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Blacks in STEM Interview Series: Interview with a Rocket Scientist

March 8, 2021 Teach to One

New Classrooms’ Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Circle launched our “Blacks in STEM” interview series in celebration of Black History Month. The series became a platform for Black STEM professionals to share their stories and to broaden perceptions of what STEM is and what a STEM professional looks like. We are honored to share the stories of Mikeal Vaughn, Founder and Executive Director of Urban Coders Guild, Kenya Carter, a fashion and hairstyling small business owner, and more as part of this series. Read our interview with Justin Spurlock to hear about his experiences as a STEM professional, patent attorney, and real-life rocket scientist. 

Crystal J. Carter, Deputy Director of Instructional Support, had the opportunity to interview Justin Spurlock, a real-life rocket scientist turned patent attorney and an Intellectual Property attorney for KLA, a global technology leader in the semiconductor industry. (That was a mouthful!) As with other interviews, you might be reading this and wondering how a patent attorney is considered a STEM professional. For the answer to this question and many more, check out our interview below.

NC: Thanks again for meeting with us to discuss your life as a STEM professional. I’d really like to know about what motivated you to enter the STEM world.

JS: Well, it all started in Detroit in 1982…(laughs). But seriously, the thing that I’d like to really emphasize is that I come from a family of highly technical people—a cousin who is a Chief Engineer at NASA, a cousin who was a Lead Engineer at GM, and a relative who has a Masters in Electrical Engineering. So when I received my Bachelors and Masters degrees in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Michigan, the first thing my cousin said to me was, “Welcome to the club; now you’re one of us.” It was a funny joke between cousins, but the truth is that the standard was set for me.

NC: Wow! That’s quite a bit of engineers in one family. One of the things that I love about this interview series is that we get to hear about a person’s origin story and what brought them to STEM. So tell me more about how you ended up at KLA as a patent attorney.

JS: Because I went to school for Aerospace Engineering, I had the opportunity to work on the space shuttle program, which is how I became a rocket scientist. The upside was that I got to do rocket design. The downside was the repetitive nature of the job, which did not interest me at all. I’m the type of person who thrives when moving from project to project and learning different technologies, and I learned that about myself while I was a rocket scientist. But I had a really cool mentor who let me know that if I ended up being a patent attorney that I would be able to engage with different areas of technology and help the Engineers accomplish their goals. The key was just to make sure I understood how things worked, which I could do because of my engineering background. From there I shifted towards intellectual property, after doing an internship and falling in love with the field. So I ended up becoming a patent attorney at KLA.

NC: Very cool! I don’t think that most people would tie working as an attorney to something that is STEM-related, so thanks for that story. Can you also share exactly how being an engineer helped you as a patent attorney? I’m not so sure I understand how all of that is connected.

JS: Great question! To answer it, I’d like to share another story. Here’s one of my favorite things that I learned from my Rocket Propulsion Professor in college. He told me that the key to being successful as an engineer is to understand the how and the why. The exact details are secondary. The how and the why of technology were the parts that I really liked because I was fascinated by the larger narrative that explained the problem we were actually trying to solve and the uniqueness of the solution. So once I understood the bigger picture that pushed me towards working with the people who looked over  the projects, identified what needed to be protected and managed the risks, which turned out to be the patent attorneys at that company. Their influence is ultimately what pushed me to become a patent attorney.

NC: So you’ve talked about your upbringing, your education, and how you eventually became a patent attorney for KLA, but I’d like to know, more specifically, what that entails. What exactly does a patent attorney do?

JS: As an intellectual property attorney, my engineering background allows me to speak the same language with the engineers and understand exactly what they are trying to accomplish and then assess risks and figure out how to move forward in certain areas. My specialty is patents and trademarks, so I use that to work with the engineering and business teams to figure out the best way to protect our products and develop product strategies. So for example, we’re currently working on a product that is scheduled to be released in 2030, and the engineers have come up with a great plan for this product, but it’s my job to figure out how we can protect this idea from competition, and that’s usually done with some sort of patent, trademark, and/or copyright. So, essentially, I talk to them and try to figure out what they need, what the larger story is, and then provide legal advice to help them to solve the ultimate problem. And because I am an attorney and an engineer, I am able to speak to both sides—the legal team and the engineers—in ways that both groups understand.

NC: I appreciate your story-telling ability and your apparent skill at making very complex processes seem quite comprehensible.

JS: Thank you! That’s one of the challenging things that I love best about my role. As a patent attorney, I don’t specialize in one area of technology. Instead, I have to quickly learn it and translate what I’ve learned in a comprehensive fashion as quickly as possible and then move on to the next areas of technology. And I just love that challenge; it’s so much fun! I get to learn about circuit boards one day and optical inspection systems the next day; it’s just so much fun!

NC: I can tell how exciting this is for you, and I think it’s great to be that passionate about your work. I want to switch gears just a little bit. You’ve been in your career for quite some time, so I am sure that you have recognized how underrepresented people of African descent are within STEM. And while there’s no right or wrong answer to this question, I’d like to know whether or not you believe that representation is important within this field.

JS: I would say that yes, it matters and I wish it didn’t. And I want to give another example from my experience at KLA. KLA figured a way to increase the diversity of underrepresented groups without doing it in a forced or obtuse way. They did it the coolest way ever because I would’ve never been eligible for this job if they would’ve stuck to typical hiring methods, which meant only hiring people from the semiconductor industry. They instead targeted other industries with desired skill sets and better representation and began hiring from there. Their idea was that they didn’t care so much about previous job titles; they cared about the applicant’s ability to do the work, which opened it up for a wider pool of applicants. So if you look at KLA, particularly here in Ann Arbor, there is such diversity because they recognize the benefits of diverse experiences, which comes from hiring diverse people. So, yes, diversity matters, and I want for people to break down those barriers so it’s not unusual to see minorities in these types of positions. I want people to understand that minorities are highly capable  and just because you haven’t seen them in certain roles it doesn’t mean that they lack the talent.

NC: Another great story. So looking at the diversity of experiences amongst Americans of African descent, what advice would you give for students or the families of students who may be interested in STEM?

JS: The message I have is to explore the heck out of STEM because there’s so many opportunities out there if you’re willing to explore. As a kid, I wanted to be an automotive engineer because I was fascinated by the Jaguar XJ220, which was a sports car that could go up to 220 mph. What I wanted to do was make it faster. My parents saw this and said, “Oh, we’ve got an engineer on our hands; let’s give him some opportunities to explore.” So they put me in a number of engineering camps to pique my interest and help me to further develop my skills in engineering. It was in those camps that I learned about aerospace engineering. That’s when my cousin who worked for NASA provided me with additional exposure to aerospace engineering to see if that’s what I wanted to do. I was able to explore so many different aspects of engineering that by the time I was 14 years old, I was locked in on becoming a rocket scientist, all because I was provided with the support and opportunity to explore the different types of engineering.

JS: I would also tell them to pursue their dreams regardless of what anyone says. As a young student, I was told that I would never be an engineer because I couldn’t draw, and I wasn’t great at math. But with the support of my cousin, who helped me to figure out patterns, I was able to be a strong engineering student. I would’ve dropped out if I accepted that person’s definition of an engineer as final. But now I’m able to use my love for technology as an engineer and a patent attorney and to have so much fun. And I would’ve never gotten there without exploring.

NC: That’s powerful advice and also fascinating that you knew what you wanted to do at 14 years old! So at New Classrooms, we specialize in creating personalized mathematical experiences in order to help students to gain algebraic proficiency. Listening to your last story, I’m wondering what your favorite subject was in school.

JS: My foundation wasn’t math and science; my foundation was understanding the how and the why. So because of this, my favorite subject in school was actually Social Studies. In Social Studies you get to explore the historical context around events. And what helped me to become a better engineer was that I was able to understand the events surrounding why things happened. And I wouldn’t have learned those skills without having Social Studies as my background. It’s sort of an anthropological approach. It’s different, but it has worked for me.

NC: It certainly has. Well Justin, it has been a pleasure. Thanks so much for sharing your stories and letting us learn about your experiences as a STEM professional, patent attorney, and a real-life rocket scientist!

NC: Thanks for that backstory. I think it’s always interesting to learn the path that people took to become where they are. On that note, when most people think of STEM, they only imagine certain technical career types: engineers, computer programmers, and doctors. But there’s quite a bit of math and science in your work. Can you speak to that part of your work and background?

KC: When I started this career, I had no idea that I would be using so much math and science because I saw my field as more creative and less scientific. But as a hairstylist, especially with coloring, I use a lot of chemistry and also geometry with haircutting because it has everything to do with angles, so you really need a pretty decent geometry base. Of course, like most things, you could get around it, but in order to be proficient in what you are doing, this background is important.