Editor’s Eye: At the UW, innovation is an everyday occurrence

Jon Marmor, Columns MagazineWhen my first daughter was born in 1994, my wife and I declared that we were going to raise her in an ecologically friendly manner. So we decided to use old-fashioned cloth diapers. No wasteful ways for us, you know. Well, that lasted about a week. It wasn’t long after that we became forever indebted to Victor Mills, ’26, who invented disposable diapers when Proctor & Gamble purchased a paper mill and asked Mills, a UW-educated chemical engineer, to see what he could make of it.

That innovation made life so much easier (and less stinky) for parents. Moreover, it’s just one example of the ingenuity that takes place every day at the UW’s three campuses and then is carried forth into the world by our 400,000 alumni.

The innovations that come out of this place are nothing short of mind-boggling: bone-marrow transplants to cure leukemia, ways to use smartphones to diagnose medical conditions, training pharmacists to give flu shots, creating ceramic tiles to protect the Space Shuttle on reentry. The record of our alumni is just as dazzling. Our graduates invented color TV, football’s I-formation, synthetic rubber and designed all the Boeing passenger jets we have all come to know so well.

I often recall how my dad, a chemistry professor, would rail against what he called “cookbook chemistry”—where textbooks provided lab exercises that he felt didn’t stretch students’ minds. He believed the goal of education was not to instruct students how to mix chemicals but to teach them how to think and explore new ways of doing things.

The word “innovation” is thrown around a lot these days, especially in higher education. But it’s nothing new here. This place has been a leader in innovation since its humble beginnings 157 years ago. And it’s why the UW will continue to find solutions to the problems that continue to vex mankind, from global disease to homelessness to making sure our children receive the best possible education.

It’s no coincidence Seattle is known as one of the most creative regions anywhere—I firmly believe it’s because the UW is here. What else would you expect of a school that educated a gentleman by the name of Irving Robbins, the man who invented the then-unheard-of idea of offering 31 flavors at a place you may have heard of, Baskin-Robbins. Now that’s innovation you can sink your teeth into.