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06 Aug 2014

2014 Distinguished Dissertation Award: The Health of our Oceans.


A dissertation that analyzes more than a century of data to examine the health of the world’s oceans is Canada’s 2014 Distinguished Dissertation Award winner in the Engineering, Medical Science and Natural Science Category.

Dalhousie University’s Daniel Boyce (PhD Biology) compiled the unprecedented collection of historical and recent oceanographic data to document declines in phytoplankton. The tiny algae is a primary source of food in ocean ecosystems.

The work connected rising sea surface temperatures and changing oceanographic conditions to the presence of phytoplankton and shows a 1 per cent drop each year for the past 40 years.

Boyce’s findings contribute to a growing body of scientific evidence indicating that climate change is altering the fundamentals of marine ecosystems. Rising temperatures make the ocean more stratified, restricting the movement between different layers and decreasing nutrient delivery to the surface where phytoplanktons grow.

“The global declines are unequivocal”, says Boyce.” And that is a serious problem. Phytoplankton are critical to our planetary life support system. They produce half of the oxygen we breathe, draw down surface CO2, and ultimately support all of our fisheries. An ocean with less phytoplankton will function differently, and this has to be accounted for in our management efforts.”

It was painstaking, detailed work, much of it in front of a computer screen. More than half a million observations were compiled in a valuable database that reflects trends over 100 years.

“This work was impressive, “says Professor Eric Filion, Department of Chemistry at the University of Waterloo and members of the CAGS judges’ panel. “To have an article published in Nature at this stage of his career speaks volumes about the quality.”

Boyce worked closely with Dr. Boris Worm an internationally recognized expert in marine biodiversity and head of the Worm Lab at Dalhousie University.

“He is like a sponge for scientific data.” says Dr. Worm. ”He painstakingly accumulated an enormous database of plankton records, and then extracted these extraordinary patterns that no-one was really aware of. He is very meticulous, pays attention to detail, while at the same time looking at the big picture.”

And that big picture is what inspired Boyce.

“Phytoplankton is key to sustainable fisheries operations and the overall health of the ocean. We need to make sure that the numbers do not continue to decline,” says Boyce, who worked with a team at Nova Scotia’s Bedford Institute of Oceanography. He hopes that his work will provide incentive for more global tracking to reduce uncertainties in future projections.

Boyce will receive his award in October when the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies holds its annual conference in St.John’s, Newfoundland.

“The quality of submissions for the CAGS awards gets more impressive each year,” says CAGS President Noreen Golfman. “The passion, persistence and academic vigour in Dr. Boyce’s work is a wonderful example of the important role Canadian graduate education has in the world.”

The CAGS/PROQUEST-UMI Distinguished Dissertation Awards began in 1994. They recognize doctoral students whose dissertations make an original contribution to their academic field. Two awards are offered each year: one in engineering, medical sciences and natural sciences; and one in fine arts, humanities and social sciences.

The Canadian Association for Graduate Studies (CAGS) brings together 58 Canadian universities with graduate programs and the three federal research-granting agencies, as well as other institutions and organizations having an interest in graduate studies.

Dr. Boyce is currently a postdoctoral fellow with Queen's University.

For more information contact:
Gail Dugas