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UWindsor experience opens doors for physics grad

Alumni News - 13 hours 2 min ago

Melissa Valdez (BSc 2015) says her UWindsor physics degree gave her the confidence to explore various career paths, and she cannot wait to see what other opportunities await.

Following completion of her undergraduate degree in physics with a minor in computer science, Valdez entered master’s study at York University where she got to work on a project at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, exploring antimatter.

After graduation, she took a full-time position with a science outreach group she first volunteered with at UWindsor, a national charitable organization called Let’s Talk Science.

“We launched a neat collaboration in a historically underserved community in Toronto. We provided a full year of hands-on science activities at an after-school program for 100 kids in kindergarten to grade eight,” says Valdez.

“It was a successful partnership, and we had a lot of fun. The initiative is still going on today; it continued right through the pandemic. I was excited to be a part of it.”

Next, she sought out a technical role where she could use her physics and computer science background. This led her to a three-year position as a consultant at IBM in their Cognitive and Analytics practice.

“That is a group within IBM focused on bringing AI solutions to their customers — I focused mainly on conversational AI, so chatbots,” she says.

“We launched two chatbots into production in the Fall of 2019 just before the pandemic exacerbated logistics challenges and increased wait times to reach customer service. This additional contact channel was a relief for our client and such a success story for their customers.”

In 2022 Valdez found herself in a new challenge, working at the Vector Institute, focused on machine learning research and commercialization.

“I got to be a part of a program that helped upskill mothers on maternity leave,” says Valdez.

“So, when they returned to work, they had a machine learning skillset to use — perhaps in a different position within their company, or to take on new responsibilities.”

Valdez says she attributes the skills and confidence she gained at the University of Windsor for her career success.

“Because of Science at UWindsor and the smaller class sizes, I knew all my professors and all my classmates so there was a sense of community and support — there was a lot of opportunity for me to develop academically,” she says.

During her undergrad studies, Valdez completed an honours thesis with professor Chitra Rangan running computations to determine how adding gold nanoparticles to solar panels could make them more efficient.

She adds that there were also plenty of opportunities to explore extracurriculars.

“I loved giving back and was energized by the outreach work, which helped balance the many hours of studying alone in my room.”

Through Let’s Talk Science and the Physics Club, Valdez took on leadership roles where she helped co-ordinate and engage others.

“I think that is one of the main skills that I’ve taken with me into every one of my jobs.

“I’ve naturally gravitated towards leadership roles, and I think those skills I have were fostered at UWindsor. My extracurriculars definitely helped establish my confidence after graduation.”

Valdez says next she would like to pursue a job in quantum computing.

—Sara Elliott

Because of Science at UWindsor is a series designed to showcase Faculty of Science alumni and the impact of their journey through science.

Melissa ValdezAlumniAcademic Area: SciencePhysics

Information on film funding on offer in Tuesday session

Alumni News - Thu, 03/09/2023 - 00:06

An online session Tuesday, March 14, will offer information on Telefilm Canada’s Talent to Watch program, which supports emerging filmmakers looking to finance the production stage of their first feature film projects.

Mike Stasko, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication, Media, and Film, will lead the event on Microsoft Teams for UWindsor alumni — especially those recent grads building their careers. It will run 9 to 10 p.m.; email Prof. Stasko for details and a link to the session: mstasko@uwindsor.ca.

The Telefilm program is intended to support a diverse array of emerging talent, to discover and develop the next generation of Canadian filmmakers, and to allow them to establish their voices and sensibilities.

Mike StaskoAlumniAcademic Area: Arts, Humanities and Social SciencesCommunications, Media & FilmCreative Arts

Grad a senior scientist investigating drugs to treat cancer

Alumni News - Thu, 12/15/2022 - 08:53

Science alumnus Dennis Ma (BSc 2010, PhD 2016) will start in 2023 with a new role as a senior scientist at Calico Life Sciences, a company focused on longevity, aging, and diseases related to aging.

“I will be focusing on cancer drug discovery and studying cellular mechanisms driving metastasis, the spread of cancers from a primary tumour to secondary sites in the body,” says Dr. Ma.

“Metastasis is one of the leading causes of cancer related deaths, so it is my goal to leverage my discoveries to drive the design of new and effective therapeutics for metastatic cancers.”

The former Vanier Canada Graduate Scholar received his doctorate in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry under the supervision of professor Siyaram Pandey.

“Because of Science at UWindsor I’ve had extensive training in cancer drug discovery and testing during my PhD with Dr. Pandey,” he says.

“Combined with my latest postdoctoral training with patient tumour samples and metastasis in the labs of Dr. Kai Kessenbrock and Dr. Devon Lawson at the University of California, Irvine, I feel well prepared heading into this new position.”

Ma is currently finishing his postdoctoral research in the Department of Biological Chemistry at the University of California, Irvine.

“Notably during my postdoctoral training, I was the first scientist in the world to genetically engineer patient tumour cells to functionally study mechanisms driving metastasis in animal models,” says Ma.

“I hope to adapt and combine my new technologies and workflows with my background in cancer drug discovery from my PhD to develop new therapies for cancer at Calico.”

Pandey calls Ma an impressive researcher with outstanding research productivity, and says he is expecting transformational development in anti-cancer therapeutics from Ma’s novel approach.

“His cutting-edge technologies and impactful work on metastasis have been published in Nature Cell Biology, Nature Methods, and Communications Biology and have earned him the prestigious and competitive K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award from the National Institutes of Health to start up his own academic lab and fund his research program as an independent investigator,” says Pandey.

Ma credits his UWindsor education with preparing him for his new job.

“While completing my doctorate with Dr. Pandey, I learned to be an effective collaborator, mentor, and leader and have led my students and collaborators to the publication of over 20 research papers,” says Ma.

“I’m ready to bring my teamwork and leadership skills to Calico to develop new and effective therapeutics for cancer.”

Because of Science at UWindsorDennis MaSiyaram PandeyAlumniAcademic Area: Graduate StudiesScienceChemistry & Biochemistry

HK grad new baseball scientist for the Chicago Cubs

Alumni News - Tue, 12/13/2022 - 09:01

UWindsor alum Mike Sonne has always been a baseball guy.

He plays baseball. He coaches baseball. He’s a fan.

But recently, Dr. Sonne went from being just any baseball guy to being the baseball guy, snagging a job with the Chicago Cubs as the major league club’s new baseball scientist.

What’s a baseball scientist?

“Everyone asks that,” said Sonne.

Sonne uses his expertise in biomechanics to figure out how hard a player can work before performance diminishes or injury is inevitable.

“The idea is to optimize performance,” he explained. “I look at how safely we can get our players on the field performing at their maximum for as long as possible.”

Sonne is part of the Cubs’ research and development department. Without giving too much away, Sonne said the size and scope of the Cubs’ tech team rivals that of any start-up in Silicon Valley. The department collects data on every player in the franchise — from the Cubs’ starting pitcher to young hitters on the club’s farm teams. It collects data on players from rival teams, too.

Sonne takes all that data and runs it through a model he originally designed to predict muscle fatigue in automotive assembly-line workers.

“My job is to figure out how to translate this data into actionable items.” Using a pitcher as an example, Sonne said he can go to the coach and say, “Get this person on the mound more, or maybe they need to skip a start.”

Sonne says there’s no magic to what he does — you just need to know what to look for.

“When you have a good understanding of how muscles fatigue, you can see subtle changes in movement patterns,” he said.

Comparing what he sees to the data collected, he can predict when players need rest to get back at the top of their games.

Sonne, 39, said he never dreamed of becoming a baseball scientist.

“I don’t think my dreams were ever so audacious to think this was possible.”

He graduated from Belle River high school intent on studying music.

“My guidance counsellor told me if I took kinesiology, I could only be a gym teacher,” he said wryly.

After completing his bachelor’s degree in human kinetics, he worked for two years as an ergonomist in Ottawa and Michigan before returning to UWindsor for master’s studies. During grad school, he worked with kinesiology professor Dave Andrews researching the body movements of assembly-line workers in the automotive industry.

“I definitely loved the HK program there,” he said.

For his PhD, he attended McMaster University and conducted further research on autoworkers with former UWindsor professor Jim Potvin.

Throughout his time at UWindsor, Sonne was the trainer for the Lancers football team. A helmet the team gave him when he graduated remains on display in the bedroom of his Hamilton home.

As part of this UWindsor master’s education, Sonne did an internship with an ergonomics tech company. When the company later folded, Sonne started his own.

His company allowed clients to use cellphones to analyze joint angles to improve ergonomic design. After completing his doctoral degree, Sonne worked for the Occupation Health Clinics for Ontario Workers in Hamilton.

He started blogging about sports, applying his expertise on forces, posture, and repetition to what professional baseball players do. Among other topics, he wrote about how the introduction of a pitch clock would put major-league pitchers at higher risk of injury.

“I ended up getting a pretty significant social media presence,” he said.

Sports sites and publications such as Fangraphs and The Athletic approached him about becoming a freelance writer. That led to an article in Sports Illustrated.

Then came a call from Craig Breslow, assistant general manager of the Chicago Cubs and a former Major League Baseball pitcher himself.

Breslow brought Sonne in for a team education seminar. Afterwards the two men exchanged texts about a possible role with the club.

They inked a deal in October.

Sonne spends some time at Wrigley Field each month, but spends most of his time on the road, visiting farm teams in Iowa, Tennessee, and South Carolina.

Hamilton, where Sonne is a player-coach with the Steel City Inclusive Softball Association, will remain his home base.

His parents, Patsy and Brian, still live in Windsor, a place he called home from the time he was seven.

Like when he was a boy, he revels in the magnificence of the game.

“I’m always amazed when I watch a pitcher throw,” he said. “They are so outside normal human function…. It’s a beautiful celebration of what can go right with the human body.”

—Sarah Sacheli

Mike SonneAlumniAcademic Area: Graduate StudiesHuman Kinetics