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In honor of Mother’s Day on Sunday, May 10, UDaily polled several of UD’s National Academy of Inventors members for their perspective on the role their mothers have played in their creativity.

Mothers of inventors

Photo illustration by Don Shenkle | Photos courtesy of Kristi Kiick, Babatunde Ogunnaike, Norman Wagner, John Rabolt and Yushan Yan

UD inventors weigh in on how their moms have inspired them

Inventors are curious creatures.

They are creators, improvers and doers — out-of-the-box thinkers whose efforts often better our daily lives.

The University of Delaware currently is home to more than 225 such inventors, and has had nine inducted as fellows into the prestigious National Academy of Inventors (NAI).

So, how do inventors get their start? We all know the expression that “necessity is the mother of invention.” But, what about the mothers of inventors? It’s time they received due recognition.

In honor of Mother’s Day — celebrated in the United States on Sunday, May 10, 2020 — UDaily polled several of UD’s NAI members for their perspective on the role their mothers have played in their creativity. They shared a thought and answered questions about their mothers.

UD Prof. Kristi Kiick (left) with her mom, Judith Lynn (Haas) Kiick.
UD Prof. Kristi Kiick (left) with her mom, Judith Lynn (Haas) Kiick.

Kristi Kiick and her mom

Named a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors in 2019, Kristi Kiick, Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, is working on biomaterials that will advance medicine — from healing wounds faster and improving chemotherapies, to treating heart and musculoskeletal diseases. 

My mom, Judith Lynn (Haas) Kiick, was an exceptionally dedicated and devoted mother. She was born in Wilson, Pennsylvania, in the 1940s. After starting a family and being a homemaker until my sister and I were in elementary school, she worked in the legal and public service sectors in my hometown of East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. She was quick to laugh, expressive and warm, and extremely supportive of my sister and me. After she retired, she and my father spent their time enjoying friends and family, doing some volunteer work, and traveling to places in the U.S. that were on their bucket list.

Q. How did your mom cultivate your curiosity when you were little?

Kiick: My mom encouraged us to play, showed sincere curiosity about what we were doing, and listened nonjudgmentally to us. She was very playful, too, so our activities, even just those around the house, almost always had undertones of fun in them. As long as we were safe and respectful, she rarely tried to correct or redirect our thinking.

Q. Do you think your mother played a role in your becoming an inventor?

Kiick: My mother definitely played a role in my becoming an inventor, even though she probably would not have realized it. She wasn’t a scientist or engineer, but she was very creative, and always excited about new things she would learn, no matter how small. Sometimes those things seemed quite silly to me, but looking back on it, I realize that she was quick to try out the things she learned, and to find simple solutions to all sorts of challenges.

Q. Is there something your mom told you that still gives you traction today?  

Kiick: My mother rarely directly told us how to do something or how to act. But she did create an environment of support, curiosity and fun by her actions, which is probably the thing that I try to reconnect with the most. Invention comes from being open to seeing things differently than others have seen them before and acting on a possible contribution or solution. Growing up with my mom’s role modeling was definitely key in my developing a tendency to seek out ideas, experiences and solutions. 

Prof. Babatunde Ogunnaike (left) in 1979, meeting his mother who had just arrived at the airport in Madison, Wisconsin, where he was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin. She is holding her first grandchild. On the right is Tunde’s older sister, Iyabo Williams, who was also a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison at the time.

Babatunde Ogunnaike and his mom

Babatunde Ogunnaiki, named a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors in 2015, is the William L. Friend Chair of Chemical Engineering and professor in the Center for Systems Biology at the Delaware Biotechnology Institute. The former dean of the College of Engineering, he pursues research focused on process control, modeling and simulation, systems biology and applied statistics.

My mother’s name is Ayoola Ogunnaike (maiden name Oduneye). She was born May 24, 1931, and died April 13, 2005, just shy of her 74th birthday.

Q: How did your mom cultivate your curiosity when you were little?

Ogunnaike: My mother was an English teacher who later became principal of an elementary school. My love for reading widely was cultivated by my mom, who always had books around, especially classic British literature like Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre, etc. As a result, I started reading much earlier than anyone would expect, and I ended up starting elementary school a whole year before my peers.

Q: Do you think your mother played a role in your becoming an inventor? If so, how?

Ogunnaike: In terms of the problem-solving aspect of invention, it was more my father, the physicist, who played a more direct role in that he always told me that “problems were meant to be solved,” and that there was no problem that I couldn’t solve if I put my mind to it. However, there is another aspect of creativity, that is concerned with problem formulation, the communication of ideas and the attention to the “artistic” side of things: That is what my mother cultivated, perhaps without necessarily setting out to do so. If I ever wanted to explain anything to anyone, she insisted that it had to be clear — no muddling through with carelessly chosen words. Precision in communication and the appropriate use of English was her thing. She couldn’t stand sloppy writing or sloppy communication of any sort.

A few of my close associates have often wondered how an engineer can love poetry as much as I do, and: “what does writing poetry have to do with being an engineer anyway?” My love for poetry and for use of English came directly from my mom who was a very strict (old school!) English teacher. I still remember statements like “If four words will do, don’t ever use five!” To this day, I still will not split an infinitive.

Q: Is there something your mom told you that still gives you traction today?

Ogunnaike: “It doesn’t matter how smart you are; if you cannot communicate your ideas clearly, you are not going to go far” — a version of which I still tell my students to this day.

My graduate students and postdocs have invented a word for what I do to their first drafts of manuscripts: they say that it has been “Tundified,” which means that it has been marked up comprehensively, with every grammatical error identified and every awkward/poor construction flagged. They really have my mother to thank for my hyper-sensitivity to poor writing.

Prof. John Rabolt (right) and his mom, Lillian O'Reilly at age 84.
Prof. John Rabolt (right) and his mom, Lillian O'Reilly at age 84.

John Rabolt and his mom

John Rabolt is the Karl W. and Renate Böer Professor in UD’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering. Selected for membership in NAI in 2014, Rabolt’s research interests span developing instruments to characterize materials in real time to creating new methods to engineer tissues for biomedical applications.

My mother, Lillian O’Reilly, is the daughter of immigrants who migrated to the United States from Austria after World War I. Today at nearly 94, she is very sharp and remembers everything. She went back to work after my brother (her third child) went to grade school, and worked her way from a stenographer to become the executive secretary to the president of an import-export company. She is very well organized and would "type up" (as in typewriter) lists of everything, from the dates of my vaccinations to recipes from my grandmother(s) to lists of our appliances and when they were purchased. I remember something amusing about her. Since I was the first child to go away to college, she spent the last summer before I left readying me for life away from home. Each week she taught me a different skill: week 1: cooking; week 2: how to iron a dress shirt; week 3: washing clothes, etc. By the time I left for college in late August, she felt confident that I could "survive" being 300 miles away. These are skills that remain today and, boy, can I press a mean shirt!

Q: How did your mom cultivate your curiosity when you were little?

Rabolt: Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, in a small four-room apartment, I spent much of my free time after school playing with other kids in the neighborhood. In the 1950s and 60s my father went to work, and my mother was home all day with me, my sister and eventually my brother.

On rainy days I was apartment-bound, and my mother came up with a box with small gadgets that I could take apart. These ranged from an old hand mixer, a broken telephone, a doorbell ringer, an old windup alarm clock and other things like that. Whenever something didn't work, it ended up in the box. I would sit on the kitchen floor and take these things apart, trying to understand how and why they worked. Actually, I never fixed any of these things and often I couldn't get them back together, but the encouragement to play like this extended my curiosity throughout my life.

Q: Do you think that your mother played a role in your becoming an inventor? If so, how? 

Rabolt: As I got older, she encouraged my father to purchase an encyclopedia Britannica, and I would read about how things really worked. In those days there were many volumes that also kept me busy during rainy days. They also bought a Gilbert chemistry set, and I would make some things from the instructions, but I also improvised. She sometimes would sit with me and help me measure out small amounts of chemicals so I could create a magic potion that smelled like pineapple.

Q: What is one thing your mom always told you or did that makes you think of her? 

Rabolt: Mom was a good saver. On his weekly payday, my father would bring home his pay and she would meticulously divide it up into 20 or so small envelopes, which she kept in an old round cookie tin. Each envelope was labelled for electricity, food, Christmas club, clothes, etc. In this way, she always had the money when bills came due or I needed a winter coat. She taught me how to save for the things I wanted and/or needed and, as an adult, it stuck with me.

Q: Is there something your mom told you that still gives you traction today?

Rabolt: She always told me that I could do anything I put my mind to and that helped me through college, a doctoral degree in physics, a 20-year career at IBM, and now a named professorship at UD. THANK YOU, MOM!

On the left, UD Prof. Norm Wagner as a young child, with his mother, Gertrude Wagner, her brother Tony, siblings and pet at the entrance to the Alaskan-Canadian Highway. On the right, Norm Wagner (hand in front of his face) and siblings with their mom, Gertrude (dad was the photographer), and the Chevy Suburban that was home for three adults, three kids, the family dog and all their camping gear on the way to Alaska in 1972.

Norm Wagner and his mom

Norman J. Wagner is the Unidel Robert L. Pigford Chair in Chemical Engineering and director of the Center for Neutron Science. Elected to the National Academy of Inventors in 2016 and the National Academy of Engineering in 2015, he leads an active research group with a focus on materials for uses ranging from manned space exploration to particle technology.

My mother, Gertrude (Mamrod) Wagner, raised in a blue-collar family in Buffalo, New York, valued education greatly because, in part, her mother had to leave school by the eighth grade and work to support her family (as Grandma Lottie reminded us anytime we complained about our schoolwork). 

Mom was the second in her family to go to college and became a well-regarded public high school English teacher as her vocation. She supported my father when I was young while he finished his doctorate, while also raising three children.

My parents were adventurous, always taking us on extensive camping trips around the U.S., including a capstone nine-week, 13,000-mile car-camping odyssey from Pennsylvania to the end of the road (at the time) north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska in 1972, which is commemorated in the family picture at the entrance of the ALCAN highway. What could engender curiosity better than seemingly never-ending days of constantly changing landscapes and discoveries around every bend in the road? 

We were constantly outdoors as a family, hiking, backpacking, fishing or car-camping, so necessity was indeed the mother of invention. When all you have with you is what you carry on your back or find in the forest, days from the nearest store, you learn to “MacGyver-it” with your Swiss army knife or do without. In homage to Robert Frost, she reminds us: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.

Prof. Yushan Yan (left at age 7 or 8 at the time) is shown here with his mother, Xianzhen Wang, and brother, Yucheng Yan, who was a college math teacher when he retired. Yushan’s mother made the jacket he is wearing and her own, too.

Yushan Yan and his mom

Yushan Yan is the Henry B. du Pont Chair in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. He was named a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors in 2019. His research focus includes: electrochemical energy engineering, energy conversion and storage, fuel cells, electrolyzers, flow batteries, electrochemistry, electrocatalysis, polymer electrolytes, electrochemical interfaces, zeolites and covalent organic frameworks.

My mom, Xianzhen Wang (王宪珍), was a petite woman with a soft voice. She was adopted by an aunt after she lost her dad at the age of 6 and her mom three years earlier. She received no formal education. As the youngest of her eight children, I remember mom being smart, creative, tough and strict. But most of all, she loved all her children. She taught me the multiplication table before I went to school and could calculate the price of anything faster than I could ever since.

UD Prof. Yushan Yan as a boy, shown here with his mother, Xianzhen Wang, and his sister, Yuyun Yan, who was a college president when she retired.
UD Prof. Yushan Yan as a boy, shown here with his mother, Xianzhen Wang, and his sister, Yuyun Yan, who was a college president when she retired.

Living in a village of 40-plus families in northeastern China, mom taught herself tailoring and made clothes for the whole family. She also tailored for free for the whole village for decades. She used every piece of scraps from her tailoring work creatively and made shoes and comforter covers with beautiful patterns. Mom chain-smoked and worked almost around the clock, with a single-minded goal of supporting her children to receive the best education. Mom died of lung cancer, long before she could fully take pride in having raised a college president, a school district superintendent, a veterinarian, a physician and a university professor.

Q: How did your mom cultivate your curiosity when you were little?

Yan: Growing up with no electricity until I was 7 and three days of elementary school per week, I had a lot of free time. It was mom that encouraged me to read, make things and observe nature. I remember being amazed by how close I could bring a “faraway” village to me using a crude telescope I made. In hindsight, I am sure that getting me to entertain myself was also part of mom’s goal.

Q: Do you think your mother played a role in your becoming an inventor? If so, how?

Yan: Mom was my role model for being creative and entrepreneurial. She “invented” many things. Her ability to make a pair of beautiful shoes emerge, albeit slowly, from a pile of cloth scraps of all colors and shapes struck me as magic.

Q: Is there something your mom told you that still gives you traction today?

Yan: Mom had a “famous” saying among her children: “You cannot clap with one hand.” The “policy” that came out of this belief was if she saw us fighting she would spank us equally with no questions asked. This policy always comes to my mind whenever I have a disagreement with anyone.

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