Last Tuesday, the Living Library event returned to UTM. The alumni-themed event included “books’ such as the former Mississauga mayor Hazel McCallion, religion professor Ken Derry, immigration lawyer Karen Kwan Anderson, and more.
The Medium spoke to the following individuals:
Renee Willmon is living a double life. During the day, she teaches classes about forensic anthropology and continues to analyse ancient human remains to understand the evolution of tuberculosis for her dissertation. By night, Willmon is part of an independent team who investigate cold cases and help bring closure to the families of victims.
Following his studies at UTM, the former UTMSU president has been on a “zigzag” path. Today, Christopher Thompson works at the United Way of Peel and is involved with several community engagement opportunities both on and off the UTM campus.
Mahbouhbeh Ala Hojjati
After completing her HBSc from UTM, Ala Hojjati found herself completing an MSc in physiotherapy through an unexpected set of circumstances. Hojjati has now been practising physiotherapy for over a year.
All interviews have been edited for length and clarity. Due to privacy concerns, one interview has been removed.
Renee Willmon — “Helping the dead tell their tales”
The Medium: Your biography mentions that you investigate cold cases. Can you tell us a little more about what you do?
Renee Willmon: I’m a forensic anthropologist. I work with a group of civilians who work on cold cases as an independent group. In 2013, we tackled eight cold cases in Ontario and there was actually a production company from the east coast that followed our work and produced a documentary TV series about it called To Catch a Killer.
One thing that we noticed was that there’s a lot of potential—especially with social media and just the world being more connected—to revisit cold cases and bring some closure to families without necessarily needing the same resources that police do, and how it’s been traditionally done. Especially as there’s so many different fields now that can be brought to bear on the case. The police are so backlogged in their cold case departments and with things like community policing requiring so much effort and work, it’s really hard to divert resources to tackle cold cases. So this gap is something we’ve been trying to fill.
TM: Are forensic analysts and anthropologists similar to what we see on TV shows?
RW: No, it’s very different. There are some small similarities—it honestly depends on which representation we’re comparing it to. In CSI, you typically have one criminalist who will come in and go to the scene, and they’re interviewing the suspects, bringing people in, and also testifying in court. They’re doing the whole spectrum. That kind of expert doesn’t really exist in Canada. It’s a much more collaborative work.
TM: Does that mean that DNA results don’t appear within a few hours?
RW: [laughing] No, they often take months to come back. Just from processing the crime scene, to having items that the crime lab won’t necessarily accept, there are a lot more steps and processes involved than what TV makes it out to be.
TM: Can you tell us about why you chose to enter the field of forensic anthropology?
RW: I was drawn to anthropology because it really allowed me to work on many aspects of the case, from going to the scene to working at the scene, working with many police divisions. That ability to be close to the entire case from the beginning to the end—I found it very attractive compared to a DNA scientist, who would work in a lab and see cases from across [the] desk or lab bench for a short period of time and not necessarily know the result of each case, or results of your analysis and how it was fed back into the justice system. In my discipline, graduate studies is a requirement to go into the field, so I came back to UTM to do my master’s with Tracy Rogers [director of the forensics department].
TM: What are you currently focusing on for your master’s degree and how did you decide on the topic?
RW: It was the fascination with how much you can learn from a skeleton. My dissertation research is more on health and the evolution of tuberculosis and looking at prehistoric human remains. It’s just amazing how much information is accumulated in your skeleton over your lifetime. We can really reanimate the past by studying human remains, really connect that past to modern descendants, and really enrich people’s understanding of their cultural history and often give a voice to marginalized groups. Some of my research focuses on First Nations human remains, so being able to study their health at around the time of contact of European and colonial settlers [gives us research that can either refute or corroborate historic accounts of what happened.
Christopher Thompson — “Engaging with life”
The Medium: Are you doing what you thought you would be doing when you left UTM? What has your career path been like?
Christopher Thompson: It was totally a zigzag all over the place, figuring it out. In fact, my first experience at UTM was getting kicked out. I got kicked out of the gym and I had to leave the school. It was because I technically didn’t have a T-Card yet—I was doing a campus tour, and you were supposed to stay with them, but I left them so quickly and went to play basketball that they asked me to leave. It’s actually funny as I ended up working for the gentleman in the gym who made me leave.
I still don’t think that I’ve fully left UTM—they still pull me back yearly. I sit on the board of directors for the Alumni Association, but I do work full-time with the United Way of Peel on the communications and engagement stakeholder. I’m a lead writer for our CEO, for any speeches and things like that. I handle all the social media channels and the young adult projects for Brampton, Mississauga, and Calgary. So it’s interesting, but a lot of the skills I developed for these jobs started at UTM.
TM: All of your experiences seem to have community engagement. What constantly draws you to it?
CT: I love people, I loved helping, and I loved community development. I’ve done business in the private sector and I know that people love it. It’s something that I can do and I was great at, and I was paid well to do it. But in the non-profit sector, I felt like I was at home and doing more in the community to help. There’s more fulfilment there.
TM: What was the biggest highlight from your time as the president of the UTMSU?
CT: I think the biggest thing that I remember and love the most was—it’s actually still right now. A lot of the students who are now engaged, not just in student unions as execs, or just clubs or doing a lot of things. But when I come back now, I see that a lot of them have taken on the exec roles or volunteer roles or just different opportunities, and they said it was because I told them to and I talked to them.
You know, it’s a thankless job, but I enjoyed the times where somebody would, after an event, say, “Thanks to you, I made a friend.” “Thanks to you, I figured out I liked this.” “Thanks to you, I was able to get help for academic purposes.” “Thanks to you, I just felt like I was wanted here.” So those little things made it all worth it. But it is cool to come back, to see the people who, when I was president, were just first-years. Ebi Agbeyegbe was someone I reached out to all the time and he was really disengaged, and now he’s the UTMSU president.
Mahboubeh Ala Hojjati — ”Started from ESL; now I’m here!”
The Medium: How did you decide to become a physiotherapist?
Ala Hojjati: I started [my] undergrad at UTM thinking that maybe I wanted to do engineering, maybe something in healthcare, dentistry. The more courses I took, the more I really figured out that the things that make me excited are how the brain works, why we behave the way we do, evolution, and all that stuff. I was still thinking that I wanted to be in healthcare and, for some reason, I was thinking about becoming a dentist. I have no idea why. I did the DAT aptitude test. I applied. I went for the interview, but it didn’t go well. My backup choice was physiotherapy. The only reason I chose physiotherapy was because my friend’s father had a really bad fall at the time and his speech and walk were affected. That’s when I saw what a physiotherapist can do besides just being a sports physiotherapist. I fell into physiotherapy without having planned it, but now that I look at it, I could never enjoy being a dentist.
TM: Are there any opportunities that you wish you had taken advantage of while you were at UTM?
AH: My biggest regret is that I had the opportunity to help students on residence with the academic side of things. I accepted it, but then I was like, “No, I’m going to study for my exams, for my professional school exams,” so I dropped out of it and I said that I couldn’t do it. That’s my biggest regret, because I feel like I could have learned so much from interacting with so many students and worked something out. So for those opportunities that seem really scary and you feel like you’re not going to be able to do them, just say yes. You’ll figure it out. There’s always help if you need it.
What advice would you offer to a current UTM student?
Take care of yourself. Some people might already be really good at that but I think [a lot of us aren’t]. We don’t learn that—well, I didn’t learn that. It took me a long time to learn that. I think that we need to pay attention to our needs and do a really good job of nurturing ourselves.
I would say not to settle for something that you’re not excited about. There’s kind of a fine balance of feeling like you’re ready—like you have the right prerequisites—and if you wait for that feeling, I think that you’ll always be waiting. You kind of have to have a little bit of that entrepreneurial desire to just, like, jump in and learn as you go.
But if you’re a year or two into your undergrad and you don’t feel like you’ve hit your stride and haven’t found your passion, then it’s never too late to change, or to find a creative way to implement what you’ve already learned, but to take it into a new direction. There’s so much opportunity to be creative, and I think that that will be the biggest challenge. There’s so much opportunity that picking that path will be the hardest choice. Follow what you’re good at, but make sure it’s also something that you enjoy and are passionate about. On the days when it feels like work, and you don’t want to do it, you can always remember why you got into that line of work.
University is about getting to know your community, what you like, and, more importantly, what you don’t like. A lot of people come in thinking they know what they like or they’re following one path and honestly, I think you need that zigzag a little bit. Obviously it’s easier to do it a little straighter, but until you figure out who you are and what you need to do and what you want to do when you leave, try new things.
People have to be creative. They can’t go along with the same old thing. They have to realise that with every profession, they could be creative. Professional people today need to be challenged. In other words, a doctor graduates. You have to look at the improvements that can be made to our health system—and many improvements can be made. All professions—engineering, doctors—there are so many opportunities to be more creative and not just do the normal thing. Do you realise that with climate change, there is no city in Canada that has a system that can deal with climate change? Our sewers are not designed to withstand climate change—they’re too small. Think about it. We’ve been going along developing cities with the same sized pipe as we did 30 years ago. So engineers have to be more creative—they have to look down the road. Every profession has to be looking down the road—what can be done better?
Don’t be satisfied with graduating as whatever you’re graduating and just go along with the gag. You have to be creative and innovative.
Mahboubeh Ala Hojjati
The biggest thing is just to get involved. Do something—whatever makes you excited about what you’re about to do. UTM is great for that.