I didnʼt start biomedical research to learn more about stem cells or skin regeneration back in ninth grade. None of my peers, friends, or even teachers at the time knew exactly where I would be now. Looking back, it turned out to be the best journey I could have imagined for my high-school career. Iʼm a high school researcher who works toward translating and making stem cell transplants as a therapeutic option for emergency wards worldwide. I started my work in ninth grade by joining a team of scientists at the University of Calgary where Iʼve been working for nearly three years.
More important than my research is the story of how I got here. What sort of lessons have I learnt and what could be useful advice to the motivated new generation of scientists, doctors, educators and even policy makers?
I call my experience ʻbackwards learning,ʼ and if thereʼs one thing which has resonated with me is the concept of challenging what youʼre taught in the textbooks. High-school textbooks are devices that regurgitate the universally accepted and least debated ideas from the field of science and technology, almost placing us in an isolated prism where we learn to accept knowledge. The debates and intellectually stimulating articles presenting a different hypothesis toward the same problem are often not exposed to us until we reach a graduate level of education. Lao Tzu said "...watch your habits as they become your character." Looking at the habits which weʼre taught growing up in a traditional classroom, itʼs unfortunate to have a room full of students with identical knowledge and nearly the same understanding about a subject as complex as the human anatomy.
Apart from the shortcoming of high-school as a standardized education centre, our second biggest obstacle lies in the method of evaluation we have accepted to assess all students. I feel that much of our attention is channelized towards evaluating the amount of knowledge a student possesses. This focus would be better shifted if we start to question what the individual is able to do with their knowledge and to what extent they can they apply their learning toward writing textbooks of their own.
Looking back at the origins of formal training, it makes sense why we have a system of standardized education and examinations. Back on the assembly line, our society didnʼt need innovators and thinkers shaping a shared vision for the field of their expertise. Now that weʼre getting trained for jobs which potentially donʼt exist today, itʼs crucial for educators to turn their attention to building the right aptitude just as much as they focus on instilling the informational aspects.
I have learned two things through my journey:
Start Early: Itʼs true I never started research with a hunger to gain more knowledge in the field of medicine, but I simply started because I wanted to channelize my free time better. We live in some of the most exciting eras of human history and itʼll be a shame if we walk away by saying that we couldnʼt contribute to the fast pace of progress. Research is definitely not the only place where a high-school student can direct their interests. As a matter of fact, itʼs a place I landed after trying many things which I didnʼt like.
The important moral is to simply keep trying until you find a passion worth working long hours even over rough nights.
A well rounded development: Despite the workload, one thing I have stayed committed toward is the full International Baccalaureate program which allows me to stay sharp with skills taught in humanities and literature ranging to biology. I feel that we have a huge separation in all our educational levels: For example, students taking math and sciences in their undergraduate level of studies may find themselves relatively isolated from humanities and politics. The best goal a young high-school student can set is to gain a balance between a wide range of skill sets; any and all of the skills can help them succeed when they eventually find their niche. To quote Steve Jobs, "stay hungry and stay foolish" to things which might not apply directly to your perceived goals yet; simply because itʼs often impossible to connect the dots looking forward.
These times are too exciting for anyone to sit back and watch the show. Every field is lighting up with innovation and it's us, the students, who hold the potential to keep this fuelled for a sustained period.
Sarthak Sinha is a Grade 11 student at Henry Wise Wood High School in Calgary.
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