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10 alumni making a mark in the energy sector and beyond

By: Vanessa Balintec and Matthew Kerry
April 08, 2021

Since 2010, the Centre for Urban Energy (CUE) at Ryerson University has educated, trained, developed and empowered more than 1,000 alumni through its various interdisciplinary programs. These highly qualified and in-demand professionals have gone on to pursue a broad range of roles in areas such as energy, engineering, sustainability, transportation and climate. To mark CUE’s 10th anniversary, we caught up with 10 of our graduates, all of whom are making significant contributions in their fields. We asked each of them to reflect on what drew them to CUE, what they’ve learned and how the experience has benefited them on their chosen career path. 

Claire Bennett

Corporate Sustainability Officer, City of Kitchener

Claire has always envisioned herself in a management-based position within the environmental sustainability sector and currently leads the development and implementation of Kitchener’s Corporate and Community Climate Action Plan. Claire came through CUE’s Certificate in Energy Management and Innovation program in 2016 and says the understanding she gained and connections she made during that period have proved invaluable.

“Because of the applied nature of the certificate, which I think really suits people like myself who've been working for a little bit, I was able to connect with the folks in Markham who run the district energy system there,” explains Claire. “Getting that insight, with the context, the contacts and the knowledge around the work that was happening in other municipalities, I have just really relied on that a lot throughout my career.”

Julia Kavuma

Electrical Engineer, Stantec

Before recently moving to Stantec, Julia was an electrical project manager at Smith + Andersen, where she worked on large-scale architecture projects in health care and transit. Julia complemented her training and background as an electrical engineer by completing the Professional Master’s Diploma in Energy and Innovation in 2020. CUE’s flexible, part-time program allowed her to continue her professional development and deepen her knowledge of clean energy while working full time. 

“I've always been curious about energy storage, smart grids, renewable energy, and certainly how those interact with the electricity markets,” says Julia. “Those are all things that I've always been curious about, but professionally that's not the focus of my work. This program was an opportunity to expose myself to that and see, especially in this industry that's changing rapidly, where things are going.”

Sarah Marchionda

Project Manager, Urban Energy Institute, Delft University of Technology; and Independent Consultant

Currently based in the Netherlands, Sarah is an independent consultant and project manager working with researchers, utilities and real estate companies on the transition to low-carbon cities and buildings across Europe and Canada. A research intern at CUE between 2012 and 2014, she worked alongside then policy fellow Sean Conway while completing a degree in urban and regional planning at Ryerson. 

“In my role, I had a chance to organize and attend dozens of industry events – from intimate policy roundtables to large tech conferences,” Sarah recalls. “I also supported the development of an energy policy course and started a blog to shine a spotlight on some of the research taking place at CUE.”

While the internship helped her gain new subject matter expertise and invaluable experience, Sarah’s abiding memories revolve around the personal connections she made.

“CUE was always bustling with fascinating people working on interesting projects and cutting-edge ideas,” she says. “Some of my fondest memories are of the inspiring people I met spontaneously in the halls.”

Alexandre Nassif

Specialist Engineer, ATCO Electric and LUMA Energy 

One of the centre’s original postdoctoral fellows, Alexandre worked alongside Academic Director Bala Venkatesh during 2010 and 2011, helping CUE establish itself as a centre of excellence. He combined his applied research at Ryerson with a role as a protection planning engineer at founding sponsor Hydro One, and then in 2012 moved to Edmonton to work for ATCO Electric. Today, Alexandre is on secondment with LUMA Energy in Puerto Rico. As the island recovers from recent natural disasters and transitions to a low-carbon landscape, his work focuses on overcoming some of the technical, economic and regulatory hurdles. Alexandre says his time at CUE encouraged him to pursue opportunities outside of his comfort zone.

“My tenure with Bala was a really good experience and it definitely changed my life,” he says. “I realized that I didn’t want to get too comfortable. I noticed that most people tend to continue working in the same area as their PhD and I wanted to avoid this pattern. I'm very grateful to Bala. He expanded my perspectives a lot, while I was at CUE and after that as well. Bala and I continue to collaborate throughout all these years and I consider him a friend.”

Frances Okoye

PhD Candidate, Civil Engineering, Ryerson University

Frances specializes in vacuum and wastewater technologies and has worked on multiple projects with universities and municipalities across Canada. In 2016 and 2017 she worked as a research assistant at CUE, a position she obtained through the IESO Student Assistantship Award program. The experience, Frances says, helped refine her technical skills, diversify her interests and broaden her horizons just as she was planning to embark on a PhD.

“That was one of the other things that made my time at CUE really special – it was very different from anything that I was used to,” says Frances. “CUE is very electrical engineering-based, so it was a lot of learning for me. But it was very enjoyable because it was something to take me out of my home department. That's what I got out of it – a lot of confidence and preparation for the work that I was doing then and now.”

Peter Polanowski

Water Management Specialist, Government of Nunavut

Peter pivoted from being a classroom teacher to overseeing the Government of Nunavut’s development of a freshwater strategy. Using his teaching experience, Peter first transitioned into the sustainability space to help run environmental education initiatives ranging from Earth Hour to sustainable hunting in Canada’s Far North. Now leading team efforts to track and identify current and future freshwater management issues, Peter has fully transitioned into the environmental space. He credits CUE’s Certificate in Energy Management and Innovation – which he completed online in 2017 before pursuing a master’s degree in sustainable energy development at the University of Calgary – as the first step in his career transition.

“I was fascinated by the renewable energy transition, but I didn't have the background,” says Peter. “To start bridging that gap, I decided to enroll in the certificate. And it really gave a good overview of the general renewable energy industry and what innovations are driving it. It was a good primer for talking about renewable energy and electricity and utilities, and how they all work together.”

Pallavi Roy

Policy Advisor, Clean Technology and Clean Growth Branch, Innovation, Science and Economic Development, Government of Canada

Pallavi worked as a research assistant for CUE after winning an IESO Student Assistantship Award in 2015 while completing her PhD in applied science at Ryerson. Mentored by then IESO research fellow Birendra Singh, she focused on the integration of energy and urban planning strategies and incorporated topics such as resiliency and low-carbon technologies. Pallavi conducted interviews with industry, government and not-for-profit organizations engaged in the energy sector. That experience, and broad range of viewpoints, continues to inform her work as a policy advisor with the Government of Canada, a role she secured in 2019. 

“My time at CUE was very enlightening – it gave me a great understanding of the energy sector in Ontario and in Canada,” says Pallavi. “I explored urban energy challenges which helped me really understand the transmission and the distribution of the energy grid – and the social and environmental context on top of it. It helped me gain those perspectives.”

Thierry Spiess

Senior Manager, Advanced Vehicle Unit, Natural Resources Canada

Thierry, who oversees policy related to the electrification of transportation at Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), was introduced to CUE through the IESO Student Assistantship Award program. As a research assistant at the centre between 2014 and 2016, he investigated how to better integrate urban and energy planning, while working concurrently on a PhD in environmental science. Thierry says the networking opportunities at CUE gave him a competitive advantage, helping him stay on top of industry insights and trends. 

“Aside from the research portion and the learning that I did, the networking I'd say is definitely what stands out as well,” he says. “Having had the chance to be introduced to a really diverse set of stakeholders in that field, and frankly, to quite interesting and high-up people in Ontario and across Canada when it comes to the electrical grid, that was very, very useful. I still keep in touch with some of them in my professional life actually, as well at NRCan.”

Josh Tzventarny

Senior Advisor, Transit Integration, Metrolinx

Being connected with CUE doesn’t mean just conducting research or taking courses. For Josh, it also meant involvement with the first cohort of startups fostered by the Innovation Centre for Urban Energy (iCUE) in 2012. Since renamed the Clean Energy Zone, iCUE was the first incubator of its kind. Josh had the opportunity to serve as director of operations for Plug’n Drive (external link, opens in new window) , one of iCUE’s initial startups, and a non-profit focused on the adoption of electric vehicles. After helping grow Plug’n Drive, Josh moved on to become a senior advisor at Metrolinx. In his current role he supports the adoption of new transit technologies, such the integration of autonomous vehicles into transit systems of the future. 

“I think the thing that was interesting about the iCUE was that you'd have a lot of different stakeholders and perspectives that you would interact with on a regular basis,” he says. “It was a great opportunity to learn about what was going on in the clean energy space and the mixing of people, and seeing what emerges was really cool.”

Peng Yu

Systems Engineer, Stem

After graduating with a PhD in power system optimization from Ryerson, Peng worked for CUE between 2013 and 2017 – first as a postdoctoral research fellow and later as a lab engineer in the Schneider Electric Smart Grid Laboratory. He then relocated to California where he currently oversees system operations and reliability for Stem, an AI-powered energy storage company. Peng says his time with CUE gave him the specialized skills required to safely operate sophisticated electrical equipment. 

“I learned a lot,” he says. “I learned the fundamental knowledge of a power system. I learned the structure of inverters. I learned in detail about energy storage software. I had a good opportunity to directly work with the hardware. I learned how to protect myself from accidents, and also I created a logic – what I should do before I make any changes to avoid problems. That's exactly matching what I'm doing now. So it was a very important point for me in my life. I really appreciate that I had that opportunity working for CUE.”

 Vanessa Balintec is a fourth-year journalism student at Ryerson University. Matthew Kerrry is CUE's manager of marketing and communications.

"CUE was always bustling with fascinating people working on interesting projects and cutting-edge ideas. Some of my fondest memories are of the inspiring people I met spontaneously in the halls."