University of Alberta: Schulich Leaders aim to put their love of technology to work solving problems and helping others

Kevin Uzomechine says his fascination with technology began as a youngster transfixed by the brief static blue text on his TV set that read “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” By the time the large blocks of unabashed yellow text had crawled vertically up through the screen to Star Wars’ signature trumpets, the future was all he could think about.

“I wanted to be an astronaut, a pilot, an engineer, and of course a Jedi Knight,” said the first-year student in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Engineering.

In the meantime, the Nigerian-born, Calgary-raised Uzomechine threw himself into robotics, participating in — and winning — just about every district-wide tournament he could find.

Beyond competing, he became proficient at programming and manipulating many hardware components, while challenging himself through courses in deep learning and microelectronics.

He also developed an interest in Model United Nations and debate, winning multiple speaker awards, and was selected from a very competitive provincial pool to represent Alberta at the National Debating Seminar.

Uzomechine is now one of six U of A students to receive the Schulich Leader Scholarship, given annually to 50 university hopefuls in Canada enrolled in an undergraduate program in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM). The award ranges from $80,000 for science students to $100,000 for those in engineering.

In Grade 11, Uzomechine attended Shad Canada, a summer entrepreneurship program for high achievers, where he led a team in designing a product that moulds unwanted plastics into a replacement for corrugated cardboard. He also formed a company around it.

“Entrepreneurship provides the greatest conduit through which my dreams may become reality.”

Jennifer Huynh
Jennifer Huynh was born in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, but immigrated to Canada with her family as a child and ultimately ended up in Edmonton in 2011.

The first-year Faculty of Science student remembers always having a fascination with math and physics, and a dream of studying them in a post-secondary setting.

She even volunteered with SmileSonica Inc., a Canadian technology company using ultrasound technology to build medical devices for orthodontic patients.

However, alongside a passion for STEM, Huynh also hopes to make education accessible within immigrant and refugee communities, “especially having been an immigrant myself and growing up experiencing the challenges that come with transitioning to a new world.”

Huynh has encouraged STEM learning among young newcomers by programming an interactive computer game called Ready, Set, Math! for students at an after-school program to practise mathematics and track their improvement.

She also worked with the Somali Canadian Cultural Society of Edmonton, leading a non-profit initiative organizing free workshops about finance, health care, law and business for more than 360 newcomers.

“Receiving the Schulich scholarship came as such a shock to me, and I’ll never forget the look on my parents’ faces when I told them the news. We came to Canada because of the education opportunities, and they’ve made so many sacrifices for me — I can only hope I’ve made them proud.”

Cynthia Cui
In 2018, Cynthia Cui noticed that the peak of the flood that tore through her hometown of Fredericton, N.B., was never predicted.

The devastation left in the flood’s wake moved Cui, who was then in high school, to create a flood prediction model that would better prepare authorities to act.

That summer, Cui, an avid chess player, took an interest in machine learning after reading about how chess engines are programmed.

From there she created a flood prediction and visualization application that could simulate and show the user the exact impact of different water levels. She then spent six months learning how to code, collecting data and researching the cause of floods in New Brunswick.

In May of 2019, Cui presented her project at the national science fair. Representatives from insurance companies attending the fair were blown away by the potential the project had for homeowners and insurance companies to negotiate insurance prices based on her project’s predictive powers.

And while her flood application addresses the issue of climate change on a short-term basis, Cui said she aspires to find a more permanent solution as an engineer innovating in the renewable energy field.

“I chose engineering because I would like to gain a deeper understanding of the world around me and be able to use that knowledge to improve upon previous solutions or innovate new solutions to real-world problems.”

Tomas Walter
Before attending the U of A this year, Tomas Walter co-designed a patent-pending product for the construction industry. The product, an adapter for the DeWalt cordless roofing nailer, makes it the only cordless vinyl siding nailer in the world.

However, laying claim to not one but an astounding 14 inventions sits second to involvement with his local robotics team, which received the Alberta First Tech Challenge 2020 Design Award for originality, creativity and quality.

The first-year engineering student noted that receiving the Schulich scholarship has opened new doors for him to network and create entrepreneurial opportunities with some of the brightest students at the U of A and elsewhere in Canada.

“Building something big, like a company, is not something to be done alone, but rather done with the support of others. Receiving this scholarship means that I can build something substantial and have the support that I need.”

Sandra Taskovic
When faced with the challenges of pursuing a competitive tennis career in the less than tennis-mad community of Peterborough, Ont., Sandra Taskovic was inspired to make a difference using her love of technology.

The first-year computing science student researched the biomechanics of the tennis swing and used some programming and math savvy to develop an accessible athletic sensor to help athletes who don’t have access to professional coaches.

“By taking more attainable actions, I made an immediate impact on improving the tennis community and sports equity in Peterborough. As a result, I became the youngest and only female certified tennis instructor in Peterborough.”

It didn’t end there. Taskovic advocated for indoor tennis facilities by creating petitions and posters, sending letters to city councillors and speaking at council meetings.

She was also co-captain of an all-female computer science club and founded an elementary girls’ computer coding competition at her school. In preparation, the team travelled to an elementary school to teach girls in workshops how to code using a simple coding language.

“As someone who dreams of becoming a CEO, I believe my ability to be creative and make interdisciplinary connections to come up with steps to reach my goals will make me an efficient and effective leader.”

Jordan Kurtzweg
As a fourth-generation farm kid growing up in Foremost, Alta., Jordan Kurtzweg had a great respect for the land and for what it has taught him: farmers have to have perseverance and be willing to put in long hours during busy seasons.

It also taught him, in part, that he could do just about anything he wanted to do.

“The farm has been an amazing place to grow up — there are so many built-in lessons with animals and agriculture — but my dream is not to be a farmer, but a scientist,” said the first-year science student.

While many were testing what sort of household items could produce the best eruption out of a homemade volcano, Kurtzweg made his way to the Canada-Wide Science Fair looking at how the blade type and angle of attack on wind turbines changes their energy output. His entry, which also included a look at the feasibility of using hydroelectric dams as energy storage, earned him the fair’s renewable energy award.

And while he was president of the local 4H Club, a love of books led to a board position with the Foremost Municipal Library, where he took over responsibility for setting up a successful online auction platform to raise funds for the library.

The entrepreneurial spirit that lives with anyone who farms propelled Kurtzweg and some classmates to both the judges’ and people’s choice awards at an entrepreneurship contest held by Medicine Hat College for a locally sourced mustard produced using seeds from his dad’s farm. “We had a great product, but I really believe it was our teamwork that won.”

To top it off, being a licensed drone pilot has allowed Kurtzweg to start a business using aerial photography and agricultural field mapping to check crop health.

“Coming from a small rural school, the opportunities that it will afford me are so exciting, and it really means a lot that the foundation chose me,” he said. “I’m honoured to represent as a Schulich Leader.”