Connections, People

Paying It Forward

I was fortunate enough to have some great teachers growing up, but one of the most influential and inspiring teachers I had during that time was my 7th grade science teacher. A tiny woman with a larger-than-life personality, Dr. M. was overly-enthusiastic about science (and most things, actually). She was the kind of person who would come to class wearing scarves with little microscopes or dinosaurs on them. Her initials were E. McC… and she took so much pleasure out of the fact that she could sign her name as emc2. I remember she had a stamper of the famous e=mc2 equation that she would use ALL. THE. TIME. when writing comments on homework or reports.

She isn’t the kind of person I would normally take to right away, but she ended up becoming a kind of mentor for me during that year and was one of the first people who really pushed me towards the sciences. I was used to checking off the boxes to get an A (which is certainly one version of being a good student), but she really challenged me to question more, to question past what was required, to go deeper into something even if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for. She introduced me to the concept of open-ended inquiry and encouraged and guided me towards more ambitious and original science fair projects.  I don’t think I appreciated just how much support and encouragement she gave me until much later.

A colorful, laminated sheet of the Periodic Table of Elements, signed to me by my teacher.

It reads: “Phoebe—Good luck in Chemistry. emc2.” Alas, I didn’t end up going into a chemistry program here, but I did consider it for a second (until I realised I really didn’t like the messy lab work). I actually used this table when I took the specialist introductory chemistry course during my first year.

Fast forward a few years. When I first arrived at U of T I was not aware of the various mentorship programs that were offered, but I did (by pure chance) have a great mentorship experience through one of my courses. One of the TAs of my first-year physics practical was someone who happened to be super passionate about physics education (on top of being passionate about what he was actually doing research in—cosmology) and was a big factor in helping me decide to switch into a physics program. After that experience, and realising all of the mentors and influential teachers I had throughout my schooling that helped in getting me here (including Dr. M.), I was inspired to become more involved with STEM education and outreach initiatives and try to be that person for someone else. Some of those opportunities have come here on campus and I am now involved with a couple of science outreach programs at U of T for high school (and younger) students.

Logos of example outreach programs at U of T: Math+, Youth Summer Program (Medicine)

A lot of departments and faculties at U of T run their own outreach programs (top: Department of Math; bottom: Faculty of Medicine).

Being where I am now, I’m grateful to have encountered people (outside of my family) who took the time to reach out and really guide and support me. I’m realising more and more just how much I was able to succeed with their help, both direct and indirect. You don’t always realise or appreciate how much mentors help you, but if you have ever been supported by a mentor I highly encourage you to pay it forward and get involved in supporting someone else’s journey. It doesn’t have to be in a formal mentorship program (though I certainly encourage you to get involved with those too). Just taking some time out to connect and share your experiences with someone can be an incredibly meaningful gesture to that other person, even if you might think it’s nothing.


There are so many [formal] opportunities to get involved as a mentor at U of T through things like Community Action Projects or Peer Mentorship Programs. A lot of the applications for these positions have deadlines coming up soon in February or March, but there are usually openings posted throughout the summer as well. A lot of off-campus volunteer mentor positions are also advertised through the Career Learning Network