Two Dal faculty elected as Fellows of the Royal Society of Canada

Richard Devlin and Jeffrey Hutchings join Canada's National Academy

- September 18, 2015

Richard Devlin (left) and Jeffrey Hutchings, newly elected into the Royal Society of Canada. (Bruce Bottomley photo)
Richard Devlin (left) and Jeffrey Hutchings, newly elected into the Royal Society of Canada. (Bruce Bottomley photo)

It's one of the highest honours a Canadian academic can receive: election into an order that dates back more than 130 years.

No, this isn't some super elite secret society — it's the Royal Society of Canada, the country's National Academy of distinguished scholars, artists and scientists. It promotes learning and research in the arts, the humanities and the natural and social sciences. According to the Royal Society's database, 41 Dalhousie-affiliated researchers have been elected as Fellows through the years, most recently former Dean of Medicine Tom Marrie, Chemistry Professor Mary Anne White and Adjunct Oceanography Professor Kenneth Frank in 2013.

This year, two more Dal Fellow join their ranks: Richard Devlin of the Schulich School of Law and Jeffrey Hutchings of the Department of Biology. Their election, announced last week, is alongside 85 other new Fellows across the country. They will be formally inducted as Fellows at a ceremony in Victoria, B.C. this November.

Leading legal thought

Richard Devlin, who has been teaching law for almost three decades, is one of Canada’s leading thinkers on legal theory, equality, jurisprudence, legal ethics and the regulation of the legal profession. According to the RSC, which named Prof. Devlin a Fellow in the Social Sciences, he has “produced some of the most interesting and provocative writing in the area of critical legal studies. In that period he tackled such diverse topics as Irish hunger strikes, disability, Aboriginal rights, corporate law, contract law, constitutional law, and judicial bias.”

More recently, anticipating profound changes in the context of legal practice and the regulation of the legal profession, Prof. Devlin has tackled judicial ethics, self-regulation, and legal ethics education, which has pushed him to the forefront of this field.

“I appreciate that the Royal Society recognizes that you don’t have to be a multimillion-dollar grant recipient to receive this honour,” says Prof. Devlin, who has been teaching legal ethics at the Schulich School of Law since 2001. “The Royal Society is more than an honorary institution today — it has an important role in promoting the public interest.”

Prof. Devlin considers himself equal parts teacher, researcher and administrator, and believes that academics should multi-task in these roles. “It’s important for students to be exposed to as many faculty members as possible so they can get a sense of their research passions,” he says. “

One of the main research focuses throughout his career has been examining how to pursue equality through law in relation to such factors as class, race, gender, and disability.

“As legal academics, we have the opportunity to embrace change in society — in our profession, teaching, and social norms,” he says. “We can give that change shape and direction. And we have to be constantly looking forward to see what’s coming next. The legal profession is changing, and we should be turning out graduates who are intellectually prepared to practice in any area of the law and indeed beyond law. They should know the challenges and responsibilities that come with being a lawyer.”

While Prof. Devlin plans to continue teaching, researching and writing, he’s also looking forward to exploring opportunities to collaborate on relevant and interesting RSC projects. “I don’t feel like I’m the key ‘anchorperson’ doing this work,” he says. “I feel like I’m part of a team.”

A broad perspective on fish populations

Jeffrey Hutchings is world-renowned for his unique approach to researching the ecology and evolution of fish. Dr. Hutchings, a professor in the Department of Biology, is perhaps best known for his work on fish population collapse and recovery.

It’s not common for a researcher to develop a broad perspective of several focal areas, but Hutchings does so with an ease and elegance recognized by many — including the Royal Society of Canada, which elected him to the Life Sciences Division of its Academy of Science.

“I’m so immensely grateful to my thesis supervisors for encouraging me to think independently and broadly,” says Dr. Hutchings. The professor, a current Faculty of Science Killam Chair and former Canada Research Chair in Marine Conservation and Biodiversity, explains that having a broad theoretical understanding allows him to base his work on fundamental elements of ecological and evolutionary theory.

Despite the various fields he dabbles in, at the core of all Dr. Hutchings’ work are factors that influence the reproductive success of an individual fish — its  ‘Darwinian fitness’ — and how that plays into a population’s dynamics, genetics, behaviours and responses to its environment.  

“By studying the fitness of individuals, you’re getting a handle on the viability of a population,” says Dr. Hutchings, adding that many factors can affect reproductive success, such as genes, other species, exploitation, habitat modification and climate change.

“When it comes to my work with fisheries, journalists regularly ask me, ‘why haven’t the depleted fish stocks come back? Why hasn’t the cod come back? Is it because of seals? Is it water temperature? Is it the fact that people are still fishing them?’,” says Dr. Hutchings.

“It’s going to sound fairly simplistic, but evidence suggests it’s the most parsimonious explanation,” he says. “Put simply, the greater the depletion, the lower the likelihood of recovery,” explains Hutchings.

It’s known that smaller populations can’t respond to an unpredictable change in their environment as well as larger numbers can. An extreme weather event, Dr. Hutchings explains to provide an example, could kill 1,000 fish. That would have less impact on a population of 100,000 than on a population of 10,000. A depleted fish stock — even if the species is no longer being fished — is much more vulnerable to change. “It’s a numbers game, really,” says Dr. Hutchings.

It’s these kinds of findings, and a passion for communicating his science, that has allowed Dr. Hutchings to gain recognition and respect in his field and beyond. Among his many accomplishments, federal Ministers of the Environment chose Dr. Hutchings to serve on the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife of Canada (COSEWIC) for 12 years — a committee he chaired from 2006-2010.

Next on his list, Dr. Hutchings will explore the geographic scale of fish adaptation to environmental change in the coastal marine realm. Insights gained from such work can strengthen fisheries management, while at the same time providing a defensible spatial context for recovering species of conservation concern.


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