PhD candidates make the most of coveted fellowships

Vadasz Scholars Program supports top Engineering students at McGill as they pursue doctoral research to help solve complex problems

In the gloomy global atmosphere of early 2020, a ray of sunshine lit up Kara Hughes’s life: She was awarded a prestigious Vadasz Scholar Doctoral Fellowship at McGill.

“I was extremely grateful,” says Hughes, knowing this fellowship meant that she would receive support for four years during her doctoral studies in Chemical Engineering.

“Considering all that was happening in the world, that was something that was not on the worry table for me,” says Hughes.

Every year, up to 15 new Vadasz Scholars undertake their doctoral studies at McGill’s Faculty of Engineering. The Vadasz Scholar Doctoral Fellowships provide a minimum funding package of $32,000 a year for four years to outstanding students.

One of the most competitive funding packages available to Canadian PhD students, the fellowships also help the Faculty attract top-tier graduate students who drive research at universities.

“That’s my way of trying to give back to Canada, which was very important in my life,” says Les Vadasz, the McGill graduate behind the fellowship program.

Vadasz, BEng’61, DSc’07, arrived in Montreal in 1957 as a refugee of the Hungarian Revolution. He received a scholarship to study Electrical Engineering at McGill and went on to an extraordinary career at Intel Corp. He was part of its founding management team and led the design department that developed the world’s first commercially produced microprocessor.

“What happened in my life was all because I had this opportunity. First to come from a refugee camp to start with. And second, I had the opportunity to get a degree. And everything was built on that,” Vadasz says of his motivation for helping McGill Engineering students.

During a visit to McGill in September, he and his wife Judy met with a number of current and former Vadasz Scholars in the Faculty of Engineering. We caught up with a few of the students who have benefitted from Vadasz fellowships to get a snapshot of their doctoral research and current work.

Kara Hughes at Vadasz Scholars reception

Kara Hughes, now in the fourth year of her PhD program, is focusing her doctoral research on wastewater treatment using electrochemistry. In particular, her work centres on the chemical GenX, part of a group of synthetic chemicals known as PFAS and sometimes referred to as “forever chemicals.” The long-lasting chemicals are found in water, air, fish, and soil, as well as human and animal blood around the globe, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Because of its chemical makeup, GenX is “very difficult to get rid of using conventional wastewater treatment methods,” Hughes says. More advanced techniques are needed – electrochemistry being one of them, adds Hughes, who is studying ways to break down the molecule.

Montreal native Bijan Shahriari, BEng’20, returned to his hometown for his PhD studies in Electrical Engineering. He applied to two other universities – one in Canada, the other in the U.S. – but the Vadasz Scholar Doctoral Fellowship, with its more generous funding, weighed heavily in his decision to attend McGill. “I was honored and also there was an immediate sigh of relief,” he says of receiving the fellowship.

Ironically, Shahriari turned down a job at Intel (the company where Vadasz played a pioneering role) after his master’s degree in order to continue his studies. “I wanted to see how far I could push myself in academia,” says Shahriari, who plans to work in an R&D role in the private sector after he completes his PhD. His doctoral work focuses on modeling and simulating electric circuits. Designing a computer chip by hand is virtually impossible because it contains billions of components, Shahriari explains. His research aims to help optimize the software used to design the chips.

There’s a through-line from Ryan Galagusz’s doctoral research in Electrical Engineering at McGill, which involved simulating electromagnetic fields, to his current R&D work as a software engineer at Siemens EDA in Montreal – and he feels fortunate that’s the case.

During his PhD, Galagusz explored electromagnetic scattering – or interference with devices – and how to simulate that on a computer. His thesis involved simulating antennas, while in his current position, he works on simulating transformers, motors and actuators. “You don’t want to build every prototype,” says Galagusz, BEng’12, PhD’19. “Instead, you simulate it to reduce the number of prototypes you would have to build.”

Galagusz received a Vadasz fellowship for his doctoral studies. “It allowed me to focus on what was interesting to me in my research. I was interested in various aspects of teaching, too. I was a T.A. and even did some course lecturing. I didn’t have to work an extra job. I was able to just focus on research.”

Former Vadasz fellowship recipient Emily Porter, BEng’09, MEng’10, PhD’15, recently returned to Montreal to join McGill’s Department of Biomedical Engineering as an assistant professor. She brings a background in microwave medical technologies that are low cost and allow for frequent scans and health monitoring.

During her doctoral studies at McGill, Porter researched a new approach to microwave breast health monitoring and screening. “Usually now, you go for an x-ray mammogram and maybe a follow-up with a biopsy or MRI. And we wanted to do something that would allow even more frequent screening. You could do it in your GP’s office, or you could be doing it every week while you’re having a treatment. The microwave technology allows for that kind of very low cost, more like point-of-care screening or monitoring. I worked to develop a prototype for that.”

When she talks about microwave technology, Porter doesn’t mean the high power used in microwave ovens in your kitchen. “The power that we use is less than cellphones and it’s the same frequency range,” she says.

Hired for a position in digital health, Porter works at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC) in its cancer research program. “We're trying to take advantage of the larger datasets that we have right now and incorporate more wearables to get more frequent patient monitoring, more frequent decision-making” and better care in that regard, Porter says.

She finds her field rewarding, partly because it feels concrete to see the pathway from her lab work to how it could impact patients.

“It’s a very direct pathway and I think that makes it very motivating because you can see that what we’re doing has the potential soon to hopefully help some people.”

The generosity of strangers left an indelible mark on Les Vadasz when he studied at McGill.

Les Vadasz talking to students at Vadasz Scholar reception

In an interview with the Memory Project, the Visual History Archive of Hungarian Emigration founded by author Andrea Lauer Rice and journalist Réka Pigniczky, Vadasz talked about receiving an entrance scholarship from McGill – and also recounted how the university drummed up support from donors. He would sometimes pick up the cheques and people would wish him luck.

“That had a big impact on me,” Vadasz said near the end of his most recent visit to Montreal. “Why would total strangers who had no knowledge of me – they’d never heard of me and never saw me after, why would they give money? But a lot of them did and that stayed with me.”

Since 2007, the Vadaszes, and their family foundation, have supported 228 Vadasz fellows and scholars at McGill – and counting.

The fellowship awards have had a “profound impact” on the Faculty of Engineering’s ability to recruit outstanding graduate students, says Dean Viviane Yargeau, which allows for more impactful research.

“The research that we do in a university context is done through these grad students,” Yargeau explains. “Often, we focus on the grad students themselves, and their training, because that’s really at the core of what we do. But at the grad level, it’s also the research output. And I often say that the research that we do cannot be better than the quality of the grad students that we recruit.”

“The Vadasz Scholars Program has really allowed the Faculty “to have that continuous stream of new grad students to support the impactful research led by our professors.”

This article was originally published on the McGill Giving site.

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