Global Day of the Engineer: five U of T engineers transforming Google, Twitter, and more
Meet the alumni who are changing everything from the Internet to the cosmetics industry
Next time you powder your nose, thank an engineer.
University of Toronto civil engineering alumna Hana Zalzal, co-founder of Cargo Cosmetics, might be the brains behind your compact.
In fields from beauty to health to education, today's engineers are making inroads and solving problems in areas that might surprise you.
Feb. 24 is the first Global Day of the Engineer. Meet five U of T engineers who are #EngineeringtheUnexpected.
Hana Zalzal: Professional makeup maven
What do Hollywood stars Courtney Cox, Camryn Manheim, Lindsay Lohan and Debra Messing have in common? They have all designed custom lipstick shades for Cargo Cosmetics, a professional makeup line founded by alumna Hana Zalzal.
Zalzal, who graduated in 1988, worked as an engineer, marketer and financial analyst before founding Cargo Cosmetics in 1995 from her home in North York. Over the past 20 years, Cargo has grown to become one of the most innovative and sought-after brands among professional makeup artists, celebrities and consumers worldwide.
Cargo's products have been featured in Time magazine, the Wall Street Journal and a multitude of fashion and beauty publications. Hit television shows American Horror Story, Girls, The Mindy Project and Modern Family as well as the films Insidious, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Iron Man 2 have used Cargo Cosmetics. They have also been included in official gift bags for prestigious events such as the Academy Awards, Emmy Awards and Golden Globes.
True to its engineering roots, Cargo has even made an impact on the international design community: the company’s foundation pouch won a 2006 DuPont Award for Innovation in Packaging and a 2007 Red Dot Award for Product Design.
Zalzal attributes the key to Cargo’s success to never being satisfied with the status quo.
“For me, it was all about continually asking myself, ‘How can this be better?’” she said. “It was about the innovation, and the innovation that drove [Cargo] to continually seek new ways of presenting product. Sometimes it was in application, sometimes it was in formulation and sometimes it was in packaging.”
Zalzal was included on The Caldwell Partners list of Canada’s Top 40 under 40 in 2004 and received an Arbor Award for her outstanding personal service to the University of Toronto.
Jonathan Sun: Engineer, architect, social media sensation
City builder? Cultural commentator? Hip-hop aficionado? It’s impossible to label Jonathan Sun, a 2011 grad. He’s trained as an engineer, interdisciplinary architect, visual artist, writer, performer and comedian. He may be best known by his Twitter alias “jomny sun, aliebn confuesed abot humamn lamgauge.”
His tweets, which the The Yale Herald has described as “sometimes funny and sometimes moving, but usually both,” have earned him more than 130,000 followers and a steady stream of media coverage.
Read about Sun on Buzzfeed
Read about Sun on Vice
Read about Sun on NPR
Read about Sun on Motherboard
As a high school student, Sun considered studying drama, but changed his mind after meeting students in U of T’s Engineering Science program. “They were captains of sports teams, directors of Skule Nite, conductors of orchestras, and so on,” he says. “It really shattered my expectations, to find out that you could apply that engineering thought process to whatever you want to do.”
He enrolled in Engineering Science, majoring in infrastructure engineering. In 2012, Sun not only directed Skule Nite – the annual musical-comedy revue produced by U of T’s Engineering Society – but also served as its head writer and oversaw the creation of electroluminescent lightsuits that lit up the performers’ bodies.
After graduating from U of T, Sun completed a Master of Architecture at Yale University. There he studied the emergence of graffiti culture in New York and designed a city block in a master-planned project near Brasilia. He also found time to write and workshop a one-act play called Fried Mussels at the Yale School of Drama, and create an installation entitled The Light Column for the New Haven ArtSpace gallery. On graduation from Yale, he was awarded the William Edward Parsons Memorial Medal for his distinctive work in city planning.
Sun is currently pursuing a PhD in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I just started my thesis, but at this point my idea is to examine the use of Twitter as a way to understand how the public experiences cities,” he says.
As for the future, Sun is still undecided. He recently published in the humour site McSweeney’s, was voted the fifth funniest Twitter account of 2015 by Playboy magazine, and is recording a hip-hop album. “I’ve realized that I function best when I have a hand in many different things, so I mostly just want to keep doing that,” he says. “I’m very happy being undefinable.”
Listen to Sun on NPR:
Catherine Lacavera: Google’s patent litigation all-star
Catherine Lacavera, a 1997 grad, never wanted to become an engineer. From day one, her intent was to become a patent lawyer. But acquiring an engineering education was an important part of her career plan.
“First and foremost, an engineering degree gives you instantaneous credibility among other engineers and attorneys,” said Lacavera, director of intellectual property law and litigation at Google. “People know that engineering gives you a baseline education in math and science. A lot of what I do at Google requires a technical understanding of software and hardware, and the Internet.My underlying technical knowledge helps me understand my work.”
Her U of T Engineering degree provided her with more than just technical knowledge. Lacavera designed a workflow for the way her office at Google handles patent litigation cases.
“You can bring innovation into whatever job you are doing,” she said. “My team is designed around what I call the ‘Model T Ford of patent litigation.' We create processes for how every case is handled, from soup to nuts, every aspect of litigation. That’s engineering. We’re handing fully one per cent of all patent litigation in the United States, and we wouldn’t be able to scale at that rate or to that level with such a small team without that type of process in place.”
Lacavera joined Google in 2005. Since then she has advised on a number of high-profile and complex licenses and acquisitions, including the acquisitions of Motorola Mobility and Nest, the sale of Motorola Home and the $490-million multi-party license with Tivo. In 2013, Fortune magazine named her one of its “40 Under 40” and called her “Google’s secret weapon in the smartphone wars.”
Lacavera is also an engaged volunteer and donor at U of T Engineering. She sits on The Edward S. Rogers Sr. Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering (ECE) Alumni Advisory Board and is involved with the Entrepreneurship Hatchery.
Brian Mech: Artificial vision pioneer
Brian Mech’s career path was inspired in part by the fictional civil engineer Cyrus Smith in Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island. “He basically develops a whole civilization on this island,” says Mech, who read the book as a teenager and earned his PhD in 1997. “I just thought it was remarkable how much engineers knew and how much they could do.”
While he knew he wanted to build things that had never been built before, Mech still wasn’t sure what form that would take. During his graduate studies at U of T Engineering, he focused on improving the materials used to build nuclear reactors.
Things took a sharp turn one day in 1999 when he got a call from a fledgling company called Second Sight. They wanted his expertise in materials science to help develop an artificial retina that could restore vision to the blind.
“For the most part, the engineering and scientific community held that it was impossible to build a device that would work,” says Mech. Over the next 16 years, Mech and his team proved them wrong. They designed and built an ultra-thin, self-contained implant capable of receiving external signals sent from a special pair of glasses worn by the user and turn them into electrical signals that stimulate cells at the back of the eye. Today, the device is restoring vision loss in hundreds of patients with a condition called retinitis pigmentosa.
Over time, Mech found himself drawn toward the business side of the company, and eventually returned to school part-time to complete an MBA. Recently, he left Second Sight to become the CEO of eSight, a Toronto-based company that builds wearable devices which restore nearly normal vision to people with a wide range of sight-damaging conditions.
Given the twists and turns in his career, Mech says that engineering was the ideal background to have. “I just think it’s excellent training for almost anything you want to do.”
Anne Sado: Engineering an approach to one of Canada’s most creative colleges
Anne Sado had already led one full and successful career when she decided to launch a new one.
The industrial engineer joined Bell Canada immediately following her graduation from U of T Engineering in 1977. After spending 25 years working her way up the corporate ranks, she decided she needed a change.
“I had the good fortune of being eligible for an early retirement,” Sado said. “I decided it would be great to think about a different future.”
She engineered that future around her love of learning: in 2004 Sado was named president of Toronto’s George Brown College.
“What I realized was that there was an amazing synergy between what I had been doing in my career – my background, the skills I built – and my interests in the city and applied education,” she said. “I was selected for the role. Here I am in my 13th year and I haven’t looked back.”
Under Sado’s leadership, George Brown College has doubled in size and established itself as part of Toronto’s social, economic and cultural fabric. She credits her engineering background for her success as an academic leader.
“My engineering education really made me think about things as a system and how everything fits together,” she said. “When I think of my leadership style and I look at the institution that I’m managing, I take a look at the big picture, how things fit together and what element or areas of expertise I require to make the entire system work.
Sado has served as a director of several professional organizations, including the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers and the Association of Canadian Community Colleges. She has been a member of the President’s Council of the University of Toronto Engineering Alumnae Association, Dean’s Advisory Board and Engineering Campaign Cabinet. In 2013, she was appointed Member of the Order of Canada.
(photo credits for composite image used at top of article: Hana Zalzal, Christopher Sun, Google, Brian Mech, George Brown College)