Four Little Letters

It’s fitting that my first real bit of content for this site comes from finishing my master’s degree in Mechanical & Industrial Engineering (MIE) at the University of Toronto (UofT). The tl;dr version is that after 2 (practically 3) years I earned my Master’s of Applied Science (those four little letters, MASc), having successfully defended my thesis at the end of September. Hurray! My thesis, “Illustration-Inspired Visualization of Blood Flow Dynamics,” will eventually be available here.

For anyone interested in the longer story, it goes a bit like this…

The year is 2012. I’m working as a developer at Casale Media (now Index Exchange) doing web development for their in-house advertising management system. It was my first full-time job (not a co-op, internship, etc.) so I was enjoying the experience of having a real paycheque while actually working on production code. While working there, I quickly found myself falling into the role of designer - I’m guessing my artistic experiences were paying off - but it was a role that was completely new to me. Seeking to understand the design process better, I started digging into books such as Don Norman’s Design of Everyday Things and Kim Vicente’s The Human Factor. I was amazed to discover that there were entire fields (Human Computer Interaction (HCI) and Human Factors (HF) to name a few) dedicated to studying design. I loved the challenge and ideal of designing the system for the user, and not the other way around. Realizing that my interest in web development was starting to wane, I called it a day at Casale and started hunting for a graduate program in the area of HCI or HF.

After talking to the admissions people at a variety of Canadian schools, I learned one important thing. Computer Science (CS) departments (where HCI is often found) wanted nothing to do with me given my lack of a bachelor’s degree in CS (not entirely true in retrospect, but, hey, that’s hindsight for you). That was disheartening, but I discovered there were plenty of similar programs under different departments. Ultimately, this led me to check out the Human Factor’s program at UofT. On a whim, I decided to walk into Prof. Mark Chignell’s office to see what the Interactive Media Lab (IML) was all about given their involvment in HF. I was lucky to find that Prof. Chignell was in, and managed to chat with him about graduate school. His reponse that, “I need another grad student like another hole in the head” wasn’t particularly reassuring, but he did offer me an opportunity to work on a start-up idea he had been doing on the side. In the end, the start-up didn’t go anywhere, but it did get me into IML so that the beginning of my master’s program was a pretty smooth transition. I pseudo-officially started as a MIE graduate student in the summer of 2013, although it became much more official come the fall.

Now that I was officially a graduate student, I needed to start taking courses as per my degree requirements. I ended up using the elective course requirement to take courses from CS rather than MIE. This led me to take, what turned out to be, the most enjoyable course I’ve ever had: computer graphics. I loved every minute of that course, from learning perspective projections, to raytracing, and everything in between. It was the perfect blend of math, art, and programming, and even serendipitously led to my thesis project. So, with a few course requirements under my belt, I turned to the process of finding a thesis topic. Now I could write an entire novel on the quest to finding a topic (it took me to Semaphore, IMDC, DGP, and even an impromptu visit to Prof. Steve Engels’ office), but the short version is I was eventually poached (in the nice way!) from IML by Profs. David Steinman (UofT’s Biomedical Simulation Lab) and Peter Coppin (OCAD University). They were looking for someone with a technical computer graphics background who could also appreciate the artistic side of visualization. Originally, I was working part-time as a Research Assistant, but the project grew to the point that it could be an entire master’s thesis. And the rest, as they say, is history.

What’s the moral of the story? It’s impossible to predict what path you’ll take, but you will get there eventually.