This article is part of a series focusing on the grads of the Dalhousie Class of 2023. Spring Convocation runs from May 29 to June 7 in Halifax and Truro. Read all our profiles here as they are published, and for more information visit the Convocation website.
It can’t possibly be this easy.
That’s what Suchinta Arif thought after an introductory meeting with a prospective PhD supervisor, Dr. Aaron MacNeil. After earning a master’s degree in beluga research at Saint Mary’s University, Suchinta had started to explore doing a PhD and was introduced to Dr. MacNeil. Suchinta recalls thinking she “killed it” during a short conversation with the professor, but while at home afterward, doubts started to set in.
“There’s no way he’s going to hire me after a 10-minute interview,” Suchinta says. Her initial instincts proved to be accurate, though, as Dr. MacNeil let her know the next day that she had been admitted into her doctoral program. “That was the starting point for all of my success to come,” says Suchinta. “I could feel it in the air.”
Years after that informal meeting, the now Dr. Arif will be crossing the Dalhousie Arts Centre stage Wednesday (May 31) to receive her Doctor of Philosophy in biology. In the months that followed her PhD thesis defence in December, Suchinta began a postdoctoral fellowship in the Departments of Biology and Marine Affairs, found out that she had been chosen as a recipient of the Dalhousie Doctoral Thesis Award, and welcomed the birth of her first child, Riley.
During her time at Dal, she has also helped make science more inclusive by co-founding Diversity of Nature, a scientific outreach organization whose programming is tailored to Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) youth.
Promoting diversity and inclusion in science
Born in Bangladesh and raised in Toronto, Suchinta says she has felt isolated at times during her academic journey as one of the few racialized women in her cohorts. During the pandemic, she and fellow biology PhD student Melanie Massey would often walk their dogs with their partners and talk. Around the time of George Floyd’s death in May 2020, systemic racism was a frequent topic of conversation. “We kept thinking about what we could do to make our environments more anti-racist,” says Suchinta. “We realized both of us have a passion for ecology, and the most fulfilling parts of that involved field work.”
The pair came up with the idea of holding an annual field camp offered free of charge for a group of 15 BIPOC high schoolers. The youth would take part in an overnight field expedition while fostering a love of science and learning from a diverse group of grad student instructors. “I still remember all the kids that came to our first camp,” says Suchinta. “That group was amazing.”
The camp was the first event offered by Diversity of Nature. In the ensuing years, its programming continued to grow, with workshops being offered year-round for K-12 students in Nova Scotia. Held for the first time last summer, the Halifax Shark Week series of in-person events earned workshop leader and marine biology student Aaron Judah a 3M National Student Fellowship.
“It’s taken off beyond our original vision,” says Suchinta, making a point to acknowledge the support Diversity of Nature has received from Dalhousie and the Faculty of Science. “We are somewhat privileged as graduate students, so why not try and give back and do something meaningful? It’s been one of the highlights of our PhD programs.”
Looking to the future
While Suchinta and other members of Diversity of Nature’s leadership team will have soon graduated, the plan is for the organization to expand its footprint outside of Nova Scotia. Massey will begin a Liber Ero Fellowship at the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus in September, and Judah is off to the University of Hawaii to do a master’s in biological oceanography. “Instead of transitioning away from the leaders, we’re expanding,” says Suchinta, noting that members moving away from Halifax will look to establish Diversity of Nature programming in their new locations.
Suchinta will return to her postdoctoral fellowship following a period of maternity leave. After that, she hopes to find a teaching position that allows her to remain in the Maritimes, where she has come to enjoy the “slower, calmer pace of life.” Wherever she is, Suchinta knows what she wants to do: “Teach the next generation of scientists.”
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