U of T news
  • Follow U of T News

Posthumous degree tribute to researcher’s talents, character

Colleagues finished thesis in her honour

The University of Toronto will honour Sara Al-Bader's memory by conferring her PhD posthumously. Her colleagues and a professor completed her thesis after she was killed in a car accident.

Almost one year after PhD candidate Sara Al-Bader and her husband, Michael Smoughton, died in a car accident, the University of Toronto is conferring her degree – after friends and colleagues collaborated to complete her work.

Last November, a patch of black ice on a highway near Montreal ended the life of the vibrant scholar from the Institute of Medical Science. Fellow graduate students at the McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health were determined that Al-Bader’s work – a thesis on health innovation in sub-Saharan Africa – would not be lost.

“The accident happened on a Saturday and on Sunday we were already asking what happens to the thesis,” said PhD candidate Billie-Jo Hardy. “A lot of people loved Sara quite deeply and we knew how close she was to finishing – and what that meant to her.”

Within a few weeks, a small group of PhD students, including Billie-Jo Hardy, Dominique McMahon, and Monali Ray were hard at work, along with Al-Bader’s program advisory ommittee member and associate professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, Halla Thorsteinsdóttir.

“It was a team effort,” said Hardy. “It was something people wanted to be involved in – we loved her and we had a deep respect for her work.”

Al-Bader had spent months in Ghana, immersing herself in the health sector and exploring examples of African innovation. She was relentless in her pursuit of knowledge and her work reflected a keen understanding of both innovation theory and development theory, said Thorsteinsdóttir.

“She had put so much work into her thesis and she was so passionate about understanding how innovation can work in different countries to improve health, to reduce inequity and poverty,” said Thorsteinsdóttir. “Everybody was devastated when she died, to think that her voice would no longer be heard.”

Al-Bader’s research comprises an important contribution to innovation and development theory, said Thorsteinsdóttir, who hopes to disseminate the thesis at an upcoming Globelics (Global Network for Economics of Learning, Innovation, and Competence Building Systems) Conference in Argentina.

However, decoding Al-Bader’s notations and deducing which sources she was referring to wasn’t always easy. She held a BSc in Physics and an MSc in the History and Philosophy of Science from the University of London; given her voracious curiosity and wide-ranging, interdisciplinary approach, “some detective work” was required, said Hardy. Al-Bader’s books included a reading list from Professor David Wolfe of the Program on Globalization and Regional Innovation Systems at the Munk School for Global Affairs, as well as titles such as Becoming a Writer.

“It almost felt invasive as we started to work on her text -- it was emotionally very difficult,” said Thorsteinsdóttir. “But it was good to hear her voice again because we missed her so much. To continue her work had almost a therapeutic element.”

Working from Al-Bader’s notes and books to fill in the blanks or placeholders in her writing, Thorsteinsdóttir and the students all agreed they must err on the side of discretion. Working with Al-Bader’s laptop, Hardy was able to refer to Al-Bader’s previous work and notes as well as her published research when needed. But everyone was resolved not to overstep.

“Some people hide their voice in their writing but Sara had a very strong voice; we all recognized that she would have done a much better job of finishing her thesis,” Thorsteinsdóttir said. “Some areas we had to cut because we could not be absolutely sure where she was going.”

Thorsteinsdóttir also felt responsible for ensuring Al-Bader’s fellow students did not jeopardize their own studies by losing themselves in the drive to complete her work. All graduate Nov.11 in front of Al-Bader’s parents, who travelled from England for the presentation of their daughter's degree."

Assistant professor Jocalyn Clark, editor at PLOS Medicine, offered to copy edit the final draft. The group left untouched the acknowledgments Al-Bader had composed for the thesis. The words reflect Al-Bader’s fun-loving spirit, said Thorsteinsdóttir.

“There are three people who I would most like to thank, without whom you have got to be kidding, this thesis would have seen the light of day: Billie-Jo: friend, intellectual sword-fighter, thank you for opening my mind and keeping me going; Mike, beautiful man, (thank you for coming¹; and finally my eternal mum, an inspiration to many, for her big and unwavering l-o-v-e across the sea.  I feel you! Thank you.”

A Sara Al-Bader Memorial Award has been established for PhD students who exhibit financial need and academic merit, with preference given to students who hold a visa status. The scholarship will be awarded in perpetuity and the first one is to be distributed in May of 2012.