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By Samantha De Leve
"Inventor." Even as modern technologists innovate by leaps and bounds, the idea of the inventor seems to have fallen by the wayside, reserved for a bygone era of Nikolai Tesla and Thomas Edison. Programmers, designers and engineers there may be, but the inventor — a person professionally dedicated to creating new things — is rare.
But “rare” is not extinct, and Mackenzie Baker proves it. "I have always wanted to be an inventor," says the junior at the USC Iovine and Young Academy. "Ever since I was a little kid, I've had a fascination with Leonardo da Vinci." Leonardo da Vinci exemplified the Renaissance man, excelling in fields of art, science and engineering alike, and as an inventor, he brought all of those fields together. At the Iovine and Young Academy, Baker integrates artistic and technical disciplines. She has used that education to emulate her childhood hero to great effect: for the second year in a row, Baker is a recipient of the Advancing Women in Technology scholarship.
Advancing Women in Technology is a charitable non-profit that offers educational scholarships to women studying at colleges in California with the aim of increasing women’s representation in technology fields. AWT scholarships are holistic, granted to students who demonstrate outstanding overall academic achievement and work experience in technology. Among candidates for the scholarship, though, Baker not only has the tech bona fides, but a multifaceted background that stands out once again this year.
Baker came to the Academy with strong training in traditional art, but through her studies, she has developed an equally extensive fluency in artificial intelligence, allowing her to invent in ways da Vinci could never have dreamed of. Last year, Baker won the Iovine and Young Prize for Blueprint, a device that allows a user to 3D model through the use of hand gesture technology. Soon after, she developed a project that integrated an AI-enhanced smart mirror with shopping history and social media connections to enhance a shopper’s retail experience. This idea won Baker yet another prize — the Fashion Scholarship Fund.
This past summer Baker interned at MO Studio where she saw the professional possibilities in creating technology for clients to meet their needs, a modern-day approach to invention. "I never realized a job existed where you can visit different clients and solve their technology needs. It made me think of Da Vinci and the inventions he created for his patrons. Not only did I gain real world experience through this internship, I also made a unique connection through serendipity," says Baker.
This serendipitious connection was a kindred spirit: a man who had “Toy Inventor” on his very business card! When asked if she had interest in applying for positions as a toy inventor in the future, Baker recalls that she "internally screamed ‘YES!’” It is easy to see why: not only does Baker possess the technical and design skills, but her user-centered approach to invention is perfectly suited to toys and games. Designing games and toys requires a focused understanding of those who play with them; toy inventors do not merely create objects, but set the stage for experiences of wonder, of curiosity, of fun and play.
"I have trained as a computer scientist, but always approach any project with a designer's criteria, asking myself, 'Is this project user-centered?'" says Baker. While Baker once thought that the design and technology hemispheres of her brain were separate, she realizes it is through the integration of both skill sets that she can create something that is both delightful and practical.
“The impact I want to have on the world is to show the strength of my interdisciplinary skills paired with a passion for invention,” Baker says, and she is undeniably doing so already. She and fellow scholarship winners were honored at the AWT’s annual wine tasting and scholarship fundraiser on November 15th.