced me to two Black men who had Ph.D.s in chemistry that were working in the post office or Pullman porter on the railroad because the best job they could get was teaching at high school, and that didn't pay enough to support their families. And he thought that I was well on the way to becoming one of them because you could be a preacher, teacher, lawyer, doctor, but that was about it in terms of professions for Black people in Prince Edward County, Va.

SOFIA: But in the face of all that, Jim stuck with it. He graduated from Temple University with a degree in physics and then went on to work at Bell Labs for more than 40 years. And his big invention with Gerhard, the foil electret microphone, didn't come from trying to solve one specific problem.

WEST: I didn't - I don't think either of us sat down and said, let's invent a better microphone. That was not the motivation at all. The motivation was, why does nature behave in the way that it does? And if I can understand that, then how can I apply my knowledge to improving or to make things work better or last longer, in this case, to increase lifetime?

SOFIA: Right, right. OK, so - 'cause my understanding of it - it's like this, Jim. And you can grade me. And I'm worried about my grade (laughter). But so basically, and this is really basic, but a microphone converts sound into an electrical signal, right?

WEST: Right.

SOFIA: And it needs power to do that. And you two found a material that you could basically be kind of permanently - so, you know, basically, permanently charged. So instead of, like, necessarily needing an extra battery in there, you know, you've got it without that. And that material that you found was essentially Teflon foil.

WEST: You earned an A-plus.

SOFIA: Yay (laughter). OK, OK. Well, now that I've got my A-plus in science, let's (laughter) talk more about bringing people into STEM 'cause it's a thing that you're passionate about, it's a thing that I'm passionate about. So, you know, in your experience, what works - or if you feel like it's more importantly, what doesn't - when you're trying to bring people into STEM?

WEST: Well, I think honesty is the very important role. It's not all roses. So we get some thorns, too. Nature doesn't always behave in the way that you think it should. And I think honesty is important because you want to succeed. And if you know that nature is not always going to work the way you think it works, this gives you the fortitude to continue to - your investigation or continue looking for a solution to a particular problem. In other words, there are two sides to the story. There's the glory side, and then there's the grunge side. But even more important, science and technology got us to where we are. And it's the only thing that's going to get us further or out of whatever difficulty that we have - global warming, all of these problems.

We need more diversity in STEM. Diversity has been shown to be - have an advantage. I used to worry about brainstorming sessions where all the white guys were over here, and I was over here. But guess where the solution was - somewhere in between. And this is when I learned that even though I had taken the same courses, the, you know, the same discipline, I think differently as a Black man than a white male student.

SOFIA: Yeah.

WEST: But this diversification is what makes this country great. And what is very disturbing is that we're not taking full advantage of our natural resources, and that's human beings that can work and be productive in this field. And this is the reason that I continue to push to make it available.

SOFIA: And Jim's been pushing for a long time. You can trace his efforts back to 1970 at Bell Labs, when he helped form the Association of Black Laboratory Employees, all the way to Jim's work today with his graduate students at Johns Hopkins University and a nonprofit called the Ingenuity Project. They offer math and science programs to students in Baltimore public schools. Jim told me a story about joining their board of directors back in 2014.

WEST: When I was asked if I would be interested in joining the board, I wanted to know what the program was really all about. And what I found was that the majority of students in the program were white male and that this 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. I'm a change agent here because this does not represent the city of Baltimore, and there are not enough Black people and women in this program.

But today, the program is 80% underrepresented minority and women.

SOFIA: Big shift.

WEST: Not only that - the last time I looked, two years ago, we graduated a hundred students.


WEST: All of them got fellowships and scholarships.


WEST: Seven were admitted to Johns Hopkins. And by the way, these changes were made without ever touching the requirements for the program.


WEST: So what does this say to you? This says that there are talented people out there that we're not taking advantage of. If we can make that kind of change in the city of Baltimore within a finite number of years, this is certainly an indication to me that there are underrepresented minority and women who are in love with science and really, really look for opportunities to get in. And Ingenuity Project made that offer, and they took us up on it. And I'm so glad they did.

SOFIA: OK. So, Jim, I hope you don't mind me sharing this. You just tell me if you don't want it in the episode. But by the time this interview comes out, you will have turned 90. Congrats. Happy birthday.

WEST: Well, thank you.

SOFIA: So what's your advice for young scientists, for young inventors who maybe see themselves in you? What advice would you give them?

WEST: Well, there's so many things that I can think of, but more importantly is to follow your star. You know, I'm pretty sure that whoever made me said, I'm going to make a scientist, and I fulfill that responsibility. So I think that the happy people are those people that are doing what they love to do. And if it's science, great. But in many cases, you don't know whether it's science or not because you haven't had the exposure...

SOFIA: Right.

WEST: ...That would tell you whether there's something you think you would be interested in doing. So museums, books, on and on and on - learn as much as you can as early as you can. And the only major, major advice is learn all the math that you possibly can because it is the language of science.

SOFIA: Yeah, yeah. I mean, that's good (laughter). I feel like I'm going to send this episode to my dad, and he's going to say, see? What did I tell you? Jim West will tell you to learn math.


SOFIA: Special thanks to Jim West for coming on the show and spending some time with us.


SOFIA: This episode was produced by Berly McCoy and Brit Hanson, edited by Viet Le and fact-checked by Rasha Aridi. I'm Maddie Sofia, and we're back tomorrow with more SHORT WAVE, NPR's daily science podcast.


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