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A tough cowgirl turns from truck mechanic to biomedical engineer

Alumna’s journey takes her from New Mexico to USC, which opened her eyes to a whole new world of possibilities

Alumna Sam Huynh
Samantha Huynh, a mechanical engineer, was drawn to biokinesiology. (Photo/Luke Fisher)

Samantha “Sam” Huynh MS ’15 sat across from Terence Sanger, provost associate professor of biomedical engineering, neurology and biokinesiology and child neurology. Her half-mohawk, hanging over one side of her face, gave her a punkish edge to shock the system.

Everything about Huynh — hair, eyes, personality — is designed to shock the system.

She’d just graduated from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering with a master of science in materials engineering; now she was interviewing with Sanger, hoping to join his PhD students.

What was a mechanical engineer doing in biomed? Her CV read: Gates Millennium Scholar, Tesla Motors, SpaceX. Glancing over it one last time, it occurred to her that she’d been working on engines all her life.

Now she wanted to work on bodies?

“I don’t know anything about your world, but I do know machines,” Huynh told Sanger.

I can teach you what you don’t know.

Terence Sanger

“I can teach you what you don’t know,” Sanger replied. “You can learn control systems. I need someone who can work with their hands.”

To understand Sanger, just take one part electrical engineer, two parts child neurologist, add a little Tony Stark and stir. Naturally, the two connected. He, too, had reinvented himself.

Sanger’s research lab is known around the world for helping children with cerebral palsy, dystonia and other movement disorders regain control of their bodies by building artificial spinal cords, controllable prosthetics and exoskeletons.

Sanger looked up from the CV, impressed. One more thing — the inevitable question:

“Why do you want to do this?”

Huynh paused, drawing her breath.

“Because I want to help my friend walk again.”

She had his undivided attention. Whatever it was he was looking for, Huynh had it.

“Welcome aboard,” he told her.

With that, Huynh’s story had reached a new summit — a story of iron will and surmounting iron gates — of breaking limits and defying stereotypes and the quest to build the ultimate Iron Man.

The cowboy’s creed

Huynh’s parents came to America from Vietnam and Cambodia. Her father, Thanh Huynh, was the “Robin Hood” of South Vietnam, raiding merchant boats wading through the Mekong River along the remains of the Ho Chi Minh trail — a practice that landed him multiple stints in prison and iron-willed him to finally make a death-defying escape to the United States.

Her mother, Kimeon Beard Huynh, broke out of an orphanage in Cambodia just as Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge were dropping bombs on her village. Whisked out of bed at night by one of the orphanage caregivers, young Kimeon and her caretaker walked through treacherous jungle, around landmines and Pol Pot’s border patrols, hiding in Thai refugee camps before making the impossible journey to American shores, then inland to the great west.

A New Mexico cowboy family, Herbert (Herb) and Dorothy Beard, adopted Kimeon Huynh. She soon fell for Thanh, by then a handyman who picked up extra shifts at the restaurant where she waited tables, dazzling the kitchen staff with tales of pirating merchant boats and spreading the wealth up and down the river.

Ever the patriarch, Herb Beard invited the young couple to live with him on his farm. Sam Huynh was their first child. Then came Kathleen, now a chemical engineer and Thanh Jr., a Navy serviceman. They were the only Asian family in Belen, a railway town of about 7,000 whose name is Spanish for Bethlehem.

Beard was a laconic man who spent his life raising horses and working on engines. Though not his biological granddaughter, Beard loved Huynh like no one else.

“He only talked to his animals, to his truck and to me,” Huynh said.

She writes about him often in her journals:

“Sure, I fancy that in every gravelly tone, in every gruff cowboy talk and in the engines I work on, I think I can hear him. Sometimes, it’s more of a feeling, like a low rumble shaking my ribs or thunder rolling.”

Beard taught her about engines and horses and how to spit proper. He’d take her outside at the crack of dawn and put her up on a horse before she could even walk.

“I was a clumsy kid. I’d get hurt a lot,” she said. “We’d come back home with bruises on my head, and my mom would yell at him: ‘You don’t take good care of her.’ Herb would just lounge back, drag his cigarette and mutter: ‘I take care of her just fine. She’ll walk it off. That girl’s a force of nature.’”

“I fancy myself a coward at times,” Huynh later wrote. “What better way to mask fear than to throw yourself onto an unbroken bronco? Failure isn’t really an option then — it’s an impossibility.”

Beard confided in her, often without words, and when he didn’t turn up one evening, she knew at once that something was wrong.

“They found him dead on his horse,” Huynh remembered. “He broke his neck and just died in the saddle … died doing what he loved.”

In her Ford Ranger, Beard’s face smiles from her sun visor in the quiet way that only a photograph can.

An alien land of snow

To keep her out of trouble, Thanh Huynh got his daughter a job at the mechanic’s shop where he now worked.

“It was my dad’s way of separating his feral wolf of a daughter from the confines of civil society,” according to her.

Ironically, the guys in the shop all brawled to pass the time, and they taught her how to brawl, too. She excelled at mechanics and at busting teeth. When work was slow in the shop, she raced cars in the desert. She started feeding her soul with drawing and painting, even writing poetry.

Soon, Belen folks were commissioning her art, but slowly the words and the paintings were shaping her thoughts of leaving. She wanted something more, something farther.

And I wanted to show every teacher who didn’t think I’d make it out of Belen, just how wrong they were.

Samantha Huynh

“And I wanted to show every teacher who didn’t think I’d make it out of Belen, just how wrong they were.”

She chose mechanical engineering at the farthest university from everything she knew — Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York.

It was a family affair. Her parents drove her there. They wanted to settle her in and make sure she had a warm reception in Rochester. But nothing had prepared her for the chill of New York.

She was accustomed to harsh climates that paid no respect to pedigree. But the North was blanketed in a brume of anxiety. The lifestyle there was crisp and precise; they left their cars in gleaming service centers. Huynh never saw them spit.

One night, on a bad side of town, a guy trapped her inside a dingy bathroom. “Little did he know he was messing with a real-life American cowboy. I never leave home without my tools,” she chuckled.

The encounter — coupled with high-velocity engineering school and a year-long battle with illness — made her feel invincible, like her body couldn’t be broken, like she could get through anything unscathed.

“That girl’s a force of nature,” Beard’s voice rang in her head.

Then one night, in late 2010, Huynh collapsed — in the literal sense.

“My body is betraying me,” she wrote in her journal. “Falling to the ravaging maw of cancerous disease, surrendering the concentration, the will and strength I need to finish what I started. I can fix machines. I can navigate the complex symphony of metals and oil. It means nothing in regards to the mechanism of the human body.”

The myth of her invincibility had finally caught up to her. She struggled to keep up in her coursework and kept her private battles hidden from loved ones. She didn’t want to return home and “crush their dreams,” she said.

Huynh increasingly felt a sense of suffocation in Rochester. She wanted to escape and go somewhere where “you couldn’t see the stars at night … where stars walk by you every day.”

“They say you can’t see the stars in the sky in LA because they’re all around. People from around the world pouring into this basin, chasing moonshots. I want to be a part of that.”

She shot for the stars and landed a mechanical engineer’s dream job as a prototype machinist’s assistant and later design engineer — at Tesla Motors, that is.

Rise of the iron man

Blazing away from the monochrome land of snow, she entered the intense world of Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, the inspiration behind Disney’s Iron Man franchise — at least according to Robert Downey Jr. — and heir apparent to the Steve Jobs cape in Silicon Valley.

At Tesla, Huynh worked on the Model S, then went on to intern as a propulsion engineer at SpaceX, perfecting the Draco capsule. She was part of a team of architects behind the fuel systems that give the International Space Station its payload. She showed a talent for unpacking virtually any type of machinery and getting to the root cause.

Samantha Huynh and engineer Taylor Hattori

Samantha Huynh and fellow engineer Taylor Hattori (Photo/courtesy of Samantha Huynh)

Then, one day, the phone rang. A storm hit back East. One of her friends at RIT, Taylor Hattori, a fellow engineer had crashed his dirt bike and was now in the hospital. The news was bad. He was paralyzed from the chest down.

Huynh jumped on the first flight to Albany, where Hattori was hospitalized.

“I couldn’t stand to see how his body had failed him,” she recalls. “When I saw his shoulders slump at the futility of everything — he couldn’t even lift his arm — just tore me up.” She saw defeat in his eyes, and it unnerved her even more and made her frantic.

She looked him straight in the face: “I’m going back to LA, and I’m going to figure out a way to fix you.”

“I don’t want to be your thesis,” Hattori said.

“Too bad. Because it ain’t just about you anymore.”

Hungry for more training, especially in materials science, she set her sights on grad school at USC Viterbi.

“I knew the materials profs at Viterbi were by far the best in the country, and I wanted to vertically integrate all the theory I learned so far with my mechanical abilities.”

USC opened her eyes to a whole new world of possibilities. Soon, the mechanic from Belen was getting her hands on some pretty cool tech, from quantum electronics to nanotechnology to biomaterials and tissue engineering.

One thing that really hooked her was a new technology being advanced at USC — the exoskeleton system — a frame with joints corresponding to those on the human body, allowing human beings to perform feats of strength previously confined to comic book characters. The real Iron Man.

Finishing her master’s degree in materials engineering, Huynh applied for a PhD in biomedical engineering to work on the exoskeleton system and build a body for Hattori and for so many people like him.

Sitting across from Sanger, hearing him ask: “Why do you want to do this?” — the cowgirl-turned-mechanic-turned-engineer smiled a big Robin Hood smile.

“Me, this kid who was never great at math, who didn’t even know what an engineer was until I my freshman year in college, some nobody kid from Cowtown, New Mexico … come on!”

In the Sanger Lab at USC, Huynh wants to take advances in exoskeletons, such as ReWalk, to the next level.

She imagines these robotic suits will not only be more seamlessly integrated with the human body, but will one day take the body to new heights.

I’d like to lend mobility to those unable to walk at an equal scale to those who can.

Terence Sanger

“Ideally, I’d like to lend mobility to those unable to walk at an equal scale to those who can,” she said. “My research is also focused on dexterity and augmenting upper-body strength, an area that still bears a lot of uncertainty.”

She visits her hometown every so often, driving past the ghosts of her childhood: the old barn hardly standing, the old shop begging for work. And she stops to take it all in.

“The bones of my dogs are still in that ground … the bones of my horses. This is where I learned to work on cars and learned to spit proper,” Huynh said.

This is where it all began, her search for iron will and iron purpose.

Not surprisingly, it was never too far.

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