Engineering Grad Focused on Community Building
Colleen O’Toole, Environmental Engineering (B.Eng.); Project Manager, Kerr Wood Leidal (KWL) Associates Limited
Aanii/Bozho. Wasayakwe nzdizhnikaaz. Mukwa dodem. Hello! My Anishinaabemowin name is Northern Lights Woman. I am Bear Clan.
Photo credit: Darby Magill Photography
Colleen O’Toole (B.Eng, ’08) was born in Whitehorse, Yukon and grew up on a small farm in Southwestern Ontario. She has always had a passion for the outdoors and loved building things herself, using scrap wood and nails to create structures.
“I was raised in a family of strong women, teachers, advocates and social justice leaders,” says O’Toole. “This certainly framed the way that I see the world and reinforced the value placed on community and home.”
Her love for the outdoors, mixed with a natural affinity for creation, led O’Toole to the Environmental Engineering (Co-op) program at U of G. During her degree, O’Toole completed a co-op work term in British Columbia, ultimately resulting in a position with KWL Associates Limited—a leading employee-owned, multi-disciplinary engineering consulting firm—in Burnaby, British Columbia.
Originally working on small energy planning and run-of-river hydro development, Colleen’s role at KWL has shifted towards project management, contract administration and asset management.
“Through attending the University of Guelph, I became part of a curious, creative and engaged community,” says O’Toole. “I really enjoy projects that have many layers—culture, archaeology, environment, community engagement and civil infrastructure. I am deeply interested in building relationships, creating spaces for dialogue and removing barriers to support the development of Indigenous people.”
O’Toole’s desire to understand the impact of engineering around the world has taken her beyond Canada. At U of G, she connected with Engineers Without Borders, where she completed a fellowship, working in partnership with Ghanaian colleagues at the AfriLEAD Institute in Tamale. After returning to Canada, O’Toole volunteered with the Urban Native Youth Association and spent three years as a mentor for Indigenous youth in her community. Her leadership, volunteer work and achievements earned her the 2013 University of Guelph School of Engineering Young Alumnus of Honour Award.
Recently, O’Toole has been using her engineering expertise and community focus to make an impact at home in BC. Inaccessible housing costs in the Metro Vancouver area are creating instability for new buyers, so O’Toole and nine friends developed a socially and economically sustainable approach. In 2018, all 10 purchased a single home on four acres in the Sunshine Coast Regional District with the ultimate goal of developing a small-scale community on the property along with 10 lots, which requires a change to current community plan and zoning bylaws. According to O’Toole, the proposal has generally been well-received by municipal government and residents.
“There is no question that attending the University of Guelph reinforced the importance of cultivating supportive spaces for learning and building community,” says O’Toole. “Learning about low impact development, and how to design water, sewer and drainage systems has certainly come in handy, too!”
Their vision is for a clustered-type of development, consisting of small homes with extensive green space and shared amenities, working alongside their neighbourhood, and acting as a role model for environmentally sustainable, affordable home development.
Faculty and Staff Awards
People are at the heart of the University of Guelph—their ingenuity, enthusiasm and collaboration create a robust research, teaching and learning community. We are pleased to recognize and thank all of our faculty and staff for their contributions, and particularly the six who received this year’s College Awards. Congratulations on this achievement!
- Assistant Professor Research Excellence Award Ali Dehghantanha, School of Computer Science
- Assistant Professor Research Excellence Award Huan Yang, Department of Physics
- Graduate Supervision Award John Dutcher, Department of Physics
- Undergraduate Supervision Award Manjusri Misra, School of Engineering
- Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching Award Ryan Clemmer, School of Engineering
- Staff Excellence Award Jay Leitch, Department of Physics
Award Winner Highlight: Staff Excellence Award
When Jay Leitch began his career at U of G as a Nanoscience Technician in 2009, the nanoscience program was in its infancy. Now having been offered for more than a decade at the University, this B.Sc major provides undergraduate students with the opportunity to study the chemical and physical behaviour of materials at the nanoscale. Courses are taught using a multidisciplinary approach that integrates the fields of chemistry and physics.
When the nanoscience program was in development while I was still a PhD student, we spent a lot of time discussing its potential. I had ideas for the type of equipment, lab components and lab content that would benefit the students and give them a unique, hands-on education.
Leitch built the Nanoscience laboratory as a full-time staffer while completing his PhD work. He developed the infrastructure for the laboratory; designed and constructed the experiments and lab manuals; and taught all lab components. He also teaches lecture courses and supports course redesign.
“Jay has made outstanding contributions to the development and delivery of the Nanoscience program curriculum,” says John Dutcher, physics professor and nanoscience program director. “He has defined his role with enthusiasm, creativity, and technical competence, inspiring the next generation of nanoscientists.”
Leitch continues to maintain research activity, having published more than a dozen peer-reviewed research papers in electrochemistry and physical chemistry in a little over two years. He frequently participates in outreach and recruitment activities, such as Let’s Talk Science and academic events, to create connections with students and prospective students.
Remembering Paul Rowntree
The University of Guelph celebrates the life of professor Paul Rowntree, Chair of the Department of Chemistry, who passed away on July 27, 2020, following a brief cancer illness.
Paul grew up in London, Ontario and attended the University of Waterloo for his B.Sc, M.Sc and PhD studies in Chemistry, ultimately completing his PhD at Princeton University. Paul joined the University’s Department of Chemistry in 2006 as a faculty member and accepted the role of department chair in 2013. The University has greatly benefitted from having him in this leadership role, skillfully navigating challenges and creating opportunities. Paul was always there to help, support and lead the department to a successful outcome.
Paul greatly enjoyed teaching; his interaction with students was one of his great joys. He was creative and innovative, developing unique learning opportunities for students. He was also considered an internationally recognized expert on how electrons interlaced with self-assembled monolayers. Paul’s research began with the investigation of molecular spectroscopy in noble gas clusters. Throughout his career he forged significant industry partnerships and led research that would improve the industrial processes to refine metal ores and to develop a new approach for fuel cell engines to improve fuel efficiency and decrease the impact of transportation on climate change, among other impressive scientific feats.
Growing Up Guelph
Many students report a special connection to the University once they step onto its picturesque campus or connect with its inviting community of faculty, staff and fellow students. For mathematical science student Vinuli De Silva, that feeling was even more tangible.
I spent a large portion of my childhood in Guelph and on campus. My aunt and uncle were both students here and lived in West Residence. As a kid, I would spend my weekends riding my bike around Branion Plaza and learning how to do cartwheels on Johnston Green.
A visit to campus when considering options for her postsecondary education renewed De Silva’s affinity to the University.
“I always loved the community here at the University of Guelph. Seeing the diverse and welcoming atmosphere when I visited campus during my grade 12 year only reaffirmed that Guelph was the school for me.”
De Silva has always had a natural curiosity and love for learning. Growing up, she was drawn to both the sciences—because there were always ample opportunities for discovery—and the arts, because she could express herself and be creative. While she focused on arts in high school, her interest in the sciences ultimately pulled her in a different direction for university.
“There are so many different topics that interest me,” says De Silva. “I specifically like mathematics and statistics because the patterns and concepts are so interesting to me. I can also use my statistics knowledge and apply it to all my favourite subjects and fields!”
De Silva enjoyed the flexibility of having an area of emphasis, for which she chose Computer Science. Her favourite course so far has been CIS*2430: Object Oriented Programming, where she learned the programming language “Java”—her new favourite language—and was able to blend her interest in coding and design for a final project.
De Silva has also taken an active role in student life and leadership. Currently Vice-President, Communications of the CEPS Student Council (CEPSSC), she helps foster connections and bring the student community together. She is also a general member of several CEPS-connected clubs, including Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE), Guelph Women in Computer Science (GWiCS) and the Math & Stats Club.
“As a member of CEPSSC, I am so grateful to be able to contribute to the University of Guelph community,” says De Silva. “I hope that the events, activities and resources we provide will ensure that students receive a university experience that is as close to normal as possible during COVID-19.”
Although she is not set on her path after graduation, De Silva is interested in pursuing topics in data science and analytics, computational biology, and software development.
Material of the Future
Early in 2020, ZEN Graphene Solutions Ltd. (“ZEN”) management and employees, U of G researchers and staff, and other key stakeholders gathered to celebrate the opening of ZEN’s new pilot plant production facility in Guelph, Ontario. The company has partnered with chemistry professor Aicheng Chen since 2015 with strong support from the NSERC Collaborative Research and Development program and the Ontario Centres of Excellence Voucher for Innovation and Productivity program. Chen and his team are refining methods to produce graphene-based nanomaterials from ZEN’s unique Albany Pure™ graphite and to develop novel graphene-based technologies.
We are all familiar with graphite, a soft material used in pencil lead. Graphene is a single, thin layer of graphite. Despite how thin it is, because of its honeycomb-like structure, graphene is one of the strongest materials in the universe—even stronger than steel. Thanks to its unique properties, graphene could be used as an additive to improve fuel economy or to improve energy storage in supercapacitors and batteries.
Chen and his team have developed methods to convert ZEN graphite into graphene, graphene oxide and interconnected reduced graphene oxide. They have filed five patents, with two awarded recently. As well, the partners have reached a license agreement between ZEN and the University. The team has also published several articles providing a closer look at graphene’s potential application in energy storage technologies. Specifically, they highlight graphene’s potential for hydrogen storage. Hydrogen is the most abundant element on earth and harnessing it as an energy source could help reduce greenhouse gases and alleviate climate change.
The research partnership added a new direction in 2020, thanks to support from the NSERC Alliance program and Mitacs. Chen and the team at ZEN are contributing to the fight against COVID-19; they are exploring the use of graphene-based nanocomposites as an ultra-thin coating on personal protective equipment. The graphene-based coating may bind and destroy the virus that causes COVID-19, enabling the safe reuse of personal protective equipment.
I am very proud of the work that my research team has been doing alongside ZEN. Graphene has tremendous potential, and ZEN’s efforts to rapidly scale up graphene production will enable our continued research efforts.
Peter Wood, the President of ZEN Graphene Solutions Ltd. echoes Chen’s sentiment: “We are excited to be working with the Chen team at the University of Guelph and to continue working to uncover graphene’s incredible and beneficial applications.”
Top News Stories from CEPS
Storing Data: No Internet Required
Marshall Asch, Computer Science (MSc)
Background photo credit: Daniel Gillis
From checking email, to loading grocery flyer deals, reviewing the weather, or getting health test results, the Internet is intrinsic to our day-to-day activities. Somewhat ruefully, many of us would probably admit that we need the Internet for daily life. But, what if we didn’t have reliable Internet? What if the nearest cellphone tower was 300 km away? That is the case for some remote Canadian communities, such as Rigolet, Nunatsiavut. This problem inspired Marshall Asch’s graduate student journey to collect and store network data—without the Internet.
The eNuk project in Rigolet sparked my interest in this type of research back in 2018. My advisor, Prof. Dan Gillis, described the project—a community-led mobile app where members could report different environmental conditions, like ice safety or fishing quality, using mesh networks instead of relying on Internet access. I was struck by the issue of sharing and storing data without the need for Internet Service Providers.
Without reliable Internet access, cloud servers were not an option for data storage in Rigolet, and other existing methods also would not work because they require computers rather than cell phones. Driven by these challenges, Asch’s research focuses on impacts of social interactions on the optimization of data storage schemes in mobile ad hoc networks. After joining the eNuk project team, he co-led the development of the wireless mobile mesh-enabled Android version of the community-led eNuk health and environment monitoring tool.
“Marshall’s work was a huge contribution to community-based environment and health monitoring programs in remote and rural areas and has implications for data sharing and storage across Canada,” says Prof. Dan Gillis, School of Computer Science. “In the time that I have known him, Marshall has demonstrated himself to be a hard-working and innovative individual who improves the lives of his peers and supports communities that are too often marginalized. To say that Marshall has had a profound impact on the student body in the School of Computer Science would be an understatement.”
Asch has held executive positions in the Society of Computing and Information Science and the Guelph Coding Community. He helped grow the clubs to have larger impact for students, such as hosting Roboticon, hackathons, bringing speakers to campus and raising funds to send students to competitions.
Asch’s research on data storage and mobile ad hoc networks has long-lasting implications for communities across Canada. It will enable them to store, manage and access valuable data amongst each other. His efforts have been noticed by institutional and national bodies. In 2019 and 2020 alone, Asch has been awarded a Canada Graduate Scholarship (Master’s) from NSERC and an Ontario Graduate Scholarship. He has received support from Polar Knowledge Canada’s Northern Scientific Training Program, the Mitacs Accelerate Program, along with several notable U of G recognitions: the CEPS Dean’s Scholarship; Erin Angus Student Award; and CEPS Society of Excellence.
As he embarks on the latter half of his master’s degree, Asch will begin simulations to evaluate the use of human mobility in mesh networks to assess their usability for more effective network strategies. After graduation, Asch plans to seek a role in industry to develop software that makes use of mesh networks.