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Marine and coastal safety champion wins substantial fellowship

By Leslie Vryenhoek | May 12, 2006

A Memorial professor of sociology who has been a trailblazer in marine occupational health, local knowledge and science research, and gender and fisheries has received one of the most lucrative social science awards in Canada. A Trudeau Foundation Fellowship will give Dr. Barbara Neis greater flexibility to expand her work.

Just five of these prestigious fellowships were awarded across Canada. Each provides a $150,000 prize, paid over three years, plus money for travel and networking, and each went to a top researcher working in key thematic areas such as human rights, social justice, or people and their natural environment.

The co-director of SafetyNet, a Community Research Alliance on Health and Safety in Marine and Coastal Work, Dr. Neis is working toward a Centre of Excellence in Occupational Health which will be proposed to Memorial's Board of Regents.

The award recognizes the impact of her work. For example, she has helped research and document the high incidence of asthma among snow crab processing workers in the province. This work started more than 15 years ago when a plant manager mentioned breathing problems among employees. Dr. Neis reviewed the literature and discovered an issue already well-documented in other places such as Quebec. On travels to several Newfoundland communities, she found workers with respiratory problems; women appeared to be particularly at risk in this female-dominated industry.

“It's an occupational disease. Once you've got it, you're in trouble” she says, noting the asthma - which studies found affected more than 15 per cent of Quebec processing workers after a few years on the job - sometimes become chronic. “Most people don't have job options, so they keep working. That's one of the things that keeps these issues invisible.”

In 2000, she helped organize a Health Canada-funded workshop that brought the world's expert in crab asthma together with diverse stakeholders and experts. “It became clear there was a significant problem in the province. There had never been an effort at prevention.”

A partnership formed between governments, labour, industry and academics. With funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, SafetyNet was born. “We focused on marine and coastal work because these are unique to the region; there were obviously big gaps in knowledge.”

Dr. Neis was also a pioneer in designing research to access fishermen's knowledge and combine it with science. “Part of the problem, before the stocks collapsed, was that social scientists were talking to fishermen, and scientists were studying fish yet using information from fishermen in their stock assessments, without taking into account changes in the fishery. We need to build collaborations,” she says, adding that Memorial has become a leader in bringing the natural sciences and social sciences together. The latest project, for which she hopes to get Community-University Research Alliance funding, will combine research on communities and environment with occupational health - and involve theatre, fine arts and community radio components using Grenfell College expertise. This multidisciplinary project aims to identify ways to revitalize both the fish and the communities.

“The communities need to steward the fish, and to take charge of their own recovery.” She says a focus on the “current misery” has overshadowed systematic attention to recovery - an uphill battle in many places, she notes, and one that requires better local capacity to deal with issues.

In all this work, she expects the Trudeau Fellowship to offer flexibility in moving projects forward, bringing in experts where needed, and spending more time on research and programming instead of on writing grant applications. She may also use the funds to distribute a docudrama on crab asthma that's under production. The travel funding will also open up networking possibilities, such as attendance at a conference on fishing issues in Brazil, research collaborations in Norway, and a meeting of experts on the Labrador coast, where there are five crab processing plants.

In June, she will attend her first Trudeau Foundation Summer Institute where she will have an opportunity to network and mentor with Trudeau Foundation scholars, a key requirement of the fellowship.

No stranger to mentoring, Dr. Neis spends a lot of time working with graduate students: “That's the only way to build ongoing capacity, and I'm beginning to see the next generation of people who are going to carry on this work.”


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