Viola Cohen



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Why did you choose economics as your area of study?
I’m originally from a minority group in a small border town in Punjab, India. There I witnessed how poverty—especially among women—and the dependence on male household figures led to abuse and the oppression of their choices. I would repeatedly ask questions like: what makes someone rich or poor, what is the role of governments in uplifting these individuals, why aren’t minority women like me represented, what leads farmers from my community to commit suicide, leaving behind their wives without any means of survival?

Economics, political science and history are where I started finding answers. I first worked as a Research Assistant with the Rural Health Equity Social Enterprise and Technology Synergies team, where I focused on the comparative analysis of various social enterprises, especially those led by women. I also helped explore the challenges faced by women in Canada and other countries of the world. Currently, I’m working as a Research Assistant in collaboration with BC Agriculture Climate Action Research Network on a project for drafting enterprise budgets for farmers in Southern Interior BC. This project uses best management practices like cover cropping and relay-cropping to help the environment while also leading to profits for farmers.

My research reminds me every day of the reason I started on this journey. I wanted to learn about public policy and economics so that one day I can be a woman of colour from a minority Sikh community, representing the interests of my people on a level where our voices get heard.

Puneet Kaur Aulakh standing in front of a Canadian flag, with japanese characters on the wall behind her.

Puneet Kaur Aulakh at the 2023 Japan-Canada Academic Consortium, held at the Canadian embassy in Tokyo, Japan. At the consortium, Aulakh and her team presented research on “Environmental sustainability through a cross-cultural and Indigenous lens.”

You’re the recipient of an International Community Achievement Award. What does this mean to you?
The International Community Achievement Award (ICAA) is prestigious to me. It recognizes international students who are contributing to the university community while maintaining excellent grades.

My video call with my parents turned into a teary-eyed conversation when I told them I was selected as an ICAA recipient. If it wasn’t for the awards and scholarships from UBCO, I could have never imagined studying in such a big institution. ICAA came at a time when my younger brother was starting his first year at UBCO but my family was struggling to afford both of our tuitions. ICAA gave me hope that we both could make UBCO our home and that it valued me and my hard work.

What’s the best advice you have for new undergraduate students?
Take vastly different courses in your first year, like history and computer science, or creative writing and math. These diverse courses can help you realize what you really want; even if you think you want to be a computer science major, you never know. There could be an artist hidden inside you.

Why is it important to get involved on campus?
It’s important to devote time to courses, but also join clubs, do extracurriculars, attend university events and just generally be part of the UBCO community. Each of these activities will give you life skills and memories to cherish. Getting involved on campus helps you meet people who have similar interests and offers you different support chains.

What are some challenges you’ve faced so far in your academic career?
The biggest challenge I’ve faced in my academic career is discovering what I really want to do. Even though I believe I know my purpose in life, figuring out how to achieve that purpose has led to a lot of thinking. This challenge, however, has taught me that it’s okay if you don’t have everything figured out right away—the journey teaches you a lot. Another challenge has been managing an adult life all alone, thousands of kilometres away from my family. Nostalgia, longing, sickness and feeling overwhelmed due to work have been a real struggle.

What do you think makes UBCO great?
I think the most valuable thing that UBCO has given me is a sense of belonging and home. I’ve found my community here and I’ve been welcomed and accepted; I have my own voice and feel heard. My hard work has always been valued and appreciated, whether it is through academics, extracurriculars or my jobs at UBCO. The warmth that UBCO provides makes it more than just an educational institution; it makes it home.

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THE ITCHY WARMTH OF A WOOLLEN BLANKET. Birds peeping beside a trickling creek. For Dr. Fiona P. McDonald, these sensory experiences—touch, sight and sound—are important sites for her research in cultural anthropology.

Dr. McDonald, an Assistant Professor in Community, Culture and Global Studies at UBC Okanagan, followed woollen blankets on her journey to becoming a visual anthropologist. She first saw the Hudson’s Bay Company point blanket on a glass negative in the archives. Unfamiliar with these blankets, Dr. McDonald examined archives around the world and has since spent more than a decade looking at the many spaces beyond the archive where the physical woollen blankets have been moved from art galleries to museums, from sacred ceremonies to craft markets.

This is a deeply problematic commodity that has caused intense debate and distrust,” says Dr. McDonald. “The Hudson’s Bay blankets were originally made by the Weavers of Witney in England, but the blankets became trade commodities in colonial settler spaces.”

When she traced similar woollen blankets to Aotearoa (New Zealand), she learned how Māori weavers used the red wool from blankets to replace the feathers of the now-endangered kākāpō birds that were originally used for sacred cloaks. When she was in southeast Alaska, collaborating with the Sealaska Heritage Institute, she witnessed how woollen blankets have become traditional robes in Tlingit regalia.

In her current book project, Dr. McDonald examines how Indigenous artists and makers in Canada, the United States, and New Zealand have transformed woollen blankets into anti-colonial art, craft and clan property.

Dr. McDonald’s interest in material culture extends beyond textiles to the materiality of sound and other senses. She co-founded the Collaborative + Experimental Ethnography Lab (CE2 Lab) at UBCO, a critical research lab unparalleled in Canada for sensory ethnography. The CE2 Lab is a site of collaboration between Dr. McDonald, community partners and other groups on campus.

For instance, one lab project involves sensory storytelling by creating digital tools that use art for immersive informal science learning. In a pilot project in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Dr. McDonald and her collaborator Dr. Benjamin Day Smith worked with elementary students to record sounds of water in their everyday lives. The project taught students to edit the audio they collected, and with specialized software that Dr. McDonald and Dr. Smith developed, the students created immersive sound environments.

“My priority is learning through collaboration and making room for dynamic ways of thinking with our senses, and not just about them.”

This work is part of Dr. McDonald’s larger efforts around addressing the Anthropocene in her research; she also co-published An Anthropocene Primer, a born-digital, open access publication that connects people to scholarly works, activities and knowledge across disciplines to how we think, live and understand climate justice.

Dr. McDonald is currently working with UBCO’s Dr. Jeannette Armstrong to create a new series for Nsyilxcn language works. She feels honoured to work with knowledge keepers through her research and editorial work. And this sentiment carries forward to the respect she has to live and work on unceded ancestral Syilx territory. Not only is she thrilled to bring her global experience to UBCO’s diverse campus, but the Okanagan’s access to nature is also a huge draw, allowing Dr. McDonald to snowshoe in the winter and swim in the summer. She incorporates nature into her research and teaching as well, often bringing her students to Quail Flume Trail near campus for sensory walking experiments known as anthropocenoscapes.

As an early-career researcher, Dr. McDonald’s priority is “learning through collaboration and making room for dynamic ways of thinking with our senses and not just about them.

“I model collaboration with the intention of creating a space for junior colleagues and graduate students to see and, more importantly, experience it as often as possible.”

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HANNA PAUL CAN RECALL THE EXACT MOMENT that inspired her research into Indigenous moon time teachings.

In 2017, while Paul was pursuing her undergraduate degree in anthropology and Indigenous studies, she volunteered at an Indigenous event that included a ceremonial element. At the time, she was on her moon time (menstruating) and was told she was unable to participate in the ceremony. Initially, Paul expected this to be because of taboo. 

“Growing up all I knew was western taboos around menstruation,” says Paul, “But I was told that I was unable to participate because I was already going through a ceremony, a moon ceremony, and you can’t be in two ceremonies at one time.”

Many Indigenous cultures, including Métis, refer to menstruation as moon time, since it occurs on a 28-day cycle, similar to the moon’s cycle. This planted a seed for Paul that would grow into an Undergraduate Research Award and later her master’s thesis under the supervision of Dr. Fiona McDonald and Dr. Gabrielle Legault.

Hanna Paul's kokum (grandmother)

Hanna Paul’s kokum, pictured in her home.

Paul’s family history is diverse, with Métis and Beaver First Nation ancestry on her father’s side, and Ukrainian and French ancestry on her mother’s side. Her Métis family names are Paul, Lizotte, Lambert and LaFleur, and her community is located in the North Vermillion settlement, also known as Buttertown. Drawing on her heritage, Paul decided to return home to Buttertown for her master’s research to investigate whether Métis moon time teachings still existed there.

In summer 2022, Paul began her research project, living with her kokum (grandmother in Northern Michif and Cree), who helped her navigate her kinship relationships and connect with participants to discuss women’s teachings and Métis culture.

“My kokum was the best roommate and we quickly became friends in a way we weren’t able to be before,” says Paul. “She was at the intersection between being a researcher, being a community member and being kin because she was my local guide, my roommate and my kokum.”

Paul discovered that moon time teachings were not prevalent in Buttertown due to the colonial apparatuses of power that disrupted those teachings. Her research shifted to focus on how these teachings could be brought back and used to instill body image and self-esteem in youth and women.

“Shame and a lack of self-esteem were prevalent, derived from moments of cultural disruption,” says Paul. “We began to explore what it could look like to bring moon time teachings back to the community.”

Through a talking circle, Paul and her participants explored what Métis futurisms could look like in Buttertown and how moon time teachings could be mobilized to build confidence for future generations of youth and women.

Hanna Paul and her auntie picking saskatoon berries from a large bush

Hanna Paul and her auntie picking Saskatoon berries in Buttertown.

Discussions during talking circles focused on the importance of place and community members having agency in telling their own stories. An interactive centre or place where these teachings could be shared within the community was a vision that came out of the calls to action in Paul’s research.

Upon returning to Kelowna and reflecting on her experiences, Paul recalls one of the most memorable parts of her summer: picking Saskatoon berries with her cousins and aunties. She knew she wanted this to be something central to her research. With the guidance of Dr. Shawn Wilson, the process of picking Saskatoon berries became an illustration of the methodology for Paul’s research.

“Journeying back home as a Métis community member and as a researcher created a really memorable summer for me. There were many parallels between my research and going to a berry patch,” says Paul. “Back home, you’d find a local guide to get you to a berry patch. My local guide was my kokum. Your guide may then help you find other berry pickers, just as my kokum helped me find participants.”

After completing her master’s degree, Paul plans to work with Indigenous youth and continue to situate herself within the Métis community. Ultimately, she hopes to pursue a doctorate based on the needs of her community.

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“I’M NOW DOING EXACTLY WHAT I WANTED TO DO when I was 18 years old,” says Dr. Jessica Lougheed.

Back in her undergraduate degree, Dr. Lougheed combined her psychology major with a love for literature to explore her favourite genre: coming-of-age stories. This fascination with the idea of transformation—particularly the massive changes in the transition from child to adult throughout the teenage years—led naturally to her research in adolescent development and emotions.

“I think adolescence is one of the most poignant times in our lives as humans,” adds Dr. Lougheed, now an Assistant Professor of Psychology in the Irving K. Barber Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

The research in her Emotion Dynamics Lab explores emotional development in many areas, including within important family relationships. In one study, teenagers and their parents use an app to record their daily experiences, moods and interactions with each other. By stepping outside of the traditional lab setting, Dr. Lougheed hopes to learn more nuanced information about what parents and teenagers cope with daily in order to help inform educational family programs about healthy communication.

Her other work involves more fundamental questions about emotions and how people manage or respond to them. “Emotions are notoriously complicated,” says Dr. Lougheed. “There’s just so much variation between individuals.”

To study this variation, she’s measuring three different components: how humans subjectively experience emotion, their facial expressions and the physiological reactions in their bodies, like heart rate or sweating.

Jessica Lougheed submerging herself in Lake Okanagan

Since coming to UBCO in 2020, Dr. Lougheed enjoys jumping into Okanagan Lake 12 months of the year. She even submerged herself in chilly October for a fundraiser for The Bridge Youth & Family Services.

In the lab, participants sit in comfortable chairs with wearable sensors. Researchers measure their heart rates and the sweatiness of their hands, while new software automatically detects their facial expressions.

Dr. Lougheed notes that some people might have a rapid heartbeat and increased sweating, yet fail to show emotion on their faces. Others can feel incredibly nervous and stressed, but the sensors won’t pick up on any extreme changes for them. She hopes to connect what she learns about how humans experience emotion moment by moment to mental health and other areas.

Not only is Dr. Lougheed interested in emotions intellectually, but she’s also passionate about how better knowledge about emotions can help others.

“Some of us are more aware of our emotions than others and some of us have more colourful emotional worlds than other people, but we all experience emotions,” Dr. Lougheed says. “Through research and teaching, I love to help people understand that more so that we can all better navigate our day-to-day lives.”

Often this real-world impact occurs through teaching, as she walks students through the research-based best practices for supporting people dealing with emotional events. However, Dr. Lougheed has also been reaching out to the community through fundraising for Etcetera, a 2SLGBTQIA+ youth group through The Bridge Youth & Family Services in Kelowna.

As a bisexual woman herself, Dr. Lougheed says this organization’s work has a strong personal connection. “Everything that the Etcetera youth group does is exactly the kind of thing that I wish I could have had access to as a teenager.”

After working at several major American universities, Dr. Lougheed feels more at home at UBC Okanagan, where she appreciates the combination of a world-class institution with a more intimate setting. In particular, she loves seeing the Pride staircase outside the University Centre every morning as she comes to work.

“Being at UBCO has allowed me to blossom and continue that meaningful work in bringing 2SLGBTQIA+ issues into my research and teaching,” says Dr. Lougheed.

“I was very quickly able to feel like I can bring my whole self to work here.”

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In the first part of this series, James shared his upbringing amidst violence and civil war in South Sudan. Next, learn how James used education to break free from years living in a refugee camp. We have respectfully borrowed the title of this story from James’ in-progress book, The Boy Who Carried Books.


“I’M ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE WHO LOOKS FOR OPPORTUNITIES IN THE DARKEST MOMENTS,” says undergraduate student James Magok Achuli, a refugee and former child soldier from South Sudan. “I think in the middle of adversity you have to surround yourself with positivity. It could be surrounding yourself with the right people, and if you’re like me—someone who went through the horrors of war—then you have to be hopeful. But also like me, you have to endlessly fight for your goals, because it’s really important.”

Growing up, one of Achuli’s most steadfast goals was to get an education. From the time his father told him that if he “learned how to use the book and the pen, he would one day fly a helicopter in the air,” Achuli understood the power of education to change lives. During the three years he lived in a Ugandan refugee camp, Achuli was known as the boy who carried books, and was an advocate for those around him; he educated his peers in the camp about gender-based violence, HIV and AIDS, and the importance of peace and education. Knowing seven languages, he also acted as an English and Arabic interpreter.

“Back home, women would be sexually assaulted and beaten—beating women is on a different level there—and because people aren’t educated they don’t have the courage to speak up,” explains Achuli. “I couldn’t just watch someone harass a girl in a refugee camp and keep quiet about it. That’s one thing that education has helped me with; speaking up and thinking more critically about things. As Nelson Mandela once said, ‘Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.’”

To achieve his dream of a formal education, every day Achuli ran kilometres from the refugee camp to an internet café, where he searched for scholarships online. Then one day, he came across an article from the UN Refugee Agency about South Sudanese high school students who received scholarships to study around the world through United World Colleges (UWC). Achuli was mesmerized by the opportunity and spent a week learning about these colleges that had a shared mission of making education a force to unite people for a peaceful and sustainable future. When he applied and was invited for an interview in Uganda’s capital of Kampala, Achuli’s reaction “was crazy.”

A close-up of James Achuli

James Achuli.

“I was punching the air and screaming; I was really excited. I went for the interview and two days later I got a call from the head of the national committee, and he said, ‘Congratulations James, you’re going to Armenia on a full-ride scholarship for their baccalaureate program.’

“I couldn’t stop crying. I cried and cried and cried. It was a huge relief. From the articles I read, I knew my life was going to change forever. But I was also crying because I was going to leave a lot of people behind. The pain will not go away because I always think of them.”

In addition to leaving behind the friends he made in the refugee camp, Achuli was further separated from his parents, who did not have access to letters or emails in South Sudan. The last time Achuli physically saw his mother was in 2014; his father was sadly killed in 2015 by unknown armed men. To this day, he struggles with the hurdles of speaking with his mother from abroad; “I’ve been able to Zoom with my mother once in over five years. It’s been very hard.”

But Achuli gained a sense of family when he arrived at UWC Dilijan, his new school in Armenia  and more than 200 students and staff lined up from the entrance gate to the kitchen to greet him. “They were clapping and said, ‘Welcome James!’ and I said, ‘How do you know my name?!?’ I felt like this was home; everyone was so happy to welcome me and were giving me hugs, which are new to me but were good. The cooks were waiting with cakes and muffins—something I never had in South Sudan or Uganda.”

James Achuli running with the Heat cross-country team

Achuli is now a member of the Heat cross-country team.

Achuli flourished at school, and when it was time to explore post-secondary options, UBC was his first choice. His school nominated him for UBC’s Karen McKellin International Leader of Tomorrow Award, a full scholarship covering all program and living costs for undergraduates demonstrating superior academic achievement, leadership skills, involvement in student affairs and community service. Achuli competed against more than 1,500 students from across the globe before receiving the award and an acceptance letter to UBC Okanagan.

“It’s incredible. I love Canada, and UBC is one of the top universities in the world. I knew from my geography studies that BC is an incredibly beautiful province,” he says. “Coming to the Okanagan, it’s a smaller campus than Vancouver and it’s still growing, so maybe we will grow together. It’s such a close-knit community where you get to know people quicker.”

Since joining UBCO, Achuli has immersed himself in the university experience. In addition to joining the Afro-Caribbean Club and the Students’ Union, he is also a member of the Heat Cross Country Team, under the guidance of Olympian Malindi Elmore. “I’m a long-distance runner. From my life in the refugee camp, I was always running to search for scholarships online. I’m so thankful to my Heat teammates and coaches, who have been so kind and supportive.”

Currently a student in the International Relations program, Achuli hopes to one day work with children to help them realize their goals and needs. “No one should go through what I went through,” he says. “I can’t predict the future but through my education I want to help people displaced by war, whether they are refugees, immigrants or asylum seekers. These people aren’t criminals or villains, and they’re much more than victims. They are human beings just trying to survive.

“Helping them survive is very important to me.”

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