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Patently inspiring: An Irving scientist mentors young inventors – with impressive results



“Do you know who Glenn Curtiss is?” It’s a question Irving scientist and tech entrepreneur Mirza Faizan loves to ask and, he says, invariably provokes the same blank expression.

“But when I ask if they know the Wright Brothers, everyone knows they designed and flew the first plane.” He then delivers his scientist punch line: “In fact, Curtiss was the aviation pioneer who made the first officially witnessed flight in North America, but because the Wright Brothers got the patent for their aircraft design, it’s they who went down in the history books.”

In his DiscoverSTEM Academy in Plano, students are encouraged to follow a five-step program of “think, analyze, ideate, create and innovate” patentable solutions to real-world problems. Mentoring young inventors to patent their innovations is the primary goal of India-born Faizan, who came to the United States in 2013 and was later awarded a coveted “Einstein” visa, for those acclaimed in their fields, with NASA and Pentagon backing.

Last year, Faizan resigned as head of engineering services (USA & Canada) at Capgemini, a multibillion-dollar, multinational, France-based company, to focus full-time on developing the academy, which he started four years ago. It has produced almost 200 young inventors ages 10 to 18.

The decision to focus on youth came from his frustrations as a judge evaluating students’ submissions to prestigious competitions such as the annual R&D 100 Awards (the equivalent of the Oscars) and the Conrad Challenge held at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida each year.

“Many times, I could see the young kids had some very bright and promising ideas at these competitions, but they didn’t know how to proceed with their idea, to convert it into an innovation or invention,” Faizan says. “So, they drop the idea.”

This conviction was reinforced last February when he spoke at an event in Frisco ISD where he asked around 400 students and parents if they had ever thought of inventing something. Practically everyone’s hands went up, Faizan says. But when asked if they knew how to invent? “Almost all the hands went down.”

Launchpad for success
Faizan’s mission to reverse the status quo has garnered him a local reputation as the “space whisperer,” and 25 of his students have won NASA innovation competitions. More than 50 students have patents pending after winning international competitions. Some of his alumni have gone on to Harvard, Stanford, Duke and MIT, with cumulative scholarships totaling $3.5 million.

One admirer of Faizan’s mentorship program is Hashima Hasan, a renowned NASA scientist with a doctorate in theoretical nuclear physics from Oxford. She has made annual visits to Dallas to meet Faizan’s students over the years and advise him on his innovation work.

“The program brings to life the true scientific process,” says Hasan, whose love of astronomy was inspired by meeting Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, as a child. “DiscoverSTEM encourages students to make their own discoveries. By working together in groups, they feed off each other’s energies as each has his or her own ‘Eureka’ moment. … I will add that I was particularly impressed at the number of young girls in the DiscoverSTEM program.”

Engineer Nusrat Husain Khan of Irving enrolled his daughter Marium in the mentorship program when she was 18 and says it played a central role in her academic success. She received a full-ride scholarship worth over $300,000 to study biology at Duke University. Now 22, the younger Khan says finishing first in her team’s category at the international Conrad Challenge awards in 2016 certainly boosted her application.

“A team of five of us went to Orlando hoping we might win, but you just don’t know. When we were called out from the stage and realized we beat kids from like 50 other countries, it was surreal. It was unbelievable.” Khan, who plans to study medicine, says the win helped her secure a coveted research job at UT Southwestern.

This past February, DiscoverSTEM held its first graduation ceremony at the University of Texas at Dallas with Hasan and a retired SR-71 pilot, Col. Richard Graham, in attendance.

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