Grant’s Desi Achiever
Professor plugs into the future
By SHAGORIKA EASWAR
The string of alphabets after Dr Tarlochan Sidhu’s name attests to a long and distinguished career.
Just back from a conference in Italy, he spoke about his research, academia and the future of engineering in Canada.
“My PhD student got a job and was unable to make it at the last minute, so I ended up presenting his work instead! It was an opportunity to reconnect with eminent members in the field, something I’ve not been able to do of late as administrative work takes up much of my time.”
As professor and Dean, Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science at Ontario Tech University, Dr Sidhu’s work encompasses all areas of the entire faculty – the academic programs, planning, hiring of faculty, research and supporting students, etc.
“Canadian universities are among the best in the world and our engineering programs are very well regarded, so our programs, lab facilities and curricula have high standards to meet,” he says. “We have to generate new ideas and our research has to look to the future to build capacity, to keep our position globally.”
He sees the fact that Ontario Tech is a new university – established in 2002 – as an opportunity to put his own stamp on its growth and vision, to help shape it into the destination for tech students that it is today.
Contrary to reports that hard science and technology programs weren’t drawing that many students, that kinesiology was the most popular program across universities – Dr Sidhu says engineering is very much in demand.
So much so that the entrance average has risen from about 70 per cent to over 80 per cent.
“I tell our students that once you are an engineer, you can do anything after that, succeed in any field. Engi-neering teaches problem-solving and critical thinking skills and among our students we are seeing more and more movement towards nontraditional fields. The TSX, for instance, employs many engineers who are valued for their innovative thinking. Our students are also going into entrepreneurship. My own son did his engineering from University of Western Ontario followed by business management from Ivey Business School. After working with McKinsey and Company, he now has his own consultancy. More students are doing things like this as their skills can be widely applied. Engineering is all about problem-solving.”
But what about jobs for engineering grads in engineering? Media reports would have us believe that engineering jobs have migrated to Asia and most of the opportunities here are in the service industry.
“If you do an environmental scan of jobs, you will see plenty of opportunities in the tech sector,” he maintains. “Even in the service industry, it’s the software engineers who are designing and developing software packages and applications. The types of jobs are changing and programs have adapted. We offer several unique programs including mechatronics and automotive engineering. Nuclear engineering is another, and in the energy sector, electrical and mechanical. We received generous support from Durham resident Jeffrey Boyce for our new engineering innovation studio that helps bring students’ ideas to life by providing tools, equipment and materials.
“At almost every university in Canada, students receive guidance and help in how to make a pitch, how to raise money on legal issues, patenting. It’s a robust system.”
He cites the examples of Mohamad Vedut (Software Engineering, class of 2017) and fourth-year Mechanical Engineering student Yasin Othman. Vedut’s startup, EMAGIN Clean Technologies, is helping develop innovative solutions for water management through the application of artificial intelligence and has been nominated one of the world’s top-10 global digital water companies. Othman is a cofounder of Rootworks, a non-profit aiming to provide long-term access to clean water for rural communities in Somalia and Ethiopia through building sand dams.
They have a good mix of ethnicities at Ontario Tech, with many South Asian students, too. Dr Sidhu chuckles when asked if many of them are following their desi parents’ dreams of seeing their children become doctors, engineers or lawyers.
“A few certainly are. I tell them that those were the preferred professions 40 or so years ago because there were fewer options. Now, there are so many, bright young people should be in professions they are passionate about.”
He wishes there were more girls enrolling in the engineering programs, though. Responding to a question about the male-female ratio and the perception that girls dumb themselves down so as to not intimidate boys, he says that is stubborn problem, specially in North America, compared to say, India, where there is a higher percentage of female engineering students. The university has partnered with HydroOne and three other universities to run special programs that would interest girls. They have made some progress, but not to the extent he would like to see, he admits.
“Part of the problem is that there is a lack of understanding of the reach and scope of engineering,” he says. “People don’t see how it benefits humanity in infinite ways.”
He cites the example of healthcare.
“We need doctors, yes, but most of the tools they use are designed by engineers! Or take water and energy, all the infrastructure is done by engineers. We need to do a better job of getting the word out about this.”
Dr Sidhu’s own research interests focus on an area that can broadly be classified as smart electric grid. He has developed new techniques for power system automation and protection. In layman’s terms, that is all about generating electricity, controlling it and utilizing it in a safe and efficient manner. About integrating renewable energy like solar and wind into existing grids and addressing the challenges associated with these sources of power which can be intermittent. He has worked with GE and French companies in the area of protection and holds several patents. He has also prepared standards and guides for the industry through the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).
He has been recognized for his contributions to the field and is the recipient of many prestigious awards including Fellow of IEEE – only 0.1 per cent of IEEE members belong to this elite group – and Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Engineering which picks just 50 engineers a year for the honour. He is a member of and on the board of many international advisory boards and panels.
Active in the community, Dr Sidhu volunteers with schools and faith groups. As a member of the citizens’ panel on xenotransplantation, he helped draft recommendations to the Canadian Public Health Association in Ottawa.
“There’s work being done on animal stem cells being used in humans, etc., but it’s mainly about the possibilities of harvesting organs from genetically modified pigs. The citizens’ panel pointed out the associated risks of infection and that more research needed to be done on unseen factors that may develop later. It recommended encouraging organ donation instead. I found that work extremely interesting though I had to educate myself about this. Going in I had very little idea what xenotransplantation entailed – talk about engineers can do anything!”
Dr Sidhu came to Canada in 1983 from Punjab, India, to do his Master’s at the University of Saskatchewan.
He was lucky, he says, and faced few hurdles as he came as a student on a scholarship. So there was no financial difficulty as such and he was hired for his first job during an on-campus interview while still completing his PhD.
He worked with Bell Northern Research – the “Google of that time” – until a faculty position opened up at the University. After 12 years, he moved to the University of Western Ontario as research chair, went on to become department chair and worked there for 10 years until he was invited by Ontario Tech University to join them.
“I made lots of friends on campus in my early years. Of course, there were some comments – I wear a turban – and those hurt, but I realized they stem more from ignorance than anything else and learnt to ignore them. Looking back, I guess I was sheltered in academia where people tend to be educated, broad-minded and informed. Others’ experience may have been different in a different setting. I know discrimination exists, but things are also getting better.”
Dr Sidhu’s wife Sarabjeet works at Ontario Tech in the registrar’s office, helping students with financial aid, etc. Their daughter Dilpreet did dentistry from NYU and has her own practice near Ottawa; and son Shaunvir, his own consultancy in Toronto.
Teaching and research, Dr Sidhu finds both equally rewarding, though with his administrative responsibilities taking up a chunk of his time, he teaches less now.
Research is all about coming up with new ideas and relating it back to bright, young minds, and that happens through discussion and teaching.
But though he misses the interaction with students, he remains closely associated with their success, mentoring and guiding them along the way.
He advises newcomers to get Canadian qualifications if at all possible.
“Even doing a course or two is a great help. When I was a student in India, I found the system was fantastic in many respects, but lacking in a few. It was all textbook learning and scoring well in exams – ideas of innovation and communication skills were missing. My Canadian education helped me locate the gaps in my education and fill them.”
And he tells them not to lose hope.
“There may be an initial period of struggle, but Canada is a great country and rewards hard work. If you put in the effort, you will find success.”