A shared passion for sustainability: Meet Dal’s 2023 Doctoral Thesis Award winners

- April 6, 2023

Adebayo Majekolagbe, left, and Suchinta Arif are recipients of this year's Doctoral Thesis Awards. (Provided photos)
Adebayo Majekolagbe, left, and Suchinta Arif are recipients of this year's Doctoral Thesis Awards. (Provided photos)

Doctoral graduates Adebayo Majekolagbe from the Schulich School of Law and Suchinta Arif from the Department of Biology have been selected as the recipients of the 2023 Dalhousie Doctoral Thesis Awards for their dissertations on ecological issues.

Presented by the Faculty of Graduate Studies, the Dalhousie Doctoral Thesis Awards have recognized the top theses submitted by PhD students in each calendar year for more than 25 years.

The 2023 recipients were selected from two pools — Dr. Majekolagbe was chosen from the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences category and Dr. Arif from the Engineering, Medical Sciences, and Natural Sciences category. 

Dr. Majekolagbe’s thesis looks at just transition as a socio-ecological, wellbeing-centric notion.

“Dr. Majekolagbe makes a major contribution by developing a just transition impact assessment legal framework that goes beyond the traditional focus on jobs to embrace a holistic vision of just and sustainable livelihoods and communities embedded within resilient ecological systems. It was a true pleasure to co-supervise this ground-breaking work with my late colleague Dr. Meinhard Doelle, and I am delighted to learn of this award,” says Dr. Sara Seck, Dr. Majekolagbe’s former supervisor.

Dr. Arif’s thesis highlights methods for causal inference that can be broadly used across observational ecological studies to generate more robust conclusions about relationships in nature.

“Suchinta is bringing a novel perspective to solving difficult questions about how ecosystems work and our role in them. Her ideas are fresh and distinct, integrating a range of research methods to address real-world problems in applied ecology,” says her former supervisor, Dr. Aaron MacNeil. “Ultimately, the impact of her work is in improving understanding of the effects people have on how nature functions and how we can live more sustainably.”

As this year’s winners, Drs. Majekolagbe and Arif will also be Dal’s nominees for the CAGS-ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Award, which will be awarded by the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies (CAGS) later this year.

Learn more about their work and the impact they hope it makes.  

Dr. Adebayo Majekolagbe, Law PhD

Can you briefly summarize your doctoral thesis?

My thesis defines just transition as a global and local socio-ecological, wellbeing-centric notion. It further shows that impact assessment is a useful tool in achieving a climate change induced transition that is vulnerability sensitive and rights based. It contributes to the scholarship on just transition through its pivot from the procedural and distributive focus of conventional narratives to adopting Amartya Sen’s capability approach to justice as its undergirding theory. Hence, it draws attention to what the ‘ends’ of just transition should be and not just its ‘means.’ It is also the first time that regulatory impact assessment is being proposed as an implementation vehicle for just transition. The thesis culminates in a just transition impact assessment (JTIA) framework entailing minimum principles for the explicit consideration of the justice implications of transition decisions, whether it is closing a coal mine or siting a solar farm.

What impact do you hope to make with your research?

Transition decisions are not cost-free; and in a free-for-all situation, the vulnerable will bear the brunt of those decisions. My thesis has proposed a tool that could potentially contribute to evening the field. I am hopeful that through this work, ‘justice’ will become a central consideration when transition related decisions are made by governments and corporations. While I focused on regulatory impact assessment, the JTIA principles could also be mainstreamed into the due diligence processes of companies. A just transition requires deliberateness; we cannot sleepwalk into a just green world. I hope that this research assists in supplying that deliberateness.

Tell me about a defining moment you had at Dalhousie.

In September 2022, I lost my PhD co-supervisor, Meinhard Doelle. It was shocking, and still very unreal. It was also a time of reflection and insight into a truly great life. I drew lessons that are now cornerstones of my career as an academic. Lessons ranging from the seemingly insignificant, like the pace at which he responded to emails despite his very busy schedule, to the more sublime like his ability to resolutely yet pragmatically steer Canada on a pathway of environmental responsibility.

What are you doing now?

I teach climate change law as an adjunct professor at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Law, where I take up a full-time Assistant Teaching Professor position in the summer. I am also a fellow at the Marine and Environmental Law Institute, Schulich School of Law, and the African Sovereign Debt Justice Network where I research on climate justice, climate finance, and sovereign debt in the Global South.

Suchinta Arif, Biology PhD

Can you briefly summarize your doctoral thesis?

Ecologists are often interested in understanding causal relationships in nature, and are also often dependent on observational data for doing so. For example: what is the impact of overfishing on key ecosystem services, or how have climate-induced bleaching events impacted coral reefs across the globe? However, causal inference, the ability to determine cause and effect relationships from data and theory, has largely been missing across observational ecological studies. My thesis aims to resolve this issue by highlighting methods for causal inference that can be broadly used across observational ecological studies to generate more robust conclusions about causal relationships in nature. It further highlights how such methods can also remove biases across experimental ecological studies as well.

What impact do you hope to make with your research?

I hope that my research will provide ecologists with a set of tools that can help them visualize and analyze their data in order to remove common biases that often plague both observational and experimental studies. Ultimately, this will generate more robust conclusions about causal relationships in nature, which in turn can enhance the pace and depth of ecological research.

Tell me about a defining moment you had at Dalhousie.

My original PhD project (which was given to me as part of a larger funded study) revolved around understanding the population structure of Atlantic cod, and due to a combination of factors outside of my control, I realized during a conference meeting in Newfoundland that this project would no longer be feasible. Although this news was startling at first, it gave me the opportunity to fully create my own PhD project from scratch, which has been a very fulfilling experience that increased my confidence as a researcher.

What are you doing now?

I’m currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Biology at Dalhousie University. My project is looking at ways to co-create and operationalize positive futures of ocean use across Atlantic Canada. I’m also a recent mother (as of this week), so I’m learning to navigate motherhood and research as I go!


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