How An Immigrant With A Passion For Science Overcame A Sight Disorder To Win The LemelsonMIT Student Prize

By Kayla X. Nguyen

I believe in order for young girls and women to learn about the power of facing failure with resilience, people must use their success as a platform to expose not only their accomplishments, but also their challenges. I have noticed that many scientists choose to only acknowledge the highlights of their scientific careers, rather than their entire journey. Of course, there are struggles but what a general audience sees are the end results: the Nobel Prize, the MacArthur Genius award etc. These awards are a great honor; however, they do not teach young scientists that they will face challenges and failures throughout their path to success. For these reasons, I want to start off by sharing who I am and what I have struggled with before I discuss my work as a scientist and as an inventor.

Before I was born, my grandfather was a Vietnamese Airforce General who helped the US during the Vietnam war. Because of this, he was a prisoner of war for 17 years in a reeducation camp. I was born while he was gone, in Gia Dinh Province in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Once he was released in 1992, my family and I gained political asylum and immigrated to America in 1993.

My childhood was pretty difficult. As an immigrant family living in the US, we struggled with social, economic and language barriers. My weekends consisted of either helping my mother clean laundry rooms of apartment complexes or collecting cans from garbage bins with my grandmother to make revenue from recyclables.

Even though my family worked full time low-wage jobs, the pursuit of education was always of the upmost importance to them. So therefore, in addition to working and raising me, my mother attended community college. My mother graduated with a B.S. in Biochemistry from California State University, Fullerton (CSUF) in 2002 at the age of 40. She is the reason I understand the value of hard work. Obstacles and failures never led to her abandoning the things she cared about: providing for her family, raising me and continuing her education. Because of her, I have never felt ‘turned away’ by failure.

As a student, my grades were always a bit polarizing. Certain subjects like math and physics came naturally to me, but history and Latin were time-consuming and extremely difficult. I was never good at spelling or multiple-choice exams and as a result, I never did well in those classes. As a high school student, I got Cs and Ds in history and Latin, grades that would be appalling to the regular PhD students in physics, chemistry or any type of science.

However, I did know what I was good at, and that was building stuff. As a kid, I would build skateboards or simple experimental contraptions like a mini tornado inside of a coke bottle. These experiences helped build my passion for invention.

I decided to major in physics and attend the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) where I was part of a special program called the College of Creative Studies. Here, exams were oral and based on important physical concepts. Because it was an alternative way to test compared to written exams, I was able to thrive as an undergraduate physics student. For my undergrad research project, I built an electrostatic force microscopy set-up that could image the surface charges of organic photovoltaics under laser illumination, further extending my passion for invention.

After I graduated from UCSB, I came to Cornell University to pursue my PhD under Professor David Muller. I struggled a lot when I first started my PhD. I had difficulty recognizing the differences between letters, shapes and objects and completing timed exams. These weaknesses made it challenging for me to perform at the level the PhD program required and in effect, I did not perform as well as my peers.

Professor Muller noticed that although I understood the material and the physics extremely well, I still had problems differentiating between letters, shapes and objects. By his suggestions and support, I tested for ADHD. I instead, found out that I had a vision processing disorder. I knew that I always had issues disentangling similar visualizations, but I thought that if I worked hard enough, am careful enough or found alternative methods of studying, I could overcome these barriers.

In addition, even after my diagnosis of the disorder, my family and friends told me that what I had was normal. They emphasized that everyone struggles with some sort of visualization problem, whether it was right-left handedness or shapes and objects. They told me that I did not have a learning disability otherwise I would not have gotten into a PhD program; I didn’t need help. This lack of support and acknowledgement of my diagnosis made it difficult for me to accept and feel comfortable with it.

Even worse, although I could understand why certain things would take me twice as long to accomplish in comparison to other students, I was still embarrassed by my challenges. So much so, that I ended up not vocalizing my disability to the other professors and staff in the department. Instead of asking for help, I continued with my struggles – this became the biggest regret of my life.

Over time, I realized that if I talk about my struggles with vision processing disorder, it can let other young people with learning disabilities know that they are not alone and that they should not feel ashamed.

Graduate school requires an immense amount of work and mental prowess. I knew my vision processing disorder would make achieving success more challenging, but I told myself I could not give up. Through hard work and dedication, myself and a group of amazing scientists co-invented the electron microscope pixel array detector (EMPAD), an electron diffraction detector.

The EMPAD, enables us to observe what happens inside computer chips, proteins important to Alzheimer’s disease or nanocomposite in paintings like “The Scream” by Edvard Munch. The EMPAD accomplishes these tasks by extracting structural, optical, chemical, electronic and magnetic properties from atoms. This same data could also be used to create faster computers, cheaper electric cars, better biological scoping/treatment, art conservation and drugs that we design to cure diseases.

I hope my story as a child who grew up in a predominantly immigrant community with a learning disability can inspire people not to give up on their dreams and goals no matter what life gives them. My perseverance has led to many amazing opportunities including: receiving the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize award and licensing EMPAD to ThermoFisher Scientific, which enabled it to be sold around the world. This October, I will also travel to Vienna, Austria to give a TedxVienna talk about EMPAD. Additionally, after I receive my PhD, I will continue my research at the University of Illinois in Urbana Champaign.

So much of my success has been made possible because of the incredible support I received from professors and mentors throughout my journey. They understood, and taught me, that learning comes in different forms and every brain is wired to retain information in its own way. Without their efforts to accommodate for my learning needs, I could not have finished my PhD or become a scientist. Ultimately, my hope is that both my research and personal story can help and inspire people everywhere.




Kayla X. Nguyen is currently a PhD Candidate at Cornell University.  She was inspired to pursue a career in science after going to an outreach event where Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, was the plenary speaker.  Kayla later went on to study physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara as part of the College of Creative Studies.  Afterwards, she moved from sunny California to the temperate, deciduous forest of Ithaca, NY where she continued her studies as a PhD student under Professor David Muller. At Cornell, Kayla focuses her time developing new electron microscopy techniques, encouraging middle and high school students to pursue careers in science, and teaching rock climbing. Follow her on Twitter.

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