An open letter to young Canadians in the sciences - Macleans.ca
 

An open letter to young Canadians in the sciences

Science can seem intimidating. But uncertainty, says Lauren Hayward Sierens, can be powerful if you embrace it.


 
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks at a chalk board before making an announcement at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont., on Friday, April 15, 2016. (Nathan Denette/CP)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks at a chalk board while speaking to Lauren Hayward Sierens, before making an announcement at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont., on Friday, April 15, 2016. (Nathan Denette/CP)

Lauren Hayward Sierens was born and raised in Winnipeg. She is a Perimeter Scholars International Fellow at Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, which is leading Innovation150, a nationwide celebration of ingenuity that is currently traveling across Canada.

As a physicist, I frequently encounter colleagues whose scientific curiosity is so innate they seem to have been born to do physics. I am not one of them. My path to physics was full of uncertainties, fraught with “imposter syndrome.” I didn’t dream of growing up to be a scientist, and yet I found myself pulled in that direction.

What I’ve come to realize is that a passion and a career need not be things we are “born into,” but rather things that become apparent if we approach the uncertainty of life with curiosity and an open mind.

I took my first high school course in physics without having any idea what the word “physics” meant. I was required to enroll in at least one science course, but since I didn’t really know which one I’d find most interesting, I enrolled in all of them. When in doubt, I figured, cover your bases.

Over the next two years, I discovered that I enjoyed using math to solve applied problems, but physics itself still seemed like a collection of mysterious equations. Later on, I studied science in university, but even then I couldn’t decide what to do with my education.

Overall, my classroom education seemed somewhat abstract until a pair of turning points.

The first was a computer science course I was required to take, despite my lack of interest in—and borderline phobia of—the subject. I had never programmed before, and assumed I would suffer through the class, but found myself hooked when I realized I was learning a new language which, despite its simple vocabulary, allows one to accomplish groundbreaking tasks.

The second turning point came when a physics professor offered me a job working in his computational physics group—an offer that, at the time, seemed way beyond my abilities. I was only a second-year undergraduate student, and felt overwhelmed by how little I knew about physics. I quickly told the professor that I wasn’t ready.

Once again, thankfully, I found that my presumption was wrong. The professor convinced me to give it a try, which led to four consecutive summers as a research assistant examining the intersection of computer science and physics. I still didn’t feel like I was a “born scientist,” but I began to realize that an uncertain path, although scary at times, can lead to pretty exciting opportunities.

It’s a path that took me to a graduate program in theoretical physics at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, where I am now teaching and mentoring new grad students while pursuing my own research in computational condensed matter physics.

One of the most valuable lessons that I learned from graduate school is that research is best conducted by exposing uncertainties and asking questions. I used to think I couldn’t be a successful researcher until I knew enough about physics; I now realize that science is full of unknowns and open problems. No single scientist has all the answers, and the most successful researchers are those who work together and who are not afraid to make mistakes. I have been fortunate to collaborate with scientists from different areas of academic expertise and from different corners of the world. Our discoveries have relied on each person’s unique perspectives, as well as the ideas that emerge from group discussions and debates.

The path to my career in science didn’t always feel like the route I was born to take, and I certainly couldn’t have guessed even a few years ago where I would be today. Looking back, however, I realize that each twist and turn had a distinct marker: an influential teacher, a word of encouragement from a mentor, a moment of inspiration from unexpectedly learning something new. Each experience helped me to overcome my self-doubt and to find my passion for physics.

I now hope that, in my own way, I can encourage potential future scientists to use curiosity as a guide in the face of uncertainty. Not knowing what subjects you want to study or which career you want to pursue isn’t always a bad thing, and you can’t always plan where life will take you. What’s most important, particularly in science, is an openness to explore ideas and opportunities. And who knows where science can take you—just ask Canada’s incoming governor general, Julie Payette.

One of the most intriguing aspects of scientific research is that we can’t always predict the breakthroughs of the coming decades. We need inquisitive and even skeptical minds to develop revolutionary technologies and to push the boundaries of possibility and discovery.

MORE: Meet Julie Payette, Canada’s next governor general

 


 
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An open letter to young Canadians in the sciences

  1. “Science can seem intimidating” … enough of the artsy talk! I was drawn to science because of its order: everything proceeds in a logical order with complex ideas moving forward from more basic precepts – the fall-back in any problem is to ‘work things out from first principles’ confident that there is an orderly path from one understanding to another. The scientific method which is to confirm what seems possible through mental exercise by observation and experiment is has a certain comfort while the reverse which is often the nature of problem solving is the best of games. In areas like physics and physical chemistry, the ability to reduce a thought process to mathematical relationships provides a compact method for describing it; I once sat through an economics lecture where the instructor spend almost three hours attempting to demonstrate an economic principle using words and examples where literally two lines of simple math would prove the point. Engineering is still better because you convert thought into working examples using math and experiment to confirm the path and frequently (if one wishes to stay employed) arriving at useful commodities. Sometimes it’s hard but there’s real satisfaction in finding a way to a practical solution; the important thing is that it’s not just a mental exercise as one always has an arsenal of known methods both to find solutions and validate results. STEM is a good area for those who bore easily as there’s always something new to learn – the artsy notion that education ends in a degree does not apply: in science and engineering graduation is just the beginning. Work in STEM fields comprises turning challenge into opportunity; in engineering, opportunity comprises making things people want or need.

  2. Encouraging more people into the sciences is an excellent thing, and Ms. Sierens has done a fantastic job here. However, as someone who struggled through a PhD, is still convinced he was an impostor, and now believes he was born explicitly *not* to be a scientist, reading this was difficult.

    I don’t want to discredit Ms. Sierens in any way, I just want to provide another perspective. Seeing undergrads working in labs is fantastic, but it just isn’t the case for the majority. The reality for me was that you work and work and work, and see yourself overtaken time and again by students who are probably more gifted and possibly offered more assistance. After many years of dedicating yourself to something that you think is for the greater good, you find yourself dealing with any number of mental health issues and unable to find work. Of course this sounds all doom and gloom, but potential scientists need to know that there will be many who happen to research something that society takes no interest in, that makes no money, and that destroys their enthusiasm with it.

    Please continue to read the inspirational motivational stories, but take them with a pinch of salt. There are many people who do not experience science in this way: in fact, my brief summary and attitude is probably as unfathomable to Ms. Sierens as her letter is to me.

  3. Science is the pursuit of truth, driven by uncertainty and doubt by those who have faith that their methods will be successful.

    Like any truth, it benefits all but is often censored to withhold the power of knowledge for only the benefit of a few.

    To the young scientists, remember what science is when unscrupulous interests try to bias or censor it under your watch.

    Science is the pursuit of truth, not money.

  4. Valuable thoughts for all of us, young and old. Vive le Canada. Vive la science.

    the scientific spirit is of more value than its products
    – Thomas Huxley