The Canadian Association for Graduate Studies (CAGS) is pleased to present a series of profiles showcasing the extraordinary research and professional achievements of ten finalists from the 2021 CAGS-ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Award.

Top Finalist – Engineering, Medical Sciences and Natural Sciences Category

Dr. Michael Meanwell, Department of Chemistry, Simon Fraser University 

Supervisor: Dr. Robert Britton, Professor and Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research Scholar

Dissertation: “A de novo nucleoside synthesis and late-stage heterobenzylic fluorination strategy.”

Dr. Michael Meanwell, Department of Chemistry, Simon Fraser University

From anticancer to antiviral therapeutics, Dr. Michael Meanwell’s stellar PhD thesis serves to inspire the future of synthetic chemistry and drug design. With the use of “impressive chemistry,” according to the reviewing Professor, Michael overcame the challenges and complexities of synthesizing valuable therapeutic molecules, termed nucleoside analogues, which are largely utilized in clinical setting as treatment for cancer and many viral infections. Until now, the synthesis of nucleoside analogues required a lengthy 18-step process. Michael created a one-pot chemical reaction that yields fluorohydrin compounds that serve as building blocks for the construction of nucleoside analogues. This discovery significantly simplified existing manufacturing methods of these important drugs and is highly relevant in the context of global pandemic. 

Michael’s exceptional thesis and research led him to bringing in $1.5 million of funding for the Britton Lab, a patent, and collaborations with some of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies, all of which have influenced Michael’s “truly important, topical and useful” work in chemistry. Michael has a strong publication record, authoring 16 peer-reviewed journal articles. He has further pioneered a platform for rapid nucleoside analogue synthesis, revolutionizing “the way chemists make nucleoside analogues” as described by his supervisor at Simon Fraser University,  Professor Robert Britton. Michael has since completed a Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Scripps Research Institute in the Baran Laboratory and is presently the Manley and Marian Johnston Professor in Chemistry at the University of Alberta.

Top Finalist – Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Category

Dr. Melanie Braith, Department of English, Theatre, Film & Media, University of Manitoba

Supervisor: Dr. Warren Cariou, Professor, Department of English, Theatre, Film & Media, University of Manitoba

Dissertation: Restorying Relationships and Performing Resurgence: How Indigenous Storytelling Shapes Residential School Testimony.

Dr. Melanie Braith, Department of English, Theatre, Film & Media, University of Manitoba

What is justice? In Cree, the nearest equivalent is “kintohpatatin,” which loosely means “you’ve been listened to.” But more than that, the term conveys being listened to by someone compassionate, someone fair, someone who will take your needs seriously. This insight, drawn from Edmund Metatawabin’s Up Ghost River and printed on the walls of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg, emphasizes that listening to stories and testimony is only the beginning. Further understanding and action is still required.

It is here that Melanie Braith’s University of Manitoba thesis makes a timely and compelling argument for the power of Indigenous epistemologies. Entitled, “Restorying Relationships and Performing Resurgence: How Indigenous Storytelling Shapes Residential School Testimony,” Braith’s dissertation analyzes the narrative principles of Indigenous storytelling present within residential school novels and applies these principles to recordings of the TRC testimonies to show how survivors used their testimony to create relationships, address contemporary political issues, and work toward Indigenous resurgence. The dissertation is, as the reviewer’s report testifies, “of extraordinary merit, great thoughtfulness and deft, impressive research.” Melanie is currently a project manager for the Six Seasons of the Asiniskaw Īthiniwak project at the University of Winnipeg.

The CAGS-ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Award recognizes Canadian doctoral dissertations that make unusually significant and original contributions, both to their respective academic communities and to Canadian society at large. The award was established in 1994 and is presented annually by CAGS, with sponsorship support provided by ProQuest. For the 2021 award season, eligible dissertations must have been completed and accepted by the graduate school between 1 January 2020 and 31 December 2020.

As expected, there were many extraordinary nominees for this award and the competition was extremely difficult to adjudicate. Twenty-two universities from across Canada participated, each of whom were eligible to submit only one nomination per category after a rigorous internal selection process. In total, CAGS received 44 dissertations that were assessed by two independent committees, each consisting of 16 expert judges.

CAGS congratulates the winners and finalists for their tremendous accomplishments!