Inspiration from others sparks Dr. Jorge Valdes’s mission as STEM educator

Some of the best teachers benefit from the teachers who shaped them. Dr. Jorge L. Valdes, an Education Program advisor and STEM educator at the USPTO, smiles when he thinks back at lunchtime during his long career at AT&T Bell Labs.

“I am a living example of the importance, the criticality of having mentors throughout your career—someone who is there who sees the bigger picture,” he says. “By that, I mean understanding that one success is everyone’s success.

“Being at a world-renowned place such as AT&T Bell Labs, I was privileged to work with some amazing people who were my bosses, my mentors, my friends. We had lunch together every single day at the same table. We shared stories about our families, our challenges, and our opportunities. We worked together. We invented together.”

Among the innovation icons who worked with Dr. Valdes at AT&T Bell Labs were the first two USPTO inventor card subjects to be profiled in Inventors Digest in January and February 2021, respectively: Dr. Marian Croak and Dr. James West.

Dr. Valdes’s mentors’ influence helps drive his education mission of 30-plus years in industry and now at the USPTO, where he is a member of the Office of Education (OE). The OE is responsible for K-12 professional development that integrate intellectual property (IP), STEM, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

Dr. Valdes brought a glittering resume to the USPTO. After receiving a Ph.D. in electrochemical engineering from Columbia University and an executive MBA from the Kellogg Graduate School of Business at Northwestern University, he held senior executive roles at AT&T Bell Labs, Lucent Technologies, and Alcatel-Lucent.

At AT&T Bell Labs, Dr. Valdes was responsible for managing global R&D organizations and received the E.O. Lawrence Laureate gold medal award from the U.S. Department of Energy in 1996. He was honored for his pioneering work in reagent generation, a technology essential to the energy-efficient production of high-purity chemicals, environmental health, and cost reduction in manufacturing.

Dr. Valdes, who holds 33 U.S. and international patents, is proof that any inventor with enough commitment and perseverance can receive a patent—even if the inventing process involved is literally poisonous.

He began work on his first patent project in the late 1980s. “Long story short: It ended up being a machine that allowed us to build out the infrastructure for what we call the internet today,” he says. “All of this is possible because of one vital ingredient: arsenic, an essential ingredient in building high-speed electronic and photonic systems and products vital in telecommunications and video.

“During the development phase, it went from science all the way up to a product. I was working through all the different phases, right from the basic science and research in the lab through an intense development phase to a commercial product.

“The problem was, AT&T was getting really concerned they were not going to be able to make these lasers and high-speed electronics to build out the infrastructure of this new internet that was coming. The agent for this, a gaseous form of arsenic called arsine that is used to produce semiconductors and optical systems, is extremely toxic.”

How toxic?

“So toxic that at the parts-per-billion level, it will kill you in a couple minutes. It’s one of the most dangerous projects I have worked on in my life. There was no room for error here.”

Gaseous mixtures are a constant in many of the 1990s patents on which Dr. Valdes is listed, including a later invention that revolutionized the way optical fiber is made.

“That was using a device using sound waves to very accurately determine the concentration of binary gas,” he says. “We were able to improve the quality of the material, the quality of the fiber, the efficiency of the fiber, and the reliability and stability of the manufacturing process.”

Dr. Valdes has published more than 100 science and technology research papers in peer-reviewed journals and magazines. He has won many corporate and industry awards for his contributions in science, technology, education, and diversity.

His commitment to diversity is at the forefront of his education efforts. He is the co-founder of the national Young Science Achievers program, dedicated to inspiring and enabling more girls and students underrepresented in science and math to pursue careers in STEM fields.

Although Dr. Valdes is no longer applying for patents—USPTO employees are not permitted to do so—he delights in sharing his “patent-related experience and the value of IP” as he passes along the invaluable lessons his mentors taught him.