How Building Skateboards Inspired One Young Woman to Become an Engineer, Physicist — and Prizewinning Inventor
From a family of Vietnamese refugees and the only girl in her college physics program, Kayla Nguyen has overcome her share of obstacles. Now she’s working to encourage other women and girls interested in science.
What do skateboards, surfing, and the astronaut Sally Ride have in common? For postdoctoral researcher Kayla Nguyen, they all played a part in igniting a lifelong passion for physics.
From a family of Vietnamese refugees, Nguyen grew up in California, and at age nine had a chance to see Sally Ride — a physicist and the first woman to travel to space — speak at an event centered on encouraging more women and girls to pursue careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).
This was her first glimpse of being able to see a pathway for herself in STEM. From there, Nguyen eventually decided she wanted to be a scientist and a role model for other young women. She went on to study physics and engineering and along the way became a prize-winning inventor. Today Nguyen is at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where in her postdoctoral research she’s developing new electron microscopy techniques using special magnets that could potentially lead to smaller computers with vastly improved speed and data capabilities.
We spoke to Nguyen about what led her to persevere in a field dominated by men and about her commitment to outreach. Confidence and hard work, she says, are paramount. Knowing how to build a skateboard from scratch is good, too.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What were the circumstances that brought your family to the U.S.?
I came to America from Vietnam in the early 1990s, when I was four years old. Bill Clinton was president at the time and my family was among many that were able to come here for asylum. Before I came to America I was at a refugee camp in Thailand. After Thailand we emigrated to the U.S., to southern California. Coming to America was difficult for my family, from an economic standpoint and especially having to learn a new language.
You talk about being inspired by Sally Ride as an example of a prominent woman in STEM. How did you discover and pursue your own love of STEM?
When we moved to the U.S things were pretty rough in southern California. There was a lot of gang violence and poverty. So STEM wasn’t something that I really had in mind. My family was very education-focused, but they were so busy working their jobs that it was hard for them to spend time encouraging me to study. But they always made sure I did well in school, and I think that was really important.
Then when I was in high school my mom told me that if I wanted money I had to get a job. So I started working at a skateboard shop and customers would tell me what kind of skateboards they wanted. They would want more pop, for example, or better bearings. So I gradually built an intuition to what made a good skateboard. And that helped me develop a really good physics intuition. And then, because we were on the West Coast, I was able to buy used surfboards and go surfing, which helped me understand how waves work and how to catch one.
My engineering skills were actually built up by understanding all these practical things. So it didn’t come out of nowhere. It wasn’t that I went to a summer camp where I was just always inventing. It was more like I actually understood how these things worked, and I knew ways to make them better. And I thought that was really cool.
Where did that passion for physics take you next?
I went on to study physics at UC Santa Barbara. I was one of twelve students in the program — called the College of Creative Studies — and I was the only woman. Then I did research at Santa Barbara and it was a really good experience because I had professors encouraging me, which led me to pursue my PhD. I had always wanted to be a scientist, but I didn’t really know how or what I needed to become one. I didn’t know whether scientists worked in research labs, or with people, or if they went outside and counted leaves. I wasn’t even really sure what physicists do — you know the Einsteins, the Schrödingers. But they’re just theorists, and I wanted to know what actual experiments looked like, so I started doing research and ultimately I came to Cornell to do my PhD.
Later you won the Lemelson MIT Student Prize for their “Use It” competition. Talk about that.
Since I was at Cornell I didn’t know about the prize until a Lemelson-MIT representative reached out to me and suggested I apply. I thought about it and I decided it was a really good idea because I did have two inventions at that time. I also learned that the previous winners had done a lot of outreach and I felt that it could be a good way for me to maybe sustain myself as a scientist and as a role model for other people.
What was your invention?
My invention that I won for is the electron microscope pixel ray detector (EMPAD). Essentially it’s a camera, similar to the one on your phone, but instead of taking pictures using light, it takes pictures using electrons and can detect and display them at an unprecedented level of detail. It went to market in 2017, and is now sold around the world for use in applications ranging from disease detection to art conservation.
The story about how the EMPAD got commercialized so quickly is quite atypical. During that time, I was the only graduate student working on the EMPAD, and I gave the first talk on it at the annual Microscopy and Microanalysis conference in 2015, which was geared toward electron microscopy scientists. Within a year of my talk, the EMPAD was commercialized because it worked so well.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently developing new electron microscopy techniques specifically using antiferromagnets, which are magnets that have their spin domains on the atomic length scales. This atomic-scale property gives them the ability to switch their spin polarization much faster than the magnets currently used in computers. If we can understand how they work at the atomic scale, we can develop faster computers and store more data using smaller devices.
I’m also trying to develop a program where I can bring science kits to young girls in rural communities around Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. This way I can encourage girls and young women from diverse backgrounds that have not been typically represented in science to become interested in engineering and invention. A lot of the disparities that we see in science education comes from a lack of access, and my goal as a mentor is to give access to girls who haven’t had the ability to gain the same access before.
Do barriers persist for young women aspiring to get into STEM?
Absolutely. I think one barrier is the gender gap. There are a lot more men than women in these fields. And so women, they feel very overwhelmed by that, so they either are very shy and don’t speak out — even though they know the answers to the problems — or they feel like they’re not smart enough because guys are more talkative. Some guys also just want to show off their knowledge. This leads to the other barrier: lack of confidence.
So let’s talk about role models. Why are they important, especially in engineering?
For girls and women in STEM, in order for them to overcome that confidence barrier, they need other women actually speaking out and playing a role for them to tell them, “Hey, you can do it, don’t be afraid.” But I think role models are important for men too. Engineering is difficult. It’s very rigorous, it’s very hard. And you have to sacrifice a lot of your years and time for it. And so people need encouragement along the way. It’s kind of like a marathon. So it’s important to let people know that they’re making an impact, they’re changing the world. They’re doing something to help other people, not to better themselves but to better the technology around them, and better their community. That’s extremely important.
What are some of the things you do as a role model for other women in science?
I think recognition is really important. I talk to teachers about how they can help the young women in their high schools be more proactive and involved in engineering, for example. I also encourage young women to speak out more, and not to be overwhelmed by the men in their group. I think it all starts with confidence. And I believe that it’s essential to encourage young girls, especially.
When I was in graduate school working on the EMPAD, I did outreach as a part of the Cornell Center for Materials Research, working with middle to high school students and teachers in New York City and Washington, DC.
What would you tell young women who are interested in physics or inventing but don’t know where to begin?
From my experiences, my advice for girls and young women aspiring to become entrepreneurs or inventors is to believe in yourself, your abilities and your innovations. So long as you have that foundation, anything is possible.
Start with what interests you. If you’re a soccer player, for example, start understanding how soccer works. You know, how the ball works, how its movement works. Then think about trying ways to actually make better soccer balls or make better movements. Inventions and physics are all around us. And people are constantly developing things to make them better. Building a better skateboard, for example, or finding ways to make surfboards better.
I also think it’s really important for women to meet other women who are similarly interested in invention and then build a support group. Inventions don’t happen in a vacuum; they happen in teams. Meet people who also enjoy inventing things. That will boost your confidence — and then together you can solve the problem.