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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 annually. 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).


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)