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December 20, 2021 | Alumni

U of T alumni heroes of 2021

In Ottawa's House of Commons, women stand and applaud Riley Yesno. Caption reads: Daughters of the vote, Equal Voice Canada.

Riley Yesno (BA 2021 VIC) receives a standing ovation for her speech in the House of Commons on murdered and missing Indigenous women.

This was a year we needed heroes. A year of rebuilding systems fractured by the pandemic, of listening to hard truths from Indigenous peoples, of struggling through climate disasters.

In December, the University of Toronto launched Defy Gravity, a campaign that crystallizes U of T’s determination to face society’s troubles, find solutions, and make transformations – with alumni at the heart of our ambitious goals.

So for 2021, our salute to you, our incredible alumni, honours some of the many among you who embody the spirit of courage, compassion and change—the spirit that betters humanity.

Jump to: Healthy Lives HeroesSustainability Dream TeamEquity SuperstarsChampions of CultureOn the Vanguard of DiscoveryBold InnovatorsSupporting our Next Generation


Heroes for Healthy Lives

Dr. Latif Murji smiles as he sits at a laptop and talks on a smartphone.

The doctor who started a judgment-free vaccination questions hotline

Dr. Latif Murji (MD 2016, PGMT 2018) launched the VaxFacts Clinic when 16 out of 17 postal codes in Scarborough were COVID-19 hotspots. “Everyone who calls cares about their health and the health of their family and friends,” he says. “Having questions or concerns is completely reasonable.” Eighty-five per cent of his callers went on to get vaccinated.

Two women write messages on a large poster. In the centre of the poster are the words: Thank you.
People thank volunteers at the U of T Mississauga clinic. Photo by Nick Iwanyshyn

The volunteers who ran vaccination clinics… and even helped out in the ICU

Countless alumni—in medicine, dentistry, public health and beyond—stepped up at mass clinics on all three campuses, helping get vaccines into arms. The clinic at U of T Mississauga alone administered more than 335,000 doses. And dentistry professor Marco Caminiti (Dip OMS 1998, PGMT 1998, MEd 2000) even spent his spare time helping with patient airway management in intensive care.

A close-up of a person's hands as they squeeze toothpaste onto a toothbrush.
Photo by Ivan-balvan/iStock via Getty Images

The dentist-scientist ensuring toothpaste is safer for your toddler

Kelsey O’Hagan-Wong (DDS 2018) cares about your tiny toothpaste-swallower. Returning to U of T for graduate study, she conducted research to show that new fluoride-free toothpastes with hydroxyapatite can provide equivalent protection to standard pastes while reducing the risk of fluoride overexposure.

Read about more health heroes:

Sustainability Dream Team

Four men wearing Reedi T-shirts pose with a group of children holding Reedi devices in a village among trees.
Photo courtesy of Olugbenga Olubanjo (back row, second from left, in a photo taken in 2019)

The engineer whose sustainable power system made the Earthshot Prize shortlist

Olugbenga Olubanjo (MASc 2019) was a finalist for the very first Earthshot Prize—honoured for his clean-tech startup’s portable, rechargeable solar batteries. Reeddi Capsules can be rented for 50 cents a day, and are already providing clean, reliable power to areas with vulnerable and unreliable energy infrastructure.

Austin Mclean and Rashmi Satharakulasinghe stand on either side of a plastic spigot which has a long spout with valves.
Photo by Corridor Water Technologies

The engineers who invented a smart irrigation system that doesn’t require electricity

Austin Mclean (BASc 2016, MEng 2019) and Rashmi Satharakulasinghe (BASc 2017) came up with their invention in a U of T lab and tested it with farmer partners in Nicaragua. To help farmers only turn on water when plants require it, the team’s clever solution draws on physics and chemistry to sense soil dryness, then open or shut valves.

Read about more sustainability heroes:

Equity Superstars

Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux smiles as she stands next to her two daughters. One daughter holds her own small daughter.
Photo by Kim Big Canoe, Georgina Island First Nation

The first scholar to study Indigenous historic and generational trauma

When Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux (BA 1985 UTSC, MA 1998, PhD 2004) (at far right, with her daughters and granddaughter) started her graduate research on historic trauma, supervisors told her “We don’t know what that is. There’s nothing in the literature. You have to do something that has been done.” Wesley-Esquimaux said, “Well then, let’s put it in the literature.” Today, she’s a powerful voice for getting Indigenous content into university curriculums.

Side-by-side images: portrait of Chika Stacy Oriuwa and image of her barbie doll wearing scrubs, white coat and stethoscope.
Photos courtesy of Kimberly Young and Mattel

The doctor honoured as a COVID-19 anti-racism hero—with a doll in her likeness

Chika Stacy Oriuwa (MD 2020), a doctor and a spoken word performer, was the model for one of six dolls honouring frontline pandemic workers—and highlighting her work as an advocate against systemic racism in health care. “I believe that if you can see it, you can be it,” Oriuwa says. “A Barbie who looks like me sends the message to children that they have what it takes to become a doctor.”

Michael Samakayi  smiles as he leans on a pillar outside Convocation Hall.
Photo by Johnny Guatto

The Deaf student who learned a whole new language to attend U of T – and founded a course

Michael Samakayi (BA 2021 WDW) had to learn the Canadian version of sign language when he came to U of T from Zambia via the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program. Soon, he was teaching his classmates, founding a sign language club, and proposing a course on sign language and Deaf culture. LIN211H1: American Sign Language 1 launches in January 2022.

Lucia Santos and Evan Benak smile next to a poster with a rainbow-coloured tooth and the words: Dental Pride Alliance.
Photo courtesy of Lucia Santos (Photo taken in 2019)

The dental graduates building a better environment for LGBTQ+ peers and patients

Lucia Santos (DDS 2021) and Evan Benak (DDS 2021) led the Faculty of Dentistry’s Dental Pride Alliance, a team effort to create inclusive care environments for LGBTQ+ patients. “We often find there is a lack of awareness and education on how to be better allies for the LGBTQ+ community,” says Bernak. “We want to give people the tools they need and help advocate for the community.”

Read about more heroes for an equitable society:

On the Vanguard of Discovery

Ruby Sullan, wearing gloves and goggles, smiles as she holds up an eyedropper.
Photo by Ken Jones

The professor developing nanotherapeutics to fight antimicrobial resistance

Ruby Sullan (PHD 2010) won a Cottrell Scholar award this year for her outstanding teaching and innovative research. Her team at U of T Scarborough developed nanoparticles that can kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria in two different ways.

In a screenshot from the Heritage Minute on the discovery of insulin, 4 scientists in 1921 gaze at a beaker of clear liquid.

The innovative doctor and 21-year-old student who co-discovered insulin 100 years ago

ll through 2021, people around the world joined U of T in honouring alumni Frederick Banting (BMed 1916, MD 1922, Hon PhD 1923) and Charles Best (BA 1921, MA 1922, MD 1925, Hon DSc 1947), the transformational discovery they made for diabetes care, and the millions of lives saved ever since.

Read about more heroes of discovery:


Bold Innovators

Kristina Menton stands in front of two vehicles that look like race cars with no wheels and very long, wide, flat axles.
Photo courtesy of Opener LLC

The engineer developing a personal aerial vehicle

Kristina Menton (BASc 2015) loves everything about airplanes—and now she’s building her own. She’s the director of operations, flight testing, and propulsion at Opener, a company developing an all-electric, single-passenger aircraft capable of vertical takeoffs and landings.

A box-shaped satellite with solar panels spread out like wings floats high above the Earth. A logo on its side says Kepler.
 Image courtesy of Kepler Communications

The startup with a government contract to mass-produce nanosatellites

Kepler Communications, an alumni satellite telecommunications startup, first launched at U of T. Today, it has 15 toaster-sized satellites in orbit and received an interest-free $3.8 million loan from the federal government to set up an advanced nanosatellite manufacturing facility—and anchor internet connectivity in space.

Read about more innovation heroes:


Champions of Culture

A page of a hand-written medieval manuscript shows ink writing, slightly faded, in old-fashioned letter shapes.
Photo by fotographo/iStockPhoto

The scholars using AI to make medieval handwriting accessible

Michael Gervers (PhD 1972) and Hannah Lloyd (BA 2018 UTSC, MA 2019) joined forces with researchers in the U.K. to teach computers to read handwritten 13th-century Latin. Their work will open a world of previously undeciphered texts. Next project? Machine transcription of the 2,000-year-old Ge’ez script from Ethiopia.

Kylie Masse smiles as she holds up her Olympic silver medal. A banner behind her reads: Tokyo 2020.
Kylie Masse (BKin 2021) with her 100-metre backstroke medal. Photo by Ian MacNicol/Swimming Canada

The U of T alumni who soared at the Tokyo Olympics, including our triple medallist

Alumni and student athletes lifted spirits and inspired at Tokyo 2020 with their determination and skills. Our Olympic and Paralympic stories included Kylie Masse’s (BKin 2021) hat trick of medals in the pool, incredible fourth-place finishes from runner Alicia Brown (BA 2013 UTM) and trampolinist Rosie MacLennan (BPHE 2011, MSc 2018), and a Canadian record for Paralympian swimmer Matthew Cabraja.

Read about more champions of culture:

Supporting our Next Generation

People play and relax around the huge fountain in Berczy Park. The three-tier structure features 27 cast-iron dogs.
Claude Cormier's beloved design for Berczy Park’s fountain featured 27 cast-iron dogs (image by Industryous Photography)

The quirky architect who wants budding designers to innovate

Claude Cormier's (BLArch 1986) donation for scholarships is the largest private gift designated to U of T’s landscape architecture program to date. The award will cover annual tuition fees for a master’s in landscape architecture student in their final year who shows promise to pursue creative and pioneering design.

Desiree Kaunda-Wint  smiles, standing with hand on hip on a walkway outdoors.

The social worker who inspired U of T to relaunch the course that changed her life

Desiree Kaunda-Wint (BA 2017 UTM) says SOC 480: Internship in Sociology, Criminology, Law, and Society ignited her passion and guided her career. When she learned it had been deferred because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she proposed her professor bring it back—and helped the University relaunch it with a new focus on diversity, inclusion, anti-racism, and community engagement.

Read about more the heroes supporting students: