Posts Tagged: ESROP

EngSci student has a message for women and girls considering STEM fields: ‘You can’

Adriana Patino

Adriana Diaz Lozano Patino, a third-year engineering science student at U of T, is focused on finding innovative solutions to global water and energy needs (photo by Nick Iwanyshyn)

 

By Rahul Kalvapalle

As a young girl growing up in Mexico, Adriana Diaz Lozano Patino (Year 3 EngSci) was always very clear on what she wanted to do when she grew up.

“Since I was very young, I loved the idea of becoming a scientist – even though when you’re 10 years old, you don’t really know what that actually means,” says Patino, who is majoring in biomedical engineering.

Last summer, Patino completed an internship in MIE’s Water and Energy Research Laboratory, which researches innovative engineering solutions for global water and energy needs. There, she worked on research pertaining to sustainable sanitation and water desalination in Mexico and Bangladesh, respectively.

The lab is directed by Associate Professor Amy Bilton (MIE), whom Patino describes as “a phenomenal role model.”

Bilton and Patino are among a growing number of women scholars, students and researchers whose work is pushing the boundaries of traditionally male-dominated STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields while helping to spread a message of inclusivity – a message that underpins the International Day of Women and Girls in Science that was adopted by the United Nations in 2015.

Patino, a Pearson Scholar, says her summer stint in Bilton’s lab – funded by the Engineering Science Research Opportunities Program – made her doubly determined to pursue a career in engineering.

Her first project saw her assist with PhD research focused on designing sustainable sanitation systems for the periphery of major cities in Mexico.

“Around 11 million Mexicans don’t have access to safe sanitation technologies, particularly those who live in the periphery of cities,” Patino says. “Mexico, just like many countries that are deemed the global south, has this really interesting interface at the periphery of major cities where you see urban and rural characteristics merging together. These communities usually lack access to general infrastructure and services.”

Her contribution to the project focused on figuring out why households were being deprived of reliable sanitation systems, particularly in Mexico City, Puebla, Guadalajara and the State of Mexico.

Using data gleaned from Mexican government and non-profit sources along with information on geographic conditions in those regions, Patino was able to zero in on some of the key variables. They included: the distance of households from downtown, the legal status of the land on which people live and access to health institutions.

“I’m from Mexico, so I grew up around this and have a vague idea of it, so it’s very important for me to be able to work on something that can eventually help people back home. Of course, it would’ve been better to be able to go there and talk to them but alas, COVID,” Patino says.

“In general, I think it’s something that’s at the heart of what the Water and Energy Research Lab does, and what Professor Bilton really wants to get her students to look at, which is understanding the community you’re going to work in and the context around the problem you’re trying to solve – so that you don’t end up doing engineering out of context and end up with solutions that may sound really cool in theory, but in practice just don’t adapt to the cultural and social context.”

Patino’s second project saw her contribute to a PhD student’s research focused on combining UV LED and reverse osmosis technologies to create a sustainable water filtration system.

“Reverse osmosis uses pressurized membranes to filter water and UV LED is usually used to kill micro-organisms. These technologies have never been coupled before, at least from what we found in the literature,” Patino explains. “We wanted to be able to build a system that would be powered by solar panels, so it can be used in remote communities. Particularly, we’re designing around a case study of a school community in Bangladesh, taking into account the geography of the area and the amount of people the system would be serving.

“What we were trying to do was to set the stage for future master’s students to come and build on the system and hopefully, one day, test it in the field.”

Patino says she hopes to go on to pursue graduate studies and research – ideally at the intersection of bio-engineering and global development.

Her passion for using engineering to solve pressing global challenges is a trait that’s increasingly prevalent among engineering students, according to her professor.

“With a lot of younger students in general, there’s a lot of interest in thinking about how they can use some of their skills to think about overall betterment of quality of life for people around the world,” says Bilton, who earned her bachelor of applied science in engineering science at U of T before going on to complete her master’s and PhD at MIT.

Bilton describes Patino as a “very positive and energetic person” who went “above and beyond” in all of her projects. She also said Patino’s work ethic and perspective as a young woman and international student from Mexico are a testament to the benefits of embracing diversity in STEM fields.

“It’s a push I make within my own group – to try and make sure we have a diverse group of students from cultural, gender and across all the spectra. I think there’s a general recognition now – that probably wasn’t there back when I was a student – that having that diversity brings a different kind of strength in terms of being able to think more broadly about problems,” says Bilton, who is also director of U of T’s Centre for Global Engineering. “Especially when the work itself is focused on inclusion, global development and making sure everyone has access to services that improve quality of life.”

Bilton notes that efforts to welcome more women and girls into STEM research and study at U of T is a key part of the university’s wider push to advance the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals – one of which is gender equality.

“I do feel like there’s a shift happening in this area and we’ve come a long way,” Bilton says. “[But] we still have a ways to go.”

As for Patino, she’s also using her time as a student to encourage young girls to pursue an education in STEM fields through her work at Hi Skule, U of T Engineering Society’s outreach club.

“We want to make sure that other girls see that you can go into STEM,” she says. “It’s not scary, you’re going to be loved, you’re going to have friends and you’re going to have faculty who support you. We’re trying to bring across the message that it’s a pretty awesome field. There’s lots to learn and women sometimes feel like they’re not going to live up to it because they’ve been taught that, but it’s completely not true.

“Particularly in the engineering community at U of T, I’ve found that the students are very supportive of each other. I’ve always felt like I’m heard and I get access to things. I never felt there’s been any challenge in my way because I’m a woman.”

Patino concedes that pursuing a career in a STEM field isn’t easy – for anyone – but stresses that women and girls are more than equipped to excel.

“Like anything in life, there are always challenges. But never think that because you’re a girl or you identify as a girl, that you can’t do it,” she says. “You can.”

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


What undergraduate summer research looks like in the time of COVID-19

By Tyler Irving

KMUTT virtual research meeting

 

Lauren Streitmatter (Year 2 EngSci) thought she’d be heading to Imperial College London this summer, but the pandemic had other plans.

“I was really looking forward to the hands-on experience working in a research lab, as well as going to Europe for the first time,” she says. “After that fell through, I didn’t have many ideas for a new summer position.”

But a few days after the cancellation, Streitmatter got an email about a new research opportunity, this one at Carnegie Mellon University. The project involved pandemic modelling, so it could be completed remotely, and the supervisor was U of T Engineering alumnus Professor Peter Zhang (EngSci 1T1, MIE MASc 1T3).

“I thought it looked really interesting,” says Streitmatter. “I got an interview and was accepted in early May to start the remote placement. We hope to uncover fundamental physical laws of epidemic processes by designing novel Explainable AI (XAI) methods.”

Lauren Streitmatter

Lauren Streitmatter is completing her summer research project remotely with Peter Zhang (EngSci 1T1, MIE MASc 1T3), a professor at Carnegie Mellon University. (Photo courtesy Lauren Streitmatter)

Streitmatter is one of dozens of U of T Engineering students who are forging ahead with summer research placements, despite the physical distancing restrictions in place throughout much of the world.

More than 50 of these projects are supported through the Engineering Science Research Opportunities Program (ESROP), which provides fellowships that are matched by project supervisors. ESROP is made possible by philanthropic donations from many benefactors, including Engineering Science alumni and industry partners.

“We’ve had an absolutely tremendous response from our partners both here at U of T and abroad, many of whom are our alumni,” says Scott Sleeth, Curriculum Officer in the Division of Engineering Science, who coordinates summer research placements.

“Summer is a perfect time to explore and learn in these open-ended projects,” says Zhang. “My mentors — including Dean Emerita Cristina Amon (MIE), David Romero, professors Chris Beck (MIE), Tim Chan (MIE), and Yu-Ling Cheng (ChemE) — lit the entrance for me, and I hope I can do something similar for future generations of students.”

All of the placements are being completed online. Many of them focus on topics such as data science, artificial intelligence, or bioinformatics, which naturally lend themselves to remote collaboration.

Like Streitmatter, some of the students have shifted their placements from one supervisor to another, including many within U of T. But others are going ahead with their original placements abroad, albeit virtually.

These include eight students studying with Professor Jonathan Chan (EngSci 8T4, ChemE MASc 8T7, PhD 9T5) another EngSci alumnus who is now a professor at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi.

“We all have biweekly meetings with Professor Chan and each other to keep updated on relevant online events, such as seminars and conferences, and to check-in on the progress everyone is making,” says Dunja Matic (Year 3 EngSci).

Matic is working on two projects: one which uses physiological data from EEGs or ECGs to train algorithms to classify emotions, and another that uses deep learning (a form of artificial intelligence) to predict the effects of genetic variations.

“I am being challenged to learn about topics that are out of my comfort zone, such as artificial intelligence,” says Matic. “The new plan for this placement is still very exciting, despite not being able to work in person.”

“Everything is going as expected,” says Chan. “There are ups-and-downs as usual and the team is learning to work with one another and their mentors and research collaborators. In some ways, I’d say this batch of students is able to produce even more as they able to focus on the projects that they selected. But we may distract them with some other events so they do not overexert themselves.”

The high number of placements is another example of the way that U of T Engineering is adapting to the new normal.

“I’m quite pleased with how this all turned out,” says Sleeth. “It’s been rewarding to see the lengths to which professors are willing to go to ensure that these students can still have meaningful research experiences, and to support them in their professional development.”


EngSci student named Knight-Hennessy Scholar at Stanford University

EngSci student Netra Unni Rajesh (1T9 + PEY) will pursue graduate studies at Stanford University with a focus on cancer treatment. (Photo: Knight-Hennessy Scholars Stanford)

 

Graduating student Netra Unni Rajesh (1T9 + PEY) has been selected from over 6,000 international applicants for a prestigious scholarship at Stanford University. She will join a cohort of students from around the world as a 2020 Knight-Hennessy Scholar as she pursues a PhD in bioengineering.

Rajesh will focus her PhD research on designing new cancer technologies to help expedite patients’ recovery. She was initially drawn to cancer research after completing a high school science fair project. When she later met a patient undergoing chemotherapy, she learned how physically arduous treatments were. Her hope is to integrate the experience she gained with biomaterials engineering, cancer technology development and immunoengineering during her time in EngSci to design novel tools that can help cancer patients in the clinic.

“Netra is a wonderful example of an EngSci student who took full advantage of the opportunities available to all of our students,” says EngSci Chair Professor Will Cluett. “She illustrates the value of investing in our students at an early stage in their academic careers.”

About half of EngSci students pursue graduate studies or enrol in professional schools in medicine, business, law or architecture after completing their undergraduate degrees. Rajesh is among the many EngSci students who take advantage of the wide range of opportunities offered during their undergraduate program to build their research skills. As a Year 1 student she secured a summer research position at the National University of Singapore, with support from the Engineering Science Summer Research Opportunities Program (ESROP). She spent her summer after Year 3 at Caltech, through an ESROP – Global fellowship, and her PEY Co-op placement at MIT, working on technologies for cancer drug delivery and vaccine production, respectively.

“My time in EngSci has been a life-changing experience,” says Rajesh. “I am especially grateful to have had the opportunity to pursue cutting-edge research abroad, and be surrounded by hardworking students that constantly push the boundaries.”

Learn more about EngSci students gaining research experience.


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