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Meet Concordia's next Rhodes Scholar

Elite athlete with a passion for ecological conservation heads to Oxford
November 30, 2011
By Tom Peacock

Michael Noonan, an undergraduate honours student and member of Concordia’s varsity wrestling team, has been selected as a 2012 Rhodes Scholar. The prestigious scholarship provides all expenses to study at the University of Oxford in England for two or three years.

Noonan is one of two Quebecers to be selected for the scholarship this year, along with Philippe-André Rodriguez who is completing a BA in International Relations and International Law at UQÀM. Eleven Canadians are among the international group of 80 scholars chosen from 14 jurisdictions.

Concordia undergraduate student Michael Noonan has been selected as a 2012 Rhodes Scholar. | Photo by Concordia University
Concordia undergraduate student Michael Noonan has been selected as a 2012 Rhodes Scholar. | Photo by Concordia University

“I didn’t let myself really think about it … because if I had not gotten it, I would have been a little upset,” he says when asked how it felt when he learned he had been selected. His reaction when he took the call: “It was just pure happiness; a big smile on my face.”

The 24-year-old native of Chateauguay is completing a BSc in Honours Ecology this term, and will pursue a DPhil in Zoology at the University of Oxford within the Wildlife Conservation Unit.

The Rhodes Scholarship selection committee awards young women and men who display “outstanding intellect, character, leadership, and commitment to service.” The program was established in 1903, from the will of Cecil Rhodes, to seek out the leaders of tomorrow.

Noonan certainly fits the bill
As an undergraduate, he has already proven his exceptional research capabilities, according to biology professor James Grant. “Michael is already working as an independent researcher — at the level that I would expect from an outstanding PhD student,” he said.

After his second year of university, Noonan embarked on a major research project to analyze the efficiency of fish passage facilities at dams around the world.

“By the end of the summer, he had compiled a comprehensive data set and completed enough descriptive statistics to indicate that this would be a great project for his honour’s thesis in ecology,” Grant recalls.

An article based on Noonan’s completed thesis, with Noonan as lead author, has been published in Fish and Fisheries, the top-ranked fisheries journal in the world.

In the summer of 2011, Noonan was back in Grant’s lab, embarking on another ambitious research project. This time he set out to investigate the importance of climate change as a threat to endangered species in Canada. He hopes to complete his analysis and submit a paper for publication this winter.

According to Grant, Noonan is once again breaking new ground with his research. His lab work has also earned him an Undergraduate Research Award from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

Outside of the lab, Noonan excels in another arena: as a member of Concordia’s varsity wrestling team, he helped the university claim the Canadian title in 2010-11. He has also competed at a number of international tournaments.

Noonan joined the wrestling team at Loyola High School almost on a whim, but his passion for the individual sport grew quickly, and he began working with Concordia coach Victor Zilberman at the Montreal Wrestling Club.

“It was the fact that all my achievements ... whether I was achieving or not achieving, it was all based on me,” he says. “Also, this was definitely the most physically challenging and demanding sport. If you’re able to do it then, you can pretty much do anything else.”

Noonan credits much of his success in other aspects of his life to the training he received from coach Zilberman. “He really pushes you to be a tough person mentally, and without that, I definitely would not have been able to do what I do. Anywhere — school, sports — it just contributes to every aspect of your life.”

For the last two years, Noonan has been coaching the wrestling team at Loyola High School, something he says has given him a better perspective on his own abilities, and a healthier respect for his coach.

Noonan only has one job listed on his resumé along with his lab work: Sergeant Major in the 78th Fraser Highlanders, a summer job in which he performed re-enactments of 18th-century military life at the Stewart Museum on Île Sainte-Hélène. It’s the sort of job that begs the question: how did he end up doing that?

“Oh, well I play the bag pipes. They just called me up one day and I asked me if I wanted the job.” Noonan also plays the guitar and the tin whistle.

Once Grant learned of Noonan’s accomplished background and that he was also an elite athlete, it became clear to the professor that his top student was probably a viable candidate for a Rhodes Scholarship.

“Michael wants to apply his research knowledge to the protection and conservation of endangered species,” says Grant. “I think this is an admirable lifetime goal, akin to the ‘sympathy for and protection of the weak’ originally envisioned by Mr. Rhodes.”

Noonan credits Grant with shaping his undergraduate experience. “Without him, it would have been completely different,” he says. So, when Grant suggested to his student that he apply, Noonan said he’d look into it.

“After reading the criteria that was required, I thought yes, I’m going to apply for this,” Noonan recalls. “I thought I had a really good shot.”

He was right.

Related links:
•   List of previous Rhodes Scholars from Concordia University
•   Rhodes Scholarship in Canada

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