More than 1,000 U of T Engineering students graduate every year (all photos by Roberta Baker)

Convocation 2013: five engineers to watch

More than 1,000 University of Toronto Engineering students graduate every year. Each one of them is exceptional, and each one has a story to tell.

Writer Pippa Wysong talked to five of those students – Shailin Gosalia, Jocelyn Light, Catherine Phillips-Smith, Luis Ramirez and Sandra Sousa – about what roads led them to U of T Engineering, and what roads they will take in the future.

For Shailin Gosalia of Mechanical Engineering, being an engineering student at U of T wasn’t about doing just the coursework, it was also about community. When he started his studies in 2008, he had just moved to Canada and understood all too well what it was like being a newcomer.

“While Toronto is an extremely multicultural city, I felt that having a strong network within the university setting would help students settle sooner,” he said. And so, three years ago, he became part of the then fledging Indian Students' Society (ISS).

The goal of the ISS is to help students become integrated with the university culture, meet people, find ways to integrate Indian and Canadian cultures, and have fun.

“They can still continue to enjoy their old cultural values while learning to integrate into a new culture. I believe in appreciating one’s roots, but moving forward in the Canadian direction – one of multi-multiculturalism, tolerance and acceptance of everyone,” he said.

The group is now 800 strong (he figures about 40 per cent are engineering students). It organizes events for Frosh Week, as well as a series of debates, shows and social gatherings throughout the year.

Gosalia spent his final year at U of T Engineering as ISS president. He was also an active member of an intramurals soccer team over the past four years, and served as both a player and coach for Tri-Campus Cricket at the University.

Not surprisingly, because of his involvement on campus, he was awarded the Gordon Cressy Student Leadership Award in recognition of his volunteer work with U of T Engineering. He also held a position at the U of T Telefund Centre, raising over $15,000 towards student scholarships and awards.

Gosalia was driven towards engineering in part because he liked mathematics and physics, but also because he had a dream of learning skills that would let him help find solutions to some of the world’s pressing problems. Partway through first year he zeroed-in on health care.

“I want to apply my engineering skills in the biomedical field to see how we can reduce the workload on healthcare workers, how we can incorporate technology into existing frameworks of the healthcare sector so we can reduce inefficiencies and improve overall care for patients.”

As Jocelyn Light of Engineering Science found out, at U of T Engineering, learning engineering skills and what it takes to become an engineer doesn’t have to be done all in the classroom. Or even in Canada for that matter.

With an underlying interest in social justice, and wanting to help people in desperate circumstances, she participated in programs that took her to different parts of Africa. Her activities led to her winning a Gordon Cressy Student Leadership Award.

One year, she spent her summer months in Gambia, thanks to a summer placement with the Centre for Global Engineering. There, she was paired with Chemical Engineering PhD student Bev Bradley who was working on ways to make medical oxygen more accessible to people who live in resource-poor areas.

One of Light’s projects was analyzing data on temperature and humidity and how it affected the lifespan of the rechargeable batteries used in portable oxygen concentrators – devices that extract and concentrate oxygen from the air. Batteries are important for various medical devices because power in Gambia is not stable, she said. She also worked on a project relating to the disposal and incineration of medical waste.

Light spent her next summer in Malawi, this time with a team from Engineers Without Borders (EWB). In Malawi, her work was related more to agriculture and the challenges faced by small-time, independent farmers.

She is keen on biomedical engineering, and her eventual goal is to be involved in projects that help people. Right now, she’s working in the EWB offices, helping to set policies, and matching people with specific talent and skills to parts of the world where it is needed.

Her work with EWB is eye-opening, she said. It’s helping her decide “what it is that I want to be doing in the sense of what I want to be contributing to our society and our systems.”

What do bees, the ocean, horses, chemistry, skiing and stage work have in common? The answer is Catherine Phillips-Smith of Chemical Engineering.

‘Variety’ is the best word to describe Phillips-Smith, whose interests include everything from being a part-time beekeeper to painting props for Skule Nite shows to participating in a summer student fellowship at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). She even helped organize the Skule Arts Festival – an annual week-long festival showcasing U of T Engineering students’ artwork.

When she first stepped onto the U of T campus, Phillips-Smith made a decision. “I figured that in four years there is so much you can do, and I’m just going to do as much as I can. University is what you make it, I tried to make it the best I could,” she said.

But her varied interests were evident at a young age. She’s been riding horses regularly for the past 12 years. She decided to become a beekeeper in high school, after reading Susan Hubbard’s vampire novel The Society of S, which had a character who kept bees.

At the end of her first year at U of T, she installed her first beehive on the farm where she goes riding. She now has eight hives, each producing up to 120 pounds of honey a year.

Phillips-Smith also installed a hive on the roof of the Galbraith Building. “It’s an experiment in urban agriculture, run partly through the department and some grad students,” she said. During her time at U of T Engineering, she tended the hive, and led workshops on beekeeping.

In the winter, she is a part-time ski instructor at Beaver Valley. And with an interest in nature and the environment, WHOI was a natural attraction. She spent three months there learning how to monitor and study ocean health by studying its colour – which indicates the amount of phytoplankton present.

“I learned a lot about the huge role the ocean plays in everything and how we’re changing it. You wouldn’t think we could change such a big part of the world – the ocean is everywhere. But we are changing it, and the changes are getting pretty out of hand,” she said.

Her passion for the environment has paid off academically. At Convocation this year, she was awarded the Mackay Hewer Memorial Prize, given to a Chemica Engineering student whose thesis/capstone design project is judged to be the best in the environmental category.

And the future? Phillips-Smith hopes to continue to work and do research relating to the environment. Naturally.

If ever two students reflected the spirit and energy of U of T Engineering, it's been Luis Ramirez and Sandra Sousa of Electrical Engineering.

Not only were they involved in a myriad of student-based campus activities, but they motivated many other students to get involved as well.

That motivation was most obvious when they co-chaired the Engineering Student Society’s Blue and Gold committee in the 2011-2012 school year. But before that, Sousa already had a history of being active in engineering activities. In her first year, she managed the Cannon Ball – an annual dinner/dance. The following year, she was named Godiva’s Crown, “something that is supposed to represent school spirit,” she said. Clearly, a sign of things to come.

She was also involved with Skule Nite for four years, working both on and backstage, and occasionally was part of Engineering's Lady Godiva Memorial Bnad (sic). Skule Nite was a natural draw – when she was growing up, she leaned towards music and drama, though as she got older she appreciated the creativity in math and science, and found herself in engineering.

Ramirez meandered his way towards engineering via an early love of playing video games. Both he and Sousa ended up in Electrical and Computer Engineering.

While serving as B&G chairs, a lot happened. They coordinated events and volunteers for Frosh Week, Godiva Week, and various clubs and parties – including bowling nights, and even a Game of Thrones Marathon. And they ran the engineering pub.

Volunteers on the committee built floats for Frosh Week – one float in the style of a big castle for the Homecoming Parade was big enough to support the entire Bnad.

A particular highlight for Ramirez and Sousa was the building of a float for Toronto’s annual Pride Parade.

“We wanted a float that would show our support for Pride and that our fellow students could identify with, so we chose to build a giant shiny version of Godiva's horse,” Ramirez said. It was the first year that U of T Engineers added a float to their normal Pride activities of simply marching in the parade. The float consisted of a big decked-out pick-up truck with a large horse sitting on top. The Bnad, along with other supporters, marched behind.

It was such a hit that Pride Toronto presented U of T Engineering with the Special Judges Award for Shock and Awe. The shock part of the award was undoubtedly earned when the engineers fired the Skule Cannon in front of the judges. “We tried to make an ‘Earth shattering kaboom’,” Ramirez joked.

All these events are inspired by longstanding U of T Engineering traditions, Ramirez said.

“We have this awesome community in engineering. So many people are involved, and there are so many different aspects to it. It gives all of us a great opportunity to come out of our shell and develop our talents,” he said.

Aside from B&G activities, and studying, Ramirez played and coached rugby. He also took a PEY elective where he worked for a company that develops mobile apps, and now has an interest in networking infrastructure.

Sousa is now helping with project management for a big hospital renovation project. She enjoys working with people and sees herself continuing work that involves teams.

Pippa Wysong is a writer with the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering at the University of Toronto.

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