Feverish stories about shark attacks, divers backflipping off boats, images of sharks baring their teeth: It's all classic fodder for the annual week-long entertainment juggernaut known as Shark Week.
And if you ask Aaron Judah, a Dal marine biology student graduating this spring, it’s not helping build a better understanding of the ocean, sharks and the scientists who study them. He worked with Nova Scotia BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) outreach group Diversity of Nature last summer to create Halifax Shark Week, an engaging, in-person alternative to Discovery Channel's programming.
"The purpose of the series of events was to recast what we see in the typical shark week. It's usually a very non-diverse group of leaders and scientists,” says Aaron, who identifies as part of the LGBTQ+ community and grew up in Toronto with an Indian father and Italian mother. “Our goal was to provide the space and opportunity for diverse shark scientists to provide a glimpse at what shark research actually looks like and introduce local youth to the sharks and rays of Nova Scotia."
A shark dissection and other events enabled Aaron and other student leaders involved to showcase the tools and techniques marine researchers use and immerse historically underrepresented and excluded youth in marine science and conservation.
Aaron’s willingness to step up and do the work to bring people together in the name of ocean literacy and diversity stretches back through his entire time at Dal — and this week, he’s being recognized for his impact with a 3M National Student Fellowship.
The award, presented annually by the Society for Teaching and Learning in High Education (SLTHE), celebrates post-secondary students who have demonstrated outstanding leadership and educational vision.
Up to 10 students receive the award each year, which includes a $2,000 award plus all associated fees and funds to attend the STLHE annual conference — which this year will be hosted in Charlottetown by University of Prince Edward Island and regional university partners in June.
Aaron’s fascination with the ocean and conservation first washed over him as a child while exploring coral reefs and aquariums during family vacations. Hours of looking at Google images and reading marine biodiversity books deepened his interest and primed him for the work he’d undertake in Dr. Aaron MacNeil's Integrated Fisheries Lab after arriving at Dal in the Integrated Science Program.
His studies and research at Dal have taken him around the world to places such as South Africa and Bermuda. He’s presented research at international conferences and been a guest lecturer. And, this term, he completed his honours thesis on the functional biodiversity of sharks and rays on coral reefs.
“I've always been driven by my passion and curiosity for the ocean and how we can understand the ocean better to do conservation,” says Aaron, citing Dr. MacNeil as an important mentor. “I come out of my degree at Dal with the exact same passion and drive that I had going in, maybe just more understanding of the complexities and how to balance when it comes to human livelihoods and conservation.”
At Dal, Aaron also threw himself into his community of fellow marine biology students and soon emerged as one of its leading lights. He has won several awards for his leadership and contributions to student and community outreach groups and initiatives, including the Dalhousie Association of Marine Biology Students and the Marine Biology Mentoring Program.
The latter, which he founded five years ago, pairs younger marine biology students with upper-year counterparts to help them advance their lives and careers.
"Aaron has made countless contributions to the Faculty of Science both in and out of the classroom and been an incredible representative of the Dal Science community," says Chuck Macdonald, dean in the Faculty of Science. “He is a skilled researcher, a highly engaged student leader, and an advocate for equity and inclusion. I am thrilled Aaron is being recognized for his leadership through the 3M National Student Fellowship and offer my congratulations to him.”
A seat at the table
This month, Aaron travels to Réunion Island (an island off the coast Madagascar) for a conference before returning to Halifax for convocation and then on to the SLTHE conference in PEI where he and this year’s other 3M fellows will deliver a plenary session.
Aaron plans to use the monetary award included in his fellowship to help finance his move to Honolulu later this year, where he’ll be entering into a Master's in biological oceanography at the University of Hawai'i Mānoa to study deep sea biodiversity and marine-protected areas.
For Aaron, the diversity of life under the water provides valuable lessons for life on dry ground.
“Everything in the ocean plays an important role. You need to have diversity, have this full spectrum of all these different components to support a healthy ecosystem. My viewpoint concerning equity and diversity is the exact same. I believe we need everybody at the table to promote a healthy future for our oceans as well as inclusive governance. To do ocean conservation without incorporating tenets of equity, diversity and justice is futile.”
Now, read about Dal's past 3M fellows
2022: Mohamed Nashnoush (Health Sciences)
2020: Qendresa Sahiti (Neuroscience)
2019: Mariam Ragab (Computer Science) and Hayat Showail (Environment, Sustainability & Society)
2018: Martha Paynter (Nursing)
2017: Bai Bintou Kaira (Chemical Engineering) and Anika Riopel (Theatre and Environment, Sustainability and Society)
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