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Outstanding mentorship

Dalhousie's Dr. Sherry Stewart wins top Canadian award for excellence in graduate supervision

Dr. Sherry Stewart in a black blazer and glasses in front of the Life Sciences Centre

By Stephen Abbott

Since first joining Dalhousie's Department of Psychology and Neuroscience in the early 1990s, Sherry Stewart has supervised more than 30 graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, garnering widespread recognition for her excellent mentorship.

Dr. Stewart’s own academic journey began as an undergraduate student at Dal in 1983.

“I came to Dal as an undergraduate biology major,” she says.

After taking psychology courses, though, she says she changed her major and became fascinated with the applied aspects of psychology. She became particularly interested in clinical psychology research.

When she returned to Dalhousie a decade later as a faculty member, she also began her work as a mentor. To date, she has supervised 19 doctoral students to completion, along with one master’s student and 13 post-doctoral fellows.

Dr. Stewart directs the Mood, Anxiety and Addiction Co-morbidity (MAAC) Lab at Dalhousie and now supervises about 10 graduate students at any given time, along with post-doctoral fellows. Throughout her career, she has authored hundreds of articles, 127 of which she co-authored with her graduate students and postdocs as first author.

“I try to structure things so newer graduate students have more interaction with the post-doctoral fellows and myself, and more advanced graduate students get opportunities to co-supervise more junior students,” says Dr. Stewart.

A positive example

Dr. Stewart’s lab has become renowned for its supportive and productive environment.

“It’s definitely a very collaborative atmosphere,” says Sara Bartel, one of Dr. Stewart’s clinical psychology PhD students. Bartel says she was immediately drawn in by the lab’s friendly atmosphere. “When I talked to her graduate students because you get a chance to do that while interviewing, they were all so happy and pleased. No one had anything bad to say.”

“She has this wonderful reputation that’s confirmed when you meet her,” says Bartel.

Through Dr. Stewart’s support, her students and postdocs have then gone on to successful careers in academia, clinical practice, health care administration, and even videogame design.

“Professor Sherry Stewart so richly deserves this recognition for the impact she has had in the lives of her students,” says Marty Leonard, Dean of Dal’s Faculty of Graduate Studies and president of CAGS. “It’s inspiring to see the ripple effect of her good work and to have her as a positive example for our graduate student community.”

Her stellar reputation was certainly born out in letters of support sent to CAGS as part of the awards nomination process. Countless former and current students wrote in to support Dr. Stewart and describe the impact she had on their careers and personal lives.

'She really cares'

As a professor, Dr. Stewart says while you occasionally hear those kinds of touching remarks in thesis and dissertation dedications, it was heartwarming to see her students credit her for not only their professional success but their personal growth as well.

“It didn’t matter to me whether I won this award. Just to hear that from my students was so important to me and, actually, a bit surprising in some ways. I just didn’t realize that I’d had such a broad impact,” she says.

Dr. Stewart is also highly regarded for her professional mentorship and accomplishments within Dalhousie. Most recently, she helped launch Dal’s new MSc and PhD in Psychiatry Research programs.

A fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, she pursues cutting-edge research centred around addiction psychology, specifically substance use, along with emotional disorders and their co-occurrence with addictions through her MAAC Lab.

 “Dr. Stewart has been listed as one of the most prolific researchers in Canada. She’s just amazing. But at the same time, she also really cares about her students,” says Bartel. “She wants to know how you are doing. She really cares.”

Looking back on her role as a mentor nearly three decades later, she sums up her approach by reflecting on the skills she attempts to impart to her students in research as well as outside the lab.

“It’s not just about everything that they learn in the lab, it’s all the other things,” says Dr. Stewart, a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Addictions and Mental Health and graduate program coordinator for Dal's MSc and PhD in Psychiatry Research programs. “It’s helping them figure out how to balance their work and their personal lives and how to juggle multiple responsibilities. These are all things that are part of graduate school training.”

Dr. Stewart’s care and concern for graduate students were recognized at Dal in 2017 when she won the award for Excellence in Graduate Supervision as part of the university’s annual teaching awards.

Now, she is being recognized on the national stage for this important work as the 2020 recipient of the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies (CAGS) Award for Outstanding Graduate Mentorship. The annual award recognizes faculty members for their excellence in graduate-level teaching and mentoring.