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Global impact

End poverty in all its forms. Ensure healthy lives and education for all. Take urgent action on climate change. Achieve gender equality.

Say what you will about the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, but modest they are not. The 17 goals, adopted in 2015, outline a path forward for Earth and its inhabitants that leads directly through some of the most pressing, urgent challenges we face. Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called them “a social contract between the world’s leaders and its people” and “a blueprint for success.”

Dalhousie has been working on a blueprint of its own over the past year: a new Research Strategic Direction, titled Impact Together. It’s a plan that underlines Dal’s important role as the leading research university in Atlantic Canada—with over $150 million in funded annual research—while also drawing connections between what’s happening in labs and offices across campus (and beyond) and what’s happening on a global scale.

That’s why you’ll find references to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals throughout the Strategic Direction, and why each of the plan’s five signature research clusters and two cross-cutting themes are tied to specific UN goals. “By aligning our strategic direction with the same goals that leaders from around the world have committed to, we are able to leverage our greatest research strengths to partner with others around the globe and focus our efforts on solving some of the most complex global issues of this century,” says Dr. Alice Aiken, Dalhousie’s vice-president of research and innovation.

Each of Dal’s signature research clusters represents the work of hundreds of faculty, staff and students at all levels tackling those complex global issues across disciplines. In this article, we’ll introduce you to a few of them, and how their research is reshaping our world as we enter Dal’s third century.

Clean Tech, Energy, The Environment

Ghada Koleilat Assistant Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering / Process Engineering and Applied Science
UN Sustainable Development Goals: Affordable and Clean Energy / Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure / Climate Action

Ghada Koleilat (Aaron McKenzie Fraser photo)

“Research is 90 per cent failure,” says Ghada Koleilat, an assistant professor in Dal’s Faculty of Engineering. “You’re looking for that 10 per cent when you end up with something great, and then trying to understand how it can be used.”

She’s describing her team’s work on photovoltaic energy conversion—solar cells, primarily. Increasing the longevity of solar cells is key to the world moving away from fossil fuels as our primary energy source, and doing so will take new solution-processed materials that can be easily integrated with silicon, the most popular semiconductor used in solar cells. Dr. Koleilat’s widely interdisciplinary team works on every stage of that research process: identifying new materials, fabricating them, testing them and working with industry on potential applications.

“It’s lovely to find a discovery on the fundamental scale, but it’s also worthwhile to see your inventions or the materials you create in the lab having a real-life impact, affecting people’s lives,” says Dr. Koleilat, adding that what’s so exciting about the work is its cutting-edge aspects. “It’s exciting because we’re doing innovations nobody has done before. We’re discovering something unique every day.”

Culture, Society, Community Development

Naiomi Metallic Chancellor’s Chair in Aboriginal Law and Policy
UN Sustainable Development Goals: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

During 10 years practising law, Naiomi Metallic often encountered just how little scholarship there is in certain areas related to Aboriginal and Indigenous rights. “That lack of scholarship prevents us from being able to educate members of the bench and other counsel in putting a case forward,” she explains, noting one example during her master’s studies when she had to figure out whether she could cite her own, just-written academic work in a court case.

So when she joined Dalhousie’s Schulich School of Law to serve as the inaugural Chancellor’s Chair in Aboriginal Law and Policy, she arrived determined to improve the research available to lawyers, judges and Indigenous communities. Some of her areas of focus include essential services in First Nations communities, Indigenous self-government, Aboriginal language revitalization, and reconciliation. “It’s exciting when I see my work is helping people, whether it’s lawyers looking to make arguments in court, or Indigenous peoples furthering their jurisdiction or raising general public awareness. It means we’re advancing the law itself.”

Food Security

Stefanie Colombo Canada Research Chair, Aquaculture Nutrition
UN Sustainable Development Goals: Zero Hunger / Life Below Water

When Stefanie Colombo went searching for work after her undergrad, she found many of the places hiring Marine Biology graduates were aquaculture companies on Canada’s East Coast. The Brantford, Ont. native had never been to Nova Scotia before, but interested to learn more, she accepted a position with Scotian Halibut Limited in Clarks Harbour.

“Being in the industry helped me think about things differently than had I stayed in academia,” says Dr. Colombo, now the Canada Research Chair in Aquaculture Nutrition at Dal’s Faculty of Agriculture in Truro. “It gave me a different perspective, and made me realize I was really interested in research and this intersection with industry.”

It’s a mindset that’s stuck with Dr. Colombo as she now tackles one of the world’s most pressing challenges: how do we feed a rapidly-growing global population? Aquaculture already accounts for half of the world’s seafood, and is expected to grow to 60 per cent in a decade.

Dr. Colombo and her team are developing new, innovative approaches to aquaculture nutrition—including using microalgae as a food source—to improve not just the health of farmed seafood, but its overall sustainability. “A lot of people don’t see ocean culture in relation to ocean substantiality, but it really is,” she says. “If we don’t have aquaculture to meet our food demands, and we continue to rely on captured fisheries, that will have a huge impact on the ocean. For me, I see the long-term goals of aquaculture and I want to be part of that.”

Sustainable Ocean

Megan Bailey Canada Research Chair in Integrated Ocean and Coastal Governance
UN Sustainable Development Goals: Zero Hunger / Life Below Water

Megan Bailey (Aaron McKenzie Fraser photo)

From transportation to food production, our dependence on the global ocean is longstanding and obvious—as is, especially in recent decades, the environmental impact of our interactions with it. But in trying to create a “blue economy” alongside a sustainable ocean, there are other important issues raised, says fisheries management researcher Megan Bailey.

“For me, I’m interested in equity,” says Dr. Bailey. “How much fish comes out of the ocean is a hugely important part of fisheries management. But how does taking fish out of the ocean benefit people, and who does it benefit?”

She calls this a question of “blue justice,” and it drives her work, whether it’s attending global governance meetings or working directly with local fishermen. “It’s taking national and globally-recognized governance frameworks for marine resources—specifically fish—and trying to understand what that means for equitable outcomes in how resources are used.”

That means looking at who’s at the decision-making table, and how those decisions flow through the supply chain from the people on the ground working in fisheries to those eating seafood around the globe. Dr. Bailey says her research space is a fluid one—no pun intended—existing between global and local and deeply interdisciplinary in its engagements with other researchers.

“It affords me a wonderful collaborative space, and it’s great to work with all kinds of inspiring people.”

Cross-cutting theme: Big Data

Rita Orji Assistant Professor, Computer Science
UN Sustainable Development Goals: Good Health and Well-Being / Quality Education / Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure

Facebook scandals, data mining, “fake news”—it’s easy to get dark and dreary about technology’s role in society. But count Rita Orji among the optimists. Her work in human-computer interaction is finding ways to use digital tools to help people help themselves and help build a better world.

“How do we harness the power of ubiquitous technology that’s already everywhere, like mobile phones, games, social media, to design things that will empower people to achieve behaviours that will benefit them and their communities?” says Dr. Orji.

Take, for example, her team’s work on a mobile app to educate African youth about sexually transmitted diseases—breaking through ignorance with a game-centred design that allows young people a private way to get important sexual health information. Other projects in her lab focus on topics like mental health, fitness, climate change and more.

“It’s about agency,” says Dr. Orji, noting how her work uses similar thinking to the private sector, but with one key difference: a focus on empowerment. “It’s about motivating people, using the power in these interactive technologies to help them to improve their lives and the lives of those around.”

Cross-cutting theme: Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Louis Beaubien Associate Professor, Rowe School of Business
UN Sustainable Development Goals: Good Health and Well-Being / Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure

A chartered professional accountant by trade, Louis Beaubien’s personal experiences in the health-care system drove him towards health-based research—with a particular emphasis on technology and innovation. “There’s a lot of research you can do on understanding the health system better from a metrics perspective,” explains Dr. Beaubien, an associate dean in Dal’s Faculty of Management.

And while much of that research involves numbers and analysis—such as looking at trends in health spending across Canada—it can also involve in-depth qualitative work on improving health systems. One such collaboration, for example, has him working with faculty in Dal’s School of Nursing to assess how technology can be used to improve health care for newborns and children.

He’s also academic lead of Creative Destruction Lab Atlantic, hosted in Dal’s Rowe School of Business, where he not only teaches young entrepreneurs about innovation but helps them understand how research can close the gap between ideas and real-world applications. “Bench science is hugely important, and applied research is hugely important. But we can’t just assume that if we create something great, the world will find out. We have to be very deliberate about mobilizing this work in such a way that the science is validated and what comes out of that science is valued by society.”

Healthy People, Healthy Communities, Healthy Populations

Debbie Martin Canada Research Chair, Indigenous Peoples Health and Well-Being
UN Sustainable Development Goals: Good Health and Well-Being

Debbie Martin (Aaron McKenzie Fraser)

It may seem unorthodox for a health researcher to be working on a renewable energy study. But it’s exactly the sort of discipline-spanning, holistic approach that Debbie Martin believes is necessary when tackling health issues faced by Indigenous communities. “The work that we do is community driven, community based and often times community led,” says Dr. Martin, the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples Health and Well-Being. “The research priorities we work on are often priorities communities have identified themselves, and the methodologies we use are developed based on how communities want us to engage in the research.”

It’s an approach that’s led to collaborations with colleagues in Dal’s Faculty of Dentistry on the oral health of Southern Inuit children on Labrador’s coast, and how to dive deeper into the linkages between sustainable approaches to energy development and health outcomes in those same communities.

Dr. Martin also leads the Atlantic Indigenous Mentorship Network, which offers small seed grants and mentoring to Indigenous researchers at the undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral levels. “We’re about to make transformative changes to Indigenous health research because we’re building capacity. We’ve got support. We’ve got a growing number of Indigenous scholars that are contributing. That’s really exciting.”

Strategic thinking

Over the course of two centuries, Dalhousie has transformed from a local centre of learning to an institution with global impact. Key to that transformation has been a focus on research and innovation. “The world-class researchers that call this university home have made—and are continuing to make—significant contributions that are not only impacting our province, but our country and the world,” says Alice Aiken, vice-president of research and innovation.

The Research Strategic Direction, titled Impact Together, is focused on ensuring Dal remains and enhances its status as a hub of world-leading research and innovation in Atlantic Canada. It will serve as a guide for the allocation of research and innovation resources in the years ahead, and ensure that Dal’s research activities have an even stronger influence on the local, regional and global landscape.

The plan’s five-year vision will come to life through the work of the university’s researchers and staff, guided by four pillars: working together to propel research and innovation excellence; advancing an integrated research culture; partnering with the world’s best and expanding relationships locally, regionally and internationally; and finally, leveraging research to drive social, culture and economic development.

“The goals that have come from the development of our strategic direction are ambitious. Dalhousie researchers are up to the challenge and excited to be changing the world,” says Dr. Aiken.

Review the full plan at dal.ca/research