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Illuminate x Durham: A Meaningful Experience That Is Worth Sharing

Hi everyone! My name is Elif Karasu and I am a Grade 10 student at Pine Ridge Secondary School. Today, I had the pleasure to attend Illuminate x Durham’s regional conference. Even before attending, I knew that this conference, and also competing in the captivating case study competition, would have a meaningful impact on me. Now, after attending, I strongly believe that my experience here will have a long lasting influence on my choices in the future and how I view STEM.


I'm really grateful that even with the restrictions that we are facing because of COVID-19, an amazing conference was able to be held virtually on Zoom. We still got to hear the insightful messages that the keynote speakers and workshop facilitators had prepared for us, and we still got that exciting, but also nerve-wracking, case study competition experience. Here are my thoughts highlighting what I learned about women in STEM and Leadership from the conference.



The opening keynote speaker is the co-creator and managing director of the Youth & Innovation project, and an award-winning social innovator! Ilona Dougherty, having already co-founded several organizations, shared with us her passions about inspiring young people to realize their capabilities and engage them into the world around them.


Here are some of the life lessons from Ilona’s presentation that I found were truly motivating.


  • Young people have specific qualities that are only there when they are young. It's important to realize what these qualities are, and use up these qualities to their fullest at the ripe age that we are at.

  • Young people have intellectual talents when it comes to creating new and bold ideas. They are better at risk-taking than adults, and their ideas can truly have immense impact on any industry, especially STEM.

  • Innovation from the youth is exceptional. That's why they should be encouraged to get engaged with their society, and help make a difference in anything that they are passionate about.

  • Don't doubt yourself as a young person. Adults may present themselves to be intimidating, but that's because they are intimidated by you (a young person). The new, bold, and different ideas that young people propose to adults tend to scare those adults off because of their unfamiliarity with these kinds of unique and innovative ideas.

  • Lastly, take those opportunities that engage you with your passions and allow you make an impact on the world around you, because sooner or later, your youth will turn into boring old adulthood (no offense).




Dr. Prof. Cécile Fradin and Mackenzie Clark were the workshop facilitators at this conference. I wanted to touch on some of the subjects that were talked about during their workshops because I personally felt moved, and I believe that the info about STEM and leadership was genuinely interesting and relatable.


In Dr. Fradin’s workshop we learnt some interesting info about her highschool to university journey, and also about the very cool work that she does in the lab. Below are some examples.


  • Research in Fradin’s lab shows living systems are dynamic.

  • Magnetotactic bacteria are able to use magnetic properties to find direction.

  • Scientists study apoptosis because of its importance to the life cycle of a cell.

  • Fradin’s lab studies fly embryonic development.




Both Dr. Prof. Cécile Fradin and Mackenzie Clark spoke about mental health and the bad habit of doubting our capabilities.


  • Sometimes, without knowing, we may be biased towards specific groups, and we may unconsciously create stereotypes. Research shows that creating stereotypes about yourself, doubting yourself, and this kind of mental burden lowers your performance.

  • Claim your mental space, and ask for help when needed.

  • Your role models do not need to be the same family, gender, or colour as you.

  • Develop your own sets of values. Do not let others define what success is for you.

  • The main barrier between you and success is yourself and your choices.

  • Imposter syndrome is an experience that creates this idea in your head that you are not good enough. It makes you feel as though you have fooled everyone, or that you just lucked out. These are normal feelings that almost everybody has felt at some point.

  • Don't talk yourself down, as you will soon start to believe those things that you said about yourself that you once considered “jokes”.

  • Don't try to be perfect.

  • And finally, practice power poses! Studies have shown that people who practice power poses actually do get a better sense of power and confidence.






The closing keynote speaker for the conference was Andrea Gunraj, a powerful female leader. She’s the vice president of public engagement at the Canadian Women’s Foundation and she has a passion for fighting for equity and human rights. Below are some of the main things that I learnt from her.


  • Even though women have so many contributions that they can make to society, we still struggle with showcasing our light and taking seats- especially POC.

  • Achieving equity starts with you. Treat everyone equally and help out in your school and your neighborhood. Even the smallest acts of kindness can make a difference.

  • There's a lot of competition and pressure in the industry, and without realizing it, we put this pressure on ourselves. This extra pressure is not needed on ourselves with the already tense environment that we feel like we are in.

  • “Being special” should not be your main goal. Don't burn yourself out, take care of your health.

  • Be a “co-mentor” to you and those around you.

  • Accept critizations.




The Illuminate x Durham conference was a wonderful experience to take part in. I am so thankful that all all of these amazing speakers came today to Illuminate’s conference, and taught us so much about the future of women in leadership and STEM. I really enjoyed all the little details in the conference, like the interactive polls and activities. I also really enjoyed talking about Imposter Syndrome and how it affects us because of how relatable it was to me. Last but not least, I loved seeing everyone’s case studies and all their amazing ideas.


Everything that I learnt today was super valuable to me; from learning about building networks, choosing university pathways, different mental health tips, and ways we can be leaders as young females. I am able to apply all of this information into my future career goals and personal development. Thank you so much for reading through this blog post about my experience at the Illuminate x Durham “Future of Women in Leadership and STEM" conference.