Speaker series features patent examiner who turned failure into success

Published 10:58 am Thursday, March 14, 2019

DOWAGIAC — Highly successful people endure failure, too. For example: the first of J. K. Rowling’s seven Harry Potter novels was rejected 12 times before its publication made her a billionaire author. Michael Jordan, the 10-time NBA scoring champion with six titles from 1991-98, was cut in high school basketball.

“For a lot of us, fear of failing makes us not want to try difficult things. However, everyone experiences failure,” Dr. Lisa Park said March 11 at Southwestern Michigan College’s Student Activity Center theatre on the Dowagiac campus. “You have to fail to succeed.”

Park’s installment in SMC’s Academic Speaker Series, “Do the Next Right Thing: Learning from Failures and the Fear of Failing,” was sponsored by TRIO, a federally-funded student support program.

“If you mess up, don’t say, ‘It’s just a mistake, it happens, I’m not going to do anything differently,’” Park said. “Always be thoughtful and deliberate, creative and focus on the next right thing.”

Park lives in Kansas City, Missouri, and serves as a primary examiner in the battery and fuel cell category for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

A high school “free spirit,” Park’s academic odyssey took her coast to coast. Though she has a doctorate in chemistry, she failed her first time at community college.

“I did fine until finals, when I just didn’t go because I stayed up too late partying,” Park said. “That was the tipping point. I explored freedom,” which, ironically, jailed her in New Orleans, where the vagrant hitchhiked and squatted in a fire-damaged abandoned building.

“If you looked homeless, which I sort of did,” Park said, “and you didn’t have a local ID and were panhandling, they arrest you for obstructing a public place.”

In the summer of 1994, she started work at a grocery store. When a produce department friend suggested she accompany the truck to California, Park hit the road.

“I was still in the mode of no-long-term thinking, just doing what I want today,” Park said. “When I returned, the manager must have seen something in my work ethic because she hired me back at a higher position. That turned into a six-year career — four as store manager.”

But Park grew restless again. Plus, she was in a “toxic relationship.”

“I loved the guy, but he was bad for me, so I sought help, gaining a coping skill which ultimately turned into my motto ‘do the next right thing,’” Park said. “Deal with anxiety over things you can’t control. You can’t control the past or what anyone else is doing, only yourself and your actions.”

Park headed for her birthplace, Seattle, where her sister lived and enrolled at Seattle Central College with the goal of becoming a botanist in South America. Her chemistry instructors proved “enthusiastic and inspiring.”

“Knowing I was good at something challenging made me feel better about myself,” she said.

While completing her bachelor’s degree in chemistry, she landed a research internship at The Ohio State University, recommended by an academic advisor.

“You have to think about building bridges to make stuff happen,” she said. “Unless you’re spectacularly brilliant or lucky, it’s critical to have connections.”

She added her doctorate in 2010 from the University of Washington. The graduate teaching assistant became an assistant professor at Shepherd University in West Virginia, learning her childhood best friend lived an hour away. That friend and her husband both worked at the patent office.

Park, who makes collages as a creative outlet, had completed a week-long National Science Foundation workshop and interviewed at a New York community college specifically to teach art and chemistry. But the patent office, which she joined in 2012, paid better and she could work from Kansas City, surrounded by family and friends.

“It meets my goals and needs long- and short-term,” Park said. “It’s intellectually stimulating and takes advantage of my strengths in writing, literature research and putting ideas together. I never would have imagined myself at the patent office, but right now I can’t imagine doing anything else. I love it!”