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Path Finding

How Jo Dale Carothers helped NASA decode images from Mars

Published in 2022 San Diego Super Lawyers magazine

In the mid-1990s, Jo Dale Carothers was a professor at the University of Arizona working with integrated circuits when she was contacted by NASA’s famed Jet Propulsion Laboratory. 

Someone involved with the development of the Mars Pathfinder had seen a presentation she’d recently made at a conference and wondered if an improved technique she helped develop—for routing interconnections on integrated circuits, multichip modules, and circuit boards—could help JPL complete a component of the Pathfinder’s rover. Engineers had built a board that would decode images sent from Mars to Earth, but they’d hit a small snag. “They were having trouble with how to get everything interconnected,” Carothers says. “Commercial software available at the time was not working for them.”

Carothers’ design enabled the Pathfinder’s board to be built by minimizing the layers of interconnections. As a result, Carothers, at the Lunar and Planetary Lab on the University of Arizona campus, was among the first to see the images the rover sent back.

“Multiple groups that had worked on various aspects of Mars Pathfinder watched together,” she says, adding that she felt amazed, relieved and excited. “The relief was: ‘Oh my god, it worked!’ It was a phenomenal experience.”

Shortly thereafter, Carothers, who had a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, was offered tenure. But something else got in the way: Cadence Design Systems, Inc. v. Avanti Corp. In the high-profile copyright trade-secret lawsuit, which began in the Bay area in 1995, Carothers had been asked to appear as an expert witness. 

“I’d always had an interest in law,” she says. “But working as an expert, I thought, ‘Wow, I just wish I understood a little bit more.’”

Wanting to be as effective an expert witness as possible, she thought about taking a few law classes. “I was very naive and didn’t understand that you couldn’t just sign up for a couple of law classes and see if they were interesting,” she says. “I found that the only way to learn more about law would actually be to apply to law school.”

She did. She performed well on the LSATs, got accepted to Arizona’s law school, and was offered a position as a summer associate. “When every door kept opening, I was like, ‘Oh, well, why am I not going to go?’” she says.

Eventually she made the choice to switch careers. It wasn’t the first time. Growing up, she’d excelled at math and science, and majored in math at University of Texas at Austin with the intention of going on to med school. But during her first semester she switched her major to engineering. “You were problem-solving,” she says. “I liked the nature of it.”

Now a patent attorney and intellectual property litigator at Weintraub Tobin in San Diego, clients are sometimes surprised by the depth of her knowledge. “Most of the cases I’ve done over the years involve engineering,” she says. “When I’ve needed to deal with, say, the engineers of the company over a patent case, I had credibility. … It just gave me an ability to talk to the client and understand what they were doing, and why it mattered, and what it was useful for.”

One of Carothers’ favorite aspects of her current career is the opportunity it affords to stay on top of technology as it develops. “I always love to learn what people are doing and what are the challenges people are facing as a result,” she says. “And studying how changes in the law impact my client.”


Mars Pathfinder Facts 

  • Launched: December 4, 1996 
  • Landed: July 4, 1997
  • The lander was named after Carl Sagan, the rover after Sojourner Truth
  • 17,100 images were sent back to Earth
  • Final data transmission: September 27, 1997

Source: mars.nasa.gov

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