Category Alumni

Alumna Dr. Ilana MacDonald ‘08: “Knowing where we fit in the universe”

Ilana’s journey into the STEM world started around the age of 9 when her father bought a giant telescope measuring 16 inches in diameter and 6 feet long. Living in the Eastern Townships and having a clear and dark view of the night sky, looking through the telescope is what truly sparked her interest in the world of astrophysics. While she attended Alexander-Galt Regional High School, there was a program for students whose grades were above average, where they could select a field trip of their choosing. Ilana chose to meet with professors from Bishop’s University, where she got to talk about science with Faculty members of the Physics Department who left quite an impression on her. But it was really while riding the bus with a friend, that a discussion, about the concept of black holes, curved gravity, relativity and how time slows down in space, significantly fueled her excitement. It was that day that she decided that she wanted to be an astronomer who studied black holes.

After deciding to pursue a career in physics and astronomy, she delved into works of popular science, such as Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, and Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces. She later discovered astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan who wrote the book Contact. The film adaptation of this book, and seeing a woman doing astronomy, further inspired her to continue this path.

She applied to a few universities and was offered scholarships from both Queen’s University and Bishop’s University. After exploring all factors, she opted to stay at Bishop’s to be close to home and save money. Being surrounded by great Physics educators, Ilana was able to obtain one on one attention from world-class scientists. Had she decided to select a big university, she feels she wouldn’t have received the same treatment and opportunities. Before even starting her undergrad at Bishop’s, she was hired as a summer research assistant by Dr. Lorne Nelson to work in the Physics laboratory. Ilana got the opportunity to gain experience in research which was instrumental in her acceptance to the PhD program in Astronomy at the University of Toronto. She completed three years of summer research, and during this time she was able to participate in the public astronomy nighttime events and to manipulate the telescope at the Bishop’s Astronomical Observatory. Being able to work with the public is something she really enjoyed doing.

At the University of Toronto, she did her PhD with Harald Pfeiffer studying the ripples in spacetime from two black holes spiraling around each other, which we call gravitational waves. When she started her studies to become an astronomer, she was certain she wanted to follow a traditional academic path that would lead to becoming a post-doctoral fellow, and eventually a professor at a university doing astronomical research. Ilana discovered through her PhD that research wasn’t for her. Ilana stated that during her graduate studies, “[she] lost track of the big picture”. During her graduate career, she found that she mostly enjoyed the non-research activities, such as teaching, running the monthly public lecture series called AstroTours, and giving planetarium shows much more than she enjoyed the research she was supposed to be doing. After graduating in 2013, she worked a variety of part-time jobs, including consulting on an astronomy documentary, tutoring math, and running outreach activities for the Math Department at the University of Toronto.

Currently, Ilana is working for the Astronomy Department at the University of Toronto in course administration, where she manages the largest Astronomy courses in Canada with an enrollment of 1500 students. She also works part-time at the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics as the Outreach Coordinator. Coordinating astronomy outreach activities and communicating astronomy to the public is her dream job and eventually, she hopes to do it full-time. For Dunlap, she works on multiple projects, such as creating a web series called “Cosmos from your Couch”, which allows her to use her creativity to express her passion for astronomy. She also runs one of the most well-attended astronomy pub nights called Astronomy on Tap Toronto, hosts visits to the downtown UofT observatory, runs an online trivia night, regularly gives lectures to the public, and is preparing activities for the 2024 solar eclipse.

When asked what legacy Ilana hopes to leave; she answered that “it’s not about leaving something physical behind, but more about inspiring other people to pursue their goals and dreams.” She hopes that someone, someday, will come up and tell her, it was because of her they decided to go into astrophysics.

Ilana wants to tell the next generation of female STEM students: “Know that you’re as good as anyone else, despite what others might say. Don’t let the voices in your head and out in the world tell you otherwise because they’re wrong. It is important to know that even though it’s not always easy, you’ll eventually be exactly where you’re supposed to be as long as you follow your passion.”

Joannie St-Germain M.Sc. for the Research Office at Bishop’s University

 “For all our failings, despite our limitations and fallibilities, we humans are capable of greatness.” ― Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space


Top 10 After 10: Dr. Danielle Shafiepour

Dr. Danielle Shafiepour graduated from Bishop’s with an Honours B.Sc. in Biochemistry in 2006 when she was also awarded the Governor General’s Silver Medal Graduation Prize. She continued her education as an Anesthesia resident at McGill University where she earned an M.D., C.M., followed by certification in Anesthesia by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, and finally a Thoracic Anesthesia Fellowship at theUniversity of Toronto.

During the COVID crisis, Danielle was part of a team that developed a simulation task force at the Montreal General Hospital to facilitate pooling of resources and led hospital-wide simulation sessions to prepare for the management of COVID patients. She organized, executed, and debriefed faculty simulation sessions in the  operating room, intensive care unit, emergency room and the wards.

Her professional accomplishments also include the integral role she played as the “CBD lead,” transitioning the anesthesia residency program into the new “competence by design” model mandated by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada.

Currently, as Leader and Director of Simulation at the Junior Resident Orientation  Program, an integral part of McGill’s Residency Program in Anesthesia, Danielle coordinates the curriculum development, organization, and execution of the two- month annual program.

Top 10 After 10: Dr. Leigh Sowerby

Dr. Leigh Sowerby graduated from Bishop’s with a B.Sc. in Biochemistry in 2003. He then graduated from medical school at the University of Calgary in 2006 and from residency at the University of Western Ontario in 2011. He completed further sub-specialty training in Rhinology and Anterior Skull Base Surgery at the University of Alberta and was subsequently recruited back to London, Ontario to help treat the large volume of rhinosinusitis patients there. He went on to complete a master’s degree in Health Management at McMaster University while back in practice.

Dr. Sowerby’s area of interest and expertise is in nasal obstruction and nasal reconstruction (septorhinoplasty), rhinosinusitis and sinonasal disorders, endoscopic orbital surgery, and anterior skullbase surgery. His research interests include novel therapies for chronic rhinosinusitis, health economics and process optimization, as well as olfactory disorders and COVID-19.

Leigh still manages to get out to play lacrosse from time to time.

Top 10 After 10: Dr. Amy Svotelis

Dr. Amy Svotelis graduated from Bishop’s with an Honours B.Sc. in Biology with Distinction in 2001. She has also earned a Master of Science in Anatomy and Cellular Biology and was a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research  Council Fellow for her Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from Université de Sherbrooke.

She began her career as a research facilitator in her role as Clinical Research Coordinator in Orthopedic Surgery at the Research Centre of the Centre hospitalier universitaire de Sherbrooke (CHUS), which is part of the Integrated University Health and Social Services Centre of the Eastern Townships region. Amy rose rapidly to the Assistant Director position.

Amy returned to the Bishop’s community in January 2020 as Director of Research and Graduate Studies, where she applies her team approach to leadership management. Amy is currently at the heart of several strategic decisions for the positioning of Bishop’s research reputation, demonstrated by  her presence on the Board of Directors of the Association of Deans of Higher Education in Quebec, at the table of university business liaison officers at the Bureau de coordination inter-universitaire, on the Board of the SAGE Innovation regional economic development agency, and on the Board of the Association of Quebec University ResearchAdministrators.

Amy is known for her passion for research, the advancement of knowledge and interdisciplinary collaboration, and forbeing an inclusive leader.

Top 10 After 10: Mark Lawson

Mark graduated from Bishop’s with a B.A. in Political Studies and a Minor in English in 2009.

While at Bishop’s, Mark was President of the Student Representative Council (2008-2009) and participated in the Model UN. From 2017–2019, Mark served as President of the Bishop’s University Alumni Association, working with the team to set up Alumni Association chapters across Canada.

In addition to his enthusiastic and loyal support of the BU Alumni community, Mark’s career has seen him serve at the highest levels in politics, as Chief of Staff to Ontario’s Minister of Economic Development, Deputy Chief of Staff and Head of Policy to the Premier of Ontario, and Chief of Staff to Ontario’s Minister of Finance.

Currently, Mark serves as Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at Enthusiast Gaming, a Nasdaq-listed esports and gaming company headquartered in Toronto.

In addition to his degree from Bishop’s, Mark holds a Master of Energy and Earth Resources from Queen’s University and is a member of the Banff Forum.

Mark and his wife Jessica live in Toronto with their mostly trained dog, Bruce.

Top 10 After 10: Erin O’Neill

EErin O'Neillrin graduated from Bishop’s with a B.A. Honours Geography, Major in History, and Minor in Education in 2005. She also holds a Master in Rural Planning and         Development from the University of Guelph.

Upon completion of her master’s degree, she made the move from Ontario to Fort McMurray, Alberta, where she was given the opportunity to help build and shape that  community.

In her roles as Chief of Planning and then Operations Manager, she led the Recovery Task Force for Fort McMurray during the wildfire of 2016. She was responsible for the  re-entry of 90,000 people to their homes, helping the community rebuild and recover. Her contributions to this enormous undertaking led to her role with the Government of Alberta, doing natural disaster recovery on a provincial scale. In 2020, when the pandemic struck, her focus shifted to the COVID Emergency Operations Centre.

Erin believes in investing in her community and dedicating her time and abilities to the public she serves. She became President of the Alberta Professional Planners Institute, the face of the planning profession within Alberta, Northwest Territories and Nunavut to serve the public’s interest by providing regulation, advocacy, promotion, and services for its members.

She credits her success to her time at Bishop’s University. “It sometimes feels surreal that I have been given the opportunities that I have. I am truly honoured to be able to help build communities and help them recover following disasters.”

Top 10 After 10: Dr. Drew MacCannell

DDrew MacCannellrew graduated from Bishop’s in 2002 with a B.Sc. in Physics and two Minors in Biology and Mathematics.

He is currently Associate Director of Pharmacometrics with Biogen Therapeutics, a company dedicated to alleviating the suffering of those with diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and spinal muscular atrophy. He has dedicated his professional life to improving the health and wellbeing of those afflicted and impacted by these conditions.

In recent years, he has volunteered with the Massachusetts Science and Engineering fair to motivate and inspire young scientists and high school students. He currently oversees two graduate student interns, helping them to understand the role that mathematical modeling and computer science can play in the art of healing.

Drew is honoured to be invited back to his alma mater to lecture students on the path he took from his undergraduate years through to his current position; he is also proud to donate to the Drew MacCannell Award for Interdisciplinary Excellence at Bishop’s and hopes this award will contribute meaningfully to the diversity of scientific backgrounds at the University.

Top 10 After 10: Jennifer LaPlante

Jennifer LaPlanteJennifer LaPlante graduated from Bishop’s in 2000 with a B.A. in Sociology and a Minor in Women’s Studies. Jen also holds an MBA. from Dalhousie University and a Master of Science degree in Science, Computing and Data Analytics from Saint Mary’s University.

A force in her professional, academic, and volunteer lives, Jen is also a great Mom to two busy kids and is never at rest.

She has held progressively senior positions at various organizations and is now the Executive Director at Deepsense that helps companies gain competitive advantage  by providing AI-based end-to-end solutions. This past year she was named to the DataIQ Top 100 global AI list.

Jennifer is the also founder of SafePath, a way-finding start-up focused on increasing accessibility for pedestrians and cyclists. Her consultancy firm advises  people around the AI world.

As an active and engaged board member, she serves many organizations including  Halifax Harbour Bridges, Arthritis Society – National board, Victoria Hall Society,  and the AI Public Awareness Working Group. She is also a co-founder of the Halifax chapter of the Women in Machine Learning & Data Science.

In her spare time, you can find her teaching classes at GoodLife Fitness, or training for a marathon, or hiking with her family.

Top 10 After 10: Justin Smith

Justin SmithJustin Smith graduated fromBishop’s in 2005 with a B.A. Major Business and a Minor in Economics.

Justin is Chief Executive Officer at Innovation 7, a 100% Indigenous-owned company, located in the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation community on the unceded traditional territory of the Algonquin Nation. He is a subject matter expert in infrastructure project development and provides executive project oversight and management expertise to Innovation 7 clients.

Innovation 7 is a trusted advisor to Indigenous communities, governments and private sector companies helping to build longstanding and meaningful relationships in the pursuit of reconciliation. Justin is passionate about eliminating systemic barriers faced by Indigenous people, communities and businesses through meaningful consultation and sustainable economic development.

Justin believes strongly in equity, diversity, and inclusion, as well as healthy work-life balance and has woven these beliefs into the culture of Innovation 7.

When he isn’t working, Justin likes to spend time outside, hiking, camping, kayaking, and enjoying the gifts of nature. Continuous self-improvement is important to him, and he enjoys mindful self-reflection and exploring activities to improve his wellbeing. In his downtime, he likes to read and listen to music.

Top 10 After 10: Douglas Pawson

Douglas Pawson graduated from Bishop’s with a B.A. in Political Studies and English and a Minor in History in 2006. He went on to earn an MBA from Cape Breton University and Master of Philosophy in Policy Studies from the University of New Brunswick.

Doug currently holds the position of Executive Director of End Homelessness St. John’s (EHSJ). EHSJ exists to prevent and end homelessness in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Working collaboratively with community partners and public system stakeholders, EHSJ is leading the implementation of the St. John’s Community Plan to End Homelessness.

Douglas is an experienced executive with significant expertise in the non-profit sector, specifically in the areas of housing and homelessness, community mental health, and social innovation. A recognized community builder and an innovative leader, he can generate commitment from diverse stakeholders to build resilient and healthy communities.

In his role as leader of the system planning entity for St. John’s, he is responsible for a diverse team of 11, including an experienced Board of Directors and Community Advisory Board. Douglas stewards an annual budget of $3.7 million that supports and aligns efforts across all levels of government with over a dozen community organizations, while serving those who are, or who may be at risk of, homelessness.

Doug also serves in various board capacities, including Vice Chair of the Board of Directors for the United Way of Newfoundland and Labrador and the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness.