From undergrad to future prof: A&S grad Ashenafee Mandefro sets his sights on giving back to U of T

June 13, 2024 by Adam Elliott Segal - A&S News

Ashenafee (Ash) Mandefro believes in being busy.

And busy he’s been over the past four years.

This June, Mandefro will earn an honours bachelor of science in bioinformatics and computational biology as a member of St. Michael’s College, but he’s most proud of his accomplishments outside the classroom. He was president of the Bioinformatics and Computational Biology Student Association and led impactful work with the Black Students’ Association, for which he was awarded a 2024 University of Toronto Student Leadership Award.

Mandefro spoke to Arts & Science News about the positive impact of getting involved, how staying busy is a key to success, his favourite place on campus to study and that time he ran into the president of the university on the street.

What drew you to your field of study?

I always knew I was interested in the logical and concrete nature of computer science. I didn’t want to dive into theory. I wanted to apply this idea of “how do I automate things in another field?” That’s where bioinformatics and computational biology comes in. I've always been interested in the brain. When Neuralink and all these human-brain computer interfaces arrived, I thought, ‘OK, let me specialize a little more and apply my computer science background.’

What are some of your most memorable experiences at U of T?

My first and second years were during COVID, but they still hold a special place in my heart. Student communication was on these huge discord servers, and these core life science courses had 1000 people. That’s how I made my first friends. One of my closest friends eventually sent out a message and said, “I'm making a study group.” It was her idea to split up lectures for the courses, to divide and conquer. We shared information and studied online. That was the start of our larger friend group and where I found my people.

Ash Mandefro sitting in a chair showing a certificate.
Ash Mandefro holding his Black Student Engagement Award in Hart House.

The first time I saw Robarts, I was shocked at how big a building it is! We explored all the floors and I remember seeing books that were so dusty the dust got on our clothes. After two years online, there was a lot of mysticism about that library when we finally arrived on campus. Other memories I have are the food comas walking back from St. Mike’s cafeteria and making new friends at open mic nights and the Black Students’ Association ski trip.

What are you planning for the future?

This fall, I'll be returning to the University of Toronto as a master of science in applied computing student. The long-term goal is to confer a PhD. And then, at some point, I look forward to becoming faculty, ideally at the University of Toronto because I want to give back to my community and my city. I didn't have many Black men to look up to in terms of STEM. When you see someone that looks like you in a position like that, it helps motivate you.

What advice would you give your first-year self?

Don't be scared. I always thought the more I had on my plate, the worse my GPA would be. Instead, the more I took on, the more it helped me fulfill my university life. I got involved in various clubs, including Healthy Minds, a mental health organization, and the Black Students’ Association, where I interface with high school students across the GTA in post-secondary workshops and organize field trips to campus.

I also worked with first-year learning communities as a senior peer mentor. What helped keep my mental health in a good state was the extracurricular stuff, the things adjacent to my academic involvement.

Any other memorable moments in your academic career that you’d like to share?

One time I was leaving Robarts with some friends. It was in the evening and we were walking to St. George Station. We walked by someone waiting on a side street dressed fairly dapper and I said, ‘Wait, isn’t that Meric Gertler, the U of T president?’ So, I walked back and it turned out it was him. I said, ‘I've been trying to push the abbreviation of bioinformatics and computational biology to become BOFO.’ I asked him what he thought about the idea. ‘Let me think about that,’ he said. And I gave him a fist bump. So, I can always tell people I gave the president of the university a fist bump.