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06 August 2013

CAGS 2013 Dissertation Award: Cracking An Evolutionary Mystery


Ottawa - A study about the evolutionary history and population patterns of the iconic North American Mountain Goat has won the CAGS/UMI-PROQUEST Distinguished Dissertation Award for 2013 (Engineering, Medical Science and Natural Science Category)..

Aaron Shafer’s work at the University of Alberta in Edmonton straddled basic science, evolutionary history, wildlife management and ecology. Along the way there was detective work involving the journals of Russian sailors, cliffside tracking expeditions in Alaska and providing inspiration to a Native Artist and Master Weaver.

“Dr. Shafer’s work raised the bar on how to combine rigourous academic research and relevance to the community,” says CAGS President, Noreen Golfman. “He expands our knowledge of evolution and provides information that will be useful in managing wildlife during a period of climate change.”

An essential part of Shafer’s work involved comparing the patterns gleaned from mountain goat DNA. When it was combined with information from fossils, it told a story of genetic diversity and migration that goes back to before the last glacial period in what is now northwestern North America.

"Diversity is like a genetic bank account that Is large enough to allow populations to cope with change to climate,” says Shafer, who did his Masters in Science at Acadia University in Wolfville, NS. “Without it, the ability to change is seriously impaired.” During a Skype interview from the University of Uppsala, Sweden where he is a Postdoctoral Fellow, Shafer exudes enthusiasm for the twists and turns his research took.

At one point, he found himself poring over information from the 200 year old logs of Russian sailors who reported seeing “white deer” on Baranof Island, Alaska. It also inspired a Tlingit Master Weaver based in Alaska to incorporate a DNA double helix design in a traditional robe made from mountain goat wool.

Shafer will receive his award in November when the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies holds its conference in Montreal.

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.

For more information contact:
Gail Dugas

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