As a middle-class citizen in Southern California, I have been fortunate enough to grow up in a world where technology is increasingly utilized to make life easier and more comfortable. However, as someone with little to no inclination to pursue a career in the various fields of technological innovation, I feel as though it has been appallingly easy to take it all for granted. For example, I never once stared at my fridge, or a traffic light, or a churro machine and considered how life would be without them. In other words, I never once stopped to thank and appreciate the people responsible for bringing them into the world. And yet, I cannot help but benefit from these devices every day. Well, except for the churro machine; unfortunately, that’s still a work in progress. The point is, the developed, western world is built atop a foundation of technological aid. Every day, this very moment in fact, there are people pacing rooms, racking brains, and pouring coffee in an effort to keep that foundation up to date, and make our lives easier and more comfortable in the process. These people, the secret heroes of modern society, they stand as a representation of the core reasons for our success as a species: our ability to work together and for one another. It seems only inevitable then that a reality television show would someday come along and capture this process for the world to see and feel good about. Well, the wait is over; the day has come. That “day” being last Tuesday, marked by the initial airing of TBS’s latest reality show, America’s Greatest Makers (Tues @ 9/8pm c). The pilot introduced several eclectic groups of inventors / aspiring world changers and their respective inventions. And among these intellectual individuals is none other than a certain Nicole Mendoza, with whom I had the pleasure of conversing about the show, her interests, and what makes her one of America’s greatest makers.
So, the idea behind the show is simple: inventors pitch their invention to a panel of judges, and should the judges approve the product, it is then entered into a (friendly) competition for the top prize of $1,000,000. It’s kind of like Shark Tank, only much less intense, and much less about the money, if you can believe it. With products ranging from electronic jewelry that reacts to your voice, to sensors that help track the concussions a football player receives, the showrunners seemed to have gravitated towards contestants with a genuine passion for bettering the world in their own unique way. And being the subject of this article, it should come as no surprise that Nicole and her co-inventor companion, Kimberly Veliz, along with their competing product, Slapband, are certainly no exceptions to this observation.
One of the first things that struck me about Nicole, in spite of our interaction being filtered through the limiting medium of a phone call, was an unmistakable warmth and kindness to her personality. Accordingly, I was thoroughly unsurprised to hear that she isn’t on a reality show simply to take pictures of herself being on TV and hashtag about it to strangers over the internet. It all started in the biomedical research lab at University of California, Irvine, where Nicole and her peers have been working with physiological sensors in an effort to measure as many bodily functions as possible. Business was usual for these graduate lab rats until Nicole’s professor noticed the potential behind the work they were doing, and suggested they make it unusual. In this case, meaning “apply to be on a reality television show.” Whether or not Nicole is going to nominate said professor for Teacher of the Year remains to be seen (we’ll have to wait and see if she wins the $1,000,000). In any case, I can only assume that this means good things about UCI’s faculty and facilities, and if you’re considering going to into biomedical engineering specifically, you might want to add this university to that list of consideration.
However, even when considering such top notch faculty and facilities, if it wasn’t for Nicole’s passion for the work she had been doing in the lab, along with the passion of her labmates no doubt, it is unclear whether or not I’d still be writing this article about her. As it is, the passion does exist, and it should inspire you as it did me. Because after discussing her motivations to be on the show, I learned that Nicole is simply trying to “pay it forward.” In other words, she’s already said “thank you” to churro machines and traffic lights, and has moved on to the next step of appreciation: reciprocation. Although in her case, she’s actually saying thank you to the power of community and compassion, and not so much to dessert items found overpriced at Disneyland. What I mean to say is, Nicole is currently on a reality television show in order to do her part as a part of this world. She wants to give back somehow for all the advantages she’s been given, as all of us born into some sort of privilege probably should. Especially when you consider something as common as access to clean drinking water as being a major privilege, relatively speaking. All of this being said, you might be asking yourself, how exactly is Nicole going to give back? And to that, I say: the Slapband, of course.
Remember when I mentioned how Nicole had been working on physiological sensors prior to being on television? Well, that work has since given birth to what could potentially be a revolution in the world of health and medicine. Nicole and Kimberly have taken their endeavors to measure the functions of our body and turned them into a tangible, highly applicable device. While it is currently still under construction, their ultimate goal is to create a conveniently slappable wristband that allows people to monitor their vitals associated with blood pressure. The band will also be able to send the data to an app or your doctor, so don’t expect having to do much besides slap a band on your wrist. Which, let’s be honest, is pretty damn fun to do anyways. Now, while high/low blood pressure may not necessarily be an issue for you, it most certainly is for 70 million North Americans who aren’t you (and that’s just one America). And when you take the time to realize that the inflating, uncomfortable armband that doctors have been using all your life, and your parents lives, and their parents lives, has yet to be improved upon after all this time, don’t you wonder why not? Nicole and Kimberly (pictured to the left) did, and they decided to do something about it.
To continue with my Google search of, “percentage of population with high blood pressure,” I also found that not only do 29% of North Americans have high blood pressure, but an astounding 48% are classified as not yet having control over it. Some quick, ballpark math will tell you that means 33ish million people could benefit from the ease and accessibility provided by the Slapband. By extension, this means Nicole and Kimberly could potentially improve the lives of millions with their product. Can you remember the last time your actions improved the lives of millions? I can’t. And if you can, well, that’s pretty cool, I’ll give you that. But my point remains: what Nicole and Kimberly are doing is important and probably worth your attention. However, when I say “Nicole and Kimberly,” I don’t mean just Nicole and Kimberly. As Nicole made it clear to me over the course of our interview, the success she’s had cannot be attributed to any one or two people alone.
Before America’s Greatest Makers, Nicole describes herself as a lone wolf of sorts. At least when it came to work, she preferred to do it alone. But after going through the process of inventing a product, and then pitching that product in front of lights, cameras, and actions, she has learned the value of having a wolf pack to rely on. Over the course of these last several months, she credits the mentorship provided by the show’s judges and staff, along with the help she received from Kimberly, her professor, and her friends at the research lab, as the reasons for her success. Which is certainly a nice alternative to the kind of “I did this, look at me,” mentality that Aaron Sorkin (i.e. The Social Network, Steve Jobs) has led me to believe infests the world of technological innovation. I mean seriously, Nicole is trying to improve upon a technology that has remained unjustly static
for over one hundred years, and she’s doing it while promoting the values of community and compassion. How cool is that? She’s a rockstar as far as I’m concerned.
And if you weren’t already convinced that Nicole and Kimberly are shining stars of hope in an increasingly dark and hopeless world, you should know that they met after Nicole gave a presentation to the Minority Sciences Program at UCI. This is an organization that aims to dispel any stigmas associated with biomedical research, specifically within minority communities. Basically, Nicole and Kimberly work to show children that the world of biomedical research isn’t as difficult or boring as they might think it is. That, in fact, it can be fun! In addition, simply by being female scientists undaunted by the male dominated, scientific community, they’re probably motivating young girls to break the mold of inequality as well. Now if that isn’t a quality, relevant, inspiring origin story to end this article with, I don’t know what is. At this point, I’ve come to see Nicole’s actions as a call to action meant for all of us, myself included. She makes me want to sit down ask myself, “if what I’m doing isn’t done out of love/enthusiasm/respect, is it really worth doing?” And that’s just marvelous, really. I mean that. I find it truly, unsarcastically marvelous. Rarely do I get to use that word literally, so just remember how important that is.
P.S. Don’t forget to tune in to TBS tonight @ 9/8pm central for the second episode of America’s Greatest Makers, featuring all the invention-based, American greatness you could possibly want!