Posts By: Christina Heidorn

Meet Professor Philip Asare, Dean’s Advisor on Black Initiatives

Professor Philip Asare wearing a black shirt with traditional Ghanaian graphic design in orange, yellow, brown, and lilac

Professor Philip Asare (ISTEP, EngSci) first got involved in equity, diversity and inclusion work when he was an undergraduate student. (Photo: Tyler Irving)

By Safa Jinje

Professor Philip Asare (ISTEP, EngSci) has been appointed to the role of Dean’s Advisor on Black Initiatives at U of T Engineering.  

Asare has hit the ground running since joining the Faculty in 2020. He is jointly appointed by the Institute for Studies in Transdisciplinary Engineering Education and Practice (ISTEP) and the Division of Engineering Science (EngSci), where he helped redesign Praxis III, a foundational EngSci design course offered to students in their second year.   

Asare also has a courtesy appointment in the Edward S. Rogers Sr. Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering (ECE), where as a member of the graduate faculty, he co-supervises graduate students.  

Equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) is baked into Asare’s work. He spoke with writer Safa Jinje to discuss his new role and what he hopes to accomplish in his three-year term. 

How did you first get involved with EDI work?  

I grew up in Ghana, where many of the people around me essentially looked like me, so any tensions around identity were usually a result of colonialism. 

EDI was not a thing for me until I came to North America. I did my undergrad in the United States at the University of Pennsylvania, and that was the first time I had to deal with the concept of being Black.   

In Philadelphia, there is a huge Black population and many communities are under-resourced. I found myself doing outreach work after one of my computer science professors connected me with a high school teacher who needed a mentor for their robotics team. 

Later in my undergrad, I co-led a program run by the University focusing on high school students who were high-achieving but went to lower-resourced schools and would have been otherwise overlooked as a result. We introduced them to various engineering fields and prepared them for university admissions. 

Going into grad school, I continued to be engaged in EDI work through outreach programs. As I transitioned into faculty life, I began to think about the ways I could have an impact as a professor.  

At Bucknell University, I worked on many projects and initiatives focused on EDI both in teaching and project work, which led to me receiving the President’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Award in the faculty category for “significant contributions to the University’s efforts to build and nurture an inclusive campus community.”  

What has your U of T Engineering experience been like so far?  

It has been fun in many ways. It’s been nice being part of ISTEP and EngSci and getting to slowly meet the ECE community. I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of different people — students and faculty collaborators — in my short time at U of T.   

I am working on many projects including one supported by the Dean’s Strategic Fund that has an EDI motivation around helping students develop hands-on, prototyping skills. We are collaborating with the Myhal Fabrication Facility, which I work closely with on my courses.  

We have noticed that students come in with varying backgrounds regarding those skills. And those who do not already have them never quite feel comfortable picking them up. They hide and get by, never really picking it up, especially in courses where the stakes are higher. So, we want to provide a co-curricular, lower-stakes opportunity for them to gain those important hands-on skills.  

What are some of the challenges ahead for you as you embark on this new role within U of T Engineering?  

U of T Engineering is a big place and there are a lot of different departments and offices that interact in various ways. I’m hoping to do something strategic that gets each office to think about what their role is in this whole work. So, there are a lot of different conversations to have.  

My goal is to make this role strategic and collaborative with other places and spaces across the Faculty to help them do their EDI work and Black-inclusive initiatives, as opposed to being the person that leads all of it.  

My long-term vision is to embed EDI in the core work that we do across the Faculty — including research, teaching, the way we do admissions and support students — as opposed to it being a separate effort.  

What do you hope to accomplish during your three-year term?  

Getting people in is easier than keeping them and supporting them while they are here. So, one goal for me is centred on continuing to build up our faculty recruitment and retention policy. If we can have better guidelines — that are consistent across the Faculty — about the way we do searches that increases the likelihood that diverse candidates make it through, that would be great.  

On the student side, we are starting to collect some data to help us better understand the structural barriers that Black engineering students are facing. That can help us start to make some inroads on policy changes that make those things not be a barrier anymore. Or at least, lessen the barrier for them so that they can enjoy their education and not just be here surviving, but be here thriving and feeling as though the space is also for them. 

Lastly, why is this role important to you? 

Engineering plays a huge role in the way society works. We are everywhere. We not only design things, but we also influence policy by our designs. We shape the way people live, work, play, love and have fun. And so, limited participation of Black folk means those communities are left out in shaping the society around them. And we have seen how that has done harm to those communities. 

I want to help ensure that anyone who wants to come here to be an engineer or work on engineering can do so, and that the larger Black community can benefit from that. 


‘Building community within the classroom’: Meet Professor Morgan Hooper

photo of Morgan Hooper wearing a brown leather jacket and floral shirt standing in front of green bushes

Professor Morgan Hooper (UTIAS) is an assistant professor, teaching stream, cross-appointed to the Division of Engineering Science. (Photo: Safa Jinje)

 

By Jennifer Li

Morgan Hooper recently joined the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS) as an assistant professor, teaching stream, cross-appointed to the Division of Engineering Science (EngSci). 

She is currently teaching engineering design in the EngSci Praxis III course.

Hooper (EngSci 1T5 + PEY) graduated from U of T Engineering with a major in aerospace engineering and received her MS and PhD in Aeronautics from the California Institute of Technology (CalTech).  Her research focused on experimental unsteady aerodynamics and fluid-structure interactions with views towards sustainable energy harvesting. 

Writer Jennifer Li caught up with Hooper to learn about her teaching philosophy, her goals as an educator and the ways she hopes to empower students inside and out of the classroom. 

Can you share your approach to teaching?

My approach to teaching is centred around building community within the classroom. I hope to empower students to speak up and participate in their own learning. The process of learning is simultaneously collaborative and deeply personal. I try to build a safe environment for students to experiment and learn from one another, while also offering support and guidance when necessary. Of course, this approach is particularly appropriate in a design course setting — where most of my teaching is focused right now — but I do think that a collaborative, active learning approach can be successful even in a more traditional classroom setting. 

What excites you most about joining UTIAS?

As a graduate of the EngSci aerospace engineering major, UTIAS played a huge part in my undergraduate studies! I am very excited to be back in this new role and I am looking forward to connecting with and learning from all the amazing teaching and research going on here and within EngSci. 

What do you hope that students will take away from your classes?

I teach mostly hands-on design courses — in my opinion, these are the classes that really differentiate the engineering school experience. I hope to help students gain confidence with hands-on skills and build their own unique identities as engineers. I want to empower students to feel comfortable making changes to and improving the physical world around them.  

What is your goal as an educator in the next few years?  

There are a lot of exciting conversations right now around making undergraduate engineering education more integrative — that is, ensuring that there is a strong connection between what students do in design-focused courses, and what they see and do in the fundamental and skill-building courses that make up most of the curriculum.  

I think there is a great opportunity here to examine our curricula and ensure we are equipping students with transdisciplinary skills and competencies. This also means incorporating knowledge around particularly complex topics such as sustainable engineering practices. 

What is the best mistake you ever made in academia and what did it teach you?

I think the best ‘mistake’ I made in an academic setting was getting involved in student government. During my PhD, I volunteered for a position on our department’s student council. Even though it added more to my plate, I immediately discovered that I loved working with a team of other students towards making our department a more community-oriented and supportive place. The work I did as part of the student council inspired me to get more involved in research in STEM teaching and learning more broadly, which eventually led me here! 

What is something people would be surprised to learn about you?

I have always tried to keep things balanced in my life — I love my job, but I also love cooking, eating, and trying new recipes and restaurants. I love fashion — especially sustainable fashion — and I sew some of my own clothes. I also love to sing. 

This story was originally published in the U of T Engineering News.


EngSci entrepreneurs advance to next stage at U of T Engineering’s Hatchery Demo Day 2022

Members of the four selected teams at the Hatchery’s Demo Day 2022 stand together at the Visualization Facility in the Myhal Centre. (Photo: Aaron Demeter)

 

EngSci students were among successful competitors at the Entrepreneurship Hatchery’s recent Demo Day 2022.  The team of Aidan Dempster, Mustafa Khan (both Year 3 EngSci ) and Ankit Batra (University of Waterloo) were one of four selected to move on to the Hatchery’s Go-To-Market stage.  The event also launched the Hatchery’s new Build a Team tool, which matches individuals and startups based on skills and interests.

Dempster, Khan, and Batra developed MoveMatch, a platform for advanced motion analysis for use in at-home physiotherapy.

Read the full story in the U of T Engineering News.


Grads to Watch 2022

Graduating students Saanjali Maharaj and Michael McLean (both EngSci 2T1 + PEY)

 

By Safa Jinje & Tyler Irving

With the University of Toronto’s convocation ceremonies on June 16, 2022, U of T Engineering students mark the end of one journey and the beginning of another.

Having enriched the U of T Engineering community as undergraduate and graduate students, they will join our vibrant, global network of Skule™ alumni, where they will continue to address pressing challenges around the world and inspire the next generation.

This year’s 14 U of T Engineering Grads to Watch — including two EngSci students — embody the spirit of U of T Engineering. Their stories illustrate the creativity, innovation and global impact that define our community. Watch their next steps!


Advancing Sustainable Aviation

Saanjali Maharaj (EngSci 2T1 + PEY)

“I would like to thank the EngSci community for making my time at U of T such a positive experience. I will always remember the days of both commiseration and celebration with my peers, and the tremendous support from the faculty members and upper years. Special shoutout to Professor Peter Grant (UTIAS), my undergraduate thesis supervisor, for his guidance, which will prepare me for the rest of my academic career.”

“My experience at U of T has been a time of discovery,” says Maharaj. “I learned so much about engineering design, innovations in the industry and working as part of a team.”

This time was also a period of self-discovery as her various internships, courses and research experiences helped her find out what she is passionate about, charting the course of her career.

In 2019, Maharaj had “the amazing opportunity” to be an intern at the NASA Ames Research Center’s Department of Rotorcraft Aeromechanics.

“I was the thermal lead in developing a drone to help mitigate the prevalent California wildfires,” she says. “Following that experience, I was a thermal-mechanical engineering intern at Intel Corporation.”

A significant achievement from her PEY Co-op at Intel was leading the research for a novel cooling technology that resulted in the submission of a patent application.

Maharaj has held leadership positions in co-curricular activities, including as rocketry division aerodynamics lead on the University of Toronto Aerospace Team (UTAT), and marketing director for the University of Toronto West Indian Students’ Association (WISA).

This summer, Maharaj is working on an asteroid mining project in collaboration with MDA. She is also looking forward to starting her MASc this fall at the U of T Institute for Aerospace Studies, where she will be supervised by Professor Prasanth Nair.

Ultimately, she hopes to make a positive contribution to the advancement of sustainable aviation.

“Sustainability is a passion of mine due in part to my Caribbean Island origins,” she says. “Trinidad and Tobago’s dependence on the aviation industry to maintain international connections fuels my desire to mitigate the industry’s environmental impact.”


Customizing Biochemical Constructs

Michael McLean (EngSci 2T1 + PEY)

I want to express my overwhelming gratitude towards Ali Punjani (CEO and co-founder of Structura Biotechnology) for his guidance and mentorship throughout my PEY Co-op term. I also want to thank the rest of the team at Structura for fostering an incredibly inclusive and supportive working environment. Finally, I would like to thank Professor David Fleet (Computer Science) for his valuable guidance and support throughout my undergraduate thesis.”

McLean always knew that he wanted to major in Engineering Physics or Machine Intelligence as an Engineering Science student — but he was so overwhelmed by a fear of failure that he left EngSci for TrackOne on the very first day of classes.

“I let fear control me when I made that decision, but I realized throughout first year that I wanted to learn more physics than would be possible in any other engineering stream,” he says. “So, I chose to let my curiosity and passion lead instead and transferred back.”

Through his classes and work experience, he was able to immerse himself in his passions: biophysics, machine learning and scientific computing.

A highlight of his undergraduate experience was his PEY Co-op at Structura Biotechnology, a startup working on software for cryogenic electron microscopy (cryo-EM). As a scientific developer, he worked on developing statistical inference algorithms for the 3D reconstruction of protein molecules and implementing these algorithms in Structura’s flagship software product, cryoSPARC.

“By the end of my work term, the helical reconstruction project I worked on was deployed in cryoSPARC, which is used by scientists worldwide in over 600 institutions across 40 countries,” he says.

McLean is returning to Structura after graduation — this time as a computational research engineer, working to advance cryo-EM methodology.

“The opportunity to work in such a high-impact area, with tangible benefits to structural biology and drug discovery, is a privilege I could never have foreseen,” he says.

“I now know where my true limits lie, and that I can handle more than I thought. And this knowledge can’t be taken away.”


Read about all U of T Engineering Grads to Watch in the U of T Engineering News.


Engineering Research Day showcases the role of engineers in addressing sustainability issues

people chatting at poster display booths at Engineering Research Day

An attendee stops at an Engineering Research Day booth, which featured research institutes from across U of T’s Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering (photo by Dewey Chang)

 

By Safa Jinje

Students, alumni, faculty members and industry professionals recently came together to highlight the impact of innovative research and collaborations happening across the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering during the second annual Engineering Research Day.

This year’s theme – Building a Sustainable Future – spotlighted the unique role of engineering professionals in designing solutions to address everything from climate change and transportation to health care and beyond.

“The engineering skill of being able to identify, unpack and solve a problem is our ‘secret sauce,’” said alumna Sandra Odendahl during a fireside chat with Chris Yip, dean of U of T Engineering.

Odendahl is senior vice-president and head of sustainability and diversity at BDC, a bank that supports small and medium-sized businesses. In helping to open the event, she shared how she was able to combine her engineering education and background in environmental impact assessment to tackle sustainability, equity and access issues in the financial sector.

The event also featured a second fireside chat with alumna Laura Burget, co-founder of Three Ships Beauty, as well as four panel discussions on the various intersections between engineering and sustainability.

Many of the questions raised throughout the day focused on the challenges facing sustainability initiatives, including how to change consumer behaviour, how to educate the next generation of engineers in a shifting landscape and how to ask the right questions when designing sustainable solutions.

 

Five panelists and moderator sitting on stage during a panel discussion

Engineering Research Day featured four panels on the intersections between engineering and sustainability, including “Climate Positive and Sustainable Campus” (photo by Dewey Chang)

 

During the day’s final panel – Climate Positive and Sustainable Campus – the conversation shifted towards the idea of learning how to learn, and how that thought process could be applied to building sustainable buildings and spaces.

“We need to constantly be rethinking what it is that we are designing, who we are designing for, where we are designing,” said alumna Priscilla Chew, principal of Purpose Building, Inc., which develops sustainable operational solutions for its clients.

While last year’s event was fully remote, this year’s programming was hybrid – both in-person and online attendees could engage with research institutes such as the Centre for Analytics and Artificial Intelligence Engineering (CARTE), the Southern Ontario Centre for Atmospheric Aerosol Research (SOCAAR), the Institute for Water Innovation (IWI) and the Centre for Global Engineering (CGEN) to learn more about the collaborations and investigations happening across engineering disciplines.

“Engineering Research Day is a great opportunity to see the breadth and depth of the sustainability research and boundary-pushing education happening across our Faculty,” says Yip.

“From new ways to harvest and store energy from the sun and wind, to cleaner, more efficient engines that can run on biofuels, to designing better ways to move people through cities, the event illustrated how our students and researchers work well beyond the borders of our campus to create a brighter future for all.”


EngSci alumnus Alfred Aho elected to the National Academy of Sciences

photo of Alred Aho sitting at an office desk with textbooks, one of which is titled Compilers

Photo credit: Eileen Barroso

By Brandon Wesseling

Professor Alfred Aho (EngSci 6T3) was recently elected as a member to the distinguished National Academy of Sciences for his distinguished and continuing achievements in original research.

Alfred V. Aho, the Lawrence Gussman Professor Emeritus of computer science at the Columbia University, is known for his broad and fundamental contributions in algorithm design and analysis, and programming languages and compilers, which translate human-written code into a form that machines can execute. With his longtime collaborator Jeffrey Ullman (SEAS’63), a professor emeritus at Stanford, Aho received computing’s highest honor, the Turing Award, in 2020. Before joining Columbia Engineering in 1995, Aho spent more than three decades at Bell Labs, helping to run the lab that invented UNIX, C, and C++.


Praxis III co-instructor receives Faculty Teaching Assistant Award

photo of Xinyue Crystal Liu smiling to camera, wearing headhpone with cat ears

 

Xinyue Crystal Liu (MSE) is among fourteen staff and faculty members honoured for their leadership, citizenship, innovation and contributions to the Faculty’s teaching, service and research missions.

Liu played a key role in developing EngSci’s new design course, Praxis III.  She also helped design assignments for individual home use when the course had to go online during the pandemic, and has (re)developed content and materials for several other courses.

Read more about Liu and the other U of T Engineering award winners.


Compassion in action: Meet 2022 Troost ILead Difference Maker Award winner Khadija Rana

Khadija Rana looking to camera and smiling, standing in front of an ivy-covered wall

Khadija Rana is the 2022 winner of the Troost ILead Difference Maker Award. (Photo: Negar Balaghi)

 

By Natalia Noël Smith

To Khadija Rana (Year 4 EngSci) being a difference maker is not heroic.

“I want people to know that anyone can do it,” she says. “It’s about recognizing people as the whole beings that they are.”

Rana is the 2022 recipient of the Troost ILead Difference Maker Award. Sanjay Malaviya, a long-serving member of the Troost ILead Board of Advisors, established the award in 2020 through the Bodhi Tree Fund, a private giving foundation. The award recognizes a U of T Engineering undergraduate student for their leadership achievements and their vision for change. It provides $50,000 to help a promising young leader accelerate their steps after graduation.

Rana’s path has not always been easy. When she began her studies, she says she felt isolated and thought she had “a productivity problem.” But that began to change in 2019, when she took advantage of the Troost ILead Summer Fellowship, followed by an engineering course from ILead called The Power of Story. These experiences helped Rana combine her love of engineering with her passions for caregiving and leadership.

A long-time volunteer with Hospice Toronto, Rana has accompanied people through the dying process.

“The skills you apply in engineering and caregiving are not so different,” she says. “In both, I’m listening to people and being present for them. You have to hear someone else’s story and be willing to take action to address that need.”

Rana’s leadership is strongly influenced by the concept of loving kindness.

“I found a definition of this in the book The Road Less Travelled by M. Scott Peck, and another one from author bell hooks, who wrote All About Love: New Visions in 2000. They talk about it as, ‘the will to extend yourself for the growth of other people, and for your own growth.’”

For Rana, the idea of extending yourself to help others resonated with her understanding of the practice of engineering.

“We hear about it during Frosh Week on the first day in the story of Lady Godiva,” she says. “We learn about it through engineering design, in our courses. We celebrate it during the Iron Ring ceremony at the end of our programs. Professors demonstrate it for students when they advocate with them. Club leaders and mentors practice it when they volunteer their time for one another. It’s everywhere.”

Putting this idea into practice, Rana soon became involved in Skule™ life. She joined CUBE, the Club for Undergraduate Biomedical Engineering, eventually becoming its president. She worked with her team to rebuild the organization’s structure, foster self-determination and empower members to shape their own roles.

She also served as a senior Director of U of T’s Biomedical Engineering Design Team, where she led three project teams to collaboratively develop assistive devices for clients across the Greater Toronto Area.

Rana was also able to put the loving kindness ethic into practice as a research trainee at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, where she worked under the supervision of Dr. Azadeh Yadollahi and Dr. Douglas Bradley. Her tasks included guiding patients with severe asthma through voluntary but grueling experiments related to sleep apnea.

In her final year, Rana became President of the U of T chapter of Women in Science and Engineering (WISE), leading a 40-member team working to reframe conversations of gender equity by prioritizing allyship and sensitivity to culture and race. She chaired the 2021 U of T WISE flagship international conference, which drew more than 600 participants from 15 countries.

After graduation, Rana plans to pursue research in narrative approaches to community-led design. Grounded in her caregiving experiences, her work will explore how engineering professionals and community stakeholders derive meaning from complex ideas through storytelling to inform technical change.

In the longer term, she has her sights set on a career in medicine where she will advocate for the advancement of narrative approaches to enhance empathy among health-care practitioners and ultimately transform patient care.

When asked how she works with those who may be resistant to her philosophy of compassion, or with whom collaboration presents challenges, she says “It’s important to be curious about what’s making it difficult for them. And to do that, you bravely ask them.”

“Once you’re able to make space for people to be more open about their challenges, you have an intentional conversation with them that’s prioritizing their growth and yours too. It’s not zero sum.”

This story was originally published in the U of T Engineering News.


Meet our alumni: Adam Rosenfield (1T5) helps remake our cities to save our planet

photo of Adam Rosenfeld wearing a bike helmet standing next to a lake with a bicycle in the background

Adam Rosenfield (EngSci 1T5) is a transportation policy advisor in Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation.

Adam Rosenfield (EngSci 1T5) likes to look at the big picture, and that’s what led him to earn degrees in both engineering and urban planning. Today, as a senior policy advisor in Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation, he draws on his expertise in both fields to tackle the province’s number 1 emitting sector—transportation. And the big picture is a sustainable, equitable future.

Read a conversation with Rosenfield about his career path, his commitment to a sustainable future, and how he is helping to develop new curriculum options for engineering students.


Toronto’s first-ever Black student-run hackathon tackles algorithm bias and builds community

A screenshot of the hackathon taking place in Gather Town, showing a virtual room with tables and chairs, the participants' avatars and their video feeds.

The fourth annual NSBEHacks, a 24-hour virtual hackathon, was hosted on Gather Town. (Screenshot: Genevieve Aguigwo)

 

By Safa Jinje

On March 5, more than 200 participants from across Canada and the U.S. joined NSBEHacks, a 24-hour virtual hackathon. Now in its fourth year, the 2022 event aimed to redesign digital technologies that don’t serve marginalized communities. 

Organized by the U of T chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE U of T), NSBEHacks is the first Black student-run hackathon within the Greater Toronto Area. 

“This year’s theme was ‘Disruptive Innovation,’ and by the end of the weekend, we received an influx of solutions that we could have never envisioned,” says Chetachi Ugwu-Ojobe (Year 3 EngSci), president of NSBE U of T. 

One problem that NSBEHacks teams tackled is algorithm bias, where errors or assumptions in a system’s machine learning process can lead to prejudices and create unfair outcomes. 

D’SpeakerVerse, the team that won first place in the hackathon’s U of T Engineering Challenge, noticed that many voice assistant services alienate individuals by misunderstanding their accents. 

In response to this problem, they created an interactive platform where users can take part in voice games and tongue twisters to test the voice-to-text AI, with the goal of improving accent recognition for voice AI services through collected data.  

“This team was able to create a disruptive innovation by building on something that already exists in the market and opening it up to people who are neglected by these services — people with non-Western accents who are often misunderstood and left frustrated by popular voice services,” says Genevieve Aguigwo (Year 2 MechE), vice-president of NSBE U of T.  

The event also sought to cater to the specific needs of Black audiences in fast-paced digital environments, such as virtual reality.   

The Barbershop team, which won second place in the event’s Google Cloud Challenge, used virtual reality to create a welcoming online space that replicates the sense of community found in many Black-owned barbershops.  

“Barbershops hold a historical significance to many Black communities. It’s not just a place to get a haircut, it can also serve a therapeutic role,” says Ugwu-Ojobe.   

“The Barbershop team created a virtual space that allows people who are unable to visit a barbershop, because of the pandemic or personal challenges, to gather, share information and stay connected with their community.”  

NSBE U of T is committed to supporting participants beyond the hackathon, as they take their designs to the next level.  

“We are partnering with the Black Founders Network to give our design teams a platform to bring their ideas to life and make a business out of it,” says Ugwu-Ojobe.  

“Having a network of people in the industry who they can turn to with questions and reach out to in the future really ties in with NSBE’s own goals to support the professional development of our community,” adds Aguigwo.  

“At the end of the day, we’re trying to increase the representation of Black individuals in engineering and industry.” 

This story originally appeared in the U of T Engineering News.


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