Honorary graduate Donald Sadoway

Author: 
Gavin Au-Yeung

Triple alumnus Donald Sadoway is an innovator whose work on energy efficiency has altered the way we approach stationary and portable power sources.

Sadoway, who received his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Toronto, was named by TIME magazine one of the world's 100 most influential people in 2012. He is the John F. Elliott Professor of Materials Chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author of 145 scientific papers.

In recognition of his pioneering research and outstanding contribtutions to higher education and sustainable energy, U of T confers the degree of Doctor of Engineering, honoris causa, upon Sadoway June 19. (Watch the ceremony online.)

Writer Gavin Au-Yeung asked Sadoway about his memories of U of T and his thoughts on what graduates need to succeed.

What went through your mind when you heard about the honorary degree?
I was surprised since I have a real PhD from U of T, so it struck me as odd that I was being offered an honorary degree from the same institution.

What achievement are you most proud of?
I would say being named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2012. It’s a high form of recognition: it raises my spirits and essentially gives legitimacy to my choice of research topic and confirms my convictions. 

And the key to your success?
Flexibility, and the ability to deploy transferable skills outside their field of study.

If you’re going to solve problems, you’re going to need to be able to – I hate the use the phrase – “think outside the box.” But you’ve got to be able to synthesize seemingly disparate ideas, drawn from different fields, and look at problems with fresh perspectives. I think that’s one of the gifts of a good education – it helps you start doing those sorts of things.

What is the true value of a post-secondary degree?
It goes back to what I said before: refinement of knowledge and skills – honing analysis and calling upon synthesis.

Having students that can invent and rethink is one of the important factors leading to successful careers. If education is linear and content driven, then students aren’t put into situations where they can invent. Then they’re less likely going to erupt into an inventive style upon graduation.

What advice would you offer graduating students?
Find your passion and pursue it.

For me, one of things I enjoy is teaching – in a large lecture setting, as opposed to tiny seminar or laboratory – and so, over the years I’ve taught huge freshmen chemistry classes. A lot of my colleagues who are excited about their research try to dodge major teaching assignments because they feel teaching would be a distraction from the research. But I enjoy teaching a big class and so I’ve pursued it – I’ve taught that freshman class for 18 years!

What do you wish more people knew about U of T?
It’s a terrific place to get an education which offers breadth and depth.

Tell us about your time at U of T.
I remember my first day at Engineering Science. The professor said, “Look to the man on your left and the man on your right.” And I expected him to say one of you won’t be here at the beginning of the second year. Instead he said, “Only one of you will be here at the beginning of the second year.” In other words, two of three are going to disappear (laughs).

And it was true. The majority went into other majors, and in those days the number of people who graduated from EngSci was far less than the number who entered EngSci. EngSci dropout was its own institution – so in intramural hockey, there would be an EngSci team and maybe one or two EngSci dropout teams! Things have changed now; I understand EngSci is a much bigger department.