Science Horizons intern: Sandi Chieu

Little did Sandi Chieu think she would be part of an international trade delegation within a year of being hired as an environmental analyst intern at Ambience Data Inc., Mississauga, Ont. Yet in October 2016 the University of Waterloo biology graduate was a member of an Ontario Clean Tech trade mission to Hong Kong and mainland China. Although Sandi is of Chinese heritage and speaks Cantonese, it was her first trip to China.

Sandi, whose parents had immigrated to Canada from south-east Asia, was thrilled with the experience but also astonished by the high air pollution levels in some of the cities she visited. “People talk about the smog in China but it’s a really big shock when you first see it,” she said. “I rarely saw the sun when I was there.” Now a full-time employee of Ambience Data, she was on the trade mission to promote awareness of her company’s pollution analytical services and pollution monitors. The monitors, playfully named for birds such as blue jays, starlings, owls and pelicans, have the capacity of rapidly assessing and reporting pollution levels of pollutants in air, soil and water.

Science Horizons funding has been instrumental in Ambience Data's growth in the past year. The support enabled us to grow our business with environmental graduates with advanced skill sets.

- Nisha Sarveswaran, CEO and founder, Ambience Data Inc.

The trade mission was also an opportunity to see what other products are in the market and find potential partners, Sandi says. A month earlier she went to the Water Environment Federation’s annual WEFTEC conference in New Orleans. She was there to support Heron Instruments Inc. of Dundas, Ont., an Ambience Data’s partner that manufactures water level meters.

Ambience Data, which has grown rapidly, has taken advantage of Environment Canada’s Science Horizons internship funding for young scientists and hired a half-dozen interns through the CiCan Clean Tech and Eco Canada’s Environmental Youth Corps internship programs. The funding has allowed the company to ramp up its growth. In 2015, it had three employees. By 2017 this had grown to 15 employees in Canada and a similar number split between India and the Ukraine.

“Science Horizons funding has been instrumental in Ambience Data's growth in the past year,” says the company’s CEO and founder Nisha Sarveswaran. “The support enabled us to grow our business with environmental graduates with advanced skill sets.” She says that Mississauga, a large urban centre just west of Toronto, is ethnically diverse and provides a great pool of potential employees who speak different languages. Ambience Data’s employees in the Toronto area speak a total of 15 languages.

Group picture of Ambience Data’s Science Horizons interns.

Sandi is the first person in her immediate family to pursue a career in science. She attributes her concern about the environment to David Attenborough’s masterful Planet Earth series that she watched in her grade 12 biology class. Her first goal was to become a marine biologist. However, university courses sparked her curiousity about a range of environmental issues.

When founded in 2014, Ambience Data’s first focus was on outdoor air pollution. It has collaborated with many partners including the Asthma Society of Canada. Sensors developed by the company can detect unhealthy air in homes, schools or hospital rooms remotely.

Sandi Chieu, an environmental analyst with Ambience Data, says many of her friends recognize that there are pollutants in the environment but do not necessarily comprehend their health impacts.

The World Health Organization estimates that more than 6 million people die annually from air-pollution related deaths and that air pollution rates are rising in most cities, especially in low- and middle-income countries. Poor air quality can result in deaths from strokes, heart diseases, lung cancer and various respiratory diseases -- including asthma.

After completing her biology degree at Waterloo, she went on to take a post-degree Environmental Control program at Sheridan College in Brampton, Ont. The university program was broad and largely theoretical, whereas the college program more practical and career-oriented, she says.

Providing a “one-stop shop” for the analysis of pollution data is quite rare, Sandi says. While plenty of tools exist to evaluate pollution data, analysts often lack “real-time” data, she explains. Real-time water quality monitoring can help identify a contamination source at a faster rate than through observation and reporting. For example, timely data might indicate blue-green algae blooms are likely to form in a system of lakes. A rapid response could avert an extensive and expensive clean-up. The company’s clients include municipalities, research facilities, schools, businesses and individuals.

As an intern, Sandi prepared environmental reports that identified trends in air pollution. Working with a small start-up enabled her to work on many projects. “I’ve been able to hop around and learn different things,” she says. “Every day is different. It’s really great being challenged.”

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