#UofTBTS16: Introducing U of T’s Class of 2020

Incoming first years are ready to make their mark
(Photo courtesy Grace King)

From an aspiring filmmaker to an environmental activist, a musician who loves math and a student who has already been recognized for his stellar research, U of T's incoming Class of 2020 is something special. 

U of T News writer Krisha Ravikantharaja spoke to four first years who are all recipients of U of T’s National Scholarship, a program which is marking its 30th anniversary at the university. While they share an academic enthusiasm toward the next four years, these students are a reminder of the wide array of interests and experiences the Class of 2020 is bringing with them.

Grace King’s decision to pursue a double major in environmental studies and anthropology is motivated by her belief that effective activism requires a humanistic approach, or rather putting a face to statistics.

When she returned from an expedition to the Arctic in the summer before her final year of high school, King (pictured above) started the Arctic Awareness Program, a program where she used her own experience to “shift the way children were thinking about climate change and culture in the north.”

Last year, King’s program reached nearly 1,000 Grade 4 to Grade 5 students in Newfoundland.

King was also the leader of the mental health and awareness committee at her high school, and spearheaded a project called Paint it Positive. Over Easter break, the committee painted two washrooms with a mural installation that covered up violent and hurtful comments on the stalls. 

“We wanted to see what happens when you try to replace destruction with self-expression. Above the mirrors, we wrote things like, ‘You are worthy’ and ‘You are appreciated,’” she said.

What are you looking forward to most at U of T?
I’m looking forward to the beauty of just being a sponge. This time is so special because I get to be here for the main purpose of sitting in a classroom where people who have dedicated their professions to some passion of learning that makes them feel something are able to provide me with enrichment for my brain and allow me to expand it, and I think that’s something that we take for granted too often.

What are you looking forward to about going to school in Toronto?
I miss the coast already, but Toronto is bustling, and it’s very alive. Yesterday, I went to my first class, and I am just watching all these humans just walking everywhere. Everyone’s got somewhere to go. I think that can be a very cool thing. Toronto’s got so much happening.

Why did you choose U of T?
I was attracted to U of T also because it has such a such a strong foundation for education students in social sciences and humanities. I was influenced to choose it for how it might shape and shift my opportunities as an activist. I think 'my thing' is taking climate change awareness and turning it into something that people can access more. I’m hoping I can shake things up a bit when it comes to the activism scene here.

Born and raised in Victoria, B.C., Nathan Kuehne comes to U of T with more experiences as a researcher in life sciences than the average first year. In Grade 9, Nathan was selected to represent British Columbia at the Canada-wide science fair where he was inspired by the work of other students across the country. When he returned to Victoria, he worked in a medicinal chemistry lab at the University of Victoria.

In Grade 11, he developed an at home test for phenylketonuria (PKU). Kuehne explains that if you have PKU, your body can’t metabolize protein because of an amino acid called phenylalanine. Because there is no cure, patients must avoid eating protein, and monitor how much phenylalanine is in their bloodstream. The current method requires that patients send a blood sample to a lab, making it hard to self regulate and including a week-long waiting period. Nathan’s alternative was a a machine that uses a urine sample.

“After a quick filtration it’s automated by turning a device, a colour change is produced which indicates to the patient how much phenylalanine is in their body so they can self-regulate and self-correct their diet.”

Kuehne went on to present this research at the Canada-wide science fair, and was then invited to present it at TEDxVictoria. In Grade 12, he was selected to be a member of Team Canada at the international science fair which took place in Phoenix for a project which applied the underlying chemistry of his previous research.

Watch Kuehne's TEDx talk

What are you nervous about?
Making new friends: when you know the same people for twelve years you get so comfortable that being in a brand new place with brand new people for four years and having to cultivate all those new relationships is something that is exciting, but also nerve-wracking.

What are you looking forward to about going to school in Toronto?
Being in a big city like Toronto, there’s so much to do and so much to take in. The city is so diverse. Enjoying the city is one of my top priorities.

Why did you choose U of T?
The research being done here is unbelievable. Being at Canada’s largest research institution has so many opportunities. Participating in research is amazing so I’m excited to try and make that happen.

Rebecca Moranis is pursuing a double degree in two seemingly unrelated topics – music and mathematics. While she received her ARCT diploma for piano from the Royal Conservatory of Music in the summer of 2015, her musical passion lies with the flute. This past year, she played with two orchestras: the Scarborough Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Toronto Youth Wind Orchestra, the latter of which did a tour to New York last summer, which included a concert at Carnegie Hall.

Moranis also started ballet lessons when she was three, and has been studying with Opera Atelier for eight years. She was invited to rehearse for Alcina, one of Opera Atelier’s operas in the summer of 2014, and was thereafter kept on as a performer. Rebecca has also starred as a background dancer in multiple episodes of the television show, Reign.

Moranis was selected to be part of a team that would compete in an international Harvard-MIT Math Tournament, and has tutored math at the University of Toronto Schools for the past five years.

“I love sharing math with younger students. I’m inspired to do that because a faculty member here at U of T, Lindsey Shorser, has been a role model to me. 

“[As a woman,] sometimes you feel like you can’t be as vocal, and it’s hard to prove yourself. [Shorser] has shown me that it’s possible. Representation is so important, and that’s what I hope to do for the girls that I tutor. I want to show them that math is cool, and you can be a girl and not have to hide the fact that you’re intelligent.”

What are you looking forward to most at U of T?
I’m most looking forward to research opportunities, especially because U of T is known for having a stellar research program. I’m looking forward to being able to do research projects that combine music and math, and seeing how I can weave them together like looking at the science of how we perceive music, and the mathematics and patterning of composition.

What are you looking forward to about going to school in Toronto?
I love this city – it’s my favourite city in the world. I love the culture, and the opportunities to appreciate art that are available like music, ballet and going to galleries. The community of Toronto is so open to different kinds of arts.

Why did you choose U of T?
I’ve been studying flute with Nora Shulman for the past two years. She plays with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and teaches at the Faculty of Music. I was partly drawn to stay at U of T because I could keep studying with her. I’ve improved tremendously because of her.

Ben Sprenger has come to U of T with the plan to combine his interests in engineering and filmmaking. From an early age, Sprenger wanted to be an actor, and even attended acting classes. As he became older though, he wanted to star in movies, and so he made his own with the assistance of a sometimes unwilling younger brother. 

Eventually, Sprenger became more interested in being behind the camera, and developed his knowledge of lighting, sound, editing, and writing. He hopes to continue his filmmaking endeavours in first year.

“The great thing about being in university is that there’s so many more people that have the same interests as you, and are willing to put in time and work," he said. "I think it will be nice to find people to collaborate with through the Hart House Film Board.”

Sprenger was selected as a semifinalist for the Los Angeles Cinefest for his most recent short film — a mocumentary —When Food Goes Bad, which has been Sprenger’s most labour intensive film to date. 

Watch Sprenger's mocumentary

What are you looking forward to most at U of T?

I’m looking forward to opportunities outside of the classroom more than anything to extend my education like opportunities for research and design projects to enrich my experience and develop skills I can use later on.

Is there anything you’re nervous about?
I have typical first-year concerns about not being able to do well in university, but I keep telling myself it’s something everyone goes through so I think I’ve been good at staying level headed and not too stressed out.

What are you looking forward to about going to school in Toronto?
Toronto is such a huge film hub. It’s got a ton of things filming here, TIFF, and this huge film culture of filmmakers from Toronto who stay in the city and make films here and want to mentor other younger filmmakers. I would love to be involved in the film industry.

What’s something you want to do before you leave U of T?
My sister is in second year at U of T for life sciences, and in her first year, she did a research project with another student where they developed a proposal, applied for funding, and they were able to go to Burma. If there’s some way we could work on a research project together, I think that would be quite the family bonding experience. 

Why did you choose U of T?
It’s a fantastic university that’s right here in Toronto where I’m from. I chose engineering at U of T because they emphasize creativity so much. Even in first year, there’s a design course that applies our learning to solve real-life problems.

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