Alumni and their Perspectives

Western Science Alumni - more than 40,000 members of the Western Science community - are contributing every day and in extraordinary ways to societies and  economies across the globe, to their organizations, families and to the Mustangs who follow in their footsteps. 

Featured Science Alumni

Raymond Francis

Photo of Dr. FrancisDr. Raymond Francis jokes that the path that led to a fascinating role on the NASA Mars 2020 rover mission “looks like the outcome of a brilliant plan, but it wasn’t.” For Francis, it was more a case of being alert to opportunity, and answering opportunity’s knock – with Western as a launching pad.

Francis is an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at the California Institute of Technology, where he is Science Team Training Co-ordinator on the Mars 2020 mission. He is also Adjunct Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering at Western.

Being one of a handful of Canadians among nearly 7,000 people working at JPL is a dream come true.

As a child, Francis spent a lot of time building and sending Lego spacecraft on exploration missions. He vividly remembers reading about early real missions – Viking, Voyager, Apollo. He was captivated by the images of distant worlds and impressed by the people operating them. But how to become one of them? He didn’t know.

His best guess in high school was engineering. Sitting in a guidance counselor’s office, he spotted a course calendar from the University of Ottawa. Mechanical Engineering seemed full of exciting courses like thermodynamics, and it was a co-op program. He thought an engineering degree with work experience would probably lead to a job, and he would be studying interesting things, so he applied.

When opportunity knocks

After completing a Bachelor of Applied Science in Mechanical Engineering, Francis learned that the European Space Agency (ESA) had a program for new graduates. While most positions specified “master’s degree required,” one said the degree was merely “preferred.” Francis got an interview, thanks to his co-op experience. He was told to expect a call in four weeks.

Weeks passed. Francis decided if he didn’t get the job, he would go back to school for his master’s. An online search showed a Space Science program in the Physics department at the Royal Military College of Canada, and he applied.

Eight weeks after the interview with ESA, Francis learned he had both the job and acceptance at RMC. Spotting another opportunity, he asked the college if he would be an even better candidate with job experience at a space agency. They agreed.

Francis spent 14 months with ESA in the Human Spaceflight directorate, preparing experiments for the International Space Station, then went on to RMC to complete his master’s in Space Physics with a focus on mission design.

Meanwhile, Francis had noticed a signal for his next step: he was one of just two people in his department at ESA who didn’t have PhDs.

While researching PhD programs, he heard about Western’s Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration. The Centre is the leading organization for planetary science and exploration research and training in Canada, and hosts Canada’s only graduate program in Planetary Science. Most openings were aimed at scientists, but Francis guessed they might need someone to build instruments for those scientists.

Francis was the program’s first engineering student, and began his PhD in Electrical and Computer Engineering co-supervised by Earth Sciences Professor Dr. Gordon Osinski and Engineering Professor Dr. Ken McIsaac. Francis appreciates their willingness to take on someone with an unusual résumé.

“I had seen scientists who didn’t understand what it takes to build technology, and engineers who didn’t know how the technology would be used to meet scientific objectives,” Francis says. “We all saw the value in someone who could bridge those worlds. I also had the goal of positioning myself, at the end of it, to have a better shot at working on a real exploration mission.”

Opportunity knocks again

Having one foot in engineering and the other in science, plus a few more grabbed opportunities, meant Francis was already working on Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) at the halfway point of his PhD, enabled by his work developing an automated computer algorithm to track the motions of clouds in the Martian atmosphere.

Francis had also proposed another computer algorithm to autonomously interpret images of geological scenes. While attending a major planetary science conference at Osinski’s invitation, he noticed someone from JPL was presenting an abstract on a similar theme. Francis located that researcher, introduced himself and boldly said, “I’m working on something similar and want to talk about careers.”

Two years later, the same researcher hired Francis as an intern for a project related to rock outcrops. The core research there became part of his thesis. And the automated computer algorithm he developed led to an invitation to be a visiting post-doctoral fellow at JPL. As such, he worked with MSL’s ChemCam spectrometer and the Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science System (AEGIS) software system, which provides automated data collection targeting for remote sensing instruments on the Mars exploration rover.

At that point, Francis was splitting his time between JPL and Western, where he supported analogue mission simulations and operated the Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars from his lab in London.

This and NASA recognition for exemplary work in planetary science and engineering led

to his current role. He’s working to train the Mars 2020 mission science team, who will explore and collect samples on Mars with a new rover currently being built.

Careers as marathons, not sprints

There’s no fast track to the career Francis has built for himself. Between the various academic programs and work, more than a decade passed since he left high school.

But that diverse education and rich experience through an unusual path is exactly what made him appealing to NASA. It wasn’t a clear career path, yet it worked out even better than Francis had hoped.

“Now, I’m trusted to develop and operate those missions of exploration on distant worlds I dreamed about as a child,” Francis marvels. “It’s definitely a dream come true.”

Dr. Raymond Francis is Western’s Adjunct Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering, and an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. There, he is the Science Team Training Co-ordinator for the Mars 2020 rover mission, and a member of the Mars Science Laboratory mission operations team.

Francis works with the Mars 2020 Project Science Office to train the team to explore Mars with its upcoming rover. He takes one or two days a week to work in science operations for the Mars Science Laboratory mission. There, he operates the Curiosity rover’s ChemCam instrument, used to measure the geochemical composition of rocks on Mars, or plans geological or atmospheric experiments to be carried out by the rover. He is also the lead system engineer for autonomous science operations with the AEGIS software system.

Francis spent 14 months with the European Space Agency (ESA), preparing experiments for the Fluid Science Laboratory aboard the International Space Station. He previously led the system engineering and operation of stratospheric research balloon experiments at the Royal Military College of Canada.

Francis holds a PhD in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Western University; a Master’s of Science in Physics (Space Science) from the Royal Military College of Canada; and a Bachelor of Applied Science in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Ottawa.

Amanda Holden

It’s early on a Thursday morning and Amanda Holden has already met with members of her team, grappled with at least one issue and is now sharing her time, experience and a story to inspire and inform the next generation with Science Speaks.

The daughter of an engineer, with a strong aptitude in the sciences, Amanda was expected to pursue a Science degree, so when she announced the intention to take up a major in arts, her family was awestruck. Inspired by a grade 13 visual arts teacher, she was determined to explore the artistic hues of her creative potential. While the experience was interesting, it was also short-lived. Holden came quickly to realize that her chosen career path would be paved on a Science foundation while being complimented by the creativity developed in visual arts electives.

The subsequent decision to focus on computer science was the result of an open and curious mind. Amanda experimented with different types of courses in physics, computer science, and math and discovered that she was challenged by the strategic thinking required to develop code – not any code, rather elegant and efficient programs; the type that would land her multiple job opportunities right out of school.

Stay close to home and work for an oil company. Move to the nation’s capital and support a research organisation. Consider working with a huge telecommunications firms. Holden’s options were considerable. Ultimately, the small town girl was determined to stretch her experience and further cultivate her capacity in the growing metropolis of Toronto with TD Canada.

Amanda chose TD because “they focused on the human side of the work,” an impassioned Holden said. They understood that while educated and technically skilled, new graduates needed to learn about the work context – how to stand on their own in a large corporate structure; the standards, policies; practices; tools and techniques specific to TD in order to be successful. This firm was prepared to invest in her transition from the world of academics to the working reality of corporate Canada and she reciprocated over the next ten years with focus, lateral and vertical growth and loyalty.  Fast forward almost three decades since Holden graduated from the Faculty of Science as one of six women in the field of computer science, she is now the Solutions Executive and National Practice Lead for Fraud and Security Intelligence for SAS Canada.

Staying Current

That technology continues to evolve at a breakneck pace requires everyone, not just experts in the field, to find ways of remaining current. The challenge cautions Holden, is compounded as you move up the corporate ladder and have progressively less time and hands-on experience with new technologies but more responsibility for selecting and justifying the upgrading or replacement of existing systems while ensuring the correct alignment between select technologies and business needs.

Amanda addressed the issue by regularly attending technology-focused conferences where she developed and leveraged partnerships with credible technology industry experts who provided consistent, accurate and therefore very valuable technology trends and best practices. Holden also invested heavily in other discipline-specific professional development, signing up for courses annually, focusing primarily on developing skills in management-related disciplines – human resources, organisational design, finance and psychology.

Leadership

The expectation of leadership, “begins the day you walk into the office,” says Holden. It disregards your gender, title or even experience. It is demanding, unrelenting and may be the greatest challenge most people encounter in the workplace. Forbes.com defines leadership as a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal. While the definition is clear, it’s application in all kinds of professional contexts, especially when the stakes are high and at different points in one’s own intellectual and emotional maturity, is not obvious. “There is no one recipe for leadership,” considers Holden.

The Bay Street veteran believes that leadership begins with humility – with the acknowledgement that no matter how smart or successful you are and regardless of your title, you always have more to learn and to contribute. She considers leadership an opportunity to set the example for others – not to follow like sheep but to inspire best practice. “Do what you say, meet your commitments, address conflict when it arises and be human,” Holden comments. Her golden rules for leadership success also include: be the first to acknowledge when you’ve made an error; demonstrate through action that mistakes from which we actively learn can be opportunities in disguise; and allow your colleagues, supervisors and employees to glimpse at the personal side of your being – the part which confirms your humanity; that you possess warmth and empathy, that you have a sense of humour and that you understand that life outside the office impacts everyone.

Creating that win-win situation for her employees and organisation is a hallmark of success for Holden. Amanda ensures that team members are party to the broader context – why the firm is moving in a particular direction - and to understand how the organisation is reliant on their technical expertise and moral support to move the agenda forward. An important part of her management style is also taking the time to understand the individuals with whom she works.  “I think it’s critical to support my staff by helping them connect the dots; framing the story of who they are in their professional lives, who they want to be and how to meet their aspirations,” comments Holden. She continues, “I am responsible for ensuring excellence in my department and profitability for my firm. But, to do this effectively, I have to think of myself less as a corporate executive and more as a coach.”

Amanda is a Solutions Executive and National Practice Lead for Fraud & Security Intelligence for SAS Canada. She is responsible for driving business development and go to market strategies for SAS Fraud and AML products and services. As a national leader and evangelist, Amanda is focused on finding solutions to customers' financial crimes, loss and AML problems. She is passionate about data and analytics and the role they play in reducing financial crimes in Canada.

Prior to joining SAS, Amanda was the Technology Executive Sponsor for TD Bank's Enterprise Fraud Analytics Platform initiative. She led the technology build for a multiyear, integrated vendor solution, designed to support fraud practices from analytics, model development, fraud countermeasures/scoring to alert management, operations and reporting. The solution services multiple lines of business (retail & commercial, internal & external, batch to real-time processing).

Amanda has over 15 years of experience in the Payments industry with a focus on fraud operations. As VP-OPerations, Security, Technology & Fraud at Interac Association, Amanda lead all technical, operational, fraud and security oversight for the Interac Inter-Member Network and payment services such as Interac e-Transfer. Ananda was responsible for the development, delivery and support of fraud technology, services and operation to Canadian FI's. A focus on effective fraud scoring and operational performance helped to maintain Interac products as some of the safest in Canada.

In her earlier career, Amanda was Vide-President, Operations at Visa Canada. She was responsible for all operational, fraud and MIS functions for the Canada region including service delivery, network and technology support, project and implementation management, production support, client services, fraud management and information systems, Amanda has also held other technology solutions roles in the financial services industry.

Amanda holds an Honors Bachelor of Science in Computer Science from the University of Western Ontario and a Certificate in Bankcard Management from the Visa Bankcard School. Amanda has a passion for analytics and technology, most recently focusing on enabling business and technology partnerships. She participates in several industry, CIO, and women in technology forums. She a mother of one son and is proud to call herself a"geek" - rarely far from the many tools, technologies and gadgets that she enjoys in life and business.

Peter Scheyen

Peter Scheyen was just 13 when he fell in love with technology, thanks to a Commodore 64. 

That first computer turned out to be an easy and accessible way to get into programming. It was also the driving force that sent him to an out-of-district high school because it had a rich computer science program, and then on to Western University. His undergrad included late nights working closely with classmates in a collaborative experience that shaped his passion for technology.

“That strong foundation in development helped me understand technology at higher level and understand the way developers are wired,” says the Chief Technical Officer for Cineplex Digital Media.   “That’s been a big help in leading tech teams, which is where I’ve spent most of my career.”

After finishing his Masters in Computer Science at Western, Peter stayed on in the department for two years as programmer. In his first “real” job as software developer with Cableshare (later bought by VirtualModem), a VP asked if he wanted to be a team lead. Here was this kid just out of college, but Peter had drawn attention because he had redesigned some key components of their system. 

Peter embraced the opportunity, although it involved no training.

“I learned by doing things wrong a lot of time, but in an environment where that was okay,” he says. “We were a bunch of developers all in it together, and it was such a collaborative experience, much like my computer science classes. That shaped my thoughts on leadership and how to build effective teams.”

When a Silicon Valley company bought VirtualModem, Peter became a manager. For a time, he thought he needed to start “acting like a manager,” parceling out and tracking work. But he found it frustrating. It wasn’t him, and wasn’t effective.

“Asking a developer how long it will take to create some software is like asking an author how long it’s going to take to write a book,” he says. “There’s no formula.”

It didn’t take long to figure out that a predictive, controlled approach wasn’t going to work. Peter knew that the right leadership would make the work environment better, morale would go up and the team would be more productive. Around that time, he got interested in “agile” software development, and he’s been honing that approach ever since.

Creativity on the edge of chaos

Peter calls "agile" a grassroots way of driving commitment from teams through collaboration. It affects everything from seating arrangements to communications, both inside and outside the team. The company chooses what software will be built, but the team members self-select who will take on each part. Done right, the team feels cohesive and is strongly committed to what they’re delivering. 

People look at software development as rigid and structured, something you do if you’re good at math. Yet Peter sees it as a creative expression, solving a problem through software. It’s a human endeavor requiring intelligence, leadership, communication and teamwork. The leader’s role is to set conditions that support this approach, which is quite different from management from the top down.

“To that traditional leader, this style of management is like losing control,” Peter says. “And it’s true "agile" is balancing on the edge of chaos. But that’s where creativity comes as well. The people you hire are smart, and if you aren’t using that mental capacity and setting the conditions for creativity and innovation, you’re doing a disservice to the company. And if you don’t dedicate specific time to thinking about innovation, you don’t do it.”

When Peter arrived at Cineplex in 2012, his first goal was to get a handle on the company’s strengths and weaknesses, and get teams operating well in the agile way. From there, they would roadmap new products and enhancements. As he learned himself early on, he lets his team know that it’s okay to fail. 

“When faced with a technology challenge, you might not know exactly how to solve it, but you won’t get innovative work from a team that’s afraid to fail,” he says. “Our team brainstorms ideas and may test one for a fixed, short timeframe like a week or two. We look at what worked well and what didn’t. We work this into our culture so it’s normal to talk about what we learned and what approach seemed best.”

Innovation means looking ahead 10 years or more, even though the speed of change makes forecasts highly speculative. Still, Peter’s team looks at what new technology might be coming in that could put them out of business, and what could be done to replace the current business with something new. They think about what and how to communicate to Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials and now Gen Z. They look at the problems and goals of clients, which are invariably related to connecting with their consumers, then look at what technology would help.

Digital menu boards are inside quick service restaurants now, for instance, but more than half of the customers are using the drive-through. Peter’s team is already workshopping how technology can improve the drive-through experience of the future, working closely with clients like Tim Hortons and McDonald’s and gaining insights into where they are going.

In the end, Peter says, “A company’s success means getting the best from your people, and you’ll only get that if they are committed. The approach of trusting teams to break down the work in a way that makes sense, trusting they will work together collaboratively to achieve goals, is the most likely way to spark innovation and earn their commitment.”

Peter Scheyen
Chief Technical Officer, Cineplex Digital Media 

In his current role with Cineplex Digital Media, a division of Cineplex Entertainment, Peter leads a team envisioning and delivering high-quality digital in-store merchandizing for such customers as Wal-Mart, McDonalds, Tim Hortons, Scotiabank and Rogers Communications. He is responsible for the architecture, research, development and technology roadmap for all the Cineplex Digital Networks products and services.

Peter was previously Chief Technology Officer at the Richard Ivey School of Business, where he was responsible for using technology to enhance collaboration, communication and the student experience. Before that, he was VP Technology for Comcast, responsible for systems and software architecture and integration with Comcast networks and systems. He has also led and mentored teams delivering software releases and patches for TVWorks Canada, Liberate Technologies, VirtualModem and Cableshare.

Peter holds a Masters of Computer Science and an Honours Bachelor of Science in Computer Science from the University of Western Ontario. He also completed the Ivey Executive Program at Richard Ivey School of Business.