The Importance of Giving Nurses a Seat at the Invention Table

We sat down with the AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors while they were in Washington D.C. for the AAAS Annual Meeting.  We spoke to each about the importance of invention, the impact of their work, and what it has been like to be an Invention Ambassador. The second in our series of blogs from these conversations is  captures Rachel Walker’s efforts to illustrate the value that nurses bring to invention and the world.  

Rachel Walker

Invention, it can mean so many things, but the definition I like best actually came from someone from the Lemelson Foundation, who said “an inventor is the person who has the spark of an idea that brings something new into the world to make a difference.”

Rachel Walker is a nurse, inventor and Assistant Professor in the University of Massachusetts-Amherst College of Nursing. She became a AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassador in 2018, and is proud to be the first nurse in their ranks. She is dedicated to helping others, and making patients’ interaction with healthcare as beneficial as possible. Rachel is also a leading advocate for the importance of nurses in the invention ecosystem.

What inspired you to become a AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassador?

I actually became an Invention Ambassador out of protest. There was this issue with visibility.

Nurses are generally not included in certain types of decision-making in STEM and the bio-tech industry. I think less than 1% of boards in the industry have a nurse on them. As a nurse who works with many collaborators across STEM and the biotech industry to build new technologies and support systems for patients, there have been many times I felt my voice was not being heard. Not only my voice, but the voices and the needs of patients and caregivers.

Nurses have been innovating and inventing a long time, but for many reasons, including gender bias and society’s tendency to undervalue of caregiving expertise, we’ve faced challenges presenting and amplifying those messages to other sectors, to the broader world of science, to other inventors, to industry. This is what really inspired me to become part of the Invention Ambassador Program. I knew that people who engage with this program are in positions of power to perhaps make a difference in the inclusion of nurses, patients, and other caregivers in the invention process. I wanted to advocate for that change to happen, and to show other nurses that it is possible.

Why should people and industries support and foster an invention focused culture?

In the world of healthcare I think invention is often translated as hope. As nurses, we are always looking for ways to improve outcomes for our patients – whether it’s trying to support healing and well-being while people are living, and also the process of dying.

We need invention in order to do that, and I think invention can be a path to justice, especially for communities who have yet to see their needs met. We live in a world with power imbalances, with structural inequalities, and with an expectation for certain people to be in power. Invention is one of those things that can transform those barriers into pathways. We need to make sure that all communities are given the tools they need to bring their ideas into reality, into something that can help the world.

What role does diversity and inclusion play in invention?

You can have diversity in a space but not have inclusion, and I think inclusion is vitally important. Making sure that a diversity of people are not just invited but that there’s an effort to listen and actually hear their voices. Particularly important is the perspectives of those who may have a lived experience or other facets of critical knowledge related to your invention and its impacts. This is essential to properly ensure that an invention not only works, but that it works in such a way as to truly benefit those who need it, and without causing unintended harm.

For me, that’s the important bit. To make the time to listen to the voice of people who are also patients, of family caregivers, of nurses and other staff who are engaged in that healthcare space, including the front desk clerks and people who maintain the facilities and clean patients rooms and all the other vital tasks. They’re all an important part of the ecosystem that determines health outcomes, and I think every one of them has something valuable to share that can inform an inventor’s process. I believe that the more deliberate we are about diversity and inclusion, the more likely our inventions will be successful in ways that are truly just, and transformative.

What has being part of the AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassador Program given you?

There have been so many benefits so far, and probably others that I have yet to realize. But probably the best thing is that I have this new platform to amplify our message about the importance of person-centered, people-directed invention processes, and the value of nurse inventors. As the first nurse to be part of this program, I think that is really important so I can reach other nurses, or carers and encourage them to trust their own voices and observations, and to try and invent their own solutions. I want to keep raising the visibility of my discipline and colleagues – all the incredible nurse innovators, nurse entrepreneurs and nurse scientists – past and present – within the public sphere, the academies, and industry. I’m also now connected to all these different people from different areas, doing incredible things – it’s a wonderful way to share ideas.

How has the Invention Ambassador platform helped you amplify your message so far?

I actually ended up on an NPR interview because of this program. I was discussing the history of nursing, and some of our inventions, which got broadcast in parts of Boston. This led to people at Mass General and other hospitals calling me, asking, “Can you come, can you consult, can you help our nurses and other staff be more engaged with this process?” Which was wonderful! It then actually led to other opportunities and networks, that I don’t think I would ever otherwise had access to. The Vice President for Innovation at the American Nurses Association attended my Celebrate Invention! talk at AAAS, and now I’m on the Innovation Board advising them on how to further the work of nursing invention.

So this isn’t just an opportunity strictly for me, but for the teams I work with; for my institution, for our profession, and for the communities that we care about –  so that eventually everyone’s voice can be heard.