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An Illuminating Experience for All Areas of Life - A Day at the Illuminate x Durham Conference

Hello, everyone! My name is Vithiah Vijayakumar, and I am a Grade 10 student at Sir Wilfrid Laurier Collegiate Institute (virtually, of course). Today, I had the absolute pleasure to attend Illuminate x Durham’s regional conference, an experience like no other. At today's conference, we had many engaging speakers, including Ilona Dougherty, Dr. Cecile Fradin, Mackenzie Clark, Andrea Gunraj, and CEO of Illuminate Alina Huang, and I wish to highlight what I learned from these remarkable women in the STEM and Leadership conference!


The conference started with the opening keynote speaker, Ilona Dougherty, giving an inspirational speech on the potential that we young people have, making me view myself differently. As the co-creator and managing director of the youth and innovation project at the University of Waterloo, Ilona's perspectives were founded on solid research. What I mainly enjoyed from her speech is how she started many of her topics with a personal anecdote, making it seem even more genuine! Her first story was about how her parents made her wear a shirt with the words “Question to Authority" as a kid, and that's exactly what she did. She called out her teachers and principals when she felt they were being unfair or modelling inappropriate behaviour. She then said that this is exactly what the youth should do! Young people have unique abilities that make them particularly perfect to come with bold situations: they are creative, natural experimenters, and risk-takers. I personally have gone through moments where I felt I could improve a situation, but was shut down by some adults because "that's the way it's always done." However, her tips on embracing my role as a challenger to the status quo by looking at experiences as opportunities to meaningfully contribute to the community instead of learning experiences, developing intergenerational relationships by recognizing that adults could significantly help, and staying at the table even when it feels like people don't want you there, will significantly help me overcome these situations in the future.


Then, Dr. Cecile Fradin's discussion on her journey from high school to university was very enlightening for me, someone who wants to continue their education to post secondary. Her advice to choose a subject that you enjoy, to consider co-op options, and her reassurance that it is okay to end up changing your mind and switching programs, will be very helpful in the future. What will be very helpful is her outline of some university programs like scholarships. Her scientific journey is also very insightful and inspiring. Her research is something I actually want to take advantage of growing up in the future as a bioinformatician! Her research about taking movies instead of images to get a better view of the story of a living creature is amazing. For example, seeing magnetotactic bacteria going back and forth under a periodically reversed magnetic field, showed me so much more than the image. She also discussed the dangers of stereotype threat and invisible mental burdens. Knowing about these concepts that I previously never heard about will help me when overcoming situations where stereotype threat and invisible burdens come to play.


Mackenzie Clark's speech was very important to me as well. Mackenzie Clark's presentation was about Imposter Syndrome: feeling that you are not actually qualified for the success you have. I have felt this many times, often chalking my success up to luck, timing, or computer error. It was comforting to know that others feel this way too, like a software engineer at google! I appreciated her advice on beating Imposter Syndrome.


Alina Huang, the founder of this amazing organization, the career panel was helpful as well. I always worried about how to get hired in competitive fields with so many unique applicants who could do the same job (but not the same as me with my special expertise -> actively countering Imposter Syndrome, but I still don't know how to convey that). Alina talked about being the only one to call the manager, setting her out from the entire applicant pool is great advice that I needed and I will apply in the future.


Lastly, I found Andrea Gunraj's speech in looking past yourself to help others as a fantastic message to end a conference about making a meaningful contribution in society with! I found it true when she highlighted the fact that doing good for others will make you feel good too, and highlighting some of the pillars of change helped me see what I can do as well. Her advice on prioritizing human rights, prioritizing people, and being a great (co)-mentor are great ways I can start viewing the world to give back to the community!


In the end, this one day Illuminate x Durham's Conference really changed how I viewed the world in all areas of life: how I view myself as a young person, the potential I have in the professional field, acknowledging barriers like Imposter Syndrome to overpass them, learning how to stand out in an application pool, and the benefits of contributing to the community, are the main takeaways that I can apply from this illuminating experience.


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