Alumni Profiles: Rita Saikali, Michael Soto
In the final months of her Master’s of Applied Science degree at York University’s Lassonde School of Engineering, Rita Saikali, MASc’19, unfolded a map of Canada, closed her eyes and pointed.
“I want to go up there,” she remembers saying when her finger landed on the city of Whitehorse, Yukon.
A few months and a successful thesis defence later, she hopped into her car, drove for five days and began her career as a project engineer for the transportation engineering branch of the Government of Yukon.
“It was really crazy,” Saikali remembers. After completing an undergraduate degree at the Université Saint-Joseph in Lebanon and an internship in Bordeaux, France, “I knew that my time in Toronto would be limited. It was a great experience, but I wanted something new.”
“New” turned out to be inspecting and repairing each of the far north territory’s more than 120 bridges while contending with minus 50-degree temperatures, unmaintained roads, satellite dead zones and predators such as polar bears.
If the culture shock was dramatic for Rita, it was colossal for her partner Michael Soto, MASc’20, who also works for the Yukon government as a structural engineer. Michael studied construction engineering at the Tecnológico de Costa Rica before earning his Master’s degree at York. His undergraduate capstone research project, which was co-supervised by Lassonde Professor and Vice Dean, Dan Palermo, involved modelling a repair strategy for Costa Rica’s dilapidated “Crocodile Bridge,” so named for the reptiles swimming below.
Crocodiles and polar bears aside, “the biggest change is the weather,” Soto says of his relocation north. “It’s summer from July to November and then we’re in the office because it’s too cold to work outside.”
He laughs at the memory of using ice to maintain the working temperature of concrete in Costa Rica. In Whitehorse, “we use lots of hot water.”
Both Soto and Saikali credit their graduate experiences (both were supervised by Dr. Palermo with Dr. Stavroula Pantazopoulou also co-supervising Rita’s research) with giving them a leg-up in their work on the bridge unit. Saikali was a member of the Lassonde team that proved the superior bond strength of a new ultra high-performance steel fibre-reinforced concrete with steel reinforcing bars. Soto’s research involved novel construction and retrofitting strategies to help buildings withstand lateral forces like high winds and earthquakes.
“As researchers, we approach problems differently and that helps a lot when working with our team,’ Saikali explains, adding that she’s also grateful to Lassonde for teaching her time management and writing skills. “Fifty percent of my time is spent writing reports. My ability to deliver a message is the most important thing.” That, Soto says, plus remembering to always carry bear spray.