The Future of STEM is Here: Meet the Unstoppable 17-year-old Hannah Le
17-year-old Hannah Le shows us where curiosity and conviction can take us. From the lessons she learned from her deaf cousin, to her own personal challenges fitting in, this young, confident woman teaches us about pursuing big dreams and carving our own paths. Oh, and she’s a Unicorn too.
1. How and when did your passion for STEM and health care start?
As a kid, I’ve always been curious about many things, from why only females can get pregnant to why the Moon follows me anywhere I go. But it wasn’t until 13 years old that I started thinking more deeply about the role of sciences in the world and my niche [within] that world.
Growing up with a deaf cousin in Vietnam, I observed the unfairness that jaded his reality. Despite his gift in computer science, he dropped out of school in grade 5 as his teachers thought that he "couldn't be educated". Yet my cousin's story was only a narrative within millions of deaf people in developing countries who lack access to equitable education and healthcare. That means the potential of millions of people are hindered by a medical condition. To a kid who was quite oblivious to her own limitations, the imagination of curing deafness and alleviating human lives gave me a thrill I’d never experienced before. Though there is no moment of epiphany that sparks my passion for science, I believe that compassion for my cousin’s story, coupled with my innate curiosity about how the world works and what it might become, compels me to pursue research and sciences.
2. Do you have any role models?
My role model is Michelle Obama. I was very lucky and grateful to have the opportunity to see her in person at the Economics of Inequality Conference in December 2017. One of her quotes that stood out to me was “Don’t be small because other people don’t want to be big”. She has inspired me to not be afraid of pursuing big, seemingly impossible goals and constantly think about how I can impact the lives of people around the world. She also inspired this blog.
3. At 17, your LinkedIn profile is already more impressive than most adults! Please share some highlights with us.
The most memorable experience of mine is at The Knowledge Society - a human accelerator that turns driven students into unicorn people who solve the world’s biggest problems. Right from the first session on the global food crisis that is afflicting billions worldwide, I was astonished at how incredibly lucky we all are, that we, in fact, belong to the [wealthiest] 20% of the world. Our reality is not the reality. By learning about new, exponential technologies today, from A.I., Genomics to Quantum Computing I gained refreshing insights on how we can together make a lasting impact on the world. For instance, my focus at TKS is genetic engineering, specifically using the novel gene editing tool, CRISPR-Cas. I was able to use CRISPR to mutate two genes in fruit flies and double its lifespan. On my hungry quest for knowledge, I was also able to connect with and receive help and support from leading experts, such as Dr. George Church Professor Tim Westwood, Professor Alan Davidson, and more. TKS has empowered me to think big, take risks, and relentlessly chase after my passion, and has completely changed the trajectory of my life. This summer, I am also very excited to be speaking at Microsoft Ready Conference in Las Vegas! I would like to thank Navid Nathoo and Nadeem Nathoo for making the TKS experience possible!
4. What does Youth Development and Empowerment mean to you?
As young people, our inexperience and insecurities may lead us to embrace and conform to other people’s expectations, values, or standards.Youth empowerment to me means giving young people the skills and knowledge to help them carve out their own path, one that is freed of the burden of how things are supposed to be and is defined by its particular set of reasons.
5. You clearly enjoy a challenge - what has been the biggest challenge you have faced so far?
The biggest challenge I have faced was the feeling that I could not fit in. Coming from a conservative family, I recalled my parents’ words: “Our country has a saying: women follow the path of the men”. It hit me at the time that as much as much as she believed in my individual strength, strict draconian was ingrained in her as well. In my home country, social progress has always been a push and pull, dotted with small changes over time, and the conservatism that my mother represents.
Although it would be presumptuous to say I can change my mother’s mindset and her deeply ingrained gender stereotypes, I knew that I could change myself. I could shape myself as part of the young minds and souls that shape the next generation of gender equity and self-determination.
6. What might people be surprised to learn about you?
I was inspired by my cousin to move to Canada by myself at age 16, and join Dr. Waldman’s Tissue Engineering Lab at St. Michael’s hospital to assist a postdoctoral student in engineering an artificial ear cartilage.
7. What advice do you have for young people who are showing an interest in STEM?
My advice to both young girls and boys is be courageous and have conviction in your ambition. Along the way, there will be people who deter you from your goal or believe that you are more “fit” or “supposed” to do other things. It is important to stay focused on your goal and make progress to get there.
8. If you could invent anything, what would it be?
A single tool that can solve all diseases.
Today, the way we treat diseases – such as cancer – is ineffective. For instance, chemotherapy can eliminate harmful cells, but it can also kill neighbouring cells. This is not to mention that we are treating different diseases with different tools.
Recently, at TKS’s Moonshot Hackathon, my team and I came up with a potential idea: What if we can use CRISR to solve these diseases altogether? We realized what the problem with CRISPR is, despite its precise gene editing capability; CRISPR can’t be delivered to specific cells in the body and can be rejected by the human immune system.
Thus, we proposed the idea of encapsulating CRISPR with DNA origami nanoparticle, which is tagged with receptors that can help the system as a whole reach specific cells. In addition, the DNA origami is coated with white blood cell membrane to protect it from being rejected by the body's immune system.
I am really excited and would love to explore this idea more in the next 5 to 10 years!
Guest writer: Jori Lichtman