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August 15, 2023 | Alumni

Jamil loved Star Trek as a kid. Now, he helps prepare Canadarm3 for lunar orbit

Jamil Shariff, a PhD graduate in astrophysics, was inspired by science fiction to explore space and the future of humanity

By David Goldberg

The hinged robotic Canadarm attached to a space station, with Moon and Earth in the background.

An artist's concept of Canadarm3's large arm on the Lunar Gateway. Photo: CSA, NASA.

Since watching Star Trek as a boy in his parents’ living room, University of Toronto alum Jamil Shariff (PhD 2015) has dreamed of exploring strange new worlds and boldly going where no one has gone before.

"Science fiction definitely sparked my interest in what the future of humanity would look like, the exploration of space and the development of amazing new technologies,” says Shariff, who earned his PhD in 2015 in astrophysics.

Formerly a postdoctoral fellow at the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics, Shariff is now engineering technology for one of the most ambitious projects in the history of crewed space exploration.

Jamil Shariff smiling
Jamil Shariff is a former CITA postdoctoral fellow and a systems design senior leader at MDA in Brampton, Ontario.

The astrophysicist works at MDA, the Canadian company famous for building the robotic Canadarm on NASA’s space shuttle and Canadarm2 aboard the International Space Station. Shariff is a senior leader in systems design at MDA. There he has worked on the latest iteration of the iconic space hardware, Canadarm3. The new robotic arm is for Lunar Gateway, a space station planned for lunar orbit by the end of the 2020s. It will serve as a research outpost and cosmic pit stop for future missions to the surfaces of the moon, Mars and beyond.

MDA recruited Shariff several years ago, impressed by his PhD research under the revered Professor Barth Netterfield at the David A. Dunlap Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics. Netterfield is one of the world’s foremost experts in developing systems for high-altitude balloon borne telescopes.

“I wouldn't be where I am now if it weren't for professors like Netterfield,” says Shariff. “He’s a mentor and it really matters to him if the people in his lab succeed.”

Jamil has been part of extraordinary discoveries

Part of an international team of researchers, Shariff and Netterfield designed, built, installed and operated two balloon-borne telescopes, and analyzed their data. One of the projects, BLASTPol examined the role played by magnetic fields in star formation. The other, Spider, was focused on understanding what happened in the very first moments, a tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang.

Jamil Shariff as a toddler, watching Star Trek on an old TV
Jamil Shariff’s astrophysics passion was partly inspired by Star Trek.

“The fact that I helped work on instrumentation that detected those microwave photons, which are like our baby picture of the universe, the oldest signal we can ever detect, that still amazes me,” says Shariff. “It's stayed with me all this time.”

During his PhD, Shariff spent several months at Antarctica’s McMurdo Station, working along other scientists, maintaining and flying Spider in the skies over one of Earth’s most desolate locations. The adventure of a lifetime prepared Shariff for life after U of T.

“It's important to be able to tell your story, especially if you have a PhD in something like astrophysics because a recruiter may not exactly understand what you do,” he says. “That really helped me.”

Nearly a decade after graduating, Shariff is a champion of astrophysics research and the extraordinary team of experts at U of T. Whether it’s planning components of a lunar space station or educating others about Eclipse 2024, next spring’s total solar eclipse, it starts with nurturing the brilliant minds at Arts & Science through world-class faculty and experiential learning opportunities.

“You’ve got some of the best theorists in the world coming to us. They’re coming to us out of PhDs from top tier universities in the United States and around the world,” says Shariff. “You have theory, observation and experimentation all happening at U of T. I think that should be a compelling case for donors who are passionate about furthering our understanding of the universe."

Interested in creating transformative opportunities for youth to participate in Eclipse 2024 and the study of astrophysics at U of T? Contact Emily Wilson, Associate Director, Development at or 416-978-4177.


Originally published by the Faculty of Arts & Science