Art meets science in engineering, says 25-year-old doctoral grad

Photo of Alex Leigh in his lab

Alex Leigh is a Renaissance man.

At 25, Leigh is among the youngest PhDs UWindsor has ever produced. And when he’s not working in professor Mitra Mirhassani’s lab, engineering circuits that work like a human brain and being awarded patents on his research, Leigh is teaching piano or touring Europe as an opera singer.

“Engineering has traditionally been considered part of the arts,” said Leigh of his diverse interests. “I like the hands-on aspect of engineering and I’ve always enjoyed teaching, being an instructor, so I’m interested in pursuing a faculty position.”

Leigh will be among more than 4,000 students who will graduate at the spring convocation June 14 to 17. He won’t be able to attend — he will be on conference in Italy, presenting his latest research.

“Alex is remarkable,” said Dr. Mirhassani. “It’s not just his age, he has been exceptional at everything he does.”

Leigh came to the University of Windsor from Holy Names Catholic High School with the initial goal of one day pursuing a career in cardiac surgery. After first studying medical physics, he switched to electrical engineering and enrolled in a special integrated program that allowed him to get his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the same time.

As an undergraduate, he was part of UWindsor’s Outstanding Scholars program, which offers research opportunities to high-achieving students. He joined Mirhassani’s lab after second year, the first undergrad she ever welcomed.

“He is brilliant. He sped ahead of the doctoral students,” said Mirhassani, co-director of the SHIELD Automotive Cybersecurity Centre of Excellence at the University of Windsor. “Because of him, I was encouraged to bring in more undergraduates, so, really, he opened the door for others.”

Leigh’s research is in neuromorphic engineering, designing circuits that replicate the behaviour of a live animal’s nervous system. Computers designed to simulate a net of neurons working together run faster, use less power, and can be used in such applications as drug discovery.

Together with Mirhassani and post-doctoral fellow Moslem Heidarpur, Leigh holds a patent on his research that improves the energy efficiency of hardware for neuromorphic computing. The three are in the process of getting a second patent in the field of quantum-safe encryption.

Leigh has been around circuit boards his entire life. His grandfather founded Crescent TV, now Crescent Electronics, which specializes in repairing the chips used for automotive sound systems. During the pandemic, Leigh used the family business as his research laboratory.

He has co-authored four research papers and has five more in the works. Mirhassani said Leigh has also been active in the Faculty of Engineering, mentoring younger students and volunteering at open houses.

At 16, he started taking voice lessons, specializing in Italian art songs. That gave way to opera and playing Marcello in a touring production of La Bohѐme.

Art meets science in engineering, said Leigh. “For me, it’s been a natural fit.”

—Sarah Sacheli