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Personal initiative and drive opens new worlds for Ontario Tech Computer Science student Neel Shah

Self-starting inter-faculty connections net top prize in Big Data student competition and invitation to Mars Society Convention in Arizona

Neel Shah, third-year Computer Science student (Data Science specialization), Faculty of Science, Ontario Tech University.
Neel Shah, third-year Computer Science student (Data Science specialization), Faculty of Science, Ontario Tech University.

It’s often said “life is what you make it”. It's a phrase that fully applies in the case of Ontario Tech University student Neel Shah.

Having graduated from high school at the Anandalaya Education Society in Anand, Gujarat, India, Shah came to Canada in May 2021 to begin a bachelor’s degree program in Computer Science at Ontario Tech, specializing in Data Science.

Shah admits that the field of computers and the science behind it didn’t intrigue him at first as a young adult; what motivated him was a desire to help the community he lived in.

“I was a firm believer that only doctors and health practitioners can serve society,” says Shah. “But as my habit of reading proliferated, I realized problem solving is not field-specific and there are ways other than being a doctor to solve different crises.”

What he did love though was numbers: analyzing patterns, from simple stats to predict which team will win a cricket match, to the complexity of stock market data. One day, a fascinating blog introduced him to the world of data science and how it applies to almost every field.

“Ontario Tech’s Computer Science program offered the opportunity to develop my technical skills and at the same time help me evolve into a ‘data storyteller’, to pursue research projects to innovate new ideas.”

Finding real connections in a virtual world

At the time Shah launched his Computer Science studies (specializing in Data Science), Ontario Tech was in an online mode for course delivery due to restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“To be honest, it was really tough with the prevalence of COVID,” says Shah. “Although we weren’t able to do things in-person, that didn’t stop me from connecting with others or making friends. I would just randomly reach out to people on social media or in breakout rooms of tutorials and labs.”

His relentless effort to associate with others and build his network generated ties with other undergraduates at Ontario Tech, including some outside the Faculty of Science, as well as with students at other universities and colleges across Canada. One new colleague was Ontario Tech Applied and Industrial Mathematics student Benjamin Fedoruk (Thunder Bay, Ontario) who was part of a think tank called the Northern Shores Innovation Institute (NSII). NSII members participate in research academic competitions and conduct personal (research) projects. Shah joined NSII, where he became more aware of student competitions through Fedoruk’s connections with a student community group known as STEM Fellowship.

Shah, Fedoruk and fellow Ontario Tech student Amanda Showler (Computer Science) entered a student competition at York University, presenting research on micro air vehicles. While they didn’t win an award, they then submitted their work to the 30th Annual Conference of the Computational Fluid Dynamics Society of Canada (CFDSC). Their abstract was accepted and Shah presented their work to CFDSC 2022 on August 9; the material was published in the Conference Proceedings.

Ontario Tech STAR Award, more student competitions

With his third year of studies commencing in September 2022, Shah continued to seek all of the extracurricular experiential learning opportunities he could find. He applied for and received an Ontario Tech Student Training Assistantship in Research (STAR) Award, under the supervision of Dr. Gabby Resch, Assistant Professor (Information Visualization) in the Faculty of Business and Information Technology. The STAR Award opened the door to working with Dr. Resch over the summer to examine the impact that perception shifts have on 3D object interaction in unmediated, augmented, and virtual reality conditions by characterizing the behavioural changes that occur across these different environments.

“It was an immensely valuable experience working with a collaborative team made up of senior researchers from Ontario Tech, Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Toronto, Toronto Metropolitan University, and Toronto General Hospital’s Advanced Perioperative Imaging Lab,” says Shah. “The objective is to prepare a research project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.”

At the same time Shah came across the Inter University Big Data Challenge (IUBDC), again held by STEM Fellowship. For this month-long competition, Shah teamed with other NSII friends from Dalhousie University and the University of Waterloo. They won first prize in the Science Communication category (for Bayesian Diagnostic Pipeline and Trauma Response) with a pending article publication in the STEM Fellowship Journal.

From Ontario Tech to Arizona State to… Mars!

Just before the IUBDC competition, one team member came across the Telerobotic Mars Expedition Design Competition organized by The Mars Society at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona. The challenge: design the best expedition mission using a 10-ton payload Mars lander. Shah is part of a six-member NSII team that includes Ontario Tech Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science students Alden R. O’Cain and Jason Thai, as well as students from Dalhousie, Waterloo and Confederation College.

“I was assigned a very specific role of working on aerial drones as I had previous knowledge of micro air vehicles. We submitted our work while naming our project ‘Vulcan Forge’. We’ve now been selected as one of the six finalists and we’ll go to Arizona in October to give our final pitch.”

First prize is $10,000, and the best 20 submitted papers submitted will be published in a new Mars Society book, Telerobotic Mars Expeditions: Exploring the Red Planet with Platoons of Robots.

“While my university education is of utmost importance, these side projects have helped me develop various technical skills as well as soft skills like time management, leadership, teamwork and academic paper writing. I can’t wait for what comes next,” says Shah.

Another of Shah’s Ontario Tech faculty supervisors, Dr. Christopher Collins, Associate Professor with the Faculty of Science, tips his cap on how much his student has accomplished in such a short period of time.

“This is an impressive accomplishment for an international student who is really charting an incredible course,” says Dr. Collins, Ontario Tech's Canada Research Chair in Linguistic Information Visualization. “Neel and his teammates have created all of this success independent of the guidance of any professors. We’re proud to celebrate student success as well as the fact that the student team crosses various faculties here at Ontario Tech along with other universities across the country. I’m so impressed that I’ve hired him to join my lab in September to work on augmented-reality applications of information visualization in research funded by Meta Reality Labs. I’m looking forward to what he achieves next!”

Media contact
Bryan Oliver
Communications and Marketing
Ontario Tech University
289.928.3653 (mobile)