Viola Cohen



ENGINEERING DOCTORAL STUDENT CHADIA UWAMAHORO ISN’T AFRAID to offer her native Rwanda as an example of what’s possible through truth and reconciliation. The healing process is ongoing in the central African nation of nearly 14 million people following the 1994 genocide against 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and their supporters by the governing Hutu majority. Uwamahoro was just a year old when the genocide began. “When the country lost nearly a million people, we went backward,” she says. “We had no other choice than to rebuild.” Uwamahoro is now a civil engineering doctoral student studying under Dr. Lisa Tobber in the UBC Okanagan Advanced Structural Engineering and Experimental Testing Group. Much of her current path is based on helping a united Rwanda thrive. The mother of a two-year-old daughter, Aaira, Uwamahoro co-founded a construction consulting business in her hometown of Kigali with her husband, who is also a structural engineer. She says she plans to return to Rwanda and raise her family, grow their business and continue the rebuilding process. She has full faith in the Rwandan people and the direction the country is heading. “As Africans, we have to learn,” she adds. “That’s how we know what happened to our people and our country. It’s easy to divide people to control them. When people are together, it’s hard to control them. They’re able to resist you.” It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Uwamahoro entered engineering. She always enjoyed math and science. Her father is an entrepreneur who loves to create, she says. She grew up in a busy household in Kigali, also the Rwandan capital city, with three brothers. She wasn’t afraid to insert herself between them, play soccer and get her hands dirty. It caught her father’s attention, and her parents sent her to the United States to finish high school. Uwamahoro went on to earn a Bachelor of Civil Engineering from the University of Texas at San Antonio in 2016 and remained there to finish her master’s in 2018. She chose UBC Okanagan for her doctorate primarily because of Dr. Tobber.

“I gravitate toward people who show leadership and perseverance. I like people who see the world differently. All of those things really resonated when I met Chadia.” – Dr. Lisa Tobber

“I made my decision after my first meeting with her,” Uwamahoro says. “She’s very eager to learn and is interested in new things, new aspects. She tells you to question everything. I think those are the proper methods for a doctoral student.” Dr. Tobber was struck by Uwamahoro’s ambition and focus. She came to UBCO so she could one day return home and improve Rwanda. “I gravitate toward people who show leadership and perseverance,” Dr. Tobber says. “I like people who see the world differently. All of those things really resonated when I met Chadia.” Uwamahoro’s specific research is around precast concrete buildings and systems, with emphasis on the connections being used with precast concrete shear walls. A precast system is constructed in a plant and transported to the building site, while traditional systems are poured on location. “Precast is already being used in Canada, especially Ontario,” Uwamahoro says. “It involves multiple different units that need to be connected to act as one building. We’re looking at those connections and how they behave.” Precast concrete is seen as vital to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and making construction more environmentally friendly. It can be more affordable than traditional concrete buildings, making precast an economical option when addressing the housing crunch. “There isn’t enough of this type of research happening in the world,” Dr. Tobber says. “It’s vital we adopt new technologies and new materials to help address climate change, housing insecurity and even natural disaster.” Uwamahoro doesn’t intend to stop at concrete. Her future work, she says, will remain on the pursuit of a Rwandan building code and her consulting company. She wants to continue helping disadvantaged communities with initiatives and programs that help build houses for refugees. “The Rwandan building code being used right now was taken from the United Kingdom,” she says. “We don’t have one based on current data in Rwanda. I want to be able to create a building code for Rwanda and Dr. Tobber understood that. She was willing to give me the space, and that’s incredible.” She says that bringing her two worlds together—taking what she learned at UBCO with her home to Africa—is proof everyday Rwandans are invested in their future. “Rwanda has reconciled,” she says. “The government is consulting people, teaching children what happened and what hatred can do to people. As a country, we don’t want what happened to repeat. “To quote our president, Paul Kagame, ‘We cannot turn the clock back nor can we undo the harm caused, but we have the power to determine the future and to ensure that what happened never happens again.’” The post Chadia Uwamahoro is helping Rwanda rebuild appeared first on UBC Okanagan News.
WHEN ASKED WHAT SHE WANTS TO DO AFTER GRADUATION, Yue Zhang’s response is simple: “I want to do something impactful. That’s my plan.” And so far, Zhang’s plan is on track; working alongside her doctoral supervisor Dr. Jian Liu, she’s researching the next generation of rechargeable batteries for consumer electronics like cellphones and laptops—all the way up to electric car batteries. These batteries are not only important to further developing a more sustainable, circular economy, but could also be an important step toward global decarbonization. According to Zhang, today’s batteries have three main problems: safety (caused by flammable liquid electrolytes), cost and power density (or performance). Zhang and Dr. Liu—in partnership with UBC Vancouver, Fenix Advanced Materials, NSERC, the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions, Canada Foundation for Innovation, BC Knowledge Development Fund and Mitacs—hope to change this with an all-solid-state recycled tellurium-based rechargeable battery. “Initially, this wasn’t a popular battery choice because it’s a semi-metal that needs to be recycled into a high-purity metal to be used for rechargeable batteries,” Zhang says. “We thought if we could combine the current lithium sulphur battery with recycled tellurium, some kind of change in chemistry would result. “We found the resulting battery had an amazing improvement in performance; our early estimates see an energy density double or even triple that of lithium sulphur batteries.” While Zhang emphasizes that more research is required, the early findings are certainly promising in a field where reserves of some rare earth minerals used in electronic batteries could run out in less than 100 years. The demand for lithium, for example, is expected to grow exponentially over the next few decades, putting the valuable element in short supply and high demand. Expertise in materials, mechanical and chemical engineering will be required to devise an interdisciplinary solution to the complex problem posed by moving away from fossil fuels. With gasoline prices creeping toward $2 per litre in much of Canada, there’s a sense of urgency and importance to the research.
A close up of a cell battery being tested for storage capacity

These tellurium-boosted lithium-sulfur batteries are being tested for their lithium-ion storage and cycling stability, as well as their internal reaction mechanism. Researchers discovered that the new battery technology contributes to more power, meaning extended mileage for electric vehicles.

“We need to explore several diverse avenues to find a solution. For example, can recycled tellurium be successfully incorporated with elements like sulphur, which has a higher energy density and produces better batteries? Or maybe we need some additives, or something to refine the sulphur chemistry to solve the bottlenecks of lithium sulphur batteries,” Zhang adds. “There are still some challenges to address, but we believe we can solve these climate-related problems.” As for the future, Zhang is excited by the potential of her research to impact the general population. “Although we’re in the lab, we’re producing something that can be used by industry, which ultimately makes the research accessible to people in daily life. I’m fascinated by the interdisciplinary nature of my research and I get a sense of achievement from that.” It’s something she says she couldn’t have experienced elsewhere. “UBC is a top university in the world, so when I saw Dr. Liu had an opening in his lab, it was my top choice. I’ve lived in China for over 20 years and I wanted to have a new experience with new scenery, where I can connect with other students and professors from different countries. “UBCO turned out to be the perfect place for me, and I hope to be an instructor here one day, passing on my knowledge and skills, and encouraging more people to enter the field of battery research.” The post Yue Zhang is part of a new energy frontier appeared first on UBC Okanagan News.
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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. The post Dr. Chinchu Cherian successfully balances motherhood, research and teaching appeared first on UBC Okanagan News.
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.” The post Deliberate with actions and ambitious with dreams appeared first on UBC Okanagan News.
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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.” The post Dr. Mehran Shirazi is a lifelong teacher appeared first on UBC Okanagan News.
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.” The post Dr. Ayman Elnaggar innovates teaching for his students appeared first on UBC Okanagan News.