“Pathways to Invention” documentary debuts on PBS, streaming

An award-winning documentary co-produced by the Lemelson-MIT Program celebrates invention, innovation, and curiosity.

Lemelson-MIT Program

The Lemelson-MIT Program has announced the national debut of an award-winning documentary that celebrates invention: American Public Television (APT) presents “Pathways to Invention,” a film that follows modern inventors of diverse backgrounds as they develop life-changing innovations.

Produced by Maaia Mark Productions in association with the Lemelson-MIT Program with funding from The Lemelson Foundation, MIT's School of Engineering, and the University of California at Berkeley, the 60-minute special explores whether inventors are born or made through a series of engaging, up-close profiles while examining the tangible impact they’re making across a variety of disciplines including biotech, medical diagnostics and prosthetics, sustainable agriculture, food production, software development, and materials science. The inventors featured in the documentary are all recipients of the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize. The program premieres this month on PBS stations nationwide, available for streaming in the PBS app and on PBS.org as well as on WORLD. The film will also air on WGBH 44 Boston on July 7 and 19. A companion website with related learning resources for all ages launched May 1. 

“Pathways to Invention” explores the lives of 12 inventors overcoming obstacles to achieve success in cities across the country. Each shares an insightful perspective inspiring audiences to discover their own pathways to realizing their goals.

Journeying through the workshops, garages, laboratories, and offices of these entrepreneurs, the film considers what it really means to take “leaps of faith” as the accomplished innovators present a realistic approach of persevering through overwhelming odds and obstacles, taking risks, and inevitably experiencing failures before achieving success and discovering that the essence of invention is collaboration and lifelong learning.

“We all have the power in our minds and hands to shape the world,” says Levi C. Maaia, the film’s director, a former high school educator, and co-founder of Maaia Mark Productions with Noah Mark, a veteran showrunner and executive producer who has produced numerous series for a who’s who of major broadcast/cable networks and video streaming platforms. “The goal of 'Pathways to Invention' is to inspire others to think about new ways they can create solutions to benefit their own lives and humanity at large.”

Together, Maaia and Mark have collected more than a dozen awards for the film. At the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival Awards in summer 2022, it was recognized as the season's best documentary feature, Mark and Maaia as best producers, Maaia as best director of a documentary feature, and composers Michael Mark and Jon Cobert for best original musical score.

The film seamlessly weaves together the distinctive paths of each inventor working to achieve similarly meaningful results. They include:

  • David Moinina Sengeh SM '12, PhD '16, chief innovation officer and minister of basic and senior secondary education for the government of Sierra Leone, who witnessed those around him struggle with ill-fitting prosthetics that were too uncomfortable to wear, and designed next-generation wearable mechanical interfaces that improve comfort for amputees.
  • Nicole Black, a materials scientist whose experience growing up as a little girl grappling with hearing loss due to a perforated eardrum led to the groundbreaking formulation of a 3D-printed material — a near-perfect scaffold for the regrowth of human eardrum tissue.
  • Paige Balcom, a Fulbright Scholar visiting Uganda who was inspired to develop a small-scale community recycling process in Gulu employing street-connected, at-risk youth. This supposedly “impossible” initiative was the genesis of Takataka Plastics, where Paige now serves as co-founder and is currently working to expand to five towns across Uganda, and eventually scale to other developing countries.
  • Geoff von Maltzahn '03, PhD '10, who, after becoming hyper-focused during college with the programmability of living things at a microscopic level, has raised hundreds of millions of dollars to fund groundbreaking biotech and life sciences research. Through the management of microbes and the DNA programming of organisms big and small, von Maltzahn and his colleagues are focused on eliminating plant pesticides, creating drought-tolerant crops, sequestering carbon, and eliminating disease.

Championing the idea that most inventors do not emulate the storied life of Thomas Edison or follow the financial trajectory of Elon Musk, “Pathways to Invention” brings a relatable aspect to the journeys of each inventor.

Stephanie Couch, executive director of The Lemelson-MIT Program, states that “the key takeaway we’d like for viewers to keep in mind is that it’s never too late — or too early — to get on the pathway to invention. We are all aware of problems in our daily lives and we have what it takes to become collaborative problem-solvers and invent solutions that can make the world a better place.”

“We all are born curious; we all like to study the world. We like to understand it. That’s the innate curiosity that we all have, and sometimes it’s the environmental factors that drive it out of us,” says Josh Siegel, an assistant professor at Michigan State University and inventor whose work focuses on designing platforms for collecting and analyzing vehicle data. “Inventing has taught me to be persistent; inventing has taught me to be creative; inventing has taught me to trust myself as I have never trusted myself before. It’s OK to be imperfect, so long as you’re better than you were. We can invent things, we can invent products, we can invent services. We can create new capabilities; we can create new knowledge. But at the end of the day, what we’re really doing is reinventing ourselves.”



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