I must have been bit by the bug of engineering when I was a child.
I still remember several some of the random, creative, and dangerous I got into as a child. Learning to siphon water in the sink; building a bow and arrow; building my first PC; I remember the overarching theme to my exploration was curiosity. I was always taking things apart, and trying my best to put them back together again. Sometimes I was successful, sometimes less so. Either way, it fueled my desire to learn more about the world around me.
I remember being a bright kid who was gifted in mathematics and sciences. In my boredom, I was not always the best student. But I was always addicted to solving and understanding. I loved science and math problems, and I quickly began tinkering with and breaking my computers. As I learned more about computer, machines, the natural world, and physics, I finally the topic that absolutely captured my attention: outer space. I was just astonished by the size of the universe beyond our grasp, and amazed that humankind was taking its first tentative steps to becoming an interplanetary species.
I was never really sure what it was about space travel that made me finally say “I want to be an astronaut when I grow up”. I think it was the requirement for intelligence and technical excellence and the thought of exploring an unknown so vast that few would ever truly experience it. When I was eating my freeze-dried astronaut ice cream and wandering around the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, I felt truly at home in the shuttle exhibit and underneath the Canadarm robotic arm.
The dream of making this happen was enticing, but motivating myself to take steps to better myself was difficult as a young man. I was still lazy due to the fact that I was naturally good at math and science; and I had never given serious thoughts to the intermediate steps required to get my career in gear. I distinctly remember the point where it already felt too late to join cadets. My parents were supportive of sports but were not interested in paying for flying lessons. I went into university in Engineering without much thought of what I wanted to do after I graduated. I plodded through my degree and 5 years later found myself in a respectable job. But it was a job without thrills. I was not challenged to improve my technical skills and I quickly fell into a rut. I was not sure what I was doing in this job, and not sure what my goals were for my career.
I was really spinning my wheels and trying to figure things out when I remembered what the nine-year-old version of me had breathlessly told a reporter at a LEGO robotics event: “I want to be an astronaut”. I didn’t even get the airtime to mention why, how, or when I would achieve this. Just that I wanted to fly in space. Someday. Any day.
I realized that it was a very unlikely career goal to fulfill but also something difficult for me to repress and ignore for the rest of my adult life. I’d be lying to myself to ignore it. Space was something that excited me since I was a child.
First thing I did was reviewed the basic screening job requirements. Applicants should have bachelor degree minimum in science or engineering. Check. Although I realized that my chemical engineering bachelor’s degree was not likely to be competitive all on its own. I did more research and read through the profiles of hundreds of Canadian Space Agency and NASA astronauts. What I found wasn’t overly encouraging: most of them had military background and were pilots, the vast majority were up to their eyeballs in PhDs in the most cutting edge engineering imaginable. I did a thorough analysis of the skill sets that most engineers brought into space industry and realized that mechanical, materials, and electronics were the largest fields. Having done a chemical engineering degree, I hoped that I was set for materials. The decision was whether to try and augment my mechanical or electrical skills next. I thought about this and was really not sure where to go with this. My bachelor’s degree had really not given me much depth in either of these topics. How would I be able to get into a master’s degree and work on either mechanical or electrical work?
I started cold calling and knocking on doors at professor’s offices at the University of Toronto. Most of them were quite welcoming, and frank in the advice. They wanted good marks, and they wanted past experience. I was looking for something like an aerospace materials master’s degree or something that would directly support aerospace and space industries. I realized that I could maybe get in with some of these professors but that I’d be very behind the eight-ball if I even got accepted.
At this point I was again wondering how I could break this problem down to make things a bit more bite-sized and achievable. I was unsure what the right trajectory was to get my career moving in the direction I wanted, but I knew I wanted to learn more astronaut related skills. I assumed this would start with electrical or mechanical schooling and work, and maybe move directly into aerospace industry someday.
Enter Peter Oakes. He was an external consultant working on the same project that I was working on in Toronto. As we made small talk and go to know each other, I realized what a wealth of knowledge he had on electrical engineering. He’d worked for years in industry and also tinkered in his spare time. I saw the Youtube videos he was making, the website he was running, and he showed me some of his past and present projects.
In one of our discussions, he suggested that I check out the site that he was an active contributor to, element14. He showed me the Holiday IOT lighting roadtest and eagerly suggested that I register and propose a project.
What a pivotal moment that was!
I was elated and ecstatic to later discover that I was going to be one of the lucky recipients of the test hardware. I still clearly remember receiving the packages and eagerly opening them. The excitement, the shiny new boards, the stickers. All of it was exciting. Until I had to make plans on how to actually put the hardware to work!
I had done a single course in circuits in undergrad and literally nothing else outside of that. I felt completely lost. It was my first time with the Arduino system and I was feeling very lost.
Peter saw my frustrations and helped get me on my feet, but explaining several things to me, and giving me some extra hardware to get myself started.
I finally started getting my feet and figuring out how to hook up basic components and get the code working. Get the first few sketches working elated me. It was amazing how versatile these little microcontrollers are. I could tweak any timing, any colour. I was hooked.
Being the Holiday Lights IOT challenge, I got many chances to get distracted by pretty lights.
I remember really struggling through the first review. I felt that I had moved mountains just learning to read the code and get things hooked up. I really enjoyed myself and felt that I had accomplished something. I was so happy to be part of an accepting and welcoming community that supported my small victories but also showcased mind-blowing projects put together by people like Peter and others in the group. The element14 community is really great in that respect. You can ogle other people’s projects and revel in their experience, and get ideas for future projects. Looking back on that experience from about 2 years ago, I remember so many terminologies that were just another language to me back then. Fast forward to now and some of them actually mean something to me finally. I’ve finally learned something!
This experience in element14 really helped to jumpstart my learning of programming and electronics. As this project wound down I went back into my career searching with renewed vigor. I found a professor working in a biomedical robotics lab and I realized that I would get an incredible selection of skills under his supervision. I could work on electronics, mechanical, and software all in one master’s degree. I still remember the incredible nervousness when I phoned him. He practically answered the call before it had a chance to rang and we quickly talked about me doing research in his lab.
This was it. This was really it. I was about to leave my job and go back to school. I was really scared.
But I was excited. I knew that this would move me in the direction of my career passions.
Next thing I knew I was moving across Canada to start a master’s degree.
One year later, I’m loving my degree, and still active in element14. I’ve learned much more about Arduino, and I’ve also picked up some Python programming, digital image processing, machine learning, electronics, and optics. I’m absolutely loving the new things I’m learning in this career.
Peter and element14 was really a catalyst to remind me to keep challenging myself and learning new things. It helped me to learn the skills that I am currently applying in my thesis research. I use the Arduino Uno I received in that roadtest in my master’s thesis prototype hardware.
By taking the leap and going back to school, I'm learning topics I love, met some amazing people, connected to more people in space industry, and even got involved in a space engineering club. We're now building cube satellite technology. We even launched a weather balloon recently. More microcontroller experience there!
I was bit by a bug of curiosity when I was very young. I loved taking things apart, and had a real love of the sciences. But I also bit by a bug when I first picked up that Arduino Uno. That bug was a reignited passion for electronics. I truly believe that element14, Peter, and that roadtest played a pivotal role to getting me to where I am today. It immersed me in a world of electronics and programming that I was previously too intimidated to delve into.
Thank you element14 and peteroakes for being such a life changing influence!