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Helping leading international students bring their talents to Ontario

Samah El-Tantawy's smarter traffic light technology has grabbed headlines around the world (photo by Johnny Guatto)

Ontario will fund a limited number of international PhD students starting in 2015-16, bringing the province – and its universities – more in line with the policy in other Canadian jurisdictions.

“Ontario has been the only province that has not provided operating support for international PhD students,” the University of Toronto’s Judith Wolfson, vice-president, international, government and institutional relations, said in an interview. 

“Ontario universities have been working with the province to solve this problem and we welcome this important decision as a small but important step toward deeper internationalization.”

The university will now be able to direct the funding for one quarter of the newly funded PhD positions set out in the Strategic Mandate Agreement with the Government of Ontario to international PhD students.

“We are attracting the brightest students from all over the world, and they bring with them a global perspective,” Wolfson said. “They enhance the quality of the experience of all PhD students.”

Among many U of T examples is Nilesh Bansal, who came to from Bombay to do a PhD in computer science and co-invented Blogscope, a market-analysis tool. Sysomos, the company he co-founded in 2007 with computer science professor Nick Koudas, was acquired by Marketwire in 2011 and remains in Toronto.

Or there’s Xiaohua Qu, a 1995 PhD in materials science engineering from China, who went on to establish Canadian Solar. The Guelph-based firm is one of the world's largest solar-energy systems manufacturers with 18 subsidiaries and more than 8,500 employees worldwide. (Read more about Qu in U of T Magazine.)

And more recently there’s Samah El-Tantawy, who came to U of T from Egypt and completed her PhD in civil engineering in 2012. She also developed MARLIN, an artificial-intelligence-based traffic light system that attracted wide media attention. The technology, which uses machine learning to help traffic lights self-optimize, improves the flow of traffic and reduces maintenance and infrastructure operating costs.

With her professor, Baher Abdulhai, El- Tantawy co-founded Pragmatek Transport Innovations in 2013 and won one of U of T's Inventor of the Year awards in 2014. (Read more about her award-winning work.) (Listen to a podcast with El-Tantawy.)

Ontario universities expect to have many more success stories such as these under the new policy.