SPARKED: Life without Instructions—Anh’s Story

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Ann Le

As a college student, Anh Le found herself in a classroom at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with a cardboard box full of random screws, pieces of wood, wires, and motors. Her professor gave her and her classmates an objective, but not much guidance. It was up to the students to figure out how to assemble the parts together and complete the task.

Anh was experienced in figuring out life without instructions. She had an atypical childhood, growing up in Can-Tho, Vietnam during the war and observing her father perform life-saving surgeries on soldiers. Her father was a source of inspiration, but at 10 years old, Anh didn’t think she was smart enough to follow in his footsteps.

Anh’s family was caught up in the political turmoil following the Vietnam War, and after living in a refugee camp for years, they migrated to the U.S. Like all high school students, Anh wanted to fit in and succeed, but she felt hindered by her limited English. So, she found solace in science and math, which had a language of numbers and diagrams that were universal. The day she received her MIT acceptance letter was one of Anh’s most memorable. She went on to receive a Master’s degree in mechanical engineering.

After graduation, Anh joined Ethicon, a Johnson & Johnson company. She helped to design a “panalok,” a revolutionary implant to treat shoulder injuries. The Panalok® device is a plastic hook about the size of a rice grain, which anchors needles and sutures used to reattach torn ligaments and tendons in the shoulder. Previous versions were made of metal and would injure patients and cause tremendous pain if they loosened. Thousands of people have regained full use of their shoulders thanks to Anh’s invention.

Anh’s life hasn’t followed a straight line. Like the classroom assignment at MIT, she has managed to take disparate parts and put together something impressive. Her advice to young women is to always ask “why?” and to follow through and pursue those answers. Determination, observation and curiosity are the most important tools to ignite the talent and passion of the next generation of inventors.