If you plan to do research, go to Canada. There is something oddly satisfying about sipping a Tim Hortons’ French Vanilla coffee while reading literature for your project on the grassy lawns of the university, skirting green pellets of goose poop and feeling that the Canadian student experience has been nailed to perfection. Besides this rather profound justification for pursuing the research experience in Canada, the fact that it is a growing hub of research (particularly in the Social Sciences) is certainly one of the most compelling reasons to go there. I had the opportunity to spend three months of this summer doing research in the Department of Geography and Environmental Management, University of Waterloo, through the Mitacs Globalink scholarship.
Despite a highly stressful Visa application process, I huffed and puffed my way to Waterloo in one piece in mid-May, when the weather was still rainy, sunny, rainy again and undecided about what form it would take on a daily basis. Two words of advice: one, apply for your Visa well in advance (as soon as you get your acceptance letter); two, Canadian weather is unpredictable so please do not pack like you intend to visit your friendly Eskimo down the road. In fact, summers tend to get rather hot in Ontario, and if you don’t have some sort of ventilation system in your apartment, you will probably come back to India slightly melting and runny around the edges.
I was given accommodation about two kilometres away from the University of Waterloo in a nice townhouse residence that I shared with two other people from India. There were enough Indians on the Mitacs scholarship in this particular residence to start our own cricket team, but one of the most interesting aspects of this internship is that it allows you to meet people from around the world. We had fellow Vietnamese, Chinese and Mexican interns, for example, and so the numerous potluck dinners over twelve weeks were a gastronomical experience.
My office was a fifteen-minute walk from home, and sometimes we would take the bus, but the tickets are ridiculously expensive unless you have student ID. The arduous trek to work was thus often a group effort, tackled after a hearty breakfast because of the length and undulation of the road leading to the University. I shared my office with some graduate students from my department, but I had more than enough desk space to artistically lay out my laptop, some books and my daily dose of French Vanilla coffee. The office was also conveniently located near the impressive Dana Porter library (fondly called the “Sugarcube” by the students of Waterloo for its likeness). This library may be my favourite part of the research I did this summer – I have never seen a Social Sciences library as well-stocked, well-organized and expansive as this one. Floor after blessed floor of Social Sciences heaven made me want to pitch a small tent, camp out in a small corner and never leave.
The work I did was challenging and exciting to me, well-aided by the ample assets of this library. Focusing primarily on how to understand food systems (activities from the production to the consumption of food) in the Global South, my work was to use existing frameworks to analyse their functioning, and transpose them in a way that makes sense for contexts of different food systems such as the ones we find in India. Using a hugely popular and celebrated framework from the Global North, I tried to understand the problems that using such a tool of analysis would create in adapting it to the Global South context. Consequently, I attempted to analyse how the indicators and structures of this framework may be changed in order to better fit the context of a food system such as the one in Andhra Pradesh. This research fed into a larger engagement my professor and her team are having with the concept of food system assessments, and the report I produced at the end of this three-month period was a small component of this engagement.
My work involved grappling with challenging questions and gave me insights into how research is done outside of the sometimes shoddy term paper-type research we do in Insti. Weekly meetings with my professor helped immensely in giving me perspective and feedback on how my work was shaping up, and my final product was definitely moulded by the useful discussions that we had.
Besides the work itself, which I found immensely satisfying, one of my favourite parts of the internship was the opportunity to travel. Contrary to the erroneous image of Canada pushed by social media, the country is endowed with great cultural, natural and ethnic diversity. Each province is unique in its composition and the enormity of Canadian territory gave me the sense of traversing a breath-taking expanse – one that I have not felt in urban India. There were times when I would walk down a one-kilometre stretch and not come across a single other being, and this kind of space was beautiful and liberating.
At the same time, numerous pockets of the country are packed with a vibrancy that is hard to miss. For example, Toronto (just over an hour away from Waterloo) is a great melange of Chinese, Indian and Turkish food joints and skyscrapers and synagogues and parks melting into the backdrop of the lives of people from all over the world who have made the city their home.
One particular long weekend, I had the opportunity to travel to Ottawa and Montreal. This is a trip I am not likely to forget anytime soon. In five days, I visited the Canadian Parliament building, watched boats of the rich and fancy float through the Rideau Canal in Ottawa, walked through Montreal’s dynamic China Town, sampled Canadian poutine (fries, gravy and cheese curds – yes, it is as unhealthy as it sounds), took a walking tour of Old Montreal and lived the long-awaited dream of attending the Montreal Jazz Festival. This last experience of attending the festival made every goose poop pellet I ever stepped on worthwhile and somehow meaningful in the larger scheme of things. I got to feel, see and hear art forms from all around the world, from Armenian folk music to a one-man blues band to an American Dixieland covers troupe. I stayed with a friend at a youth hostel here, and the hostelling culture certainly lends itself to traveling students. These hostels are safe, clean, economical and always have something fun planned for their residents to do every evening. Taking the Greyhound buses from city to city gave me a glimpse into Canadian lifestyles, and this traveling experience made my stay all the more worthwhile.
At the end of the three-month internship, I was pretty sad to leave. I absolutely loved the kind of work I was doing, and the lifestyle there put me at ease immediately. Even the banalities of grocery-shopping and cooking for myself were somehow more exciting than I had thought possible. The thought that gives me hope, however, is that Mitacs offers a ten thousand-dollar scholarship to students who go back to Canada to do their graduate studies. Traveling, excellent avenues for research, the best coffee chains and the nation of the most courteous people on the planet (bus drivers here actually care enough about your day to wait for your answer) are all exceedingly persuasive reasons in making me want to go back for graduate studies. So if this isn’t convincing enough to make you want to do research in Canada, you must be a fun-hating, coffee-despising, goose-fearing misanthrope. Good luck with that, comrade.