2021 Annual Review

Looking back on the 2021 year and beginning to write this annual letter, I realize how lucky I am. I am incredibly fortunate to be able to say that this year was the most transformative year of my life, and despite the pandemic, these transformations have bettered me, given me direction, and helped me to better understand myself. I spent quality time on things that were most important to me and for the most part I look back on this year with nothing but gratitude, clarity, and endearment.

Highlights of the Year:

  • Getting my debut novel, “Chronicles of Illusions: The Blue Wild” published
  • Speaking at conferences like Web Summit, Reuters IMPACT, and Microsoft Ignite
  • Developing my idea for a transparent and flexible solar panel
  • Interning with Pond Biomaterials and working in the Carleton lab on my bioplastic from duckweed
  • Working in the QD Solar lab on perovskite solar cells
  • Consulting for the United Nations
  • Being named one of Canada’s 100 most powerful women
  • Starting The Curiosity Podcast

Book Release

Ever since I was five years old, I’ve wanted to become a published author. I also had the goal of doing this before I turned 16. After getting about a hundred rejections on my novel, “Etched in Stars” a few years back, I was defeated but I went back to the drawing board, wrote “Chronicles of Illusions: The Blue Wild” in 2018, and continued my pursuit to become published. In 2020 I received a publishing contract, and this year, in February, my novel was released after working hands-on with a real publishing agency. Holding the book in my hands was honestly a bit surreal; I felt like I’d been trying to reach this objective for my entire life, and here we were.

My publishing agency was European so my novel was distributed to all the major book chains across the continent like WHSmith, Waterstones, and Barnes and Nobles, but one of my dreams had always been to walk into Chapters and see my book on the shelves. So, I reached out to Indigo and after a few weeks my novel was in their index. It has been a great experience, but it’s not over yet — I am trying to boost my current sales to get out a sequel in the next year that I wrote in 2020. “Chronicles of Illusions: The Blue Wild” has placed on a few Amazon bestseller lists, but still I want to keep pushing to get these sales up. My sales were not as high as I would have initially — and ambitiously — hoped, but I have a few interviews in the new year that I have set up and hope to maintain my bookselling.

Signing 10 of my books the day I got them into Chapters!

Focus Structure for the Win

In 2021 I continued my work at The Knowledge Society (TKS) which I had joined in September 2020. Something that TKS really pushes is building projects. They provide what is called a “focus structure”, where you choose a topic and do a “learn”, AKA write a technical but still higher level article, and then either do two replicates (replicate projects that have already been built to help you build your skills) or you do an “apply” (similar to a replicate) followed by a “review” (where you write a review paper going super technical and in depth into a specific aspect of your topic). Then, the final stage is the “create” or “idea” phase where you come up with something novel respective to your field. This structure, I’ve realized, is actually pretty amazing. Learning, then doing deep research and experimentation, then coming up with something new.

My first “focus” was fusion energy. I had finished my learn and replicates by December 2020, and therefore going into 2021, my priority was my “create”. I was mentored by some amazing women at Commonwealth Fusion Systems and researched high temperature superconductors (HTS), an important part of fusion reactors. I started to brainstorm potential ideas but soon realized that coming up with good, concrete ideas is really hard! For a few months I was playing with an idea using graphene to enhance the strength of HTS tapes, but every time I would go on a call with an expert, they would ask me, “have you considered x, y, and z?” And honestly, I didn’t really have the knowledge or background to be able to answer such questions.

So what did I do? I actually began a new focus in nanotech to avoid my problems of not knowing what to do. I absolutely do not regret doing this, because this focus was actually a huge accelerator for me to where I am and what I am doing now, but I will reflect on this in the next section. When I was done my nanotech focus, I was back with fusion and still had no clue what to do. What I realized is this: sometimes, it’s okay to pivot. That does not mean giving up, it just means that perhaps you need to look at something from a new angle.

I came up with my idea by looking through all the articles I had written on Medium, and that’s when I came across an article I had written on solar sails for rockets. And that’s when I thought, what if I could create a solar sailed rocket that was fusion propelled? I worked on this for a month, formed a concrete idea, got some validation from experts, and finally finished my focus. My takeaway was that I had been overcomplicating this. I didn’t have to have the most game-changing best idea in the world; I just needed to put into practice ideation formulation, create content around it, and learn, and that’s exactly what I ended up doing.

Drawing of my proposed rocket

Realizing the Difference Between Ideation and Building

Doing my nanotech focus was riveting. I explored quantum dots (QDs), graphene, and even graphene quantum dots (GQDs), and I wrote my first review paper on the application of QDs in photovoltaics. I had initially written a paper that was okay, but not exceptional, but then the co-founder of TKS, Navid Nathoo, called me out and said, “This is pretty bad.” Now, that wasn’t fun to hear, but it pushed me to go out of my comfort zone, learn how to read real scientific papers, and then write my own.

After this, I started looking into how I could create a transparent and flexible solar panel leveraging nanomaterials. I thought it would be cool to have a solar cell that could go on any surface, and through mentorship, going on calls with experts, and getting feedback, I formulated an idea to meet my vision. I planned to go intern with QD Solar, a quantum dot solar cell company, under my mentor Armin Fischer but there was a COVID outbreak. I was pretty sad but when he asked me if I could come in the fall I asked him if he thought it would ever be possible for me to come build out my design in the fall, and he said yes. That’s when I started researching everything a lot more in depth, and now nearly ten months later I look back on myself in February and think, I knew a really minimal amount.

3D printed model of my idea for a transparent and flexible solar panel

Ideation is so much different than building. With an idea you can say “use graphene electrodes” but with a product you have to understand every aspect — first, how you’re actually going to get it, but also how much it’ll cost on a small and large scale, how to synthesize it, how to deposit it, etc. There is so much to take into consideration! My idea now is vastly different from that original idea. In fact, I’m no longer even using graphene and have pivoted to silver nanowires!

Last week I interned with QD Solar for a week to see how everything works in a solar lab setting, and in the new year I’ll hopefully be able to start working on my idea. Even working in the lab for 7 days (I got to work at both MaRS and The University of Toronto), I realized how different something on paper is compared to it actually being in person, right in front of you. I got to see perovskite deposition using a slot die machine, quantum dot synthesis, how perovskite ink is made, how to spin-coat HTLs and ETLs, how to test for the crystallinity of a perovskite using an XRD, and how to calculate the efficiency of a solar cell using an IV curve and fill factor. Seeing things in person is much much different from reading a procedure! Takeaway: ideation is really different from building an actual product. You can’t build every idea you come up with, because to do something well takes a ton of time, resources, and effort.

A picture of one of the 20 substrates I solar taped during my week at QD Solar

Duckweed Era

In June, I started interning at Pond Biomaterials after being mentored by the CEO for about a month. I had meetings twice a week with the CTO and lead chemist, developing an idea for a bioplastic from duckweed. I had initially (before the internship) been looking into algae when doing market research, but I realized that duckweed has all the same benefits and more, whilst being cheaper to work with. I had a few struggles. The first was actually getting the duckweed. Funded by Pond, I initially bought some duckweed to grow in my backyard, and although the duckweed doubled, it was no where near the amount I needed. I got duckweed from the local pet store, growing it in any buckets or basins I could find, but still, nowhere near 5 kilos. I had to zoom out and think hard about what I could do, and that’s when I realized — animal farms. They would have ponds with extra-nutritious water for duckweed to grow in. I reached out to every farm in Ottawa and one responded, saying they had acres of duckweed. Hence, I got my 5 kilos! This was a big deal for me and the first step to creating my bioplastic.

I reached out to universities in Ottawa to see if I could work in their lab, but I had no luck. It was my chem teacher who put me in contact with the head of the Department of Chemistry, and I started to work at Carleton University with a grad student, Atilla. I was super excited and very grateful to my chem teacher! But to be honest, things moved a lot slower than I thought. The first step was getting the starch out, which I thought I’d be able to do by the end of October, but this is not what happened.

I had tried an extraction procedure in my kitchen which, big surprise, failed because I didn’t have the necessary equipment, but now I had done a full chemical procedure and still the starch didn’t come out.

A picture of my two failed starch experiments (left was in my kitchen, right was in thelab)

A few weeks ago I realized I don’t need to extract the starch but instead degrade it, so I’m going to proceed with an enzymatic saccharification procedure in the new year. I didn’t hit my goal of getting the starch out of my duckweed, but with failure comes learning and I am determined to degrade this starch in January. There are so many variables to take into account when in a lab, so you really have to make sure that you have super specific procedures and some patience!

My ultimate goal is to be able to incorporate my projects into real products to have real impact. Pond pitched my idea to Adidas this year, and having my bioplastic go into something like a shoe would be a dream!

Podcast

Over the summer I started The Curiosity Podcast with one of my best friends from TKS, Kristina Arezina. This has been such a great way to increase my outreach and just reach out to the coolest people out there to have 45-minute conversations. We’ve had guests from companies like the UN, Microsoft, Google, Twitter, and NASA, as well as those from technology startups. We’ve also gotten to work on marketing, design, and video editing along the way, so this has been a forcing function to pick up new skill sets! I think Kristina and I have also really improved as actual podcast hosts, but we do want to further our outreach to our audience which we’ll be working on in the new year.

Public Speaking

At the beginning of the year I liked public speaking, but I would still get really nervous about presentations. My first experience on a ‘world class stage’ was virtual when I got the opportunity to talk on a Microsoft panel about women in STEM. It was a great conversation but I kid you not, I was so so nervous. The panel was in the afternoon, and the whole morning I couldn’t eat I was so stressed. It ended up going well, though, not going to lie, I was really sweaty after the panel finished. I still get nerves around some presentations and speaking events, but I’ve definitely improved and those improvements have come from practice.

Because I wanted to increase my media presence and outreach while simultaneously getting to practice sharing my work through public speaking, I would reach out to podcast hosts and see if I could hop on their shows. I actually got a pretty high hit rate. I went on around ten podcasts, some higher profile than others, but it taught me to speak on the spot. As the year progressed I began to be invited to shows and panels and because I had done so many podcasts, I didn’t get that nervous anymore. I even got paid to speak on a Scouts Canada panel, and moderate a panel at Ignite Digital! I spoke at Reuters IMPACT, and then I spoke at Web Summit. These have been such fun experiences and although I definitely still get nerves, I feel like I’ve improved a lot and become a better speaker overall.

Lisbon

Web Summit was one experience I want to highlight in my annual review, because it was one of the best weeks I’ve ever experienced. I think there were two sides to it for me; the first was learning how to network at a real in-person conference. At first I wasn’t sure how I was just going to go up to somebody and introduce myself but I quickly realized this is what conferences are all about! I met so many amazing people working at companies from technology startups to big corporations like KPMG. One night I got to eat at the Royal Palace and sat next to the CEO of The Global Citizen Forum, as well as the co-founder of an MIT spinoff startup, The Butterfly Network. When I was at the Deep Tech stage I met an engineer at NASA backstage. The other aspect of Web Summit which was awesome was the people I went with. I went with ten other kids who weren’t from my city and who I didn’t really know beforehand, but we all became such a tight knit community. Getting to stay in a big Airbnb together for a week, stay up until 2 AM having deep conversations, and experience Lisbon together was unforgettable!

However, something I struggled with throughout this and even a month prior was homesickness. I have always gotten homesick; when I was young, I would lie about not being able to do sleepovers so I wouldn’t have to spend the night. The longest I had been away from home had been three nights for school, and so being away for eight nights in another country without my family was really nerve-racking for me. I was stressed about it weeks before I left, and I was homesick the first few days, but I got over it. I realized everything comes to an end, and the week I was in Lisbon was going to end, too — so it was up to me to spend it the way I wanted to spend it. I focused on being present and having fun, and I would of course keep in touch with my parents as well. Really, in the grand scheme of things, it was nothing to be stressed about at all.

Media Presence

I started “building my brand” in late 2020 when I realized that to network, especially when you’re young, it’s helpful to have some kind of media presence. Mentorship has been absolutely integral to my projects and overall progress, and I would not be doing anything I am doing without other peoples’ help. For example, if no one ever responded to my messages requesting 20 minutes of their time so I could ask them for feedback on my ideas, I would never be able to get any validation. If the COO of QD Solar had never responded to my LinkedIn message, I never would have gotten to work in his lab, and if the CEO of Pond had never responded, I never would have gotten to intern at his company. But, at the beginning, my hit rate was very low and this was likely because I had little content to show for myself as well as low media presence. Thus, this was important for my networking journey and I spent a lot of time this year building my brand across LinkedIn, Twitter, and my personal website.

As the year went on, I started to get some media attention which mainly began in the late summer. I was first featured in an Ottawa Life Magazine article, and this led to two CTV News interviews, one local and one national, as well as a few Globe and Mail features. I began to go on high profile panels and radio stations. Then I had the honour of being named one of Canada’s top 100 most powerful women which was surreal. I got to attend the galas and meet other incredible female game changers. Someone I met was from TELUS, and she asked me to be a guest speaker for one of her board meetings. I was featured in the National Post, and then received the Pollution Probe Award. A few days ago, I was notified that I was named one of Canada’s top 25 under 25 environmentalists which will go public next month.

Now this has all been super exciting and I am so grateful for the attention, but I’ve also realized that these awards and media features are not defining. They do not mean success. I am still completely a work in progress and nowhere near where I want to be. I have yet to build out my ideas, and yet to really create something in the sustainability sector, and this is what I am striving to do.

Relationships

I feel like this year my relationships are the strongest they’ve been. I’m very close with my family in general, and because COVID forced everyone to be at home I spent even more time with them which was nice because my sister Sophia is leaving for university next year (sadness). Things definitely weren’t always perfect at home but for the most part things were good, and my dad, Sophia, and I had our Friday movie nights, as well as daily family dinners where we sat around the table and reflected. My whole family in general are all so supportive and we kept in touch through COVID, from grandparents to cousins to aunts.

Things were mostly great with my school friends, too — in middle school there was a ton of drama, especially because I go to an all girls as you can try to imagine, but this year things have been pretty mellow and I have strong relationships with my friend group. Even though we’re not all in the same class, we always eat lunch together and usually hang out after school on Fridays.

Because of TKS, I now have other absolutely incredible friends as well. It is so inspiring to be surrounded by such ambitious and good people, and the friends I’ve made at TKS are lifelong. Last year I became super good friends with Kristina, Kimberly, and Laura, and although they’re no longer in TKS, we meet up for dinner around every month or two and stay in touch. I have new friends in Activate as well (which is the second year program of TKS) and meet weekly with Manasi, Sriya, and Alisha who are all just total bosses and such supportive people. On top of that there are the people I went to Web Summit with who are all awesome beyond words! Lastly, there are my close mentors like Ian Lockhart, Armin Fischer, Thomas Pederson, Martin Jensen, and Tobias Bechgaard who my work would be impossible without.

My Health

This year school sports teams were basically all shut down, but I was playing competitive badminton in grade 9 which was perfect timing. I had three practices a week, so I played around 6 hours, and it was lots of fun! After the summer I made it to the next competitive level but realized that badminton was not something I wanted to pursue as much as things like STEM, and this was going to become unrealistic to balance. I stopped playing but promised myself I would keep active, and I’m overall happy with how I’ve done. I do Peloton workouts usually 4–5 times a week, and am on nearly every school sports team there is.

For my physical wellbeing, sleep is super important and I get a minimum of 8.5 hours of sleep every night, so I’ve been pretty happy with this schedule. I’ve been eating well and am now trying to cut down on my red meat consumption for environmental reasons. I am super picky with food, I’ve also realized, so that might be something I need to work on because it’s not great to hate 50% of vegetables. And cilantro, of course. #bancilantro

There’s also mental health to take into account, because health is something very multi-faceted. The pandemic took a big toll on mental health for many this year, but I am very fortunate to say that I feel like mentally I have been thriving. Yes, there are definitely off days, and sometimes off weeks, but that is a part of happiness — there are ups and downs, and that is natural. The opposite of happiness, I learned in a seminar at the top 100 gala, is not sadness, but apathy. Something I have been working on and continue to work on is to not have too sharp ups and downs; eg, be super happy about something and then something small happens and I’m now super sad. But overall, I’m happy with where my mental health is at and I feel really good.

Content Production and Consumption

At the beginning of the year I was producing a lot of content. I would usually write one article a week and I think that was great for me at the time, but after summer my content production has been lower (if you look at my last article, for example, it was a while back). However, I don’t think this is something I’m necessarily unhappy with. I think I was in full exploration mode in grade 9 and I’m definitely still in exploration mode now too, but I need to prioritize my projects and research. Sometimes writing articles will make sense, but what doesn’t make sense is to write an article for the sake of writing an article. My content production has shifted slightly; now it is more in the form of podcast episodes which I release every second Thursday, as well as posts on social media, interviews, and presentations.

In terms of content consumption, I didn’t read as many books as I wanted to this year. I feel like I didn’t make the time for it and got caught up in reading scientific papers as opposed to fiction. I used to be a really huge reader and I think that was a good thing, so this coming year I want to read more books. What I’ve noticed is that my attention span with non-fiction books is very low. Even great books like Sapiens, I struggle to focus on, and these are the things that make people smarter so I want to work on that.

My music consumption has increased (Spotify hours = skyrocketed) which I find actually really helps my mood. My favourite albums of the year were Olivia Rodrigo’s and Doja Cat’s. I of course also watched some Netflix, and I don’t think that has to be a bad thing if it’s in small doses! I watch a movie or show every Friday with my dad and sister, and sometimes if I finish my work at 9:30 PM on weekdays I’ll watch a show before bed. My favourite shows have been Atypical, Jane the Virgin (which I re-watched), and New Girl (which I re-watched). I couldn’t say why I still watch Riverdale, but I do (would not recommend).

School

Lastly, there’s school, and this is interesting to write about for me because there’s a lot to reflect on. Education is something I do think is very important, and it will always be one of my first priorities. Nonetheless, school is definitely flawed in some ways. I’ve lost interest in certain classes that I’m not sure I gain much value from, and school does take up a huge portion of time. There are the 8 hours during the weekdays, and then there’s the time taken into account for homework. I’ve always gotten very stressed about grades and put pressure on myself to consistently get the best grades — ever since fifth grade, I feel like I’ve been trying to “hack” the system. Also ever since the fifth grade, if I get a bad mark or something doesn’t go as planned in school, my reaction is not optimal.

When I was in Lisbon this year, on the fourth day I received a bad grade on a history assignment and was pretty much distraught. It was the lowest grade I’ve gotten since grade 7, and I emailed my teacher to try to see if I could do a make-up assignment, but he said no. So I was left with this grade and just had to deal with it, and it may have been a good thing because I had to learn how to cope when things didn’t go to plan, and that is — for better or for worse — what life is all about! I do think I get way too stressed in general about school, like when I go into a test or in-class assignment, and I want to reduce these unnecessary nerves. I used to totally overstudy for assessments to the extent where it was a waste of time, and I feel like I still do this in some form but I’ve gotten much better. Next year, I want to get even better! Finding the perfect balance between projects and school is still something I can improve on.

Side Projects

Some other projects/activities that I worked on this year that I am proud of are:

Goals for 2022

AI focus: Coding is something that is incredibly important and will only grow in importance as time passes — but to be honest, I’m not the best coder right now. This year I spent time learning HTML and CSS which I understand fairly well now and need for updating my website, but I want to become competent in Python. I started the CS50 open course at Harvard which has been valuable, but I think what will be best for me is building projects. This is what I plan to do next year! I want to go deep into AI and build a project in a specific sect like ML for energy systems.

Build proof of concepts: I’ve spent a lot of time this year coming up with ideas within sustainability, getting validation, and writing proposals, but now I want to really build products. By the end of 2022, my objective is to have proof of concepts for both my bioplastic and solar cell built out (fingers crossed that COVID permits). I also want to learn more about the business side of innovation, as so far I’ve been primarily focusing on R&D.

Consume better-for-me media: I feel like I consume more media on platforms like looking at photos on Instagram than something like Twitter where I could be reading threads by people like Elon Musk. There’s a lot to learn out there and I want to start consuming healthier media that will bring me more value, like Twitter threads but also more books and podcasts. Some books on my reading list are When Breath Becomes Air, The Girl With 7 Names, Atomic Habits, and Malibu Rising.

Minimize unnecessary stress: I find that I often cause myself unnecessary stress, for example, if I know I have a science test in two weeks, it’s going to be on my mind until I take the test. It will constantly be on my radar, and the day before that stress will skyrocket, and the hour before, my heart will be at 90 BPM. Then when I go into the test my heart is over 100 BPM. I think I need to start trusting myself more, and going into something knowing that I have prepared! This unnecessary stress also applies to things like presentations.

Grow The Curiosity Podcast: I am honestly so excited for our upcoming podcast episodes. We already have recordings stacked until May with people like the director of telecom at Google, the president of Carbon Cure, and the CFO of General Fusion. Kristina and I plan to keep growing our podcast, expanding our outreach, and working on making this the best that it can be.

Be more patient: I’ve noticed throughout this year I can be very impatient in various ways. One example is when I’m working on projects in lab settings — I am so determined to get something done, I usually think it’ll take a much shorter time than it does because there are so many unaccounted for variables. I’m also impatient at home sometimes and when I’m tired I can become hangry. I want to be more stoic, which I’ve been working on this year but want to continue and strengthen next year. I want to be fully present, have confidence in the journey, and not fast forward to results!

And that is a wrap on 2021 🎉

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Naila Moloo

Naila Moloo

210 Followers

15 y/o with the goal of playing a role in ending our global consumption of fossil fuels