Thursday, June 17, 2021

Graduating PhD students epitomize resilience and excellence

A collage of six PhD candidates.

By Melanie Scott and Victoria Lumax. Spring 2021 Convocation takes place on Friday, June 18 and Saturday, June 19.

University of Waterloo is proud to highlight and honour some of our top PhD students who, through resilience, tenacity and excellence, will be graduating this spring. Below, six exceptional PhD students, one from each Waterloo faculty, share their impactful research, the passions that drove them, and what they will miss most (and least) about Waterloo.

Faculty of Arts

Sarah McTavishSarah McTavish immediately connected with her doctoral supervisor, Dr. Ian Milligan. She says that Milligan’s work in the new field of web history, paired with Waterloo’s numerous opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration, opened up the exciting research potential she needed to complete her PhD in History. McTavish’s research examines the growth and evolution of queer identity on the internet and web from 1983 to 1999, making note of the unique ways queer individuals describe themselves in online communications and digital spaces. While writing her dissertation, she also found that she was forging critical new pathways for historians working with archived internet materials.

"Historians examining the recent past have a problem that other historians could only dream of having — we have so much information that we have no idea how to actually use it,” McTavish says. “My dissertation suggests new methodologies and theoretical approaches for historians working with archived born-digital sources, and at scale.”

What made McTavish’s experience at Waterloo memorable was fully embracing opportunities for growth and development. She offers this advice to other doctoral students:

“I never regretted trying out things that challenged my comfort level. This includes networking, scholarship and award applications, giving presentations and workshops, lecturing, publishing, the Three Minute Thesis competition, and even sitting down with an intimidating-looking group of senior scholars at a conference coffee break. Take advantage of every opportunity, even — especially — the ones that scare you.”

McTavish will miss the history PhD student office, which she describes as a place where both coffee and conversations about theory and historiography flowed freely. She says that those discussions greatly influenced the ways that she thought about her own research, as well as the approaches that she took when writing her dissertation.

McTavish is now putting her technical and research expertise to use at a Waterloo-based tech startup, joining a highly regarded team of subject matter experts.

Faculty of Engineering

Élise Devoie.Paddling next to loons where the sun never sets and laying in the snow watching the northern lights dancing overhead, these are some of Élise Devoie’s fondest memories doing fieldwork as a Waterloo student. “I chose to complete my PhD in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Waterloo after long deliberation,” Devoie says, “because it allowed me to do what I care about”. Her research on permafrost has allowed her to participate in fieldwork, write numerical models and engage northern communities. She first learned about permafrost in a co-op placement during her undergraduate studies in mathematics. After that, she quickly became passionate about the area of study and knew she wanted to do more. Devoie’s work has made it clear to her that humans have driven climate warming too far for permafrost to survive, causing irreversible impacts to our waterways, land surfaces, ecosystems and the way people relate to the land.

Her advice to others: “Do what you love, and you will love what you do. Truly pursue the thing you care about most and no matter how tough things get, you will always be motivated to do the work you believe is important. The goal is always to make the world just a tiny bit better.”

Ending her time at Waterloo, Devoie will miss her co-supervisor, James Craig, who she describes as the nicest man in the world, her peers, who felt like family and her field site, which felt like home. She is looking forward to a break from her course work, which she describes as sometimes feeling like you’ve asked for a glass of water and then being given Niagara Falls (as a hydrologist, though, she doesn’t mind).

Devoie is currently continuing her study of permafrost through an NSERC-funded fellowship and hopes to do more fieldwork in the future. She believes permafrost thaw is an issue relevant to many, and recommends learning more through The Arctic Institute website as well as learning about small ways to reduce our personal impact on the environment.

Faculty of Environment

Rafael HarunRafael Harun’s multidisciplinary background drove his interest in interdisciplinary research topics, which require a variety of scholarly perspectives and supports. This is one of the key reasons he chose the School of Planning at the University of Waterloo for his PhD. 

“The University of Waterloo is one of the top universities in Canada,” Harun says. “The School of Planning hosts a number of world-renowned urban scholars who are experts in a number of areas of planning. Access to faculty members from diverse backgrounds and skillsets certainly influenced my decision."

Harun’s research examined immigrant-transportation relationships in Toronto, paying close attention to spatial and ethnic differences. There is an increasing trend of immigrants moving into suburban areas, and Harun wanted to determine how and/or if transit quality affects immigrants’ residential and commuting decisions. He concluded that there is a disconnect between immigrants’ settlement and transportation patterns and the transit quality of Toronto suburbs — exposing a gap in existing urban planning approaches.

Harun has many fond memories at Waterloo, including being congratulated by his supervisor and committee members on a successful defense, being awarded the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Doctoral Fellowship, and the numerous fun conversations he had with his supervisor, Dr. Pierre Filion, and other colleagues over lunch and coffee breaks.

Harun admits that his doctoral journey was not smooth, but he got through it by never losing hope. Instead of worrying about the future, Harun stayed committed to creating short-term goals and celebrating small wins.

 “Always remember that every PhD student has a unique journey,” Harun says. “You cannot define your success or failure by comparing your experiences with those of your friends or colleagues. The only competition you have as a PhD student is you.”

Currently, Harun is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Wilfrid Laurier University/Balsillie School of International Affairs (BSIA) and has recently been offered a tenure-track Assistant Professor position with a reputed university in the US.

Faculty of Health

Ashley FlanaganAshley Flanagan treasures so much about her time at Waterloo, but what she will miss the most is her close-knit community that has been invaluable for discussing new ideas, venting frustrations to and challenging her to think critically and theoretically about everything she does.

Flanagan is passionate about contributing to and advancing discussions and movements towards a more just society through her research. “I chose to study at Waterloo because of the opportunity to both engage in interdisciplinary studies and be situated within a home department [Recreation and Leisure Studies] that supported and encouraged my desire to pursue justice-oriented qualitative research,” says Flanagan.

Flanagan’s dissertation research explored the experiences and perceptions of transgender and non-binary older adults as they negotiate the successes, challenges and desire for community support in old age. Her work looks to challenge understandings of aging, gender and identity that are often taken for granted and to reimagine understandings of aging that are more inclusive and representative of the vast array of experiences of aging and old age.

“As the COVID-19 pandemic has made incredibly clear, we need to start prioritizing care and support for older adults — especially those who are more marginalized by our society,” says Flanagan. “To do this, we need to radically rethink existing approaches to elder care and the systems that uphold these approaches—across Canada and internationally.”

Flanagan is grateful for her supervisor, Dr. Lisbeth Berbary, whose teaching, mentorship and friendship have played a huge role in the person and scholar that she is today. Her advice to others pursuing their PhDs: “Do your best to build a support network. Whether it’s building relationships with your peers (inside and outside of academia) or finding a supportive mentor and supervisor, it’s important to have people who ‘get it’ in your court to remind you why you started, help you through the challenges, and celebrate your successes—because, trust me, there will be a mix of highs and lows!”

Flanagan is currently a Research Fellow in diversity and ageing at the National Institute on Ageing at Ryerson University. In this role, she has the opportunity to work with leading advocates for older adults in Canada and internationally and continues to push the needle towards a more just and inclusive society.

One thing she won’t miss about Waterloo: the geese.

Faculty of Mathematics

Seda AlbayrakAfter completing her master's degree in pure mathematics at Waterloo, Seda Albayrak decided to continue on with her studies as a PhD student. She says the expert Waterloo faculty members, kind staff and friendly graduate students she encountered in the pure math department played a big role in her decision. Her PhD research focused on applications of algebra in finite automata. It centred around the analysis of sparse sets, which are specialized data structures used in many fields of algebra. Albayrak’s fondest memories at Waterloo revolve around the people she met in the pure math community. She remembers welcome meetings at the beginning of each fall term, where someone other than Rahim Moosa, a pure math professor, would introduce themselves as him to a roomful of new students at the Grad House. Albayrak hopes to see the joke tradition continue after the pandemic.

Albayrak reflects on the fact that being an international student in Math was extremely challenging. Her advice to other PhD students: “Reach out to others! Pursuing a PhD is challenging no matter which field you are in, but there are plenty of free resources you can make use of. I personally benefited a lot from the services of the Writing and Communication Centre.” Albayrak also recommends making efforts to connect with others, attend seminars and conferences and treat your advisor as human (not expecting everything from them).

Albayrak currently works at the University of Waterloo as a lecturer with the Mathematics Undergraduate Group (MUG). Because of the pandemic, she especially misses seeing people in-person and saying hi to them in the fifth-floor hallway of the MC building. She hopes to return to campus soon and reconnect with her math colleagues and community.

Faculty of Science

Andrew WiebeAndrew Wiebe has been calling the University of Waterloo home ever since the first year of his bachelor’s degree. Earth sciences and hydrology have always been of academic interest to Wiebe, but he never planned on pursuing a PhD until he was working for a research project at the University and his supervisor, Dr. Dave Rudolph, encouraged him to. City planning uses computer models to ensure an adequate and sustainable water supply, and Wiebe is helping to ensure that the data applied to these models is as accurate as possible. For his research, Wiebe studied several groundwater management issues related to groundwater recharge and found ways to estimate recharge uncertainty for rainfall monitoring scenarios, allowing for more precise and effective decision making.

Wiebe describes his PhD journey as being like a marathon and feels privileged to have had the chance to be so hands-on each step of the way. Wiebe participated in each part of the research process, including ordering and installing a high volume of hydrological field equipment, collecting and analyzing data, and constructing numerical models to answer research questions.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity … I think this was a unique aspect of my studies, something that most students do not have access to.”

Wiebe went on to be a finalist at the UW GRADflix competition, where he presented his entire research story in under one minute. Currently, Wiebe is working on a postdoc at McGill University, where he assists in developing tools to assess groundwater vulnerability in northern Canada.

What Wiebe will miss most about his studies at Waterloo is the Engineering Coffee & Doughnuts shop in the CPH building, which he describes as having nice pastries, affordable prices and makes for an excellent study break.

What he will miss least: a noisy fire panel in the EIT building foyer.

The virtual PhD reception will take place tonight at 7:00 p.m. 

Jennifer Kieffer reappointed interim Associate Provost

Jennifer Kieffer."I am delighted to announce that Jennifer Kieffer has agreed to extend her secondment as Interim Associate Provost, Integrated Planning and Budgeting for an additional year commencing July 1, 2021," wrote James Rush, vice-president, academic & provost in a memo to Executive Council on Tuesday. "In addition to serving in this role for the past year, Jennifer has worked in Institutional Analysis and Planning (IAP) for fifteen years, first as an Institutional Analyst and, since 2013, as the Senior Manager of the Policy and Enrolment Planning team. Jennifer is an active member of the Council on University Planning and Analysis (CUPA), an affiliate of the Council of Ontario Universities (COU), and in 2018 was selected by CUPA as the recipient of the Marty England Award for leadership and excellence within the CUPA community. In her roles in IAP, Jennifer has provided leadership to enrolment planning, government compliance on funding and tuition, and negotiation of each of the University's Strategic Mandate Agreements (SMAs)."

"I am grateful to Jennifer for agreeing to stay on in this important leadership role at the University of Waterloo," Rush writes. "Please join me in congratulating her."

"Over the coming year I will continue to reorganize some areas of responsibility in the Provost's Office portfolio to improve alignment with current and emerging leadership needs and workflows," Rush's memo concludes.

Seventh Annual Advising Conference focused on change

A message from the Student Success Office and the Advising Community of Practice.

Advisors play a critical role in supporting the success and well-being of our students. To recognize this work, the Professional Development Working Group of the Academic Advising Community of Practice organize an annual Advisor Conference. This past April, the event provided advisors from all faculties and units an opportunity to come together for professional development specific to advising. These conferences are a vehicle for Waterloo advisors to stay connected, learn from one another, and share their own expertise and challenges. 

This year’s conference had the largest attendance to date of over 200 academic advisors and graduate coordinators who provide advising to more than 26,000 undergraduate and graduate students each year.

The 2021 conference theme was The Challenge of Change, recognizing the student and advisor experience in a year where nothing was certain. Enriching keynote speakers Dr. Litchmore, Jean Becker, and Abbie Simpson t brought depth and expertise to the conference. Dr. Litchmore’s session on addressing systemic racism for BIPOC students, and the breakout session delivered by the Centre for Career Action’s further education team on anti-oppressive and trauma-informed approaches were highlights for advisors.

 Participants shared the following reflections from the conference:

  • “[I] have been inspired to apply what I've learned throughout the conference and take to heart how to better care for the students.” – Academic Advisor
  • “I have an increased self-awareness regarding unconscious bias, racialized student experience, and trauma-informed practices.” – Academic Advisor

The Student Success Office and the Advising Community of Practice thank those who presented at the conference and all those who were in attendance. If you were unable to attend the conference or are interested in any of the presentations, they are now available on the website.

Link of the day

75 years ago: the first mobile phone call

When and Where to get support

Students can visit the Student Success Office online for supports including academic development, international student resources, leadership development, exchange and study abroad, and opportunities to get involved.

Instructors can visit the Keep Learning website to get support on adapting their teaching and learning plans for an online environment.

Course templates are available within your course in LEARN to help you build and edit your content and assignment pages quickly.

The following workshops, webinars, and events are offered by the KL team (CTE, CEL, ITMS, LIB):

Employees can access resources to help them work remotely, including managing University records and privacy of personal information. Here are some tips for staying healthy while working from home.

Stay informed about COVID cases on campus by consulting the COVID case tracker.

The Writing and Communication Centre has virtual services and programs to help undergrads, grad students, postdocs and faculty members with academic writing.

Co-op students can get help finding a job and find supports to successfully work remotely, develop new skills, access wellness and career information, and contact a co-op or career advisor.

The Centre for Career Action assists undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, staff, faculty, and alumni through navigating career services that are right for them. You can attend a one-on-one appointment or same day drop-in session at the CCA for assistance with cover letter writing, career planning and much more. You can also book an appointment online or visit our Live Chat to connect with our Client Support Team. The CCA is here to help you.

If you feel overwhelmed or anxious and need to talk to somebody, please contact the University’s Campus Wellness services, either Health Services or  Counselling Services. You can also contact the University's Centre for Mental Health Research and TreatmentGood2Talk is a post-secondary student helpline available to all students.

The Library has published a resource guide on how to avoid information overload.

The Faculty Association of the University of Waterloo (FAUW) continues to advocate for its members. Check out the FAUW blog for more information.

The University of Waterloo Staff Association (UWSA) continues to advocate for its members. Check out the UWSA blog for more information.

The Indigenous Initiatives Office is a central hub that provides guidance, support, and resources to all Indigenous and non-Indigenous campus community members and oversees the university Indigenization strategy.

The Waterloo Indigenous Student Centre, based at St. Paul’s University College, provides support and resources for Indigenous students, and educational outreach programs for the broader community, including lectures, and events.

WUSA supports for students:

Peer support  - MATES, Glow Centre, RAISE, Women’s Centre - Visit to book an appointment

Bike Centre – Open via Appointments and Rentals

Campus Response Team, ICSN, Off Campus Community and Co-op Connection all available online. Check for more details.

Food Support Service food hampers are currently available from the Turnkey Desk on weekdays from 7:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. in the Student Life Centre. If you have any questions please email us at

Centre for Academic Policy Support - CAPS is here to assist Waterloo undergraduates throughout their experience in navigating academic policy in the instances of filing petitions, grievances and appeals. Please contact them at caps@wusa.caMore information is available.

WUSA Commissioners who can help in a variety of areas that students may be experiencing during this time:

WUSA Student Legal Protection Program - Seeking legal counsel can be intimidating, especially if it’s your first time facing a legal issue. The legal assistance helpline provides quick access to legal advice in any area of law, including criminal. Just call 1-833-202-4571

Empower Me is a confidential mental health and wellness service that connects students with qualified counsellors 24/7. They can be reached at 1-833-628-5589.

When and Where (but mostly when)

Healthy Warriors at Home (Online Fitness)

Fitness Classes on Warrior Field. Starting June 14. Power Yoga, HIIT and Zumba. Only $4/class. Advanced registration required.

Warriors vs. Laurier Blood Donation Battle. Join your fellow Warriors, donate blood and help us win the Blood Battle against Laurier for a second year in a row. Set up a profile or add the PFL code: UNIV960995 to your account if you have a account already. Questions? Contact

Drop-in to Warrior Virtual Study Halls on Wednesdays from 5:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. Come together in this virtual space to set goals and work independently or in groups each week.

Renison English Language Institute continues to offer virtual events and workshops to help students practice their English language skills.

Bike Month, Tuesday, June 1 to Wednesday, June 30.

A Year of COVID-19: Teaching and Learning, the final event in a three-part series, Thursday, June 17, 11:45 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. Please register to receive a link to this online event.

PhD virtual reception, Thursday, June 17, 7:00 p.m.

IT Seminar: Science Computing Update, Friday, June 18, 9:00 a.m. to 9:45 a.m. Join online.

Spring Convocation virtual ceremonies, Friday, June 18 and Saturday, June 19.

Lunchtime Performance: Deantha Edmunds, Canada's First and Only Inuk Professional Classical Singer, Monday, June 21, 12 noon.

Dissertation Boot Camp Week, Monday, June 21 to Thursday, June 24.

English Conversation Circles, Monday, June 21, 8:00 a.m.

University Senate Meeting, Monday, June 21, 3:30 p.m.

Virtual Writing Café, Tuesday, June 22, 9:00 a.m.

English Conversation Circles, Tuesday, June 22, 4:00 p.m.

Social Justice Wednesdays - Virtual Talk with Dr. Kim Hong Nguyen, “Mean Girl Feminism: White Feminist Outrage and Salvation”, Wednesday, June 23, 2:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.

Concept Working Session: Lean Business Model, Wednesday, June 23, 5:30 p.m., virtual event.

International education consultation meeting hosted by Waterloo International, Monday, June 28, 2:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m.

The Honourable Murray Sinclair - National Indigenous History Month Keynote, Tuesday, June 29, 1:00 p.m.

Concept Intro Session: Pitch to Win, Tuesday, June 29, 5:30 p.m., virtual event.

Canada Day holiday, most University operations closed, Thursday, July 1.

University holiday, most operations closed, Friday, July 2.

WatITis proposal submission deadline, Thursday, July 8.

PhD oral defences

Combinatorics and Optimization. Kazuhiro Nomoto, "Induced Binary Submatroids." Supervisor, Peter Nelson. Thesis available from MGO - Oral defence Thursday, June 24, 9:00 a.m.

Physics & Astronomy. David Schmid,”Guiding our interpretation of quantum theory by principles of causation and inference.” Supervisor(s), Robert Spekkens, Kevin Resch. Thesis available by request from SGO – Oral Defence Monday, June 28, 2:00 p.m.

Physics & Astronomy. Shan-Ming Ruan,”Circuit Complexity of Mixed States.” Supervisor(s), Robert Myers. Thesis available by request from SGO – Oral Defence Tuesday, July 6, 9:00 a.m.

Physics & Astronomy. Alvaro Ballon Bardo, ”Extended thermodynamics of Taub-NUT and Einstein-scalar spacetimes.” Supervisor(s), Robert Myers, David Kubiznak. Thesis available by request from SGO – Oral Defence Thursday, July 8, 9:00 a.m.

School of Public Health and Health Systems. Clare Cheng, "Predictors of Palliative Home Care Costs in Ontario, Canada." Supervisor, Robert Hirdes. Email Health Graduate Administration: for a copy. Oral defence Thursday, July 8, 1:00 p.m.