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Opportunities can grow into something exceptional

Meet Riley Ballachay, a former undergraduate student at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and a current master’s student at McGill University. We discussed his experience at university and the metamorphosis he embarked on when changing his university and discipline.

Beginning at British Columbia

Initially, Riley embarked on an undergraduate degree in Chemical and Biological Engineering. He moved from his home in Calgary in the province of Alberta to study in Vancouver at UBC. He also wanted to experience the city's new and diverse atmosphere. Riley enjoyed the challenge and found the University of British Columbia had a wonderful atmosphere, a great location, and fantastic opportunities for professional growth and personal development. UBC has a beautiful campus on a remote island, “It’s essentially a little Ark of Archipelago. You can take the bus to the island, but it’s rather isolated.” Riley thoroughly enjoyed the campus atmosphere at UBC where he had the opportunity to participate in internships and research assistantships.

Mastering McGill

We at Cybernews Academy know McGill University as an infamous institution with a beautiful campus and excellent facilities. Riley was interested in the location as there was a large population of French speakers, and he wanted to challenge himself by learning French. Riley expressed that moving to a new location with a different culture and language is “very humbling” as it can sometimes be quite uncomfortable when you don’t understand the language or are unfamiliar with your surroundings. Riley’s first encounter with this university was when he contacted McGill’s professors who were doing research concerning his field. He wanted to attend a university that strongly aligned with his research focus. He explained that McGill University is research-oriented and has an excellent reputation for its research. “My program is very research-heavy, designed to have 16 credits of coursework, which means four total classes, and the rest is based around research seminars and your thesis.” He mentioned that his course is more theoretical and designed for people wanting to enter a research career. Riley explained that McGill’s campus is one of the things that attracted him to the university. “McGill is located pretty close to downtown” compared to UBC, in the middle of the city. This factor allows for a vibrant student atmosphere as the town has many activities and opportunities for young tech enthusiasts.

The switch

We asked Riley why he chose to pursue a discipline other than Chemical and Biological Engineering. Riley told us he participated in an internship for a biotechnology company in Vancouver, “which propelled me into the Computer Science field.” He started by designing a device, and after two or three months, he had the opportunity to work on image-processing macros. These scripts run on images, and Riley enjoyed this line of work. “I enjoyed it so much that for my next internships, I chose to work with a professor where I got the opportunity to work on machine learning algorithms,” Riley observed that this field of science was promising due to the current technological advancements. He expressed that Computer Science, compared to Chemical and Biological Engineering, is an ever-evolving bountiful industry. Despite his expertise in his previous field, Riley enjoyed the fast-paced growth that Computer Science could offer. Therefore, he decided to undertake a master’s in Computer Science to join this ever-growing industry.

Learning to learn again

Throughout our interview, we asked Riley what he learned when returning to his studies after working and completing his undergraduate degree. He told us he has a unique perspective on the matter as he was employed for two years before starting his master’s degree. “I was getting used to making money and being self-sufficient, and it’s very different going back to school and following instructions from your supervisor.” Although it’s an incredible experience being around experienced professors who share the same passion as you, it can be challenging to adjust to at the beginning. However, Riley managed to re-acclimate and enjoyed the exciting transition from work to school. This student discussed how transitioning from work to a master’s is like learning how to learn all over again. “I work as a machine learning engineer, and I get challenged in more practical ways, whereas in school, you have to understand the theoretical concepts and fundamentals of your discipline.”

Incredible coursework

One of the incredible aspects of Riley’s experience at McGill University is his coursework. He explained that he enjoys solving problems, which he didn’t get to do in his first undergraduate degree program. “At UBC, the problems I would solve revolved around designing reactors and heat exchangers. No part of me thought I would ever be able to solve problems like I do in my Computer Science program.” Despite his incredible experience at the University of British Columbia, he found that his master’s degree program offered more problems that he had to solve creatively.

Putting theory into practice

Having taken some time out of his studies to put his undergraduate work to the test, Riley revealed an exciting insight into the world of graduate learning. “During my undergraduate degree, I didn’t have the contextual awareness to understand these deeper problems until I got a job in programming. Then, returning to school, you can see how to solve these problems and the theory behind it.” Riley expressed that taking time out to work in your field before your master’s studies is a valuable practice that can help you contextualize your studies and learn what world problems must be solved. “Through the practical application of my skills, I have a deeper understanding of what I was learning, which is really cool.”

Same degree, different outcome

Cybernews Academy asked Riley what surprised him about his degree. He told us that he was amazed by the diversity and versatility of his degree. One of the examples Riley gave was how variable Computer Science degrees are. “You can get many different things out of the same degree, so someone could do a master’s degree in Computer Science and have an entirely different profession.” At McGill University, you can tailor your studies to your chosen goal: “You could do a Computer Science degree in the ethics of artificial intelligence and take courses that are more focused on soft science but end up with a Computer Science degree at the end.” Riley told us that depending on your path, your learning and employability outcomes may differ from your peers.

Practical experience

Riley has a wealth of practical experience from the University of British Columbia. He completed an eight-month internship at a biotechnology company where he and his co-workers were designing a device for cell dissociation, breaking tissue into cells. This was a great experience as Riley had the opportunity to work in a wet lab and meet a group of great individuals who were equally as passionate about STEM. Once he decided to work in the Computer Science field, he sought a professor in his department and began working for four months under a research grant. Here, he focused on a machine learning project which was published. “I was one of the contributing authors in the publication, which was quite interesting.” From there, Riley was offered a position at the previous biotechnology company, STEMCELL Technologies, where he worked as a Machine Learning Engineer. Riley continued working as a Machine Learning Engineer in a company called Ecoation, where he is a full-time employee. During the interview, Riley explained that full-time employment and internship opportunities are very different. “It’s different in that there are projects created during internships that are separate from full-time work. In full-time work, you must create something valuable and work to meet requirements. Whereas internships are more about working on new ideas and trying new things.”

In the future, Riley would like to combine both disciplines that he has studied into one career. “My ideal job would be to work where I can program software related to chemical engineering or work in a company like Sigma that works with vaccines.” Riley would like to be a programmer in the context that he has studied previously. Riley hopes to graduate soon and continue working as a Machine Learning Engineer or a Machine Learning Operations Engineer. He hopes to become a senior programmer, engineer, or team lead in five years. This machine learning engineer advised our readers: “If you can work before entering your graduate program,” this will allow you to contextualize your studies. Riley also included that students should expand their horizons and take different opportunities. “Through this, you will learn more about yourself while developing your technical skills. Remember, opportunities grow into bigger things, which might not seem like much, but they can grow into something exceptional.”