Welcoming Ukrainian refugees, supporting out-of-this-world discoveries and creating more equitable research practices are just a few of the many achievements of the 2022 Co-op Students of the Year.

The University of Waterloo’s Co-operative and Experiential Education (CEE) announced the award winners recently in a hybrid in-person and virtual ceremony.

“Our students continue to have a positive impact on our employers across various industries,” says Norah McRae, associate provost of Co-operative and Experiential Education (CEE) at the University. “These exceptional individuals have demonstrated their readiness to enter an evolving workforce. I look forward to seeing how they represent the University post-graduation.” 

Waterloo partners with industry to create co-operative education that prepares students to become change-makers and leaders. The co-operative and experiential education program at Waterloo is the largest of its kind in Canada, with more students than the next five biggest Canadian post-secondary co-op programs combined.

Announcing the 2022 Co-op Students of the Year

Congratulations to the winners of the 2022 Co-op Students of the Year Award:

  • Jeremy Ernest, Faculty of Arts, Master of Public Service
  • Jennifer Tsai, Faculty of Engineering, Biomedical Engineering
  • Breanna DeFreitas, Faculty of Environment, Geography and Environmental Management
  • Rachel Almaw, Faculty of Health, Health Studies
  • Alex Zhu, Faculty of Mathematics, Computing and Financial Management
  • Isaac Cheng, Faculty of Science, Physics and Astronomy

In recognition of the 65th anniversary of Co-operative Education at Waterloo, CEE recognized one student for their exemplary performance during an international co-op term.

  • Andrew Ding, Faculty of Environment, Geomatics

“Our students demonstrate the value of work-integrated learning experiences in their personal achievements and the amazing successes they have with the organizations they work with. Their work makes an impact on the local, national and global stage,” says Ross Johnston, executive director of Co-operative Education. “I’d like to formally congratulate these outstanding students for their incredible achievements in 2022!”

CEE also recognized honourable mentions and Problem Lab winners.

Jeremy Ernest (he/him), Faculty of Arts

Jeremy ErnestA career in public service has always been in the cards for Jeremy Ernest, a student in the Master of Public Service program. In spring 2022, Ernest worked in the strategic alignment office of the Ontario Treasury Board Secretariat as a strategic policy analyst. 

“I think my parents instilled in me from a young age that doing good for others is something that will always make you feel good,” Ernest says. “It will help the community as a whole if everyone tries to do work that helps other people.”    

Ernest is proud of his accomplishments during his work term. Most notably, he developed a report card to help ministries track compliance with internal submission deadlines, refine internal processes and track capabilities. He also played a key role in developing a mentorship program for future co-op students.

The co-op experience affirmed Ernest’s desire to work in government. In fall 2022, he spent his co-op work term at Environment and Climate Change Canada.

“Co-op has helped me shape my future goals and aspirations,” Ernest says. “It has confirmed to me that working in government is something that I would find rewarding and enjoyable as a career.”   

Ernest also served as the director of administration for the Master of Public Service Association’s executive board from 2021 to 2022. His responsibilities included recording meeting minutes, organizing tasks and maintaining records of votes and membership. Check out more of Ernest’s story.

Within co-op, I learned new things because I was able to apply and gain confidence in my skills and in my ability to develop them further.”-Jeremy Ernest, 2022 Co-op Student of the Year for the Faculty of Arts

Jennifer Tsai (she/her), Faculty of Engineering

Jennifer TsaiJennifer Tsai is captivated by brain memory research. So much so that prior to working at the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Cembrowski Lab, she reached out to the team to express her interest in their work. Tsai is also the 2022 winner of the Experiential & Work Integrated Learning Ontario (EWO) Co-op Student of the Year Award.

In winter 2022, Tsai joined the Cembrowski Lab team as a research assistant. During her co-op work term, she introduced an engineering perspective and multi-disciplinary approach to the lab’s scientific methods. Her discoveries led to implications for understanding cognitive conditions.

 “I found that having an Engineering degree and going into a completely different field was an advantage,” Tsai says. Her experience at the lab took her skills to a new level as she applied computation and mathematics to understanding the mechanisms of brain memory.

Within a few weeks, she identified limitations in the analysis techniques, leading her to pursue new, innovative research skills.

It was really fulfilling,” Tsai says. “It was the first time I was leading a scientific research project. The experience helped me develop skills in asking the right questions and to be critical of my own work and the work that is existing in literature.”  

Tsai’s determination and curiosity led to the discovery of a new sub-division in the anterior thalamic nuclei (ATN). The ATN is a region of the brain responsible for episodic memory with functional and connectivity differences to the rest of the ATN. Mastering complex techniques in data analysis, machine learning, and histology, Tsai gained new insights into the cellular landscape of the ATN.

Tsai believes a big part of her co-op term was gaining the confidence and the background for the rest of her career in science. Check out more of Jennifer’s story.

The skills and perspectives that I've gained from my co-ops have allowed me to think more holistically about my main interest in neuroscience. I feel really honoured to be representing both the Faculty of Engineering, but also the co-op employers that I've worked at.” –Jennifer Tsai, 2022 Co-op Student of the Year for the Faculty of Engineering.

Breanna DeFreitas (she/her), Faculty of Environment

Breanna DeFreitasBefore working as a sustainability intern at renewable energy provider Evolugen by Brookfield Renewable, Breanna DeFreitas didn’t have experience working in sustainability.  

DeFreitas joined the company’s Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) team in fall 2022 as their first co-op student. During her co-op work term, she played a key role in benchmarking ESG programs and sustainability reporting. She was responsible for greenhouse gas (GHG) data quality control inventory, which required processing large amounts of data in a short time. With her support, the team completed the projects six weeks ahead of schedule.

Utilizing her excellent communication and coordination skills, DeFreitas independently managed Evolugen’s relationship with a third-party consultant. She validated their work and ensured projects were completed on time and within budget. She also analyzed 20+ research reports and presented her findings, and a proposed outline of a new sustainability report, to the company’s vice-president of sustainability.

“As someone who is still not 100 per cent sure what I want do in life after I graduate, I think it’s really given me the opportunity to know that renewable energy is something that is on my radar,” DeFreitas says.

Based on the positive experience Evolugen had working with DeFreitas, the company now hires Waterloo co-op students each term. Check out more of Breanna’s story.

“Co-op has allowed me to learn more about myself and the work that I would like to do when I graduate, to try new things and learn invaluable lessons along the way. Being able to say I did win [the Co-op Student of the Year], it’s something that makes me very proud.” –Breanna DeFreitas, 2022 Co-op Student of the Year for the Faculty of Environment 

Rachel Almaw (she/her), Faculty of Health 

Rachel Almaw

Rachel Almaw was quick to impress at the University of Waterloo's Faculty of Health. As a student in the School of Public Health Sciences, she has always been interested in health care and was excited to gain practical experience in the field as a research assistant.

She worked three co-op terms in the Mobilize Clinical Biomechanics research lab, which is based in Waterloo’s Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences. The lab focuses on researching osteoarthritis with a specialization in the knee and hips. Osteoarthritis is a condition that causes the degeneration of the cartilage in joints, resulting in pain and stiffness.

“I had no clue what osteoarthritis meant prior to my time there. But now I can't imagine a future without research in it,” says Almaw.  

Almaw focused her research on the intersection of health and race. “It’s a lifelong goal to pursue equitable health care for all and not just something that I can achieve alone,” she says. “It was the driving factor in what kept me coming back for all those terms.”  

Her quantitative study on osteoarthritis in Black and white Canadians shed light on the disparities in research and care. Using her findings, she developed her undergraduate thesis paper which has the potential to inform future research in the field.

After finding her calling in the health-care industry, Almaw is determined to make a lasting impact in health research. 

“Prior to starting my work term, I was very much on track for medical school,” Almaw says. “But this co-op experience made me realize that research is something I want to pursue before going to medical school. This experience fully shifted my future for the better.”  Check out more of Rachel’s story.

“It's beautiful to be recognized on such a great scale at a school that is known for co-ops. It's a really good way to end off my university career.” –Rachel Almaw, 2022 Co-op Student of the Year for the Faculty of Health 

Alex Zhu (he/him), Faculty of Mathematics

Alex ZhuFor his first hybrid work term, Alex Zhu was more than just another co-op student. Zhu and three other employees at Mastercard needed to step in to maintain a multi-million-dollar partnership when a project lead suddenly had to leave for three months.

“In this role I was able to step up and lead client engagement,” Zhu says. “It was a very valuable opportunity to take that extra step and go above and beyond the role that I was given.” 

Zhu had the opportunity to practice and build his leadership and management skills. For example, he put together a “Welcome to Canada” guide to help new employees from Ukraine transition into their new environment and community.  

“Being able to say that I led certain initiatives in my co-op positions gives me a sort of confidence that I never thought I would gain this early on. I will bring this with me to all my co-op positions and future work,” Zhu says. 

During his work term, Zhu also launched the first-of-its-kind call centre savings initiative. The initiative examined and quantified cost reductions from numerous tests centred on call centre improvements and recommended solutions for the client. The recommendations can save clients millions of dollars each year.

“Having a manager who was just so willing to stick their head out for me and look for opportunities that provide me with the best learning experience was absolutely invaluable,” Zhu says. He earned recognition from leadership because of his contributions in creating key projects and liaising with internal and external stakeholders. Check out more of Alex’s story.

“Out of all the very talented people in the Faculty of Math, I feel really honoured to be awarded co-op student of the year. This award really goes to show that anything is possible.” -Alex Zhu, 2022 Co-op Student of the Year for the Faculty of Mathematics

Isaac Cheng (he/him), Faculty of Science

Isaac ChengGrowing up, Isaac Cheng went camping each summer and was fascinated by the night sky. He was inspired by an opportunity he had as a child to explore the sky with an astronomer. Cheng is also the 2022 winner of the Co-operative Education and Work-Integrated Learning Canada (CEWIL Canada) Student of the Year Award. He is an honourable mention for the 2022 EWO Co-op Student of the Year Award.

 “The astronomer showed us the heart of the Milky Way. Sirius was the brightest star in the night sky. It was amazing to me,” Cheng says. “It really captured my imagination and led me to pursuing physics in university and hopefully beyond.”  

Cheng’s passion for astronomy led him to three co-op terms as a junior researcher at the Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre, part of the National Research Council of Canada (NRC). Cheng’s work during his winter 2022 work term was monumental in the development of the major CASTOR telescope. 

The proposed telescope is one of Canada’s biggest astronomy endeavours and will replace the famous Hubble Telescope. Many expect it to revolutionize the world of astronomy and give unparalleled views of the universe.   

Under the guidance of Tyrone Woods and Dr. Patrick Cote, Cheng helped create an exposure time calculator (ETC) which simulates CASTOR’s in-sky performance.

“I am just humbled by the experience. These space telescopes are a world-wide effort and being able to contribute to a small part of it is amazing,” Cheng says. “It was a very rewarding project, and I am glad that I got the opportunity to work on such a big part of Canada’s future in space.”  Check out more of Isaac’s story.

“Co-op is the best thing I could have asked for in my academic career. My work terms allowed me to explore the different subfields that interested me, expanded my professional network, and offered me opportunities beyond anything I could have hoped for.” -Isaac Cheng, 2022 Co-op Student of the Year for the Faculty of Science 

Andrew Ding (he/him), Faculty of Environment (65th-anniversary Award)

Andrew Ding excelled in his spring 2022 co-op term as a research intern at Switzerland's École Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne

During his co-op term, Ding mastered R — a programming language used to analyze large sets of data. Coupled with geographic information systems (GIS), the tool is key in spatial analysis.

Using what he learned, Ding solved a research problem related to determining appropriate census units used to describe demographic data in functional urban areas in developing countries. In the developing world, census boundaries are a bit more unclear, which creates a research problem. 

Given a lot of autonomy by his employer, Ding used GIS and expertise in exploratory analysis to determine that the indicators of area and population could be used to determine if a census unit can accurately describe demographic data. By leveraging an existing dataset published by the European Commission, the proportion of population living with a census unit in a functional urban area is estimated.

Ding’s solution helps researchers study future trends in urban migration.