An Interview With...
Imagiverse Co-Founder/Graduate Student
When you wrote your Imagiverse biography back in 2001, just after graduating from high school, did you imagine that you would be graduating with a BSc in Mathematics in 2005?
Definitely not. At the time, I wanted to become an engineer and planetary geologist. Finding a job in the space industry was a serious thought. I was enrolling in engineering at university. After that, I'd go into geology. Having participated in some NASA educational programs, I saw that there were a number of NASA employees with this dual background, enabling them to work on both the engineering and the science aspects of planetary exploration. By the end of high school, that was what I wanted to do. I thought, finally, I found my calling and knew exactly what to do to achieve that!
What kind of a student were you in high school?
Academically, I did really well. I was always a slow homework person, so I did spend a lot of time on homework. Nevertheless, I learned things correctly the first time and so exams and things of that sort were a breeze. Thus, I never developed much of a study regiment. I'd just do things till I got it done and perfect. Before exams, I would do an intense cram. That was that.
How did your world as a university student differ from what you thought it would be?
What worried me the most was the transition from teenhood to adulthood. Much like the transition from elementary to high school, the new environment and the sudden independence was my main concern. In fact, I found the university environment much more satisfying. With regards to academics, I expected it to be more or less the thing... with more intensity. So, I'd thought that I would trudge along as I always did. Well, it was quickly evident that my snail's pace would not cut it. I had to learn how to study efficiently. Plus, university is less rote memorization but more critical thinking, something that cannot be crammed in a day. I was behind very soon and once behind, it was difficult to catch up. My all-nighters became frequent and I was half-asleep in class everyday. So, absorbing any material was downright impossible.
What do you enjoy most about studying at the university level?
I do enjoy the university atmosphere. Here was an intellectually-minded place where I could do things independently and contribute what and when I want. You are responsible for your own education and you are not forced into anything that you don't want. The quality of the lecturers varied, but many instructors seemed to be deeply enamoured by what they were teaching. This was their livelihood and their enthusiasm showed through. This I found quite different from high school, where the majority of the teachers were not very exuberant about what they were teaching. Teaching was only their job, not their passion.
Was mathematics one of your favourite subjects in high school? Did you enjoy it? Were you good at it?
My best subject was math. I guess it was one of my favourites because I liked that everything had a solid answer and I did really well at it. In elementary, I used to have troubles expressing myself creatively. When time came to do something creative, my brain froze up. So, I thought it was much easier to do math. I didn't have to bother to brainstorm. By the time high school arrived, I was much better expressing my creativity, so that wasn't a problem. I do have an artistic flair. But I thought that classes like English had too much "fluff", nothing concrete. Math in high school was always concrete. Little did I know what math really was about. There's nothing concrete about it (unless you simply use it as a means to an end).
Were you more interested or better at one type of math than another?
In high school, we just had "Math" class. So, at the time, I never thought much about the different "disciplines" of math. There were particular chapters in the book that I found boring, such as probability and statistics (the fact that it was always the last chapter in the book and rushed through quickly probably added to that sentiment). I also never liked geometry much because I am not a visual person and couldn't draw worth a darn (even my basic shapes looked ugly!). The algebras were more to my taste (although I don't think I understood the real mathematical sense "algebra" till university).
The last math class I took in high school was calculus, the only course which devoted its time to one subject. I took that course as a self-study and so although this was and remains to this day the most important type of math that I use, I didn't learn anything back then. Everything was take-home and given all the time in the world, I got all the answers by guessing and reiterating the examples, not by understanding. Had I taken the course at school, I might have done slightly better in first year, and my academic career today could have been much different.
How did changing your major to math impact your overall academic career? What were the benefits you have seen from making that career decision?
I never loved math in school and certainly it wasn't something I ever thought of majoring in at university, but the new mysterious innards of mathematics was very interesting and beautiful to me... even if I wasn't that good at it. I got a little bit of the taste of the theories behind calculus. Instead of simply calculating derivatives and integrals, I learned HOW the formulas came to be. As a first-year engineer, I had to decide which discipline of engineering to go into. For reasons that I don't remember, I also got bit by the physics bug. Nanotechnology was the phrase of the day as a new nanotechnology institute was being built. Nanotechnology is the study of things at the nanoscale level (1000 times smaller than a micron). I was looking at Engineering Physics and it seemed to fit perfectly! Unfortunately, the EP program was only for the cream of the crop engineers. You had to be tops to get in. I could probably have gotten into any of the other disciplines, but not that one... the only one I still wanted to go into at that point. First year really gave me a start as it brought out what I really enjoyed to do, and my prenotions just a few months ago (such as becoming a mechanical engineer) drastically changed.
I decided to switch into a science program... getting back into the academic groove and then having a shot of getting into Engineering Physics. While looking at the possible options I had... lo and behold, there was the Mathematics program! It was a program consisting of a large requirement of math, but for the most part, it required math courses of your own choice and besides the math, everything else was Options! I filled up my schedule almost entirely with math and physics courses.
There were mixed results. Without a good foundation, you can't build upon it. Instead of taking a light year where I could gain back the confidence and competency in these subjects, I created a whirwind schedule, fell into old habits and fell into that rut of "first year" again. I lost the eagerness for learning that I used to have. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed some lectures, with the abstract algebras being the most interesting sort of math. It was not until after I finished my math degree that I finally had what I would call academic success. That was my happiest year and the year where I learned the most.
In retrospect, the decision to switch into math had profound changes on my life. Of course, it didn't have the original intended effect. Despite my struggles, there were positive effects of the switch. I got to explore the sciences much more than had I stayed in engineering. I had the wonderful opportunity to take a slew of science and arts courses. It was in these classes that I developed my present sense of identity and purpose, and interests. I also got the opportunity to learn about theoretical chemistry, which is what I am doing now. It would seem unlikely I would have even explored (or known about) this area had I not done what I done.
I now see university as a place for exploration of ideas. A high schooler's view of the world is very limited. When you get into university, how do you know that whatever you go into is what you want to do? Some people have a very specific goal and they know it from the get-go. They go study it and they still love it. I'm happy for them. But the ability to learn and explore without the burdens of work and family life is short, so if you're unsure, don't wait until it's too late. University should not be simply a four-year production line to a fixed job. Test the waters. Yes, the world outside is wide and one cannot learn everything in a lecture hall and never venture out. But while you're here at school, there is a treasure trove to learn, even if it is in an academic setting. Had I stayed in engineering, I would be a bona-fide electrical engineer as of now. Perhaps, I wouldn't have changed my perspectives and would still see it as a good career for me... but I'm certainly happy that I opened some more doors for myself and I am a fuller person for that.
Do you ever take classes just for the enjoyment and not because they fit into your academic goals?
I've taken a large assortment of courses that were not required for my degree. At first, the majority of courses were those that I would need or be useful when I got back into engineering. Most of my physics courses were for that purpose. As I progressed through my degree, I took courses that would be useful for a career as a scientist. Increasingly, I took courses just out of interest, which included a nice selection from the arts, some of which have developed into a burgeoning passion rather than just a passing fancy. The courses I've taken include: math, physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy, engineering mechanics, materials engineering, computing science, anthropology, music, English, French, Latin, history and classics. I love taking these academic detours as they allow me to explore different things that I probably wouldn't otherwise have gone out of my way to explore. It's like being connected to the Internet. What wonderful things can you learn within an arm's reach!
You have always loved science. Now that you have been able to take many science courses at the university level, what areas of science interest you the most at this time?
I'm currently a graduate student in theoretical and computational chemistry. I use computers, math and physics to solve chemical problems. I suppose it fits my multi-faceted education.
What do you like about graduate school?
I very much enjoy the fact that I can take courses, do research and teach at the same time. It can be quite a lot of work, as often the deadlines are all around the same timeframe, but I think it is less stressful than undergrad. With research, I can work at my own pace, something that I value much. As well, I like teaching.
What do you imagine yourself doing five years from now?
Five years from now I should have finished my PhD. What happens next depends on how I find these 5 years. By education, I would be a computational chemist and have the ability to enter research and/or teaching in that field. Whether I do the "theoretical thing" or concentrate on more applied studies depends on my training. In addition, I can also see myself doing something that bridges the gap between the sciences and the humanities. I'd be using the computer to model scientific problems that have an impact on humanities research. So, nothing is set in stone for me as of yet.
You have grown up on the Internet through high school "NASA Student Ambassador" journals, early biographies and Imagiverse interviews. What is the worst thing for you about reading things you have written about yourself in the past?
I am a perfectionist. If I see something I don't like, especially something with my name on it, I'll go change it... and change it... and change it! I cringe at some of my older personal sentiments (since they often contradict with my current beliefs) and I worry about what I am saying about myself in public. It's as if someone knows me too close. But I've been told that my thoughts, even outdated ones, do have some value... an evolutionary value. Like other young people, we go from the childhood phase and continue to evolve. All people go through this stage worrying, wondering and questioning their future. If they see that others are going through the same thing, then they realize they are not alone.
What advice do you have for students reading this interview?
Your destiny is not given to you gift-wrapped with an instruction manual. Whatever you end up doing will be the result of your effort and whatever opportunities you decide to pursue. Don't regret what you do because you decided to follow the latest fad, the traditional thing to do or what someone else decreed you to do.
Right now, I am still in the schooling phase, and go through the same ups and downs that you go through. Don't lose sight of your goal. If you need it to pass a course, pass a grade or get a degree, visualize why you're doing it. If your original purpose is no longer valid, then modify it and go for it. Never become indifferent and get carried along.
Be open to all ideas. It doesn't matter if it is not popular. Western society emphasizes the value of the individual and of education. Thus, it is peculiar how so many people follow the common denominator without any critical thought. You are all unique. Stay unique. When there is reason to question the norm, investigate. You are a being with a mind capable of discovery, exploration and learning. Use it.
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- 3 August 2007
3 August 2007
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