Engineering Science

Meet Gary Yu, B.A.Sc. Hons. ’15: top student, Stanford-bound

June 14, 2015

Gary Yu (B.A.Sc. Hons. ’15), Engineering Science.

Gary Yu, a recent graduate from SFU’s engineering science program, will embark on a PhD in electrical engineering at Stanford University this fall. He received the Dean’s Undergraduate Convocation Medal for placing in the top five per cent of his class.

Why did you choose SFU’s engineering science program?

I chose engineering first and foremost because I wanted a challenge! I knew that engineering would one of the harder programs, so I thought it would be a good fit for me. I already knew that SFU’s engineering program had a really great reputation with industry and that the graduates from the program do really well, and I also liked the idea of the mandatory co-op program. I did two co-op terms at Broadcom where I tested Android tablets and smartphones, and the third term in an NSERC USRA research position on transformer diagnostics.

I came to SFU on the Gordon Shrum entrance scholarship and met some of the professors and staff at the dinner reception for scholarship recipients – it was a very welcoming experience. SFU is a smaller school and they make an effort to reach out to each and every student – there is a real sense of personal connection here.

Did you always want to study engineering?

Actually, when I was a kid I thought about becoming a lawyer! It’s funny because it’s so different from what I do now. In high school, my plan was to go into sciences and do pre-med, but then I found out that SFU has this really great engineering program. I actually started in the biomedical engineering option, but I switched to electronics because I found I enjoyed that more.

Electrical engineering is very hands-on: you can go to the lab and create something quickly. It’s not just theoretical, so you can imagine how you might apply what you learn right away. It’s creative too: you can design something in one way and it works, but then you find out that there is a better way to do it. There’s always a new challenge.

What made you passionate about electrical engineering? Was there a particular course that captured your imagination?

I took ENSC 225 in microelectronics – it was a challenging course, but that’s when I realized circuit design was such an interesting subject. You learn about these tiny transistors and circuits that look like they won’t do much, but in reality they’re ubiquitous in all the technology we use nowadays.

People constantly think of new applications, or they change one aspect of the design and apply it somewhere else. I find that very interesting: it’s kind of like a puzzle. You’re always trying to make things better.

After ENSC 225, I took ENSC 325 and ENSC 425, which is Electronic System Design. The teacher was very inspirational and that course is famous – or should I say infamous – for its lab project: You have to design a circuit that takes a signal from a DVD player, for example, and process it for display on an analog oscilloscope.

That project was tough – we had these huge, massive circuits on two or three breadboards. That was the only time I had to stay overnight at SFU without sleeping! My first all-nighter in my university career, and it happened in fourth year. In the end it was a great learning experience. Things can seem simple in a textbook, but once you’ve built circuit on a breadboard that doesn’t work – and you’re pulling your hair out – you learn it’s a lot better to calmly and logically go through each step and double check everything.

What was the topic of your NSERC USRA-funded research project?

We were working on a project with a company developing sensors to monitor very large power transformers that are critical for energy networks in cities and provinces.

We worked with a chemistry group that developed a chemical material to monitor internal changes. We were designing the electronics around that material to try to incorporate it into the sensor. The NSERC USRA research became the topic of my honours thesis. Its name? (Deep breath; it’s a long one): Development of Sensors using Vapochromic Coordination Polymers for Electrical Transformer Diagnostics.

Through this project, I learned to work in a multidisciplinary team with groups of scientists who aren’t engineers.  It’s always good to have research experience as an undergraduate – a lot of graduate schools like to see that because it shows them your interest and your ability to conduct research work, which is what you’ll be doing at a master’s or PhD level.

Congratulations on your acceptance to Stanford University’s PhD in engineering program! What led you to apply?

Around this time last year, I started thinking about what to do after graduation. At that time I had interviews lined-up with some local companies, but I found a lot of the entry-level positions were in testing and validation. I was more interested in design – especially IC [integrated circuit] design – so I thought maybe I should look into grad school. During that time, an NSERC research position opened up with professor Bonnie Gray – it was a brand new project and I thought, “This looks interesting.” At the same time, I also had an offer for an internship in California, and I didn’t know which one to take.

In the end, I took the research position, which also became the subject of my honours thesis. That really gave me a good idea about how academic research works and what it’s like to be in grad school. In my last year at SFU, I talked to my professors about which grad school might be best for me and they encouraged me to apply for Stanford.  I’m so glad I did.

I think the research experience opportunities I’ve had at SFU and having that personal relationship with the professors gave me an edge – I’m sure it was not fun filling out 10 reference letters for me! I definitely wouldn’t have been able to apply to schools and get references without having that personal contact with the faculty members.

How did it feel when you were accepted?

When I first got the email, I was nervous it might be a rejection letter. But when I opened it up it felt so good – especially because I’d been waiting for more than two months to hear the verdict. My first thought was “Oh, I should tell my parents!” They’re excited to come and visit me at Stanford’s campus – we’re planning a road trip there soon so I can get settled.

What advice would you give to a student considering engineering?

There are so many things you can do with engineering. It prepares you with a really good foundation to get a job afterwards, so you can’t go wrong. It is challenging and it’s easy to get overwhelmed at the start, which is why time management is so important –but stick with it! I would advise students to go into engineering with the bigger picture in mind – it’s not just calculus and physics; there is so much to explore as you get further into the program.    

What are your plans for the future?

After completing grad school, I want to either become a professor or work in industry. It’s always interesting if you can do something that can help people, or make their life better in some way. You put all your thought and creativity into circuit design in the hopes that you can advance the hardware capabilities of analog, mixed signal and radio frequency integrated systems.

In the future, I believe the possibilities of wireless sensors, low power radio networks, and interconnected devices will drastically improve the quality of human well-being. Ongoing issues of switching noise introduced by digital circuitry, signal integrity, and the power constraints of mixed signal integrated circuits are all prime areas for investigation.

What is you most memorable experience at SFU?

It’s hard to choose – there are so many! Definitely all the people I’ve met so far, the working relationships I formed and the connections I made. Academically, I’ll never forget my 90-page thesis – it was twice the length of usual undergrad theses and I passed with distinction, so I’m very proud of that! Professor Gray said I covered three quarters of a master’s thesis. Also the beautiful views from the campus on the top of the mountain – I’ll miss that for sure.