NJIT Physicist Is Named a National Academy of Inventors Fellow

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Gordon Thomas, an inventive problem-solver whose creations – from medical devices, to weapons sensors, to optical communications fiber – are remarkable for their diversity as well as their ingenuity and practicality, has been named a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors.

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Gordon Thomas, an inventive problem-solver whose creations – from medical devices, to weapons sensors, to optical communications fiber – are remarkable for their diversity as well as their ingenuity and practicality, has been named a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors.

Thomas, a professor of physics, joins just over 400 inventors from more than 150 research universities, government agencies and non-profit research institutions who, in the words of the Academy, “have demonstrated a prolific spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development, and the welfare of society.”

His growing portfolio of inventions includes 23 issued and pending patents.

“I’m delighted by this honor mostly for the light it shines on the tremendous work that goes on at NJIT in developing intellectual property,” notes Thomas. “As an institution, we stand out not only for the work our professors do in this arena, but for the determined way we engage our graduate and undergraduate students in project-focused science and engineering that leads to important innovations, both big and small.”

His describes the hunt for ideas as simple and straightforward: “I speak to people with a problem and determine what’s needed.” He recently earned one of his two Thomas Edison Patent Awards for developing such a problem-solving device, an implantable, wireless ‘Smart Shunt’ to monitor and regulate the flow of cerebrospinal fluid in people with hydrocephalus, or fluid build-up in the brain.

“When someone I knew presented this problem to me a few years ago – a grandfather concerned about his infant granddaughter – the standard method in use at the time had been developed in the 1950s. It essentially involved drilling a hole in the skull and installing a tube,” he recounts. His device, backed by a $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health and developed in a partnership with the Harvard Medical School and Vivonics, Inc., will soon be tested in animal trials in Cambridge, Mass.

In collaboration with Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, he invented a patent-pending device known as a tonometer to detect and monitor people with glaucoma, a leading cause of blindness.

Thomas, a physicist by training, discovered a relish for technical challenges early in his career while he was engaged in basic research at Bell Labs. He earned his first patent there after a manager presented him with a frustrating problem: how to prevent moisture from seeping into optical fibers and hindering the transmission of data and phone signals.

“The torch used in softening the fiber was causing hydrogen and oxygen to combine and form water. We needed to come up with a dry process, and we succeeded by changing one critical step, using an oxygen plasma torch that keeps hydrogen out,” he recounts of his solution – a fabrication method for ultra-pure fiber – that is now routinely used in optical communications.

“I really liked working on that project and it made a big impression on me,” he says. “It was incredibly fun and I believed my accomplishment to be more useful than what I was doing in basic research, while I continue to find pure research both interesting and important.”

He hastens to add that he “would never have come up with any of these ideas by myself.”

“Inventors almost never work alone,” notes Thomas, who said he collaborates with a core “triumvirate” of Reginald Farrow, a research professor of physics and also a distinguished inventor, and Alokik Kanwal, a research assistant professor. The three routinely vet, critique and improve one another’s ideas until they begin to resemble something workable. “Alokik and Reggie are experts in nanofabrication, which is the frontier of device fabrication.”

Their creative team typically includes an array of talented graduate and undergraduates students.

“I require all of my physics students to do demonstrations of their work in class and always ask them to think about inventions that could arise from it. Outside of class, we run a biophysics research program each semester and over the summer that prompts motivated students to become innovators and researchers. Often, they’re working closely with me on my projects,” he says, adding, “And we have fun. That’s essential.”

He relishes his students’ triumphs, some of them prominent. Early in his career, he served as the thesis advisor for a Ph.D. student devising a process for stilling the movement of electrons in metals used as insulators. This past summer, he looked on proudly as his advisee, Thomas Rosenbaum, was installed as the ninth president of the California Institute of Technology. Next March, Thomas will be back at Caltech, which is hosting the induction ceremony for the 2014 Fellows.

Among Thomas’s other notable inventions are a produce-recognition system for NCR’s grocery check-out counters, a flexible sensor circuit to help prevent explosions that won him a second Edison award, and a related, patent-pending device for an ultra-sensitive sensor to measure and record vibrations which the military can use for situational awareness of perimeter security. The Army Research and Development Engineering Center at Picatinny Arsenal, Dover, oversees this effort and provides support.

The author of 150 peer-reviewed articles on basic physics, Thomas is also a Fellow of the American Physical Society.

About NJIT

One of the nation’s leading public technological universities, New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) is a top-tier research university that prepares students to become leaders in the technology-dependent economy of the 21st century. NJIT’s multidisciplinary curriculum and computing-intensive approach to education provide technological proficiency, business acumen and leadership skills. With an enrollment of more than 10,000 graduate and undergraduate students, NJIT offers small-campus intimacy with the resources of a major public research university. NJIT is a global leader in such fields as solar research, nanotechnology, resilient design, tissue engineering and cyber-security, in addition to others. NJIT ranks fifth among U.S. polytechnic universities in research expenditures, topping $110 million, and is among the top 1 percent of public colleges and universities in return on educational investment, according to Payscale.com.

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