Celebrating Dal's Discoverers

Dal faculty recognized at Discovery Awards

- December 3, 2014

Dal Discovery Award winners: Jeff Hutchings (far left), Russell Vining on behalf of the late Leo Vining (second from left), Sherry Stewart (third from right), Robin Urquhart (second from right) and Charlotte Elizabeth Keen (far right). (Discovery Centre / Steve Kaiser Photography)
Dal Discovery Award winners: Jeff Hutchings (far left), Russell Vining on behalf of the late Leo Vining (second from left), Sherry Stewart (third from right), Robin Urquhart (second from right) and Charlotte Elizabeth Keen (far right). (Discovery Centre / Steve Kaiser Photography)

Dalhousie made a big splash at the 12th annual Discovery Awards on Thursday, November 20, taking home three of the awards’ competitive categories amidst a packed house of scientists, researchers and innovators. The university also had a former faculty member and an alum inducted into the Nova Scotia Science Hall of Fame.

Organized by the Discovery Centre, the gala assembled some of the top minds in Nova Scotia to celebrate distinction and achievements in the fields of science and technology.

The award ceremony is a significant fundraiser for the interactive science centre, supporting the wide variety of hands-on exhibits and programs targeted primarily towards youth. The organizers creatively modeled the night’s events after the centre’s philosophy of creating fun education, interspersing the ceremony with games, trivia, and friendly competition such as building a miniature catapult.

Enriched with laughs and good humour, the night proved to be a celebration, without detracting from the sincere respect and recognition awarded to every person in attendance for their contributions to science in Nova Scotia.

Celebrating researchers

The first win went to Sherry Stewart, professor in the Departments of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, and Community Health and Epidemiology at Dalhousie, for the Professional of Distinction award.

 “It’s amazing that they have it,” said Dr. Stewart, commending the Discovery Centre for its initiative to celebrate and recognize local achievements and potential. “I think that the Maritimes can sometimes get overlooked in terms of the… quality of the research that’s happening here, and so [this acknowledgement] is a great thing. It’s a real honour to have been selected.”

Trained as a clinical psychologist, Dr. Stewart’s research focuses on the psychological factors, such as personality and motives, which underline addictions. While she is largely involved with experimental research looking at the processes that contribute to the issues of substance abuse and its intersection with mental health, she is also engaged with interventions research.

“Our intervention studies focus on matching the types of treatments to different risk pathways instead of relying on a one size fits all approach,” she says. “Identifying the mechanisms really helps us refine the treatments, because treatment is expensive. It’s a big commitment for people to get an intervention, and if you can really hone in on what they need, you can make interventions more efficient.”

Dr. Stewart credits a colleague for the nomination, but she praises her students for the Discovery Award. “It’s [great] to have that validation. But I feel the recognition is not so much for me, but for the talented team of students, colleagues, and staff that I work with. It’s not just my work by any stretch.”

Emerging talent

Robin Urquhart, an assistant professor in the Department of Surgery, was presented with the Emerging Professional Award for her strides in research towards translation and implementation science, particularly within cancer care. Experiencing her first Discovery Awards, Dr. Urquhart was pleasantly surprised that the ceremony recognized a wide array of scientific disciplines as well as applied and technological science.

“I think it’s extremely critical that we recognize… scientists and science in our community and recognize the contribution that it makes to our society,” she says, admitting her research is typically a side of science that children may not recognize. “It’s important to show young people, and I mean high school kids and younger, that we value science… and [that] you can be a leader in science in Nova Scotia.”

A knowledge translation scientist, Dr. Urquhart is largely involved with applied health services research. Her research focuses on understanding the processes of moving research evidence and putting it into practice. As she explains, this understanding helps to integrate science with organizational and health-care system policies.

Dr. Urquhart is an advocate for the development of new treatments and funding towards discovery science, such as creating improved detection and treatment methods, but stresses that there is a wealth of research evidence already available that’s just not being applied.

“We can improve quality and bring down costs,” she explains, asserting there are opportunities to maintain a high standard of health care in Nova Scotia in a cost-effective way by utilizing existing research. “There’s significant potential in our province in terms of the health research community to really tackle some of the big problems we have in Nova Scotia if we just supported these people and recognized the expertise that is already here.”

Noted champions

The Science Champion Award was presented to Faculty of Science Killam Professor of Biology Jeff Hutchings. Dealing broadly with the ecology, evolution and conservation biology of fishes, Dr. Hutchings is credited for his expert research and advisory positions in both Nova Scotia and across the country.

From studying how to establish sustainable limits for fish harvesting, to understanding the complexities of behaviours in fish reproduction and migration, Dr. Hutchings’ spectrum of knowledge enables him to engage fish and fishery sciences with a variety of public, political and even corporate sectors.

Acknowledging the institutional support at Dalhousie for his research, Dr. Hutchings is concerned that the value of science is not recognized federally as fully as it could be, particularly in the ability of science to inform general government policy.  Optimistic that the gala will further communicate the importance of publically recognizing science, Dr. Hutchings says that the centre, “impresses upon the value of science on society and makes us think about the ways in which we can strengthen that interaction between educators and the public.”

“The Discovery Centre is a place about education,” says Dr. Hutchings, who made a point during his acceptance speech that a gathering of 400-500 people in support of science innovations and research was entirely unique in the country.

“It’s targeted towards younger people,” Dr. Hutchings emphasises, “but it’s also a celebration of science at different levels in the province. That doesn’t happen in many places. It really captures the discovery element, which is why most people do science.”

Hall of Fame recognitions

Alongside this year’s recipients, the late Leo Vining was inducted into the Nova Scotia Science Hall of Fame.

Dr. Vining became a professor in the Department of Biology in 1971 and began work on antibiotics that is credited with making Dalhousie famous in microbiology and natural product chemistry worldwide. With a main research interest in secondary metabolism, he was a prolific publisher and role model from thousands of students. A red maple tree near the Life Sciences Centre was planted and dedicated in his honour in 2002.

In addition to Dr. Vining, Charlotte Elizabeth Keen was also inducted into the Hall of Fame. An internationally renowned marine geophysicist based at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography, Dr. Keen earned both her BSc in Physics and her MSc in Geophysics from Dalhousie and in 2003 received an honorary degree from the university.


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