Improving our health: Dal’s Doctoral Thesis Award winners share a common goal

- April 15, 2021

(Danny Abriel photos)
(Danny Abriel photos)

The Faculty of Graduate Studies has announced the winners of the 2021 Dalhousie Doctoral Thesis Awards. Doctoral graduates Phillip Joy from the PhD in Health program and Lindsay Wallace from the Interdisciplinary PhD program have taken the awards for their dissertations focused on making our lives healthier and happier.

For his thesis, Dr. Joy worked with self-identified gay men to learn about beliefs, values and practices relating to food and their body image. He won the award in the Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences category.

Dr. Wallace was honoured with an award in the Engineering, Medical Sciences and Natural Sciences category for her research exploring the connections between frailty and susceptibility to dementia.  

“I am truly honoured,” said Dr. Wallace about receiving the award.  “I know so many doctoral students at Dal that do such amazing work, so I feel quite humbled to be chosen among them. My PhD was a labour of love. I really enjoyed it and so this was a lovely way to commemorate that time and the work that means so much to me.”

For more than 25 years, Dalhousie Doctoral Thesis Awards have been given out to recognize the best theses submitted by PhD students in the calendar year. Drs. Joy and Wallace will also be Dalhousie’s nominees in their respective categories for the 2021 CAGS/UMI Distinguished Dissertation Award, which will be given out later this year by the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies (CAGS).

We caught up with both winners to learn more about their research and where it has taken them.

Lindsay Wallace, Interdisciplinary PhD (’20)

Can you briefly summarize your doctoral thesis?

My doctoral thesis examined the contributions of brain lesions (known as pathology) and frailty to dementia. The common knowledge for many years in this area is that the pathology known as Alzheimer’s disease causes the symptoms of dementia, but when we look at people in the community, many have lots of pathology and no dementia, and vice versa! This problem really inspired my doctoral work. Through many investigations, I found that frailty, a holistic measure of overall health, made up the difference: that is, people with little pathology but who still got dementia were very frail. Basically, if you were frail, your tolerance for the pathology was lower.  

See also: Frailty a key risk factor for dementia (Dal News, 2019)

What impact do you hope to make with your research?

Understanding that older adults get dementia for many reasons, not just because they have brain pathology, opens opportunities to prevent and treat dementia. Rather than only focusing on medications that try and get rid of the pathology, we can also use strategies that promote overall health to be able to withstand that pathology without getting dementia. Exercise, nutrition and proper management of chronic diseases will all help to delay and/or prevent dementia.
I hope that my research can lead to public health changes that promote health and wellbeing at all life stages and prevent dementia and other age-related diseases.  

Tell me about a defining moment you had at Dalhousie.

When I first began at Dalhousie, I had a well-planned and thought-out proposal of what I wanted to do. But it soon turned out the data I wanted to use was not available to me. I had to pivot and I was quite nervous and felt a little lost. My mentors had full faith in me, and really encouraged my learning, independence and process, and I am so grateful. It was a turning point in trusting myself to come up with solutions and that I had the knowledge to figure it out. I am so lucky to have Drs. Olga Theou, Melissa Andrew and Kenneth Rockwood as my supervisors and mentors.  

What are you doing now?  

I am doing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Cambridge in the UK (working remotely!). I have continued my research work with my PhD lab in the Division of Geriatric Medicine, as well as embarking on a new path of trying to understand what public health approaches will be best positioned to reduce dementia risk at a population level. Essentially, this means investigating the impact of policies for smoking cessation, improved walkability of cities, and sugar taxes on overall health and dementia risk.  

Phillip Joy, PhD in Health (’20)

How does it feel to win the doctoral thesis award/be Dalhousie’s nominee for the Distinguished Dissertation Award?

It feels really great to receive this honor. It means a lot to have your research and dissertation recognized by others in this way. A thank you to all the excellent people at Dalhousie, including my supervisors (Drs. Sara Kirk and Matthew Numer), committee members, fellow students, the Centre for Teaching and Learning, School of Health and Human Performance, OpenThink, and the Faculty of Health.

Can you briefly summarize your doctoral thesis?

I used an arts-based methodology called photovoice and asked self-identifying gay men to take photographs about their beliefs, values and practices relating to food and their body image. This was a way to explore meanings given to food and the bodies of gay men and to start conversations about body image. An art show was held to reveal the participants' photographs to the public. Findings suggested that the participants navigated through body image tensions by challenging body ideals, connecting with other gay men and expressing compassion towards themselves and others.

See also: Talking body (Dal News, 2018)

What impact do you hope to make with your research?

The real impact for me is about bringing awareness to body image issues within the community and starting discussions about a topic that is not often talked about for men. If people know others may have similar experiences, they may find comfort and help with their own struggles.  

Tell me about a defining moment you had at Dalhousie.
There were so many great moments at Dalhousie. Relating to my dissertation work, I think the art show was a real defining moment.  It was when I realized that by giving people a venue, like an art show, to share their experiences and their voice that your work can have a real impact on others.  

What are you doing now?  

I’m an assistant professor in the Applied Human Nutrition Department at Mount Saint Vincent University, teaching several courses relating to nutrition, health and client care. My research program is beginning with funding from CLARI to explore the experiences of LGBTQ+ individuals with eating disorder treatments (in partnership with Eating Disorders NS) and with ResearchNS funding to explore nutritional care for people living with HIV/AIDS in Nova Scotia. 


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