National Youth Science Forum 2015

During January 2015 Brendon Aung and Binura Kulasinghe were immersed with over a hundred like-minded students from all around Australia over two weeks at NYSF. Applications for 2016 are open from 1 March to 31 May 2015. Here are their experiences and photos.

Brendon Aung

Just another science opportunity, or the beginning of something wonderful?....

After realising I was selected to attend the National Youth Science Forum, I immediately pondered about how much of an impact this experience would have. I expected there would be a plethora of immersive lab visits, seminars and workshops each having its own effect on my personal development. In addition, there was also the social part of the program to consider. Having experienced similar conferences to the NYSF, I envisioned myself being immersed with over a hundred like-minded students and making lifelong friendships with a handful of them. Overall, I felt that this opportunity would be a larger scale version of the other trips I’ve been to, but boy… Little did I know the NYSF was a whole lot more than that!

Not just your typical Science Camp…

It was January the 5th - bus was leaving at 8:00AM and everyone was bidding farewell to their family. I said bye to my parents and before I knew it, I was on the bus on my way to Canberra. And it was actually during my bus trip to Canberra that I realised I’m in for an amazing camp.

a. The Staff  (We call them Staffies)

When I first met the Staff, I assumed they were going to act like typical substitute teachers at school – telling you what to do and what not to do, explaining future activities and organizing small- scale events with very little enthusiasm. But during our bus ride, they all started to chant and dance – teaching us a variety of songs! Their overflowing charisma and energy brightened the grey and tired atmosphere within the bus (probably due to the long bus trip) and before long, everyone was chanting and clapping along to the beat! I wasbewildered and amazed as to how these staffies could turn a boring bus trip into something to be remembered for years to come! Good job Staffies!

Throughout the camp, the Staffies never failed to show enthusiasm, and they definitely made sure we wereas enthusiastic as them! Before the coaches arrived to take us to labs, seminars and other places, they would make us play games to ensure we were all mingling and cooperating with each other. Furthermore, during the bus trips, they would continue to chant and always invited us to chant along with them – our bus trips were always loud and lively!

Chanting and dancing were not the only things the staffies were good at. They also excelled in giving life-long advice that would help us on an academic and personal level. Several times during the camp, the staff would hold seminars and presentations on how to appear more friendly and social which would help us during job interviews and establishing friendships, providing tips on how to do well during Year 12 but also giving insight into what life would be like during University. In fact, it was only then that I realized that these staffies were only a few years older than us. They were individuals who were once, not long ago, just like us and are now pursing their own goals at university.

Overall, I believe that the staffies definitely played a role in making the NYSF so memorable and fun. Without their charisma and support, I would not have enjoyed the NYSF as much!

b. The Seminars, lab visits and presentations

Having been to a previous science-related camp, I assumed that the NYSF would offer similar opportunities. Whilst the NYSF was very similar in some ways, it was very different in others. I was honestly quite surprised when I realized how different the NYSF was to my expectations.

I think what made the NYSF stand out was the abundance of presentations that related very well with all students from across Australia. In the previous science camp I went to, it focused on providing information about universities and organisations in the state the camp was held in. Luckily, the NYSF catered for a larger portion of students by having representatives from Melbourne, Sydney, Queensland and Perth talk about their own science facilities including CSIRO, UNSW, The University of Melbourne, Lockheed Martin and more. Even though I’m from Melbourne, I think being informed about what other states offer is beneficial in helping me make decisions later on in my life in terms of University choices and looking for work.

Lab visits were also really interesting! The best thing about it was that each lab you visited was directly related to your particular interest. The NYSF allows you to choose which “Interest” group you want to be assigned to, and each interest group focuses on a particular field of science. My interest group was named after Peter Doherty and focused on Biology so I got to visit labs and other facilities relating to Medicine, Psychology and so on. Ultimately, I believe that interest groups is what sets apart the NYSF from other camps as I actually got to visit sites I’m interested in, but at the same time, got to meet other likeminded individuals that share the same passion!

c. The other students

The NYSF wouldn’t be as memorable without the other students there. I think that’s what I found to be the most unexpected. I first thought I would make a few friends at this camp, but honestly, sometimes I feel that I didn’t really make friends, but rather, I made family – brothers and sisters.

Initially, I thought the NYSF would provide traditional ice breaker activities at the beginning, and then leave us to our own devices after one or two days. However, the NYSF ensures that we regularly meet and talk to new people! Each student was assigned a buddy that went with you everywhere, and during formal dinners including Science Dinner and Rotary Dinner, we had allocated seats so we could get to know new people. Each student also had their own interest group and floor group as well so that they can mingle with a large variety of students. Over time, everyone became closer and closer to one another and I believe that this is what made me feel very close to the friends I made during NYSF.

A great way to learn new things – not only about science, but also about myself….

If there was one thing I expected from the NYSF, it was to learn science. However, this experience proved to be more than that. I received a lot of insight into other relevant things including school related topics and how to make the proper choices at University level. During the camp, the staff would hold several presentations and Q and A’s regarding how to tackle year 12 – providing tips on time management and healthy lifestyles. They elaborated on effective decision-making regarding course selections during university and the difference between university and high school. All this information, backed up by tours and presentations by science laboratories and other facilities are what makes the NYSF a very worthwhile experience for all students. Personally, I now have a better idea on what forensic pathology appears like as a career and how scientists study the effects of epilepsy on humans using mice through my tour at the John Curtin School of Medical Research. Through the psychology department at ANU, I also have a better understanding on how interactive psychology can be.

The NYSF also had a large impact on me personally as well. I learnt so many new things about myself and I think that this will help me greatly in the future.  With the wonderful feedback I got from the staffies, I learnt that I was a naturally adept public speaker and was capable of articulating logically developed ideas very quickly – something I thought I was never really good at! I also learnt that I was capable of developing close relationships with other students quite quickly which was quite surprising given that in past experiences, it often takes many days before I felt close with someone.

I could not have had this experience without your support!

As the Summer camp of the NYSF ended, I began to reflect on the endless amount of support I received that made my experience at the NYSF possible. I would like to extend my thanks to my endorsing rotary club – The Rotary Club of Greater Melbourne. During times of sadness when my former club abandoned my application (for good reasons I hope), the Greater Melbourne Club were willing to accept my application at such a short notice and were also willing to contribute money towards my NYSF fees. I would like to thank them very much for their generosity. I would like to thank Lysbeth Jenkins who provided support during my District Interviews and also accompanied me to my NYSF Orientation! I would also like to extend my gratitude to Paul Taranto, my District Chair, who assisted me in finding a new Rotary Club after my initial club no longer sponsored my application.

Each and every partner of the NYSF including representatives from science organisations and universities and all the rotarians who gave up their time during the NYSF also deserves my utmost appreciation. It is you who created the foundations necessary for the NYSF to become a very prestigious and highly sought-after opportunity today and for many years to come. Also special thanks to Cameron and Carolyn – my Rotary hosts for allowing me to spend a day at their home during Home Hospitality.

I would like to thank all the NYSF staff members who made the camp so fun, enjoyable and memorable. Without your charisma, energy and hard work, the students would not have enjoyed the camp was much and it would certainly be more dull and boring! Also thank you for taking the time to prepare hilarious but also very informative presentations for the benefit of the students.  In addition, I would like to extend my gratitude to the Rotary Dad, Rotary Mum and Staffie Maddie – my floor Staffie for providing support when I was sick during the NYSF and taking the time to provide me comfort such as allowing me to rest and taking me to the doctors.

Last but not least, I would like to thank my family and friends from the NYSF. Due to your ongoing support, I was able to attend the NYSF in the first place and leave with my head held high and with lifelong companions with similar passions and interests as me. Thank you very much for my family for supporting me financially to attend this trip and also special thanks to my buddy, Jacky Liao, for the laughs and good times we had together!

To conclude, I believe the NYSF is an experience to be remembered. The life-long skills and friends I have gained have changed my outlook towards not only science, but also towards myself and my future. I am certainly well-placed for my journey in pursuing a career in science in the future! 

Binura Kulasinghe

I wasn’t sure what to expect to be sure – Will it help me? Will it be worthwhile? Will I actually be able to talk to a large bunch of strangers? Most importantly – is it any different from what I’ve done before? – Whatever it was, NYSF went above and beyond all of my expectations, and my initial doubts turned out to be completely unfounded.

Over two weeks between the 5th and 16th of January 2015, I experienced what is most definitely some of the best times of my life! From extremely fascinating lab visits and industry experiences that gave valuable insight into possible careers in Australia’s STEM fields, to activities that I’ve never considered, to gaining a lifelong network of friends from all over the country – NYSF was a journey of personal enlightenment and discovery.

When I was first informed that my application was successful, I was struck by heavy anxiety and doubt; I was suddenly going away to Canberra for two whole weeks by myself (the longest I’ve spent away from my family so far) and I was going to meet two hundred students from all over Australia – the majority of whom I have never met, and probably wouldn’t have ever met if I didn’t attend NYSF.

The biggest step in alleviating this initial nervousness was starting a correspondence with my buddy – he lives in a tiny town called Manildra in New South Wales. With a population of about 500 people, his achievements and attitude was highly inspirational for me, and it was an important wake-up call about the motivation of others. I shall take the lessons I learned from his dedication to heart, and all of the sudden, I have benefitted from NYSF before even starting the program.

NYSF

The Staffies

Oh wow what a paradigm shift my perception of them has been! They are honestly one of the most memorable parts of the entire experience – something which I cannot go into further detail without spoiling, but for prospective students I can say this: embrace everything new and let go your inhibitions. 

The NYSF program utilises past NYSF students as the staff, except they are called “Staffies” affectionately. Extremely enthusiastic (to the point of glorious ridiculousness) and highly motivated, they were the backbone of the entire experience. Always having our best interests at heart, they genuinely cared and showed maturity and competence well beyond their years; definitely a telling benefit of the NYSF right there.

Their cheerful personas serve as a counterpoint to the social awkwardness of all of the students there – anyone could ‘be themselves’ without fear of recrimination or judgement, because (as my floor Staffie explained) nobody can ever be as surprising as them. This allowed all of us to completely open up to each other extremely quickly. There was one particular transformation I experienced first-hand that was particularly startling – the quiet and unassuming boy I sat next to during the bus ride there turned into a bright, cheerful guy who became the life of the party.

The people – oh the people!

The sheer variety of students that were present never ceased to astound me – from places as far as Perth and Darwin, to Melbourne and Canberra itself, how amazing it was to speak to people whom I may have never met if it wasn’t for this brilliant program! Of course, not to mention the amazing real-life scientists that we had the privilege of meeting!

The highlight of the entire experience was meeting the diverse and extremely wide-ranging group of people that are NYSF students. In addition to the multitude of people from all over Australia, I was lucky enough to meet international students. I conversed at length with a girl from Fiji – school works differently over there, and she was just about to start studying medicine at University! I talked with another girl from Canada about maple syrup and provincial size differences of Canada.

In NYSF, students are placed into ‘Interest groups’ based on personal preferences. My group was named in memory of Howard Florey, and we focused mainly on Biology. Meeting a group of people with such similar interests to mine own was extremely motivating and encouraging! I would talk with them about future prospects and goals, which lent me a lot of insight into how my future could be!

In hindsight, I cannot imagine that I was able to get over my social anxiety so soon, but I realise now that I was able to converse with such a large group of people with such ease – such is the power that just being at NYSF brings – when everyone there is so friendly and welcoming (everyone is there to know YOU – everyone wants to build connections and wholesome relationships). All this over just TWO WEEKS!!!

Sessions and Workshops

But of course, the NYSF would be poorly named indeed without all the glorious and awesome science experiences that were there to enjoy!

Perhaps the highlight of the many lab visits I went on, was visiting a neuroscience lab that was performing very low-level basic research into the brain, by investigating the olfactory centre in mice. The techniques they use and the procedures they follow were as fascinating as they were thought-provoking. Here I had an important insight into the cutting edge of science; the frontier itself. I was shown a video of brain cells transmitting messages, which I found absolutely mind-blowing and transformative.

I gained insights into the importance of networking and developing a broad range of skills, from people that worked in the very fields that I am interested in.

There were of course the other highlights of the sessions, such as meeting the NYSF partners during Partner’s Day!

I was able to gain insight into careers and industry-based learning programs at university by talking with a representative from Glaxo-Smith-Kline (GSK, a pharmaceuticals company). There were representatives from Lockheed Martin (an engineering company and a defence contractor for the United States of America), CSIRO (premier research group of Australia), CSL (research group) and even the Grain Research and Development Corporation, among others.

With the immense knowledge, not just of science – but of people and myself, that I’ve accumulated from this program, I can proudly say that I am a changed person indeed!

Acknowledgements

I would never have been able to attend NYSF without the generous support of Rotary, particularly the Rotary Club of Wheelers Hill. Their large contribution was supplemented by the Rotary Clubs of Bendigo Strathdale, and the Rotary Club of Mordialloc. I am in your debt.

Rotary does a lot of work in Australia and internationally to help humanity. One of their most important (and I felt, unknown) efforts is the eradication of Polio from the world. They also work with disadvantaged young children from developing countries, to make a real difference. I believe wholeheartedly in their cause, and I have been volunteering my time on occasion for the Club of Wheelers Hill in order to raise money for their actions.

Finally, I would extend my gratitude towards John Monash Science School, which I represented at NYSF. I am grateful for my science teachers for endorsing me and for their enthusiasm and encouragement.

Please new students, just apply – if you are successful, there is always a way for you to go to this amazing experience. The wonderful people of Rotary Clubs are happy to help. You never know whether you can do it if you never even try.