Stay curious! Your program doesn’t define you! Thoughts from nanomedicine conference

The process of deciding on your subject POSt might still be fresh on some of your minds. UofT makes a pretty big deal out of it. There’s grade cut-offs, limited spots in some, and applications in others. And then there’s the sheer number of possible POSts for you to pick from. If you were like me, picking POSts to enroll in was a very long game of “I guess I would rather…” to narrow my choices down.

And then once I got into the POSts, there was a sense of scholastic identity assigned to me. I would introduce myself to others by, “I’m in the physics program”, or say to people, “Oh, I don’t know anything about protein stuff, I just do physics” in a dismissive tone. Having my scholastic identity formed around my program had the simultaneous effect of it being also formed around what I’m not studying.

It would turn out that my academic career became more and more multi-disciplinary, but it wasn’t until last week when I attended an academic conference on nanomedicine hosted by UofT that it really hit home how important it is to keep an open mind. The two-day conference was a gathering of 100-odd researchers ranging from undergrads to professors who were presenting and discussing the development and applications of nanomaterials in medicine. There were talks by polymer chemists, molecular biologists, device engineers, theoretical physicists, pharmacists, and many others.

Enoch Turner Schoolhouse, an old schoolhouse built in 1849

Looking from the outside, you would never guess that this 168-year-old schoolhouse is hosting a conference on cutting-edge technology.

I learned two major lessons from the experience.

One: Real world problems are always multi-disciplinary and you need to know how to communicate with people who have very different backgrounds from yours.

Two: People from other fields can use ideas from your field in ways that are completely unexpected to you, and it is an amazing thing to see happen.

In my earlier undergrad years, I often shied away from subjects I knew little about. In the back of my mind, I would say, “It’s okay. I don’t need to know that.” Now, I make an effort to dig into it a bit. It doesn’t matter if I don’t understand most of it, because I learned from it what I didn’t know and who does know. The nanomedicine conference progressed in a similar fashion. You would think that communication would be extremely difficult with such a wide variety of backgrounds in the audience; but turns out, it is extremely valuable to learn about what you don’t know and to learn who is really good the things you didn’t know you needed.

Furthermore, it was just extremely exciting. “Magnetic tagging of cancer cells” is a phrase I never could’ve came up with by myself. By my last year in undergrad, my sense of wonder in the subjects I studied had dulled compared to my first two years. And I realized that it was because I stopped being as curious as my younger self. Getting to know a field extensively meant I’ve heard all of the big ideas already and left me thinking, “Okay, so what else?” Seeing other people turn the ideas I thought I knew well upside down was a big spark toward my sense of wonder, and I’m loving the feeling. Stay curious. Keep learning. Life is more exciting that way, and, you never know, you might even help save the world in doing this!