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.


Sarah McTavish

Sarah McTavish

Sarah 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.


Élise Devoie

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.


Rafael Harun

Rafael Harun

Rafael 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.


Ashley Flanagan

Ashley Flanagan

Ashley 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.


Seda Albayrak

Seda Albayrak

After 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.


Andrew Wiebe

Andrew Wiebe

Andrew 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.