For graduating PhD students, completing their dissertation defence is a significant milestone, as well as a time to celebrate their accomplishments with friends and family.

Waterloo recognizes exceptional PhD students from each faculty. Read their stories below.


Richard Norman

Richard Norman

Richard Norman was first connected to the University of Waterloo through Heather Mair, a professor in the Faculty of Applied Health Sciences, during her research on curling. Mair’s work on curling helped influence and shape Norman’s journey in understanding the impact of sports on society. From that discussion, Norman ended up choosing to pursue a doctorate at the University of Waterloo and credits to Mair for her guidance throughout the process. Norman’s dissertation defense focused on the deconstruction of dominant narratives within a sport that may continue to affect diversity and inclusion.

His research was committed to finding approaches that can open up dialogue and discourses towards a more socially-just and inclusive world. In the wake of urgent Anti-Racism protests and discussions about “race” and oppression in white supremist societies, Norman believes it is even more vital to break down our existing societal structures and reinvent them — to open up spaces for everyone and move towards a more just society.

Norman said that the connection he made with his fellow graduate students in their shared spaces, brought a great deal of impromptu conversations and led to some of the deepest insights he had about his courses and his project work.

“You will be unsure at times of your abilities, your commitment and your scholarship. Choose your project wisely,” Norman says and provides the following advice to students pursuing a PhD degree. “Find one that can bring all of your passion and emotion into your research, as that will help you remember why you are there and get you to your goal.”

Norman would also like to thank Lisbeth Berbary’s mentorship, friendship and teachings during his time in Waterloo. Her teaching profoundly changed his life. He is currently facilitating courses at the University of Waterloo and OCAD University and graduates with a Doctor of Philosophy in Recreation and Leisure Studies this spring.


Brittany Etmanski

Brittany Etmanski

Brittany Etmanski has a long list of professional credits to her name. They’ve included being a SSHRC-funded doctoral scholar; a statistical assistant at the South-Western Ontario Research Data Centre (SWORDC); a sessional instructor, research assistant and teaching assistant at the University of Waterloo; an executive member of an Applied Sociology research cluster; a graduate student representative for the department of Sociology & Legal Studies; and a member of both the Canadian and the American Sociological Associations.

Etmanski says she chose to pursue her PhD at Waterloo after connecting with her co-supervisor Janice Aurini, who she met during her undergraduate degree.

“She had displayed such a willingness to guide and support me even prior to our time working together and I knew she would be a great fit,” Etmanski says.

Etmanski mix-methods research as a PhD student focused on examining career pathways of social science PhDs, both within and outside of academia. Her findings showcased that while participants were well-versed with the requirements of an academic position, many felt less aware of careers available to them outside of academia or how to market themselves towards these roles. As such, Etmanski concludes that there may be benefit to expanding the number of applied opportunities available to PhD students during their degree to prepare them for versatile career pathways upon graduation.

Going forward, Etmanski has begun her role as a research co-ordinator on campus, a position earned after defending her dissertation. It’s a role that allows her to conduct research projects focusing on experiential education.

“I’m very fortunate to have the opportunity to continue my research agenda in a way that I find extremely meaningful, with an insightful and highly collaborative team,” Etmanski says. “The advice I’d give to other students is twofold. First, try to remember that your identity isn’t solely tied to your PhD. You are more than your education. Second, you may have pursued a PhD with one career goal in mind, but try to remain open and actively engaged in the versatile opportunities that exist around you.”


Ibrahim Gbolahan Ogunsanya

Ibrahim Gbolahan Ogunsanya

Ibrahim Gbolahan Ogunsanya says that he’s always been proud to attend a great institution like the University of Waterloo. As an international student from Nigeria, Ogunsanya credits University staff, like his supervisor Carolyn Hansson, for providing him with much support and guidance along the way.

“[Hansson] is an amazing person and mentor and I hope anyone reading this can give her a thank you hug on my behalf,” Ogunsanya says. “I am also so thankful to my mechanical and mechatronics engineering professors Dr. Adrian Gerlich and Dr. Hamid Jahed.”

Ogunsanya’s research focused on predicting the long-term corrosion behaviour of resistant reinforcing bar (rebar) vs. the traditional carbon steel rebar in highway structures. The overall goal, he says, was to provide a scientific basis for determining whether the less costly steel rebar grades have a high probability of providing the required 75+ years of service-life under severe environmental conditions (i.e., repeated freeze/thaw cycles).

While Ogunsanya says he’ll miss troubleshooting lab experiments the least, he looks back fondly on the socializing aspect of his journey, whether it was connecting with colleagues in the lab, engaging with fellow students at conferences/department events or working alongside UW Food Services and Graduate House as a part-time worker.

“It’s never an easy task pursuing a doctoral degree, especially at a prestigious institution such as the University of Waterloo where the standard of learning is high,” Ogunsanya says. “Dedication and hard work from the student is all that is left to excel. Keep the faith!”

Ogunsanya is currently a seasonal lecturer and post-doctoral research fellow with Waterloo. Remaining close to the University, and in light of recent occurrences in the world relating to injustice to minorities, Ogunsanya is looking to Waterloo to continue creating an equal and fair learning/working environment.

“It is not enough to ‘not be racist,’ it is far more important to be ‘anti-racist.’ Let us stand up to subtle, pronounced or systemic injustice, prejudice or hate of any kind. There is already enough going on in the world and people should not have to worry or be seen as a threat because of the colour of their skin. Unaffected groups/races should not be sick of any ‘movement,’ they should be happy not to need one. Black Lives Matter.”


Bereket Negasi Isaac

Bereket Negasi Isaac

Bereket Negasi Isaac became increasingly interested in water and environmental governance towards the end of his master’s degree at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. This is because of what he was learning about the tremendous impacts of climate change on the water sector. Thus, he wanted to study the topic more broadly and more deeply, which prompted his discovery of Waterloo’s PhD program in Social and Ecological Sustainability. Isaac ended up completing his dissertation on Water Quality Policy in Lake Erie Basin.

Isaac’s fondest memory as a Waterloo student includes working alongside mentors and supportive colleagues, as well as being congratulated by his advisor, Dr. Rob de Loë, and the examining committee during his comprehensive exam and final defence session. Isaac said he will miss the great company of his colleagues and the uninterrupted and focused attention that he was able to devote to his research. He will also miss his walks around campus during lunch time while enjoying the sight of Canada geese by Laurier creek.

As a first-generation student from Eritrea, Isaac says, “It’s always darker just before dawn." Although it will seem very hard and at times impossible to do, Isaac encourages students pursuing a PhD degree to trust in themselves and plough through. “Do not allow your background to hold you back from what you want to achieve.”

He is currently working on a post-doctoral project on participatory approaches to water governance in Southern Ontario, with funding from the Global Water Futures. Bereket Negrasi Isaac is graduating with a Doctor of Philosophy in Social and Ecological Sustainability.


Priyank Jaini

Priyank Jaini

Priyank Jaini first arrived at the University of Waterloo as an incoming exchange student during his final year of undergraduate studies. In the following summer after his student exchange term, Jaini remained at the University as a research assistant to Dr. Pascal Poupart. Jaini was inspired to enrol in the PhD program, where his research on multivariate density estimation would be under the co-supervision of Pascal Poupart and Yaoliang Yu. 

Jaini wants to give credit to the great friends he made during his time in Waterloo, as well as the wonderful and very welcoming people in the Kitchener-Waterloo community. He believes that he cannot remember any other phase in his life that has been more fulfilling, enriching and happier than the time he spent in Waterloo. Jaini says that although he will miss his friends the most, he will also miss being able to bike around the many trails within the area, visiting local breweries and watching the talented KW Symphony Orchestra — he will not, however, miss the sounds of construction on his street!

As advice to future PhD students, Jaini takes a quote from cyclist Greg LeMond: “It never gets easier, you just go faster.” It’s a mantra Jaini applies to many areas in his life, including research.

Among the long list of achievements under Jaini’s name, he was most recently the recipient of the prestigious 2019 Borealis AI Graduate Fellowship, an award that recognizes exceptional students pursuing graduate-level studies in machine learning and artificial intelligence at top universities across Canada.

Jaini is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam and hopes to return to Waterloo one day. The talented student is graduating with a Doctor of Philosophy in Computer Science this spring.


Abir Khaled

Abir Khaled

For Abir Khaled (MSc '99), earning a PhD degree with the University of Waterloo has been a long, sought-after goal. After finding out she was pregnant during her masters as a Waterloo student, Khaled put her PhD degree on hold to raise her daughter. Today, those events have come full circle, with Khaled not only graduating this spring with a PhD in Analytical Chemistry, but her daughter also graduating from Waterloo with a degree in chemical engineering.

Khaled’s research focused on the development of automated and high-throughput analytical methods that allow scientists and regulatory agencies to quickly identify and quantify hundreds of pharmaceutical drug residues in meat samples and foodstuffs.

As an analytical chemist, Khaled says she’s very interested in developing efficient and green, environmentally friendly methodologies. She completed her PhD under the supervision of Janusz Pawliszyn, the inventor of solid phase microextraction and a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and Canada Research Chair/NSERC Industrial Research Chair in New Analytical Methods and Technologies. Professor Pawliszyn’s Research Group are world-renowned leaders in the field of green analytical chemistry.

Looking back on her years with Waterloo, Khaled says she will fondly remember the times she’s been able to connect with so many different people from different countries and having coffees breaks with friends (sometimes after failed experiments). While a PhD itself represents the ultimate achievement for a student, Khaled says she also treasures the friendships she has made throughout her studies that will last a lifetime. She jokes, however, that she will not miss walking to a car covered in snow after working late nights.

As for her piece of advice for future PhD students?

“There’s so many! Be proactive and take full responsibility for your research, but also seek advice from senior group members, take care of your physical and mental health, keep an organized notebook/lab book, start writing as soon as possible and last, but not least enjoy the journey.”

Khaled will remain part of Waterloo as a postdoctoral research with Professor Pawliszyn’s Research Group for the next couple of months and at the same time, is exploring new opportunities within the industry.