Hi! My name is Stephanie Hillier.
I’m a dentist working at Sydney Family Dental in Sydney, NS. But I wasn’t one of those kids that always dreamed of being a dentist. My love for science and Cape Breton Island ultimately lead me to choose dentistry. Now I love my job too! I am thankful for it everyday.
So my best advice to students is this: Explore everything you can. Don’t be afraid to re-evaluate your dreams. It might take you somewhere even better.
My journey through science began at my kitchen table in 2002. I was doing homework for my grade 9 science class. Up until that point, the things I learned at school were mostly factual. Whales are mammals. Jupiter is a gas planet. Our bodies have tiny cells. Solutes dissolve in solvents. But on this particular evening, I learned about how the sky makes lightning and how photocopiers work – and that was my first experience with the joy of an “aha!” moment. I still remember how it felt. I learned not just what electrons are, but how they work. I thought it was awesome that something so simple could explain incredible natural weather phenomena. It was even better that we could use that knowledge to improve our experience in the universe. That’s really what science is all about – asking questions, figuring out how to determine the answers, and using the answers to develop new things.
In high school I thought I would study biology in university; but my introductory biology course at Dalhousie was boring. I was uninspired. “Biology is just memorization”, I thought. In second year I decided I would major in physics because it was more fun, haha. But while I thoroughly enjoyed my first year physics class, I came to realize quantum physics wasn’t for me. Back to biology. It was the best decision I have ever made.
That’s the thing about introductory courses. They are meant to establish a foundation upon which you will build the rest of your education. It’s background information. It’s okay to feel uninspired. My introductory biology course didn’t delve deep into the fascinating details of life because it didn’t have time. It did, however, provide a brief lesson in the general principles of biology. Just like it was supposed to, haha. Knowing and understanding those principles would serve me well down the road.
In third year I really came alive as a scientist. “Biology” became just an umbrella term for other fascinating topics: immunology, biochemistry, genetics, vertebrate design, transgenic organisms, neuroscience. I loved it. But I also loved astronomy. And math. Who knew learning could be so exciting?
I went on to complete an honours research project on bone development under the supervision of Dr. Tamara Franz-Odendaal; she is now the Atlantic Chair for Women in Science and Engineering (WISE). The honours thesis delayed my graduation by one year, but I never once regretted that. It was an incredible opportunity to explore the world of research and try to figure out my place in it. Plus I got to work on a research project that no one had done before and contribute to the world’s knowledge! How cool is that?
Of course university isn’t ALL fun. As I explored a diverse collection of studies, I had to figure out where this variety of interests would take me career-wise, and how that career could allow me to return to Cape Breton to build a life. This search lead me to dentistry. As a dentist I spend my days surrounded by science – microbiology, mechanisms of disease, materials science, classical mechanics, computer technology, public health – and I like using it to help patients understand their oral health. But there are a few other perks to being a dentist. I have fun with the artistry in building smiles. I enjoy meeting the people of my community. Soon I will be proudly running a small business and employing local people.
In closing, I’d like to say that education is not just a means to employment. You will build skills along the way that are valuable in the workforce, but education is as much about personal growth as it is about professional growth. It’s about self-discovery and empowerment. You will find joy in places you didn’t know would bring you joy. You will learn about your personal values. You will meet amazing people doing inspiring things who will help guide you on your path. So act intentionally. Explore everything you can – so that one day, when you are ready, you can build a life that suits both your interests AND your needs.
That was my key to happiness.