Stephanie Wong

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I live in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.  I have a bachelor's degree in math and a doctorate in theoretical and computational chemistry.  For most of my teens and tweens, I was heaviliy immersed in the fascinating scientific and physical world and how it worked.  I needed to know "why" something happened.  That something just "was" did not satisfy me.  I liked to take things apart and examine how they worked, and I voraciously read pretty much anything I could get my hands on.  In the late 90's, after watching the movie, Apollo 13, I became enamoured with space science and space exploration.  Interestingly, it wasn't the astronauts that I found the most intriguing, but rather the engineers in Mission Control.  At around the same time, I happened upon a NASA education website that enlisted a group of volunteers to work on their Q&A project.  Through that, I met some amazing lifelong friends and was given opportunities to experience some great things.  When it came time to go to university, I felt it was obvious to go into the sciences.  I loved it and was seemingly good at it, so off I went. I would say the whole educational experience was a combination of delight in learning new things, harrowing struggles and self-reflection.  When I ponder over my very extended academic career, I realize that the sum of all those experiences has led me to what I am today.  I would have never imagined doing what I do now.  But life experiences are ever-changing, and when I look at myself in 5 years, I will probably not recognize the one presently.  I do hope the future me will be the new and improved me.

I really like working with computers, and in my studies, I ended up doing research in quantum chemistry, which is basically chemistry without the stinky stuff!  Instead of working in an experimental lab where you physically manipulate matter and see the results of them interacting with each other, I used computers (many of them!) to determine what should theoretically happen.  That is, the experiment is formulated in terms of a computational simulation or algorithm.  My work involved lots of math, computer programming and physics, as it was essentially theoretical physics, with a chemical twist.  Some people call it chemical physics (which is different from physical chemistry!).

On the flip side, I have a great appreciation of the humanities, including music, languages and history.  I am a musician.  I spend a great amount of time on my music, both playing it and helping coordinate Opus@12, my chamber music organization. I play the oboe, baroque oboe, piano and harpsichord, although my primary instruments would be oboe and piano, with a heavy emphasis on oboe.  I also dabble on the trombone and used to play the flute.  My favourite genre would be baroque music.  There's something about doing a thing you really love and the additional gains you get because you actually want to do it.  I was in my mid-20's when I took up the oboe, which is late to become very proficient, but not impossibly late.  After all, most wind players start only in their early teens.  It is only recently that I acquired a good work ethic for it.  I had been playing music most of my life and was fairly good at it, but it became quite a chore to practice as a child, especially as the music got harder.  It became rote work, simply preparing for exams.  Oddly, as an adult, without parental and teacher-induced deadlines, my approach to practice is opposite.  I have self-imposed goals and a strong desire to get better.  Part of it may be because I sense that I am running out of time.  As non-conventional as it may be, I am trying to be a serious adult music student without being an actual "professional student".  I would like to think it's not too late for me and not too late for others who find that spark later in life.  One day (hopefully before I'm ancient), I'll be able to do something with my music.  Music has always been important to me, but I had never considered it a career option.  I'm entertaining the idea now.

My favourite activity is to play chamber music with my other "amateur" musician friends. Chamber music is music for a relatively small ensemble, which would, in the past, be typically played in a palace/house salon.  This could be a group of 2 people up to a sizeable small orchestra.  I met an awesome group of adult musicians who do music just for fun and the love of it (amare = to love).  Coming not too far removed from my teen years, I found it saddening that a lot of the older amateurs were people who stopped playing music for 20 or more years, only getting back to it after their kids had grown up or they had retired.  As soon as they became an adult, it was like an off switch.  While I fully understand that real life as an adult is a hectic gong show, and that things often get into the way, one must try not to have regret or lament years "lost" or what "could have been".  At least I hope not to do that.  While I stopped playing music for a few years, it could have easily been something permanent had I not the drive to start again (on a brand new maddeningly annoying instrument to boot!).  This is why I make available opportunities for adult amateur musicians to get together and perform.  My group, Opus@12, is a concert series just for people like me.  Neither are we professionals nor are we children, but we can make quality music for others to enjoy.  It's actually a rarity anywhere to have chamber music played and performed by amateurs.  But boy, can it be fun and therapeutic!  After all, we do it just for ourselves, not to satisfy a parent nor to put bread on the table.

I call an oboe a maddening instrument because, in addition to being a good musician, you sort of have to be a master carver.  At the top of the instrument are two pieces of Arundo donax cane (like a small bamboo), tied together onto a metal tube with string, and whittled down to paper thickness.  Being the tiniest and therefore most sensitive part of the instrument's bore, the way it is scraped affects your sound completely: whether you squawk, can play all volumes, be in tune, can make any sound at all, pop a blood vessel or sound refined.  You can have the most finely-crafted professional grade instrument, but it all depends on this little oboe reed that you somehow have to make and constantly adjust, like an ill-fitting dress or tux.  Therefore, to be a really good oboist, you have to learn how to become a good woodworker as well!  Unfortunately, despite being able to land spacecraft on an asteroid, no human or machine has mastered how to make a perfect synthetic reed.  So we have to deal with this highly variable and destructible piece of grass which is highly dependent also on temperature, humidity and altitude.  I can never guarantee the sound that comes out of my instrument, but have to be prepared with what I have at my disposal.  Thus, I have to continuously manufacture and maintain a number of "good" reeds that should work whenever I need it.  I have a whole desk with random gear for this, and I don't even start making reeds at the most basic step!


At the moment, I am reminded of a scene in the movie Amadeus where the composer Antonio Salieri in his delirium calls himself the patron saint of mediocrity.  Never settle for mediocrity!


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Last Updated:
25 November 2014

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