February 27, 2017 | Volunteer & Awards

Kawin Ethayarajh wins the John H. Moss Scholarship for graduating students

Using technology to boost fairness and equality

Kawin Ethayarajh

Fairness is important to Kawin Ethayarajh. It’s this sense of justice that has underpinned many of his outstanding projects as a U of T undergraduate, from helping Trinity and St. Michael’s Colleges meet Fair Trade certification standards, to a creative computer science analysis that helped evaluate the consistency of Indian Supreme Court judgments.

For his stellar leadership and academic excellence in these and other areas, Ethayarajh has been named the 2017 recipient of the John. H. Moss Scholarship, a prestigious, $16,650 award given each year to an exceptional student graduating from Arts & Science who intends to pursue a second degree at the graduate level.

Moss Scholars must achieve a GPA of at least 3.3, and Ethayarajh more than qualifies with his perfect 4.0. The computer science major from Victoria College has also stepped up as a leader founding an undergraduate journal, Review of Undergraduate Computer Science, and serving on Governing Council’s University Affairs Board. His persistent, collaborative leadership style has impressed his professors, as has his creativity and initiative.

The Fair Trade project is a case in point. It began when Ethayarajh entered the Engineers without Borders Social Spark Case Challenge, winning first prize for his team's proposal suggesting ways to help U of T qualify as a Fair Trade Campus. The certification, awarded by the Canadian Fair Trade Network, involves not just making Fair Trade products, such as coffee and chocolate, available on campus, but undertaking to educate the public about the Fair Trade concept.

After winning the challenge, Ethayarajh stepped up to put his proposal into action, founding the U of T Fair Trade Committee. When the team discovered that each of U of T’s colleges could qualify individually, they focused their efforts, successfully convincing the food suppliers at Trinity and St. Mike’s to participate. Both campuses were certified in 2016, and Ethayarajh is working on helping Engineers without Borders transition to taking over the project. “I think it's best that an organization that has been at U of T for a long time takes ownership of it,” he says humbly. “That means they can help push the initiative forward even when I’m not at U of T. “

Academically, Ethayarajh has been honoured with many awards, including a BMO National Scholar entrance scholarship to U of T and an NSERC Undergraduate Research Award. His professors say they have rarely seen an undergraduate with such a mature approach to science and such an elegant flair for experimental design.

For example: after honing his text-analyzing skills on projects involving the use of colour in 19th-century literature and the effect of day length on the mood of Reddit users, Ethayarajh partnered with the Faculty of Law on the Indian Supreme Court project. His analysis of more than 48,000 cases over the last 60 years, found (thankfully) that even though the Court has formally cited precedent less and less, they are still following it.

The project will not only impact the Court’s reputation, but has potential for further applications, such as flagging lower court judgments that don’t adhere to the precedent set by the Court. ”I think a lot of us assume that the law operates in a very deterministic way,” Ethayarajh says, “but a lot of things like judges’ biases, their political leanings, can impact the decision. My objective is not to replicate the decision making process of judges, but to make sure that, using technology, we can put checks and balances in place that can help us detect human error where we see it.”

Ethayarajh will work for U of T startup Blue J Legal this summer, and plans to continue his research on courts and precedent as an MSc student at U of T in the fall. It’s a career direction that he’s excited about. “The junction of technology and its applications to law and life is a growing field,” he says. It’s one where he hopes to make a difference. “The precedents set by all levels of the judicial branch can have a substantial impact on our day to day lives.”

The John H. Moss Scholarship, first awarded in 1921, is presented each year under the banner of the Awards of Excellence along with several other faculty, staff and student awards. The Awards of Excellence program annually recognizes the outstanding members of the University of Toronto community who have made rich and meaningful contributions to the University, to their communities and to the world.

Alumni Relations within the Division of University Advancement is the steward of the Awards of Excellence program on behalf of the University of Toronto Alumni Association, and co-ordinates the vital contributions of other University stakeholder groups toward this prestigious award program.

Kawin Ethayarajh and the other 2017 Awards of Excellence recipients will be honoured at a recognition event on April 27.

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