Computer Science departments welcome five new faculty members

U of T hopes to advance robotics research

Computer Science departments welcome five new faculty members

Five new faculty members were appointed to U of T’s Computer Science departments for the 2018–2019 academic year, as the university moves to increase its commitment to computer science research, particularly in robotics.

The researchers come from a variety of backgrounds and have diverse research interests that encompass fields like robotics, machine learning, human-robot interaction, and parallel algorithms.

Dr. Animesh Garg, one of the new Assistant Professors in the Department of Mathematical and Computational Sciences at UTM, was previously a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University.

In an email interview with The Varsity, Garg wrote that he chose to accept a position at U of T in part because of collaborations with industry leaders such as Google, NVIDIA, and Uber.

“The opportunity to work in such a dynamic environment composed of academic leaders, industrial partners and most of all inspiring students made for a great combination for a young academic such as myself to establish a thriving research lab,” continued Garg.

His research focuses on the fields of generalizable autonomy for robotics and “involves an integration of perception, machine learning and control in the real world.”

Dr. Maryam Mehri Dehnavi, a new Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science hailing from Rutgers University, wrote in an email to The Varsity that she was drawn to U of T because of its stellar academic environment and the city.

Dehnavi also pointed to the department’s focus beyond “just current trendy areas” and its investment in long-term research.

“We aim to significantly improve the performance of large-scale data-intensive problems on parallel and cloud computing platforms by building high-performance frameworks,: said Dehnavi on her research. “To build these frameworks we formulate scalable mathematical methods and develop domain-specific compilers and programming languages.”

Dr. Joseph Jay Williams is also a new Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science, previously from the National University of Singapore.

In an interview with The Varsity, he said that he is excited to join U of T due to the unique position he was offered in doing research that “applies computer science techniques to educational research.” In particular, Williams is excited to work on cross-disciplinary collaborations, such as with the Department of Psychology and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Williams’ research focuses on creating “intelligent self-improving systems that conduct dynamic experiments to discover how to optimize and personalize technology, helping people learn new concepts and change habitual behavior.”

In the future, Williams hopes to conduct randomized A/B experiments with practical applications in health and education.

Dr. Florian Shkurti will be an Assistant Professor in the Department of Mathematical and Computational Sciences at UTM coming from McGill University. Shkurti was drawn to U of T due to its “longstanding tradition of excellence” in areas like robotics, machine learning, computer vision, and various engineering subfields.

One of Shkurti’s research projects works on robot control systems that enable robots to work alongside scientists to explore underwater environments.

“In the future, I am planning to dedicate my research efforts to creating algorithms that learn useful abstractions and representations from large sources of unsupervised visual data,” said Shkurti.

Dr. Jessica Burgner-Kahrs from Leibniz Universität Hannover in Germany will join the Department of Mathematical and Computational Sciences at UTM as an Associate Professor.

According to Burgner-Kahrs, her research interests are in robotics, particularly in small-scale continuum robotics and human-robot interactions. She will be joining the faculty in Spring 2019.

Through its appointment of research-focused faculty, the university hopes to expand its research frontiers in computer science beyond traditional areas.

St. Mike’s faculty, administration negotiating collective agreement as strike deadline looms

Faculty filed for a no-board in January, triggering a countdown for strike action

St. Mike’s faculty, administration negotiating collective agreement as strike deadline looms

After eight months of negotiations, the University of St. Michael’s College (USMC) faculty and administration are heading back to the bargaining table on February 9 in pursuit of a collective agreement before the February 11 no-board deadline. A strike is imminent after 86 per cent of unit members voted in favour of job action at the college.

A no-board triggers a 17-day timer for an agreement, after which either side can legally take job action, either by striking or locking out. USMC faculty filed for a no-board with the Ontario Ministry of Labour after they were dissatisfied with negotiations during a January 19 meeting between the two sides. University of Toronto Faculty Association (UTFA)-USMC Chief Negotiator Michael O’Connor said that the faculty filed for the no-board as a way to increase pressure on the administration, which they felt was “not up to speed.”

If a strike should happen, undergraduate students in Book & Media Studies, Medieval Studies, Christianity and Culture, and Celtic Studies would be affected. Graduate students in the Faculty of Theology, and by extension the Toronto School of Theology, would also be affected, along with some services at the John M. Kelly Library.

“We’re hopeful that if the employer comes to the table prepared to bargain and ready with a serious effort to reach an agreement, then an agreement should be possible,” said O’Connor. “We don’t think a strike is necessary; we think it’s avoidable if the college administration is serious about reaching a deal.”

Negotiations have been ongoing since the last collective agreement expired on June 30, 2017. The two sides did not meet until August 8 and 9, after which the administration filed for conciliation to bring in an individual to mediate negotiations. Since then, they have met in September, October, December, and at the January 19 meeting.

USMC Director of Communications Stefan Slovak wrote that the administration will continue to work to secure an agreement.

“We’ve been negotiating in good faith for many months to reach an agreement with our colleagues who are members of UTFA,” reads a statement to The Varsity from USMC President David Mulroney. “We’ve tabled a comprehensive offer that tracks closely with the agreement that UTFA reached with the University of Toronto some months ago, that respects our autonomy as an institution, and that contributes to the long-term viability of our university and the community it sustains.”

Faculty and administration are at odds on four key issues, according to O’Connor. The first is greater job security. The administration has proposed a new category of limited-term contract faculty at the college. The faculty, however, believes this is “precarious employment,” and it does not motivate participation in college life.

The second is that the administration is asking for a one-year agreement, which O’Connor attributes to changes facing the college with Mulroney’s exit. This means that a new agreement would be backdated to July 1, 2017 and would send the two sides back to negotiations next summer.

“To drag things on for eight months in a way that’s felt just very frustrating, and then say we want to do this right away again just seems impractical and unreasonable to us,” said O’Connor. “So we’re looking for a multi-year agreement that would give us much more stability.”

Third, faculty are also asking for “equity and diversity in hiring,” requesting that those on hiring committees receive training and that language in USMC job ads mirror U of T’s.

Fourth, they are requesting compensation that mirrors the one per cent plus the $1,150 lump sum that U of T faculty received last June.

O’Connor said that the administration has rejected all of these proposals.

Editor’s Note (February 5): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the lump sum that U of T faculty received last June was $11.50. It was actually $1,150. 

Over 30 U of T community members named to Order of Canada

Faculty, alumni honoured with prestigious award recognizing contributions to Canadian society

Over 30 U of T community members named to Order of Canada

On December 29 last year, over 30 University of Toronto faculty members and alumni were named to or promoted within the Order of Canada. The order is the second highest honour a Canadian citizen can receive, behind the Order of Merit, and it is the highest that is limited to only Canadians.

U of T’s Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr told The Varsity that she was impressed with the representation of U of T community members receiving the Order of Canada — they counted for approximately 26 per cent of the 125 people named to the order.

“One thing that is very clear is that we have absolutely astounding faculty, staff and alumni,” wrote Regehr. “This recognition highlights the incredible quality of people here at the University of Toronto, people who are associated with The University of Toronto, and the impact that our staff, faculty and graduates have on our community, on Canada and on the world.”

There are three levels to the Order of Canada: the lowest level is Member, which recognizes those who have greatly contributed to their local or regional community; the second level is Officer, which recognizes national achievements; and the highest honour is Companion, which recognizes international achievement or national pre-eminence.

Professor Molly Shoichet was named as an Officer of the Order of Canada for her contributions to the field of biomedical engineering, as well as her efforts to advocate for more women in science and to promote scientific literacy.

Another notable appointee was poet and author Lee Maracle, an instructor at U of T’s Centre for Indigenous Studies and an Elder at First Nations House. She was named an Officer of the Order of Canada “for her influential voice in cultural relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada.” Maracle has written multiple novels and short story collections.

“Lee Maracle is a really valued member of our community. She has been engaged for many years here at the University of Toronto and she has a real leadership role with the university in assisting us and adhering that indigenous voices are heard, and helping us make the university a better place for indigenous students, staff and faculty and in linking us with our community,” wrote Regehr.

U of T alumnus Bernard Sherman, Chairman and CEO of Apotex Inc., was also named as a member of the Order of Canada for his contributions in the pharmaceutical industry and philanthropy work. Sherman provided support for children’s education and other notable charitable causes. Unfortunately, Sherman passed away on December 15 and was unable to receive this honour himself.