What I Learned From Uni #1


A Little Bit About My Journey!

b9bb2ada-432a-4f57-b930-aab88a43bcc9 2I just graduated with a First Class Honors in the MEng Biomedical Engineering programme at UCL. In my 1st year, I joined Engineers Without Borders and traveled to the Philippines to run a project in a remote community. During my 2ndyear, I started a social enterprise on education and worked as an intern at Microsoft Research. Then, spent my 3rd year studying abroad at Johns Hopkins University, where I also worked at the Neuroengineering Lab and published my first research article.

In my last year, I was awarded with one of the Adobe Research Scholarships, did an internship at their headquarters in Sillicon Valley, where I worked with wonderful researchers in a project that combined dance and technology, both of my passions. During my masters, I took courses in Advanced Deep and Reinforcement Learning with researchers from Google Deepmind and continued collaborating with Adobe Research for my master thesis on Analaysis of Dance Movement Using Machine Learning.

Throughout my entire Bachelors and Masters, I continued to train dance professionally in ballet, contemporary and jazz, and performed at multiple festivals and events. Even though it’s been a lot a lot of work, I somehow managed to find time to travel, relax and have fun, and it was during this time that I met the people who are now my closest friends.

It’s been a crazy journey which I navigated trusting my intuition and my own way of doing things, making lots of mistakes and learning from everyone around me. I learned many things throughout this time and decided to write this ‘What I Learned from Uni’ series (#1, #2, #3, #4) so that other students can maybe find insights that will help them on their path as well!

I am always open to talk to students about my experience, so if you’re a student/parent/teacher feel free to reach out! I’d be happy to hear from you. I’m also very passionate about education, outreach and growing the presence of women in STEM careers, as well as giving talks at schools or universities – feel free to contact me about this too (contact in the ‘About’ page). I hope you enjoy the read and find something useful for your own journey!


What I Learned From Uni #1

It’s overwhelming. It’s confusing. There are many things you don’t like about it. The work never ends… You have no idea how/when you’re going use some of the things you’re learning. Hello procrastination, how do I fix you? Hello work-life balance, do you even exist? You set your own standards, and that can be frightening. Probably used to be a good or top student in your class at school, you’re now just one more in the crowd. There are many things people never told you about getting a degree…

But it’s also beautiful and exhilarating learning experience.  You put yourself in places and challenges you never thought you’d be in. A million opportunities open up for you to explore, grow and experience new things, gain new skills, meet people who inspire you to become better each day. You might not like everything you have to do or learn, or sometimes the people you have to work with, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make it work for yourself.

Here and in the next couple entries are the tips I found useful and that hopefully will be helpful for you too!

“Don’t compare yourself to others.” 

Some people spend their free time building circuits and learned how to code at 12 in their spare time. I was never one of those. In my free time I like dancing, painting or playing music with friends. Sometimes, I simply enjoy being alone in my room, lying down in bed and letting my thoughts pass doing ‘nothing’. Actually, I’d rather do many things before building circuits or coding in my free time.

That doesn’t mean engineering is not for me, or that I’m less good at it. I enjoyed a lot of the things I studied. I was fascinated by the challenge of understanding very difficult concepts in Physics or Math, and the way that triggered my mind to work. I was passionate about solving problems and understanding how to make things work.

When I was struggling with something in my degree, I would often tell myself: “I don’t fit in here.” When something was not working for me, I would say: “I’m not as capable.” These are the things I would tell myself because I felt different to those around me. This story only created insecurities and made it harder for me to simply concentrate on the task at hand.

At the beginning, I would also spend a lot of time trying to figure things out on my own. When there was something I didn’t understand, I would lock myself up in the library for hours until I get it. I thought it was very basic concepts and that it would seem ridiculous to ask for help. I felt that if I asked for help someone would realize I wasn’t ‘good enough’ to be there, as if I had cheated to be there and someone would catch me.

Later, I found out this is called impostor syndrome – a tendency to feel you don’t deserve your achievements. This is something ‘fake’ that not only I, but many other people experience too. It’s a feeling that doesn’t serve us and only acts as an obstacle. From my experience, simply noticing it within yourself when it kicks in and telling yourself ‘it’s not true’ already helps to not let it steal your self-esteem!

 “Collaborate

After a while, I realized I was not the only one having difficulties during my studies. Everyone was struggling with something at a certain point, and actually, when I stopped hiding it and became more open about it, I managed to start collaborating with other people. I found that there was always someone who could help me, and that there were also many things I could help others with.

The truth is that everyone is struggling with something at a certain point. You’re not the only one and it has nothing to do with your abilities or lack of them. You earned your spot to be there and you’re capable of making it through. Don’t be afraid to be open about the concepts you’re not understanding or that project or assignment you’re having difficulty with. By collaborating and sharing, we learn and progress so much more efficiently and free up more time to enjoy the process.

Know that it’s also okay to spend more time on certain topics or concepts. No matter how much you collaborate, no one can study or do the work for you. If you don’t put in the work, you’re not going get the results you want. There’s no substitute for that. Be patient, it’s okay to spend a long time familiarising yourself with new softwares, programming languages or concepts in math. Take the time to learn these well, since it’ll make the path easier later on. The learning curve is steeper at first, but it gets better over time – I promise!

“Learning fast is more important than how much you know.”

There might also be moments where you’re less prepared than others but still need to deliver at the same level. More often than not I was in a situation where I wasn’t fully prepared to be there: (1) started engineering having studied the high school route for medicine/biology, meaning I missed a lot of the core requisites people entered uni with, (2) I got hired by Microsoft Research on my 2nd year of university when I barely knew how to code, (3) got into master level machine learning courses at both Johns Hopkins and UCL while still an undergraduate etc. I don’t mean I didn’t deserve to be there or that it happened by chance – I worked very hard to create these opportunities and was very strong in other areas. But despite your strengths, there are always things you’re weaker at or less prepared at.

Find the 20% effort that gives you 80% return.

I tried to see these situations not as an excuse to underperform, but as an opportunity to learn very very fast and raise up to the challenge. Surrounding yourself with the people from whom you can learn from is key. As well as identifying the most important things you need to learn and starting with those. Don’t go crazy with all the things you don’t know – the list never ends… trust me. Instead, I’d recommend finding that 20% effort that gives you 80% return and focus on that instead of spending your energy on the details that don’t matter that much. What’s the most important thing you need to learn? Start with that. Learning to identify this 80:20 is a practice of its own! But I’m sure you’ll get better at it as you go.

“Don’t underestimate the power of taking tiny steps every day.”

Don’t get discouraged by how intimidating your responsibilities or tasks might seem or underestimate the power of taking tiny steps every day. If you just keep going, sooner than you’ll realize you’ll feel more comfortable with what you’re doing. You’ll be able to look back and smile at how much you’ve grown.

 


Hope you enjoyed the first part! If you want, you can continue reading the ‘What I Learned From Uni‘ series here: ‘WIFU#2 –Sometimes you just need to show up’.

 

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