In early July, I swapped two weeks of school for two weeks at Uni. Or something like that. Along with five other Year 12 and 13s from around the country, I was given the amazing opportunity to represent New Zealand at the Professor Harry Messel International Science School in Sydney, Australia.
First and foremost, we got to participate in a fabulous array of hands-on lab work and activities. We got to fiddle with electron microscopes, searching for (and yes, finding!) microorganisms nanometres in length. Armed with good old-fashioned lab coats, we tested serum samples for evidence of heart attacks and liver failures. We “played” with flatworms, if hyping them up on caffeine and watching them die in varying degrees of toxicity can be considered play… And in a Science Challenge to remember, teams constructed bridges, Mars rovers and satellite dishes (to name but a few) out of limited materials in a race against the clock.
A world-class line-up of lecturers introduced us to a fascinating spectrum of ground breaking scientific ideas at the cutting edge of science and technology. Based around this year’s theme “Nanoscience: Small Wonders, Big Future”, topics ranged from Nanobiotechnology to quantum computing, super-bright lasers and graphene. As much as I would like to, I’m not going to pretend to have understood absolutely everything that was covered, and I’m sure the same went for many of us. Getting your head around quantum theory in one-and-a-half hours isn’t exactly easy, but that simply wasn’t the point. As Dr Chris Stewart, the director of the programme, said, “If you can walk away from a lecture simply going – Wow, that was interesting – then we’ve succeeded”.
That said, I was consistently surprised – by myself. I’d have walked into a lecture knowing absolutely nothing about quantum physics or anything else he’d promised to go on about. And I walked out of it having actually understood the overwhelming majority of what he’d said and explained. It was a great feeling – and completely unexpected, to say the least. Or when another lecturer took something we’d just explored in Biology, spun it into an entirely new and unexpected direction… And made leaves glow in the dark before our very eyes! As technical and challenging as some of the concepts may seem, there was this fascinating spirit of openness and sharing between us all – if there was ever a question or clarification needed, be it about wave behaviour or impossible questions in Maths homework, there were always people eager to explain and enlighten. And it was great.
But who’s to say nerds don’t know how to have fun? From a twilight cruise on the beautiful Sydney Harbour Trips to the theatre, beaches, Sydney Observatory, chocolate café, liquid nitrogen ice cream parlours and tours of Sydney landmarks on offer, we used these excellent opportunities to get to know Sydney and each other that much more. The Great ISS Bush dance was a highlight for us all, as was our last dance at the Great Gatsby Ball.
But what I’ll treasure most of all were the amazing bunch of people I met. For all our diverse talents and interests, all our language barriers (and the Aussies consistently laughing at our kiwi accents), we all shared the same passion and love for everything Science. As much brainpower as it seems was required, there was always this amazing sense of enthusiasm and fascination that surrounded everything we did. For all those puns and Schrodinger’s Cat jokes, ethical-cum-scientific debates and discussions we had over breakfast, being surrounded by like-minded (and equally fun-loving) peers made for a truly fascinating and unforgettable experience.