What does a scientist look like?

Seven U of T students discuss their passions and paths in science

What does a scientist look like?

W hat does a scientist look like? For many, the answer involves white lab coats, goggles, and beakers. Yet the people who pursue science are just as diverse as the field itself. Scientists can be activists, athletes, artists, or all of the above. Science can happen indoors or outdoors, under the night sky, or on the internet. Read about the journeys of seven student researchers at U of T.

ASHIMA KAURA/THE VARSITY

“As a little girl, I saw a shooting star, and that made the night sky my favourite view. I thought a lot about what was up there and how cool it would be to go to space. This led to my studying physics and astronomy in undergrad and I have never looked back since then.

I currently seek to understand the early universe and how it transitioned to the stars and galaxies we see today. Specifically, what happened in the [epoch] of re-ionization. The epoch of re-ionization is a period in the universe’s history over which the matter in the universe ionizes again.

[My dad] taught me always to strive for more, that there could always be a way if there is a will. He taught me to never give up and to always ask questions. My curiosity in life and career comes from him.”

— Margaret Ikape, first-year PhD in Astronomy and Astrophysics, email

ASHIMA KAURA/THE VARSITY

 “I have always been interested in science, but also equally interested in the arts. I went to an arts middle school and high school where half my day was spent doing art and not academics. I spend a lot of my time outside of school engaging in the arts. I still consider myself an artist as much as I consider myself a scientist. It took me a while to come to terms with the fact that I can [be] both.

When I decided I wanted to go to university, I chose to study science since I liked it and was good at it. Moving into my later years of my undergrad I found that I was drawn to ecology courses, field courses, and also really liked the people I met in those classes.

I am interested in the pollutants, that comes from roads, such as road salt, and how it impacts the animals that live in nearby streams. I also study other pollutants that come from roads, such as metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and small bits of car tires (tire dust).”

— Rachel Giles, first-year Master’s in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, email

“Initially I had my heart set on being a professional dancer and veterinarian (a very practical dual career). Science had been my academic focus for some time, but it took several years after completing my BSc for me to realize that I passionately loved research and applying the scientific method to various questions of animal behaviour and cognition. I had this epiphany while I was juggling three jobs as a lab manager, veterinary assistant, and dog trainer. Out of all of those, I found research to be fulfilling and exciting and it was something I could see myself doing for the rest of my life.

I want to know how [dogs] perceive the world and how they process cues and information present in the environment. I am motivated by the hope that my research can possibly help change how people view dogs, give greater value to them through the recognition of their mental abilities and ultimately lead to greater wellbeing and better access rights in North America.”

— Julia Espinosa, second-year PhD in Cognitive Psychology, email

Julia Espinosa (left) and Madeline Pelgrim (right) work with dogs like Loki to determine animal behaviour. ASHIMA KAURA/THE VARSITY

“Julia Espinosa, the graduate student in my lab, has had the greatest influence on my career. She has been endlessly patient with me since we began working together in the fall of 2016, and has pushed me to advocate for myself and not be afraid to try something new. I would not be at this point in my career without her sage advice and constant confidence.

Like many other students, I had a bit of a rough transition into University in my first year. Adjusting to life away from home (my hometown is a 10 hour drive from Toronto) and everything that comes with living on your own for the first time caused my academics to suffer. When I first applied to join my lab, I was confident that I would not be accepted because of my marks. I am very thankful for my Principal Investigator — Dr. Buchsbaum — and the lab manager at the time — Kay Otsubo — for taking a chance on me and overlooking my performance first-year.”

— Madeline Pelgrim, fourth-year Bachelor’s in Psychology and Biology, email

ASHIMA KAURA/THE VARSITY

“There are definitely a lot of challenges throughout a PhD. I would say the biggest one for me were the mental challenges at the early stage of my PhD. How do I keep being confident in front of the language barrier, failure experiments, competitions, and where is my direction for the future? Having been through such a mental struggling stage, I am now clearer of myself, and ready for unknowns.

I always want to help bring positive impacts to our future world. I like the discovery and innovation side of research studies and its potential impact on our better world. My research is to design advanced photo-responsive nanomaterials that can store solar energy into chemical energy by catalyzing the conversion of greenhouse gas carbon dioxide to useful chemicals and fuels. It is a promising solution to reduce the usage of fossil fuels and global warming caused by greenhouse gas.”

— Yuchan Dong, fifth-year PhD in Materials Chemistry, email

ASHIMA KAURA/THE VARSITY

“As a child while it was true that I was always curious about nature and the world around us — Asking questions like why is the sky blue? How are clouds formed? etc. It was only when I got older and started to understand ‘what is science? what are scientists? How is science performed?’ that I gained a tremendous passion for it.

This notion that with a few chemical reactions, chemists can ‘creatively’ and rationally generate a molecule which when administered to human can halt disease progression, pain and even extend life — was a very powerful catalyst for my interest in medicinal chemistry. My work mainly focuses on the development of novel small-molecules that specifically target disease-causing cellular components which have been shown to cause certain cancers.

I think as with any budding student of science, whether in graduate studies, professional programs or even out in the workforce, the biggest challenge is to become comfortable with and know how to effectively deal with failure and hardship. As a scientist, at times we learn more from failed experiments than successful ones.”

— Yasir S. Raouf, third-year PhD in Organic and Biological Chemistry, email

ASHIMA KAURA/THE VARSITY

“I’ve been both playing sports competitively and going to school since I was six years old. Honestly, if I didn’t play water polo I don’t know what I would be doing in the evenings — I think I would just be sitting on my phone doing nothing. I love to represent Canada, and it’s a really exciting opportunity to do so on an international stage. Looking forward to the future, it would be an honour to represent Canada at the Olympic Games. U of T has opened so many doors for me, with research and athletics.

Initially I came to U of T and I wanted to do Genetics and Cell & Systems Biology — all that nitty gritty stuff. Then I took BIO230, and I was like this is not for me. I was trying to figure out a field where I could apply Life Science techniques, but without wet lab stuff. I had the opportunity to do an ROP [Research Opportunity Program] in Pascal Tyrrell’s lab — which is focused on medical imaging and statistics — and just fell in love with it.”

— Rachael Jaffe, third-year Bachelor’s in Global Health, Statistics, and Economics, spoken

Ontario’s plan for STEM is vague but encouraging

Re: “Provincial policy aims to increase number of STEM grads“

Ontario’s plan for STEM is vague but encouraging

The choice to invest heavily in locally educated science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degrees is plainly and unequivocally a good one. As evidenced by the recent investment by Google into the Waterfront and Toronto’s optimistic bid to house Amazon’s Canadian headquarters, it is clear that the tech industry is booming in Ontario. Likewise, it is in the logistical and economic benefit of everyone involved that the accompanying jobs and opportunities be filled with Ontario-educated talent.

However, attempting to become North America’s number one producer of postsecondary STEM graduates per capita is no easy feat. While I am cautiously optimistic, the vague nature of the government’s announcement that it intends to do just that raises questions as to how exactly Ontario will achieve this bold vision. With big talking points like increasing STEM graduates by 25 per cent over the next five years, the only concrete policy on the matter so far appears to be a $30 million investment into creating applied master’s degrees in artificial intelligence. It remains to be seen precisely how the province will promote other areas in the STEM fields.

Regardless, the announcement is a breath of fresh air for scientists in Ontario. With Canada still feeling the effects of the Harper administration’s ‘war on science’ and the concerning anti-intellectual and anti-scientific rhetoric south of the border, Ontario is taking a stand in the name of progress and innovation. Combined with governmental promises to look into the Naylor Report and the potential reversal of American-Canadian ‘brain drain,’ the future is looking bright.

 

Spencer Y. Ki is a second-year student at Victoria College studying Astrophysics and Mathematics.

Provincial policy aims to increase number of STEM grads

University currently in talks with province over way forward

Provincial policy aims to increase number of STEM grads

The Ontario government has recently announced a new initiative to increase the number of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) graduates in the province over the next five years. The project is part of a push to make the province an industry leader in the STEM fields. U of T is currently in talks with the province to see how it will be affected.

The plan is to increase the number of post-secondary STEM graduates “by 25 per cent over the next five years – boosting the number of STEM graduates from 40,000 to 50,000 per year,” according to Tanya Blazina, who works in the Ontario Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development.

“This major commitment will significantly expand the talent pool of well-trained and highly educated workers in Ontario,” Blazina said. “These workers will empower Ontario-based businesses to grow into global players, while also attracting successful and innovative businesses to the province.”

Blazina says that as of Fall 2017, all publicly funded Ontario universities and colleges will have signed an agreement on program plans and funded enrolment levels. Universities will also have signed an agreement concerning funded graduate spaces.

This initiative comes amidst a major expansion project by American tech giant Amazon. The company announced earlier this year that it was planning on building a second headquarters in North America, which Toronto has expressed major interest in.

U of T Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr told The Varsity that the university is “looking for more information and to try and understand what exactly the money will go to.” Regehr says they expect that it will go to additional student spots, in particular a possible student spot in professional master’s programs.

“U of T is already incredibly strong. We are a world leader in many areas and STEM is one of the ones that we’re a world leader,” she said. “We expect that we’ll just continue to be a world leader and increase our research and educational initiatives in this area.”

In order to make the province more attractive to tech companies, the government is hoping specifically to increase graduates is in the field of artificial intelligence (AI). To achieve this, $30 million will be invested to increase the “number of professional applied masters’ graduates in artificial intelligence,” according to a press release.

“Ontario will also partner with the Vector Institute to accelerate growth in the number of professional applied masters’ graduates in artificial intelligence. The goal is to graduate 1,000 applied masters students in AI-related fields per year, within five years.”

Vector Institute is a Toronto-based AI research organization affiliated with U of T. It was founded earlier this year in order to be Canada’s AI hub and to attract top talent from around the world.

Women get WISE at annual conference

U of T WISE 2016 National Conference proves to be a great opportunity for students to connect with professionals

Women get WISE at annual conference

U of T Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) hosted its annual national conference at the Toronto region board of trade last weekend. The conference brought together industry experts and approximately 250 student attendees for on opportunity to participate and connect with professionals.

Jaquelyn Monis, the conference chair of WISE 2016 explained that their objective was not only to provide professional development, but also to connect students with companies hiring for summer internships. 

“This year we have 15 different companies, compare[d] to two or three in the past years” said Monis in reference to industry attendance at the event.

The 2016 WISE Conference featured keynote speaker Jacqueline Shan, founder of Afinity Life Sciences, who spoke during the opening ceremony.

Shan opened by sharing her experience as an international student who struggled with English as a second language, and how she overcame barriers and prosper as an entrepreneur and scientist.

She delivered a powerful speech, promoting persistence and perseverance in her pursuit of success.

“It’s simple, but often hard to do. It’s hard to believe in yourself, believe in your dream when you’re laying off your co-workers,” Shan added. 

In addition to providing networking opportunities for students, the WISE conference also featured a group of panelists, including Cathy Tie, co-founder and CEO of Ranomics.

Cathy was a first-year life sciences student at U of T when she received venture capital funding in 2015 for her project. She spoke to attendees about what she learned from the experience and why it’s so important to have self confidence in order to move forward.

“Even though it’s a chapter of women in science and engineering, one of our messages is to [be] inclusive of everybody and to showcase that it’s possible to get far regardless of gender,” said Monis. 

As a fourth-year student, Monis expressed excitement to hear from the speakers on their diverse experiences.   

On its second day, the WISE conference closed its doors following the announcement of the winners of their poster and case competitions.

The WISE 2016 National Conference Poster Competition, sponsored by General Electric, gave students an opportunity to present their research to judges for the chance to win a $1000 cash prize. Sahil Gupta, graduate student at the U of T’s  Institute of Medical Sciences, was announced as the winner for his research in Heat Shock Protein 90 (HSP90) in relation to sepsis and experimental inflammation. 

Amada Persaud, Eashita Ratwani, Nadia Khan, and Shawna Wei were the winners of the case competition, earning the $1000 prize and an interview opportunity for a position at Tata Consultancy Services, another of the competition’s corporate sponsors.

Throughout the school year, WISE at U of T is also involved in other initiatives such as providing opportunites for professional development, mentorships, high school, as well as community outreach. With initiatives like its annual conference, WISE continues to try to improve the state of women in science and engineering.