Advice from Sandro Young, the top student in UofT

Sandro Young holding Governors General Silver Medal Award (Credits- Laura Brown)

Sandro Young graduated last summer from the department of Electrical and Computer engineering and received the Governor General’s Silver Medal award. This award is Canada’s most prestigious academic medal given to the top performing student across the entire university, and has been awarded to the likes of Pierre Trudeau, Tommy Douglas, and Kim Campbell. Sandro, who has a passion for machine learning and will be joining Google in September, has some advice for incoming students.

Below is a transcript of an interview with Sandro about his experiences and his advice for incoming students.

Did you do nothing but study?
No. Counterintuitively, I think it helps if you have extracurriculars and if you have other things that you’re doing and keep yourself busy all the time. It makes it so when you do sit down to study, you use your time more effectively because you’re forced too. I was in UTRA for three years on the autonomous rover team and the co-president of SPARK for two years and a member the year before that.

How do you motivate yourself to maintain your marks?
I don’t think it’s necessarily getting above an arbitrary cutoff that motivated me. Instead, I would say I take pride in what I do and when I put my name on something, I want it to reflect the best of my abilities. This includes things like tests. It was never “I want to get above x percent on something,” it was always knowing that when I turn in an assignment, it’s the most accurate reflection on my abilities.

What made you want to pursue engineering?
I’ve always been into STEM stuff like science and math for as long as I can remember. In middle school and high school, we did science fair projects and every project I chose to do was always computer related. In middle school, I made a calculator out of digital components and in high school, I did a few projects on virtual reality and tracking systems. I did a project on natural language processing where I built a Siri-esque voice assistant system. Those were the things i was interested in, so I knew I was going to go into a computer related field.

How did you use your interest in machine learning to supplement school?
Two of the summer internships I’ve done at Google have involved machine learning, and this was one of the things that actually piqued my interest. Most of the projects I’ve done haven’t involved much of it except for our capstone project. We created a machine learning program that analyzed gifs from the internet and created an algorithm to analyze faces to create its own faces based on that data.

If you could do your undergrad again, what would you change?
I would try to get more involved in things sooner. For example, SPARK was a big part of my later years in undergrad, but I didn’t join it until my PEY. I think if I had been a member sooner, this would have benefitted me. I also never got to do a hackathon which I think would have been fun. Also, I always lived close to campus so it was always tempting to go home after class and hang out there. If I could do everything over again, I would try to stay on campus longer and make it a habit to be there. A lot of the community and social events happen on campus, so it’s a fun environment to be around.

What advice do you have for incoming frosh?
I know this is cliché, but get involved in things. That’s important, and I think counterintuitively, it helps your academic performance and doesn’t hurt it if you’re doing things on the side that interest you. I also recommend going to class. A lot of times people will say ‘I’m behind so I’d better catch up rather than go to class’ or ‘I have 20 midterms this week so it’s better if I study’. While I can understand that, I think that forcing yourself to think about a subject for at least 3 hours a week by going to class helps, and do not break that habit. Finally, try not to fall into the trap of looking at a subject and saying that it’s useless because you’ll never use it again in the future. I think if that’s the mindset you have, it’s a self-defeating mindset. You won’t be able to find anything in the course that you find interesting and studying for it will become a pain.

What are you off to do after school?
I’m starting at Google in the Mountain View office in the States. I’m not sure what team I’ll be placed on, but right now it looks like Waymo, which is their self driving car division. I’m hopeful that that’s what it ends up being, since it’s an exciting project and a great example of how machine learning can radically change a whole lot of industries. It shows how machine learning can radically change what we think machines are capable of doing.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *