SFU awards professors for powerful media communication

The award highlights faculty who have showcased excellence in the news

This is a photo of a lecturer standing in a lecture hall speaking to students
PHOTO: Yan Krukau / Pexels

By: Natalie Cooke, News Writer

The SFU Newsmaker Award recognizes achievements and excellence in media and communications. This year, there were five winners of the award: Darren Byler, John Clague, Andy Yan, Lara Aknin, and Sharon Mah. The Peak interviewed the award winners to learn more about their impacts in the media.

“The award provides an encouragement to academic experts to develop relationships with media and to speak out authoritatively on societally important issues.” As an earth sciences professor, Clague is often called on by the media to comment on natural disasters and earth science issues. He explained to The Peak, “I enjoy being an SFU media ‘go-to guy’.” He explains the science of natural disasters and hazards to all ages “in an understandable, jargon-free way.” Clague has worked on communications regarding the 2021 atmospheric river disaster in BC and the February 2023 earthquake catastrophe in Turkey and Syria. He has also worked on communicating human-induced climate change.

Winning the Newsmaker Award left Clague feeling “stunned.” He said, “It means a lot to me to be recognized in this way because, while I am a scientist first and foremost, I am a one who is accessible and cares very much about communication and people.”

The Newsmaker Award recognized a variety of topics this year. While Clague focused on earth sciences, other award winners vary in their specialties. Psychology professor Aknin specializes in human happiness and social connections. Her work as the chair of The Lancet’s COVID-19 mental health task force showed findings that mental health early in the pandemic was better than what most people believe. However, Aknin noted “that some groups suffered substantially more than others — and need our attention.”

Other research in her lab is intended for people “to recognize that engaging in kind or helpful behaviour can improve our own happiness.” Aknin shared, “I’m both delighted and humbled that findings from our Lancet COVID-19 task force and my lab are reaching those who can benefit.”

Communications professor Mah, another award winner, works within the overall theme of communications and storytelling. “My role is to facilitate storytelling throughout a broad range of media. Sometimes I am writing these stories, and sometimes I’m working with the SFU Media Relations team and the vice-president research and international and health sciences’ partners to put our faculty, staff, and students in front of reporters, podcasters, or radio producers [ . . . ] I’m working with my team to try and make sure that as many stories as possible find their audience(s).” 

The award not only recognizes strong researchers and communicators, it also promotes truthful and factual communication. Mah distinguished her work as evidence-based, which means the research can be verified and trusted. “People want to be [able] to make informed decisions for themselves about their health and the health of their communities — it’s up to us to provide them with reliable information that is accessible and engaging.”

“Misinformation has been a problem for hundreds, even thousands, of years, but the problem has become more serious over the past few decades in the ‘echo chamber’ enabled by instant access through the web and social media,” said Clague. “Trusted voices are needed to counter misinformation. I strive to be one of those voices.”

To read more about the winners and their achievements, visit SFU News. The Peak also contacted Darren Byler and Andy Yan for interviews, but did not receive a response by the publication deadline.