Alumni Focus: Devyani McLaren '17
graphic saying University is what you make it

On first read of her resume, it would be easy to mistake Devyani McLaren ’17 for a seasoned medical professional.

After graduating from the academically rigorous Diploma Programme (DP), she was accepted into the competitive Science One Program at the University of British Columbia. She went on to work with robots for brain behavior research, train children with physical disabilities how to swim, teach children with learning disabilities how to code and use computers, and serve as co-president and treasurer of her university’s neuroscience club. What’s more, she’s also brought home Silver and Gold in water polo at the Junior Olympics. And, perhaps best of all, she’s even met Michelle Obama.

Devyani’s experiences and achievements are impressive, but don’t be fooled. She’s no veteran. In fact, this Meadowridge graduate is still a year’s shy from her university graduation.

We last talked three years ago, what has gone on since then?

Well, I did the Science ONE Program at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in my first year, which is, essentially, an accelerated science program. You go through the program with about 70 or so other students and have dedicated teachers and spaces for Chemistry, Biology, and Physics classes. It was quite a challenge. Now, I’m in my last year and will be graduating as a Cognitive Systems major. 

What was your experience in the Science ONE program like?

What really stands out are the two projects that you complete. The first, you choose a really dense, academic article that you can barely understand and try your best to understand it. Then, you have to “translate” it in the simplest way for all to understand. The second project, you do your own research. It’s not a super big, publishable project, but you have to work on your own through the scientific process. I did something with physics – which makes no sense because I’m not a physicist! – but it was neat. I visualized how soundwaves interact with a concave surface. Anyways, these two projects built in a world of research right into the program. 

You also go on two trips. One at the beginning to build comradery, just like at Meadowridge. We went to Banfield, which is funny because I had already gone there on a trip with Meadowridge. Then on another, to Loon Lake, which had us all present our research in a miniature, conference-style meeting. Again, I had been to Loon Lake with Meadowridge. You can see how the Science ONE program has Meadowridge vibes, right?

Devyani Class of 2017 (in 2020)

A quick Google search shows that you’ve been pretty involved in volunteer work. 

I volunteer with two really cool organizations. One of them, UBC Splash Kids, is as an aquatics instructor providing swim lessons to children with special needs. I get to work with the most amazing kids and we have so much fun. It combines my two loves – swimming and science – and I love it so much that I’m in my third term helping. The other organization is the C.O.D.E Initiative, which is a foundation teaching kids on the autism spectrum how to code and use computers. Actually, I’m in my third year with them as well. 

And you’ve also been volunteering with the UBC Neuroscience Club. How did that come about?

I found out about the club during orientation day, before classes had started, and decided to sign up. I love puzzles, and that’s basically what we do in the club. We read articles, break them down, and it’s all related to the discipline that I love. At first, I was playing water polo and in the Science One program, so I only had time to serve as a volunteer, but once I got through my first year, I became treasurer and then was elected to co-president. It’s a relatively new club, and it’s allowed me to find like-minded students who are all living the same life as me; we give each other tips and tricks and what courses to avoid. It was, and is, a really welcoming environment. 

What types of things have you done with the club?

We’re all about promoting neuroscience, especially through events, since we found it wasn’t as prominent at the school as we would have liked. We actually started a petition to get a neuroscience major at the university. We took that petition to UBC’s President and faculty and we showed them the interest. And guess what? A new major will be coming in two years! We even get to work with faculty to help create the major. It’s really exciting. 

On top of all this, you’re also working through your undergraduate degree and conducting research!

Yes, I started working, doing research in a brain behavior lab at UBC. Essentially – we do so much stuff! – but essentially, it’s research into motor rehabilitation for stroke patients. We do a lot with neuroimaging, robotics, and transcranial magnetic stimulation. I mostly work with the robot. I’ve learned so much about myself through this, and I now understand what the world of academics is really like.

Of all the majors, you chose Cognitive Systems. And, of all the disciplines, you chose Computer Science. How do these interact?

I was somewhat strategic in choosing my major because artificial intelligence is everywhere. Human integration with machines is, in my mind, an up-and-coming field and will be implemented by the time I become a doctor. When I become a doctor, I’m sure I’ll be working with robotics in some facet. It’s an interesting discipline… no one has heard of it, but it’s related to everything! COGS is multi- and interdisciplinary. Psychology, linguistics, computer science, philosophy, and neuroscience… it’s when you combine these systems that you get a cognitive system. You’re describing how agents act in an environment. I know this makes no 
sense! [laughs]

Got it! Okay, what else has filled your already-filled schedule during university? 

It feels like I’m always in school, but I guess that’s the life of a pre-med person! I do Iyengar Yoga three times per week, which is great and important for my physical and mental health. I’m home right now because of the pandemic now so I’ve been able to keep up with piano – I know everyone says they love music, but I love music. Every genre, from 1500’s classical right up to death metal. My apartment, when I’m not home and actually on campuses, in the city and is on the top floor and I have a beautiful view of the UBC campus and the ocean. I paddle board whenever I can. My friends and I also usually host Sunday family dinners, where we can eat and relax and talk about the week, but, during the pandemic, we’ve resorted to weekly Zoom calls. Since I am home, however, I’ve been able to watch our new puppy, Yogi, grow up. We have two puppies now, Yogi and Sheru, and I love bike riding and hiking with them.

Two pictures, one with Michelle Obama and one posing in front of a lake

(Left) After scoring front-row tickets to her book tour, Devyani was able to meet Michelle Obama, a moment she describes 
as “amazing.” (Right) Devyani poses at Loon Lake during a first year Science One trip which encourages collaboration and comradery amongst the incoming class.

Any notable experiences outside of all the research and volunteerism and learning?

I got to meet Michelle Obama! It was when she released Becoming and did a book tour. I had read the book front to back and thought she was just amazing. I got front row tickets to her stop in Vancouver and got to meet and speak with her for a couple of minutes. It’s amazing because she’s a celebrity, in a sense, but was so familiar. In the first five seconds, I felt very welcomed and respected by her, and I thought that was such an interesting skill and energy to have. I would like to emulate that as much as possible. 

Bringing you a few years back, can we talk a bit about your time at Meadowridge?

I miss Meadowridge, and it’s the teachers and staff who I miss the most. I felt very… I felt like my knowledge and curiosity were nurtured by the teachers. I had Ms. Hops in Grade 6 Science and I still remember being so excited when I asked a question. That probably jumpstarted my interest in Science, actually. I felt like every teacher was like that. That’s something, when people ask me about Meadowridge, that I always say: it’s a place where you feel safe, respected, nurtured, and free to express yourself. Is the Mission still the same? I can still quote it. [laughs]

Mr. Burke was a big part of my time at Meadowridge. From Grade 10 onward, I was there on a merit scholarship. I was super grateful for that. Otherwise, I would have had to go somewhere else, but instead got to stick with my teachers and friends. 

Another thing is the IB, and Chemistry specifically. I remember in my first year in the Science ONE Program, doing experiments and thinking, ‘I already did this! ‘Our Chemistry labs at Meadowridge are the same as in university. We had access to more materials, even. I miss Mrs. Mohoruk, too. Oh! And Mr. Diniz. Grade 5 was actually probably the inception for everything that I’m doing. We were studying human systems and I got assigned the cardiovascular system and did not like it, but I remember hearing another group’s presentation on neuroscience and thinking ‘wow, 
that’s cool.’ 

And now you study neuroscience in your major! Okay, as an (obviously successful) university student, what advice would you give to students back at Meadowridge?

I’ll give the most general advice ever, but it’s true: the university experience is what you make it. This applies to life, but also university for sure. No matter where you’re going, no matter the school, university is such a big place with so many opportunities. Make the most of it. Make it for yourself.