The Dream You Don’t Dream

The Samuel Bronfman building is the house of business studies at McGill University. Each year a batch of students begin their two years journey of dreaming and a batch leaves the building with the satisfaction of having achieved their dreams and the joy that the last two years bought to their lives. But there are some dreams that no one dreams and that dream that you don’t dream is reality that surpasses your expectations. Something that you never imagined or fleetingly hoped for but never expected.

In 2012, five students got together at the third floor of the Bronfman building and decided that they want to tackle the problem of world food scarcity. They did not know what they would achieve but they had the courage to take up this challenge while braving the rigors of an MBA course. The team saw a spectrum of ups and downs but one year later in September 2013, the same five students from McGill University won the Hult Prize with their unique solution of using insect-derived flour to win a bid to address food security, in the process winning USD $1Million as seed funding to further pursue their idea. It has been three years since they won and the Aspire Food Group is still going strong with their mission of providing a sustainable food source to millions of people around the world.

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton with McGill’s 2013 winning team (from left to right): Jesse Pearlstein, Shobhita Soor, Zev Thompson, Gabriel Mott and Mohammed Ashour. / Photo: AP Images for the Hult Prize

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton with McGill’s 2013 winning team (from left to right): Jesse Pearlstein, Shobhita Soor, Zev Thompson, Gabriel Mott and Mohammed Ashour. Photo: AP Images for the Hult Prize

The Hult Prize is the world’s largest student competition for social entrepreneurship and this year’s challenge is centered on “the refugee opportunity”, specifically reawakening human potential, and build sustainable, scalable social enterprises that restore the rights and dignity of 10 million refugees by 2022. Students have an opportunity once again to tackle an issue where social enterprises of any kind can help attain the target. The beauty of Hult Prize is that with such a broad topic, it allows students from all backgrounds to view the challenge with a different lens and uniquely use their skills in the quest to find solutions.

On Sunday, December 4th , McGill University is hosting Hult Prize @ McGill — the university-level competition for the prestigious Hult Prize. Winners from the university level event will go on to represent McGill at the regional competitions in March 2017. The winners of the regional event will then participate in a six-week long accelerator to refine their ideas before presenting at the finals at the annual Clinton Global Initiative in September 2017 and get a shot at securing USD $1Million as seed funding.

The Aspire group probably didn’t dream this before it happened, maybe you haven’t dreamed it as yet. But this is your opportunity to live the dream that you may have never dreamt and in the process impact the lives of billions of people.

Those interested in participating can find more information about the McGill competition and the Hult Prize. Follow Hult Prize on Facebook to get updates of events and workshops.

 

Tightrope walking

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I don’t know if other students feel like this at any point in their PhD journey. For me, this sensation has come during the “home stretch”. In other words – at the worst possible time.

It is not uncommon for graduate students to feel down or discouraged at some points of their degree. Everyone knows the PhD road is long and replete with intellectual challenges, time-stealing setbacks, daunting skills to learn in very little time, and experiences that propel us far outside of our comfort zone. It is not uncommon for PhD students to feel fatigued, overwhelmed or disheartened. Waves of negative emotions may come and go, amplified by the constant pressure of deadlines and high standards. It is the small victories in between that make the waves recede and that keep us going, suddenly reminding us of why we love what we do and why we wish to keep doing it.

But that common feeling is not exactly what I am alluding to. This is something a little more difficult to put into words – a feeling of fragility and transience, uncertainty and instability, not only towards one’s work but also one’s own self. Let me try to explain.

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Signal to Noise ratio

Four months ago, I was offered the opportunity to become a grad life blogger at McGill University.
First week. I was ecstatic. I was telling everyone I knew, “I am a blogger now”. Turns out I actually have to post something before I can claim that title.
Second week. I complained that everything I wanted to write about – the beautiful fall weather, great things to do in Montreal, etc – had already been covered by the awesome crew at grad life blog.
Third week. I wrote, erased, re-wrote, wrote some more, deleted, claimed I had writer’s block and basically got nowhere. I guess it’s practice for my thesis writing.
End of the month, and what do I have in front of me? I finally decided on a great title for my post – signal to noise ratio. Now what?

There you have it – procrastination.
The act of putting things off for so long, you have no other choice than to blog about it. In all honesty, I have beenv busy. Some new developments in my research project have moved it to the fast lane and I’ve been spending lots of late nights in the lab, but one post could easily have been done. It probably doesn’t help that I’ve also been going through some sort of a PhD existential crisis, if you will.

I had been thinking about what to write for my first blog post for quite some time, and then, it came to me. Unless you have been living under a rock or writing your thesis, you are aware Steve Jobs passed away recently. My supervisor threw this quote up on the fridge in his honour. And right then, everything that had been brewing became quite clear.

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.”

Now, I am not an Apple fanboy, but I thought the quote was very eloquent. It reminded me of a concept known as signal to noise ratio. It is an engineering/science term that applies to how much of what you observe is noise (background) and how much is what you’re actually interested in observing (signal). I feel it’s a concept that applies to anything in life, but, as I roll into my sixth year of a PhD, it could not be truer. The end is near, and yet not here.

I am a dreamer. I always have been and always will be. Every day I have a new idea, a new travel plan, a new revelation. I tried to remember the reasons why I decided to start grad school, and I think one of them is that research lets you dream up new possibilities all the time. Research in general is a foray into the unknown. When you take on a research project, you have no idea where it is headed and this allows you to dream up innumerable
possibilities. That, of course, is the easy part. The other, more frustrating part is slowly dissecting away your theories until you find the right one.

No matter what you’re doing in life, particularly things requiring a significant time commitment, you will always have to deal with negativity within yourself and around you. So in this case, signal would be focusing on wrapping up this PhD, but there is so much noise around that it’s easy to get distracted. Noise is that nagging question of what’s
next. Noise is: why is it taking me so long to graduate. Noise is: did I pick the right project. Noise is: getting easily annoyed when someone asks why you aren’t done yet. So much noise.

I realize that, more than anyone else, the pressure comes from within. I have a good project, although it has been very challenging. I work in a great environment, surrounded by supportive people, and have an understanding supervisor. So why all this noise? Sometimes I wonder. When I started my PhD, I was a happy-go-lucky kid. I had tried my hand at research while I was in school and loved it. So I said to myself, why not give it a shot. At the beginning of grad school, my project looked promising and I had all these indications that I was at least decent at it. Awards, scholarships, positive comments at committee meeting. But after a while, all that dies down and what remains is your publishing record, which is meant to speak for itself. And I haven’t published yet. I am close, yet not there.

Since I started drafting this post, months ago, I realized the worst thing I can do is over-think it. As a friend pointed out, a PhD is a process. Everyone who does it understands that you’re not working towards milestone or a big payout. You have to think of it in terms of a process, not as a means to an end. A PhD does not have a defined set of rules like school does, and the process is unique to every individual. You can’t compare yourself to others.

How am I going to tackle this problem? I’m going to do what I learned from my father. Put my head down, my blinders on, and keep on trucking. Soon enough, hopefully, I’ll have arrived to my destination.

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