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The CAGS/UMI Distinguished Dissertation Awards

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The CAGS/UMI Distinguished Dissertation Awards recognize Canadian doctoral dissertations that make unusually significant and original contributions to their academic field. They were established in 1994 and are presented a nnually. There are two awards: one for engineering, medical sciences and natural sciences; and one for fine arts, humanities and social sciences. The Awards are granted by the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies (CAGS) and are sponsored by Proquest-UMI (University Microfilms International). They include a $1,500 prize, a Citation Certificate, and travel expenses of up to $1,500 to attend the 2014 CAGS Annual Conference (St-John’s, Newfoundland).


2014 Distinguished Dissertation Award: Grappling with Homelessness


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Distinguished Dissertation Award 2014: Grappling with Homelessness. Photo is courtesy Nigel Dickson.

Ottawa - A rich and gritty study of intentional homeless communities such as shanty towns and tent cities, has won this year’s 2014 Distinguished Dissertation Award from the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies.

Eric Weissman’s (PhD Indi) multi-media, interdisciplinary work “Spaces, Places and States of Mind: a Pragmatic Ethnography of Liminal Critique,” was done through Concordia University’s Individualized Study program. It is the first time a dissertation completed through an independent study program has won the award. At 53, Weissman is the oldest recipient in the award’s history. He began his PhD program at age 48 and successfully completed it last year at the age of 52.

Weissman used video and social media in addition to conventional research and writing in an attempt to prompt observation, discussion and debate about the relationship between housing and homelessness and the role these communities play in society and political structure.

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Eric Weissman’s (PhD Indi) multi-media, interdisciplinary work “Spaces, Places and States of Mind: a Pragmatic Ethnography of Liminal Critique,” was done through Concordia University’s Individualized Study program.
Photo is courtesy Jerome Crowder.

It is an intensely passionate work from an academic who once grappled with periodic homelessness and addiction. “I decided to channel what had been a personal disaster into a form of insight that would allow me to conduct ethnographic fieldwork in the area of homelessness,” he says.

The dissertation compares state-sponsored housing programs with alternative forms of intentional communities.

“My doctoral work employs an interdisciplinary approach to critical and reflexive storytelling from the view of participants to understand how residents of such communities establish commitments to one another and housing activism,” Weissman says. “It’s about how self-worth and democracy go hand in hand and play a role in alleviating the conditions of chronic homelessness.”

The work examines the issue from multiple perspectives including political science, public policy, urban planning and mental health.

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“This is a perfect example of what intellectual life is supposed to be about,” says Dr. David Cecchetto, an assistant professor at York University’s Department of Humanities and member of this year’s judges’ panel. “It is truly the best a person can ask from a PhD.” Cecchetto won the CAGS prize in 2011.

Weissman describes his work as ongoing and reflexive. He spent time in transitional communities in Canada and the United States observing and writing a book about them.

“The book was sent back to the villages I was writing about to encourage new conversations which became later chapters in the dissertation - a sort of virtual and digital fieldwork,” he says.

Listen to this CBC Radio interview with Eric Weissman:


Weissman’s approach recognized that the complexities of homelessness cannot be organized into traditional factual document. It was a project that fit in well with Concordia University’s philosophy.

“I am thrilled that Eric has received this honour for his incredible work”, says Paula Wood-Adams, Concordia’s dean of graduate studies. “We believe in taking risks in our research and asking the tough questions. Eric's dissertation is a perfect example of the kind of interdisciplinary scholarship that we foster in our Indepdent graduate program.”

His work required a combination of flexibility, creativity and academic rigour that marks the best of what graduate studies have to offer.

“Dr. Weissman’s work sets a high standard for what it takes to approach this topic with discipline and creativity,” says CAGS president Noreen Golfman. “It is a compelling and useful resource.”

Most recently, Weissman held the position of Visiting Scholar at the Institute for the Medical Humanities at the University of Texas. He is currently on the faculty of the College of New Caledonia in Prince George, BC later this year. You can read more about Dr. Weissman’s work here.

Weissman will receive his award in October when the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies holds its annual conference in St.John’s, Newfoundland.

“The CAGS/PROQUEST-UMI Distinguished Dissertation Award began in 1994. It recognizes doctoral students whose dissertations make an original contribution to their academic field. Two awards are offered each year: one in engineering, medical sciences and natural sciences; and one in fine arts, humanities and social sciences.

The Canadian Association for Graduate Studies (CAGS) brings together 58 Canadian universities with graduate programs and the three federal research-granting agencies, as well as other institutions and organizations having an interest in graduate studies.

For more information:
Gail Dugas, CAGS Communications
613-334-5658

2014 Distinguished Dissertation Award: The Health of our Oceans.


umiaward2014 Ottawa - A dissertation entitled: Patterns and Drivers of Marine Phytoplankton Change over the Past Century that analyzes more than a century of data to examine the health of the world’s oceans is Canada’s 2014 Distinguished Dissertation Award winner in the Engineering, Medical Science and Natural Science Category.

Dalhousie University’s Daniel Boyce (PhD Biology) compiled the unprecedented collection of historical and recent oceanographic data to document declines in phytoplankton. The tiny algae is a primary source of food in ocean ecosystems.

The work connected rising sea surface temperatures and changing oceanographic conditions to the presence of phytoplankton and shows a 1 per cent drop each year for the past 40 years.

Boyce’s findings contribute to a growing body of scientific evidence indicating that climate change is altering the fundamentals of marine ecosystems. Rising temperatures make the ocean more stratified, restricting the movement between different layers and decreasing nutrient delivery to the surface where phytoplanktons grow.

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“The global declines are unequivocal”, says Boyce.” And that is a serious problem. Phytoplankton are critical to our planetary life support system. They produce half of the oxygen we breathe, draw down surface CO2, and ultimately support all of our fisheries. An ocean with less phytoplankton will function differently, and this has to be accounted for in our management efforts.”

It was painstaking, detailed work, much of it in front of a computer screen. More than half a million observations were compiled in a valuable database that reflects trends over 100 years.

“This work was impressive, “says Professor Eric Filion, Department of Chemistry at the University of Waterloo and members of the CAGS judges’ panel. “To have an article published in Nature at this stage of his career speaks volumes about the quality.”



Boyce worked closely with Dr. Boris Worm an internationally recognized expert in marine biodiversity and head of the Worm Lab at Dalhousie University.

“He is like a sponge for scientific data.” says Dr. Worm. ”He painstakingly accumulated an enormous database of plankton records, and then extracted these extraordinary patterns that no-one was really aware of. He is very meticulous, pays attention to detail, while at the same time looking at the big picture.”

And that big picture is what inspired Boyce.

“Phytoplankton is key to sustainable fisheries operations and the overall health of the ocean. We need to make sure that the numbers do not continue to decline,” says Boyce, who worked with a team at Nova Scotia’s Bedford Institute of Oceanography. He hopes that his work will provide incentive for more global tracking to reduce uncertainties in future projections.

Boyce will receive his award in October when the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies holds its annual conference in St.John’s, Newfoundland. .

“The quality of submissions for the CAGS awards gets more impressive each year,” says CAGS President Noreen Golfman. “The passion, persistence and academic vigour in Dr. Boyce’s work is a wonderful example of the important role Canadian graduate education has in the world.”

The CAGS/PROQUEST-UMI Distinguished Dissertation Awards began in 1994. They recognize doctoral students whose dissertations make an original contribution to their academic field. Two awards are offered each year: one in engineering, medical sciences and natural sciences; and one in fine arts, humanities and social sciences.

The Canadian Association for Graduate Studies (CAGS) brings together 58 Canadian universities with graduate programs and the three federal research-granting agencies, as well as other institutions and organizations having an interest in graduate studies.

For more information contact:
Gail Dugas
613.334.5658
gailadugas@gmail.com

CAGS 2013 Dissertation Award: Cracking An Evolutionary Mystery

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Ottawa - A study about the evolutionary history and population patterns of the iconic North American Mountain Goat has won the CAGS Distinguished Dissertation Award for 2013 (Engineering, Medical Science and Natural Science).

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Aaron Shafer’s work straddled basic science, evolutionary history, wildlife management and ecology. Along the way there was detective work involving the journals of Russian sailors, cliffside tracking expeditions in Alaska and providing inspiration to a Native Artist and Master Weaver.

“Everyone should have a student like Aaron at least once in their career, says his supervisor Dave Coltman, Professor and Associate Research Chair, Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. “He’s incredibly hardworking. I never had to motivate him. I had to keep up with him.”

“Many students starting their thesis - they just go to the fridge in the lab and start working on the pre-collected samples. His first year in Alberta, he grew a moustache and started hunting and fishing. He made contact with the folks at the Fish and Wildlife Department in Alaska. Aaron knew he had to follow the animals, learn what geography they preferred. And he knows that conservation and management touches people’s lives – so he dealt with them in a genuine way.”

Shafer’s outgoing approach has not detracted from academic rigour, according to the CAGS judges.

As a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering at Queen's University, Ronald Anderson hadn’t thought a lot about mountain goats.

“But the more I worked through the applications, the more this one grew on me. It posed interesting questions and had some creative ways of answering them” he says. “He’s had all his papers published in prestigious journals and lots of awards and scholarships. He has tackled some deep evolutionary questions. I’ve been around the university for a long time. You don’t see CVs like this from a new PhD. “

An essential part of Shafer’s work involved comparing the patterns gleaned from mountain goat DNA. When it was combined with information from fossils, it told a story of genetic diversity and migration that goes back to before the last glacial period in what is now northwestern North America - Alaska, Yukon, NWT, BC, Alberta, Idaho, Montana and Washington.

That kind of knowledge not only expands our understanding of evolution, it has contemporary uses in herd management – important since the species is considered a game animal.

Biology, not just geography, can help inform decisions about where and how many goats can be harvested.

“The more genetically diverse, the healthier these populations are,” says Shafer. "Diversity allows evolution to occur. It's like a genetic bank account that's large enough to allow populations to change and cope with change to climate. If you don’t have that, the ability to change is seriously impaired.”

During a Skype interview from the University of Uppsala, Sweden where he is a Postdoctoral Fellow, Shafer exudes enthusiasm for the twists and turns his research took.

He says at one point, he found himself poring over information from the 200 year old logs of Russian sailors who reported seeing “white deer” on Baranof Island, Alaska. It had been thought there were no goats on the island until a small herd was introduced in the 1920s. But DNA sampling and the sailors’ observations told a different story.

His work has also inspired another kind of storytelling.

Based in Sitka, Alaska, Tlingit master weaver Teri Rofkar has revived the art of creating ceremonial robes from the wool of mountain goats – a tradition that goes back centuries. When she heard of the research, she contributed some of the Baranof Island mountain goat wool she had collected so that DNA samples could be taken. The project continued to captivate her and she set out to create a design that includes the DNA double helix as well as the traditional top borders representing glaciers.

Shafer will receive his award in November when the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies holds its conference in Montreal.

The CAGS/PROQUEST-UMI Distinguished Dissertation Awards began in 1994. They recognize doctoral students whose dissertations make an original contribution to their academic field. Two awards are offered each year: one in engineering, medical sciences and natural sciences; and one in fine arts, humanities and social sciences.

The Canadian Association for Graduate Studies (CAGS) brings together 58 Canadian universities with graduate programs and the three federal research-granting agencies, as well as other institutions and organizations having an interest in graduate studies.

Related stories:
www.edmontonjournal.com
www.therecord.com
www.rcinet.ca



Inside Look at Immigration HIV Testing Named Top Canadian Dissertation

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Ottawa - The 2013 winner of the CAGS/ ProQuest-UMI Distinguished Dissertation Award (Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Science Category) is a testament to how workplace experience can shape an academic journey.

Laura Bisaillon returned to graduate school after ten years working in community, social services and development – in Canada and internationally.

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Her last professional position, as a caseworker for a women's sexual health organization in Montreal’s east end, provided the catalyst for Bisaillon to pursue the next phase of her career.

“I could see how bureaucratically generated policies, practices and regulations affected clients and staff; real people. These observations were anecdotal, and lacking in systematic analysis. I wanted to understand and bring attention to the problems I observed."

Bisaillon’s doctoral project entitled "Cordon Sanitaire or Healthy Policy" reflects her understanding of the complexity of the politics of public health. She approached her research from an interdisciplinary perspective, and used her training in political studies, international relations, urban planning, and population health. The result is a critical analysis of how Canada’s immigration system and the policy of mandatory HIV testing of prospective immigrants and refugees function. It is also an exploration and critique of how top down decisions impact people and their communities.

“What stood out was how her work was part of a well-developed research program,” says William Barker, Professor of English and Director, Interdisciplinary PhD Program, Dalhousie University. “It is engaged, relevant and connected to other people’s work being done in this area.”

Bisaillon says relevancy beyond the dissertation itself was something that guided her work and practice.

“It is important for me that research be grounded in social problems that people confront and contend with in their daily lives,” says Bisaillon. “Choosing a problem and investigating it with scientific rigour holds the promise of producing results that can be incredibly useful. Empirical accounts grounded in social realities succeed in circumventing ideological understandings about the side effects of policy and the law.”

The Montreal-based Bisaillon earned an interdisciplinary PhD in Population Health from the University of Ottawa. Her work was supervised by Associate Dean Dave Holmes and Ronald Labonte, Canada Research Chair in Globalization and Health Equity.

“She was extremely committed to what she was doing. She knew the community she was working with; how everybody is caught in the web of institutional rule making,” Labonte says. “But more than that, her experience and her maturity was reflected in the incredible way the data were collected. She threw herself right into this work.”

Organizations including the HIV/AIDS Legal Clinic of Ontario, Asian Community AIDS Services, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, and AIDS Community Care Montreal collaborated with Bisaillon for her project. She was supported by major research awards.

“I would like the results of my sociological project to enlighten the way in which medical decision making is made about applicants with HIV within the Canadian immigration program. I would also like findings to be useful for HIV-positive newcomers to Canada, decision-makers, and those working on the front lines,” she says.

Living in Montreal and travelling regularly to Ottawa for coursework required organization and energy. The footing in Quebec and Ontario enabled Bisaillon to garner broader understandings of how different jurisdictions operate with respect to health policy in interaction with the federal government.

In September, Bisaillon begins a new challenge when she starts as a new faculty member in the Health Studies Department of the University of Toronto. “I am keen to teach and engage in community-level action research linking Canadian and international communities; the scientific results of which can point to ways of making progressive social change that matters in people's lives,” she says.

Bisaillon will receive her award in November when the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies holds its conference in Montreal.

She will be joined by Aaron Shafer, the 2013 winner in the engineering, medical sciences and natural sciences category.

The CAGS/PROQUEST-UMI Distinguished Dissertation Awards began in 1994. They recognize doctoral students whose dissertations make an original contribution to their academic field. Two awards are offered each year: one in engineering, medical sciences and natural sciences; and one in fine arts, humanities and social sciences.

The Canadian Association for Graduate Studies (CAGS) brings together 58 Canadian universities with graduate programs and the three federal research-granting agencies, as well as other institutions and organizations having an interest in graduate studies.






Previous Winners

2012 Dr. May Chazan (Geography, Carleton University)
Dr. Adeel Safdar (Kinesiology, McMaster University)
2011 Dr. David Cecchetto (English, University of Victoria)
Dr. Nicholas Carleton (Department of Psychology at the University of Regina)
2010 Coby Dowdell (English, University of Toronto)
Donald Gammon (Medical Microbiology & Immunology, University of Alberta)
2009 Andrew Griffin (English and Cultural Studies, McMaster University)
Zhihong Nie (Chemistry, University of Toronto)
2008 Jason W.T. Hessels ( Physics, McGill University)
Tracey Lindberg (Law, University of Ottawa)
2007 Ian J. MacRae (Comparative Litterature, University of Toronto)
Patrik Nosil (Biology, Simon Fraser University)
2006 Hugo Cardoso (Anthropology, McMaster University)
Konrad Walus (Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Calgary)
2005 Paul-André Dubois (History, Laval University)
Claire A. Sheldon (Cellular and Physiological Sciences, University of British Columbia)
2004 Karim S. Karim ( Electrical Engineering, University of Waterloo)
Caroline Pukall (Psychology, McGill University)
2003 David L. Bryce (Chemistry, Dalhousie University)
Gary Kuchar (English, McMaster University
2002 William Bain (Political science, University of British Columbia)
Rees Kassen (Biology, McGill University)
2001 Linda Marie Arsenault (Musicology, University of Toronto)
Chantal Levesque (Psychology, University of Ottawa)
Eldon Emberly (Physics, Simon Fraser University)
2000 Annamalai Annamalai Jr. (Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Victoria)
Clifford Bekar (Economics, Simon Fraser University)
1999 Desmond Manderson (Law, McGill University)
Tommy Kwong Woo (Chemistry, University of Calgary)
1998 Ilijas Farah (Mathematics, University of Toronto)
1997 Laura Peers (Anthropology, McMaster University)
1996 Thomas Waddell (Medical Science, University of Toronto)
1995 Andrew Gillett (Medieval Studies, University of Toronto)
1994 Xianhua Jiang (Physics, York University)