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Growing up, she dared not dream she could be a scientist. Now she’s helping hundreds of kids believe it’s possible

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Seated in the hallway of her high school, Eugenia Duodu’s head was buried deep in her science textbooks when a student teacher approached.

“You like science?” asked the teacher. Duodu, then in Grade 11, nodded.

Duodu loved science, even though her friends thought it was uncool. It had been a closeted passion since childhood, when she relished TV shows such as The Magic School Bus and Bill Nye the Science Guy. But she had never dreamed of pursuing science. Being Black, raised by a single mom in social housing in Etobicoke, she didn’t see herself in that world. She didn’t know any scientists and thought they were old white men in lab coats with messy hair. Albert Einstein types

The teacher told Duodu about an upcoming summer mentorship program at the University of Toronto, where students of Indigenous and African ancestry work alongside researchers in labs and clinics. Duodu had grappled with impostor syndrome, doubting her accomplishments and questioning if science was a good fit for her, even though she was a hard worker and had the grades to prove it. And, although she didn’t know it, science was literally in her DNA.

She applied, was accepted, and, for the first time, stepped onto a university campus, where she met scientists who looked like her with similar upbringings.

“We were like, ‘What? You exist?’… My classmates and I were like, ‘We can do this.’… It was a game changer.”

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Duodu went on to get a PhD in chemistry. She’s now CEO of Visions of Science Network for Learning, a charitable organization that runs free educational programs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) for youth in low-income communities. It works with Toronto Community Housing (TCH) and Peel Housing Corporation in 24 locations across Toronto, Mississauga and Brampton, serving more than 500 youth from Grades 3 to 12.

The goal is to break down barriers — negative perceptions of STEM and limited funding for and access to opportunities and engage kids with hands-on learning experiences. A reason for this is 70 per cent of future jobs will require STEM-based literacy and skills, according to Let’s Talk Science, a national STEM-based organization.

“I’ve always had a passion for youth from (social) housing,” says Duodu, 30, who last year moved out of her mom’s apartment in TCH. “I saw the opportunity gaps, but also saw their potential.”

The organization runs STEM clubs for kids in Grades 3 to 8 on Saturdays from October to May in community spaces such as a building’s recreation room or community centre. Children participate in experimental workshops and learn, for instance, how to make paint, build robots and create hydraulic mazes. And they visit places such as the Royal Ontario Museum and the Ontario Science Centre.

When Duodu stepped into a volunteer leadership role at the organization in 2012 — she became CEO in 2016 — STEM clubs were in six communities and are now in 24. They were so successful that a STEM Community Leaders program was created for kids in Grades 8 to 12. In the summer, they visit places such as labs, universities and hospitals. And during the school year, they help run the STEM clubs for younger children, which develops leadership skills.

With Duodu at the helm, the organization became a charity and has been steadily growing, with six full-time staff, 24 part-time workers and 95 volunteers, mostly university STEM students. The organization receives federal funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, which is a provincial agency.

Dawn Britton is the associate director of outreach at U of T Engineering, which has partnered with Visions for almost two decades. Since Duodu came on board, the relationship has deepened. With each passing year, Britton says she sees more kids who aren’t afraid to put up their hands, are thinking of taking Grade 11 physics and who want to go to university.

“She’s creating a culture within Visions where it is cool to be smart,” says Britton. “That’s powerful.”

And, she says, Duodu has been very good about engaging the support network of youth — parents, grandparents, siblings, influencers — and inviting them to events, which is key to their success.

Nawaal Ali Sharif is one of the hundreds of kids exposed to STEM programs thanks to Visions of Science Network for Learning. The charitable organization runs free educational programs in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics for youth in low-income communities.

Nawaal Ali Sharif, 16, a Grade 11 student at Humberside Collegiate, says Visions programming “will change your life.” Four years ago, she started going to the STEM club in her Swansea Mews complex in the city’s west end. Back then, Sharif had little interest in science, which was synonymous with lectures and textbooks. That’s not the case now. “I actually truly love STEM,” she says, noting there were other changes too.

“I was shy. I didn’t like speaking and my confidence level was not at its peak … But since joining the program, my confidence has gone up.”

She hopes to study STEM in university and become a teacher. And, she thinks she’d be pretty good too, given her newly acquired leadership skills.

“Visions gave me an understanding of how to handle kids, make them have fun and help them understand and learn concepts they would not ordinarily understand at their age.”

She hasn’t ruled out becoming a scientist — she knows it’s possible.

“When I met Eugenia, I was like ‘Whoa.’ There are people who look like me who can be scientists. She completely changed my (perception) of what a scientist looked like.”

Duodu was raised as an only child in Etobicoke, in a TCH building on Capri Rd., in the Eatonville neighbourhood. She credits her mother with instilling in her a deep sense of community, that was reinforced at their local church — Church on the Queensway — where they are both still active.

Duodu remembers her mother making breakfast for a kid who lived down the hall, and giving it to him in a bag at the elevator so he wouldn’t go to school hungry. Her mother modelled kindness and Duodu was a fast learner.

As a toddler in daycare, according to stories her mom tells, Duodu would wipe the runny noses of children and alert caregivers to poopy diapers. And when she grew up, she’d help her peers by leading tutoring and reading groups.

Duodu’s mother, an accounting clerk, was always ready to help with homework, especially math. And she’d sign her daughter up for library programs, piano lessons and art camps. “We didn’t have the money to do certain things but my mom made sure to go after opportunities and see what subsidies were available,” recalls Duodu.

“I was very empowered to learn and go forward with my learning, but I didn’t see that empowerment translate to my classmates, who I knew had the ability … From a young age, I remember feeling like, ‘Why is it that I like this and some people don’t?’ or ‘Why am I doing well and some people aren’t?’”

Growing up, she was interested in science, but it was a “weird closeted passion.” Then, in Grade 10, at Martingrove Collegiate Institute, she took a biotechnology course. A class project involved having to do a series of tests to determine an unknown bacteria strain. Duodu was hooked. She researched tirelessly and figured it out.

“We had the best teacher. He was a complete light, and was totally hands-on,” recalls Duodu. “He opened up my world to the practical side of science. It was like science lifting off your textbook and operating in real life.”

She had not planned on continuing science but when Grade 11 started she asked to switch into physics, chemistry and biology. The guidance counsellor discouraged it, saying, “Why would you do that? It’s going to be so hard for you.”

Duodu was confused. The previous year she had aced science, but maybe the counsellor was right and she couldn’t hack it. But Duodu decided to follow her mom’s advice and insisted on getting into those science classes.

“As I excelled in university I would think back to that moment and think, ‘Oh my goodness, what if I had listened to (the guidance counsellor)? Did she say this to other people who didn’t know much about their abilities or themselves?”

During that “game-changer” of a summer mentorship program at the university, Duodu shadowed scientists in labs and followed doctors on rotation, witnessing live births, reading X-rays and studying MRIs.

“It was awesome,” recalls Duodu, who returned to high school with a new focus. “I knew I wanted to go to university and I was no longer afraid of going to school for a long time.”

While doing an undergraduate degree at U of T — she earned an Honours Bachelor of Science (chemistry and biology) — Duodu worked part-time as a youth worker for Toronto Community Housing.

“I (saw) what life was like across housing, across the city. That started shaping my perspective drastically, seeing how some challenges were the same, and some were completely different, depending on where you lived. Certain ends of the city were better resourced than others and that inevitably affected what happened in school.”

At the time, TCH was in the midst of the Tower Renewal project, retrofitting older buildings to make them more energy efficient. Residents complained about things such as low water pressure, and Duodu explained the science behind it and how money being saved could go back into community programs.

“I began to realize that it’s so important for communities to be scientifically literate, especially when science is happening to you anyways.”

After her undergrad, she pursued a PhD in chemistry. (The Master’s program is rolled into the PhD.) Spending countless hours in the lab researching cancer diagnostic tools taught her to look at problems and challenges in a different way and to be open to new possibilities. She drew upon those lessons when she began volunteering with Visions in 2011.

“There were systemic barriers to participation in STEM for youth in low-income communities and I began to think of ways to provide even more opportunities, despite these barriers.”

It was also during her PhD that she established a relationship with her father — a chemist — with whom she’s now very close.

“It put together a lot of pieces as to why I liked science,” she says. “It’s funny, I grew up not knowing any scientists and it turns out (I am the daughter of one.)”

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After finishing her PhD in 2015, Duodu could have pursued academia or industry, but was “deeply passionate” about Visions and dedicated herself full-time to the organization.

There’s little research in Canada on children in low-income communities and academic achievement in STEM. But according to a 2014 Toronto District School Board report, the 2011-2012 EQAO results — tests administered by the Education Quality and Accountability Office — show that 65 per cent of students in Grade 3, and 57 per cent of Grade 6 students, from low-income families (earning less than $30,000), achieved the provincial standard for math. By comparison, 89 per cent of students in Grade 3, and 85 per cent in Grade 6, from high-income families (earning more than $100,000), met that standard.

Given the lack of research, Visions is tracking the progress of kids in their STEM clubs.

“We’re trying to get the data … Why are youth from low-income communities so under-represented in STEM? What are the determinants that go into that?

“It doesn’t mean that children from low-income communities have less aptitude for science or less interest. Everyone grows up, to a certain point, liking it … But then it stops.”

Maurice Bitran, CEO & Chief Science Officer of the Ontario Science Centre, which partners with Visions, says “every kid who drops out of school or doesn’t get the opportunity to pursue what they have talent for, is a loss for society as a whole.”

“Anything we can do to inspire kids from these backgrounds and give them opportunities will change their lives, but also will be a positive impact for society.”

As for Visions’ future, there are plans to expand into communities in Scarborough and Rexdale and grow the programming aimed at high school kids. Beyond that, Duodu hasn’t yet decided whether to focus on deepening the impact in the GTA or moving into other parts of Ontario or Canada.

“We have had the opportunity to watch so many of the youth that we work with grow in many ways,” says Duodu. “From what I can already see now I am excited about the future of our communities, this city and the country. They are extraordinary and I can’t wait to see all that they do.”

Eugenia Duodu will be speaking at TEDxToronto at the Evergreen Brickworks on Friday, Oct. 26, at 2:35 p.m. Tomorrow’s day-long event can be viewed on a live stream www.tedxtoronto.com beginning at 10 a.m.

The Star is profiling 12 Canadians who are making our lives better. Next week we talk to fiscal transparency watchdog Kevin Page.

Isabel Teotonio is a Toronto-based reporter covering education. Follow her on Twitter: @Izzy74

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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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