How do you become a U of T student researcher in machine learning?

Seven student researchers share their experiences and insights at AI Student Panel Talk

How do you become a U of T student researcher in machine learning?

Seven U of T students discussed their experiences and insights as machine learning researchers at the AI Student Panel Talk. The talk was organized by the AI Squared Forum, and took place in the Bahen Centre of Information Technology in September.

At the panel, the speakers answered moderator-curated questions and questions from the audience, with topics ranging from learning resources, personal development, and time management, to advice for making the first step in research.

What skills and personal qualities are necessary?

The speakers shared the skills and qualities they believe are important to become a good student researcher. Their answers can be grouped into three main categories: personality, technical skills, and social skills.

Kyle Hsu, an undergraduate student studying engineering science who is researching at the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence, believed resilience and self-confidence are key qualities to have. Knowing programming tools and languages, as well as abstract symbol manipulation, is also crucial to understand machine learning research.

Since most research projects cannot be done without cooperation, student researchers also need to develop social and communication skills.

Where can students get hands-on experiences?

Winnie Xu, a third-year undergraduate student researching robotics at the Vector Institute, said that she learns with online tutorials. The speakers also recommended participating in Kaggle competitions and Hackathons, as completing a project from start to end is a valuable experience, both in learning technical skills and in project management.

While it can be difficult to finish a project, Jacob Kelly, a third-year undergraduate student conducting research at the Vector Institute, recommended joining topical student clubs as a way to learn together and find a supportive community. In addition, Hsu mentioned that reproducing a published research paper is another great way to develop a deeper understanding of the topic students may be interested in.

According to the panelists, the best ways to stay up-to-date with the latest news of machine learning research include following active researchers on Twitter, subscribing to technical blogs, and auditing graduate-level machine learning courses.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are also helpful resources. A question from an audience member concerned how the speakers got into machine learning in the first place. MOOCs were mentioned again and again, so the moderator asked the panel: “Who took a MOOC when you got started?”

Five out of seven speakers raised their hands.

How can students get their first research opportunity?

For students looking to get involved in research, finding the first opportunity is often the most difficult. Getting a personal connection could make the process much easier, such as by reaching out to alumni.

But most speakers on the panel started with cold-emailing professors; some sent up to 100 emails trying to find a position, and a few got a reply after one or two months. The speakers also suggested strategies for cold emailing.

For example, applicants should tailor their emails to specific professors and mention why they think their research is interesting. The panelists also recommended students to attach a résumé, list all the relevant courses and projects, and keep the email short — usually no more than a couple paragraphs.

Disclosure: Annie Lu is a member of the U of T Machine Learning Intelligence Team, one of the groups that organized the student panel.

Astronomy PhD student named a 2019 Vanier Scholar for research on exoplanets

Emily Deibert studies exoplanet atmospheres, while writing as a science journalist

Astronomy PhD student named a 2019 Vanier Scholar for research on exoplanets

Emily Deibert, a third-year PhD student in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics, supervised by Dr. Suresh Sivanandam and Dr. Ray Jayawardhana, was named a 2019 Vanier Scholar.

The highly prestigious distinction, granted by the Government of Canada, awards $50,000 per year over three years to doctoral students, who exemplify leadership and excellence in scholarly achievement, to support their research.

Deibert’s research on planets in the far-flung reaches of the universe

Deibert studies the atmosphere of exoplanets — planets that orbit stars outside of our solar system. Some of her research has focused on the atmospheric sodium of exoplanets smaller than Saturn, as well as enigmatic rocky planets discovered by NASA’s Kepler mission.

Astronomers have extensively studied the atmosphere of planets closer to home, but there are many unknowns about those of exoplanets. Such exoplanets include those that are larger than Earth but smaller than Neptune, as well as those the size of Jupiter, which are very close to their stars.

The lack of planets with similar parameters in our solar system presents a gap in our knowledge of the atmosphere of extraterrestrial planets, which Deibert is working to bridge with her research.

Telescopes grounded on Earth, which Deibert uses to study the exoplanets’ atmospheres, are more powerful than those in space. However, a disadvantage of their placement is that it causes them to capture information from the Earth’s atmosphere as well as those of exoplanets.

The interference is caused by data from small particles in Earth’s atmosphere that are captured in measurements, noted Deibert. A focus of her thesis will be on developing ways to sift through this noise from the Earth-based particles to find the desired information from exoplanets.

Deibert’s research will enable us to understand the universe at large. It might also have important applications for Earth. A better understanding of how atmospheres work in distant planets, she noted, could inform our understanding of Earth’s atmosphere as well.

Deibert’s work in science communication

Apart from her work in research, Deibert also focuses on science journalism and science communication.

Having studied English during her undergraduate degree at U of T, Deibert aimed to continue writing while completing her doctorate. As an undergraduate, she has contributed to The Strand, Victoria College’s student newspaper, and several creative fiction journals.

As a writer with The Varsity, she has also covered events such as ComSciConCAN conference, Canada’s first science communication conference for graduate students. She said that her Varsity experience helped her gain confidence when reporting on scientific issues and developments.

Currently, Deibert works for Research2Reality, a publication focused on research and innovation, as well as other media outlets.

Science journalism is important to Deibert: “A lot of our day to day lives revolve around science and technology,” she said, “[but] people aren’t always necessarily informed about that, or don’t know how science and technology impacts their lives.”

Through another lens, Deibert said, “It’s important that people are interested and care about what we’re doing because a lot of it relies on public funding.”

Science communication could also help inspire the next generation of women scientists.

“I definitely think that with science journalism and science communication, we have the power to highlight women in science,” said Deibert. “I think that’s really important not only for people in the field now, but then for younger people wanting to get into the fields.”

The future of psychedelic science

Potential of research to treat mental health problems discussed at Toronto Psychedelic Science Conference

The future of psychedelic science

The promise of psychedelics research in a wide range of fields was explored at the Mapping the Mind: 2019 Psychedelic Science Conference at U of T’s Earth Sciences Centre in September.

Psychedelics are a class of mind-altering chemicals with therapeutic potential. The conference aimed to promote public education of psychedelic science and research in the field. It featured 10 speakers, including U of T professors, from a wide array of fields, such as psychiatry, pharmacology, and law.

Each speaker discussed their unique perspective on the future of psychedelic research.

Dr. David Nichols: psychedelic science researcher

The conference began with Dr. David Nichols, a respected pharmacologist and medicinal chemist from Purdue University, who has been widely known for his prolific work on psychedelic science since 1969.

Nichols has mainly worked with rats to study the effect of psychedelics on animal brains. Over his years of research, he has developed a strong faith in the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.

Patients with mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety, often display dysfunctional brain connectivity. Psychedelics can be used for treatment in these cases because they lead to a global increase in brain cell communications.

When Nichols began psychedelics research he faced difficulties receiving funding, as well as controversy due to the subject of his research. However, Nichols has described the field in recent years as “blossoming,” as it begins to demonstrate some promising prospects.

In support of psychedelic science research, Nichols founded the Heffter Research Institute in 1993. The institute works closely with some of the top universities in the world such as Johns Hopkins University, New York University, Yale University, and the University of Zurich.

“What we work on today, [I] never imagined we’d have them in my lifetime,” Nichols said. When asked about his hope for the future, he commented, “[If] at least the trajectory is going in the right direction, I will be happy.”

In the future, when patients find themselves in crisis, Nichols hopes that they can experience at least one psychedelic session with their psychiatrists. His vision for the future was met with lasting applause from the audience.

Dr. Srinivas Rao: psychedelics as antidepressants in pharmacology

After a short break, the conference introduced the audience to a different perspective from Dr. Srinivas Rao, Chief Scientific Officer at ATAI Life Sciences AG and former CEO of Kyalin Biosciences.

Rao’s companies mainly work on the development of rapid-acting antidepressant drugs based on psilocybin and ketamine. These chemicals may lead to more compelling effects in contrast to the numerous limitations of conventional antidepressants such as poor compliance, delayed efficacy, and negative side effects.

For example, patients who are treated with ketamine have demonstrated rapid relief of depression symptoms and fewer side effects than with other drugs. According to Rao, the US Food and Drug Administration recently approved an esketamine medicine targeted for treatment-resistant depression, sold under the name SPRAVATO.

The drug is a nasal spray that needs to be administered in a supervised setting. A patient who has had a treatment session with the psychedelic described their experience as giving them “the ability to step back,” which Rao further elaborated on as “the ability to give you the distance that you need from all the negative thinking.”

The success of SPRAVATO is a lucky case. As Rao emphasized, the development of such drugs can take almost a decade, yet still fail to succeed on the market despite FDA approval.

Currently, Rao’s companies are testing psilocybin in early clinical trials, and he remains hopeful for the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics in treating depression.

Where do Canada’s federal parties stand on research funding?

Research funding has been on an upward trend, but problems remain

Where do Canada’s federal parties stand on research funding?

The hubbub of election season sees parties and candidates promoting and revamping policies and agendas, but there’s one policy discussion that has yet to materialize — government funding for fundamental science research.

The platforms of the Conservative Party, Liberal Party, and New Democratic Party (NDP) all have sparse information on science research, though the Green Party has provided a detailed strategy on funding.

Science research funding is lower than it was 10 years ago. The three main agencies that finance most of Canada’s federal research — the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada; the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR); and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) — have substantially decreased the amount of funding they’re willing to give, with the approval rate of grant applications by these agencies dropping to as low as 13 per cent.

Since winning the last federal election in 2015, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau appointed Dr. Kirsty Duncan as the chief scientific officer. Duncan commissioned an expert panel to carry out the fundamental science review, surveying the current landscape of science research in Canada.

In a 2015 mandate letter to the minister of science, Trudeau committed to the creation of more opportunities for students in STEM and business programs, enhanced research funding across the board, and strengthened recognition of the importance of fundamental research in discovery. According to the federal government, these mandates have been fulfilled.

However, the Canadian Association of University Teachers has contended that federal research funding has not been optimally allocated. The Liberals allotted $900 million to science research from the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, but the association maintains that it did not make a substantial impact on the larger science community. It wrote that the amount was only shared between 13 postsecondary institutes and their researchers.

Voters might expect a more coherent plan for research funding developed by each of the main parties. In the absence of a clear commitment to science research funding from the Liberals, the NDP, and the Conservatives, The Varsity reached out to party representatives.

Different parties’ pledges to research funding

According to a spokesperson from the Liberal Party, the party plans on providing $354.7 million over five years, and $90.1 million per year ongoing, to the CIHR. It also plans to invest $265 million in the SSHRC.

A spokesperson for the NDP wrote that they will work with universities and health professionals to make sure that public research on critical health issues continues to flourish, and will invest in public agriculture research.

A representative from the Green Party referred to its in-depth funding strategy, which mentions that it plans on incorporating conclusions of the Fundamental Science Review and increasing funding to postsecondary institutions and universities for science research.

The Conservatives did not respond to The Varsity’s request for comment.

U of T professor highlights reticence on science funding

A major issue for voters is that none of the parties seem to want to talk about science research funding in-depth, according to an op-ed to the Toronto Star written by Dr. David Naylor, a former U of T President, and Dr. Mark Lautens, a professor at U of T’s Department of Chemistry.

Lautens underscored the importance of federal research investment in an interview with The Varsity. He noted that it enables scientists to improve the public’s quality of life by developing disease therapies, finding solutions to environmental issues, and bettering waste reduction. He noted that funding also provides research opportunities to better train the country’s future researchers.

Lautens has supported the rebound of federal funding since cuts in the mid-2000s, but he still believes that “a lot more needs to be done.” He highlighted the low rates of CIHR grant approval for medical research funding as a critical area of improvement.

What’s at stake for students?

Farah Qaiser, a Master’s student in molecular genetics at U of T and a head spokesperson for #VoteScience, a national nonpartisan effort to advocate for science in the upcoming election, explained how voters can learn more about the parties’ positions on supporting research.

In an email to The Varsity, Qaiser advocated for voters to reach out to their candidates as soon as possible to ask where they stand on science issues that matter to their electorate — such as funding research or better supporting the “next generation of scientists.”

She recommended voters to do so by reaching out to candidates in-person, calling, emailing, or using the #VoteScience campaign’s email form.

To learn more, Qaiser further recommended students check CBC’s non-partisan science and environmental policy debate between federal candidates, as well as the conclusions of a survey sent to the federal parties to determine their environmental policies.

The Evidence for Democracy advocacy group, along with members of the #VoteScience campaign, have also published results of a questionnaire sent to the federal parties about their positions on science policy.

The Liberals, NDP, and Greens submitted responses to the survey. According to Evidence for Democracy, the Conservatives “declined to participate due to time constraints.”

UTSG: U of T Sustainability Career Fair

Looking to land your dream job? The U of T Sustainability Career Fair – hosted by the Sustainable Engineers Association – aims to connect passionate students with companies focused on environmental, financial, and social sustainability initiatives! Connect with representatives from top-notch consulting companies, government agencies, NGOs, engineering service companies, as well as graduate institutions.

Join us on October 9, 2019 from 10 am to 3 pm at the Hart House Great Hall (7 Hart House Circle) for a day of networking, recruitment, and building meaningful connections with 15+ amazing startup and corporate employers.

Registration is FREE, sign up here:

Interested in getting a photo taken for your LinkedIn profile? A professional headshot booth will also be available!

Currently Confirmed Attendees: (as of 9/3/19)
This list is continually being updated – stay tuned for the full list of attendees!
-Clear Blue Technologies
-Ontario Sustainable Engineers Association
-Tetra Tech

In the Spotlight: Dr. A.W. Peet

Non-binary, trans, disabled physics professor talks inclusivity in academia

In the Spotlight: Dr. A.W. Peet

Dr. A.W. Peet knows the importance of being seen.

A tenured physics professor at U of T who focuses their research on the subatomic structure of space-time, Peet is also a vocal advocate for the LGBTQ+ and disabled communities. Being transgender, non-binary, and disabled, they have firsthand knowledge of the relief that finding a community in academia through sharing one’s experiences brings. 

Peet, who experiences chronic pain, described conversations with a fellow scientist who has a similar condition as “a bit like finding an oxygen supply.” They went on to say that “it meant that I felt like I could actually exist.”

Peet’s choice to publicly disclose their status as transgender and non-binary on their website was made in the hope that younger people could understand it was possible to be a professor whilst being part of both the non-binary and disabled communities. This was also the aim behind listing their name on the website’s “OutList.” Peet has had a number of students from Canada, the United States, and Europe write to them asking for mentorship, something they believe was only possible because they are one of the few publicly out non-binary physicists.

“If we know there’s someone a bit older than us, or a lot older than us, who is some of the same identities as us, we can figure, ‘Maybe there’s a place for me in this discipline,’” they said.

Peet recognized that having tenure before realizing they were transgender made the question of transitioning less fraught than it tends to be for tenure-track or non-tenured professors. Even so, Peet believes that some students and colleagues think less of them following their coming out.

Blatant transphobic harassment, however, reached a peak when Peet debated their colleague Jordan Peterson, a psychology professor at U of T, on CBC News in October 2016. Peterson had vocally expressed his objection to Bill C-16, which sought to add “gender identity or expression” as a prohibited ground of discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act. His stance garnered significant support amongst free-speech advocates and caused controversy both nationally and on campus. Critics noted that some of Peterson’s comments were transphobic and, at times, inaccurate.

Following the debate, Peet experienced severe online harassment that significantly deteriorated their mental health. They also noted that, to this day, conservative colleagues within their department are reluctant to interact with them.

“The amount of transphobic harassment I’ve had… as a consequence of being an out trans person in the last few years is more than all of the misogyny that I’ve ever experienced as a presumed woman in physics for over 20 years,” they said.

However, Peet received positive reactions from LGBTQ+ students on campus and the community at large. They have also seen an increase in requests to speak at various conferences and panels about being part of the LGBTQ+ community in STEM fields. Overall, Peet does not regret speaking out against Jordan Peterson. “I think it was because it was the right thing to do, and I try to be on the right side of history,” they said.

Peet also expanded on their call in the CBC News debate to live kindly, saying that more value should be placed on kindness and generosity of spirit in today’s society. They added, “Universities need to be academically rigorous, but we can still be really nice, decent human beings while we’re being academically excellent.”

Currently, Peet co-chairs the physics department’s Inclusivity Committee and also serves on the inclusivity committee for the Canadian Association of Physicists. They intend to continue their advocacy work until LGBTQ+ people feel as welcome as heterosexual and cisgender people on campus. However, Peet by no means claim to be an authority on all things related to inclusivity, and stresses that they are still working to educate themself.

“With the equity and diversity and inclusivity stuff, it’s not like a switch that you’re either switched on or completely clueless. It, like many things, is not a binary. I love smashing binaries,” they said.

A moonwalk through the Dunlap Institute’s second annual Planet Gazing Party

Public event enraptures U of T students, families with exploration of the universe

A moonwalk through the Dunlap Institute’s second annual Planet Gazing Party

“The cosmos is not nerdy; the cosmos is wonderful,” reads a line from my favourite show, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which aptly captures my experience at the Dunlap Institute’s second annual Planet Gazing Party on September 14.

The public event enthralled thousands of Torontonians from different age groups, cultures, and sects of society who spent their Saturday evening learning more about the universe.

I was surprised as we lined around the back campus field, having not anticipated the energy and excitement that was in the air. Attendees included kids dressed as astronauts, U of T students who had just left Robarts Library, middle-aged couples on their weekly date nights, and grandparents accompanying their grandkids.

As the display opened in the evening, the telescopes were set up, the volunteers were ready, the moon globe was lit, and the trivia tables were abuzz. Trying to navigate, I came across a table showcasing small globes of Neptune, Mercury, the Moon, and Mars.

A volunteer from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada stood behind the globes. He excitedly explained to the kids the significance of the celestial bodies’ names. A question he posed while discussing the origins of these names stuck with me: “Would the names be different, had the Ancient Greeks been more powerful than the Romans?”

This question solidified my belief that educational events like these can engage people from a diverse range of interests and studies, as well as capture the imagination of kids in different ways — ones that can inspire them.

I eventually located the line for a star nebula. After a long wait, we saw a small green glint in the sky: a star seemingly expanding in space, on a journey to explode. This nebula, formed of dust and gas, experienced a beautiful death as we looked on.

After clicking a few pictures with the beautiful Moon globe, I headed to the star attraction of the night — Jupiter. As a giant ball of gas, encased in multiple rings of dense dust particles, this orb was surrounded by its breathtaking Galilean moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto.

The light from the moons was so breathtaking that it became an immediate highlight of my entire experience.

I made the conscious decision not to bombard you with facts in this article. The reason for that is simple: any science enthusiast can look up anything I could tell them. Instead, I tried to capture the marvel I experienced being amongst science enthusiasts and the ever-glorious cosmos.

We forget to appreciate the external and internal beauty of science, its reciprocal influence on culture, and its far reach — transcending any barrier other areas of life may harbour. Experiences like these from the Dunlap Institute are a must for anyone with a curiosity about our universe.

How U of T prepared me to become a freelance science writer

As an undergrad, I learned biology, chemistry, and how to believe in myself

How U of T prepared me to become a freelance science writer

When I finished my degree in December 2016, I wasn’t sure what would come next. It felt like staring into a giant abyss, but at the same time, I knew there was something out there for me.

I first got the idea to pursue science writing after reading some bad science journalism — more specifically, writing that misrepresented statistics, sensationalized findings, and lacked the critical perspective that I craved. I thought maybe I could do it better. I knew I had a good science education, good writing skills, and a very critical eye.

I didn’t really know how to break into the field, so I just searched on Indeed for freelance science writing jobs. I came across an ad looking for someone to write articles about science and cannabis, and I thought that there was a real need for good information on the subject.

I expressed this opinion in my cover letter, and it turned out the boss shared my values. I freelanced for the company for a few months before they hired me in full-time capacity, and I worked there until the company was sold a year later.

That was how I got my start. I’ve been writing about science and medicine for two and a half years now, and I love what I do. I’ve written about diabetes, ALS, Alzheimer’s, genomics, oncology, and, of course, cannabis, among many other topics. I find it meaningful to communicate important health and science information to the public.

I’ve had the chance to interview doctors, patients, laypeople, and experts to feature in my articles. I’ve read hundreds of academic journal articles. I’ve learned so much, both about science and about people, and I still get excited every time I land a new project.

These days, I work from home — or wherever I happen to be. I am a freelance writer, which means I own my own business and set my own hours. I find my own clients and sometimes pitch my own ideas for writing projects. It’s an active, involved process, but I find it is worth it to not have to work in an office, full time, for someone else.

I built my business slowly, and it was uncomfortable at first. I had to email people I didn’t know and ask them if I could work for them. I had to follow up on emails that didn’t get a response. I had to call people, meet people, and network. I had to decide how much money my time was worth. I had to be vulnerable.

But looking back, I think I learned how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable during undergrad. U of T pushed me beyond who I thought I was, and in that way, it prepared me for my own personal entrepreneurial journey, and all the challenges that have come with it.

I studied both arts and science equally during my time at U of T. I graduated with an Honours Bachelor of Science with a major in neuroscience and minors in bioethics, and Buddhism, psychology and mental health.

The gruelling life science courses challenged me to become more diligent, more hardworking, and more thorough. I made it my personal goal to get my GPA as high as I could, and with time, I was consistently earning As.

Although it was difficult, a U of T life science education is second to none. It made me confident I could tackle any topic within the realm of medical writing, and I’ve yet to find one I couldn’t manage. More broadly, the experience gave me the belief that I could face a challenging situation and succeed anyway.

I also took philosophy and cognitive science courses, which satisfied my curiosity and love for ideas, theories, and abstraction. They were almost all essay-based, and I became a better writer, thinker, and debater for taking them. I frequently take an interdisciplinary approach in my science-writing because of this aspect of my education.

I have faced some challenges along the way, aside from the hard work of building up a clientele. Although my education had prepared me to start as a science writer, I still had to learn a new skillset to succeed.

University does not teach you to write for the general public. It teaches you to write at a high level of abstraction, for better or for worse. I learned to write with shorter sentences and to use simpler concepts. I learned what the average person knows about the human body. I practiced editing other people’s work at my full-time job, and I’ve since gotten a lot better at writing for the layperson.

I’ve had to be humble and write about things I don’t find interesting or don’t agree with. I had to work for free a few times to get my name out there. I’ve had to accept the editor’s authority and let go of my attachments to certain stylistic flourishes and turns of phrase. Almost everything I write for the web gets edited in some way I don’t like, but I’ve found a good balance between fighting for what I want and accepting the changes and moving on.

U of T challenges you intellectually and emotionally to be your best. It does not compromise your education to make things easier on you. It demands that you rise to meet the challenge, and it will absolutely leave you behind if you do not. Undergrad hurt, but it ultimately made me stronger.

When The Varsity reached out and asked me to tell my story and reflect on my time at U of T, I was thrilled. As I reflect on my undergrad experience, I realize all the ways it’s helped me become the person I am today, and I feel grateful.

My advice for undergrads is to grind hard and trust that you are building up resilience. You can turn that resilience into something profitable if you are willing to do uncomfortable things. If you are learning about something you’re passionate about, developing transferable skills, and increasing your resilience, you will figure out how to make a living once you graduate.

Try your best to be grateful, even when it’s hard. It gets easier after graduation.

Laura Tennant is a Toronto freelance science writer and U of T alum from the class of 2016. She’s written for a variety of clients, including Diabetes Canada, the ALS Society of Canada, Geneseeq Technology Inc., and