Katherine Sirois has photographic proof of her lifelong ambition to be an engineer.
“I have pictures of me at six, seven and eight years old saying that, holding up a paper proudly affirming that I wanted to become an engineer,” says Sirois, BEng’21.
“I’ve had this dream for as long as I can remember. It’s the only thing I ever really wanted to do.”
Sirois didn’t just earn her Engineering degree at McGill. She did it as a recipient of a coveted Schulich Leader Scholarship – Canada’s premier Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) scholarships. Every year, brilliant students bound for STEM programs at top Canadian universities receive Schulich Leader Scholarships. The undergraduate entrance scholarships are valued at $100,000 and $80,000, depending on the STEM discipline. Between 50 and 100 scholarships are awarded in a given year.
The prestigious scholarship program is the brainchild of McGill alumnus Seymour Schulich, BSc’61, MBA’65. The Canadian business leader and philanthropist created the $200-million scholarship fund in 2012 with an eye to encouraging future entrepreneurial-minded, technology innovators.
The Schulich Leader Scholarships program turns 10 this year with much to celebrate. To date, 570 outstanding students from across Canada have received the scholarships, including 30 from McGill. In addition to the amazing skills they bring to their studies and careers, they’re also part of the growing community of Schulich Leaders that has blossomed into a supportive network for scholarship recipients during, and after, their undergraduate degree.
We caught up with Sirois and two other Schulich Leader McGill graduates – Julie Wong, BEng’16, and Alex Deans, BEng’19 – to find out what impact the STEM scholarship had on them.
“Receiving the Schulich Scholarship was life-changing,” says Sirois, who grew up in Boucherville on Montreal’s South Shore and is now working on a European Master’s programme in Embedded Computing Systems at Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway. “It allowed me to be able to go to school and not worry about any financials of school life.”
Sirois, who majored in Computer Engineering at McGill, was able to live close to campus, making it easier to take part in extra-curricular activities that interested her.
While still a student, she founded Camp Découverte Techno, a programming summer day camp for tweens and teens. It aims to encourage young students in Quebec to consider a STEM field. The camp also created a girls-only version and tries to find women role models to “show them that there are women in tech. It’s not just a male field. It still is male dominated, but we’re there and we’re making noise,” Sirois says.
Before she headed off to Europe for her master’s, Sirois was working for an e-commerce platform that sells products for people with dementia. As a high school student, she took part in science fairs: Her innovations included creating a fall detection device for the elderly and a ‘neuro-chapeau’ hat to analyze brainwaves and prevent tired drivers from falling asleep at the wheel (She made it to a Canada-wide competition with the latter project). Then at McGill, she developed a system to remind elderly people with dementia to eat.
Her master’s focuses on embedded systems, which Sirois says she’s passionate about – “mixing electronics with programming and creating systems that solve problems.”
Vancouver native Julie Wong came to McGill in 2012 as part of the inaugural group of Schulich Leaders.
Moving across the country for school and living alone for the first time could have come with a big financial burden, notes Wong. “But because I didn’t have to worry about that I could focus on my studies,” and getting involved in extracurriculars, she says, such as leading the Malaysian and Singaporean Students’ Association at McGill.
“If I hadn’t had the Schulich Leader Scholarship, I think there’s a good chance I would not have ended up at McGill and been able to have such a wonderful undergraduate experience, says Wong, who earned a degree in Chemical Engineering.
Even though she ended up in a different field than her undergraduate degree, Wong taps into her Engineering skills – “the problem-solving skills, thinking about things from a first principles perspective – I still use them all the time.”
As she’s moved away from her undergrad days, being part of the Schulich Leaders group has meant even more to Wong.
Her advice to future scholarship recipients? Make the most of your undergrad experience pursuing your passions and exploring other things. And give back.
Wong says she has tried her best to be a mentor, including to other Schulich Leaders. “We all have different ways of giving back, but I think it’s important to try to look after those who come after you.”
One of the people Wong helped was Alex Deans. As an Engineering undergrad, Deans sought advice from Wong about his future academic path.
For Deans, the “biggest blessing” with the Schulich Leader Scholarship was the network because he started at McGill knowing he already had seven other friends – other recipients who were selected for their interest in science, who were change-makers and working on innovative projects.
“These were already going to be people that I enjoyed spending time with and learning from and that proved true over the next four years for sure, especially as the scholarship program grew and Schulich initiated an online network as well.”
As a teen, Deans was honoured with the Queen’s Young Leaders award for his use of technology to help empower young people, including his invention of a navigational device for the blind. He received the award from Queen Elizabeth herself at a ceremony at Buckingham Palace during his second year at McGill.
An avid artist, Deans is also a self-described ‘serial inventor’ and co-founded a company (Pickle) with his brother. The company has developed an app that uses AI-powered algorithms.
“It’s an app that guides primary care doctors to diagnoses with stepwise prompts. So, for example if you have a red eye, it will tell the doctor what to ask for: a history, physical exam or investigations to get to a diagnosis more accurately and efficiently.”
What appeals to him about inventing things?
“I like it because it’s so unstructured. I like that everything goes wrong,” Deans says. “It’s a really good learning experience because you can’t really prepare for it. I think that’s one of the greatest learning experiences, even going into school, was knowing that I’m not always going to have all the answers, and that I need to be able to find the resources to guide me and to help me. I think engineering was very much like that. We often got the six-page problems where you looked at it at first glance and thought, this is impossible. And then you realize that if you find the resources, just keep at it, you will be able to solve it and I think innovation and entrepreneurship is a bit like that.”
Deans has also attended Schulich events, like Wong and Sirois.
In addition to social gatherings, there is an annual cross-Canada SLX networking event where students hear from fellow Schulich Leaders and industry experts.
“Every time I come out of there, I feel so inspired,” says Sirois. “Everybody is doing something different and working on things that they’re passionate about,” she says.
“We kind of fuel each other through our passions.”