University Engineering set to host first-ever virtual research conference

U of T Engineering’s first-ever faculty-wide research conference is organized by members of the Graduate Engineering Council of Students as well as faculty (Photo courtesy of Samantha Cheung)

Brandon Rufino’s preparation for his big presentation is a bit different today: He’s testing out his laptop mic and finding a spot in his apartment with the most light and least clutter.

Rufino, a student in the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, is among nearly 100 undergraduate and graduate students taking part in the inaugural U of T Engineering Research Conference (UTERC) on June 9 and 10. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the event will be broadcast digitally, with students presenting their research as poster presentations via Twitter or through non-technical lightning lectures on Zoom.

The conference will feature the latest in undergraduate and graduate research in six key areas: advanced manufacturing; data analytics and artificial intelligence; human health; robotics; sustainability; and water. Industry partners and alumni are also invited to connect with students and discuss the work.

Rufino, who is pursuing a master’s degree in health science at the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering (IBBME), will be presenting in the human health category as a lightning lecture speaker. Under the supervision of Assistant Professor Elaine Biddiss, he and his fellow grad students develop and evaluate technologies to allow young people with disabilities to participate more meaningfully in arts, music, physical activities and therapies.

“I’ve yet to attend a fully digital conference,” says Rufino. “I’m excited about this format, which really lends itself to being easily accessible and shareable.”

The idea to host a virtual conference was hatched after the university shutdown in March. With no access to labs, many students’ experimental work has been put on pause. U of T Engineering’s Graduate Engineering Council of Students (GECoS) began brainstorming.

“I thought a virtual conference would be useful for those looking for ways to progress their academic and professional development during this time when many conferences have been cancelled and some of us have less work to do,” says Samantha Cheung, a chemical engineering PhD candidate, UTERC organizer and president of GECoS mental wellness commission.

“When Sam approached us with this idea, we fully supported the initiative,” says Chaim Katz, a PhD candidate at IBBME and chair of GECoS. “We’ve been supporting the conference team’s efforts ever since and are looking forward to what will be an excellent opportunity to showcase research going on at U of T Engineering.”

After receiving positive feedback from students, faculty and staff, Cheung immediately created a committee made up of faculty and graduate students to plan a conference to be held within two months.

“I’m most excited to see people from various backgrounds connecting and engaging with each other through these online platforms,” says Cheung. “I think the best part about hosting this virtual conference is the ability for people from all over the world to participate.”

The organizers have even considered another important aspect of most academic conferences: networking. In addition to participants asking questions during posters and talks, UTERC will also facilitate networking with breakout sessions and through Slack.

Cheung hopes the success of the faculty’s first-ever virtual conference serves as a framework for future events at U of T Engineering, and for other institutions that want to engage their research community.

“Right now, we are all adjusting to new living circumstances and ways to socialize,” says Cheung. “UTERC is a reminder that the U of T Engineering community is here to support our students even if we aren’t physically together.”

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