Last few weeks in Toronto

Some of the nicest people I’ve met have been strangers I bump into on the public transit system. 

One evening around midnight, when I was simply riding a bus in order to have a place to read, the bus driver noticed I didn’t get off at the last stop.

“Miss your stop?” he asked.
“Uh, kinda.
“Which one?”
“Mississauga Road,” I said. He raised his eyebrows at me. It was the stop I initially got on on the bus, and somehow he remembered. “Well, I’m actually just riding in order to read a book, if you don’t mind.”
“Nah,” he said, and I turned around to go sit back down. Before I got to my seat, he shouted back, “What book?”
“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenence.”
“Oh, I have that one!”
“Really? A lot of it is about this place I’m from, Montana.”

I spend the next hour of that ride talking to the driver. He was a chef, and used to travel across the world. He told me about his struggles starting out as a kid with no experience in the kitchen, and then, like ever other successful person, got a lucky break solely cracking eggs for a good restaurant. When that part of his life was done, he went to law school, and defended criminals in court. To get by in school, he took up bus driving at night, and kept doing it ever since. The pay was good, and it was peaceful.

Everyone I worked with in the lab were so friendly, too. I never minded leaving work late, and I often tried try assist other people with their lab work in order to get to know their research and them as a person. The casualness of talking to someone while pippetting, I’ve found, is akin to talking to someone over coffee. It’s an easy, monotonous act that just begs for conversation, and I’ve made many friends while putting tiny drops of liquid into other tiny drops. It’s a funny thing.

Last weekend, I caught the last train back from the Canadian National Exhibit, I didn’t realize that I had just missed my last bus home. Four other kids my age, along with an older Pakistani man, missed the bus as well, and somehow we all split the cost of a cab and just laughed it off. I couldn’t think of a better way to end the night than having met those folks. 

As I write this, I’m on my last plane back home to Missoula. Today I turn 20, and though I’ve learned so much over the summer, I still can’t feel justified leaving my teenage years. The more I learn, the more I feel like I don’t know anything. I’m so privileged to have been able to learn from everyone at the University of Toronto – Mississauga this summer, and to have ended up with such a great group of people. I owe everything to the people who have helped me in my life, because if everyone had the same opportunities given to them, my story would be nothing special.

As with any place you travel in life, it’s the people that make it. For all the brief strangers that helped me find my way in a large city, that spent their time with me, that helped me be in Toronto this summer at all, I am eternally grateful. I would have never been able to do this by myself, and I’ll never have such a great opportunity again. Thank you.

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WorldPride 2014 in Toronto

I wasn’t kidding when I said it was a happy accident.
 
A month before I left for Toronto, I was playing softball with the fine folks in UM’s physics department. While sharing my summer plans, one of them interjected.
  
“Toronto? That’s where World Pride is being held this year!”
  
I couldn’t believe it. World Pride, the largest celebration of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) people has only occurred four times in history: in Rome (2000), in (2006), in London (2012), and this year in Toronto. LGBTQ rights are very close to my heart, and I was shocked to find that two million people would soon flock the streets of Toronto in rainbows and glitter.
  
The first event I went to was a skit performed by a group of young actors depicting he hardships of being a young LGBTQ person. It took place at Toronto’s famous Buddies in Bad Times, a bar and theatre that have been around for thirty years (unheard of for a bar! Most close before they’re a decade old. This alone shows the importance of Buddies in its community). It was a fantastic show. The struggles of a transgender girl whose parents insist she dress like a boy, the friction between a daughter and her father when he left their family for a man, and the confusions of lesbians who like to dress rougher and boys who like to wear lace were all depicted fantastically.  It was easily one of my favorite parts of Pride. 
 
And all that before opening ceremony.
  
To start the ten-day celebration, Toronto brought in Melissa Etheridge, famous among the older crowd for being an iconic rock artist of the early nineties and a proud supporter of LGBTQ rights. She led a fantastic concert, ending the night with the biggest firework and laser show I had ever seen. Throughout the week there were many smaller events that I couldn’t make because of my work in the lab: a dyke march, a transgender march, a vigil for those who have suffered from AIDS, and  a conference held by the Human Rights Council (check???).  However I wasn’t too down about not attending those, because the real party was the last weekend.
 
It was the biggest crowd of people if ever swam through. Church Street, famous for having the highest concentration of gay bars in the city, was closed down during the entire celebration. Drag performances, where men become their prettiest and their hair becomes the biggest, were happening on stages all along Church no matter what time of day. The first performance I saw had not only good music and a beautiful costume, but the performer also threw in fire breathing. Many others included a performance themed after the popular fantasy series A Game of Thrones, multiple performances to the song I Feel Like A Woman, and even a performance where the dance was a traditional Indian dance. I’ve seen so few drag performances that I was amazed when I saw one based in a difference culture!
  
On the last day they closed down Yonge street, the most famous street in Canada and the heart of Toronto’s downtown, and held the World Pride Parade. This is when everyone brought every rainbow coloured object they owned and danced in the streets. It was a hot day, and everyone got hit with water guns from the passing floats. Kids were on the sides of the streets selling rainbow flags and pre-cut mangos. I eventually climbed on top of a bike rack to get the best pictures I could. I must have watched the parade for three hours and still didn’t see the end of it.
 
The night ended with a concert by Canada’s most famous lesbians, Tegan and Sara. They reminded the crowd that in Canada, and soon the rest of the world, it’s okay to be gay.

The Fourth Largest City in North America

I’m spending the entire summer in a suburb located just outside Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Mississauga, it’s called, has everything you could ever need to thrive: a good transit system, plenty of clothing shops and grocery stores, and so many houses that I get lost easily in the sea of driveways and grass. Mississauga’s most famous buildings decorating its skyline are two condos with hourglass-like shapes, commonly known as the “Man” and “Woman” for their likeness to human bodies.

I came here for the university, located quaintly on the edge of Mississauga and buried in all the deciduous, leafy trees found so commonly in the east. The University of Toronto – Mississauga is a satellite campus of the renowned University of Toronto, known for its research and position as arguably the top university in Canada. After a few emails, the help of many, and a lot of luck, I found myself accepted into the Chemical Sensors Group for the entire summer, focusing on the cutting-edge research of nanoparticles.

With plane delays, I didn’t arrive to the campus until 1AM. However, with the help of some friendly campus police, I was able to break my way into the room I would be calling my home for the next three months.

“If I get fired for this, I hope they’re hiring in Montana, eh?” one of them said.

On my first day, I was picked up in a sleek black BMW. Its driver was Matt, one of the best teachers and scientists I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet, and my boss and guide through my lab work this summer. While showing me around Mississauga, he explained his research project.

The goal, he said, was to cover a nanoparticle with a certain molecule on one side, and a different molecule on the other. That is, to find a way to cover each face of a sphere with something different. This could in theory be useful in something like drug delivery – have molecules that detect a sickness on one side, and the drug to treat that sickness on the other. Give these nanoparticles to a patient, and the drug will only be released where the ailment can be found.

But first, this has to be proven to be possible. On particles so small, chemistry does not always work so easily. At the bottom of the page  is a diagram of Matt’s strategy:

A nanoparticle is first immobilized on a flat surface by the attachment made through a “linker” molecule. By virtue of geometry, given short enough lengths of the linker, only some of the surface of the sphere can be covered. The linker can then be cut to free the nanoparticle into solution. The nanoparticle retains its bareness on the opposite side, allowing for a separate reaction to occur to decorate that opposite face.

You could even cover more or less of the sphere by varying the linker lengths:

Matt and the rest of the people I work alongside in the lab never cease to amaze me. They’re super hardworking in the lab, and often I can’t fathom how they can keep up with eachother. No matter how many failures they have, or weird results they can’t explain, they always put their heads together and help eachother out. It’s the best work environment I could ever dream of. I find myself hanging around the lab even hours after I’m done working, just to see if I can help them with any work and get to know them better.

Equally as fascinating was my first roommate, Anjana. If it weren’t for her and her boyfriend, it would have taken me weeks to even locate all the best grocery stores. Or heck, even the mall.

Anjana wasn’t given any notice that I would be showing up as her roommate. She had started her summer business classes nearly a month earlier, and simply assumed the second bed in her apartment would remain empty. I woke up the first morning to the sound of her voice on the phone, in perfect English but tainted with a Tamil accent that I would come to love.

“I have no idea, I just came home and the door was open and there’s stuff everywhere!”

Even though she hardly knew me, she shared her food, took me out with her friends, and taught me all about her culture and her former life in Sri Lanka. No matter if it was planning a surprise birthday party, going to a Hindu temple, or dealing with the inevitable drama of relationships, she always welcomed me into her life.

She finished classes and moved back home a couple weeks ago, leaving nothing behind but a bag of roti and a rose in a blue wine bottle.

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A diagram of the research I’m involved in (described above), and a shot of the famous CN tower taken on Lake Ontario.