ESROP – Global

Each summer the Division of Engineering Science sends ambitious students abroad through ESROP – Global to conduct research at one of our partner institutions.

Read some of their stories:

Chinese University of Hong Kong
Brian

Max Planck Institute, University of Hamburg
Taylor

National University of Singapore
Yong Da

Norwegian University of Science and Technology
Madeline

Osaka University
Susan

Technical University of Darmstadt
Rima

Technion – Israel Institute of Technology
Anna


Brian (2T1) – Chinese University of Hong Kong

This summer, I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Hong Kong and join a research team in the Faculty of Medicine at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) under the supervision of Professor Carmen Poon (EngSci 0T0). Our project focused on using machine learning to detect abnormal growths in the colon called polyps, which can sometimes lead to colorectal cancer. Since these polyps can be difficult to visually identify and classify, the purpose of this project is to reduce the miss-detection rate and thus help to prevent colorectal cancer. The team has already been working on a model for polyp detection; however, the model sometimes misclassifies similar looking objects like medical instruments used during endoscopy that are red in colour. In addition, the team is also aiming to implement the system on an FPGA to take advantage of its parallel computing capabilities and improve the performance by increasing the frame rate. My work included collecting patient data from the hospital database, training the object-detection model called YOLO to detect colorectal polyps, and implementing an algorithm on the FPGA for post-processing.

Brian (left) and Johnny at the poster presentation for their research project. (Courtesy: Brian and Johnny)

Working in the lab was definitely a brand-new experience and opened my eyes to cutting-edge research projects. While in Hong Kong, I got the chance to listen to what other professors in the faculty and their research teams are doing. I also had the wonderful opportunity to witness a PhD thesis defense and learned about what graduate work is like from the other students in the research team. Without a doubt, I gained lots of valuable skills and experience for my future endeavors whether I wish to pursue research or industry work.

What made this experience even better was all the people I met and friendships I built while in Hong Kong. At CUHK, I was part of their Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP), which hosted more than 100 students from all around the world. I made many new friends who were doing research in a variety of areas, including law, chemistry, and art, and learned about their research at SURP’s culminating poster presentation.

Hong Kong is a lively city with lots to eat, see and do, and I loved travelling around the city with friends. I loved Hong Kong’s skyline that is filled with skyscrapers, especially when they all lit up at night time. Each neighbourhood had something special to offer, whether it was a traditional fishing village or a bustling business district. Hong Kong is very well-known for some of the best food (and dessert!) in the world, and I tried my best to sample everything I could – if you want a recommendation, definitely try the Mango Pomelo Sago dessert!

Some of the famous desserts in Hong Kong, including Mango Pomelo Sago (the bottom and right bowls)! (Courtesy: Brian and Johnny)

I was also glad that I got to experience a very unique aspect of Hong Kong by witnessing the various demonstrations that occurred during the summer. It was very interesting being able to hear the different opinions of the locals but realize that they still have a common goal – to build what they think is a better future for Hong Kong. And ultimately, I saw how being open-minded and understanding of different opinions is important for being a successful engineer, but also for being a better citizen of the world.

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Taylor (2T1) – Max Planck Institute, University of Hamburg

This summer I was fortunate to spend a four-month long research term in Hamburg, Germany at the Max Planck Institute for the Structure and Dynamics of Matter within the Center for Free Electron Laser Science. For the three of us in the lab, our summer project was to develop software along with the hardware to utilize a pair of rotatable mirrors and a focusing lens inside of a vacuum chamber to anneal a silicon chip with an infrared laser. Specifically, the silicon chips to be placed inside of the annealing setup are those found in electron microscopes. After time and use, the silicon crystal structure deteriorates thereby reducing the capability for high quality and useful image production. Currently, to anneal the silicon chips requires an oven temperature lower than the melting point of solder to heat the entire silicon chip setup (several million euros) for around two weeks. However, with laser annealing, the same silicon chip setup can be placed in  vacuum chamber and just the silicon chip can be targeted by the laser, heating it to higher temperatures than before, allowing the annealing process to happen over several hours – all without damaging the other sensitive electrical components.

My role in this project was focused on hardware and the physical setup. My biggest task was to design an experimental setup that heats up thin wires to 400 degrees Celsius and image them with an infrared camera to create a relationship between measured temperature (by a thermocouple near the wires) and the thermal camera readings. Further, the setup tests the spatial resolution of the camera by viewing the wires through a slit perpendicular to the direction of the wires to simulate a point source like what the laser would produce. These are vital things to test in order to make sure the silicon chip reaches the annealing temperature at the spot where the laser hits. In addition, I was responsible for electromechanical work and hardware setup such as: soldering, circuit making, using driver boards, wiring between components, configuring a PID, assembling and disassembling the entire setup, preparing the vacuum chamber for use, mounting the imaging cameras, and mounting components within the chamber.

Overall picture of the vacuum chamber. (Courtesy: Taylor)

Aside from the incredible opportunity at work, I took advantage of the opportunity to travel as much as I could. Over the course of the summer I visited Amsterdam, Geneva, the Alps, Berlin, Prague, and took an overnight train to Paris. And of course, I saw Hamburg through its festivals on the harbour, night life in the Reeperbahn, art shows in an old bunker, and even just buying and selling a bike I used for commuting. For me, being able to travel made the trip abroad feel “full”. It taught me budgeting, exposed me to so many different people and cultures, but most importantly, pushed me beyond my comfort zone – all while doing research which developed my workplace and technical skills. This opportunity exposed to what engineering work in a world class research institution might look like. I really enjoyed the variety of work I was able to do; it was interesting to apply a range of skills that I learnt in school in different ways each day. It was really appealing to me how many different projects the professional engineers were working on at the same time and engaging with different researchers, something I could see myself enjoying in a future job. A valuable skill I developed over the summer was using CAD software to create parts and make assemblies to later be produced and learning how to run simulations from the models I created at the same time.

Taylor hiking down from the Alps in Chamonix, France. (Courtesy: Taylor)

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Yong Da (2T2) – National University of Singapore

Over the 2019 summer, I worked as a summer research intern at the Engineering Science Program (ESP) Multidisciplinary Lab at the National University of Singapore, under the supervision of Prof. Ho Ghim Wei. Her research group is called “Nanomaterials and Nanosystems Innovation” research group. They primarily work with Titanium Oxide (TiO2) which is a photocatalyst. By manipulating the structure of various TiO2 nanomaterials, the efficiency of the photocatalytic reaction can be increased.

Yong Da (second from right), with post-doc supervisors and Matthew (far right). (Courtesy: Yong Da)

An efficient photocatalyst can be used to passively generate hydrogen gas and distilled water from sea water. Hydrogen gas is a potential fuel of the future. Distilled water from seawater is traditionally a very energy intensive process. In a place like Singapore, where they are surrounded by undrinkable salty sea water, improving this process is very attractive.

My work in the lab focused on the production of TiO2 nanofibres, laced with silver (Ag) particles, which is a key source material to synthesising many other candidate photocatalysts. These nanofibres are 20-100nm in diameter, much finer than a human hair but still visible to the naked eye. A technique called “electrospinning” is used to create these fibres. An extremely high voltage (17.5kV was used in the lab) is applied between the tip of a syringe and a rotating metal drum. The syringe contains a polymer suspension of TiO2 and Ag, called a “sol-gel”. As the syringe is slowly extruded, the sol-gel is pulled toward the rotating metal drum by the high voltage forming tiny strands of TiO2 / Ag nanofibres.

We helped in testing the water evaporation and hydrogen gas generation capabilities of these samples. They include varying concentrations of Ag particles, sulfur particles, and different forms such as powder or gel.

Hydrogen gas production testing, at different wavelengths. (Courtesy: Yong Da)

In reflecting on my time in the lab, I realize that I love the analytical part of research. It’s an engaging challenge to make sense of the data, with the accepted theory and your own speculation. But acquiring that data often takes months. Much of that time is spent reducing equipment error. To do this, you must understand your equipment setup, its limitations, and how to make the most of it. Truly, it’s an engineering challenge because you have limited time and resources to improve the setup, thus improving data collection. It’s often a frustrating process, but you feel so good when you have collected all that legitimate data and can sift through it.

Spending 12 weeks in nitrile gloves and lab coats every day is not my cup of tea. But I’m thankful that I’ve had this wet lab experience. Engineering Science is about being multidisciplinary. Although I may never again need to make another sol-gel solution, it’s good to always have that skill in your back pocket.

Yong Da hiking in Singapore. (Courtesy: Yong Da)

But ESROP is only partly about summer research. You get to travel to another country. Singapore was a fantastic destination. High-tech. Clean. Amazing public infrastructure, especially their transit system. A focus on sustainable development. After 12 weeks, I think I understand their pragmatic way of governing. Their proud solidarity as Singaporeans. And their delicious blend of Chinese, Malay, and Indian cuisine. Experiencing another way of life made me a more complete person. It brings a new-found sense of perspective in my daily life.

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Madeline (2T0) – Norwegian University of Science and Technology

This summer, I worked at the Fluids Laboratory at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in the Energy and Process Engineering Department (EPT). My work mainly focused on investigating turbulence immediately behind a large-scale turbulence generator called an active grid in a water channel. This involved programming multiple active grid sequences to be used during the experiments and then performing time-series PIV experiments behind the active grid in order to see what was going on in the flow. Once the experiments were done, data processing and post-processing were performed to prepare the data for further analysis.

Although I had previous experience with experimental fluids mechanics through my lab courses in the Aerospace Option, this was my first time having my own research project and investigating something new. I remembered being overwhelmed with excitement when I saw my first post-processed data image and thought to myself that I was the first one to see that.

Madeline (middle) with PhD students at the fluids laboratory. (Courtesy: Madeline)

It was also very eye-opening to be in a professional research environment with other researchers and I soon realized that NTNU is much more culturally diverse than I originally imagined. Within the department I worked in, I got to know PhD students and post-docs from more than 10 different countries, all of whom are extremely curious and driven, and most of all passionate about their research. My supervisor and the PhD student I worked with closely are both former EngSci Aero students. It was very interesting to learn about how EngSci has changed over the past 10 years while maintaining its signatures and traditions.

My supervisor organized frequent meetings with the entire research group, where I got to learn about other people’s research and see how they would present their work at conferences. I also attended multiple seminars delivered by established international researchers and learnt about other research related to the field of turbulence, from both numerical and experimental points of view. All of which gave me a better understanding of the breadth and depth of the field of turbulence, which drew me closer to this mysterious field that investigates and challenges the fundamentals that aerospace engineering and many other disciplines rely on.

Being the first and only one doing ESROP in Norway, I strove to live everyday to the fullest. I spent every weekend hiking with my housemates and PhD students from the department, no matter the weather. I have adopted the lifestyle of friluftsliv (free-air living) and it made me physically and mentally more fit. My monthly bus card also motivated me to explore the beautiful Trondheim and nearby regions whenever I was not at work, and I have learnt some crucial survival skills after getting disoriented in the wild mountains. I also began to appreciate the peacefulness in Trondheim in the summer and the amazing little things you notice when you give nature your complete attention.

Madeline hiking to the top of the Vassfjellet mountain on the weekend with her housemate and PhD students from the lab. (Courtesy: Madeline)

Going back to EngSci for my last year of undergrad, my research experience as well as climbing to several mountain tops in Norway fueled me with motivation and determination. I am now also fully convinced to pursue graduate studies after I graduate.

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Susan (1T9 + PEY) – Osaka University

Over the past summer, I had the unique opportunity to conduct my own research project at Osaka University in Osaka, Japan. Under the supervision of Professor Iiguni and Associate Professor Shimokura, I researched the perceived naturalness of speech synthesis models. We encounter synthetic speech almost every day – from our voice assistants on our mobile phones, to the public announcements overheard at train stations on your commute to work. However, it is rare to hear these voices and believe that they are real humans speaking – we often intuitively understand that they are synthetic. My research aimed to understand what factors play into this inherent understanding and perception of a synthetic voice as human or robotic. Throughout my 12 weeks at the Iiguni Lab, I analyzed factors such as dynamic pitch range, fundamental frequency, and pitch contours, to see if there was a correlation between these acoustic factors, and the perceived naturalness of a synthetic voice. I began by gathering voice synthesis models from a variety of companies such as Amazon, Google, and Microsoft, and from some human voices as well. From these samples, I performed a psycho-acoustic experiment, in which participants listened to the speech samples in a pair-wise comparison method. This comparison method allowed for the speech models to be ranked via relative scale values. From this ranking, correlations were analyzed between the acoustic factors and the scale values, to see what specific factors (or groups of factors) impacted the perceived naturalness of a voice, and what factors exacerbated the “robotic-ness”.

Researching in the Iiguni Lab exposed me to a new area of research that I was not familiar with prior – acoustic signal processing – and it was exciting being able to learn from my professors, colleagues and through my own research. There is a certain intrigue that comes with diving into a field that you know little about, and slowly finding yourself becoming more and more comfortable with the field as you progress with your research. I think that this applies to engineering research in general, even if you work in a field in which you are knowledgeable, it is always refreshing to begin a project that touches on topics that you have not encountered before. My experience with acoustic signal processing has showed me how interesting it can be to conduct research in an unfamiliar area, and I hope to continue that curiosity throughout my engineering career and my future research pursuits.

Susan (far left) visiting Himeji Castle with her lab-mates. (Courtesy: Susan)

Outside of the lab, I was an amazing experience to live in the Kansai area for 3 months. The opportunities to grow personally were abundant – and this being my first time travelling alone, I learned a great deal about the culture around me, how to meet new people, and connect with those who don’t necessarily speak the same language as you. I was also grateful to live in a technologically advanced time and was inspired by the impact of our engineering feats. Without any knowledge of the Japanese language, I was able to communicate with anyone that I encountered, only using apps like Google Translate. It’s comforting knowing that I can work in nearly any location in the world and there will always be a method of communication, regardless of our background or language barriers. To top it off, every person that I met in Japan was so helpful and kind, the food was delicious, and the scenery was breathtaking – I hope to go back one day and continue my adventures.

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Rima (2T1) – Technical University of Darmstadt

This summer I had the wonderful opportunity of working as a research assistant at the Department of Lightweight Construction and Construction Methods (KLuB) within the Mechanical Engineering Department at the Technische Universität Darmstadt in Germany. Over the course of just under three months, I investigated the design and buckling behaviour of omega-stiffened plates using closed-form and finite element models.

The close study of the buckling behaviour of omega-stiffened plates is a field that has generated interest in many engineering disciplines, such as aerospace and marine engineering. While this behaviour can be studied accurately using a finite element model, a new closed-form method has been developed to produce relatively accurate results within a significantly reduced time frame, as compared to FEM. Within the many applications, namely in aircraft structures (including fuselages, wings and tail planes), the design of omega-stiffeners and other composite lightweight skin elements has been subject to a number of optimization attempts in an effort to maximize their efficiency while minimizing their weight for a more economically feasible design. As such, I was tasked with the investigation, application and evaluation of the closed-form analytical model to study the buckling behaviour of omega stiffener-supported composite plates. Through a weight minimization, coupled with the closed-form method, an optimal configuration was generated to be further analyzed using a finite element model whose results were then collated with the closed-form findings.

Rima taking the cable car up to the Neiderwald monument in Rüdesheim. (Courtesy: Rima)

This opportunity allowed me to explore applications in aircraft design and aerospace engineering, which served as a great introduction to the field in the summer leading up to my first year in the aerospace option. I also had the chance to develop my skills in MATLAB while learning about structural design and optimization. Working in a lab setting for the first time was also a great way to better understand the nature of research and get a glimpse of graduate studies, something which I hope to pursue in the future.

Fishermen houses along the Regnitz river in Bamberg. (Courtesy: Rima)

In addition to having enjoyed the research aspect, living abroad has been an experience unlike any other. Starting from the very first day, I met so many incredible people with whom I went on to share wonderful experiences and form close friendships. Between hiking in the trails of Heidelberg and Rüdesheim, climbing to the top of towers in Munich and Paris, visiting museums in Berlin and Stuttgart, and weekly dinners in Frankfurt, there was never a dull moment throughout my time in Germany. Living in a relatively small city like Darmstadt also provided a great opportunity to become immersed in the rich German culture. Aside from savouring the traditional schnitzel and käsespätzle, I very much enjoyed being able to experience the day-to-day life while learning some German in the process. Overall, this has been an amazing experience that I hope to take with me in future academic and personal endeavours.

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Anna (1T9 + PEY) – Technion – Israel Institute of Technology

I had the amazing opportunity to spend my summer doing research at the Civil, Environmental and Agricultural Robotics (CEAR) lab at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa, Israel. My research was focused on using a mini drone to aid in construction sites, specifically with marking tasks, in order to increase costs and efficiency. The problem involved using the drone’s RGB and depth sensing cameras to autonomously guide itself to specified coordinates of a surface in the room and to mark it. Other tasks that the drone could complete was to locate QR codes on a wall, hover near to them, and complete the specified task, and also to follow a laser guided by a human user.

Academically, I learned a lot in just a few months. I gained a lot of knowledge in computer vision and robotics control via implementation and testing of various algorithms and their performance. I was able to build on some of the courses I took such as Introduction to Artificial Intelligence and Signals and Systems, which was especially useful to understand the fundamentals of image processing in computer vision. The lab environment was especially conducive to my academic growth as the graduate students were very helpful and shared their insights and knowledge in the field to help me advance on the project. Being at world-renowned institution that attracts top researchers from across the globe allowed me to meet many researchers and graduate students who gave me academic and career insights. I was also able to learn about many different fields by attending lecture series by research experts. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to benefit and learn from Technion’s vibrant research community.

Anna in the CEAR lab, with the drone she was working with and various other robots used in the lab. (Courtesy: Anna)

This experience was not only enriching academically, but also personally. The office for international students of the Technion does an amazing job of organizing events for students to integrate into the institute, as well as to discover Israel and Israeli culture. Thanks to these events, I made many friends from all over the world and got to travel to almost every part of Israel. I learned about the rich and diverse cultures that live in Israel, and travelled to some of the oldest historical sites known to man. Some of my favourite trips were: visiting biblical sites in the Golan Heights, hiking in the Judean desert, exploring the ancient Roman city of Caesarea, and visiting museums and the beaches in the lively city of Tel Aviv. During my stay, I picked up a bit of Hebrew, and as a result I am currently taking Hebrew courses at UofT as my humanities electives.

Anna on the Mount of Beatitudes, overlooking the Sea of Galilee. (Courtesy: Anna)

This experience was one of a kind, and I hope to be able to visit the Technion in the near future. I learned so much in the research lab about drone systems and computer vision, made interesting friends for life from all over the world, and travelled across a country with a rich history and beautiful archaeological, biblical, and natural sites. This summer has made me seriously consider the potential of pursing graduate studies, and definitely gave me the skills required to quickly adapt to a new environment completely different to the one that you are used to.

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