Toronto Star: International students add brainpower to research projects

They’re bright young minds from around the world — India, Mexico, China — and a record number have been lured here this summer to add brainpower to some of Canada’s most cutting-edge research.

Some 750 international university students — nearly 60 per cent more than last year — are here under a federally funded program called Globalink that pays undergrads to come to Canada for a 12-week summer research stint.

Some 64 are working in the GTA this year, and 357 have come to Toronto’s universities over the past three years.

“The objective is to attract highly qualified undergraduates to do research with a Canadian professor at a Canadian institution, with Canadian research,” said math professor Alejandro Adem, head of the national, non-profit MITACS program that runs Globalink and other research partnerships between Canada and the world.

“Our goal is to attract them back as grad students with fellowships, because in the global competition for talent, this pipeline is very competitive; we’re up against places like Stanford and MIT.

The federal government has provided $20 million over three years to Globalink to bring students to Canada. Students come largely from India, China, Brazil, France, Mexico and Australia.

Here’s a taste of the research three of them are working on in the GTA.

Gustavo Ramirez: Designing robots to land on asteroids

Gustavo Ramirez has come to Canada for research that’s out of this world.

A space buff and computer whiz, the third-year student at Mexico’s Tecnologico de Monterrey won a summer spot on a University of Toronto aerospace engineering team that is designing robots they hope can someday land on asteroids.

The goal is to send small robots to land on some of these mineral-rich rocks and try to redirect their orbits to bring them closer to earth so we can mine their treasures.

“People immediately think of sci-fi movies, but it’s a very serious plan; space companies see asteroids as a huge source of minerals and also resources like oxygen and hydrogen,” said Professor Reza Emami of the U of T’s Institute for Aerospace Studies. If the oxygen and hydrogen could be extracted they could provide fuel for space craft or oxygen for astronauts without having to come back to earth.

“A major drawback in space exploration is that the spacecraft runs out of fuel and becomes dysfunctional, so being able to refuel a spacecraft or satellite is a very critical task,” said Emami.

MITACS student Ramirez is helping develop a simulator that runs the landing part of the mission and shows Emami’s team how the robots could be positioned to apply enough thrust, said Emami over Skype from his research office in Sweden.

To the 21-year-old, this is an opportunity to be part of something he could not have experienced back home.

“I wanted to come to Canada because I heard universities here have a lot of investment in research and we don’t have as much aerospace research in Mexico. I believe we need to stay investigating space to make new things in the world and advance our technical knowledge.”

The mission, called Redirect Asteroid, is to bring asteroids closer to earth so they’re convenient to mine — ideally between the Earth and the moon, said Emami. While still at the conceptual phase, a mission with the United States and Europe is being planned for 2018.

Is it worth it? One asteroid, labeled 1986DA, has been estimated to contain 100,000 tons of platinum and 10,000 tons of gold, said PhD student Michael Bazzocchi, one of Emami’s team, “and that has been said to be worth $5 trillion U.S.”

Yuhong Duan: Seeking shopping secrets of Baby Boomers

As Baby Boomers age, are retailers serving them well? Ryerson University Professor Hong Yu fears many stores focus so much on young shoppers, they fail to consider the needs of the biggest, most lucrative market. It’s a dilemma Yu’s team is researching, and Chinese undergraduate Yuhong Duan has come to help through MITACS’s Globalink program.

“Nowadays the attention is often given to ‘millennials,’ and strategies have not been focusing on Baby Boomers or their parents, who are in their 70s and 80s,” said Yu, an associate professor in Ryerson’s Ted Rogers School of Retail Management.

“A lot of countries are facing the challenges of an aging population. Baby Boomers are seen to be the most profitable group with the most discretionary money, so how do you engage better with them?” asked Yu, who will have Duan help conduct interviews of consumers over 50 years old to see what services they want — and which they don’t.

Her research focuses on options to traditional “bricks-and-mortar” shopping, a variety of “platforms” she said retailers call the “omni-channel” approach, with online shopping options, in-store apps, social media marketing, catalogues and websites.

What’s the best “channel” if walking to the store is no longer as easy, asked Yu? “Is it e-commerce? Telephone and delivery? A lot of European stores have (cyber) sensors that can read your shopping patterns from your smart phone and then push information targeted to your interests.”

Duan, a third-year e-commerce student at China’s Wuhan University, has been checking out stores in the Eaton Centre and along Queen St. to see which ones offer more options, and has found the smaller, independent stores are more likely to be more flexible.

“I’m interested in consumer behaviour and I can bring my experience here back to China,” said Duan. “It’s a good opportunity to experience life and the culture of Canada.”

She got a surprise the weekend she arrived — it was Pride Weekend and Duan watched the parade.

“In China, you won’t see that. So that’s the first thing that impressed me about Canada.”

Shreyas Prakash: Devoted to solar-power

Electrical engineering student Shreyas Prakash dreams of opening up a solar energy company at home in India, so he jumped at the chance to work with York University solar guru Jose Etcheverry, who is developing a solar-powered charger for electric cars.

The third-year student at India’s National Institute of Technology has been getting hands-on Canadian experience as a MITACS intern by helping Etcheverry’s team design and build a solar-powered charging station on a campus parking lot that will track its use by electric car-owners.

“We’re trying to solve one of the biggest problems faced by humanity; greenhouse gas emissions because we use a ridiculous amount of oil per day,” said the professor, who drives an electric car himself.

His young global assistant helped place the Canadian-built solar panels on a metal frame recently to create the solar-powered charging station. It’s a kind of hands-on research that’s critical for a generation that spends so much time in cyberspace, said Etcheverry, an associate professor in the faculty of environmental studies and co-chair of York’s Sustainable Energy Initiative.

“We live in this abstract world where everything seems to be done on screens, but the real world is not abstract,” he said.

The 21-year-old visiting student also has had a taste of the political sphere when he went with Etcheverry to Woodstock in southwestern Ontario in June as it voted to become the first municipality in the province to pledge to use only renewable energy by 2050.

“The concept of being independent, off the grid and making your own energy empowers us,” said Prakas, who wants to create a company that can install solar power in India, even in rural areas.

“This has a lot of importance, and I’m getting practical experience.”

By: Louise Brown