Samuel Tsang’s mentorship in robotics lab creating a positive culture for younger students

Student volunteer Samuel Tsang can be found most days helping his fellow students succeed in the Rehabilitation Robotics Lab under Martin Ferguson-Pell. We asked him what makes him so passionate about his work.

11 April 2023

Tell us about your academic background. 

I was born and raised here in Edmonton and after high school, I followed in the footsteps of both my parents by enrolling at the University of Alberta. I majored in biological sciences and did a minor in anthropology as I also enjoyed history and archeology. After I graduated in 2015, I continued to explore my academic interests by volunteering for different research projects. One of my fondest memories of research was sorting middle and later Stone Age lithic artifacts with Dr. Pamela Willoughby as part of the Iringa Region Archaeological Project. 

I also started the bachelor of commerce after-degree program (with a major in accounting) because I knew it was important to have a good understanding of business if I wanted to go further in research and development. I joined Martin Ferguson-Pell’s team at the Rehabilitation Robotics Lab in 2021 because it stood out as a great interdisciplinary team that matched both my interests and experience. 

Can you describe your work and projects in the lab?

I am the project coordinator of a wheelchair study. We’re currently studying the benefits of motorized power-assist devices for manual wheelchairs. These are portable wheels that are attached to a manual wheelchair and help push the wheelchair user when they require assistance (such as up inclines, through rough terrain like grass, or for long distances when the user is fatigued). 

As pushing a wheelchair puts a significant amount of strain on the shoulder joints, the majority of wheelchair users experience shoulder overuse injuries after several years of being in a wheelchair. Our research team wants to explore technologies that help reduce those types of injuries. Secondly, we want to know if wheelchair assist devices can function in harsh climates, such as the snowy, icy and cold conditions during Alberta winters. 

I also assist with other projects, including motion capture technologies, virtual/augmented/extended reality technologies and a telehealth platform in collaboration with Alberta Health Services (AHS) called ProMote. 

How did you start working in the lab and mentoring younger students?

I was interested in disability studies, rehabilitation work and adaptive sports. I worked as a lifeguard and swimming instructor at the YMCA for almost 10 years so fitness has always been an important part of my life. I also volunteered for many years at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital doing pediatric occupational therapy and physical therapy. At the Steadward Centre at the U of A, I coached para-swimming and volunteered for many of their adaptive physical fitness programs. I also had an academic background that included knowledge in science, physics, engineering, business and rehabilitation, which meant I had the knowledge to run a research study. As a result, the lab was a perfect choice because it aligned with both my personal interests and my academic experience. 

I got involved in mentoring soon after I joined the lab. It has an excellent culture of mentorship for volunteers, students and staff. My professor, Martin Ferguson-Pell, and my lab supervisor, Emily Armstrong, have created an environment that allows the students to learn, grow and mature, both as academics and as people. 

Last month, Emily won the University of Alberta Award for Outstanding Mentorship in Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities hosted by the Undergraduate Research Initiative (URI). Under her direction, I have also embraced a mentorship role with our young students. University is a time of tremendous personal, professional and character growth and my role as a leader is to teach, supervise and inspire these students to achieve their academic and personal goals. 

You’ve been described as a tireless volunteer who is in the lab almost every day offering support and guidance to fellow researchers and students. What motivates you to volunteer?

I was under a one-year contract to run the research study and chose to stay on the project after the contract ended to ensure it was completed. I just finished my degree last semester, so I am volunteering until I decide to either take another research contract or go back to school to complete a master’s degree. 

The technical skills and experience I am learning are invaluable. Jobs in industry tend to pay for work based on the skills you already have, rather than give you the time and space to learn. You may also be required to do work you do not enjoy in order to get paid. Here, I have a lot of fun learning something new every day and I would like to inspire others to do the same.

What are some of your favourite parts of the lab and volunteering there?

I love showing up every day and learning something new, whether it is my own project or a colleague’s project. I also enjoy the healthy work environment. The members of my team are incredibly motivated individuals who take pride in producing the highest quality work. In our lab, everyone is a valuable team member. 

I believe our work has a greater purpose. We do not do research simply for the sake of research. My research project directly impacts wheelchair users in Edmonton. I know that our work has the potential of making someone else’s life better, so that makes all the hard work worthwhile.

What are your future plans? 

Since I just finished my business degree this past December, I plan to spend a little more time finishing up my research project. I also want to work on some of the other projects in our lab, including the VR applications that my colleagues are developing. For long-term career goals, I am looking to work in a career that uses both my research and business skills. I am also considering further academic studies, such as coming back for my master’s and PhD or pursuing medical school.

What would you say to anyone thinking about volunteering in a similar lab?

Pick something that interests you. Volunteer because you are passionate about something, not because you feel like you have to do it. I volunteer because I love the work that I do. 

Don’t be afraid of working hard. A lot of students are scared of commitment because they are worried it will be too much work. I understand that it is important to balance your workload. However, you will really benefit from all the experience, knowledge and life skills you will learn in the research environment. 

Never do things simply because you want a result. If your goal is to get a quick reference letter, you will miss out on the chance to learn and grow as a person. I find the best volunteers and practicum students are people who believe in the contributions they can make to research and society. 

Enjoy the journey. Even though it can be a lot of work at times, it is really a privilege to work first-hand with new technologies that may impact the lives of people across the world.