SFU Newsmaker award winners shake things up in 2022

February 23, 2023

Reprinted with permission from SFU News

by Matt Kieltyka

In an era of fake news, misinformation and conspiracy theories, people need trust-worthy, informed and accurate news more than ever. The latest recipients of SFU’s annual Newsmaker awards have been selected for their significant achievements in informing media stories and online communities on a diversity of topics, from humanitarian issues and pandemic restrictions, to building better societies, and for strategic approach to communications.

SFU international studies professor Darren Byler, City Program director Andy Yan, psychology professor Lara Aknin and health sciences communications manager Sharon Mah are being recognized for their contributions during 2022. This year, John Clague, professor emeritus of earth sciences, is also being bestowed with the SFU Newsmaker Lifetime Achievement award.


Darren Byler, Associate Professor, School for International Studies, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences — 2022 SFU Media Newsmaker Award

Darren Byler is 2022’s SFU Media Newsmaker of the year for his ongoing commentary and coverage in a wide range of international outlets on the plights of the Uyghur people in China.

While some experts and media shy away from this significant and controversial issue, Byler has leaned in with research and books detailing the incarceration, mass surveillance and brutal clampdown on the Uyghur people, which the Canadian government calls a genocide.

Byler has featured in nearly 900 news stories in 2022, including many of the world’s top media outlets, such as the New York Times, whose reporters keep going back to him for his expertise.

In addition to being active through media, he also co-translated and helped to publish “The Backstreets,” a book by Perhat Tursun about the oppressive environment faced by Uyghurs in China, the first Uyghur novel to appear in English. Both the writer and the co-translator are imprisoned in China.  

“One of the tasks of social scientists is to uplift the voices of marginalized people like the Uyghurs by translating their stories and explaining the global histories and that shaped their lives,” says Byler. “My hope is that if I can do this well enough that Canadians and audiences around the world, will see atrocity crimes in northwest China as crimes against our shared humanity.”


John Clague, Professor Emeritus, Earth Sciences, Faculty of Science — 2022 SFU Newsmaker Lifetime Achievement

One of Canada’s leading authorities on earth sciences and natural hazards, professor emeritus John Clague has been shaking things up in media since 1974. He continues to be a valuable, trusted source, and is often the first scientist to reach out to the Communications & Marketing media relations team when disaster strikes anywhere in the world.

Since being featured in the 1997 Discovery Channel documentary on earthquakes and tsunamis on the west coast of Canada, he has been quoted internationally by such publications as The Guardian and Washington Post. Domestically, his comments often appear in leading news media including the National PostCBCGlobal NewsCTVRadio Canada and The Globe & Mail. Most recently, Clague has been in the media as reporters cover the earthquakes and ongoing recovery in Turkey and Syria. In the last three years, he’s been mentioned close to 900 times by various media and has given countless radio and TV interviews.

Clague was invested in 2020 as an officer of the Order of Canada for his national contributions to environmental earth sciences and the study of natural hazards, which prompted an increase in planning for future disasters in Canada.  

“I was fortunate to find a professional career that matched my passion for geology,” says Clague. “First at the Geological Survey of Canada, and later Simon Fraser University, I have been granted full freedom to pursue my interest in natural hazards and climate change. A benefit for me is to have contributed to the dialogue on complex societal issues that involve science.

“As a result of a liberal arts education, I am a generalist – one foot in physical science and the other in social science. I love to explain to people of all ages, the science of hazardous processes, including earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, landslides, and volcanic eruptions. My ultimate goal is to explain to people of all ages why science matters.

“SFU, in particular, has fostered the relationships I have developed with the media, and for this I am extremely grateful.”


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Andy Yan, Program Director, City Program, Lifelong Learning — 2022 SFU Social Media Newsmaker of the Year

With more than 40,000 tweets from his account, The City Program’s Andy Yan—who received the top newsmaker award in 2018—is perhaps the most active SFU expert on social media and one of the most mentioned ones.

Presenting research online, engaging in meaningful conversations, sharing research by colleagues and cultivating friendly relationships with reporters while providing them with visual analytics to help clarify the intricacies behind various complex topics, all contributed to his impressive online profile.

Yan sees the use of social media as integral to his mission at SFU.

“My expertise in city building is generated by the generosity and curiosity of the larger community and social media is a way of returning it back to the community,” he says. “I think social media can provide signal though noise as it provides a direct access to a source. In an ideal world, social media can shorten timeframes and lower barriers towards making, sharing, and verifying news.”


Lara Aknin, Assistant Professor, Psychology, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences — 2022 SFU Emerging Thought Leader (ETL) Newsmaker of the Year

Lara Aknin wins the 2022 SFU Emerging Thought Leader Newsmaker of the Year for her ongoing media engagement since attending the SFU media training program last year.

Aknin’s media mentions grew more than 600 per cent in two years. She has appeared in outlets such as the Daily Mail, TodayEntrepreneurEuronewsSF Gate and the National Post, and has written two articles for The Conversation, which plays an important role in improving understanding of current affairs and complex issues, linking academics to world media.

Aknin has also worked closely with SFU’s Communications & Marketing team to develop media releases featuring developments in her research and has been listed as an expert on numerous media tip sheets , ready to comment on breaking news events.

Her research into pandemic restrictions and well-being was posted by C&M on the EurekAlert newswire service last year and garnered numerous mentions in South America and India. It was also picked up by Europa Press and published across Spanish-language media in Europe.   

“Communicating research findings clearly and accurately is no small feat, and it's a responsibility that I take seriously. That is why I'm very grateful to receive this year's SFU ETL Newsmaker of the Year award,” says Aknin. “I found the ETL program incredibly useful. Shari [Grayson, program coordinator] gave us dozens of practical tips to help make the most of each interview invitation. I've practiced these strategies so often that they have become my default in considering media requests.

“More importantly, Shari emphasized the value of hearing from female experts and how our informed opinions deserve equal attention.”


Sharon Mah, Communications Manager, Faculty of Health Sciences — 2022 SFU Strategic Communicator of the Year

Sharon Mah, the communications manager in the Faculty of Health Sciences, is the 2022 SFU Strategic Communicator of the Year, recognized for unwavering commitment to her faculty and for partnering with SFU Communications & Marketing to manage communications and disseminate health sciences research.

Mah was hired during the COVID-19 pandemic, when she had to tactfully navigate challenging situations and quickly build relationships with the wider communicators network at SFU.

2022, Faculty of Health Sciences appeared in 24 per cent of all media pitches from SFU. While it is the smallest faculty, Health Sciences has an outsized effect on our media relations work, which is a testament to the excellent collaboration Mah has fostered between SFU’s media relations team and health sciences researchers.

“Successful health communications relies on using a strongly collaborative approach that aligns knowledge holders, audiences, and reliable, trusted storytellers – it’s truly a team effort,” says Mah. “Now more than ever, we need evidence-based health stories to empower people in making thoughtful, informed decisions that benefit themselves, their communities, and society as a whole – it’s an honour to be able to facilitate this work.”