Back to the Start

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We hope you enjoy the process as much as we do and join us on this journey. Here it is:

Back to the Start

(how and why I ended up in Chemical Engineering)

by: Nancy T Li

How did you find your passion? Maybe, it grew from a small seed, and before you even realized it, it became the ultimate goal for you. Maybe, it arrived beyond the deadline imposed by the authorities in your life. Maybe, it found you. Regardless, it must not have been easy. With all the uncertainties that revolve around the life you may one day start living, can we really just choose one passion? How can we ever be sure?

Really, all we can hope for is one trigger incident that whispers, very quietly as if it’s signing its surrender: “yes, I could do this forever”. And as we embark on that journey, trying to figure out what it is in the world of possibilities that will pull us out of bed in the morning and force us to question the laziness that inhabits our minds, how do we know that what we choose now will be what we wanted to have chosen, forever?

This is me, in the laboratory, synthesizing a 9m string of continuous nylon — also known as the “nylon rope trick”.

Here is mine.

I study Chemical Engineering at the University of Toronto, hoping to (very soon) pursue a Minor study in Biomedical Engineering and acquire an Engineering Business Certificate. And to me, this has been the chosen path for a long time. I could trace how I decided on this specific study of choice in a few ways, but I like to think that it was due to a research essay I wrote for a competition when I was 16.

Of 4 topics, I chose “the impact of polymers on nanotechnology”. I wrote about nanoparticles in oral insulin delivery, to increase the quality of life for patients with diabetes mellitus. At the peak arrogance of my youth, I thought that I would choose the most “difficult” topic, attack the most “obscure” area of interest, and be very “focused”. I wanted a challenge.

Like many peers of mine, I nurtured a tendency to make comparisons to others in almost every imaginable way. I would compare my intellect, appearance, popularity, creativity, etc. And for every comparison, there was someone who seemed better. Fast forward through some months of an over-dramatized need to excel, the essay became my next project. I wrote drafts until my friends, parents, and chemistry teacher handed it back to me with no more suggestions.

In the end, there was no epiphany, or seemingly magical conclusion to be drawn. I got the recognition that I felt was deserved. I loved learning about the interconnections between chemistry and biology. I loved the process of writing, editing, and researching. With those 13 drafts, I even started to love making citations.

What happened next was a snowball effect of opportunity. Opportunity to dissect what laboratories are about, to take a look at the “behind the scenes” footage. I was given a backstage pass to the science department with a part-time job as a Laboratory Assistant/ Technician. While the job consisted of hard work and dedication, to me it was just rewarding to work with all of my teachers. There’s a certain tranquility that comes with counting bottles of copper sulphate anhydrous salts, shelving textbooks, and cleaning glassware. Mostly, I just enjoyed seeing the intricate balance of all the chaos that a laboratory can be. I could tell when a balance wasn’t calibrated or someone was going to use the wrong type of soap and I could correct for it. The level of control that I gripped in my glove-covered hands was addictive. And, as if it were an infection, my need for that sort of control began to spread toward my courses. Biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, computer science, English, and Art.

At that point in life, Art and English were the courses I thought I loved; they were a breath of fresh air when I was drowning in numbers. But the control that I wanted couldn’t be attained in English or in Art. I couldn’t force myself to be talented or creative at all times of the day. I couldn’t force my expression to be accurate (more on this coming soon). But with the technical courses, I could try to.

So, why Chemical Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, and Engineering Business? Because in each, I get to exercise focused control (and now I sound like Christian Grey). Engineering is very much about understanding and controlling a process. When the world’s uncertainties bring me down, I can refuse to be affected by them, much like a system assumed to be independent.

Going back to the start, the experience that gave me what I have today:
Nancy T Li

Nanotechnology is a rapidly maturing and expanding field of study that deals with minute nanomaterials, quantum mechanical theory and can be applied to many growing industries (Paul, Robeson, 2008). Using polymeric materials in conjunction with nanotechnology has the potential to improve conventional devices and systems in many fields, such as medicine (Roco, 2006). One of the applications of nanotechnology in medicine is to improve drug delivery for patients suffering from diabetes mellitus by using synthesized polycaprolactone nanoparticles to encase insulin for oral drug administration (Damge, Maincent, Ubrich, 2007).

Since the discovery of insulin in 1922 by Sir Fredrick Banting and Charles Best, all types of diabetes mellitus have become treatable(Nobel Media, 2012), but scientists are now focusing their attention on improving the methods in which medication is administered in order to increase patients’ quality of life (Subramani, Sarvadaman, Hosseinkhani, 2012). One of these methods is oral insulin delivery which involves the ingestion of insulin to treat hyperglycaemia (Arya, Kumar, Pokharia, Tripathi, 2008). The problem with this process is that insulin is easily degraded in the stomach by gastric enzymes before reaching the bloodstream (Subramani, Sarvadaman, Hosseinkhani, 2012). In order for the insulin to bypass the enzymes in the stomach, the insulin must be encapsulated in a protective casing (Arya, Kumar, Pokharia, Tripathi, 2008). According to Subramani (2009), the need to inject insulin could be eliminated and replaced with this painless, convenient and efficient procedure.

Polymeric biodegradable nanoparticles are suitable for designing such protective casings. One of these polymeric substances is polycaprolactone (Damge, Maincent, Ubrich, 2007). Polycaprolactone is 100% biodegradable, has a melting point of approximately 65 degrees Celsius and 67% crystallinity (Averous, 2009). After being administered to rats in a series of experiments, polycaprolactone proved to be anti-inflammatory and lacked signs of rejection (D’Mello, Das, Das, 2009). Once ingested, the insulin is protected by the polymer membrane, and will not degrade until it reaches the bloodstream (Subramani, Sarvadaman, Hosseinkhani, 2012). In order to allow intestinal uptake of the drug, scientists utilize a polycationic acrylic polymer, which have mucoadhesive properties (Damge, Maincent, Ubrich, 2007). A rise in blood glucose level would trigger a sensor on the membrane resulting in the polymer beginning to decompose and will eventually be reduced to carbon dioxide and water through the Krebs cycle (Subramani, Sarvadaman, Hosseinkhani, 2012). After the polymeric membrane degrades, the insulin releases into the patient’s bloodstream and begins to target the glucose (Subramani, Sarvadaman, Hosseinkhani, 2012).

There are many benefits to using chemically synthesized polymers instead of naturally occurring polymers, one of which is the fact that these nanoparticles can have engineered specificity (Subramani, 2009).These nanostructures are processed to attack a specialized target with a high concentration of medication and are a potential mechanism in which scientists can encase the insulin for better drug delivery (Subramani, Sarvadaman, Hosseinkhani, 2012). Recent experiments conducted on diabetic rats by administering encapsulated insulin within a nanostructure prepared with polycaprolactone and a polycationic acrylic polymer have proven to be highly efficient when preserving the insulin and lowering glucose levels (Damge, Maincent, Ubrich, 2007).

As suggested by Roco (2006), the process of rearranging atoms and molecules at this scale leads to newly formed properties, resulting in various challenges for scientists. One of the major obstacles is the uncertainty of the human body’s reaction to the nanoparticles (Arya, Kumar, Pokharia, Tripathi, 2008). If not excreted, the nanoparticles can potentially accumulate and lead to organ failure (Subramani, 2009). Once scientists overcome the obstacles that are posed by this process, which is suggested to be within the next 5 to 10 years, patients can begin treatment with this method (Subramani, 2009). This innovative technology can be applied to other systems, and has the potential to completely alter the ways in which medications and vaccinations are delivered as well as introduce methods of monitoring a patient’s condition, regeneration of organs or tissue, genetic therapies, diagnostic nanosystems and more (Roco, 2006). The quality of life for patients suffering from diabetes mellitus could increase exponentially due to the convenient and painless administration of this treatment method.

Works Cited

Arya, K.A., Kumar, L., Pokharia, D. & Tripathi, K. (2008, December). Applications of Nanotechnology in Diabetes. Digest Journal of Nanomaterials and Biostructures Vol. 3 (pp. 221–225). Retrieved from http://

Averous, L. (2009). Bioplastics: Biodegradeable polyesters. Pr. Luc Averous. Retrieved from

Damge, C., Maincent, P. & Ubrich, N. (2007 February 12). Oral delivery of insulin associated to polymeric nanoparticles in diabetic rats. Journal of Controlled Release Vol.117, Issue 2, 163–170.

D’Mello, S.R., Das, S.K., & Das, N.G. (2009). Polymeric Nanoparticles for Small-Molecule Drugs: Biodegration of Polymers and Fabrication of Nanoparticles. Drug Delivery Nanoparticles Formulation and Characterization (pp. 19–20). New York, NY: Informa Healthcare USA, Inc.

Nobel Media (Producer). (2012, February 27). The Discovery of Insulin. Retrieved from

Paul, D.R. & Robeson, L.M. (2008, April 4). Polymer nanotechnology: Nanocomposites. Polymer. Retrieved from

Roco, M.C. (2006, July 24). Nanotechnology’s Future. Scientific American. Retrieved from

Subramani, K. (2009). NPDDS for the Treatment of Diabetes. Drug Delivery Nanoparticles Formulation and Characterization (pp.117–125). New York, NY: Informa Healthcare USA, Inc.

Subramani, K., Sarvadaman, P. & Hosseinkhani, H. (2012). Recent Trends in Diabetes Treatment Using Nanotechnology. Digest Journal of Nanomaterials and Biostructures Vol.7 (pp. 85–95). Retrieved from

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