2019 Alumni Association Awards of Excellence winners
Meet the 2019 Alumni Association Awards of Excellence winners!
Meritas Tabaret Award for Alumni Achievement
Thousands of Canadians enjoy better vision thanks to the achievements of the 2019 winner of the Meritas Tabaret Award for Alumni Achievement, Dr. Rosa Braga-Mele (MD ’93). A renowned surgeon and innovator, Braga-Mele has focused her career on improving cataract surgery through better patient care, surgical practice, technology and training for surgeons.
While in medical school, Braga-Mele’s first choice of specialty wasn’t ophthalmology, she says. The lack of internship space in general surgery — her first choice — led her to follow up on a professor’s suggestion that she try ophthalmology. She’s never looked back. “I’m lucky to wake up every morning to do something I love,” she says.
A sought-after speaker, Braga-Mele was voted by her peers as one of the top 50 opinion leaders in cataract and refractive surgery. Innovations she has pioneered include microincision and laser-assisted surgery, which help patients recover more quickly, with better vision, than standard techniques. Working with industry engineers, she has also created her own instruments and developed techniques to enhance safety and effectiveness.
Braga-Mele’s surgical, research and hands-on technological development knowledge come together in her role as professor of ophthalmology in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto. “My biggest passion has always been teaching students at the residency level,” she says. Her teaching skills have earned her multiple accolades, including seven Silver Needle awards for best resident surgical teacher and her medical school’s 2016 Excellence in Community-Based Teaching Award in 2016.
Recent research she carried out with colleagues attests to the effectiveness of the training UofT surgical residents receive — cataract surgeries done by residents were as problem-free as those carried out by staff surgeons. “Through all the people I’ve taught to become good surgeons and clinicians, I’ve reached so many other patients,” she says.
The keys to her success are what she also prescribes to her three sons: hard work and perseverance. “It’s doing what’s right for you, for your community, for your patients,” she says.
Alumnus of the Year
Entrepreneurship runs through Chuck Rifici’s veins. “I didn’t realize I wanted to become an entrepreneur until I became one,” he says, “but I always knew I wanted control over my work life, to forge my own path.”
Rifici (BASc ’02) set out on that path while pursuing his bachelor’s in computer engineering at the University of Ottawa. His initial dream was to develop virtual reality hardware. “I missed my calling there by about two decades,” he jokes.
While still an undergraduate, Rifici started his first company, Comnet Communications. While it took him eight years to finish his degree as a result, it was worth it — he and his business partner sold the company for $1 million in 2001. He then completed a MBA at Queen’s University and worked a few years as chief financial officer for an online marketing company. Rifici then hung out his shingle as a CFO for hire.
“I made a lot of mistakes in the process,” he says, leading to lessons he and partner applied when they co-founded Tweed Marijuana Inc. in 2012 in a dilapidated former chocolate factory in Smiths Falls. Tweed was one of the first companies granted a licence to produce and sell medical cannabis by Health Canada. Renamed Canopy Growth, it’s the world’s largest marijuana company and the first cannabis producer to go public in Canada. Rifici stepped down as CEO in 2014.
The pioneering entrepreneur has continued his leadership in the cannabis industry. He now heads Nesta Holding Co., a private equity firm, and is CEO at Auxly Cannabis Group, which, in 2017, he and other cannabis industry leaders founded as Cannabis Wheaton Income, the first “cannabis streaming company” in the world, offering producers capital in exchange for future revenue.
Nicknamed “the godfather of weed,” Rifici has been honoured for his vision and business acumen by the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce and many others. This year’s alumnus award is his second — in 2014, the Faculty of Engineering named him the first ever Alumnus Entrepreneur of the Year.
Commitment to the University
When John McEntyre (BASc ’65, MEng ’69) transitioned from University of Ottawa High School to our university, he faced a choice. Math? Science? Engineering? “All these things fascinated me,” he says. He opted for electrical engineering, but not before getting his pilot’s licence and joining the navy.
McEntyre was intrigued by computers, but says, “When I graduated there was no such thing as computer science.” The booming data processing industry hired electrical engineers instead. “I was on the cusp of the evolution of technology in computers.”
He then enjoyed a career with IBM and other industry giants such as Northern Telecom, Bell Northern Research, the Defence Research Board and Honeywell, in Ottawa, Montreal, Mississauga, Silicon Valley, Iran and Australia. His career path was driven more by opportunity than intent. “I’d say ‘That looks, interesting, let’s do that,’” he says.
While McEntyre didn’t spend enough time in one place to put down deep roots, he did return to uOttawa from his Montreal home for a design exhibition at the Faculty of Engineering’s Project Integration and Team Space in 2017. “That impressed me,” he says. “That kind of thing didn’t exist when I was there.”
The concept of a team space where “bright, enthusiastic, enterprising students” (as McEntyre puts it) can follow through on an idea on their own time appealed to him. His donation will provide student teams with direct support, mentoring, and new technology and equipment. “We need to have people with vision,” he says. “The space makes them see what entrepreneurship is about, what needs to be done to advance technology in the workplace.”
This hands-on learning facility is known as the John McEntyre Team Space. Engineers coming through those doors “will understand the real world,” says McEntyre. “They will be more complete people. “
Frances Tibollo (JD ‘15) made headlines in 2018 when she negotiated the release of two Canadian women being held unjustly in a Cambodian prison.
“What took place was a cultural misunderstanding,” says Tibollo, uOttawa’s 2019 winner of the Young Alumni Award.
The Toronto area lawyer was familiar with Cambodia, having worked in 2017 as an intern and junior legal consultant in the Office of Co-Prosecutors of the United Nations Assistance to the Khmer Rouge Trials, which assists Cambodia’s domestic Extraordinary Chambers courts. She pursues her interest in international human rights as an activist on the issues of human trafficking, exploitation of children and access to education, including through the Oaklands Foundation, which she founded in her early teens.
As a student at St. Francis Xavier University, the Norman Patterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, and later, the uOttawa Faculty of Law, Tibollo stood out as a group leader and outstanding scholar. Fellow students say she inspired those around her to strive for excellence as well. Her community involvement has been recognized through numerous awards.
Called to the Ontario bar in 2016, Tibollo joined a firm as a commercial litigation attorney. Despite a demanding career, she continues to participate in numerous community activities, sitting on the boards of five charitable organizations, including OneChild, COMITES Toronto and the National Congress of Italian Canadians.
Tibollo is truly multi-talented. In addition to her community endeavours, she is a beekeeper, working alongside her father at LLBee’s Honey Family Farm, in Vaughn, Ontario. An accomplished photographer as well, she held her first exhibit in 2018. Tibollo also holds a second-degree black belt in tae kwon do.
But most of all, Tibollo has made it her life’s mission to advocate for others, and this fight for justice is what drives her.
Those who know Trèva Cousineau (BSc ’59) use words like “dynamic,” “generous” and “tireless” to describe this passionate advocate for French education and culture in Ontario. The former teacher and dietitian has devoted herself to advancing and protecting la francophonie, locally, province-wide, across the country and even around the world, for more than 50 years. Her motivation is simple: “When you’ve been given a lot, you have to give back a lot.”
“I learned to become involved at uOttawa,” says Cousineau. Class president and a cheerleader, she also worked with the student newspaper and yearbook, earning the merit award for participation in student life.
A native of Timmins, Ontario, Cousineau returned to the north in 1963, taking up the cause of French education as a school board trustee and coordinator of French services for the provincial ministry of community and social services in Sudbury.
In 1989, back in Ottawa, she continued to advocate for French-language education — holding many positions, including executive director of the Conseil d’éducation catholique pour les francophones de l’Ontario, provincial president and acting executive director of the Association canadienne-française de l’Ontario and executive director of the Fédération nationale des conseils scolaires de langue française.
She also chaired a 1990 advisory group on French-language education in Ontario, the Cousineau Commission, which led to the creation of 12 fully-funded French language public and Catholic school boards in Ontario by 1998.
Cousineau’s dedication has earned her many distinctions, including being named to the Ordre des francophones d'Amérique. Most recently she received a 2018 Ontario Senior Achievement Award. Her proudest accomplishment is having chaired the committee to build the Monument de la francophonie on the uOttawa campus in 2013.
While Cousineau continues to head the Mouvement d’implication francophone d’Orléans and Dialogue Canada, she is now considering a new challenge — undertaking her master’s degree. At uOttawa, of course.
Honorary Members of the Alumni Association
Giving back to their adopted country motivated uOttawa’s 2019 Honorary Members of the Alumni Association, Cynthia and Yves Bled, to dedicate their lives to youth. Although retired, the former professors continue to foster student success and recognize student achievements through their generous support of scholarships and bursaries at a variety of institutions, including uOttawa.
“Our future depends on what we as adults do with and for the youth,” says Cynthia. An economist, her wide-ranging career spanned stints at uOttawa, Concordia and Carleton universities, and Algonquin College. As a school trustee for more than a decade, she influenced the educational vision that guides Ottawa youth. Her contributions have been recognized through various distinctions, including the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.
Yves, an anthropologist, was dean of students, director of cultural programs and professor of cultural anthropology at uOttawa, where he brought his love of world cultures to the campus and community at large. “The world is my home,” he says, an outlook that is reflected in the couple’s extensive travels and the art that covers the walls of their Ottawa home.
The Bleds’ drive to make a difference in the lives of students is reflected in the Canadian Future Achievers (CFA) program, which they created in 2007 to encourage high-achieving minority youth to succeed. A generous donation to uOttawa’s Faculty of Social Sciences in 2011 sealed a partnership between CFA and the University, which serves as a hub for the now-international program. “We went international because of the global village in which we now operate,” says Cynthia.
In 2017, the educators set their sights on other areas where they could have a lasting impact. They zeroed in on the paucity of female students in engineering. “The results of engineering affect us in every possible way,” says Cynthia. “We need to foster this area.”
“Canada has been good to us,” says Yves, “and uOttawa gave us an opportunity to contribute to its future success. It’s an honour to be associated with it.”