Updated: May 18
One of the best decisions of my life was made when I chose UofT for my undergraduate career. Despite having friends go to Waterloo, McMaster, and Western, I knew I was destined for research. The first thing on the bucket list? Apply to a lab, get research experience, and everything will snowball. Here's how I got into the Matter Lab (aka the Aspuru-Guzik lab).
(the section where you've only got time to read on your toilet)
Cold emails are a test of your passion.
The snowball effect is very effective towards a career in research.
Do not rush towards your destination, a research career is about the journey, not the publications.
Choose what suits YOU best, not what the hype is.
Why The Matter Lab?
After going to SHAD Canada, I had a profound curiosity for artificial intelligence and machine learning. As I was searching through the Chemistry faculty, I stumbled across Professor Alan Aspuru-Guzik. This guy did exactly what I wanted to pursue which was combining AI and tech with chemistry. My values aligned with his lab, and I loved sharing a similar vision for accelerated materials discovery. As a first year, I did the obvious thing and sent cold emails. I think I sent about 5 cold emails within a week to Professor Alan about how I wanted to volunteer at his lab and I'd do absolutely anything! The result? He replied to none of them. At first, I was discouraged but I knew it was a test. I knew that if it was that easy for a first year undergrad to send cold emails and get a position at a top-tier lab, it obviously wasn't top-tier. The next thing I did was send cold emails to other labs that sparked my interest. Lucky enough, I landed a volunteer research assistant position at Professor Woolley's lab (biochemistry lab). Although I did repetitive work, I learned a lot about being a PhD candidate and it was my stepping stone towards a beautiful future. That was the start of the snowball effect.
The Snowball Effect
After gaining valuable research experience, I applied for the NSERC USRA and I got it! I think it was largely because I had good grades (3.93 cGPA) but more importantly I showed my passion with action. After working at the Goh lab, I had lots of experience as a researcher. I accomplished a lot within a few months which again reflected my passion for research which allowed me to get another NSERC USRA (it is less likely since they prioritize students that have never won an NSERC USRA). Once I had all this experience, working at the Matter Lab seemed like a realistic feat. This time around, Professor Alan Aspuru-Guzik saw that I had valuable research experience and could potentially become an asset to his group. I was instantly connected to a postdoc (my current supervisor) but having another NSERC USRA was a cherry on top. This was one of my life's accomplishment where I could say:
"ever since I was in first year, I've always wanted to work at the Matter Lab and now I'm finally here!"
Even after working in the lab for two weeks, I think it's surreal to be able to work in such an environment where there are so many fascinating people with incredible backgrounds. Looking back at it, I owe it all to the people who have believed in me and supported me from the beginning. I would have never been in this position if Professor Woolley hadn't taken me in as a volunteer research assistant. I'll always appreciate what people have done for me.
No Publication. No Grad School?
"Don't stress about publications. It's about doing seriously good research work." - Postdoc @ The Matter Lab
Despite accomplishing a lot in my previous research experiences, I had not published a paper. This may be stressful or nerve-wracking for many students. I knew that publishing a paper would help me with applying to grad school but I believe in the art of research more. Like life, I don't think it's about the destination, it's about the journey. Although I hadn't published a paper, I still accomplished a lot and I can proudly say that I worked my ass off in which I got many things done. They just weren't precisely in the form of a published paper. Hopefully by the end of these upcoming 4 months, I'll potentially publish a paper. However, I'm not going to stress out about it because performing valuable research work is more important than a paper. If it happens, then great, it's a bonus. If it doesn't happen, I'll still get to where I want to be, a PhD candidate at UofT.
Advice from Professor Alan Aspuru-Guzik
"Work your a** off, and so when I write your reference letter, I won't be writing solely, 'Stanley was a great researcher.' Instead, I'll get to write all of the things he's solved, accomplished, and how he's an incredible researcher."
This idea will always stick with me because even a professor at his caliber, does not measure your worth with how many papers you've published. It's measured by your attitude and the actions that reflect your passion and dedication.
Hype or What?
Now that I'm here at the Matter Lab, I realized that I could have applied anywhere. I'll never regret choosing this lab because I am genuinely passionate about it. Never follow the "hype" because there will be a time where you'll have to do boring, soul-sucking work. At my current position, I wasn't assigned to any ML/AI project which was what I truly wanted to learn but my current project also aligned so well with my values and passion that it didn't matter anymore. If I had only chased for the hype of ML/AI, I would have dreaded my time here. Since I was true to my passion, the boring, soul-sucking work was never a problem for me. Stay true to yourself and don't chase the hype, especially when it comes to research. Ask yourself, would you work on this project from 9am-9pm? If the answer is yes, you're ready to pursue that passion of yours. Never let it go, and allow it to drive you to greater things.
Thanks for taking time out of YOUR day to read this post! I'll definitely be continuing to document my journey throughout these 4 months. Stay tuned!
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