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
Featured Science Alumni
Curiosity most certainly did not “kill the cat” for Natalie Abeysena, Western BSc. ’15 graduate and co-founder of
Her undergraduate coursework in cognitive neuroscience engendered in Natalie a love of curiosity, and the merits of exploring uncharted ideas. “I started with an interest in the medical aspect of neuroscience,
Between third and fourth year, Natalie spent the summer in Rwanda teaching sexual education to school children, followed by an internship in Boston working with a firm specializing in using technology to augment learning for students with cognitive disabilities. For Natalie, the contrast between the classrooms of Rwanda and the US sparked a curiosity about the role of software technologies to make the learning experience more personalized. “At this stage, I had passed the point of no return and given in to my curiosity of learning tools,” says Natalie.
Following her degree at Western, Natalie doubled down on her interests at the nexus of education and technology by
Nearly two years into her start-up and Natalie is still driven by her curiosity. “Start-ups are risky but learning always turns into long-term value,” she says. ScopeAI builds software that analyzes customer conversations to help user-facing teams, such as support, uncover insights that can inform product decision-making. Aggregating different sources, such as customer service calls and online reviews, ScopeAI uses natural language processing to instantly generate trends from the data.
“To this day I follow my curiosity, which helps me rationalize risk-taking, but now I have to temper it with being responsible – after all, in the company setting, I have to be aware of my colleagues.” That said, Natalie still very much includes her explorative
“I could distill my experiences down to curiosity, focus, and patience. Balancing long-term, intangible goals with the tractable, short-term steps to get there is a great way to ensure your path forward.”
Dr. 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
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.
Francis was the program’s first engineering
“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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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.
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,
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
The Bay Street veteran believes that leadership begins with humility – with the
Creating that win-win situation for her employees and
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
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
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
After finishing his Masters in Computer Science at Western, Peter stayed on in the department for two years as
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
“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
“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
“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.”
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
Peter was previously Chief Technology Officer at the Richard Ivey School of Business, where he was responsible for using technology to enhance collaboration, communication
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.