Canada Research Chairs Share Passion for Creativity and Supporting Underserved Communities

Drs. Angela Colantonio and Azadeh Yadollahi are both known for their inclusive research practices and relentless pursuit of accessible healthcare

With a commitment to innovative research and a dedication to inclusion, diversity, and equity, it’s no wonder that the KITE Research Institute is a magnet for globally recognized, award-winning researchers, including Drs. Angela Colantonio and Azadeh Yadollahi. 

The two scientists, known for their inclusive research practices and relentless pursuit of accessible healthcare, are among an elite group of the nation’s top researchers recently awarded prestigious Canada Research Chairs – a program funded by the federal government that’s designed to make Canada a global hub for research and development.

Colantonio was awarded a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair, which spans seven years and provides $200,000 in annual funding, for her team’s work on traumatic brain injuries in underserved communities, while Yadollahi received a Tier 2 Chair, which covers five years and provides $100,000 annually, for research into cardiorespiratory engineering. 

While their research interests might differ, Colantonio and Yadollahi have a lot in common, including a passion for bringing care to marginalized communities and approaching their research creatively. 

It is not only innovation, but a dedication to accessibility that drives Colantonio to dig deeper in an effort to improve care for those living with traumatic brain injury (TBI). In particular, Dr. Colantonio's lab has identified higher rates of brain injury among persons who are involved in the justice system or who are vulnerably housed in Canada. Future work will involve working collaboratively with stakeholders to address the implications of these findings.

Victims of intimate partner violence are also disproportionately affected by TBI. One in three women will be a victim of intimate partner violence in their lifetime globally, and up to 92 per cent of strikes from a violent partner are to the head, face and neck. Meanwhile, research into TBIs has historically focused on males or tends to use data that cannot account for the ways that males and females experience TBI differently. In undertaking this research, Colantonio’s lab has been internationally recognized for their focus on sex and gender in relation to TBI. The lab’s work includes the exceptional contributions of so many dedicated trainees, staff and partners. 

Colantonio has dedicated her research, in part, to educating those working with marginalized populations and co-creating knowledge with persons the research is intended to serve. As part of this initiative to spread awareness, Colantonio co-developed a play entitled "After the Crash: a play about brain injury," with colleagues Julia Gray and Dr. Pia Kontos, a senior scientist at KITE and others. 

The play used verbatim monologues to chronicle what patients experience, what their families go through and the challenges clinicians face. This interdisciplinary project has been embraced at conferences and events, including the Toronto Fringe Festival, and has resulted in invitations to perform across Canada. 

It has also inspired a study of audience members who have reported a change in their own behaviour after seeing the piece. Colantonio and her research partners found that these audience members demonstrated real, positive changes in the treatment of those with TBIs. As a tool that both delights and instructs, theatre has the potential to spread information to diverse audiences and generate positive change amongst researchers, clinicians, families, and anyone working with TBI patients.

To the general public, Yadollahi’s research seems somewhat mysterious. Her cardiorespiratory engineering research team, which works in a state-of-the-art sleep lab, studies the way fluids shift about the body. 

Yadollahi’s primary focus is to better understand cardiorespiratory problems in sleep, with a strong focus on snoring and sleep apnea. She does this by focusing on how bodily fluids affect breathing when a person is lying down and has found that walking during the day can redistribute bodily fluids that have settled in the legs during sedentary waking hours. 

These fluids would otherwise flow into the chest and neck when a person lies down to sleep which can cause breathing disruptions by putting pressure on the lungs and throat. Even 30 minutes of walking per day, she says, can reduce snoring and sleep apnea by up to 25 per cent.

Like Colantonio, Yadollahi is passionate about helping underserved populations with her research. She primarily works with at-risk populations, hoping to develop better technologies to monitor patients in their homes, and create better treatments. 

Due to the prevalence of poor sleep conditions and quality, homeless populations and those living in remote Indigenous communities are disproportionately affected by respiratory disturbances in sleep. Yadollahi notes that studies of these groups are difficult to undertake, due to the barriers they face getting to a sleep lab and the challenges in replicating their regular sleep environment. 

Women, too, are at particular risk because of pervasive assumptions that they are chronically tired. This results in fewer women undergoing studies for sleep apnea compared to men. 

Moving forward, Yadollahi hopes her Chair will help promote equitable access to care for people living with cardiorespiratory disorders that impact their sleep. One of her initiatives has been to address the inaccessibility of sleep labs that patients must travel to – exacerbated, of course, by COVID-19 – by sending monitoring devices home with patients. 

These devices can be sent through the mail and worn at home, and the data downloaded when returned to the lab. This gives diagnostic access to patients with mobility issues or those in remote areas and resolves issues for patients who are unable to sleep in the lab due to the unfamiliar environment.

The Canada Research Chair Program is helping to provide access to new care, treatments, and research frontiers while expanding Colantonio and Yadollahi’s research focuses to include groups that have been historically overlooked. This work is helping fulfil KITE’s goal – to promote Knowledge, Innovation, and Talent, Everywhere. 

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This story was produced as part of the KITEWorks content initiative, a partnership between The KITE Research Institute and the Storyworks program at Centennial College’s School of Communications, Media, Arts and Design.

As part of this program, KITE is collaborating with students in the Communications – Professional Writing (CMPW) program to gain real world experience by profiling the cutting edge research at our Institute.

A selection of stories produced through this partnership will be featured throughout the summer in this space and can be viewed in the KITEWorks magazine. More information about this collaboration can be found at this link.

Read the magazine here.