What’s next for Victoria’s celebrated young inventor? Ann Makosinski is poised at the intersection of past and future, science and the arts.
BY DAVID LENNAM | PHOTO BY JEFFREY BOSDET
Much has been written about Ann Makosinski’s past. A childhood playing with transistors and glue guns. At 15 years of age, inventing the Hollow Flashlight, which runs off the heat of your hand. A year later, inventing the eDrink coffee mug, which uses heat from your beverage to charge your phone, and a line of toys that run on green energy.
Winning a top award at the 2013 Google Science Fair and making everyone’s 30 Under 30 list (Time, Forbes). Two appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon; five TEDx talks; and honours from Entrepreneur, Popular Science and Glamour magazines as well as the United Nations. Founding her own company, Makotronics Enterprises, sharing screen time with Miley Cyrus; becoming the face for a Maybelline makeup line and a brand ambassador for the clothing brand Uniqlo; and working with Vice magazine to create a campaign for the Google Pixel 2. Oh, and MIT named an asteroid (technically, a minor planet) in her honour.
Less has been shared of what the 25-year-old is doing now and might be doing in the near future.
Gross understatement: Ann Makosinski is busy.
She is writing a book, creating a TV show (maybe two), wrapping up a series on YouTube, completing an English lit degree at UVic, touring the world giving talks, hanging out with other young geniuses. And she is reinventing herself.
Not Just the Flashlight Girl
The blur of early celebrity was so sudden it was almost out of control. Andini — she adopted her preferred moniker in sixth grade, in honour of the great escape artist Harry Houdini; one name, like Cher or, for her generation, Zendaya — is not ungrateful, just confused.
“Suddenly, I was ‘the flashlight girl’ and that was never what I was dreaming I wanted to be. To some extent, when I was younger, I thought [an inventor is] who I am now, that’s my identity because everyone around me is saying this is what you should do,” Andini says. “After a certain point, not that I’m old, you stop being ‘young science genius girl.’ I never remotely thought I was a prodigy or a wunderkind. I just used my time differently after school, that was all. If I wasn’t worried about what people thought, what would I actually be doing? That’s something I’m still trying to embark on.”
The Makosinski modification began long ago, but gained momentum when she turned down an engineering scholarship to study the arts instead. In the last century she might have run away to join the circus. Instead, she ran away to New York City and enrolled in acting classes at the prestigious Herbert Berghof (HB) Studio.
A few years earlier, while still a teen, Andini had popped up on several episodes of Victoria comedian Wes Borg and Kathryn Popham’s live satirical talk show Derwin Blanshard’s Extremely Classy Sunday Evening Program, playing piano, singing, doing schtick. Those appearances, Borg figures, may have ultimately damned her career as inventor, luring her instead into the world of theatre.
“Working with Andini was an amazing experience,” Borg recalls, noting that his own teenage daughter was also in the show at the time. “My daughter had just graduated from an arts high school in Edmonton, but ultimately became a scientist. Andini started as a teenage scientist and … well, I just hope we didn’t ruin her life. If we did, I blame Kathryn.”
A Born Performer
Andini and I talk very little about how her flashlight works. Or her coffee mug. That was then. She’s more interested offering fresh insights into Werner Herzog’s troubled masterpiece Fitzcarraldo (“I watched that in middle school”); deep backstory into Elvis Presley (“He cried at Lawrence of Arabia because he knew he’d never get a part like that”), the underrated Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes, Visconti, Montgomery Clift, why she called the late sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar her uncle and Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd her grandparents.
“I was raised on silent film,” she says. “The very first film I watched religiously, every Saturday, was [Soviet historical drama] Alexander Nevsky by [Sergei] Eisenstein, from ’38.” She starts in, almost frantically, about the battle on the ice and the Prokofiev score and how we need to understand history to understand art — or anything.
“In kindergarten I dressed up for Halloween as the knight Alexander Nevsky. Nobody knew who I was. It was very upsetting. So the next year I was a zebra. And I wore that costume to death.”
Andini talks quickly, barely catching a breath over the course of a million things at once — ideas, history, tidbits of information dropped like crumbs for a hungry bird. She’s whip-smart and disarmingly funny. A bit like Bart Simpson’s gifted kid sister, Lisa.
She’s on the cusp of something. Her first book, The Inventing Mindset, comes out in a year with Knopf Canada. But it’s her arts muses whispering in her ear right now. A born performer, with a dad who introduced her to the world of the movies before she could even operate the TV remote, she’s taken a few cautious steps back from what she’s famous for. And what everyone expects from her.
“I put pressure on myself and I felt pressure to represent an image of myself that I didn’t know or wasn’t familiar with,” Andini confesses. “To suddenly be called a role model, or a science genius or the next Elon Musk, that’s ridiculous.” She laughs a little. “Why would you do that to a child?”
There were moments of being overwhelmed, swelled by the hoopla, while navigating those tricky teen years.
“A lot of my unhappiness has always come from wanting to do film and feeling like people didn’t understand that or see potential in that for me,” she says. “There’s always been this big exchange between artists and scientists, but typically we’ve stereotyped science and art to be very different things. You’re one or the other. And so that’s why it was very disturbing for people to be like, ‘Oh, why are you studying English?’ If anyone had bothered to ask what else I liked to do, they would’ve seen this whole other half of me.”
Following Her Passion
It’s evident she’ll excel, wherever. One of her HB acting instructors in New York, Jonathan Lynn, mentions her brilliance and intelligence. “Not surprising, is it?” he asks, without needing to.
She wants to host her own show. There’s one in the works about futurism. But the one we’re waiting for is based on her own high school experience. An avid diarist since she was a kid, she has several seasons worth of material.
“I had this kind of Hannah Montana moment where I was trying to be a normal teenager that went to my first party, had my first kiss, got drunk for the first time, all of that. But then I had this whole other life where I had to be this responsible role model in science and speaking at big conferences. It’s me trying to live these two lives.”
Infatuated with creativity and imagination, whether inventing or in film, Andini says she long ago decided the thing that would feel most genuine for her is to excite others to follow their passions.
“I want every person who has a cool idea and then goes, ‘Oh, it’s not realistic,’ or ‘I don’t know how to do this,’ or ‘I don’t have the time to research this,’ to really stop and be like, ‘What if I could do that?’ Because it’s when you do those things in your life, if where it’s a creative idea and you actually follow through, that’s when I’ve had the most amazing experiences and learning opportunities.”
“There’s always been this big exchange between artists and scientists, but typically we’ve stereotyped science and art to be very different things. You’re one or the other.”