The Vancouver Sun – Bright brains at UBC work on new safety technology for trains

Train accidents – such as the one earlier this month where a runaway train loaded with oil derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic – can be devastating. But new technology being studied by a woman from India at the University of British Columbia could make railway accidents less likely to occur.

Madhuri Suthar, 21, is in Vancouver on a 12-week internship, working with UBC electrical and computer engineering professor Dave Michelson on the next generation in wireless communications for railways.

She’s here as part of Mitacs Globalink, a program designed to attract top undergraduate university students from around the world to Canadian universities in the hope that they might decide to pursue graduate studies here, and ultimately move to Canada. Suthar is researching why wireless signals are sometimes blocked or lost.

“When a person loses a cellphone call, it’s annoying, but if you lose a signal on a train, it could be a very serious problem,” said Michelson. “Our goal is to make wireless communications for train signalling and control ultra reliable.”

The research project is a “very effective” collaboration between UBC and Beijing Jiaotong University, Michelson said.

Suthar thinks the use of highspeed trains will only grow in the coming years.

“I believe that, 10 years from now, more people will be using high-speed trains because they are faster, there are no traffic problems and if you go by airplane it’s going to cost you a lot. I think people are going to prefer it,” Suthar said, adding that trains also use less energy than airplanes.

The Mitacs Globalink program, which this year brought 33 students to UBC from countries including India, China, Brazil and Mexico, is designed to compete with ivy league American schools for the world’s top students, said Mitacs CEO and scientific director Arvind Gupta.

“We will only accept exceptional, exceptional students into the program,” Gupta said. “You have to set high standards if you want to get the very best. You have to believe that they will choose you over everything else. I think Canada, as a country, should start believing this and our universities should see ourselves not as not as good as Princeton or Harvard, but that we can be better than Princeton or Harvard and the students will choose us over those institutions.”

An added benefit of attracting high-achieving students to Canada is that 48 per cent of graduate students tend to remain in the country where they completed their graduate degrees for at least two years after graduation, Gupta said.

That statistic certainly seems to prove true so far for Suthar, who hopes to ultimately work creating innovative, green technology in the corporate sector. “I just love it here – I’m in love with the city of Vancouver,”

Suthar said. “You have so many activities here. You have the mountains, you have the sea. I can actually go hiking and play with snow. The time has just flown by.”

She says coming to Canada for this program was her first dream, and now that it has come true, her second dream is to return in one year’s time for her master’s degree.

The Globalink program, which is jointly funded by the provincial and federal governments, includes 285 students in Canada, in fields ranging from science, engineering and mathematics to the humanities and social sciences. In B.C., University of Victoria and Simon Fraser University are also participating in the program this

year. Students not only do hands-on research, they also meet with corporate leaders, attend professional skills training workshops and are provided with a student mentor for social opportunities.

When the students go home, they become “brand ambassadors” for Canada, using social media to tell others what they experienced in Canada.

“We’re now getting tens of thousands of young people asking about our program,” Gupta said.

Mitacs, which is a national not-for-profit organization that strives to make Canada more innovative, also has a program for graduate students that is funded by companies and both the federal and provincial government.


Debajyoti Chowdhury, from India, is determining the underlying molecular processes that are involved in brain development.

Kunal Mathanker, from India, is evaluating different pre-concentration technologies for ore sorting in an effort to improve the economics of milling costs. Yujie Yang, from China, is helping design a gaming controller for people with disabilities for use in a home-based therapy program.

Gabriela Missassi, from Brazil, is researching novel therapeutic agents for treatment of osteoporosis.

Sara Godoy Brito, from Brazil, is exploring the stigma surrounding HIV-positive individuals and health professionals, specifically dental hygienists. Sarai Nava Sanchez, from Mexico, is exploring the economics of research and development of pharmaceuticals in developing countries.

Business Section, page 1
By Tracy Sherlock