BTech Student on the Frontline of Cancer Research

By Ransler Dier
April 16, 2010

When you think of process automation it is hard to imagine any remote connection to medical research. Most of us think of products rolling down an assembly line when manufacturing is involved. Yet, despite preconceptions, one student’s studies in this field brought him to the forefront of cancer research.

As part of his studies in the Bachelor of Technology program offered through McMaster University and Mohawk College, Richard Newsome, a 34-year-old mature student and father of two, was given an opportunity to complete a summer co-op placement at the British Columbia Cancer Agency. He processed millions of lines of data as part of the research to identify cancerous genes.  

“I felt absolutely prepared for this placement and because of that, the co-op experience was great,” said Richard.  “I was literally on the frontline of cancer research. It was so amazing to be there and see the hustle and bustle of what is going on right now; phenomenal.”

The process automation program is one of three streams offered by the McMaster-Mohawk Bachelor of Technology joint venture through its four-year program.  The other program choices are biotechnology and automotive and vehicle technology.  There is also a degree-completion program for those graduates holding a college diploma in technology and foreign-trained professionals.  Program options in degree-completion include: civil engineering infrastructure, computing and information, energy engineering, and manufacturing engineering.

The process automation stream deals with replacing a manual process with an automatically controlled alternative. The most common use of this technology is on the manufacturing lines on factory floors to cut the processing costs. This involves a good deal of learning computer programming languages and working with sensors, actuators & industrial controllers rather than the workings of the human body. By using the skills he has learned through the program Richard was able to utilize what he learned in the program and apply it to a seemingly unrelated field.

“I was to be writing in Python [a programming construct], which I had never heard of at the time, but I had taken enough programming through this course that I was sure I could do it,” said Richard.  “I just applied what I knew, and twisted it to fit with the machines that I was using.”

Richard’s work was deemed noteworthy enough that it was presented at the Advances in Genome and Biology conference in December.  He has also been included as an author on a formal paper submitted to the journal Nature Methods.

Ben Oliver
Bachelor of Technology student Richard Newsome.

Before coming to the program, Richard was in his last year of apprenticing for a career as an electrician.

“The actual study itself is priceless,” said Richard with a smile. “They had this program at Mohawk for a few years but in 2007 it was re-launched with a university degree component through the McMaster-Mohawk joint venture.  I’ll end up with an advanced diploma from Mohawk and a four-year degree from McMaster which goes a long way as they each demonstrate a different thing; the diploma indicating the hands-on experience and the degree, the theory.”

“I had heard snippets of conversation about process automation, and had seen enough of it even in my work as an electrician to make me say oh, this looks like the future,” Richard explained. “As an electrician there is a lot of automation involved, so the course wasn’t all that foreign to me.”

The course proved to be difficult despite the similarities with his previous work. Especially with the added stress of balancing his work with a wife and kids at home, but with the help of the faculty and fellow students he has been able to make it to the home stretch.

“I want to get into research; I also want to get into consulting if research doesn’t pan out for me. I hear it pays better anyways,” said Richard laughing. “I would like to become a consulting engineer so that I could use all different kinds of tools from the business level to the actual process level and work on larger projects.”

And with this program and its co-op experiences, Richard said he feels that he is completely prepared for the career path ahead of him.

“I can’t brag enough for the program, I haven’t gotten to the final job yet but I know it is going to be a good one. I know I am going to go places from here.”

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