McGill Engine Centre drives initiative to replace internships lost by COVID-19

Program finds summer internships for 10 students from across McGill faculties
The 10 McGill students who are benefiting from Engine Centre’s Summer Internship Program

There’s nothing quite like serendipity. Meg Heesaker lost not one, not two, but three internship possibilities due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Then, browsing through a job search website connected to the McGill Faculty of Engineering’s Engine Centre, the first-year Law student saw a request for McGill students to apply for 10 internship positions open for the summer as part of the Startup Internship Program.

The Engine Centre (Engineering Innovation and Entrepreneurship), in partnership with TECHNATION’s Career Ready program, a federally-funded student job placement program to promote the information and communications technology sector, sought out tech startups affiliated with the McGill Faculty of Engineering that could offer positions to McGill students this summer.

And that happened to be right in Heesaker’s wheelhouse.

They – Heesaker identifies as non-binary and chooses the self-identifying pronoun ‘they’ – applied for an internship at Montreal start-up Stocate in a field they worked in for five years prior to going into law at McGill, and snagged it.

A feeling of welcome

Stocate is an “online platform that supports the Buy Local movement by connecting local sellers with potential buyers.” It represents “small businesses, artists, grassroots organizations, producers, and independent teachers in (its) mission to empower individuals to find, create, and add their own value to the world.”

Heesaker said that aside from the job itself and the start-up’s dedication to sustainability, what largely won them over to Stocate was the Our Team section on its website. All team members identify as he or she, but Heesaker said that just the fact that the firm offered a choice of personal pronouns showed there would be “no friction or uneasiness” and made them feel welcome and included.

They hope to “do something legal (related to the law) at Stocate, which is in the process of thinking about equity and shareholders. I have no experience in that area, and it would be great to get in on the ground floor.”

The 12-week internships for the 10 students selected by the Engine Centre and the startups pay $4,500 and started June 1 or, in one case, June 8. TECHNATION covers between 50 per cent and 70 per cent of their cost, and the rest is financed by one of the Engine Centre’s donor funds, the John D. Thompson Engine Fund.

McGill ties to all startups

Katya Marc, associate director of the McGill Engine, said that the program was originally for five positions, but that the subsidy from TECHNATION made it possible to double that number. The startups had to have at least one co-founder who was a McGill engineering student or post-doc, and the applicants had to be current students, not alumni. All interns will work remotely.

“I am so grateful,” said Heesaker. “It absolutely was (a lifesaver).”

“For McGill to offer a program specifically in high-tech and able to provide paid work for students in these wild times, well, that’s pretty unique.”

Heesaker was in the workforce for five years and drew a significantly higher salary than that, they added, “but still, I view it in the context of aid to students, and in that respect, it’s very decent (income), especially supplemented by (other student aid) earlier.”

Swiss internship scuttled

Ran Tao had done a semester in an exchange program at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, after which she was set to do a “pure math internship” working on Geometric Group Theory for the summer with Prof. Nicolas Monod, a highly-regarded mathematician.

Tao, who just finished her second year toward a joint Arts degree in Mathematics and Computer Sciences at McGill, said that the global pandemic forced the polytechnic institute to shut down all its buildings and cancel all international internships.

“I also had to come back to Canada,” said Tao, whose mother sprang for a first-class air ticket, to abide by physical distancing directives.

“I got an email from Liette Chin (the Undergraduate Program Coordinator at McGill’s School of Computer Sciences), who sends most job applications to undergrads, about the McGill internships.”

Tao applied to Blue City Technology, co-founded by Asad Lesani, the tech firm’s chief executive officer who received a PhD from McGill in civil engineering in 2016.

Safer intersections for pedestrians and cyclists

Blue City designs sensors and other sophisticated systems that measure the effectiveness of intelligent transportation systems, with the aim of improving road safety.

The company is cooperating with the city of Montreal, installing monitoring sensors at traffic lights to make intersections safer for pedestrians. The sensors provide information to pedestrians and cyclists about vehicle traffic nearby. A few have been placed at Montreal traffic lights, and another five are currently being installed.

“The data the cameras collect can be viewed and processed to create better safety,” Tao said. “The data can be relayed to the traffic light, which then results in a longer red light, for example. It trains models to recognize accidents and analyze road safety.”

“I applied to them because of what they do,” said Tao. “It fits right in with my interests,” applying models in logic theory to improve existing technology and systems.

“Many companies just stopped hiring and some of my friends lost internships, so I was a little bit discouraged,” said Tao.

“It was really nice to see this opportunity coming from McGill. The ($4,500) is not quite as much as the 1,600 CHF (Swiss francs, or about $2,265 CDN) a month at Lausanne, but the lower cost of living here makes things pretty even.”

Money management tool for people without access to financial advice

Suhas Udupa’s planned summer job at CAE Inc., the Montreal aerospace simulator firm, also crashed out due to the viral pandemic.

Sudupa completed his second year studying software engineering, so the call for applications from NIA jumped out at him.

The firm was founded by three Tanzanian-born high-tech entrepreneurs, Abdulswamad Makuya, who received a BSc. in Computer Science from State University of Zanzibar (SUZA); Yale University economics graduate Khadija Abdullah; and Monica Mhina, who is doing her Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering at McGill. The trio have chosen to help their 59 million fellow Tanzanians with an artificial intelligence tool, a personal financial management chatbot being developed for people who do not have easy access to financial information and advice.

The problems the bilingual chatbot – English and Swahili – is aiming to address are the lack of intuitive reports, inaccessible financial institutions for many and the lack of personalized financial education.

The chatbot – which simulates a human conversation between a person and a machine – will be accessible through mobile banking and payment apps, providing a host of features to individuals, financial information normally reserved for financial institutions.

Great learning experience – for pay!

While Makuya and Abdullah are spearheading efforts in Tanzania, Udupa will work in Montreal with Mhina, both of them working remotely with the added difficulty of the 7-hour time difference with Tanzania.

“This tool will give people access to bills, credit card balances, financial history, how to make payments – that sort of thing,” said Udupa.

Udupa also made more money last year – $20 an hour at CAE – but that’s beside the point, he said.

“I view it as two in one: the internship pays $4,500, which I wouldn’t make otherwise, and at the same time, I gain legitimate experience. That’s what I was going for. And I like to write code.”

“I always wanted a chance to work at a startup,” said Udupa, “and McGill startups provide mentors and workshops on top of that.”

“Overall, it’s a great learning experience.”

Patricia Robb, placement officer for TECHNATION’s Career Ready program, said that this marks the first partnership with McGill, “and so far, it’s been great.”

“There are a lot of students sitting around because of this pandemic, they’re really struggling, so it’s even more important to offer this program in hard economic times.”