Mayra Samaniego has become a leading researcher in the MADMUC lab. (Photo credit: James Shewaga)

From South America to Saskatoon

She hasn’t even officially started her own career yet, but Mayra Samaniego is already working on two different continents to inspire the next generation of young women in the field of computer science.

By James Shewaga

The prodigious PhD student at the University of Saskatchewan volunteers her time teaching computer code to girls and young women in workshops in Saskatoon and also recently returned from a month-long visit to Ecuador—her first trip home in three years—where she spoke to girls at her former high school about the world of opportunities that are available to them, just a click away on the internet.

“I strongly believe that we can make our dreams come true, no matter your geographical location or economical position,” Samaniego said. “But it requires hard work and dedication and to be persistent. Even though I want to research here in Canada, I would like to keep linked to my country, especially to my province and city. I want to show those young girls over there that all of their dreams can become true.”

Samaniego herself has come a long way, literally and figuratively, to conduct research at the U of S. While studying in South America, she quickly found that the internet eliminated borders and barriers and brought the future right to her door.

“I like to search new things on the internet and I saw the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) was a trending topic,” said Samaniego, who earned a bachelor’s degree in Ecuador before coming to the U of S. “And what I liked from the University of Saskatchewan is I saw on the website that they offered research opportunities in the lab. So, I contacted Dr. (Ralph) Deters because his research area was more in my area, which is distributed and mobile programming and ‘cloud’ computing. And then he offered me to work in the area of Internet of Things. I applied and was accepted and here I am.”

Now working under the guidance of Deters in the computer science department, Samaniego is one of 55 individuals from Ecuador and one of 3,001 international students at the U of S. Here in Saskatoon, she is now closer to the North Pole (4,200 km away) than she is to her home town of Chone near the equator (5,800 km away), adding climate to the cultural adjustment that she faced. Despite the cooler temperatures, she has been warmly welcomed in the campus community and in the city.

“One of things that I felt here, and that I read on the internet when I was searching for universities, is the support that this university gives to international students,” she said. “I felt supported when I arrived here. I remember they were very interested in making me feel like home, so that made me feel very good and that made the process easy. I am very thankful to this city of Saskatoon because I have met many people, Canadians and international people, who are very supportive.”

Samaniego was also supported by a number of U of S graduate scholarships, including earning a prestigious Dean’s Scholarship while working on her Master of Science, and has served as a sessional lecturer for the university.

Samaniego completed her master’s thesis, Virtual Resources and Internet of Things, in 2017 while working in Deters’ computer lab—Multi-User Adaptive Distributed Mobile and Ubiquitous Computing (MADMUC)—a creative hub that has featured graduate students from 25 different countries since opening in May of 2000.

“She is a very, very strong (PhD) candidate,” Deters said. “She recently won the Dean’s Scholarship, based on her strong performance in the master’s program. She did extremely well, she published, and her work is very, very innovative. And she has high potential for the future.”

In her PhD work, Samaniego is exploring cutting-edge blockchain technology, which powers the new digital currencies like Bitcoin and is also the key to unlocking the unlimited potential that IoT brings by connecting billions of devices.

“For me, the Internet of Things, IoT, together with blockchain, that is dynamite, because IoT has countless possibilities,” said Samaniego, who is building new systems based on blockchain technologies to manage IoT networks. “With IoT, a sensor in your shirt could monitor your heart beat and blood pressure and send that data directly to your smart phone to remind you to take your medicine, monitor your blood sugar, or track the position of seniors (with Alzheimer’s) who need help. So, health care is one of the more interesting areas, but there are many others.

“For example, I am from Ecuador where we have high quality bananas. With IoT, plus the functionality of blockchain, you can follow the process from when it was harvested to shipping it here.”

And here is where Samaniego wants to stay. She and her husband Cristian—who is also in the field of computer science—received permanent resident status after she completed her master’s and will pursue Canadian citizenship after she lands a faculty research position.

“My immediate goal is finishing my PhD and after that I would like to apply for a post-doc position and then get a faculty position here in Canada,” she said. “And the main reason is, here in Canada, we have more research opportunities than back home. So that’s my goal.”