BLOOM: Why did you get into the field of children's rehab?
Tom Chau: I used to volunteer at Riverdale Hospital. My mother created every opportunity for us to interact with people who were going through very significant challenges in their life. At the hospital there were many people with severe disabilities. I helped to feed some of the patients and sometimes my siblings and I did entertainment and played the piano. That’s where I started thinking about how technology could be used. My mother motivated us to have that consciousness and to try to be helpful where we can.
BLOOM: How has our research institute changed since you took over?
Tom Chau: First, we’ve made a number of very deliberate steps to bring clinical practice and research closer together. Our clinical investigator appointments and centres for leadership are examples. We’ve even added ‘clinical researcher integration’ as a competency on all scientists’ performance appraisals.
BLOOM: Why is that important?
Tom Chau: Researchers are trained to ask interesting academic questions, and that’s great if you have lots of money. But because our resources are so constrained, we have to make sure we’re focused on work that will have a near-term clinical impact. The questions we’re asking need to be really important ones, not just interesting or academic ones.
Another change in the research institute is our partnership with families. In large part through the hospital’s robust family leadership program, we’ve been able to jumpstart an engagement program in research. We now have families reviewing research grants before we send them out and doing consultations with researchers where they comment on their ideas.
BLOOM: What kind of changes have you seen?
Tom Chau: One area where families have really helped us is in improving the feasibility of the grant. Sometimes a researcher has an excellent and robust protocol but their idea for how to involve children and families won’t work. So families can help us improve the execution of the grant. They also help us tweak questions. We might be on to something but the question needs to be modified to make it more relevant to families.
The other thing we’ve done in the last four years is raised academic standards. The academic environment has never been as competitive in my career as it is now. Success rates for grants are so low. We needed to raise the bar internally, and today we’re so much further along in publications and external research grants. All of the scientists have stepped up.
BLOOM: What is the current focus of the research institute?
Tom Chau: One underlying thread is our focus on maximizing participation: what really matters to that child and family and can we enable that to happen? We’re not focused on increasing two points on a standardized test when that doesn’t translate into anything in the child’s real life. We have a growth strategy for our four centres of leadership: participation, child development, brain injury and innovation. And our scientists are clustered under those themes.
There’s an increasing emphasis on maximizing brain plasticity. So, for example, there’s an interest in getting children moving at a very young age as infants, even though they may not be able to move in a functional way when they grow up. Having that experience of moving through space—the sensory experience, feeling the wind, feeling the body move through space—may help to strengthen brain networks so that they’re more adaptive in learning other motor skills. We’re learning that the brain is more plastic than we thought—throughout the life span. It gets harder as you get older, but it’s still possible to rewire. And there are things we can rewire that we didn’t think we could rewire and side benefits to forming certain kinds of connections.
BLOOM: What is your role leading the institute?
Tom Chau: The most important part of my mandate has been to build up the other scientists as independent investigators—to grease the wheels or skids for them to take off by providing the resources they need to be as excellent as they can be. That might mean providing bridge funding, helping to support a student, helping them acquire instrumentation, nominating them for external awards to build their profile or editing grants to make them as competitive as possible.
BLOOM: How many students do we have in the institute?
Tom Chau: Over 120 trainees from summer students to post-doctoral students.
BLOOM: What are some of the challenges facing scientists working in pediatric rehab?
Tom Chau: There’s been a real dry spell in federal funding for health research in the last three years and the process has gotten tougher and tougher. Success rates with the Canadian Institutes of Health have never been this low and that’s really discouraging. The first budget from the Liberals already injected something like $30 million into CIHR, so things are going in the right direction, but it will take a number of years to increase the investment.
Another challenge is this small market issue. I was at a workshop in Washington two weeks ago and that was one of the first things the National Institutes of Health identified: we’re dealing with a small marketplace and people don’t like to invest in things that serve a small market. There’s no economic argument. That said, one in seven people in Canada and one in five in the U.S. have a disability, so it’s not that small.
We’re starting to think about potential secondary applications of the work we’re doing that would give us access to larger marketplaces.
BLOOM: Have your thoughts about disability changed over the years?
Tom Chau: Having been a parent myself, I think that I see less of a difference between a child who might be a client here and my own children. They’re interested in the same things, like video games or movies, and may have the same worries. The good fortune I’ve had with students with significant disabilities coming through our doors has opened my eyes in terms of how similar these people are, despite the daily challenges they have. They want to achieve, they want to have friendships.
BLOOM: What have you learned from families?
Tom Chau: Over the years I’ve come to realize that parents are truly the experts. If you think about the innovations we’ve done that people think are so cool and such great ideas—the ideas came from parents. For example, our thermal switch that captures the posture of the mouth was the idea of a mother.
BLOOM: What are you most proud of in the research institute?
Tom Chau: I’m most proud of the people. The people are truly excellent. They’re very collaborative. When a student parachutes in for a couple of months they say our culture is out of this world. They say: ‘I feel so supported here, everyone was so helpful.’ I’m also proud of the fact that we have such an interdisciplinary research institute. Nowhere else will you find such an eclectic mix of disciplines united with a common mission and passion. We have folks doing technology, social science and clinical science all under one roof. All those perspectives coming to the table leads to some really creative ideas.
BLOOM: How do you find a balance between accepting disability/difference and changing it?
Tom Chau: When I first got the Canada Research Chair, we transferred the onus of change onto technology and took it off the child. It didn’t make sense that the onus of clear communication is 100 per cent on a child who is non-verbal, and not on the communication partner whatsoever.
I think what we think we can change is evolving, which goes back to the brain plasticity stuff. I think there’s potential for acquisition of abilities through exploiting brain plasticity that we didn’t know was possible.
First of all, you have to embrace your difference. Then there’s maximizing a child’s participation and an opportunity to teach the individual new skills through brain plasticity, and that’s fine. But we don’t ever want to lose sight of the uniqueness and the irreplaceable quality of the individual.
BLOOM: What are your hopes for the future?
Tom Chau: What keeps me up at night is the calls we get from families whenever there’s a story about our work. We get flooded with calls—not from other scientists—but from our families. There are calls from the U.S. and as far away as Australia. The need is huge and families are still so hopeful that one day their child will be able to express themselves. I hope that in the years I have left I’ll be able to enable access to communication for many more kids and families.
I’m also hoping that we can bring about transformational change in childhood disability. I dream of the day when we have kids on Parliament Hill telling politicians what they need and advocating for themselves. There’s still a lot of change we have to bring about in terms of attitudes.
Find out how you can participate in research at Holland Bloorview.