Bakersfield’s a pass-through town. Talented people move here, stay for awhile and then leave. If we had feelings, they’d be hurt.
Maybe that’s not just Bakersfield. Maybe that’s everywhere. Maybe you notice when you are prone to stay in the same place for a long time and not everybody has fallen under the hometown spell.
A friend pointed someone out to me at the Bakersfield Racquet Club but I’d seen her before that. I’d watched her hit. Hard not to — she hit the ball like she was mad at it. She hit the ball like it had said something she didn’t like and now she was demanding an apology.
If somebody had told me she was 13, I would have nodded. She looked 13. Tall for 13 but I’ve seen tall 13-year-olds although it had been awhile since I’d seen a tall, 13-year-old hit with that kind of fury.
Turns out Margaret-Anne Smith is not 13 but 23 (with a much younger laugh) and, as big a swing as she musters at opponents and an innocent bucket of balls, she’s taking an even bigger cut at life and her career.
“You ought to talk to this woman,” said my friend Eric. “She’s pretty amazing, she’s invented things and she has a big time job at Nestle managing people twice her age.”
So we did, talked, sat on the patio at the racquet club under the elm tree on a warm summer night.
I love my kids, and I assume most of you do too, however if this girl ended up in your family either through marriage or birth, you’re not throwing her back.
Smith was born in Philly and raised in Hong Kong and Singapore, so naturally she speaks Mandarin. She’s been to 26 countries. Her dad is a professor at Singapore Management University and her mom is a sixth-grade teacher in Singapore. Smith has two younger siblings, a sister in high school and a brother attending Case Western Reserve in Ohio.
Smith recently graduated from Carnegie Mellon. She didn’t just go to Carnegie Mellon, she grabbed the university by the throat and throttled it. I asked her what her major was. A better question would have been, “What didn’t you major in?”
Smith earned a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering and one in biomedical engineering, a master's in mechanical engineering and a bachelor's in Chinese.
Smith said this without bragging, without a touch of guile and without any indication that she was smarter than the person who was asking the questions.
If classroom heroics were not enough, Smith also worked three jobs: teaching assistant, campus tour guide and assistant in the mechanical engineering department. She played on the tennis team for four years, pounding balls and opponents.
In her spare time, she helped invent a non-electric vacuum-powered pump for dental surgeries. Requiring only a simple bike pump, this is a low-cost option for poor countries. Smith and her team are still waiting for FDA approval, and if it does get approved, the pump could be helpful for organizations like Doctors without Borders and Global Medical Brigades.
“I think we can change some lives,” she said. “It could improve dental care for people who cannot afford it.”
Smith, because obviously she had a hole in her schedule from 3 to 4:30 in the morning, was part of a team in the biomechatronics lab that developed a smart, lower leg prosthesis, that is ergonomic and allows the user to resume an active lifestyle. The prosthesis costs $400 rather than thousands.
Nestle hired her last June as one of 10 management trainees in its 23 factories across the country. The company, located here on District Boulevard, is rotating her through finance, HR, engineering, maintenance, industrial performance and production.
Nestle is setting her up to run something, somewhere.
“Every day I meet people at the company who tell me they’ve been working longer than I’ve been alive,” Smith said.
She’d like to return to China or Singapore. Smith’s boyfriend lives in Hermosa Beach and works for SpaceX, the company founded by Elon Musk but maybe he just rockets over there.
Bakersfield’s been good and she understands its charm.
“The mountains and coast are close and the tennis community is great,” Smith said.
She’s taking a big swing. Smith will be fun to follow as she keeps her eye on the ball and the globe beyond.