Meet the sibling-duo of Ben and Jillian Sprenger

They were Reach researchers in 2017-18 (Ethiopia Safety Net) and 2018-19 (Mongolia Solar Panels) – here they talk about what Reach, and each other, has taught them and inspired in them.

Describe your current studies. What are you studying, what point are you at in your degree and what are you learning from the experience?

JILLIAN: I am pursuing my Master of Science degree in the Department of Medical Biophysics at U of T. My thesis is on the use of polarized light microscopy in the study of various types of cancer.

After finishing my undergraduate degree in Global Health, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to try out a new field. I have developed technical skills and acquired a different knowledge set! However, I have missed working on the social and global issues that I’m passionate about and, after a lot of reflection, I am thinking about next pursuing law school or graduate education in environmental studies.

BEN: I’m currently finishing up my 4th year of Mechanical Engineering. I’m starting to specialize in mechatronics engineering applications, and a large part of my year has been consumed with electric vehicle projects. All my work from the last four years is wrapping up and, now that the fundamentals are in place, I’m loving the opportunity to specialize in areas I truly care about.

How did your experience as a Reach researcher influence what you are working on now?

J: One of the most exciting aspects of Reach is that the research teams are multidisciplinary. Students of every academic background participate and have so much to contribute. I was fascinated by the diverse viewpoints and skillsets, and in a way, I think that prompted me to be willing to try out a new field for my master’s degree.

B: Engineers are often programmed to think first and foremost about scale. When you’re designing anything, the first question everyone asks is ‘how can we impact the most amount of people in the least amount of time?’ Reach was an excellent lesson that this type of thinking can neglect the people who need things most. It opened my eyes to how much effort needs to go into making sure that no person is left behind. I keep this in mind on every project I work on.

What do you hope to do after graduation, and how do you think your experience of Reach and your current studies will prepare you for your next steps?

J: I am considering starting law school or further grad school in September, and am interested in environmental and international law. I think my experience in Reach will be incredibly helpful. Reach is all about gaining a better understanding of a complex global issue and I think that the legal and environmental fields involve problems of comparable complexity. I also believe that the interview component of Reach will be invaluable going forward – I imagine that there are parallels between field interviews and the interviews one would conduct with a legal client.

B: I’m headed to California for an internship with Tesla working on battery development. As we transition to sustainable energy, we need to make sure that this technology is being developed with key Reach concepts in mind – ensuring that everyone gets to reap the benefits, and no one is left behind.

Jillian: what about the Reach experience made you think that Ben would enjoy it and be a good candidate? And Ben, what about Jillian’s Reach experience made you think that you would enjoy it and be a good candidate?

J: As much as Ben is into technology, race cars and design, he also really cares about the world and some of its major challenges. He is particularly passionate about green technology and I knew that Reach was moving more into that space – I thought that Ben would enjoy the opportunity to redirect his efforts into such a project. Reach is so multidisciplinary, and I thought that he would have a lot to contribute in terms of his technical background. An engineering student would have a completely different perspective on a global issue than, say, a humanities student and I hoped that collaboration would lead to a really successful project!

B: When I heard about the Reach project from Jillian, I was amazed that undergraduate students had the opportunity to pursue fieldwork. After a few years of engineering, I was keen for the chance to work on real-world projects, particularly for global development applications. I immediately knew that I had to apply to Reach: there was really nothing that could compare in quality of experience as an undergraduate student.

Once I was a member of a Reach team, I realized that my engineering background could help the team understand the unique technological challenges of the project. Particularly in the field, I think that my technical background helped us to ask some key questions. And engineers tend to have a particular framework for solving problems that involves breaking things into abstracted, high-level ideas, then dividing down to atomic units and trying to understand problems independently of their solution – so I tried to imagine the Reach project in the smallest possible steps, to really understand the unique mechanisms that made it a success.

What advice would you give to researchers who have submitted their REB application, are conducting analysis, and are preparing to begin interviews and primary research?

J: One of my favourite parts of preparing for fieldwork is chasing down the interviews. It can be difficult to find the right people to talk to – my advice is to be creative in your search and persistent in your efforts. Be direct in your emails, and don’t be afraid to follow up multiple times!

B: I found it particularly useful to create a map/flowchart of how the Reach project would be delivered, with as many small steps as possible. In interviews, I would use this flowchart and ask stakeholders about various parts of it. The visual aid really helped to organize and clarify some of the most important aspects of the project delivery. I would highly encourage others to do the same thing, even very early on in the project.