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Convocation 2014 grads to watch: city builders

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, who receives his PhD this week, is already working as an assistant professor of criminal justice and an adjunct professor in the department of African American studies at the Indiana University (above photo by Brian Summers

Universities play a key role in building and strengthening cities, helping them connect with the world and reinvent themselves in dynamic ways.

And this week, as the University of Toronto celebrates the achievements of its newest alumni, many of those graduates are already hard at work creating better buildings, safer streets and healthier communities.

Writer Jelena Damjanovic spoke with four U of T city builders about how their work is strengthening cities and communities across North America.

“The new Structural Testing Laboratory at U of T is widely recognized as one of the best such facilities in North America and was crucial in my decision to complete my MASc in civil engineering at U of T,” says William (Jun) Luo, who also completed his undergrad at U of T. “It provided me with the tools, machines and technology necessary for producing high-quality experimental data, which became the foundation of my work and helped my research be selected for a presentation at an international conference.” 

Luo’s graduate research focused on understanding and experimentally verifying the seismic behaviour of steel fibre-reinforced concrete, a high-performance concrete. 

“The experimental data from this work will be important, as available literature in this area is limited, says Luo (pictured at left).

Luo’s passion to become a structural engineer was ignited in a third-year course in reinforced concrete design taught by Professor Frank Vecchio, who would later become his grad school supervisor and mentor, while Luo became the course’s head teaching assistant.

"My six years as a student at U of T helped me acquire the technical foundation necessary for a structural engineer,” says Luo. “But, more importantly, U of T taught me how to learn – a skill essential for any career.”

Now a structural engineer in training (EIT) at a startup structural engineering firm in Central Alberta, Luo is working on designs and 3D modelling of dozens of commercial, industrial and residential buildings across Alberta. 

“I find my work meaningful knowing that the structures I helped to design will be around and safe for many generations to come,” says Luo. “It’s a great feeling to stroll through the highway and see these buildings standing and occupied.” 

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah receives his PhD this week but the U of T Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies alumnus is already serving as an assistant professor of criminal justice and an adjunct professor in the department of African American studies at Indiana University. 

Owusu-Bempah’s dissertation focused on the policing of Black males in the Greater Toronto Area and resulted in a significant concession by a provincial ministry to release youth correctional statistics that included racial descriptors. 

Not only was the data eventually released – after two years and numerous submissions to Ontario’s Privacy Commissioner – the Toronto Star also ran a weekend special based on the information that I, with help from several colleagues, was able to obtain.”

Owusu-Bempah came to U of T specifically to work with Professor Scot Wortley on issues of social justice. Soon after his arrival, Wortley had him working on a research project that formed the basis of his master’s thesis and led to his first academic publication. 

“The experience and guidance I received under his tutelage has been invaluable,” says Owusu-Bempah. 

He describes the Centre of Criminology and Sociolegal Studies as a small and warm place, where he was able to learn from each of the professors within the department and received much support from staff and fellow students. 

“I was also very fortunate to be a fellow at Massey College during my time at U of T,” says Owusu-Bempah. “The College provided a unique environment where I was able to learn from a variety of people with a wide range of views and experiences.” 

Owusu-Bempah is currently working with the data from the sample of Black police officers who participated in his PhD research to produce a number of journal articles.

“Ultimately, I’d like to develop a comparative study that will examine the similarities and differences between the U.S. and Canada in terms of race and policing,” says Owusu-Bempah.

Spencer Harrison (pictured below left) is Canada’s first-ever academic to paint a PhD dissertation examining the issues of growing up gay in rural Ontario, using a tent for a canvas. 

The outside walls of the tent are images of "freaks" and circus performers intertwined with images of Harrison as he is often negatively imagined as a gay man. The images inside the tent reveal a typical rural upbringing with images of Harrison’s family, friends and his community.

The underpainting is a text interrupted by the images painted over and around it, leaving the viewer with the ability to only access part of the story. 

This reflects sexual and gender minority youths' experience of being silenced, erased and forced to change some of their own narratives for safety sake,” says Harrison.

“It allows the viewer to see the layers of complications for these youth in trying to formulate strong, positive senses of self and the resilience to navigate a still homophobic and transphobic society.”

The research has prompted Harrison to be invited to more than a dozen conferences as the keynote speaker, sharing what he has learned with sexual and gender minority youth. 

Many youth have told me that after encountering my tent, my narratives and me as a role model they will not take their lives,” says Harrison. “It is saving lives.”

Now a faculty member at OCAD University, where he continues to research, paint, teach and learn, Harrison says he is grateful for the support from the U of T Accessibility Services for helping him navigate his learning disabilities and complete his PhD.

“The calibre of students I shared classes with deepened the quality of experiences I had in the Adult Education and Community Development program, and the courses I took with Bonnie Burstow were the best in all of my academic career.”

Tyler Hunt pursued his master’s degree in engineering while working full-time at U of T’s Sustainability Office.

“In my work, I’m continually confronted with the sustainability challenges of the University – how can we be conscious of the energy and resources we use, and how do we enhance our position as environmental stewards?” Hunt says. “In my program, I was able to learn and apply engineering methods and strategies for overcoming these sustainability challenges.”

Among the projects Hunt (pictured at left) worked on was Gemini House, a heritage property on campus that was renovated into a highly-efficient home by the department of civil engineering and Housing Services. 

Early results showed the home using 50-75 per cent less energy than a conventional home, which demonstrates that highly-efficient and innovative homes are not a future possibility, but a current reality, says Hunt. 

“The project also illustrated the tremendous opportunity for our campus to become a ‘living laboratory’ of university research. Rather than our world-leading researchers experimenting elsewhere, why not allow them to test and optimize their work here on campus? It creates a very enriching and exciting space to study.”  

Hunt’s favourite memories of his days in the classroom are of moments when professors made key connections between theory and ‘real-world’ challenges and opportunities. 

He was particularly inspired by Professor Kim Pressnail, whom he describes as always committed to his cause – the optimization of buildings – but always adding lessons in the responsibility of engineers. 

“We are entering a world with a great deal of influence over the structures we build and people who use them,” says Hunt, “so it’s our inherent responsibility to have a moral and environmental compass guiding our work.”    

Jelena Damjanovic writes about urban issues and community outreach at the University of Toronto.