I’m a Featured Student!

Recently, the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering at the University of Toronto decided to feature some of its current students to give the program a little more exposure. I am greatly honoured to be one of those students and I hope that my story highlights the incredible experience and formation that can be received by attending a world class University and Faculty.

Check out my story and the stories of others on the Faculty’s website!

What’s Next?

I, along with many other graduating students, am in a difficult phase of life, full of uncertainty, hope, and disappointment. Entering engineering right after high school was an easy choice that was quite natural for me. After 3 years of education and a year-long internship in Spain, I am a very different person than I once was and now I am dealing with the question of “What’s next?”. I can envision what I want my life to be in the future, but don’t know which path I should take to get myself there. Ultimately, I want to live a happy life. I want to love and be loved. I want kids, and I want to be with them at every moment as they grow up. I want to be someone important; not for the fame or for my ego, but simply because I want to put my incredible skills and talents to their best possible use; settling for anything less would be a waste of my potential. I want to die smiling, without fear and without regrets.

Enjoying a dinner with Joe Meyer and his wife, Julie, some years ago.

I was recently inspired by the story of the passing of my dear adopted grandfather, Joe Meyer. In the last years of his life, he battled cancer and defied the expectations of his doctors by making it to birthday after birthday, all the while loved and cared for by his family, friends, and dear wife. When the day finally came for him to pass on last Spring, he knew and so did his wife. She told him that he could go and that he didn’t have to fight anymore. She nodded to the attending nurse who removed his breathing mask and began to sing him love songs reminiscent of the joyful time they spent together in their early years. Joe Meyer hung on for another hour without life support, although I was told it seemed like an eternity. All the while, he smiled peacefully, without ceasing to gaze upon his wife, the love of his life and his companion for over 50 years. I see so many people living lives complicated with unnecessary anger, bitterness, and regrets, and wish that more people could live happy and die peacefully like Joe Meyer did.

So what about my future? I seem to have a pretty unique combination of skills and talents and am looking for a way in which I can fully apply myself and continue to grow (“like a tree through the ages”). I am currently open to any path that will take me where I want to go, whether it be through grad school, an early career opportunity, or perhaps something else entirely. I have enjoyed my research experiences so far, and certainly believe that I possess the attributes to become a Master’s student in Engineering, so assuming a professor will sponsor me, it is certainly one path I could see myself excelling in. The big question, of course, is where and what do I study? Should I continue in Civil Engineering or consider other alternatives as well? I have also been contemplating employment as a way to get a head start on life, but have been overwhelmed with the possibilities! Most of the “1-to-2-year-rotational-leadership-development” programs are quite intriguing, but seem to be more directed at computer engineering, commerce, and business graduates (and therefore it is a little hard for me to compete for those spots). Furthermore, a lot of structural engineering jobs require more than just an undergraduate degree. More than just “what”, another big question is “where?”. Do I want to stay in Toronto long-term? (Probably not) If not, where? The States, out West? Europe?

One intriguing possibility, quite different from any other option, is to train for the 2014 winter olympic games, likely in a skiing event. Why? Simply because I’m a great skier, and I doubt many other Maltese citizens can say the same. One option I’m considering is putting two and two together and finding a job out west so I can work, gain engineering experience, and train all at the same time.

While the questions and the uncertainty are a slight burden on my shoulders, it also provides me with a fantastic opportunity to create a life for myself, however I so choose. I really want to do something unique, something that will set me apart from the rest of the thousands of graduates in Canada this year, and I challenge each and every one of you who are also in the same position and reading this post to do the same! We are all in a position where we have great potential and now is the time to do something special, something crazy! If we don’t follow our dreams today, tomorrow we will wake up and discover it’s already too late.

(Almost) Virtually Exploding Buildings

Professor Bentz with Drew and I
Professor Bentz with Drew and I.

This past summer, I had the opportunity to work with a prominent Civil Engineering professor at the University of Toronto. Professor Evan C. Bentz specializes in structural engineering, and his work focuses on developing software to aid in the analysis and simulation of structures. Professor Bentz has an incredible personality, great sense of humour, and can talk about almost anything to almost anyone for as long as he is able to talk and someone is able to listen. Some of the most interesting and random conversations of my entire life were had last summer in Professor Bentz’s office. This was my first research position, and I really lucked out because I got to work with some incredible people, and ended up doing something I found enjoyable.

My main projects this summer were centred around making Professor Bentz’s software run more efficiently and accurately. The software suite includes Membrane-2000 and Response-2000 for modelling walls, beams, and columns, and Augustus for assembling elements into a structure and running tests on them.

One particular project involved writing a Visual Basic script to accept data from a large spreadsheet database of experimental test results for beams and convert individual tests into a series of input files that could be read by the software. This allowed for an automated way of verifying the simulation test results with real data. Once completed, the macro generated all necessary files in under a minute for over 2000 entries, whereas it probably would have taken a year to do them all by hand.

My next project  was meant to push Augustus to its limits by designing and testing a model of a 20-storey apartment building in the Greater Toronto Area that Professor Bentz had previously done some analysis for. After three weeks of interpreting design drawings, mapping out the geometry of the structure, and defining all the structural elements, I excitedly pushed the button to run the tests and the software crashed. While it was disappointing not to get any results, it ended up leading to my most interesting and challenging project.

The core issue, or so we believe, with the Augustus software not being able to run the tests on the building was that the data that the software reads in is not stored efficiently. The software performs its analysis using the “Stiffness Method”, which is an easy way for a computer to calculate displacements on large structures. Every node, or point of interest, in the structure is represented by a number stored in a matrix. The matrix contains all the information about how each node has displaced as the tests run.

This issue lead to the development of a Genetic Algorithm (based on this blog post) to try and optimize the matrix before any calculations were run. After banging my head on a desk for about a week, things started to click, and the development began to progress fairly rapidly. By the end of the third week working on the project, we started getting some positive results that the Genetic Algorithm we implemented performed better than more traditional methods, but took significantly longer to execute (especially for matrices greater than 100×100 in size).

After spending a week on optimizing the algorithms used thanks to MATLAB’s handy profiler, the operation time was cut down significantly and our program could compute matrices up to 500×500 in size within a minute, even on a slow (1.86 GHz) processor.

The Genetic Algorithm project was the focus of a presentation I made at the Undergraduate Engineering Research Day at U of T, mainly since the use of genetic algorithms was such a novel and interesting approach to solving the matrix bandwidth reduction problem. The presentation, which was developed from 10pm – 3am the night before (since we only got results the same day) went very well and I was awarded the prize of a top presenter.

Overall my research experience was fun, challenging, and a great way to spend my summer. While I was paid roughly the same as when I was the Site Director for an entire YMCA camp, I had far less responsibility, got to work with some brilliant and dynamic people, and enjoyed the great flexibility in working hours that the academia world offers. My research team had very little supervision, and the vast majority of our work was all self-driven. The best part of the position was that I was constantly challenged. Whenever I began feeling comfortable and in control of a project, I was thrown something else that seemed impossible in the beginning, but was always successfully accomplished in the end. Furthermore, this project will serve as an excellent lead-in to my PEY work term in Spain with CYPE Ingenieros, and has opened the doors to future thesis work when I return to Canada in 2010 to finish my degree.

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