Among the highlights of the 69th Canadian Chemical Engineering Conference, which took place in October in Halifax, was a set of diverse presentations that made up the annual Emerging Leaders in Chemical Engineering plenary session. This prestigious event showcased the perspectives of four leading early-career researchers in 10-minute TED-Talk-style presentations. Each of them offered a vision of the opportunities and challenges in their respective fields, where research in those fields is heading, and what success looks like in this line of work. CIC News asked Alyne Teixeira, an ambassador with the Royal Canadian Institute for Science and a doctoral student in biomedical engineering at Dalhousie University, to share her thoughts on what this event meant to her.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, stressed, and unmotivated during our graduate studies. Sometimes we ask ourselves if everything is worth it and if we should keep going. Then, a more important question arises: Why am I doing this? What to expect next?

There is no right or wrong answer for both questions and the answer is unique to each one of us. You must take some time to think about your current situation and reflect on your career but when we are so busy with our research, that time is scarce. Nevertheless, a study conducted by Harvard Business School showed that reflecting on your own experience and learning is key to success, because it increases productivity and performance. When we reflect on ourselves, our values, skills and passions we realize what we want, then we can easily create a plan to reach our goals.

At this year’s Canadian Chemical Engineering Conference, the four emerging leaders were asked what advice they would give for any future leaders who might be present in the audience. Their responses were fairly simple: there is no recipe for success, however we should: 1) follow our passions, 2) be flexible and open to opportunities, 3) be able to work well with a multidisciplinary team, and 4) think about what we can do to improve the world.

Now, I invite you to look closely at each piece of advice. The first one says to follow our passions. How many times have you heard that? And how many times have you been frustrated about not finding something to be passionate about? Maybe finding our passions should be about what we most care about, rather than what seems like fun. Indeed, when we focus on what we care about, we align our passion with the impact we want to have in the world. We can then face any challenges that may come along the way and our performance is greatly improved.

The second piece of advice says to be flexible and open to opportunities, which I consider a relatively hard task for graduate students. Based on my own experience, taking opportunities outside the lab may seem like a “distraction” rather than an extra-PhD-curriculum activity under some professors’ watch. How can we explore different opportunities to grow if we are not encouraged by faculty to do it? This old-fashioned mentality seems to limit students to reach their maximum as future professionals.

Personally, I like to explore different activities that will help me to develop skills that will never emerge if I only stay in the lab. When people tell me they cannot envision their future working in academia, I wonder how they expect to get a job anywhere else if they spend all their time in academia. This lack of experience is one big reason why so many people find it hard to get work, and this gap should be recognized and addressed by faculty in order to help students develop skills that will help them to get a job when they leave university.

The third piece of advice was evident in the work that each of these four researchers had conducted: chemical engineering is a multidisciplinary team composed of chemists, biologists, mechanical engineers, and experts from other fields. This is another aspect of getting out of our laboratories, where we can still contribute with our existing skills but also learn a lot more from researchers in different areas.

Remaining isolated in our labs will not help us to improve the world, which is what the final piece of advice is all about. If we can work in collaboration with researchers from different disciplines, we can find solutions for the world’s big challenges. Asking about your legacy may be a way of finding your passion and unpacking your determination for something that you care about and truly believe that your research can accomplish.

I always feel inspired by researchers who share their successful journey and motivate young scientists to pursue their dreams. Finding our passion may not be as easy as finding the solution to some problem in the lab, but it will be stepping out of our labs that leads us to reflect on what really gives purpose to our lives.