Meet seven women who are U of T Engineering's 'Grads to Watch' in 2021
As the University of Toronto airs its virtual spring convocation ceremony, graduates from the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering are marking the end of one journey and the beginning of another.
They will join the faculty’s vibrant, global network of alumni as they continue to address pressing challenges around the world.
Below are seven women from the faculty’s 14 “Grads to Watch 2021” list. Each member of the list was selected by their home department and institute and illustrate the creativity, innovation and global impact that define the U of T Engineering community.
PhD in chemical engineering
Throughout her degree program, Samantha Cheung searched for opportunities to advocate for her fellow graduate students by serving on committees, organizing events and launching new student life programs.
“One of the most important skills I developed during my PhD is emotional intelligence,” she says. “Working with so many people from different backgrounds helped me become a better leader, co-worker and person.”
An active member of the Graduate Engineering Council of Students, Cheung started a Mental Wellness Commission and an Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Commission, both of which have made key recommendations to enhance graduate student life.
She also led the creation of the first-ever U of T Engineering Research Conference, which took place virtually last June.
“I'm also still in awe over how quickly my team put it together,” she says. “It is so important for graduate students to practise presenting their work, and to have a way to connect with each other, especially when labs were shut down due to COVID-19.”
Cheung’s own research focused on optimizing growing conditions for microalgae, single-celled organisms that can produce chemicals used in everything from biofuel to nutritional supplements and cosmetics. Combining this expertise with her leadership experience will, she hopes, enable her to make a difference in Canada’s biotech industry.
“I believe that harnessing the power of biology will be an important part of a more sustainable future,” she says. “I want to be one of the people conducting this impactful research.”
Bachelor’s degree, civil engineering
Throughout her undergraduate studies, Karen Chu jumped at any opportunity to both represent U of T Engineering and to be a voice for her peers.
She joined the CivClub, quickly moving up each year – from mentorship director, to becoming the student club’s chair. As a student ambassador working in the Engineering Recruitment Office, she helped prospective students make the decision to choose U of T Engineering. And through the Girls' Leadership in Engineering Experience initiative, run by the Engineering Outreach office, she shared her experiences to inspire the next generation of female engineers.
Like many civil engineering students, Chu says the highlight of her studies was survey camp. She and her classmates built their class monument, which consisted of a clear resin table that encased mementos from their undergraduate years, a tetherball pole and a concrete stepping stone with their class year written on it with mosaic tiles.
“This experience incorporated all the elements of U of T Engineering – teamwork, designing and building, fun with friends, hard work and challenges, and a lasting impact,” says Chu.
Her biggest lesson from her undergraduate experience is to never give up and to never hesitate to ask for help – a message she wants to share with current and upcoming first years.
“Asking for help when needed has been vital to my personal growth,” she says. “I also learned the importance of community and communication. No work, especially in engineering, can be done alone and we need to be able to understand each other to accomplish goals together.”
Upon graduation, Chu plans to pursue a career in residential construction and apply her knowledge of building science to design sustainable homes.
Chinmayee (May) Gidwani
Bachelor's degree, engineering science
Throughout her studies at U of T Engineering, Chinmayee (May) Gidwani’s guiding principle has been to help build a sense of belonging among students, whether welcoming new engineering students as part of the F!rosh Week team, or as the Engineering Society’s equity and inclusivity director.
“Being the EDI director was challenging, but I learned so much about different perspectives of the diverse student body, and how to approach reconciling them to come up with solutions that don't leave anyone behind,” says Gidwani.
In her final year at U of T Engineering, Gidwani completed an undergraduate thesis on ethics in artificial intelligence (AI), where she developed a practical framework to approach ethical AI development. This work could be helpful in her future endeavors, as she returns to her PEY co-op placement at AMD to work on operating systems.
If she could describe her engineering experience in one word, Gidwani says it is “rewarding.”
“Even though these past few years at U of T have been challenging, it has been incredibly rewarding to learn and grow from these experiences,” she explains. “All the late-night study sessions and last-minute group meetings have made me more confident in my abilities as a leader and engineer.”
Bachelor’s degree in materials science engineering
It was while working as a park ranger in Killarney Provincial Park, near Georgian Bay in Ontario, that Yilin Huang first realized the power of drones.
“During the summer after first year, a team of researchers came to the park with industrial drones for environmental monitoring,” she says. “I became really invested in the idea of using them to monitor and preserve whole, intact ecosystems, and keep these places wild.”
Huang’s passion led her around the world. After her second year, she headed to the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany, where she co-authored a publication on a spectral library of urban materials used as training data for drones. This was followed by an academic exchange to the National University of Singapore, where she specialized in Southeast Asia environmental management strategies.
After her third year, Huang spent a year in Switzerland on a Professional Experience Year co-op internship at Flyability, a drone start-up that specializes in collision-tolerant inspection drones.
“What I learned is that when it comes to new technology, in many instances it’s not functionality that’s lacking, but rather regulations that prevent efficient implementation,” she says. After convocation, she aims to bridge this gap by pursuing a master’s degree in science, technology and policy at ETH Zurich in Switzerland.
Outside of her research, Huang is an active proponent of effective altruism and is a fellow with Stanford’s Effective Altruism Fellowship. She is also an avid violinist, playing with Skule Nite's Band, the Lausanne Student Chamber Orchestra in Switzerland, and the Hart House Orchestra, with which she performed at Carnegie Hall in 2017.
Huang has advice for new students.
"Instead of asking yourself what degree you’ll get in five years, ask yourself what kind of person you want to be in five years,” she says. “Seek the experiences that build towards that and the degree will find a way to work.”
Bachelor’s degree, electrical and computer engineering
Every year, Dana Kokoska volunteered at Girl’s Leadership in Engineering Experience (GLEE), an annual event to inspire young female students to pursue engineering at U of T. It’s one of the many outreach and community-driven extracurricular activities Kokoska took part in – or led – during her undergraduate studies.
She was the Hi-Skule director, leading a team to design and run outreach initiatives for high school and middle school students, as well as the vice-chair, marketing for F!rosh Week this past fall. In the latter role she faced unprecedented challenges, as Kokoska and her team had to find a way to rally students’ spirit, adapt traditions and help welcome first-year students to U of T Engineering – all without stepping foot on campus.
“Working with an incredibly driven orientation committee to deliver F!rosh Week to the incoming class during a pandemic is an experience I will never forget,” she says.
Overcoming such obstacles has shown Kokoska the importance of perseverance.
“U of T Engineering was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life. I struggled a lot, especially in first and second year, with academics and finding a work-life balance,” says Kokoska. “As I continued in my studies, I learned how to adapt to new challenges. Perseverance, effort, as well as a lot of practice, led me to improve myself overall and gave me opportunities I would have never imagined having. For that I am extremely grateful.”
After graduation, Kokoska will begin working at Honeywell Aerospace as an electromagnetic compatibility electrical engineer. But just like her time at U of T Engineering, she is already carving out time for extracurriculars: “I am also opening a small business, Daydreamy Design, to pursue my passion for the visual arts,” she says.
Chibulu (Lulu) Luo
PhD, civil engineering
“I am passionate about using my engineering skills to address global challenges,” says Chibulu (Lulu) Luo.
Luo’s doctoral research examined current and future trends of energy use and greenhouse gas emissions in one of Africa’s largest and fastest growing cities: Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.
“What was most exciting about my research was the opportunity to explore important sustainability and energy sector questions and conduct extensive fieldwork in Dar es Salaam,” says Luo. “I appreciate the fact that I led doctoral work that both aligns with this passion and aims to inform policies and investments for improved energy access and societal well-being in developing countries.”
In Dar es Salaam, Luo coordinated a diverse team of local graduate students who helped to administer her research survey to more than 1,300 households across the city. Her research has also taken her to Ghana, Zambia and Rwanda.
She says one of her proudest moments during her time at U of T Engineering was helping to lead the faculty’s Engineering Education for Sustainable Cities in Africa (EESC-A) project.
“I still have fond memories of 2018, a time when two of my EESC-A colleagues travelled from Toronto to Dar es Salaam to mark EESC-A’s presence at a policy workshop that I was planning as part of my fieldwork,” she recalls. “My memory is still painted with the joyous image of our after-workshop dinner and celebration at a beachfront restaurant in Dar es Salaam.”
Luo is currently working as a consultant with the World Bank’s Climate Investment Funds, providing research and strategic expertise to various renewable energy projects around the world.
She says she’s not entirely sure what the future holds, but “I certainly want to continue fuelling my passion for research, teaching and topics that are globally relevant and significant.”
PhD, biomedical engineering
For Marta Overchuk, completing her PhD has felt like riding a roller coaster. “It brought some of the most rewarding experiences of my life, but it also taught me not to be afraid of failures, and to learn from them,” she says.
Her thesis focused on the use of light and light-activated molecules to destroy cancer cells with precision. Specifically, she explored how this approach could be combined with nanomedicine to improve the uptake of chemotherapeutics in tumors. The goal is to reduce toxicity while maintaining positive outcomes for cancer patients.
Overchuk earned a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, as well as a research expansion grant from U of T’s Photonics Innovation Centre, which funded a research exchange to the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. After graduation, she will take up a post-doctoral position at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Outside of her research, Overchuk is passionate about making science accessible to everyone. She communicates through short-form videos that she shares on her social media channels. She also maintains a connection with her alma mater in Ukraine and delivers workshops to undergraduate and high school students who are interested in studying abroad. By sharing her academic journey and career advice, she strives to provide students in Ukraine with resources and information that were not easily accessible when she was studying there herself.
Overchuk says that collaboration is key to doing high-impact science.
“My advice to grad students would be to find your niche and embrace working with others,” she says. “Not only does it enrich your science and allow you to grow your scientific network, but it also makes your experience so much more enjoyable.”