Stellar scholars: Quartet of researchers elected to Royal Society of Canada’s Class of 2022

Sep 6th, 2022

By Jeff Green

It’s a Memorial milestone.

Four leading women researchers are receiving one of the country’s top academic honours — all at once.

The early-career researchers are among 2022’s inductees to the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists (RSC).

The honorees are Dr. Sonja Boon, professor, Department of Gender Studies, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences; Dr. Julia Christensen, adjunct professor, Department of Geography, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences; Dr. Sheila Garland, associate professor, Department of Psychology, Faculty of Science, who is cross-appointed to the Discipline of Oncology, Faculty of Medicine; and Dr. Baiyu (Helen) Zhang, professor, Department of Civil Engineering, Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science.

The group will be formally recognized by the society later this year.

‘High-impact scholarship’

“Memorial University is tremendously proud of the diverse accomplishments of this prolific group of researchers,” said President Vianne Timmons.

“These talented academics have made outstanding contributions to their fields of study and our communities. This national recognition illuminates their commitment to lead transformative, high-impact scholarship that is making our world a better place. Sincere congratulations to each on their individual honours.”

Addressing complex issues

Wearing a black dress and red scarf, Dr. Sonja Boon smiles.
Dr. Sonja Boon

Dr. Boon is an award-winning researcher, writer and teacher whose work addresses the complex issues of migration, memory, gender, bodily experience and identity, as these are lived and experienced.

She has specific interest in life writing and autoethnography — how we tell and understand life stories.

An inter- and multi-disciplinarian, Dr. Boon is at the forefront of gender studies research and teaching in Canada and worldwide. Her groundbreaking scholarship has been lauded for its methodological innovation and its theoretical contributions.

Dr. Boon has published extensively on the reproductive body, focusing on such issues as reproductive obligations, maternal grief, pregnancy and childbirth and abortion.

Her most recent work considers connections between gender, bodies, geographies and colonial encounters.

In 2020 she became the university’s first recipient of the RSC’s Ursula Franklin Award in Gender Studies.

‘Institutional space’

Dr. Boon says it is a “treat” to be named to a community of scholars, writers and artists doing interesting things, often in interesting ways.

“My scholarly and creative work doesn’t necessarily fit neatly into categories,” she told the Gazette. “It sprawls. It overflows. It tangles. It’s weird. And so it’s not always easy to understand how it all fits together — because it does, I promise it does! This recognition means that that there is institutional space for that kind of sprawling tangle of words and ideas.”

Dr. Boon says her students motivate her to do this work.

“No scholar is an island. Even those of us who research, write and create largely on our own — that would be the archives-loving me — are always thinking, learning, living and delighting in community,” she explained.

“My students are my inspiration. I am continually awed, not only by their intellectual and creative fearlessness, but also by their commitment to rage, wonder and joy. Their fire inspires my own.”

Indigenous collaborations

Wearing a green patterned dress, Dr. Julia Christensen smiles.
Dr. Julia Christensen

Dr. Christensen, Canada Research Chair in Northern Governance and Public Policy who, as of Aug. 1, is based at Queen’s University, is a globally recognized scholar in housing, home and health in the circumpolar North.

Her cutting-edge scholarship is leading efforts to understand the northern housing crisis and dismantle it through community-led solutions.

Dr. Christensen’s collaborations with Indigenous and regional governments have informed a series of policy initiatives that respond to the unique cultures and contexts of northern communities.

Her book, No Home in a Homeland: Indigenous Peoples and Homelessness in the Canadian North, was the first to theorize Indigenous experiences of homelessness.

‘World to me’

“There are few milestones in an academic career,” Dr. Christensen told the Gazette. “At times, it can feel isolating or difficult to see the bigger picture narrative of one’s career. To find myself part of a community of other scholars who have made such important contributions, and who continue to do so, is very moving, and ultimately reassurance that what I am doing with my work matters. This recognition means the world to me.”

Dr. Christensen says her research is possible because of a vast network of collaborators.

“The work I have done thus far in my career has been made possible by northern, Indigenous communities and individuals who have trusted me with their stories, by incredible colleagues and collaborators, by the most wonderful students, by my family, my friends, by the traditional homelands of Indigenous people upon which I have grown, learned and pursued this path,” she noted.

“While I am grateful for this recognition of my scholarship, my scholarship has not occurred within me as an individual person, but as someone who has been held up and supported by people, places and land.”


Innovative work

Wearing a black patterned top, Dr. Sheila Garland smiles.
Dr. Sheila Garland

Dr. Garland is an internationally renowned clinical psychologist whose research bridges the areas of psychology, oncology and sleep medicine.

She applies sophisticated quantitative, qualitative and patient-oriented research methods to improve the lives of people impacted by cancer.

Her innovative work on the influence that poor sleep has on cancer recovery, and the establishment of effective interventions, has improved the nights, and days, of cancer survivors worldwide.

As director of the Sleep, Health and Wellness Lab at Memorial, Dr. Garland is developing an app to help cancer survivors overcome insomnia.

She is currently part of a national team examining the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on young adults with cancer, which has produced several published papers.

‘Expand my platform’

Her reaction to the RSC news was a mixture of disbelief and elation.

“I had to read the email a few times to make sure I hadn’t read it wrong,” she said during a recent conversation.

“Being part of such a prestigious group can certainly be intimidating; however, I know that other new members probably had similar feelings.” 

 She is looking forward to developing relationships with other RSC members and contributing to the society’s mission.

“This recognition is important to me because it validates something that most people aren’t aware of: that cancer recovery often starts when cancer treatment ends,” she said.

“I have spent my clinical and research career trying to reduce the psycho-social burden of cancer. With more people living with and beyond cancer, we need increased awareness and resources to help manage the long-term effects of cancer on the individual, their family and society. This RSC recognition will expand my platform to advocate for this change.”

Environmental expert

Wearing a black dress, beige blazer and dark-rimmed glasses, Dr. Baiyu (Helen) Zhang smiles.
Dr. Baiyu (Helen) Zhang

Widely lauded for her dynamic research, Dr. Zhang, Canada Research Chair in Coastal Environmental Engineering, has made significant advances in handling coastal oil and emerging contamination.

She is the founder of Memorial’s Coastal Environmental Laboratory, which is among a select group of worldwide facilities developing novel and environmentally friendly bio-products for marine oil spill response. She is also a key researcher with Memorial’s Northern Region Persistent Organic Pollution Control Laboratory, tackling the occurrence, transport, fate, impact and mitigation of emerging coastal contaminants such as microplastics and antibiotics.

Dr. Zhang’s cutting-edge work helps integrate coastal environmental engineering with the key ocean industrial sectors to drive our ocean economies to be more sustainable and productive under a changing climate.

Her research has resulted in invitations from Canada’s Ocean Protection Plan’s Multi-partner Oil Spill Research Initiative as one of the lead scientists.

She also served as senior expert of the United Nations Development Program and received a fellowship from the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering in recognition of her impact on the discipline.

‘Openness and respect’

Dr. Zhang is “thrilled” about her RSC election.

“I feel very encouraged by this recognition,” she told the Gazette.

“I am incredibly thankful to the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science and Memorial University for the long-term support of my career and environmental engineering research and education.” 

Dr. Zhang says she shares the honour with her colleagues, collaborators and students.

“I appreciate their openness and respect, and am cheered by their inspiration.”

She says she is looking forward to working with the RSC and its diverse membership.

“I foresee the value of working with my peers in such a prestigious group to contribute to knowledge through innovative and high-impact research and by mentoring the next generation of scholars and professionals.”

The latest recipients join 11 other Memorial researchers who have been elected to the RSC’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists.

The honorees will be celebrated by the RSC during a celebration of excellence and engagement from Nov. 23–26 in Calgary, Alta.