My Silver Medal from the Canadian Society for Chemistry – Reflections After 10 Years

In June, 2008, I received an email from Dr. Ken MacFarlane, then the Undergraduate Advisor in the Department of Chemistry at Simon Fraser University (SFU).  He wrote to inform me that I had won the Canadian Society for Chemistry‘s Silver Medal, given to the top undergraduate student in chemistry entering their final year of study at each Canadian university.

I won the Canadian Society for Chemistry’s Silver Medal for being the top fourth-year student in the Department of Chemistry at Simon Fraser University in 2008.

Later in November of that year, I received this medal at a dinner banquet, which honoured all of the award winners from the universities and colleges in the Vancouver Section of the Chemical Institute of Canada (CIC).  (Awards were given to the top students in their second year, third year, and fourth year of study.)  Here is a photo of me receiving my medal from Dr. Daniel Leznoff; he was then the Chair of the Vancouver Section of the CIC and a professor specializing in inorganic chemistry at SFU.

Eric getting medal from Dr. Leznoff

I received the Canadian Society for Chemistry’s Silver Medal from Dr. Daniel Leznoff at a dinner banquet in November, 2008.

The CIC publishes a magazine called Canadian Chemical News, and it covered the above award banquet in January, 2009.  You can find a photo of the award winners from that night on Page 29.

Dr. Cameron Forde succeeded Dr. MacFarlane as our Undergraduate Advisor in 2009.  In an email to me in October, 2009, Dr. Forde wrote that 100-120 students were eligible for the CSC’s Silver Medal in our department in 2008.

This is one of the greatest achievements of my life.  I am even more excited about it today than I was at that banquet, because I now have 10 years of perspective about how this medal has benefited my career.  In this retrospective article, I write to share my reflections about the impact that this medal has had on my professional trajectory – which has been unusual, to say the least.

1. Your past success does not have to dictate your future

I am now a statistician who works in marketing analytics in Toronto, which is both physically and professionally far away from where I was 10 years ago.  I also spend a lot of my time writing my blog, posting videos on my YouTube channel, hosting a talk show called The Central Equilibrium, and Tweeting actively on two different accounts – one for The Chemical Statistician (@chemstateric), and one for my job (@EricCaiEA).  Back in 2008, I never thought that this is where my career would take me.  However, my desire to explore diverse careers was already established, so it’s no surprise that I continued to explore new careers after winning that medal.

When I received Dr. MacFarlane’s email in June, 2008, I was working as a Media Relations Officer for the Service Canada Centre for Youth in Vancouver, promoting its employment services to employers and job seekers.  When I was attending that award ceremony in November, 2008, I was working as a Market Analyst for NxtGen Emissions Control, a start-up company developing a technology to reduce diesel emissions.  By that point, I had already worked in evolutionary biology, bee ecology, cardiac physiology, environmental chemistry, and academic technology commercialization.

After winning this medal, I focused my academic attention on economics, then mathematics, and finally statistics.  My last 2 internships as an undergraduate student were research jobs in applied mathematics – first in modelling HIV epidemics, and second in modelling fuel cells.  Afterward, I earned my Master’s degree in statistics at the University of Toronto.  As a statistician, I have worked in industrial analytics, HIV research, cancer surveillance, banking, and marketing analytics.

In short, I have not allowed my undergraduate major or my Silver Medal to dictate the direction of my career.  Although I am very proud of my accomplishments as a chemist and enjoyed studying chemistry, I realized that other career paths were better suited to my personality, interests and passions.  I had already experienced a similar change of plans 3 years before winning my Silver Medal, when I stopped pursuing a career in medicine.  Having now established my career as a statistician, I am very happy about both decisions to leave medicine and leave chemistry.

This is a rather strange lesson to take away from such a joyous and monumental achievement, but it is an important one to share, especially for students who are still learning about themselves and planning their futures: Don’t allow your past success to constrain your future ambitions.  If you are a young and impressionable student, you may feel pressure to meet the expectations of others, especially if they have helped you to reach where you are today.  Those people may be your parents, professors, or mentors, and you may fear disappointing them if you choose a path that diverges from their hopes for you.  An unexpected accomplishment can exacerbate this feeling.  However, you have to listen to your heart and choose what is best for you and your own life.

 

2. Maintain a healthy and realistic perspective about the significance of your success

I was shocked to learn that I had won the CSC’s Silver Medal.  I knew about the existence of this award during my degree, and I had faint thoughts of how nice it would be to win it.  However, I just wanted to perform well in my degree, get interesting internships to explore various career paths, and eventually establish a satisfying career; winning the Silver Medal was not a motivation in my undergraduate education.  Based on my grades and my participation in class discussions, I knew that I was a very good student in my department, but I also knew that I was not the best student.

I had two classmates who were better than I was at chemistry.  One of them was a year ahead of me, and the other was a year behind me, so either one of them would have won the Silver Medal over me if we studied in the same year.  I did not know them well, but we were in some of the same classes, and it was obvious to me that they were more insightful than I was and learned difficult concepts faster than I did.  Due to timing – rather than anything related to my performance – I won the Silver Medal over them, so luck played a role in this accomplishment.  (They both succeeded in their education afterward; one became a medical physician, while the other obtained her Ph.D in geochemistry.)  Besides these 2 people, there may have been even more people in my classes who were better at chemistry than I was; I just never had the pleasure of meeting them.

I thought a lot about this serendipity for many years.  My Silver Medal has greatly improved my subsequent professional endeavours; instead of working really hard to prove my intelligence or scientific competence, the mere mention of my Silver Medal on a résumé, a scholarship application, or a graduate application is enough to capture people’s attention toward my profile.  Although I do not have any evidence to prove this, I am certain that my Silver Medal helped me to win a research award in applied mathematics and admission to a top-notch department in statistics, even though my background in math and statistics were fairly weak at the time.  I have and will continue to reap similar benefits from my medal for the rest of my life, yet it could have easily eluded me because of the timing that defined who was entering their final year of study.  As a result, I put myself under some pressure to live up to this award, even though I knew that such pressure was unnecessary, unhealthy, and unfair.  One could argue that I suffered from a moderate case of impostor syndrome, even though I had rational, legitimate doubts about how deserving I was of my medal.

I extended this thought one step further, and wondered what would have happened had I studied at a better chemistry department, like the ones at CalTech, MIT, or Stanford.  The competition would have been much more intense, but I also would have learned more from stronger classmates and received more motivation to reach higher standards.  Would I have eventually become the best student in one of those departments?  I would have liked to find out.  I also wondered about how the second best chemistry student at Harvard would compare to me.  They would not have won any awards for being the second best student at that top-notch chemistry department, but they would likely be better than I am at chemistry……yet I won recognition for being the best in my department.  (They may not ever know about their attainment of such an excellent ranking!)  This seemed like another serendipity to me, but certainly unfair to that second best student at Harvard.  Obviously, I deserve and am proud of my Silver Medal, but I also recognize that this imbalance of recognition can have drastic consequences for professional progress.

I overcame this self-imposed pressure by focusing on having fun and pursuing excellence in my courses, rather than trying to live up to any standard.  (It was also important to realize that this “standard” was entirely vague; there was no clearly defined milestone to prove that I “truly” deserved the medal.)  This took some time, but returning to those original motivations for studying was a healthy practice, and I performed better in my schoolwork as a result.

 

3. Express gratitude, and do so with substance and focus

After winning my Silver Medal, I spent 18 months to visit my family members, friends, colleagues, professors, and past mentors.  It was a chance to tell them about this great achievement, and – more importantly – it was a chance to remind them of the positive impact that they had on my life.  Most of them could not go to my award banquet, so I needed to take some time to visit each and every one of them to thank them for their contributions to my academic, professional, and personal development.  It was incredibly gratifying to affirm the value of their hard work, because many people (especially in the education sector) don’t get to witness the full fruits of their labour.  This was also a good chance for me to catch up with them and find out about how they were doing.  I was (and still am) very diligent about keeping in touch with people who are close to me, but the Silver Medal was a great reason to organize those gatherings.  The photographs from those lunches, dinners, and visits are great memories for me and for them.

 

4. Remember your accomplishments in difficult times

I always feel excited and happy whenever I think about my Silver Medal.  I remember so many great moments about winning it, and I still feel the same surprise that I felt when I first got that email from Dr. MacFarlane.  When I encounter hardships in my life, I try to remember the great things that I have accomplished to boost my confidence and maintain a healthy sense of joy and gratitude, and my Silver Medal is one of those great accomplishments.  It reminds me that I am capable of overcoming obstacles and achieving lofty goals.

Popular wisdom tells us that we grow more from our struggles than from my accomplishments, that the bad times make us stronger more than the good times.  Happily, I have drawn inspiration from both my good times and my bad times – they simply provide different kinds of inspiration.

I remember how I scored below average on my first midterm in my first course in organic chemistry, which is often decried as a force of intimidation to many students.  I was sad and disappointed, and I found stereochemistry to be particularly frustrating and mysterious.  Nonetheless, I persevered by drawing many different skeletal structures (i.e. bond-line structures) and Newman projections.  I used my molecular model set to build 3-dimensional models of various stereoisomers and conformational isomers, studied them from various perspectives, and tore them apart to build new ones.  I made sure to understand the subtle definitions of enantiomers, diastereomers, and meso isomers, and I connected those definitions to examples that I could visualize in my mind.  I still remember the fatigue in my hand after drawing skeletal structures for hours and hours.  After a lot of hard work, it all made sense to me, and I earned an A+ in the course.  I have many memories like these from my degree in chemistry, and they continue to fuel my resilience for facing adversity today.

My desire for success often drives me to focus on my failures and weaknesses, which is an entirely rational approach.  After all, I cannot get better at any skill by dwelling on my strengths; I have to work on my weaknesses and turn them into strengths.  However, it would be unhealthy to use this attitude all the time for all aspects of my life, and I sometimes need to stop that negative thinking and reflect on the positive things that I have done, such as winning my Silver Medal.  It’s a tricky balance, but I think that it is entirely possible to focus on both the positive and negative aspects of ourselves on our journeys toward greatness.

 

5. Give back to the community – it’s a great way to “pay it forward” to others

I did not win my Silver Medal solely on my own efforts.  As I mentioned above, many people supported me on my path to this award, and I think that the best way to honour their generosity is to pay it forward and give back to the community.  I do that mainly through my blog, YouTube channel, Twitter account, and talk show, but I also speak at universities and academic conferences to share career advice with students.  Nowadays, I mainly speak to statistics students, because I now work as a statistician.  However, in 2013, the Science and Environment Co-operative Education program at SFU invited me to speak on a career panel to its chemistry students.

I asked one of the organizers, Joan Lagman, why she wanted to invite me, considering that I was working as a statistician and not a chemist at that point.  She replied that she wanted one of the speakers to talk about why they decided not to pursue chemistry as a career, to provide some diversity of experience and knowledge on the panel.  I gladly accepted her invitation, and it was a pleasure to speak to a large group of students at that event.  My presentation was very well received, and I enjoyed speaking individually to some students afterward to offer more advice about the trade-offs between continuing to study chemistry and pursuing a new path.  My main and final message to all of them was to aim to be great at what you do, no matter what path you take.  Not only does excellence provide satisfaction and rewards for our pursuits, but it also opens all kinds of unexpected doors to new avenues to growth and learning, and I certainly encountered this multiple times after I won my Silver Medal.  To my dear reader, I hope that you will do the same.

____________________________________

Although I don’t work as a chemist now, I still love chemistry, and I try to preserve my interest in this subject on The Chemical Statistician and its various outlets – on my YouTube channel and my Twitter account (@chemstateric).  Among the natural sciences, chemistry does not garner as much attention as other disciplines, and I hope to do my small part to promote the knowledge and influence that this field has in our lives, especially in its intersection with statistics.  I am grateful for the education that I received in both subjects, and I look forward to continue sharing my knowledge as The Chemical Statistician!

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