U of T's top undergrad credits 4.0 GPA to his decision to 'learn about how I was learning'
When Ben Agro arrived at the University of Toronto after high school, he didn’t know what to expect from his courses in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering.
“I worked really hard that first year, but not in a way that was efficient or followed a particular technique,” he says. “But then the COVID-19 pandemic happened towards the end of that year, and it forced me to learn about how I was learning.”
What Agro discovered was that he thrived in an asynchronous environment that allowed him to process lecture slides on his own. He also discovered that his retention went up when he adopted spaced repetition, a learning technique that uses flashcards at different intervals to recall information.
“I would go through each of my lecture slides and notes and make cards in a question-and-answer format, which I then uploaded to an app that helped me review in a way that increased my retention by prioritizing the concepts I had the most difficulty with,” he says.
“It really reduced the amount of time I had to study for tests because I wasn’t cramming – I already knew what I had learned.”
Agro’s hard work paid off. He is graduating with a 4.0 GPA and the highest grades among his cohort of fellow undergraduates across U of T’s three campuses. The distinction makes him the 2023 recipient of the John Black Aird Scholarship, which is awarded annually to the top undergraduate student at U of T. He is also receiving a Governor General’s Silver Medal for his excellent academic record.
“I didn’t really expect to receive these awards so it’s a nice surprise,” says Agro. “These past four years have been hard but full of many new experiences that helped me understand what I am truly capable of.”
An avid rock climber, Agro says bouldering – a form of rock climbing that is done without the use of ropes and harnesses – is not unlike studying engineering.
“The main similarity between the two is that feeling of progression. When you start bouldering and you try a new climb, it can feel completely impossible,” he says. “But then, after working on it and training over time, the impossible suddenly becomes achievable.
“I also feel the same way about my academic life: the more I’ve learned, the easier it has been for me to pick up new things because they sort of build in the same way.”
During his undergraduate career, Agro took the time to build his research expertise through summer internships, beginning with a post at the Autonomous Space and Robotics Lab, supervised by Tim Barfoot, a professor at the U of T Institute for Aerospace Studies.
The following summer Agro was a research intern at the Robotics Vision and Learning Lab, supervised by Florian Shkurti, an assistant professor in U of T Mississauga’s department of mathematical and computational sciences. For his third summer internship, Agro tailored his search to industry research labs, eventually accepting an opportunity to be a researcher at Waabi, where he worked on next-generation autonomous driving systems under Raquel Urtasun a professor in the department of computer science in the Faculty of Arts & Science who is the startup’s founder and CEO.
“My third-year internship at Waabi turned into a part-time internship throughout my fourth year, which allowed me to finish up some projects,” Agro says. “And once I finished my final exams, I began working there full time as a research scientist.”
Agro will also be starting a direct-entry PhD under the supervision of Urtasun in the fall, with research related to autonomous driving.
“I haven’t decided on an area of focus yet,” he says. “But I know I want to complete my PhD and do it while I’m working because I am eager to make immediate contributions to the autonomous driving arena.”