It is the smell of lemongrass and Thai basil that takes Kayla Nguyen home. Born in Saigon, Kayla immigrated to the United States as a refugee at the age of four. Currently, she is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois. The little girl who dreamt of exploring space now looks deep into the universe inside of things and inside of us. She is grateful for the ones who landed her a hand along the way and wants to do the same for others. Kayla is, among many other things, a scientist, a cat-owner, a daughter, a friend, an Asian American, a mentor, and a role model.
When asked what was the first thing that comes to mind when she hears the word love, she smiled and responded promptly, without a single ounce of hesitation. Love for her reveals itself mostly through her family, her friends and her cat Linus. For Kayla, “love is something to which you would dedicate your whole entire life.”
Kayla’s family left Vietnam after the war. Her grandfather worked for the Vietnamese government that fell, so he ended up in prison, and stayed at the re-education camp for 17 years. After he was released, the entire family got asylum to go to the United States. The life of an immigrant is not easy, but “it is much more difficult when you immigrate to America without prospects like schooling and job opportunities,” she says. Kayla’s family struggled with linguistic barriers and poverty. She stops for a second, looks up and starts counting with her fingers before saying that, at a time, eight of them lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Southern California because of how expensive rent was. Her parents were always working, and the jobs available for them had no opportunity for growth.
As someone of Asian descent, who grew up in a country that is not predominantly Asian, Kayla considers herself more aware of cultural difference. She has a lot of friends from different backgrounds and ethnicities, and she believes that her immigrant experience makes her relate better to them. Being a part of an immigrant community there is so much structural racism. “Growing up in a Southeast Asian community there were a lot of issues, such as gang violence and racism,” Kayla says that a shooting happened in an elementary school, and took the lives of many kids, most of them Vietnamese and Cambodian, did not make the headlines.
Kayla believes that, as an Asian American, she can serve as a bridge between the issues the community faces and her white friends. Despite all the Asian hate that has arisen during the pandemic, she has seen people being sympathetic and trying to do better. She says that on the day of the Atlanta shooting her best friend’s mum, who is white, texted her to make sure she was okay.
When asked about her main inspirations, she looked up and smiled. She says that is a very loaded question for her, for she has been inspired by so many, and there is so much she aspires to be. As a young child, one of her main inspirations was Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut. “She was someone who promoted herself as a scientist, but she also did a lot of good work to help women in science,” Kayla says. She was also inspired by her grandmother’s younger brother, who is also a physicist. Before the Vietnam War, he got a scholarship to go to France and study physics. During the war, he took care of the family from afar. When they were able to immigrate to US, she got to meet him. Now, as she is becoming a more independent scientist she looks up to her mentors, according to her, without them she would not be where she is right now.
Kayla’s passion for science only grew and evolved over time. In 2007, Kayla started studying physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. When asked about how the experience was of being the only woman in her undergraduate class, she said “it was…”, paused for a bit, and then continued, “interesting.” Kayla says that at times it was very difficult. Although her classmates would not make inappropriate comments often, every time this kind of situation happened, she would feel uncomfortable. Sadly, there was not much she could do, “when you are the only woman, no one is going to have your back.” Kayla emphasizes passionately the importance of women in these environments, so they can “promote and stand by each other.”
During her PhD at Cornell University, Kayla co-invented the electron microscope pixel array detector (EMPAD). The EMPAD is basically a camera capable of capturing every single electron that scatters through a sample. When looking at things at an atomic scale, worlds of possibilities open up. It can help design new medicine, for example “by getting more detailed structure of the proteins in Alzheimer’s,” leading to possible cures for the disease. The EMPAD can also play an important role in art conservation. By looking at the nanocomposites, one can get a better understanding of how to preserve the art. Because of an image captured by the EMPAD, Kayla’s team earned the Guinness World Record for the highest resolution in the world.
As Kayla’s career advances and she gets closer to being the very successful scientist she is certainly going to become, she is not only promoting herself, but she has also been lifting others. One of the things she is most proud of is having a platform where she can be a mentor and a role model to a lot of young women, to give them advice and give them the opportunity to ask questions. She intends to keep doing that to promote education in the future.
One of the happiest and proudest moments of her life was taking her parents to Europe. Back in 2018, Kayla gave a TEDTalk in Vienna and decided to take her parents with her. She was so proud of herself for being able to give them the chance to see something and to live in a world they had not yet had the opportunity to experience.
Kayla has been volunteering her entire life through the church and different organisations. Among so many other things, she has volunteered as a translator to help Southeast Asian women experiencing domestic violence. For her, it does not feel like volunteering, it is natural to give back to her community. Because of other people’s help, she was given many opportunities to grow, and she wants people to get that same chance.
When asked what advice she would give her younger self, she laughs as she says slowly and emphasizing every single word: “so many advice.” Kayla says that a lot of generic, yet valid, things come to mind like: “believe in yourself” and “be confident.” However, what she really thinks would have helped during difficult times would be to hear: “don’t sweat the small stuff, you will be okay, you will learn, and you will grow from it.”
Kayla aspires to be a professor, so she can keep on being both a mentor and a role model for girls and young women. In an environment where is mostly men, “women tend to get lost in that void.” Physics is a male-dominated field, and therefore, “it is important to have female leaders, so women can make their own way through it, and help each other out along the way.”
Edited by Michelle Nishidera