Best. Birthday. Ever

A smiling Sydney holding up a chalice and her notebook at the Phoenix.

Sydney Valentino, seen here celebrating earning her doctorate, finished her thesis, got engaged and landed a job in a single day — her birthday.

Sydney Valentino will always remember the day she finished writing her PhD thesis.

It was her 28th birthday. And she was in Egypt with her boyfriend, Safi Elser, visiting the place where he’d grown up.

“I got to see all of the places Safi had been telling me about.”

With her thesis done, the kinesiology PhD student and Elser headed out to visit the Great Pyramid. Elser handed his phone to a stranger, asking if he’d take a picture.

Then he got down on one knee and proposed to Valentino.

“I think I forgot to say ‘yes,’ but we both knew the answer,” she says. “We went and had lunch next to the pyramids. It felt like I was in a dream.”

Safi down on one knee, asking Sydney to marry him. The Great Pyramid is in the background.
Sydney Valentino’s boyfriend Safi proposed to her at the pyramids. Spoiler alert: She said yes.

And there was one more birthday surprise in store.

Later that day, with an engagement ring on her finger, Valentino was emailing family and friends when she saw the email from the McMaster Industry Liaison Office, offering her a job as a program manager.

“I was speechless. For a long time, I’d wanted a change in so many areas of my life. A sense of peace washed over me knowing it had all come together,” she says.

“It was incredible to have everything happen in just 24 hours.”

Once she was back at Mac, Valentino successfully defended her thesis, which explores the factors affecting ratings of perceived exertion across a spectrum of health and disease.

Family, friends and even one of the participants from her research study cheered her on, Valentino remembers. And she also had the support of several faculty members who helped during her 10-year journey at Mac, from undergrad degree through PhD.

“I had three McMaster mentors who were so much more than their academic titles,” she says.

Dean Maureen MacDonald was Valentino’s supervisor in the Vascular Dynamics Lab.

“Sydney first emailed me about joining the lab back in 2015 while she was an undergrad,” says MacDonald. “It’s hard to imagine the lab without her.”

Everyone in the lab took real pride in being organized and having clear structure for their work, Valentino says.

“What’s often overlooked when it comes to structure is that it provides stability. Stability is what’s needed to be truly creative and curious — two essential elements at the core of experimental and fundamental science.

“Maureen and my supervisory committee allowed me to weave in many interests over the years and they always helped me find my way back on days when I needed direction.”

Associate Professor Krista Madsen helped Valentino find her purpose as a teacher and her confidence as a presenter.

“Krista has such a unique way of creating space to think, grow and become the fullest version of yourself. Krista taught me philosophies that impact far more than just classroom interactions.”

And Katie Moisse, an assistant professor with the School of Interdisciplinary Science, delivered a master class in authentic leadership.

Moisse was a great supporter of ComSciCon-CAN – Canada’s first national science communication workshop for graduate students. Valentino co-founded and was a part of the organization from 2018 to 2023.

“Katie is so present and thoughtful about her connections and suggestions. There will be a generation of scientists who prioritize sharing their research with a broader audience because of Katie’s work.”

So does Valentino have any big plans for her 29th birthday?

“No plans yet,” she says, “but lots of milestones and momentum going into the year ahead. It’s only up from here.”