Alex Toews, BASc '17, Engineering Physics

Applied Science Class of 2017
The best learning experiences are the ones that are not spoon-fed to you, so challenge yourself.

My name is Alex and I recently graduated with a Bachelor of Applied Science in Engineering Physics, Electrical Option. My time at UBC was punctuated with a myriad of new experiences, from the “quintessential UBC” storming of walls and paddling of longboats to the less conventional a cappella directing and slackline hopping. Along the way, the Faculty of Applied Science provided me with countless outlets to explore my passion for math and physics, and their practical application to the world around us. I feel incredibly fortunate for the great opportunities I’ve had as a result of getting involved with student teams and the co-op program — to work in robotics, theoretical physics and medical device research and development. Every step of the way, these hands-on experiences provided me with pivotal reality checks guiding both my studies and future career ambitions.

What has made your time at UBC the most memorable?

UBC has been a playground of discovery for me, providing the backdrop for more personal growth than I could have ever imagined. The most memorable experiences were definitely the times I deliberately left my comfort zone: directing UBC A Cappella while rehabilitating a vocal fold injury, teaching undergraduate students how to build robots while still an undergraduate student myself or delivering a winning start-up pitch with $5000 on the line.

What have you learned that is most valuable?

  • Look at the world through a critical lens — do not assume that because something is a certain way, it is the best way.
  • Be patient with yourself! A degree is a marathon, not a sprint.
  • The best learning experiences are the ones that are not spoon-fed to you, so challenge yourself! Ask that question, build that side-project and read that chapter that’s not in the syllabus but sounded really cool to you. Dive in and learn from your mistakes.
  • Never underestimate the importance of work-life balance. Some say students have to pick two of three domains in university: the interpersonal; the intrapersonal; and the academic. I believe that real sustainable success can only be achieved by maintaining a balance of all three. Majoring in engineering physics certainly strained my time management abilities, but I always made time for slacklining with friends or catching a UBC Improv show on Friday night — and I don’t regret a minute of it.

What has been your most memorable or valuable non-academic experience studying engineering at UBC?

Living abroad for eight months while working at the Max Planck Institute in Stuttgart was a transformative experience for me. I highly recommend that every student considers living abroad for a while — especially if you grew up around Vancouver! The experience of starting fresh in a new country can give you a completely new perspective on your current trajectory and where you want to go in the future. When I came back from Germany, I certainly felt a renewed sense of ambition and self-confidence to set goals and chase after them.

What advice would you give a student considering engineering?

  • Share your goals with anyone who will listen. You’ll be amazed at how much support you can get by being brave and honest about your dreams for the future. I started making a conscious effort to do this in my fourth year, and wish I had started a lot sooner. I was pleasantly surprised by the overwhelming support I received from faculty and friends in the UBC community. They helped propel me forward with initiatives, like my start-up, Curos Labs, which works to empower people with chronic pain. Our team is currently building CheckPoint, a pain management wearable that helps chronic pain sufferers track, analyze and report their symptoms. 
  • Don’t be discouraged if you think you don’t ‘fit the mold’ of a textbook engineering student. I would actually give this advice to anyone beginning their undergraduate education, but I think this holds especially true for engineering due to the field’s historic lack of diversity.
  • The world needs more people with technical competence. In the past 10 years, four of the world’s five largest companies (by market capitalization) were all dethroned by tech companies. The fifth company was Microsoft. I mention this not just for reasons of future job supply and demand, but also as a matter of social responsibility. As our world becomes increasingly dependent on technology, we owe it to ourselves and society to have a deeper understanding of how the things that will drive our cars for us and drone-deliver our life-tracking smartwatches work

What are your plans for the future?

I’m currently working at the Robotics and Control Laboratory under the supervision of Professor Rohling, developing an ultrasound guidance system for epidural anesthesia. I’m also continuing to work on Curos Labs, which I co-founded in New Venture Design; this project recently earned my team first place at the UBC Life Sciences Start-up Competition. This September I’ll be moving to Silicon Valley to begin a PhD in electrical engineering at Stanford University. With any luck, I’ll get to continue tackling medical imaging challenges with an engineer’s toolkit and have fun doing it!