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2017 Vanier Scholar explores daily life in the aftermath of national tragedy

Michele Bianchi (Anthropology), J. Mylynn Felt (Communication and Media Studies), and Thomas Fox (Geography) are among UCalgary's 11 Vanier Canada Graduate Scholars


Mourners gather in Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Photo courtesy Marketa Slavkova

By Daniel Ferguson and Chantal Palmer
September 27, 2017

Georges Vanier understood the grave threat to refugees unfolding in Europe during the Second World War. While serving as ambassador to post-war France, he also saw that reconstruction would be a long and difficult road.

Nearly three quarters of a century later, anthropology PhD student Michele Bianchi has been awarded a 2017 Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship (CGS). The scholarship is a profoundly good fit; much like Vanier did following the world war, Bianchi grapples with questions of how people move on from conflict and displacement. Bianchi’s work seeks to understand how differing experiences and memories of the war shape the identities of new generations of Bosnians, and how they find and create meaning in their everyday lives in the wake of a war-torn past.  

Although the Bosnian War ended more than 20 years ago, Srebrenica is still in a condition of social vulnerability characterized by political marginalization, unemployment and economic instability. “I’m interested in how the younger generation, those who were very young during or born after the Bosnian war, come to terms with that past and today create meaning in their everyday existence,” says Bianchi. “To find a sense of identity, a new generation of Bosnians have to negotiate between different institutional memories of the war — which are divisive and based on ethno-nationalist political agendas — and personal experience; between the self-understanding of their daily lives and historical and international representations of the area.” 

Bianchi’s doctoral work has roots in his experience attending Summer University Srebrenica, where he participated in the July 11 peace march commemorating the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. “It’s very emotional, because many of the people marching are family of the victims,” says Bianchi. “After two decades, the work of identifying victims is ongoing.”

Since that formative experience, Bianchi has come to wonder about everyday life for citizens of Bosnia outside of the July commemorations. While a narrative predominant in western media often addresses the war in terms of ancient hatreds between ethnic groups, Bianchi finds the situation much more nuanced.

Bianchi notes with optimism that many young Bosnians are finding voices outside of the ethno-nationalist representations of identity entrenched in the political party system. For example, Bianchi’s fieldwork brings him in close contact with young Bosnian-Serbs who are using social enterprises such as a garment-manufacturing NGO with a goal of creating a viable business and job opportunities that don’t rely on political affiliations.

The Vanier scholarship will support Bianchi’s ongoing research and fieldwork. Bianchi has also been awarded the Izaak Walton Killam Memorial Scholarship.

A record number of Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships

Valued at $50,000 and funded by the Canadian government, the Vanier CGS is one of Canada’s most prestigious graduate awards and is given on the basis of academic excellence, research potential and leadership. This year, 11 University of Calgary students have been awarded the Vanier CGS — the most in a single year, tying with the university’s 2014 record.

“Being awarded a Vanier is a great accomplishment. Our recipients represent the pinnacle of graduate scholarship; their work really underscores the university’s commitment to innovation in research and community building,” says Cheryl Dueck, associate dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies. “The incredible diversity of our Vanier scholars’ research speaks to the fact that the University of Calgary is achieving excellence across a broad range of disciplines.”

Along with Michele Bianchi, UCalgary’s 2017 Vanier Canada Scholars include:

Kevin Boldt, Kinesiology
Supervisor: Dr. Walter Herzog

A certified exercise physiologist, Boldt is passionate about helping people meet their fitness goals. He is looking at making exercise more effective by identifying how isolated heart muscle cells adapt mechanically to exercise, and how to maximize these adaptations through tailoring exercise and nutrition programs in rats. These discoveries could reduce cardiovascular disease and improve athletic performance in people.

N. Daniel Berger, Neuroscience
Supervisor: Dr. Jennifer Chan

A combined PhD and MD student, Berger aims to improve therapies for pediatric brain cancer survivors. Past research shows that radiation treatment may lead to a cognitive decline in childhood cancer survivors as they age. Berger is investigating cellular events that may contribute to this heightened risk of mental decline and secondary brain cancers after brain tumour radiation therapy in children. This may lead to the reduction/elimination of the long-term impacts of radiation treatment on a child’s brain.

Chelsia Gillis, Community Health
Supervisor: Dr. Tanis Rosemary Fenton

Gillis is exploring ways to shorten recovery time and reduce the chance of complications following bowel surgery. Her research includes a multi-centre study testing whether “pre-habilitation” may improve the recovery of bowel surgery patients. She hypothesizes that more effectively preparing patients for surgery — physically, mentally and emotionally — will reduce complications and re-admissions, allowing for an earlier return to a normal daily life.

Lucie Nurdin, Chemistry
Supervisor: Dr. Warren Piers

According to current research, even if humanity could completely halt human carbon emissions today, the climate risks they pose would persist for millennia. With this in mind, chemistry student Nurdin is researching the prospects of converting carbon dioxide into a cleaner fuel for future use. Her innovative research could derive a new solution from an existing environmental problem.

J. Mylynn Felt, Communication and Media Studies
Supervisor: Dr. Maria Bakardjieva

Social media transform the way citizens communicate, retrieve information and most importantly, advocate for change. Although social media have been used for atrocious things, they can also be used for good. Felt's research explores best practices of grassroots activists by examining three different campaigns seeking to prevent violence against women. Ultimately, Felt aims to share best practices with the public through seminars that will empower Canadians to be more involved in their communities and impact positive social change.

Adedapo Noah Awolayo, Chemical and Petroleum Engineering
Supervisor: Dr. Hemanta Kumar Sarma

Exploring new oilfields is currently a high-risk venture due to the fluctuation in oil prices. Awolayo is researching the best ways to target and extract residual oil left in known fields. Through his research he hopes to develop cost-effective techniques to increase production using “smart” waterflooding while collaborating with developers at Computer Modelling Group Limited to commercialize the new technology.

Karla Conte, Medical Science
Supervisors: Dr. Signe Bray and Dr. Ashley Harris

Conte is studying the sensory abnormalities that occur with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). Specifically, she studies tactile sensory abnormalities by investigating the cortical mechanisms through which they occur in young, newly diagnosed children with ASD. Understanding how sensory information is differentially perceived in young children with ASD could enhance treatment outcomes.

Kamala Adhikari Dahal, Community Health
Supervisor: Dr. Shahirose Premji

Dahal will investigate psychosocial risk factors like socioeconomic status, anxiety and depression, all of which are weakly associated with preterm birth. She intends to identify modifiable risk factors and make recommendations to policy-makers and relevant organizations on allocating resources preventing preterm birth.

Williams E. Miranda-Delgado, Biological Science
Supervisor: Dr. Sergei Noskov

Miranda-Delgado’s research seeks to improve heart health for Canadians. He is investigating cardiac receptor RyR2 and the interplay between this receptor and calcium ions, mutations, drugs, and membrane lipids in the context of heart’s rate and rhythm. The outcomes of this project will be useful for future development of novel and effective treatments for lethal calcium-triggered arrhythmias.

Thomas Fox, Geography
Supervisor: Dr. Chris Hugenholtz

In May 2016, the Province of Alberta committed to reducing CH4 emissions from the oil and gas sector by 45 per cent over the next nine years — a goal supported by Fox's research. He is exploring the use of unmanned/uninhabited aerial vehicles (UAV) in methane-sensing technology as a means of locating and quantifying fugitive methane emissions. The results of this research could lead to improvements in UAV technology and further research in detection, ultimately helping to reduce CH4 emissions.