The Endless Debate Between Science and Art and How I Pursue Both

Maeeda Khan: Mechanical Engineering, Level 4

Doctor, Lawyer, or Engineer — those were the three choices my immigrant family offered me when I asked, what should I be when I grow up? As a child of highly educated parents who wanted me to demand more from the world than what was given to them, I understood the importance they persistently put on finding a practical profession.

Practical meant decent pay, respected career, and bragging rights when it came to their friend circle. Luckily for me, I never felt forced into choosing engineering. Science had always interested me; from the crafty experiments to the eccentric teachers, and the way it answered the wonders of my imagination while adding more fuel.

But my imagination didn’t just stop at empirical physics and abstract math. I loved reading — finding myself in magical worlds or neck-deep in a nail-biting thriller. The only time my brain felt challenged on the same level as scientific inquiries was when I began writing creatively. I craved books and the process of constructing them the same way a scientist hypothesizes a theory and ceaselessly repeats experiments to prove it right. So many people divide science and art into two different lanes, harshly segregated, always one or the other, but I didn’t let myself believe that. There are striking similarities in the passion that is put into both fields, and I was ready to prove it.

Fast forward to March 2020, right when the apocalypse (pandemic) hit. When the pandemic forced a lockdown, it spiralled me back to my parents’ house and cancelled my eight-month co-op. I could’ve wept about being twenty and stuck back with my parents, all freedom lost… but I saw an opportunity — to write.

In a sequence of months I still find unbelievable, I wrote a manuscript, signed with a literary agent, and now have a book coming out in 2022 by a major US publisher. I want to say that it’s dreamlike, something out of a movie, my greatest fantasy brought to life — but that would undermine the sweat, tears, and hard work I put into it. I wasn’t an overnight success. I wrote that book between midterms and exam season, late at night with my light turned off so my parents couldn’t catch me not studying.

The reality is that the value of art is much harder to prove. My parents didn’t take my writing seriously until I told them my book sold for six-figures. Engineering is stable, it’s an objective field of right or wrong. It comes with respect, good income, and nobody really questions your intelligence. Frankly, I love that about it. Art is much trickier — its worth is subjective, and its interpretations can range from heartfelt connection to scathing criticism. But just like any scientist who puts their theory out there, I’m preparing myself for the reactions that come with invention.

Maeeda’s deal announcement with Little, Brown for her debut novel Nura and the Immortal Palace.

I know most engineering students are focused on studies and academic extracurriculars, and I don’t blame them, it’s difficult not to be when the job market is so competitive. Chasing two dreams can stretch you thin, so you have to really examine yourself and question if you can juggle both at once or accomplish one thing and then pursue another. But if there is a student out there wandering between the divide of science and art who doesn’t exactly know where to belong, stay in that divide, and we’ll make a new lane for us nerds who enjoy both.

My novel, Nura and the Immortal Palace, is the first in a contemporary fantasy duology, out from Little, Brown in 2022. It’s set in my home country of Pakistan, following a young mica miner who risks her life every day to put dinner on the table for her family. But when the mines collapse and her best friend is ruled dead, she digs deeper to find a portal world of demons, and that her friend isn’t dead — he’s been stolen. Even though it contains fantastical elements, it still addresses ideas that have resonated with me in my engineering career: pursuing sustainable and ethical practices to prevent a growing cycle of child labour.

It’s tough trying to find what you really want to do with your life. But there are doors both at university and outside it that are open for you to explore. Attend clubs, workshops, or events that challenge your perspective and daily routine — you may discover a hidden talent or a craving for more. Perhaps you enjoy both chemistry and composing music. Society may tell you to sacrifice one for the other, or you might be keeping one as a hobby, but don’t abandon it. There may come a day where you decide to delve deeper. When I chose McMaster after realizing I wanted to pursue engineering, it was because Mac Eng was not only distinguished, but it also allowed me to explore different avenues science related or otherwise. I still don’t know if I’ll go to grad school or write full-time or find an engineering job after graduation, but I do know that I’ll continue to find art in science and science in art.

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