Kayla Nguyen was born in Vietnam, and immigrated to California with her family when she was 4 years old. As a refugee family in the United States, they struggled with social, economic, and language barriers. Despite working full-time low-wage jobs, the pursuit of education was of utmost importance to Kayla’s parents. The examples they set for Kayla taught her the value of hard work, sacrifice, and a strong work ethic. Even when faced with enormous obstacles, she has never felt discouraged by failure.
Kayla was inspired to pursue a career in science at age 9 when she saw Sally Ride, a physicist who was the first American woman in space, speak at a science event emphasizing the importance of having more girls and young women join the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields. This interaction with Dr. Ride inspired Kayla to aspire to become both a scientist and a person who would encourage people to dream big, no matter their background. Kayla’s passion for science fueled her curiosity as an inventor at a young age. After watching science shows on PBS, she often built experimental contraptions out of household items. As a teen, she worked at a skateboard shop where she used both acquired technical knowledge and her own creativity to design and assemble improved skateboard parts for customers. She even built her own skateboard, further driving her passion for innovation.
Kayla later went on to study physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) as part of the College of Creative Studies, earning her bachelor’s degree in 2011. Afterward, she began her graduate studies at Cornell University, earning a master’s degree in chemical physics. She is currently a PhD candidate at Cornell’s School of Applied and Engineering Physics. Kayla focuses her time on developing new electron microscopy techniques, such as her primary invention, an electron microscope pixel array detector (EMPAD). EMPAD is a highly-efficient detector for the electron microscope which she developed with a group of scientists from the Muller and Gruner research groups. The detector is a special camera designed to detect and display electrons at a much greater level of detail than existing versions. Her secondary invention, the airSTEM, is a high-performance and low-cost scanning transmission electron microscopy detector. Kayla earned the $15,000 2018 “Use it!” Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for her inventive work.
In addition to education, community and mentoring have always been extremely important to Kayla. Within her community in California, Kayla has volunteered her time as a translator for Southeast Asian women struggling with domestic violence, proofreading documents for job and scholastic applications, and working at a hospice care center for the elderly. As a high school student, she was actively involved in the California Youth Think Tank, where students from low-income backgrounds got together to discuss ways in which they could help empower their communities. As an undergraduate UCSB Physics Study Room Fellow, she tutored and mentored younger female physics students, with the goal of encouraging more female physicists to join a predominantly male field.
Her passion to serve communities in need has continued during her PhD studies, where she volunteers in outreach programs specifically targeted at low-income neighborhoods. Working with the Cornell Center for Material Research (CCMR), she has visited low-income students at high schools and middle schools in the Bronx and Washington, DC to perform science demonstrations. Kayla values this opportunity to mentor and inspire the students, instilling in them the belief that through hard work and education, they can overcome their economic and social barriers. Through CCMR, she has also led science workshops at the Cornell Weil Medical School, Math for America, and the Research Experience for Teachers. For the past three years, Kayla has been a rock climbing instructor for the Cornell Outdoor Education program, and she volunteers as a camp counselor and mentor for middle school girls in Ithaca, NY.
Kayla plans to graduate from Cornell in August of 2018 with a PhD from the School of Applied and Engineering Physics. Following that, she plans to start her postdoctoral research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with Professor Pinshane Huang. Her long-term goal is to become a university professor who can inspire young people to invent, think outside of the box, pursue careers in the STEM fields, and give back to their communities – especially encouraging women and those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.