Celebrating Waterloo’s graduating PhD students
Waterloo recognizes six PhD students for earning the highest academic status within their faculty and their innovative research
Waterloo recognizes six PhD students for earning the highest academic status within their faculty and their innovative researchBy Angelica Marie Sanchez University Relations
For graduating PhD students, completing their dissertation defence is a significant milestone and convocation is an exciting time to celebrate their accomplishments with friends and family.
Six exceptional graduating PhD students have been chosen to share about their academic journey filled with innovation, resilience and passion. Read their stories below.
Christin Wright-Taylor (PhD ’22) knew she wanted to pursue her Doctor of Philosophy in English at Waterloo because of its reputation of being one of the leading Canadian universities with a PhD program in Composition and Rhetoric.
“You know your scholarly mentors are rockstars when you hear their work being cited by keynote speakers at every major conference you attend,” Wright-Taylor says. “It was an absolute treasure learning from the likes of Dr. Jay Dolmage, Dr. Jennifer Clary-Lemon, Dr. Vinh Nguyen, Dr. Frankie Condon and Dr. Vershawn Ashanti Young.”
Wright-Taylor’s research explores how Canadian universities and colleges can provide better support for international students by looking at the relationship between second language writing and writing studies scholarships.
“I lived in three different countries by the age of 14 and have memories of the dislocation and culture shock associated with studying in a different culture,” Wright-Taylor says.
After having first-hand experience as both an international student and a writing teacher herself, Wright-Taylor knew she wanted to find a solution that helps bridge the gap between what is currently being offered in writing curriculums for domestic students and what institutions could offer for the new population of international writers. Wright-Taylor believes international students bring a different perspective to Canadian classrooms.
If she could give one piece of advice to other PhD students, it would be to take advantage of the writing appointments at the Writing and Communication Centre at Waterloo. “They helped me get past writers block on my dissertation. Special shout out to Stephanie White who was my go-to writing consultant!”
Wright-Taylor is most grateful for the excellent mentorship she received during her program at Waterloo. She recalls having a committee of advisors who were supportive at every step providing resources, valuable feedback and time throughout her dissertation process.
Currently, Wright-Taylor is a writing consultant for Writing Services at Wilfrid Laurier University. Here, she hopes to offer the best writing support for both her team and the students at Laurier while continuing to contribute to her research in the field of writing studies in Canada.
Madelaine Liddy’s (BASc ’14, PhD ’22) originally planned to go to medical school changed after completing her undergraduate studies in Nanotechnology Engineering at Waterloo. However, Liddy’s curiosity in quantum mechanics led her to pursue a Doctor of Philosophy in Engineering, where the program also allowed her to continue her interest in medicine through her research on how to improve quantum sensing techniques to create better medical diagnostic devices.
Liddy’s dissertation research focused on nitrogen vacancy centers which are quantum centers in a diamond lattice. When working with a quantum center at room temperature, it removes the need for any cryogenic cooling hardware that is commonly required for quantum mediums.
“This combined with its magnetic field sensing properties, makes it a great candidate for developing real world quantum sensing devices,” Liddy says. “These devices can be used for anything from sensing defects in blood or water, imaging nano sized magnetic fields or even for navigational purposes as an alternative to GPS.”
What advice would Liddy give to other PhD students? Never be afraid to ask for help.
“I really struggled with feelings of isolation and thinking I was the only one experiencing these challenges when that is so far from the truth,” Liddy says. “Opening up about these feelings was the key to finishing my degree!”
Some of Liddy’s fondest memories were made during the friendships she developed over the years, as well as being awarded the Dutch Liberation Scholarship, which led her to meet the King and Queen of the Netherlands.
Leaving Waterloo, Liddy says she will miss the people the most and the friendships she developed over the past 13 years. But says she won’t miss being chased by geese while riding her bike.
“I developed so many deep friendships at Waterloo, both over my time in my undergrad and graduate school,” Liddy says. “The subject matter and research I studied was also amazing, but I wouldn’t necessarily say I would miss either of those as I will carry them with me no matter where I go.”
Next for Liddy is a quantum resident position at Sandbox AQ in California starting in August 2022.
Thelma Abu (PhD ’22) knew she wanted to pursue her PhD in Health Geography at Waterloo partly because she wanted to work closely with her PhD advisor, Dr. Susan Elliott, an accomplished health geographer whom Abu shares a similar interest in water security research. Abu was also drawn by Waterloo’s reputation for research innovation and the Water Institute being ranked as one of the top research institutions globally.
Abu’s dissertation research focused on understanding the factors and processes that shape access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services in healthcare facilities and the contribution of these services to emergency preparedness in health systems in Kisumu, Kenya.
“WASH services are necessary for infection prevention and control to ensure the safety of healthcare workers and patients,” Abu says. “The importance of these services cannot be overemphasized with the current COVID-19 pandemic. However, these services are woefully inadequate in health settings especially those located in informal settlements and rural areas.”
Her research calls for integrating WASH services in universal health coverage plans because access to water is a basic human right that should be prioritized globally.
Pursuing a PhD is a very demanding process and Abu recognizes that every academic journey is unique and filled with a range of emotions. She offers one piece of advice for other students pursuing their PhD:
“One thing that kept me going was researching an area I am passionate about, which is the reason why I started this journey in the first place. So, I will say do work in an area that brings you joy and makes you want to know more every day.”
Abu recalls taking a trip to the Niagara Falls region with her lab mates at the Water Institute as one of her fondest memories.
“I will miss my very supportive lab mates at the Geographies of Health in Place lab, I was very fortunate to have met each one of them. I will miss walking into the lab and brainstorming my ideas with them,” Abu says. “I built some lifelong friendships as well in this community that I will cherish eternally.”
Currently, Abu is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto Mississauga, working on health equity in the Greater Toronto Area. Abu also looks forward to accepting a tenure-track position as an assistant professor at a university in the United States.
Many things attracted Binyam Negussie Desta (PhD ’22) to Waterloo: the professors in the School of Public Health Sciences, a wide range of disciplines and opportunities, Waterloo’s reputation in globally impactful research and Dr. Shannon Majowicz, who not only shares a similar research interest and academic background as Desta but also accepted to be his mentor.
Desta’s research led a multi-partnered study called Foodborne Disease in Africa (FOCAL Project) which involved 11 partners from seven countries, providing the first population-level estimate of the epidemiology of acute gastrointestinal illness using an internationally comparable case definition in Ethiopia, Mozambique, Nigeria, and Tanzania. Desta added a secondary aim to his dissertation which explored the application of methods typically used to adjust for under-reporting of foodborne infections to COVID-19.
“Specifically, this second study aimed to better understand the extent of the COVID-19 infection in the general community in Toronto, Ontario, using only the available data during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Desta says.
The secondary aim of the study demonstrated the usefulness of the method, while illustrating the factor that only a fraction of the total COVID-19 cases that occurred within the Toronto community was reported to the Toronto Public Health. The multi-study FOCAL project was co-funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office of the United Kingdom Government.
What advice would Desta give to other PhD students?
“Try to focus on your career goals, respect your values, stay positive and enjoy what you are doing,” Desta says. “Also tackle one thing at a time. Give it a shot, a fair one, then leave it.”
Desta sends sincere thanks to the Waterloo community for all the support, specifically his supervisor, Dr. Majowicz, for her exceptional guidance, encouragement and support throughout his PhD journey.
Currently, Desta is a postdoctoral fellow at Waterloo, working with Dr. Majowicz. Desta has also accepted a postdoctoral fellow at the Toronto Metropolitan University. “I will be working on epidemiological modelling research to investigate the impacts of environmental factors on recreational water [microbial] quality.”
Meng Yuan (MMath ’17, PhD ’21) is a researcher in the Department of Statistics and Actuarial Science at Waterloo. Yuan’s research as a PhD student focused on refining statistical methods for two-sample density ratio models. Her work involved statistical models that combine two different but related data sets. Specifically, she looked at the methods used by statisticians to understand biometric and econometric data.
“It’s relevant to things like COVID-19 on the biomedical side, and to the Gini index of inequality on the economic side,” Yuan says. “But there are so many other applications.”
For her dissertation, Yuan was named one of the winners of this year’s Faculty of Mathematics Doctoral Prize.
During her time as a PhD student, Yuan also worked as an instructor at Waterloo where she enjoyed spending time in the classroom with students. She learned so much about teaching especially during the pandemic where online learning was a big adjustment for her students and for herself as a new instructor.
“I learned so much about teaching and I’m glad now to be able to bring some of those skills back in the face-to-face classroom,” Yuan says.
As for Yuan’s piece of advice for future PhD students? Have a team of supportive people who can cheer you on.
“I am so grateful to my supervisor and to all the wonderful people in the department who always made time for me,” Yuan says. “I am also lucky to have the support of my family, who never stopped cheering me on. And my boyfriend, who I shared a small apartment with all through the pandemic, was so supportive.”
Yuan will be continuing her postdoctoral fellow at Waterloo, picking up where she left off at the end of her PhD program.
Exiting high school, Heather Ikert (BSc ’16, PhD ’22) was interested in going to Waterloo because of the hands-on experience the co-operative education program offers for students. In her final co-op term, Ikert connected with Dr. Paul Craig for her fourth-year research project, and she would go on to complete her graduate studies in Dr. Craig’s lab.
“All in all, I came to the University of Waterloo for the co-op, but I stayed for the people.”
Graduating with a PhD in Biology, Ikert’s research studied the effects of climate change and pharmaceuticals on fish health, and to understand the molecular mechanisms of how fish respond to general stress.
“I was looking at a type of RNA called microRNA — cells use this to finetune which processes are occurring,” Ikert says. “Interestingly, I was able to measure these microRNA on the surface of the fish. As well in the water surrounding the fish, which could be a way to non-invasively monitor fish health.”
Ikert has many fond memories at Waterloo, but will never forget the caffeine experiment that her lab decided to perform. As regular patrons of the Math CnD cafe on campus, Ikert and her lab mates were trying to determine if drinking caffeinated or decaf coffee in the afternoon would have a negative effect on the sleep of one of their colleagues.
“The chance to combine our love of coffee with a bit of data analysis for no reason in particular was pretty jokes and a fun little foray into a different area of research,” Ikert says. No negative impact was found at the end of the study.
If she could give one piece of advice to other PhD students, it would be to choose a supervisor and a lab full of supportive people.
“A lot of scientists do cool research but having people to encourage you through the ups and downs of research and working with a supervisor who will prioritize your learning and opportunities for growth, is key,” Ikert says. “The Biology Department at the University of Waterloo o-fish-ially rocks, and the grad students there are super encouraging, involved and are just the best.”
What’s next for Ikert? After completing both a Bachelor and Doctor of Philosophy in Biology, Ikert will remain at the University of Waterloo as part of the Ontario Wastewater Surveillance Initiative, where she will be monitoring COVID-19 trends and variants in the wastewater for the Waterloo, Peel and York regions.
The University of Waterloo acknowledges that much of our work takes place on the traditional territory of the Neutral, Anishinaabeg and Haudenosaunee peoples. Our main campus is situated on the Haldimand Tract, the land granted to the Six Nations that includes six miles on each side of the Grand River. Our active work toward reconciliation takes place across our campuses through research, learning, teaching, and community building, and is centralized within our Office of Indigenous Relations.