Elisa Vera '13 is a Stuart Iifer who graduated from Princeton with a degree in Chemical and Biological Engineering in 2018. She is a patent examiner for the United States Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Virginia where she also lives. "I do not represent anyone's opinions, thoughts, ideas, or positions other than my own, but I hope, day-by-day, to better reflect the good shown to me to others."
What led you to a career in patents?
My current job is as a patent examiner. After a moment of introspection during my final year at college, I realized that my current path would not personally be fulfilling. I pivoted a bit and decided to pass the patent bar since the world of inventions has always been something that appealed to me. Their value of encouraging innovation is vital in a world with a variety of problems, and it seemed like a great way to participate. There was an opening as a patent examiner; I applied, and I am very happy that I did!
What were you involved in at Stuart, and did any of your interests influence your career path? Is there a class or teacher that had an impact on your future plans?
At Stuart, I did robotics and generally liked my science courses, but my direct interests were not as influential. As amused as they might be to read this, I think the biggest influences on my general trajectory in life were AP Spanish with Señora Nancy Soloman and Ethics with Mrs. Jen Landis '90. In AP Spanish, we were reading Cronica de una muerte Anunciada, and Señora Soloman noted that one of the main questions of the book was, “What has happened in society such that this (the murder of a main character) is acceptable?” Combine that with teachings about Kant, John Stuart Miller, and other ethical players; there was a lot to marinate about when thinking about the world: what is important and how we should act on it. This drove a lot of motivation to participate in entrepreneurial events in college and to choose an occupation that has elements of public service.
How do you feel Stuart prepared you for college and your career?
I am very far from the best embodiment, but I believe that the most important contributions to college and career pursuits were the ways in which Stuart provided a foundation to develop myself as a person and relationships with others over the span of life. This came in the form of the humanizing tendency Stuart has towards both students and teachers and the concept of wise freedom. By humanizing tendency, I mean that the small class sizes and dedication of the teachers meant that by the end of your Stuart career, you concretely understood that everyone around you has a rich inner life, has their own goals/expectations, and has their own unique traits and skills. No one in life is solely an occupation or a relationship. This makes it easier to form friends and connections of a variety of stripes, age ranges, backgrounds, and interests, and to appreciate traits in people whether I like them personally or not. This realization led to finding a variety of unique opportunities and experiences, which led to a greater understanding of the world and my own place in it.
Have any of the Goals and Criteria stayed with you through your career?
Wise freedom is fundamentally wise analysis. This means a wise understanding of the current situation and desired results, their intentional and unintentional consequences, followed by how any of it can be accomplished. While I still do not always make wise choices, the understanding of wise freedom fed a lot of intentional personal growth, especially when it came to how I handled people and fear. For a while, I found a lot of social interaction and decision making extremely uncomfortable because I had the benefit and curse of an overactive imagination. This meant that it was easy to forecast doom and gloom or to think up very weird interpretations of words and interactions. People naturally have a sense of how the other person feels on some primordial level and frequently associate weird with bad when there is a gap in understanding. Someone who is perpetually uncomfortable and nervous will make others wonder what is going on in their mind to make them so nervous, which leads to a negative interpretation of 'what they must mean'. The understanding of wise freedom allowed me to leverage this understanding and to grow from having the charisma and decision making skills of a wet log to the charisma and decision making skills of a dry gerbil. With wise freedom, I was able to make decisions to practice away the discomfort, doom and gloom mentality, and form helpful techniques to make sure everyone is understood. For example, one means of improving social comfort is to do something like cold calling a CEO or entrepreneur. You then ask questions in order to get an idea of how they achieved their success. The wise freedom approach meant that I understood that I wanted to be more comfortable speaking to people, which requires practice. The positive, intentional consequence was that I would get interesting feedback and form a connection. The worst unintentional consequence would be embarrassing myself, but all I had to do to achieve any result was to write down a few questions and dial a number. Apparently, this is a difficult enough exercise that even when offered a plane ticket, few will do it. With the contextualizing of this decision in the frame of a wise choice, it was easy to do despite my cold sweat and nerves of thread.
You are mentoring one of our students, Ritika, on a project through the Labatut's Learning Lab. Please share more on that and what your role is with her work.
The idea for this project began at Stuart. In Middle School, I used to read a lot about animals. In the Raissa Martin Library, I came across a book that had a chapter describing the two species most closely related to humans: bonobos and chimps. Chimps are aggressive, cruel, and tribalistic, while Bonobos are cooperative, friendly, and share their resources. Later on, I read about how one possible reason why bonobos and chimps have such differing attitudes is that when it comes to food availability, chimps live in comparative scarcity as they have to compete with gorillas, while bonobos have no such competition. It made me wonder if maybe some aspects of “what has happened to society to make this (social ills) acceptable?” can be resolved by simply making high quality bare necessities plentiful and present in the day-to-day. This motivated me to figure out some way to incorporate vertical farming systems into buildings of all kinds. Of course there needs to be some motivation to do it for economic reasons and when I talked about this to a college mentor -Dr. Gauthier-, he suggested that one avenue of approach might be investigating how the HVAC of a given building is affected (for example offsetting ventilation requirements by reducing CO2 accumulation using plants). This lead to me suggesting the idea as a project for Labatut's Learning Lab and how I got the privilege to mentor Ritika. I had never mentored a student before, and I tried to be supportive while still allowing the student to develop her own ideas and to learn. Despite a move to Virginia and juggling a new job, my main involvement was helping her to setup a basic system, explaining the concepts behind vertical farming, and the initial idea suggestion. I was very pleased to see how quickly she arrived at possible conclusions about data variables without any prompting and the consideration she had for both the safety of the system (like preventing water leakage) and how the setup would affect others (like managing motor noise during class). She constructed solutions to these problems and carried out the remainder of the project on her own, even to the point of incorporating other plant species in the setup. While the data did not suggest what I was hoping for, I had the opportunity to work with and brag about a very capable student who has traits and skills that would be greatly appreciated in any research lab!
You have come back to Stuart often to speak to students. Please share why you feel mentorship is important, especially as a young professional.
I believe mentorship is vital because so much of accomplishment and performance is not what you are taught but also how you perceive. For awhile, there were certain aspects to myself that I only viewed as weaknesses. When I found these aspects among people I deeply respected being leveraged effectively, the question changed from, “How can I change?” to “How can I use what I have effectively?” While some of this learning will only come from experience, a lot can be catalyzed by just having someone suggest an unexplored possibility, solution, or idea. There is also an importance in helping the young people growing up today to sort themselves out from others. Nowadays, there is so much fixation on image and constant information overload. For those who have yet to figure out what they truly consider important, this can be extremely destructive. This is why today it is vital to use aspects of your own life story to help others find comfort in themselves and to help others realize that more often than not, it will all be okay. It's key to remind younger people that fundamentally, we are all born with the potential to survive and thrive even if it's not according to the traditional definition or reflected in the eyes of others. Between the Goals, classmates, and teachers, Stuart provided me with the foundation to arrive to this comfort and the ability to enact improvement, so it's only natural that I at least attempt to give back.