Black History Month: Meet uOttawa’s first IBET Momentum Fellows

Posted on Friday, February 25, 2022

Last year, six Ontario universities, including the University of Ottawa, launched the Indigenous and Black Engineering and Technology (IBET) Momentum Fellowship, a project aimed at addressing the systemic barriers that exist in STEM fields for Indigenous and Black scholars and providing support and increased opportunities for those wanting to pursue doctoral degrees. Since then, IBET has expanded to include 13 partner institutions.

“It’s about creating opportunities,” says Jacques Beauvais, dean of the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Ottawa. “There is clearly an underrepresentation of Black and Indigenous leaders in our industry. Our youth and young adults must see themselves as next generation leaders in engineering education and research. Hence the importance of investing in initiatives such as the IBET PhD project. We believe that this initiative not only makes continuing education more accessible to those who apply, but more importantly, it gets us closer to creating an inclusive environment for our students to thrive in.”

The IBET Momentum Fellowship at uOttawa is intended to foster equitable and inclusive research environments to increase the presence of Indigenous and Black academics in STEM. Each year, two IBET Momentum Fellowship recipients will receive financial support, mentorship, training, and networking opportunities as they pursue doctorate degrees.

Issa Fowai and Dominira Saul are uOttawa’s inaugural recipients of this landmark fellowship. As part of Black History Month, we wanted to share their stories and thoughts on their progress to this point.

Headshot of Issa Fowai

Issa Fowai

PhD candidate, Civil Engineering

I was born the year the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) invaded my diamond-rich home province of Kono, in Sierra Leone, starting a war that would last over a decade. Decades of war, corruption, and the lack of developed industry left thousands of youths without jobs or education. A nation once meant to be a shining light of West Africa, with abundant natural resources and natural talents that could have engineered economic and political prosperity, instead was turned into a living hell. Today, despite these early environmental limitations, I am now a PhD candidate at the University of Ottawa, embarking on a lifelong dream of becoming an academic. 

My journey has taken me from Africa to China, Thailand, Russia, and now, at last, to Canada. I wish I could say that this was all through skill or determination, but I have stood on the shoulders of giants, such as charity organizations, mentors, and scholarships such as uOttawa’s IBET Momentum Fellowship.

I see my first Black History Month in Canada as a time to thank the sacrifice made by those minority Blacks who came before me. Their achievements serve as a motivating force for me.

My journey across multiple continents has helped me understand the importance of dialogue and the wisdom of compromise. More so, I have come to appreciate why it is paramount that we work continuously to make the world a free and fair society for all – women, children, minority groups, and the underprivileged.

Q: What advice or words of wisdom could you share with others in our engineering community?

Yes, it is scary and many times, it can take a very healthy dose of faith to launch toward your dream, especially when you think the world is not hearing you. But if you don’t try, you might regret your actions for the rest of your life.

While you are here [at uOttawa], engage in campus activities, make friends, join professional organizations, take all necessary steps to transform your life and work toward a solution for future problems. Remind yourself every day to learn whatever skills you need to become more accomplished in your personal and professional field.

Headshot of Dominira Saul

Dominira Saul

PhD candidate, Digital Transformation and Innovation

I believe in the transformative power of entrepreneurism and in the broad applicability of design methods to solving everyday problems. Having seen first-hand how small businesses are the backbone of major economies, I have a sincere desire to apply the lessons that I have learned as an entrepreneur and design thinker to improve economies in the developing world and beyond.

I have over 20 years’ experience in the field of user and customer experience research and design. I am also a passionate educator – I teach product design methodology and UX courses at both of Ottawa’s universities.

My professional career began in London at the height of the dot com bubble. I returned to Canada in the early 2000s to work at a usability consulting company, where I collaborated with some of the most skilled UX and HCI practitioners in the country. In 2009, I became a partner and the Chief Experience Architect at one of Canada’s premier UX consulting firms. In 2018, I was the director of UX for You.i TV prior to their acquisition by Warner Media.

More recently, I have returned to the world of consulting. In April 2020, my long-time collaborator and I founded DFFRNT, a strategic research and design consultancy.

While running my business, I am also a PhD student in the Digital Transformation and Innovation program at the University of Ottawa. My area of research is in the use of UX design methods in innovation labs.

Q: Why did you choose to pursue a PhD?

I don’t get the typical reaction when I tell people that I am currently working on my PhD. Most of the time, colleagues and collaborators look at me with a mixture of horror and pity, and the question they often ask is why, at this point in my career (where, if I’m to be honest, I have more of my career behind me than I do ahead of me), am I looking to undertake such an intense course of study.

There are two main reasons: first, I do believe that with the pace of digital evolution today, innovation and product design need to be wholly focused on users and their needs. I believe this for a variety of reasons, not least of which are sustainability, diversity, and inclusion. Too often those outside the mainstream are left out or left behind by products and services that are designed and implemented without them in mind. By deepening my knowledge in the domain of innovation, I can further leverage my experience to help be the change that I envision.

The other reason is that as a Black professional, I am keenly aware that there are still stereotypes and prejudices that exist today about people who look like me. Because these prejudices still exist, I feel an obligation to younger practitioners entering the market, as well as to those studying and striving to achieve their dreams, to be an example of what can be achieved, and to break down barriers that may remain. It is important that I put myself in a position where I can help others achieve even greater things. I have been afforded enormous opportunities, such as being selected for uOttawa’s IBET Momentum Fellowship, and I fully recognize the extent of my privilege. It is important to me to now use those opportunities and that privilege to help improve the lives of others.

To learn more about the uOttawa’s IBET Momentum Fellowship, visit the IBET webpage.

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