Ephraim Nowak, MASc ’18, Electrical Engineering
"There are three things that never cease to fascinate me: coding, electronics and things that fly."
Born and raised in the Okanagan, I developed deep roots in the community through volunteerism. Attending UBC’s Okanagan campus seemed like a natural choice for me, as it allowed me to continue developing my community involvement alongside my studies. I completed a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science in 2015 and a Master of Applied Science degree in Electrical Engineering this year. During my studies, I spent most of my time in the Advanced Control and Intelligent Systems Lab, developing computer vision autopilots for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or drones. Due to my avocation as a Search and Rescue volunteer with my studies, I had the privilege of assisting in the implementation of a UAV pilot project within the BC Search and Rescue Program.
Why did you choose engineering?
I consider myself a lifelong student, and prefer self-directed learning. Therefore, my path to engineering was not straight, but rather the natural progression and cumulation of various life experiences. Like a quintessential engineer, I started taking apart old radios in my parent’s basement at the age of three; they hid the matches, but I quickly discovered that a potentiometer connected to a battery also makes fire… and so began my love for electronics! Starting in elementary school, my younger brother and I began constructing underwater remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and used them to explore Okanagan Lake. I became interested in coding in middle school, and participated in the RoboCup Junior Soccer competition for four years. This led me to take computer science at UBCO, which quickly developed into my major; having a solid understanding of computer science and programming was important to me. On the other hand, I always wanted to see what my code was doing, and sought out applications. This naturally led me toward the Master of Applied Science degree in Electrical Engineering with a specialization in computer vision, allowing my code to interact with physical systems.
What have you learned in engineering that is most valuable?
Looking back over the course of my engineering degree (and education in general) I believe the most valuable experiences I made came from taking ownership of my own learning. Seeking out opportunities to expand my knowledge through internships, collaborative projects with industry, and volunteer activities amplified the material I learned in the classroom. Some of my personal highlights include a research internship in Israel, where I developed cutting-edge computer vision algorithms for drones, and combining a MITACS program with my Search and Rescue experience to develop a drone pilot project to search for missing people throughout BC. In my experience, extracurricular and industry experience is just as valuable as classroom learning, and should not be overlooked.
How are you applying the skills you learned through your studies at UBC?
I have always been a very practical person, and enjoy seeing my work being applied. During my time at UBC, I formed a multi-disciplinary team of students to compete in the $15 million Global Learning XPRIZE, seeking to eliminate child illiteracy in developing countries using low-cost hardware and developing novel educational software. Our team of educators, programmers, artists, and translators became one of 38 international teams to submit a solution. Although we didn’t advance to the semi-finalist stage, the experience of taking a project from idea to finished product in 18 months was an invaluable learning experience.
What has been your most memorable/valuable non-academic experience studying engineering at UBC?
My most valuable non-academic experiences at UBC’s Okanagan campus came from volunteering in the community, whether at Kelowna General Hospital, as a Search and Rescue member, Emergency Support Services volunteer, or with the Provincial Emergency Radio Communications Service. These experiences opened my horizons to a multitude of real-world applications relating to my studies and research, which I would otherwise have been unaware of. I would encourage anyone to try volunteering; it’s an excellent way to connect with your community and enrich your university experience!
What are your plans for the future?
There are three things that never cease to fascinate me: coding, electronics and things that fly. I plan to combine my love for these in my latest business venture: Percept Systems. The company — which is based in Kelowna, and is composed of UBC Okanagan graduates — is developing novel aerial mapping solutions for wildfires based on computer vision and we will be testing our prototype this summer.
How will you go on to make a difference in our world?
I believe that the best way to make a difference in the world is through positively impacting the lives of others. Although I’m an innovator, and seek to make the world a better place through my everyday work, touching people’s lives in ways that extend beyond the ordinary is very important to me. Taking the time for intentional conversations and volunteering are a few avenues which have allowed me to impact and connect with the lives of those around me.