Dalhousie engineering student Oxford bound as this year's Rhodes Scholar

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As a junior high student, Sierra Sparks wasn't always encouraged to follow her passion for math and science.

Now, the Dalhousie University engineering student is a Rhodes Scholar and on a mission to encourage other Black students to get involved in academic fields where they've not always been represented.

She said she was inspired to embark on an engineering degree after seeing some of her older cousins do it.

"I really want to pass the torch and be that role model for the next generation of engineers because having diversity is so important for just having the best ideas at the table and, you know, getting to learn from everyone," Sparks told CBC Radio's Mainstreet this week.

Sparks, who's from Dartmouth, N.S., will head to Oxford University in England next fall for a master's degree.

She got the good news on Saturday after an interview in front of a panel of seven people.

"I almost fell over when I was on the phone and trying to tell my mom at the same time. It's been a whirlwind of a few days for sure," she said.

Sparks is in her fourth year at Dalhousie focusing on biomedical engineering.

"[I've] been able to do some work in ultrasound imaging with a local startup and some of the professors in the biomedical engineering department, and it's been really fantastic," she said. "I've loved every minute of my degree."

Jamming out with The LogRhythmics

Math and science are among a long list of Sparks's talents that include piano composer and rugby player.

She's a guest pianist for the Cherry Brook United Baptist Church and also played trombone in a jazz band with fellow engineering students called The LogRhythmics.

Her solo trombone debut took place during a performance at an end-of-year banquet.

"I come from a very musical family on my dad's side of the family. Music and performing arts is extremely prevalent in his family," she said.

"I've been given so many opportunities to perform in the church and, you know, to develop my skills there. And then on my mom's side of the family, that's where we have a lot of engineers."

Danny Abriel
Danny Abriel

She's also involved with the Dalhousie student branch of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Earlier this year, Sparks helped write a report about anti-discrimination and inclusion in the university's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

"That's been really important to me to increase the diversity and increase the representation of underrepresented groups in science and engineering," she said.

Sparks is the 92nd Rhodes Scholar from Dalhousie University, and one of about 100 students chosen from across the world. The scholarship pays for her travel and study at Oxford University for two years, with an option to extend to a third year.

This year, 11 scholars were chosen in Canada and two in the Maritimes.

Past Rhodes scholars have included former U.S. president Bill Clinton, television host Rachel Maddow and Chrystia Freeland, Canada's deputy prime minister.

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