Viola Cohen



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IN THE FALL OF 2018, IN ERNAKULAM, KERALA, INDIA, civil engineer Dr. Chinchu Cherian and her family were about to welcome a new son and brother into their fold. At the time, Kelowna, British Columbia, and UBC Okanagan were 13,200 kilometres away, but even further from their minds.

While UBCO is lauded for having a close-knit campus community, the significance of its global reach spanning oceans and crossing borders cannot be muted. It was through an acquaintance of Dr. Cherian’s doctoral supervisor, Dr. Dali Naidu Arnepalli at the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras, that a life-changing opportunity would present itself.

“Dr. Arnepalli used to tell me that your graph should always be going up,” says Dr. Cherian, gesturing towards the ceiling. “With family and kids, I thought it was time to settle down. I had given up on my aspirations to pursue further heights in my career. I was happy that way, but Dr. Arnepalli added wings to my dreams again.” With this enthusiastic encouragement—and while six months pregnant—Dr. Cherian applied for and received a fellowship with Dr. Sumi Siddiqua in UBCO’s School of Engineering.

The 13,200-kilometre span between Ernakulam and Kelowna seemed to narrow with the help of social media. “My husband found an online video of Dr. Siddiqua and looked at the names of people who liked it on Facebook. He saw a familiar Indian name and sent her a personal message.”

Dr. Chinchu Cherian and Dr. Sumi Siddiqua

Dr. Cherian with Dr. Sumi Siddiqua of UBCO’s School of Engineering.

As luck would have it, this stranger―Dr. Anupama Pillai―had done a post-doctoral fellowship at UBCO and hailed from their home province in India. “After meeting her online, she gave us some advice about relocating and information about Canada. She was very supportive. We finally met in person when we arrived in British Columbia and have been great friends since.”

Having a female role model such as Dr. Siddiqua in an industry that is commonly perceived as being male-dominated has been crucial to Dr. Cherian. “I consider myself lucky to have a supervisor in Dr. Siddiqua,” she says. “Only another woman can 100 per cent understand the challenges faced by a working mother. The positive and welcoming environment at UBC Okanagan has given me the confidence to achieve a high calibre of work.”

Dr. Cherian notes that while there are considerate male supervisors, communication is much easier when there’s a shared understanding of what it means to be a mother. “When female role models that have kids and families continue to pursue their dreams and succeed, they tell us that nothing is impossible.”

A keystone project for Dr. Cherian has been her research conducted with support from a Mitacs Elevate Scholarship and in partnership with BC’s pulp-mill industry. Over the course of two years, her team looked for ways to recycle wood fly ash, a pulp-mill waste product, into a green alternative to portland cement in the construction of concrete roads and buildings. “The fundamental technologies are well developed,” Dr. Cherian says. “It’s our job to make them more sustainable and environmentally friendly.”

She adds: “While these are small steps, this type of research is happening globally. The cumulative result will have a positive impact on our future.”

Dr. Cherian in the lab

After completing her Mitacs fellowship, Dr. Cherian immersed herself in teaching opportunities in the School of Engineering. “I tell my friends that when you’re a teacher, you don’t age, you always feel like a student yourself.” She has formed strong relationships with her diverse group of students and credits being a mother as having informed her teaching style. “Through my son and daughter, I’ve learned to appreciate that different people have different perspectives and needs that must be met.”

This appreciation was the catalyst for Dr. Cherian’s esteem for the Disability Resource Centre and the Equity and Inclusion Office. “We see such positive outcomes with the implementation of these services at UBCO,” she says. “It’s my goal to advocate for the support of students from a variety of facets including mental health and the removal of barriers to education, especially in places where these pillars don’t exist.”

Dr. Cherian is thrilled to be extending her work with Dr. Siddiqua as a Research Engineer in the School of Engineering and hopes to continue sharing her passions for civil engineering, diversity and sustainability with students as a Sessional Instructor this fall.

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THROUGHOUT HIS CAREER, Dr. Will Hughes has been a champion of the field of engineering, working tirelessly to expose the discipline to as many people as possible in order to serve the greater good.

“Engineering is a remarkably creative field. It is also, at times, exclusionary based on who does and doesn’t feel at home with its content or culture,” explains Dr. Hughes, the new Director of UBC Okanagan’s School of Engineering. “More perspectives and lived experiences are needed to responsibly address yesterday’s faults, today’s challenges and tomorrow’s opportunities. Only then can the natural creativity and full capacity of engineering become a reality.”

Now, as Dr. Hughes joins the Okanagan community, he does so with an eye toward how the School of Engineering can support its people, our planet and our profits.

His emerging vision for the School is to model civil discourse promoting respect and compassion, while creating an inclusive environment that creates real opportunities for upward mobility. He also aims to generate original work that confronts locally relevant and globally significant problems, while prioritizing competitive workforce development to prepare the next generation of engineers in the Okanagan.

Outside of his administrative role, Dr. Hughes’ earned his Bachelor of Science and his doctorate—both in Materials Science and Engineering—before undertaking a National Academy of Engineering Postdoctoral Fellowship within the Center for the Advancement of Scholarship on Engineering Education in the United States.

“More perspectives and lived experiences are needed to responsibly address yesterday’s faults, today’s challenges and tomorrow’s opportunities. Only then can the natural creativity and full capacity of engineering become a reality.”

His current research involves developing technologies made from DNA, using the structural integrity, information density and programmability of life’s most basic material. Such technologies range from engineering low-cost liquid computers that perform early stage diagnostics of hard-to-detect diseases, to storing extremely dense and stable information for archival applications. Using the triple-bottom-line as a guide, Dr. Hughes and his multidisciplinary team have always been committed to the social, environmental and financial impacts of their work.

In collaboration with the Micron School of Materials Science & Engineering at Boise State, Harvard University, and the Semiconductor Research Corporation, Dr. Hughes coined the field Nucleic Acid Memory. He then envisioned and contributed to the semiconductor synthetic biology roadmap to steer semiconductor investments in a post Moore’s Law world.

“Moore’s Law suggests that the power of computers and electronics doubles every two years,” explains Dr. Hughes. He sees a similar growth in the power of inclusion, community and engineering. He envisions the School of Engineering as both a welcoming place and creative space where engineering is a verb, not a noun.

“I see in the people around me what a few people saw in me—potential energy. The potential to serve our community one person, one idea and one expression at a time by helping create the conditions for responsible growth and innovation to happen at scale.”

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DR. MEHRAN SHIRAZI WAS 13 YEARS OLD when he first knew he wanted to be a teacher. In his early childhood, he also imagined becoming an engineer.

“I come from a long line of engineers,” he shares. “My father and brothers are all in the profession.” But while engineering was in his blood, teaching was Dr. Shirazi’s true passion. In fact, he began his teaching career as a tutor helping other kids in his neighbourhood with their math homework. “That’s when I realized I liked teaching more, so I decided to do both.”

Dr. Shirazi describes these combined passions as his “ikigai;” the Japanese concept focuses on finding one’s purpose through the intersection of what you love, what you are good at, what the world needs, and your career aspirations. “I’m very lucky to have the opportunity to truly enjoy my work and teach the things I’m interested in.”

In a recent fourth-year engineering course, Dr. Shirazi posed several variations of the famous “trolley problem” to his students in relation to autonomous vehicles. The “trolley problem” is a philosophical thought experiment about whether to sacrifice one person to save a larger number. During the lesson, Dr. Shirazi’s enthusiasm for the subject was palpable, and students could sense his excitement.

“I want my students to be enthusiastic about what they do,” he explains. “When you’re passionate about a subject, you’ll do whatever you can to learn more about it, and that also leads to lifelong learning.”

“In 10 years, I know I’ll definitely still be teaching. Ask me again in 20 years, and I‘ll still say teaching. That’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

As a researcher of control systems and autonomous vehicles, Dr. Shirazi’s work often looks to the future. As both an educator and an engineer, he looks for opportunities to innovate his practices while being mindful of the impacts on his students and the world. But he also wants to help his students succeed in more than just academics, ultimately forming the skills they need to be great engineers as well as family members, friends and citizens. “I want to give them confidence so they know they can be successful. I tell my students they’re not here for grades; they’re here to learn.”

He adds: “My work is to support my students’ learning while maintaining their mental health and wellbeing. That’s the ultimate goal.”

Dr. Shirazi still keeps in touch with many of his earliest students—the classmates he tutored in Iran who inspired him in his teaching journey. “Many of my old students have become very successful, working and studying in places all around the world. When I hear the effect I’ve had in their lives, both during the semester and after they graduated, that makes me so happy.”

As for his own future, Dr. Shirazi is certain what it will hold. “In 10 years, I know I’ll definitely still be teaching. Ask me again in 20 years, and I‘ll still say teaching,” he laughs. “That’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

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IN FALL 2021, A SENSE OF CALM SETTLED OVER UBCO’S CAMPUS as students and faculty took a collective breath. The busy university was devoid of the usual dance of students and faculty rushing to their daily classes, as the first-ever Fall Reading Week provided a much-needed respite for the UBCO community. But it took fierce determination to make it happen; just ask Dr. Ayman Elnaggar, an Associate Professor of Teaching in the School of Engineering, who was the driving force behind this mental health initiative.

Introducing a new university-wide break was not a simple process; it took unwavering dedication, countless hours of research and a full overhaul of the academic calendar, but Dr. Elnaggar knew his efforts would be worthwhile if it helped even one student get the support they need.

Growing up, Dr. Elnaggar always knew he wanted to be an academic. His first experiences with teaching came as an undergraduate student, when he would help classmates understand difficult concepts. After years of working in the computer, telecom and semiconductor industry, Dr. Elnaggar pivoted his career path and moved to Canada, where he continued his academic studies and achieved his dream of becoming an educator.

Although teaching was always one of his goals, Dr. Elnaggar never expected to also become a mental health advocate. Seeing the challenges his three sons experienced as they each studied different disciplines at UBC Okanagan led Dr. Elnaggar to look for new opportunities to affect system-wide changes that would make a difference for his students. “Every single instructor at UBC Okanagan needs to be aware of their students’ mental health,” he explains. “My sons encouraged me to do my best for them and the entire student community.”

While shaping future engineers is important, Dr. Elnaggar is more interested in preparing his students to succeed in life. He believes that being an approachable instructor is important to creating a positive learning environment for students. “I have an open-door policy and welcome students to stop by my office anytime.”

“The teaching and learning community is everything to me. It’s very important to me I have a personal relationship with my colleagues and students.”

It’s these kinds of conversations that have led Dr. Elnaggar to make changes to improve the student experience in his classroom, while also looking for innovative solutions at a system level. “Most of the initiatives I’ve developed at UBC Okanagan have come from engaging with my students. Learning about their individual experiences helps me to find opportunities to affect changes in our system that will benefit all students.”

This value of innovation, which has always been a driving force for Dr. Elnaggar, is something he tries to impart to his students as well. He believes how students approach their problems can be more important than coming up with the right answer. “During exams, I encourage students to write down their approach to the question, even if they don’t know the answer. You can always get a better calculator or simulation program, but the way you think about questions and devise innovative solutions to problems is what will take you far in life.”

This thoughtful spirit of teaching and support is one of many reasons Dr. Elnaggar was recognized as a recipient of UBCO’s 2022 Provost’s Award for Teaching Excellence and Innovation.

As for what draws him to UBCO, teaching at a smaller campus provides Dr. Elnaggar with the opportunity to connect with his students and colleagues on a personal level. “The teaching and learning community is everything to me. It’s very important to me I have a personal relationship with my colleagues and students.”

He adds: “By taking a proactive stance on improving, maintaining and nurturing students’ mental health, it supports students to not only be successful in their studies but also in their lives and as future engineers.”

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