New U of T Engineering Academy prepares incoming students to excel in first year
U of T Engineering Academy is a new self-paced, optional and not-for-credit program that is free to all incoming first-year students. (Photo illustration credit: Unsplash and Kyle Coulter)
U of T Engineering is launching a new program designed to give incoming students all the material they need to shine in their first-year courses.
The University of Toronto Engineering Academy is an optional and not-for-credit program that is free to all incoming students for Fall 2020. Students gain access to a suite of established learning modules in math, physics and chemistry that they can move through at their own pace.
They will have regular opportunities to check in with mentors, upper-year U of T Engineering students who can help them navigate the material and coach them on how it will be applied in first-year courses. If a student wants extra instruction on a particular topic, they can also request to participate in a session with a celebrated high-school teacher.
Designed with close consultation between high-school teachers and curriculum leads in the U of T Engineering First-Year Office, as well as the Troost Institute for Leadership Education in Engineering (Troost ILead), the program was launched to support students who may have had their final year of high school disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“U of T Engineering Academy gives students what they need to fill in any gaps in their Grade 12 year, as well as a friendly introduction to our Faculty with the support of our incredible students and professors,” says Micah Stickel, Vice-Dean, First Year for U of T Engineering. “And because it’s optional and not-for-credit, it’s a great way to gain some experience with online learning and explore what kinds of approaches work for you.”
When a student accepts their offer of admission, they’ll also have a chance to register for U of T Engineering Academy through the same Engineering Applicant Portal. They will then receive an email with access details and any tech requirements. Access to the learning materials will be available in early June, and students can move through at their own pace through July.
For students who feel they might benefit from a little extra support after completing U of T Engineering Academy, the First Year Foundations program provides that boost. First Year Foundations is a suite of optional sessions, workshops and courses to help incoming students prepare for several aspects of university life — from developing effective study and learning skills, to getting ahead with introductions to concepts like computer programming, the engineering design process and communications.
“The year so far hasn’t gone the way any of us expected,” says Chris Yip, Dean of U of T Engineering. “We’re here to make sure that no matter what happened in the final year of high school, we’re giving our students the tools and supports they need to be comfortable, prepared and ready to have a terrific experience when they start this Fall at Skule™.”
New ‘rock candy’ approach could lead to simpler, faster tests for COVID-19
A team led by Professor Leo Chou (IBBME) is pursuing a non-traditional approach that could lead to simpler, faster COVID-19 tests.
Testing for viruses is not a new science, but the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the bottlenecks in established methods. Now, a team led by Professor Leo Chou (IBBME) is pursuing a non-traditional approach that, if successful, could lead to simpler, faster tests.
“What we are finding out in this pandemic is that surges in global demand can cause every step in the process to break down due to supply chain shortage,” says Chou, who joined U of T Engineering as a professor in January 2019. “There are opportunities to make these tests simpler and more streamlined.”
While the project is in its earliest stages, the team hopes to overcome the limitations of traditional methods by pursuing a strategy based on short, synthetic strands of DNA. These strands can be customized to react in certain ways in the presence of genes from the virus that causes COVID-19.
Currently, most tests begin with a nasal swab to extract virus particles from the body. These particles are then shipped to a testing lab, where heat, detergents and enzymes are used to open them up and expose the viral RNA — the genes that the virus uses to replicate itself.
The RNA is then subjected to the ‘gold standard’ technique known as real-time polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR). Using specialized enzymes and a device called a thermocycler, RT-PCR amplifies targeted RNA sequences — such as those known to code for viral genes — to determine whether or not they are present in the sample.
In theory, RT-PCR can provide results in a matter of hours, but the need for specialized infrastructure has been a key limitation of testing around the world.
“Because samples collected at the point of care must be shipped to a central lab for testing, logistics become a key issue,” says Chou. “For one single sample to get tested, you are usually talking about a turnaround time of two or three days.”
In contrast, the new approach could lead to a one-step test. The team aims to design customized DNA sequences that are capable of self-assembling into a larger structure, but which are missing a key catalyst to bring them all together: an RNA sequence specific to the COVID-19 virus.
“The best analogy I can think of is growing rock candy,” says Chou. “You start with a saturated solution of sugar molecules in water, but they don’t do anything because they don’t have anything to crystallize around. When you introduce a stick into the solution, the crystals form rapidly around it.”
In this analogy, the short DNA sequences made by Chou and his team are the sugar, and the viral RNA serves as the stick. By design, only the correct RNA sequence would work — genes from other viruses or contaminating organisms would not trigger the same reaction.
If the virus is present, its RNA would quickly cause the DNA strands to self-assemble. The team could easily attach pigments or light-emitting molecules to the DNA strands, resulting in a solution that changes colour in the presence of viral genes.
Chou says that the technology already exists to manufacture the short DNA sequences quickly and inexpensively, and that these molecules are stable, meaning they can be stored wet or dry at room temperature for months or years.
Because it wouldn’t require complex materials or equipment such as enzymes or thermocyclers, the new test could be done in one step at the point of care, eliminating the logistical bottlenecks that are currently hampering testing efforts.
While he believes that the new approach is promising, Chou cautions that it will take many months before a prototype can be developed, and many more to determine whether or not the test is anywhere near as reliable as RT-PCR.
“All the tests that are being used right now took years to develop and clinically validate,” he says. “This is no different, but the strategy we’re proposing is unlike anything that is already being used. We aim to have proof-of-concept done within a year. If it works, it could have some very exciting advantages.”
Protecting a freshwater spring on Nicaragua’s Corn Island
A freshwater well on Corn Island, Nicaragua. As part of their fourth-year capstone design project, a team of U of T Engineering students is designing a system to protect a freshwater spring elsewhere on the island from the incursion of salt water. (Photo: Monica Pramanick)
Tobi Sogbesan (Year 4 MechE) had been in Nicaragua for three days when he finally realized what was at stake with his latest engineering project.
“We had the chance to sit down with some of the oldest women on the island,” says Sogbesan. “The conversations were so informative and interesting. I came to understand why the spring water was so significant to the people, and why it needed to be preserved.”
The island is Big Corn Island, which along with Little Corn Island supports a population of about 7,400 people. For hundreds of years, the freshwater spring has been used to supply water for cooking, cleaning, bathing and drinking. It was also a key place for members of the community, especially women, to socialize, trade and strengthen their community.
But the spring is located near the coast, and in recent years, residents have noticed that during high tide, ocean water comes in contact with the spring’s freshwater. Although freshwater can still be obtained from other sites, the spring’s historical and cultural significance are high, so the community began to look for a way to preserve it.
Several partners came together to help with the project including Seeds of Learning, Students Offering Support, and the University of Toronto’s Centre for Global Engineering (CGEN). The project became part of a fourth-year capstone course for engineering students, which is where Sogbesan and his teammates, Monica Pramanick (Year 4 MechE) and Milan Crnjanski (Year 4 MechE) got involved.
“Never in a million years did I think I would actually get the opportunity to travel to the island!” says Sogbesan.
Over the course of eight days in November of 2019, Sogbesan and Pramanick visited Big Corn Island to learn more about the local community, while also doing the groundwork that would inform their design.
“Our days usually began with taking soil and water samples, touring similar water projects elsewhere on the island, or learning about the availability of construction materials,” says Pramanick. “In the evenings, we were able to play with the neighbourhood kids, learn about the island’s history and visit nearby beaches, fruit stalls, and more.”
With an improved understanding of the social impact of their work, Sogbesan and Pramanick set about designing a physical barrier made from locally available volcanic rock that would protect the spring from the incursion of salt water. They also designed a pumping system that can be used to remove the any contaminated water from the spring before taking the clean water for personal use.
“Since our trip, we’ve narrowed down the geometry/structure of the barrier, construction materials and processes, and conducted more detailed studies on the human factors and cost analyses,” says Pramanick “We are also developing a prototype to be exhibited at the design fair at the end of the semester.”
Pramanick and Sogbesan say that the experience has had a lasting effect on them. In part, this was because of the way they were able to put their technical skills to work to address a practical challenge. But the opportunity to meet and understand the people that would benefit counted for even more.
“My experience at Corn Island was so good that I plan on going back again after I graduate,” says Sogbesan. “It is an experience I will never forget, one that will stick with me for life. I would advise students who have this opportunity to grab it with both hands.”
Mojtaba Abbasnezhad’s Facebook profile photo. Abbaznezhad was a PhD student in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Toronto. He was killed in the crash of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752. (Photo: Facebook)
On Wednesday, January 8, 2020, U of T Engineering student Mojtaba Abbasnezhad was among 176 passengers killed when Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 crashed shortly after takeoff from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport.
“He was a very bright guy, very talented, one of the most intelligent people I know,” his friend Pooya Poolad (ECE PhD candidate) told the CBC. “We were studying our bachelor’s back in Iran, then we kind of drifted apart. Then he came here just this past semester and we’ve kind of been reunited again, and we were planning a future together, as friends, here.”
Abbasnezhad, known to friends as Sorush, was born in 1993. He completed his Bachelor of Science in Electrical and Electronics Engineering in 2015 at Shahid Chamran University in the southwestern Iranian city of Ahvaz. He then moved to the University of Tehran, where he earned a Master of Science degree in Digital Electronic Systems in 2018. His thesis project involved hardware acceleration of an embedded system for monitoring distributed fibre optic sensors.
Abbasnezhad worked as a Digital Design Engineer at Samim Group, a media and communications technology company headquartered in Iranshahr, before moving to Canada in 2019. Last September, Abbasnezhad began his PhD studies at the University of Toronto in The Edward S. Rogers Sr. Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering under the supervision of Professor Roman Genov (ECE). He also served as the teaching assistant for a second-year course on digital systems.
“He was a talented, knowledgeable and promising student,” said Genov. “[He was] well-liked by colleagues, always genuine, smiling, happy and positive.”
“He was kind and caring — after he came here, he was still actively helping people wishing to get admission, to come to Canada for grad studies,” said Poolad. “We still can’t believe, we never can believe the situation happened. It’s hard to process.”
“Many of the victims of this tragedy were members of our extended global community — family, friends and loved ones who are mourned deeply,” said Chris Yip, Dean of U of T Engineering. “Our U of T Engineering community has been touched and we are devastated by this terrible loss.”
U of T Engineering entrepreneur creates his own job post-graduation: Delivering clean, affordable energy to Nigeria
Olugbenga Olubanjo (back row, second from left) poses for a photo with members of the Reeddi team, local community members and his startup’s power-providing capsules during an August pilot project in Ayegun, Nigeria (photo courtesy of Olugbenga Olubanjo).
For Olugbenga Olubanjo (CivE MASc candidate), the light bulb moment leading to clean energy startup Reeddi came when the lights went out.
He was often frustrated speaking to family and friends in his native Nigeria over the phone only to have the calls cut short by power outages back home. So he decided to do something about it.
Barely two years later, Olubanjo is set to graduate with a master’s degree and a job that he created: CEO of Reeddi, the startup he founded and incubated at U of T to bring clean and affordable electricity to energy-starved communities in Nigeria and beyond.
“Energy shortages affect a lot of people I know, love and care about,” he says.
Reeddi provides portable energy via compact capsules that are charged at solar-powered stations located in communities. Customers rent the capsules at an affordable price and are incentivized to return them on time by earning credits that can go toward future rentals.
By making clean energy more accessible, Reeddi aims to reduce reliance on diesel generators that emit copious amounts of greenhouse gases.
The concept went through several iterations before arriving at a promising formula.
Initially, Olubanjo envisioned using umbrellas fitted with solar panels to help people charge mobile phones and other devices. The project, then called Veco, placed second in the U of T chapter of the Hult Prize for social entrepreneurship.
“That gave me a lot of confidence as I realized that the North American business space wasn’t as different from the Nigerian business space as I thought,” Olubanjo says.
The project took a slightly different direction after Olubanjo and his partners approached the Entrepreneurship Hatchery in September 2018.
“We got a lot of feedback from the judges and directors at the Hatchery, and the questions they asked changed the way I saw our business model,” he says.
“We started doing more research and eventually developed the model for the capsules. So the idea really kicked off in the Hatchery.”
Olubanjo says Reeddi benefited immensely from the insights of mentor and adviser Professor Yu-Ling Cheng (ChemE). Professor Jonathan Rose (ECE) also played a key role. “He introduced us to people and exposed us to a valuable network that we’re still benefiting from today.”
He credits Professors Shoshanna Saxe and Tamer El-Diraby (CivMin) with inspiring Reeddi’s sustainability focus and business model respectively, and notes the contributions of Bill Nussey, M.K. Balaji, Okide Ezigbo, Omozaphue Akalumhe and U of T alumna Ireh Iyioha.
Olubanjo adds that the material support provided by the Hatchery was crucial.
“We used the Hatchery’s 3D printer a lot. We were printing models every week, tweaking them and printing more,” he said. “Imagine if we had to pay for all that 3D printing. Wow, it would’ve cost a lot of money.”
Within three months of approaching the Hatchery, Reeddi had its first working prototype.
In August, the company ran a successful micro-scale pilot project in Nigeria with five prototypes to validate its business model and technology.
The positive reception to the pilot left Olubanjo more determined than ever to develop the Reeddi concept.
“People were so excited. There were smiles on their faces and they kept asking us when we would be coming back,” he says. “I thought to myself, ‘I owe it to them.’ I’ve gotten a lot of help in life and the least I can do is give back in my own way.”
Olubanjo says the idea of helping and giving back has always been central to his entrepreneurial outlook.
“At the end of the day, it’s not only about making money. Anyone can make money, but it’s about the happiness that you give people,” he says. “Just knowing that my innovation could have a positive impact on people’s lives — oh my God, there’s no feeling like that in life.”
It’s an impact that could be felt well beyond Nigeria one day, with Olubanjo saying Reeddi has attracted interest from organizations and communities in countries like South Africa, Indonesia, India and the United States.
“Anywhere where there’s an energy or electricity issue is where we come into play. We want to be in as many countries as possible,” Olubanjo says.
Reeddi, which has won numerous clean energy and social entrepreneurship awards, is currently looking to build on its promising start in Nigeria by running a more substantial, three-month pilot project to validate its supply chain model and better understand its customer base. It’s also holding talks with investors in Nigeria.
In addition, the company is launching a new project called Reeddi Crate to manage the distribution of the capsules and is working on refining its software.
Reeddi counts among its team two other members of the U of T community: Osarieme Osakue (CivMin MASc candidate) and Joshua Dzakah (MechE 1T9).
“I’ve gotten a lot of help from the U of T community — from Rotman, Massey College, the Hatchery — it’s been amazing,” Olubanjo says.
Now well on his way, Olubanjo has a few words of advice for other aspiring U of T student entrepreneurs.
“Be courageous, be fearless,” he says. “When I started, there were many distractions and people being negative and discouraging. But I thought to myself, ‘You know what, I know what I’m going to do and I have to just do it.’
“I think being fearless is very important when it comes to entrepreneurship.”
U of T Vice-Provost of Students Sandy Welsh and Beth Ali, Executive Director of Athletics and Physical Activity, present MIE student-athlete Jack Berkshire (Year 3 IndE) with U SPORTS Top Scholar award. (Photo: Seyram Mammadov)
On November 20, 2019, 233 University of Toronto student-athletes were recognized at the 10th annual Academic Excellence Breakfast, which was held at the Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport.
Twenty-three U of T Engineering undergraduate and graduate students were honoured at the event, including the 2019 U SPORTS cross country individual gold medal winner Lucia Stafford (Year 3 CivE).
The ceremony honoured student-athletes who, while competing on a Varsity team, earned an 80% average or higher in all courses they were enrolled in during the 2018-2019 academic year. Each recipient received a pin: enamel for first-time winners, bronze for second, silver for third, gold for fourth and a diamond pin for anyone earning this award five or more times during their intercollegiate career.
“Attending the Varsity Blues Academic Excellence Breakfast is a highlight in my annual calendar,” said Don MacMillan, Faculty Registrar, U of T Engineering. “It’s an opportunity to celebrate our incredible community of student-athletes and recognize their academic and athletic achievements.”
At the event, Varsity Blues men’s squash student-athlete Yusuf Shalaby (MechE 1T8, MIE MSc candidate) received a double-diamond pin for his sixth appearance at the annual excellence awards.
Track and field star Jack Berkshire (Year 3 IndE) was awarded the prestigious U SPORTS Top Scholar Award. Berkshire is also an executive member of Blues Engineering, a student-run group that supports U of T Engineering’s student-athletes,
Berkshire noted that to be chosen out of such a bright group of student-athletes was an honour and a testament to his hard work and dedication to his academic studies and athletics. He also acknowledged the support of the Faculty, Varsity Blues and his peers.
“I would not have been able to accomplish what I have without the support of the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, my professors and my classmates,” said Berkshire. “On the flip side, U of T’s varsity athletics program, my coaches and teammates have always been incredibly accommodating regarding my being a student first and athlete second.”
When asked why he joined Blues Engineering given his busy schedule, Berkshire said that he became involved after reflecting on his experiences as a first-year student and wishing he had accessed the resources that had been available to him.
“The Blues Engineering executive team and I are now trying to mitigate situations like the kind I had in first year by creating a close-knit community where varsity student-athletes feel comfortable asking questions and getting the help they need,” he said. “Everyone knows one another and they’re always willing to provide career, academic or athletic advice.”
U of T Engineering students in attendance at the Academic Excellence Breakfast. (Photo: Seyram Mammadov). Top row (L – R): Anthony Nassif, Tanner Young-Schultz, Osvald Nitski, Jack Berkshire. Bottom row (L – R): Lucia Stafford, Sashini Senarath, Brandon Hadfield, Salma Dessouki, Jae Jin Lee.
The 2018-2019* U of T Engineering Varsity Blues Academic Excellence Award recipients are:
Jack Berkshire (Year 3 IndE) – Track & Field
Matthew Chen (MSE 1T7, MSE MSc candidate) – Rowing
Eric Deare (Year 3 MSE) – Mountain Biking
Salma Dessouki (Year 3 IndE) – Tennis
Zachary Frangos (Year 3 ChemE) – Cross Country
Brandon Hadfield (EngSci 1T9) – Baseball
Cameron Haigh (Year 3 EngSci) – Fencing
Margaret Ho (IBBME PhD candidate) – Fencing
Megan Kamachi (IBBME MSc candidate) – Rowing
James Keane (Year 3 ChemE) – Lacrosse
Brenden Lavoie (Year 3 CivE) – Golf
Jae Jin Lee (MSE MSc candidate) – Soccer
Beston Leung (Year 4 CompE) – Fencing
Anthony Nassif (MechE 1T7, MIE MEng candidate) – Mountain Biking
Osvald Nitski (Year 4 MechE) – Swimming
Aurora Nowicki (Year 2, ElecE) – Softball
Colin O’Brien (MIE PhD candidate) – Mountain Biking
Zheng-Hong Lu and Yu Sun named Fellows of the Royal Society of Canada
Zheng-Hong Lu, seen here with former graduate students Michael Helander (left) and Zhibin Wang (right) is one of two U of T Engineering professors to be inducted as Fellows of the Royal Society of Canada this year. (Photo: Mark Balson)
U of T Engineering professors Zheng-Hong Lu (MSE) and Yu Sun (MIE) have been elected fellows of the Royal Society of Canada (RSC) on the basis of their exceptional contributions to scholarship in their fields.
“On behalf of the Faculty, my warmest congratulations to both Professor Lu and Professor Sun on this well-deserved honour,” said U of T Engineering Dean Christopher Yip. “From next-generation screens and displays to robotic technology that can potentially advance the study of human diseases, they embody our commitment to engineering a better world.”
Zheng-Hong Lu holds the Canada Research Chair in Organic Optoelectronics, and is conducting pioneering research on organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs). In recent years, these materials have been widely adopted by manufacturers of display screens for televisions, computers, and smartphones due their ability to provide thinner, more flexible screens with lower energy needs.
Lu’s research has contributed significantly to the development of new OLEDs, including varieties which offer better energy efficiency and which are more cost-effective to manufacture than their predecessors.
Lu invented a chlorinated indium tin oxide with an unprecedented high work function which makes record high efficiency OLEDs possible in an extremely simple device structure, greatly reducing manufacturing costs. He has also developed an effective method to unlock the full potential of organic light-emitting diodes through a layered electrode technology, enabling his engineering of an OLED device with 290 lumens per watt, the world’s highest recorded efficiency.
Lu is co-founder of two spin-off companies, OTI Lumionics and Norel Optronics, and works with leading companies in the display and lighting sectors to commercialize the technology developed in his lab. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Canadian Academy of Engineering (CAE).
Professor Yu Sun in 2012 (Photo: NSERC)
Yu Sun is the Canada Research Chair in Micro- and Nano-Engineering Systems and the Director of U of T’s Robotics Institute. He is an international leader in developing robotic systems and devices for manipulating and characterizing cells, molecules, and nanomaterials. Sun pioneered the field of robotic cell manipulation, and his work has led to breakthroughs in clinical cell surgery, disease diagnostics, and drug screening. He has also contributed significantly to advances in cellular mechanobiology and nanomechanics through the development of micro-nano instrumentation technologies.
Sun’s robotic ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection) technology resulted in the world’s first robotically created human fertilization. He has also developed the world’s first automated robotic cell manipulation system for drug screening and bladder cancer detection.
Recently, Sun and his team developed a robotic magnetic tweezer system capable of 3D navigation inside a cell, allowing scientists to directly explore intercellular structures for the first time. Sun is a fellow of the AAAS, CAE, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the Canadian Society for Mechanical Engineering, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and the National Academy of Inventors.
The Royal Society of Canada’s mission is to recognize scholarly, research and artistic excellence, to advise governments and organizations, and to promote a culture of knowledge and innovation in Canada. Fellowship in the RSC is one of the highest honours a Canadian researcher can achieve. New fellows will be inducted in Ottawa on November 22, during the Society’s Celebration of Excellence and Engagement.
“There is so much potential for process innovation by gaining a better understanding of the new, dynamic and complex reality of engineering design work,” she says. “But that can only be done with the input of interdisciplinary perspectives — and tools.”
Olechowski’s Design Observation Studio, a first of its kind in Canada, will contain powerful computer-aided design (CAD) workstations and digital fabrication equipment. With these tools, Olechowski and her team will observe and collect data on controlled experiments to research how today’s designers collaborate and make technical decisions at each phase of the product life cycle: conception, modelling, prototyping and testing.
By gaining a better understanding of how multidisciplinary and international collaborations inform the design process, the team aims to develop new best practices that can boost productivity and enhance quality at design firms worldwide. They will also generate new teaching strategies and learning modules to prepare the next generation of engineers and product developers.
Olechowski’s design studio is among seven U of T Engineering projects receiving funding through the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s (CFI) John R. Evans Leaders Fund (JELF), announced today by the Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science and Sport.
The fund will help equip researchers with state-of-art tools and infrastructure, catalyzing research discovery and innovation. Funding was awarded to 32 projects across U of T — more than any other Canadian university — totalling $9.1 million.
“These investments in our research infrastructure ensure we retain world-class researchers, and that our faculty and students have access to leading-edge tools and facilities to conduct crucial work that addresses some of the most complex challenges of our time,” says RaminFarnood, U of T Engineering’s Vice-Dean of Research.
For Olechowski, the funding will provide a powerful boost to a critical area of research.
“I’m excited for my team to address new research questions through this cutting-edge studio,” she says.
The U of T Engineering CFI JELF recipients in this round are:
Frank Gu (ChemE), Automation and intelligent design of nanostructured materials
Patrick C. Lee (MIE), Multi-material characterization system for developing and testing micro-/nano-layered composites and foams
Xinyu Liu (MIE), Infrastructure for Advanced Microfluidic Nano-biosensing
Michael Garton (IBBME), Expanding cell capabilities to sense their environment for therapeutic applications
Andreas Mandelis (MIE), Facility for advanced non-destructive testing/imaging instrumentation development
Alison Olechowski (MIE, Troost ILead), Design observation studio
Yu Sun (MIE), Infrastructure for image-guided magnetic micromanipulation of cells and tissues