Category Archives: Opinion

A Lesson from Water: Polarization to Radicalization

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Water is ubiquitous and everywhere we look, even in the least expected places. In the desert or on Mars, we still find water.

Water is polarized. Its polarity stems from the fact that a water molecule carries both a partially positive and partially negative charge. Positivity and negativity, like yin and yang, result in its polarized nature. Its properties allows water to “shake hands” with the essential building blocks of life, like our genetic materials (DNA/RNA), proteins, and fats (lipids), thus sustaining life on earth. At important moments, it also willingly sacrifices itself for our metabolism.

However, at other times water molecules can become excited (charged), brandishing its long arms to grab one more negative charge, which turns itself into a radical. The water-derived radicals damage all building blocks of life, and are thus destructive to all life forms, producing effects ranging from the fishtail wrinkles to liver cirrhosis to cancer.

The radicalized transformation of the polarized water molecule exemplifies the violence in our society.

Polarization is the representation of two sides on the premise of a whole. Canada is a polarized country. We get rid of the Conservatives to elect the Liberals; we discuss the pros and cons of the legalization of marijuana and assisted suicide openly. On the passing of our former mayor, Rob Ford, we put aside of his distasteful past, and remember what he did well for the city of Toronto and her people. A polarized society is a sustainable society that balances the weights from both sides.

Radicalization differs from polarization by its gluttony. A person becomes a terrorist by gaining a bomb; a rancher become an armed militia when he put his own ends above the federal law; a presidential candidate arises from a narcissist offering to build a wall. Our body deals with free radicals in a two-pronged approach: on one hand, it eliminates them; on the other hand, if the cells became overwhelmed by radicals, the cells commit suicide. Either way, our body tries to get rid of the radicals and minimize the damage.

In regards to national and international security, we are trying to do the same to the violent terrorists; however, we are strained both ways. Currently, we are at a crossroad: on one side, we try to eliminate terrorism; on the other side, we try to prevent the heartless and amoral attacks. We cannot stop, because if we did, we would then lose both battles. Our inactivity shows our weakness and reluctance to collaborate, and that only means encouragement to the terrorists.

To root out the radicals, one needs to understand the root cause. Jealousy of our wealth, envy our democracy, or hate of the fact that we are happy and free are often touted as the reasons for terrorists attacks. However, such thinking only represents our ignorance of the past and arrogance to learn.

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Terrorists are created by no one but us, the West. Let’s use Taliban as an example. When the British realized that they could no longer sustain the Indian subcontinent, they drew lines on the map to separate the subcontinent based on religion: one country for the Muslims and one for the Hindus. For Muslims, there was the East and for West Pakistan, and later the East of Pakistan became Bangladesh. India was left for the Hindus. Since the separation, Pakistan and India have been fuming and fighting. The smaller state of Pakistan had no space to fall back on once India attacked, so they decided to butter up their backyard neighbours- Afghanistan. In the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, India supported Russia and thus Pakistan decided to work with US. Eventually, the Soviets pulled out from Afghanistan and Pakistan took over Afghanistan. This was the key moment in which Pakistan started to train local militias against their neighbour, groups which later became Taliban. A similar pattern is observed in almost all tumultuous places: Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, and Somalia. In every case, the West decided to destabilize a region for its own gains and created a void that could only be filled by something worse: radical terrorists.

When can we learn to keep our hands in our own pockets? I understand the urge to tell people how to be good, but this does not solve any problems. We need to let trapped people to find their own ways out. We should only assist from the outside. Our foreign policy is like a stud walking into a case of domestic violence. We beat up the husband and leave. Surely, he won’t torture his wife in for a while, but the violence will resume. It’s only when the wife wants to change that such violence can be quenched.

Why It’s Okay to Accept Change

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In Eden Robinson’s short story “Traplines” the main character, Will, goes on to say the famous quote “I’m losing a lot this week.”

We’ve all been there, letting our fellow peers, classmates, friends, and family tack a label onto us. “The Science Whiz”, “The Book Worm”, “The Businessman”, “The Jokester” “The next Da Vinci”. It’s fun and games at first, being able to relate to an archetype helping us to identify ourselves through our long, endeavouring lives. But these labels are also the cause of so much confusion and wasted time and effort.

Imagine you’re in your final year of high school and you’re racking up the 95s in all your courses, including the core sciences and mathematics. You’re pretty modest about it, but everyone says you’re hot stuff, even your relatives saying you’re set to hit the big leagues. Eventually, word gets out about your achievements and everyone starts calling you a future doctor or dentist. So you all decide to enrol in the highly-populated life sciences program at U of T St. George. Lectures seem like high school review and everyone is aiming towards an MD, PhD or both. Life’s going pretty well. Until the first midterm, and surprise- you end up with a 60%.

You’re shocked. You thought you were smart. You really believed it. Everyone said so. You brush it off though, and decide to keep going, trying harder, studying more. You cut off time with your friends and family. First semester ends and you’re left with a GPA that almost every average student has. Second semester rolls around, and it’s all the same. You start to think that science isn’t for you. But luckily summer rolls around and school is finally over. You decide to enjoy the holidays and make a striking comeback next fall. But unfortunately for you, things are just getting tougher. Fall arrives and all your friends have either done research at a lab, volunteered at a hospital, or travelled halfway across the world to save Dr. Dhillon’s ailing cousin in India. At this moment, you realize that you hate science. You don’t like the competitive field. You don’t like research. You don’t like the concept of sitting in lecture for a few hours, going home to study some more and then coming in to fill in a scantron sheet only to spit out a few numbers jabbing at your already overly-sensitive GPA. So you finally decide to sit down and really start to think about life, who you really are, what you really like and what you want to live for.

It took me two huge paragraphs to only touch the surface of a bigger issue. As a life science student, I might not hear these stories from everyone, but I have heard of them on multiple accounts and in many different forms. I can’t help but think of what could have been done to prevent these anxieties, to prevent students from wasting time of the wrong life paths, to prevent the waste of effort and money. To prevent these feelings of dismay and unworthiness. To prevent the imagined judgement of people saying of you “They couldn’t handle the life science program”, “Guess they weren’t smart enough”, “Hah, I remember when they wanted to be a doctor, what a joke”. It’s because of this stigma that many students are unable to open up about their ambitions of pursuing a career in science. Even the words “MCAT” are taboo. No one wants to be labelled a failure.

But it’s okay.

You’re not a failure and you’re not going to let their discouraging words manifest inside you. You’re going address your insecurities now. I understand that it isn’t easy to do so, but we have to do it now so that these worries don’t turn into a bigger problem, like mental illness, later. You could even turn into the person you didn’t want to be, someone who puts others down for not succeeding, if you’re not careful.

Before I log off, I just want to mention that I didn’t make up the preceding story off the top of my head. Most of it was inspiration* from a fellow classmate of mine. She’s a fourth year student and managed to find out that science wasn’t for her and that theatre was her real calling in her early undergrad years. She was happy for me, hearing that science was something I was and am still interested in. She was genuinely glad that I picked the right program for me despite external influences. I wish her all the best in her future endeavours, because if she hadn’t told me about her hardships I wouldn’t know to look out for them in myself. I wouldn’t understand what half the students in my class are going through. If she hadn’t expressed the kind of encouragement she did for me, I wouldn’t have gained the insight I know now.

*Although the bulk of the story was inspired by her, many bits and pieces were fragments I took from other people’s stories as well.

UTSU Spring Elections 2016

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As the semester comes to an end and elections season has been intense in all of the faculties and colleges, the election that affects all students at UTSG and UTM has now begun: the UTSU Spring Elections. For the next few days, students can exercise their right to vote for a UTSU that they feel will make a difference for them and cater to the needs that they want. As the Architecture, Landscape, and Design Director running on the slate HelloUofT, I wanted to talk a bit about my experience and why I think that it is extremely important to vote in these elections.

As a first year, I did not involve myself in and around campus simply because I did not think that I had neither the personality nor the courage to speak up about the lack of representation and involvement of my faculty. It was only after my friends invited me to join their group that I took the steps to put myself out there. Working with the slate has definitely been a lot different than just listening to them talk to me at a public place on campus. I have seen the raw, intense emotions of individuals who truly want to make UofT a place where the students feel included and engaged. I have seen a group comprised of seven executives and over fifteen directors instantaneously care for each other as soon as we all met. The experiences from our leaders inspires us to push harder and fight for the things we believe in, and I can honestly say that if these group of people can care immensely for people they’ve only just met, I am confident that they can put this love and strive into a UTSU that will not only listen to their students, but give back and give more reasons as to why UofT is such a fantastic school.

I encourage everyone to vote these next few days. Online voting is open until 6:30pm on the 24th at www.utsu.simplyvoting.com .

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Exercise your right to vote and get ready to say hello to a UofT that says hello back!

5 Reasons To Make Your Bed Every Morning

There are two kinds of people in our universe: people who make their beds in the morning, and people who do not. For the latter category, mornings are the worst. We barely have enough energy to get out of our beds, let alone make them. As a kid, whenever my Mom told me to make my bed my instincts would kick in and I would reply ‘Why? I’m getting back in there in a few hours anyway’.

Besides the fact that your mother told you to do so, there are 5 good reasons to keep your sheets neat:

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  1. It gives you a feeling of accomplishment.
    Simple as it may seem, keeping your sheets neat first thing in the morning gives you a kickstart to being orderly and efficient. These two minutes of work set the tone for the rest of your day. It may be small, but it’s mighty!
  2. It keeps you motivated.
    Keeping your sheets neat gives you a feeling of success. This in turn keeps you motivated to take on other challenges over the course of your day. Quoting Emmet Fox, “a small spark can start a great fire”.
  3. You learn to manage your time more efficiently.
    Making your bed literally takes two minutes. By squeezing in this simple task between the time you turn on your kettle and the time it starting whistling, you learn to become more efficient with your time management skills overall, getting you used to accomplishing smaller tasks between your bigger ones.
  4. It keeps you healthier and happier.
    Unappealing as it may seem, every minute your skin sheds over 30,000 dead cells; over 50% of the dust at your place is actually dead skin. By straightening up your bed in the morning and giving it some air to breath, you prevent dirt and dust from joining you under the covers at night. You are in control of your own space, how it looks, and therefore how it makes you feel. A tidy space is very calming and can help you create your own soothing sanctuary at home.
  5. It’s a minor commitment.
    For those of you who, like me, are not big fans of commitment, making your bed is a small morning ritual that builds momentum for a greater positive change. Picking one little task to improve your life, and doing it regularly, will help you get in the habit of progressively dedicating yourself to smaller, and gradually bigger, commitments.

If I haven’t convinced you to make your bed already, watch this short video by Admiral McRaven, who claims that changing the world starts with making your bed!

 

A Meditation on Cancer, Climate Change, and Life

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Astronaut Piers Sellers recently published an article in The New York Times Sunday Review section. I came across it on Twitter, seized by its audacious title: “Cancer and Climate Change”. With an open mind, I learned that the 60-year-old NASA scientist recently diagnosed with stage-4 pancreatic cancer wants nothing more than to spend his remaining days back at work.

I was once told to be open-minded, but not so much so that my brain falls out of my head. This time, it did. I was shocked to see that Sellers could not find something else to do with his golden years, like conquering Mount Everest or enjoying a permanent spot at a beach resort. I found this bloodlessly macabre. In fact, I closed the tab before I even finished the article.

I was appalled by Sellers’ end-of-life decision because it counters what many others (and myself) have in mind for our own retirements, mostly including checking off those selfish, self-indulgent, and pathetic items on our to-do list before we die. In fact, Dr. Oliver W. Sacks, the renowned neurologist and author, published a series of farewell articles in the NYT and his memoir On the Move when his melanoma metastasized into his liver in 2015. He said “I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at News Hour every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.” Of course, this is not to say that Dr. Sacks is selfish or pathetic. He chose intimacy with his lover and readers instead of taking a stand on global issues when he knew his expiration date was soon to come. Isn’t it only normal for terminal patients to take their remaining time to enjoy the limited clarity of mind which comes with their condition to better face the unfair early death sentence put on their lives?

Seller’s altruistic reasoning and plan on what to do before death shames mine into inferiority. In the next few days, I couldn’t shake his article from my mind, and so decided to resolve my feelings. At the end of the article Sellers reveals his reason for going back to work. He is not just another faceless member of NASA’s staff. Rather, he was an astronaut who walked in space above the Earth and floated alongside the International Space Station. He did what many can only dream of doing, and it was continuing to live this dream which gave him the reason he needed to go back to work, even with cancer.

Like many of you who grind day in and day out for a minimum wage paycheck to survive, you bet that when I face death I will spend all of my time and money doing things I never got to indulge in: visiting foreign lands, skydiving, or just simply being lazy. I cannot even attempt to image what a fantastic life Sellers has lived; however, by finishing his article, I do seem to understand why he chose going back to work as the only item on his bucket list. His life experiences have trumped anything my supposedly boundless brain could ever achieve. Murakami liked to consider people as onions; he said if you peel people layers after layers, what’s left is pride. Reading Seller’s article is like dicing an onion; that burning sensation in your eyes is unmistakable.

I am not writing to condescend anyone’s choices or decisions, but rather to ask the question of how we should live our lives, even without immediate death sentences chasing our rears. Should we push our limits and expand our boundaries to the point that we have little happiness, or should we just be normal and even mediocre so that we can enjoy the present and not worry about how we will become the next Bill Gates or Charles Darwin? Dr. Paul Kalanithi, a 36-year old neurosurgeon, died of metastasized lung cancer. Just before his passing he wrote When Breath Becomes Air in which he said that he postponed learning how to live while he was becoming a neurosurgeon. When he finally stopped striving forward, he ended up spending the last moments of his life learning how to die.

I understand the yearning to achieve success, and surely everyone wants a piece of that pie. The question to ask yourself is: “what are you willing to forfeit and sacrifice for it?” It is not simply about losing a few hours of sleep, but your sanity. Often, our choices can lead us to the brink of collapse.

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Everybody loves poignant tales in which benign madness precipitates success. Van Gogh’s madness devastated his life and killed him, but it allowed him to see colors unlike anybody else before and after him. Depression made Sylvia Plath stick her head inside a carbon monoxide-filled oven, but one can also argue that her sensitivity granted her the ability to write some of the most beautiful and thoughtful poetry in contemporary literature. By the same token, alcoholism took Eleanora Fagan’ s ( Billie Holiday)’s liver and life, but she claimed alcohol loosened her up to produce some of the best of jazz vocals in the recording business.

Today, everyone is looking for this form of ephemeral and intelligent madness so that we too can become brilliant. Some of us work 24/7/365 to  convince this genius to visit us; others cheat their way through drugs,  seeking out-of-body experiences. We no longer take care of ourselves, nor do we pay attention to our surroundings, where love, content, and satisfaction all lie.

The question I have is why we all want to be the greatest when we know that there can often only be one in most disciplines. The Earth revolves around its axis with or without you, no matter who you are. If you don’t believe me, recall Albert Einstein, George Washington, Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandel, and more. People often forget that these great figures all stood on the shoulders of giants, as Newton once said. So I ask you: where would that shoulder be if we all want to be the ones standing on top of it?

I am not dissuading anyone from trying to achieve the best in themselves. I am simply saying that to enjoy your life while you have it you must pursue realistic goals, not egocentric ones. Naomi Shihab Nye wrote “I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous, or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular, but because it never forgot what it could do.” So do try hard, but also do remember what Charles Dickens said in Great Expectations, “If you can’t get to be uncommon through going straight, you’ll never get to do it through going crooked. So don’t tell no more on ’em, Pip, and live well and die happy.”

A Lesson Learnt from Architecture: Technology and Social Media

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We speak of technology as though it has its own character, with its own will and right to make choices. But too often we forget that technology and social media are mere gadgets and tools that channel the intentions of people, good or bad.

Technology and social media, like the right to vote, are placed in the hands of both wise and foolish people. Similarly, how technology and social media impact us and our society depends on in whose hands they’re in and how they’re used.

The world of social media is a web of contradictions. Websites are some of the most popular haunts on the Internet and have revolutionized the way people communicate and socialize. French philosopher Michel Serres claims that “for the first time in history, the voice of almost everyone can be heard”. Yet how clear can each person’s voice be as an individual?

I believe that in today’s connected world everyone can speak up but not everyone can be heard. In the brouhaha and din of social media, individuals’ voices are lost. How easy is it to write a post to raise awareness about a certain issue, and how easy is it to report that very post and have it removed instantly?

Technology and social media are extremely powerful tools in the hands of humans. Like the remarkable thunderbolt of Zeus, the relatively smaller gadgets in our hands are much stronger than we are; we cannot underestimate their potential to work with us and their potential to have authority over us.

Capstone Shatters Headstone: How to Take Full Advantage of Graduate School

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In a recent interview with Dr. Alice Eriks-Brophy, the Graduate Coordinator of the Department of Speech-Language Pathology in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto (SLP), an interesting yet unfamiliar requirement was mentioned for its Professional Master degree: the Capstone Project. As a trainee in the basic medical sciences, I was intrigued by what exactly this project was.

Dr. Eriks-Brophy is a down-to-earth and kind woman. Her positive attitude and warm voice break down the alienating exoskeleton separating professors and students, making me want to call her “Alice” five minutes into our interview as she explained this unique requirement and long tradition of the SLP department. Before the internet, the department asked students to submit their Capstone Portfolio in paper format. Nowadays, Alice simply receives them in Power Point files which she treasures like rare gemstones. The graduating class must prepare a 20-slide presentation to summarize their achievements and readiness to embark on their next endeavour as they leave academia and enter society. The project is meant as a strategy for students to plan their academic progress and better align their education with their career objectives post-graduation.

Alice mentioned a graduating student who presented her entire Capstone Project by unfolding an origami paper crane. The paper crane was her first slide, portraying herself at the moment of graduation. The head of the crane showed her pride at satisfying the requirements for the best SLP program in Canada. The outwardly stretched wings showed her maturity and readiness for a real job. Even the tail pointing to the sky showed her happiness at earning her degree. As her slides progressed, she marked the different folded grooves as her skills obtained, abilities improved, speciality perfected, and prizes awarded. In the end, the unfolding of her paper crane represented the chronology of her journey through the SLP program.

This conversation made me to reflect – If not through origami, how can I represent myself? Continue reading Capstone Shatters Headstone: How to Take Full Advantage of Graduate School