The 84-hour week of a student business owner

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By Anika Syeda

In a single week, Ryerson student Mark Zaidi spends roughly 17 hours in class, 10 hours at his job as a research assistant and 57 hours at Ryerson University’s Science Discovery Zone (SDZ) as a small business owner.

Much of the university’s student population is plagued with stress related to work and school. A 2016 report by the Ryerson Mental Health Committee claims 67 per cent of surveyed students “felt overwhelming anxiety” during the school year.

Yet, for Zaidi, juggling school and work for upwards of 13 hours per day is ordinary. His peers in the zone say that he is there more often that he is not.

“He is here during the weekends by himself,” said Stephanie Sim, an administrative assistance in the chemistry and biology department. “It could definitely average out to 50 to 60 hours a week.”

The 21-year-old biology student begins his day at 8 a.m. After breakfast with his family, Zaidi walks to the SDZ where he says hello to “the Stephanies,” (two administrative assistants in the Department of Chemistry and Biology, including Sim) and reads through his calendar and to-do list for the day.

“It’s hard to say what exactly I do on a day-to-day basis,” Zaidi said. “It can include multiple tasks such as image analysis, preparing my medical school application, working on my aerogel manuscript, working on a cancer research paper, developing programs for image analysis or any odd jobs that I come across in the SDZ.”

Aerogel, a material that is lighter than air and three times the price of gold, was originally created in NASA’s jet propulsion labs. Zaidi has developed and patented a method of producing aerogel that is cheaper, costing a fraction of its original price of over $100. Zaidi’s method of production is also more sustainable, producing no greenhouse gases.

In July 2017, Zaidi founded his company, Entropy Labs. Through his business, the biology student with a lifelong love for chemistry produces his cheaper aerogel. Entropy Labs claims aerogel is the best insulator in the world due to its resistance to cold and heat, and is seeking investment from companies looking to use aerogel as an alternative, more efficient source of insulation.

When Zaidi isn’t at the SDZ, he can be found working as a student researcher from the Wouters-Koritzinsky group in the University Health Network, analyzing tumour sections sent in from labs around the world.

“My parents are my role models,” said Zaidi, whose parents are both doctors at the Ontario Institute of Cancer Research. “Without their love and support, I would not have the motivation I do now to do well in school.”

Zaidi has not allowed his busy work life to negatively affect his performance in classes. He has a 3.94 GPA out of 4.00 and holds an MCAT score in the 87th percentile.

However, a high score in the MCAT alone is not enough to guarantee a spot in medical school. Zaidi would know, as he is applying for postgraduate studies while completing his final year of biology.

Medical schools have an initial screening process, including meeting certain class prerequisites and their GPA cutoff, followed by tests such as the MCAT and CASPER. Having completed the screening, Zaidi is currently working on writing multiple essays and other supplementary material required for his applications.

“It’s a rather huge time commitment,” he said. “So yeah, it’s a lot of work.”

With so much going on, the student often blends the time he spends in class with time spent on work. This allows him to maintain his constant workflow.

“Sometimes, I’ll get some medical imaging work done during a lecture if I’m tight on time,” he said. This is sometimes to the disadvantage of his classmates who sit behind him, who are distracted by the very bright and colourful fluorescent microscopy images on his laptop.

While his week appears to be a busy one, Zaidi’s life is not all work and no play. His day is punctured with small breaks on his phone or laptop, chatting with friends, reading or watching episodes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. A skilled pianist, he sometimes wanders the second floor of Kerr Hall looking for available pianos to practice on.

Though he acknowledges that the amount of work he puts in is atypical, Zaidi answers questions with an easy smile.

“When you love what you do, you’ve never really worked a day in your life.”

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