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Vivacious, Valuable, Virtual: Illuminate x Durham Conference

Image by Glenn Carstens-Peters via Unsplash

Amidst the chaos caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and what seems like endless ‘lockdowns’—at least in Ontario—I remain grateful for the ever-so-fruitful learning opportunities made virtually viable, like today’s Illuminate X Durham’s regional conference. Needless to say, virtual learning can be ponderous, severely inauspicious and plain gloomy at times.

Conversely, I can attest with conviction that today’s conference was utterly captivating from the opening ceremony to the inspiring keynote speakers and finally, waiting in suspense for the awards ceremony.

Team 17: top (L) Vedhika and Kobiga Seralathan, top (R) Thrisa Piragasan, bottom (L) Yukttha Sivaraju, bottom (R) Jenna Hussain

It was an honour to work alongside such talented individuals, attend comprehensive meetings presented by the Durham regional team and especially hear from Illuminate CEO, Alina Huang!

The enchanting effect of this event has worked its magic once again as I have yet to introduce myself! Good evening, it is 6:00 pm as I write this however you will be reading it far later, so in that case, greetings everyone! My name is Jenna and I’m a secondary student at J. Clarke Richardson Collegiate. Today I had the delight of hearing from the keynote speakers Ilona Daugherty, Dr. Cécile Fradin and Andrea Gunraj as well as an eye-opening workshop with Mackenzie Clark!

Ilona Daugherty, Co-founder and Managing Director of the Youth & Innovation project at University of Waterloo, via Ashoka Canada

The wonderful Ilona Daugherty spoke to us about the importance of today’s youth having a voice in the world and the many, many stereotypes that adults associate with younger generations. It was encouraging to hear someone as knowledgeable as Daugherty speak about youth in such an admirable and promising manner. Even more so, it was inspiring to hear about how Ilona combatted barriers in professional settings to be both heard and seen when she was a young adult.

Image by Devon Avery, via Unsplash

Most significantly, Daugherty told us a story of when someone offered to be her “mentor”--I write mentor in quotations because as was revealed, they were anything but. This was not a true mentorship opportunity but rather a cloning process! Not literally of course, but they were trying to form Daugherty into a younger version of themselves, effectively erasing her passion and willingness to “challenge authority”. The greatest takeaway, for myself at least, was that a truly beneficial mentor will help you to grow as a person, foster your interests and passions while bestowing you with their wisdom and skills.

Dr. Cécile Fradin, Professor at McMaster University

Our next keynote speaker was Dr. Cécile Fradin who currently works at McMaster University as a professor. After her studies in France, Dr. Fradin travelled to New Jersey to study ‘soft matter’. Dr. Fradin gave a captivating presentation that provided a glimpse into the intersection of biology and physics, her journey in higher education and unconscious (internalized) bias.

Attendees learned about magnetotactic bacteria; organisms that act “like a compass” to navigate up and down along the earth’s magnetic field to find oxygen. These microscopic organisms are extremely lightweight and have a close density to water. Evidently, they can be characterized by their ‘magnetosome crystals’ that arrange themselves in a line as shown in the image above.

This structure has magnetic iron particles and acts as the needle of a compass for the bacteria to navigate magnetic fields. Dr. Fradin had attendees not only fascinated by these creatures but also engaged by having interactive polling where we could make our guesses about how the “compass needles” of magnetotactic bacteria are utilized!

Some other topics shared by Dr. Cécile Fradin included fly embryonic development where we were shown an intriguing video of Bicoid (a morphogen protein) being distributed in a fly embryo and its movement to one side of the embryo (top right image) where it determines tissue formation, as well as the topic of apoptosis where Dr. Fradin explained this mechanism for bid (a pro-apoptotic protein) insertion into the mitochondrial membrane. This portion of her workshop was in-depth and introduced many attendees like myself who were ecstatic to learn of topics outside of high school curriculums!

To end off Dr. Cecile Fradin’s workshop, she shared the importance of words and their unseen effect on many as well as unconscious (internalized) bias that manifests itself in everyone and impacts our actions, subconscious judgements and self-image. This engaging and comprehensive workshop was definitely a highlight of the conference!

Our next workshop was with Mackenzie Clarke, who was also featured in the earlier career panel with Alina Huang, and it revolved around “imposter” syndrome. I learned that many people, even high-achievers, experience this feeling of doubt in their competencies, skills and accomplishments and the fear of being ‘found out’ as being a fraud or “imposter”. This thought-provoking workshop and the accompanying worksheet prompted meaningful self-reflection!

Alas, the moment that teams had been preparing for had arrived: the case study competition! Teams were sorted into breakout rooms and we each presented to our assigned judges and other attendees. While I was anxious and nervous about presenting, seeing all of the ingenious and well-planned solutions created by other teams made me excited and grateful to be considered amongst such creative individuals. Once it was time for Team 17 to present, we delivered our two-part solution and I couldn’t be more proud of the hard work my team members contributed and their professionalism and knowledgeability while answering questions. The stressful and exciting days leading up to the conference were very much worth it, especially since we had the honour of competing against such outstanding teams!

Today was such a unique and worthwhile experience that I will never forget. Congratulations, you have reached the end of this lengthy blog! With such amazing speakers and team members, how could I keep it brief? This distinctive experience that allows for networking, connecting with other like-minded people and participating in a challenging yet intriguing case study competition with a team of outstanding high school students, is something that everyone should consider taking part in.


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