The Young and the Restless

Ann Makosinski in front of UBC's Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences building.

On January 3rd, Ann Makosinski woke up to find she had landed in the Forbes “30 Under 30” list with a decade to spare. The 19-year-old inventor and UBC student was excited, but such attention wasn’t new. She had already demonstrated her gadgets on the Tonight Show twice, and won numerous prestigious science awards — starting with her top-place finish at the 2013 Google Science Fair for her battery-free flashlight.

This “Hollow Flashlight” was an attempt to help a friend in a small Philippine village who had no light to study by, and was created from Peltier tiles, which turn heat into electricity — in Makosinski’s application, using the warmth of the hand to light an LED bulb. Makosinski submitted her invention to the Google Science Fair, something she had forgotten about until the night before the deadline. With her dad’s help, she hastily shot a demonstration video, uploaded her submission, and clicked the send button.

Over the next few months, she saw her future unfold before her eyes as her entry became one of 90 regional finalists, then 15 overall finalists, then the winner in her age category, making her the only Canadian to take the top prize. When the video had gained 100 views in its first few weeks, she thought it was a lot. Now it’s over two million views, she doesn’t know what to think.

“I was so shocked, because this is just like a little simple project I had done for my local science fair and my friend,” she says. “So that really opened my eyes. I remember thinking on stage, anything is possible. If I’m up here, I think if I work hard enough, I can go wherever I want.

Ironically, her friend moved to the city before the flashlight was completed. But for Makosinski, this was a new beginning. Her invention gained international press and set her on a course that would take her away from her native Victoria. Over the next year, Makosinski would appear in the 2013 Time magazine “30 Under 30” list (with 15 years to spare), take second-place at the 2014 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, and release her follow-up invention, the eDrink, which conducts wasted heat from a coffee mug into a phone recharger.

Although she spends much of her off-campus time travelling to science fairs, giving presentations such as TEDx talks, and tinkering in her workshop at her parents’ home, her on-campus life is surprisingly activity-free. An English major with an interest in classic films, she doesn’t participate in science and business clubs as one might expect. “I wanted to do arts in school, so I have a balance of both arts and sciences, which I believe is necessary if you’re going to be successful in any field. For example, if you’re designing a product you need it to work well, but you also want it to be aesthetically pleasing or nobody else will really want to buy it.”

It takes a special love to be able to stand in front of a table at a fair for hours, repeating the same bullet points for every passerby, struggling to hold the attention of crowds ranging from disinterested children to science PhDs.

An energetic storyteller who has taken drama and voice lessons, Makosinski relishes the part of science many inventors dread: having to present their work to others. It takes a special love to be able to stand in front of a table at a fair for hours, repeating the same bullet points for every passerby, struggling to hold the attention of crowds ranging from disinterested children to science PhDs.

“I’ve seen a lot of great science fair projects in my time that didn’t get any awards, that could have placed but didn’t because the person who was presenting it couldn’t vocalize just how amazing their project was, or the possibilities of it,” she laments, stressing that she does all of her own presentation work. “There’s nothing I give to someone else to do; I don’t do that. I like learning.”

But for a teenager, this comes at a social cost. She’s missed a fair share of parties and ceremonies while she was working on projects or travelling to science fairs, and on occasion has second-guessed those decisions. “But I realized those were my good moments,” she admits, “when I was strong and didn’t go. I’m not saying socializing is bad, but I spent my time working on something that helped me learn, and that’s the most valuable thing you can do with your time.”

Organizing one’s time is a task no college student can get away from, but for Makosinski it’s an obsession. Although she has a manager to help arrange appearances and interviews, she still wakes up every morning thinking about how to schedule her moments. “Time is my biggest thing I think about every single day,” she says. “What am I going to spend my time on today?” Even mid-task, she’ll ask herself: Is what I’m doing right now a waste of time or is it effective? What else could I be doing in that moment instead?

It’s this fixation on how she spends each minute that she credits for her success. Young polymaths are often assumed to be geniuses, achieving mental heights unobtainable to the average teen. But Makosinski believes most young achievers are simply people who are conscious of how they spend their time, and she wants to use her passion for storytelling and presentation to help others to see that.

“I want to do a show where I host and interview other entrepreneurs and inventors that are my age, so I can show them as regular people,” she says. “So teenagers who watch the show won’t feel intimidated when they read headlines about a genius kid with a million-dollar startup. Because it makes them seem otherworldy — like normal teenagers could never do it — when in reality it’s just teenagers that use their time effectively instead of sitting around watching TV all day.”

Likely a shoo-in for her pick of graduate schools, Makosinski is more interested in following her undergraduate degree with a diploma in electronics, then seeing where life takes her. “I don’t see myself, my career, as just being an inventor,” she says, “because then I’d be losing out on a lot of other things I want to do in life. I really want to try a whole bunch of different things, taking it as it comes and seeing what opportunities I’m ready for. I just really want to inspire other people to not be zombie-consumers, and to make their own solutions for whatever problems they have. And, of course, to use their time effectively.”

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