I just got off the phone with my mother. According to her, auditing math courses just for fun makes me “a huge nerd”. True. But ’round these parts (namely, the departments where I study, or more broadly, this whole campus) getting excited about stuff like this is perfectly normal – in fact, it’s encouraged.
This is superb because all I’ve been able to think about for the last 2 days is my capstone 400-level project course. Between now and April, I’m going to do something [presumably] magnificent. Mangificent in my own eyes, at least.
In the beginning of my time at U of T, I thought that courses were things you went to a few hours a week, studied for a few hours before the exam (hah!) and were very very important to get stellar grades in before you cleaned out your brain for important things like everything that was on the syllabus for next semester. Taking one of the SCI199 first-year seminars, however, I learned that university was also about laying on the grass in front of the physics building with 8 other students, talking about quantum mechanics with a lovably eccentric physics professor, and sharing trays of chocolate chip cookies with grad students as we watched a live feed of footage from the large hadron collider. Somewhere between cookies I got into a conversation about quantum computing, which has possibly changed the entire trajectory of my academic path.
Since then, I’ve liked “alternative” kinds of courses with a little room for play. At least for me, there’s more to be learned this way. A second-year computer science course I took, for example, let us build all kinds of things, like my super-sexy-sleek calculator, pictured below:
I’ve also done a Research Opportunity Program (ROP299) course, where I got the opportunity to design and run an experiment and present my work, along with other ROP299 students, in a huge research fair at the end of the year. This left me with an insatiable desire to test things out for myself in research labs. It changed the way I looked at course material, because suddenly my attitude toward my regular courses became “so, how can I play with this in the lab?” Having my ideas taken seriously by a room full of brilliant researchers (and then being invited to their house for dinner!) was never something I expected to experience as a second-year student. It also isn’t something I would likely have experienced had I not done things a little outside the norm – but doing so has made all the difference.
Similarly, last year, I did a 400-level independent project through my exchange school in Sweden. I later was invited to present this research at a national conference and received a publication for it. One of the greatest joys of being an upper-year undergraduate is having learned enough to be set free to explore, but being fresh enough to your respective research community to still be allowed to ask all kinds of questions as you filter through all of the things that you know or could want to know, looking for a connection.
So this semester, I’m justifiably excited. The professor under whom I will study has a mantra that science is just a sandbox where we see what is possible in the universe – where we dream up the impossible and see what, exactly, “impossible” means. In the process, we can engineer incredible machines that tackle deep philosophical problems, and amidst the convergences, see what comes to the surface. Science, in general, is absurdly creative. Sadly, many of us only realize this after pushing through a few years of biology, chemistry, physics, maths, computer science….
I hope to create something that fascinates me – a problem, a solution, a machine, a paper. I’m not sure what form it will take, and I’m not sure if it will be awesome or just a semester’s worth of tinkering to no identifiable end. Fortunately for me, it doesn’t matter – at this point, it’s not so much about thinking about problems themselves, so much as it is learning to think about problems in ways that matter.