Before she discovered the world of math and science and a career that could combine them both, Edem Dovlo (MASc ’11, BASc ’09) knew that she loved learning. As last year, we’ve teamed up with Ridley-Padmore and Ndema-Moussa to celebrate Black History Month and add a new portrait and poem of Black uOttawa alumna who has made a significant mark on the University.
Meet Edem Dovlo :
Born and raised in Ghana,
newly independent and free,
which helped Edem learn the power of imagination
and dream of all she could be.
When she entered fourth grade,
Edem’s calling had become quite clear.
With her love of science and of math,
she would become an engineer.
First, she earned her Bachelor’s,
And then her Master’s and her Ph.D.
Edem’s confidence to make sustainable change,
grew more with each degree.
Today she teaches biophotonics,
and with the team she leads,
Edem uses engineering
to solve the world’s pressing needs.
Edem never knew a limit
on anything that she could learn, or be, or do,
and now she uses all her power,
so others know it too.
Dovlo grew up in Accra, Ghana. Her parents were the first generation to come of age in a country independent of colonial rule. They encouraged Dovlo and her older brother to pursue academic excellence from a young age. “It was about seeing education as a real way to move forward for them and for the future of our country,” she says.
Because of a Grade 4 teacher, math and science became the focal point of Dovlo’s thirst for knowledge. The teacher challenged her with extra schoolwork and would invite the nine-year-old to discuss the real-world applications of her studies. This, he explained, was engineering: the marriage of practical problem-solving with the theories of math and science.
It was a lightbulb moment for Dovlo. In the years that followed, a combination of conversations, tinkering with household objects and an affinity for physics led Dovlo to pursue her university studies in mechanical engineering.
In 2004, Dovlo moved from Accra to Canada to pursue an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at uOttawa. One reason she chose uOttawa was because it was a bilingual environment where she could improve her French. But the primary motivator was the first year hands-on “dissection lab” and other hands-on opportunities in every year of study.
“It allowed you from the onset to have that experience with existing mechanics,” says Dovlo of the lab. “You got to take things apart, figure out the mechanism, do some technical drawings, and then put stuff back together with a caveat of it having to actually function!” Dovlo enjoyed the dissection lab so much that she went on to become a teaching assistant for the course during her master’s, and eventually taught the class as a part-time professor.
While completing her studies, Dovlo says her identities as a Ghanaian and as an international student offered an abundance of opportunity to connect with uOttawa’s multicultural student body. She fondly remembers getting together with students from West Africa and other parts of the world, sharing food from home or talking about their cultures.
At the same time, Dovlo was one of the few Black students in the mechanical engineering program. “Going through the course, people would say stuff like ‘you’ll have to work three times as hard as everybody else to get certain things,’” says Dovlo. “There are different experiences that taught me that, but because I enjoy what I’m doing I’m not easily discouraged, even if I have faced those roadblocks.”
Blending industry and academia
Completing her PhD in 2017, Dovlo today straddles the line between academia and industry —sectors people traditionally consider very different career paths. But Dovlo says working in both has let her continue to combine the theory and practical application she has always loved.
At uOttawa, Dovlo teaches an intro to biophotonics course and aspires to continue her own academic research. And in her day job with Nanometrics Inc., she leads a team of engineers focused on researching and developing sensors for seismic monitoring of events including earthquakes and volcanoes.
Reflecting on the future, Dovlo says she would like to continue working on fulfilling multidisciplinary projects that help build long-lasting solutions — either in Canada, in her native Ghana or globally. Says Dovlo: “Engineering is about problem-solving and thinking critically about things that help improve peoples’ lives. That’s still what gets me excited.”
Read the previous articles in our Trailblazers series: