Unsung health-care heroes: a spotlight on NOSM’s researchers

Roger Strasser, Founding Dean, Northern Ontario School of Medicine

Our culture has a fascination with alter egos and hidden identities. With the name “Northern Ontario School of Medicine” (NOSM), the most obvious thing the School does is educate future physicians. Physicians, by the nature of their work, are seen as people who make a difference. They help the sick; they save lives.

To some, physicians may even be seen as everyday heroes for the work they do. Yes, NOSM certainly educates doctors and other health professionals.

But what you may not know is that NOSM has another identity. We have a population of affiliates who are working hard to significantly impact the health of the people and communities in the North. NOSM’s (often) unsung health-care heroes are our researchers.

NOSM is the only school in Canada established with a social accountability mandate – a mandate of which we are very proud. The school must be responsive to the needs and priority health concerns of the people and communities of Northern Ontario. NOSM’s research initiatives are designed and implemented to do just that, to contribute to improving the health of Northern Ontarians. And this is a goal that could not be achieved without collaboration.

NOSM has reciprocal agreements with Sudbury’s Health Sciences North (HSN), Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre (TBRHSC), Lakehead University and Laurentian University, and with other hospitals/health services, colleges and universities in the North. The research equipment in our labs exists in complement to our partners – all of NOSM’s equipment was purchased with the vision of housing resources to supplement the equipment of our partners and to encourage a team approach to improving health outcomes.

Our researchers are welcome in labs across the North, and researchers from other facilities are welcome at NOSM.

At NOSM, we seek meaningful collaboration amongst our many stakeholders. Each year, we grant the Dean’s Summer Medical Student Research Awards to encourage medical students to get involved in research.

This benefits three distinct populations: students, who are able to hone their research skills and interact on a different level with NOSM’s faculty; faculty, who enjoy fresh perspectives and varied opportunities for teaching; and most importantly, the people of Northern Ontario, for whom research initiatives at NOSM are intended.

Post-doctoral fellow Dr. Eli Nix and principal investigator Dr. Marina Ulanova have been researching Haemophilus influenzae type A, a strain of bacteria that can cause permanent disability, including brain damage and deafness. According to their research, this bacteria has higher incidence in aboriginal communities in northwestern Ontario, and Nix has set his sights on uncovering why.

Nix is currently working with the Meno Ya Win Health Centre, the Métis Nation of Ontario, and many other communities and health care centres across the North to try to address this serious health concern while at the same time developing meaningful relationships between NOSM researchers and First Nation communities in the region.

In the northeast, another type of bacteria is causing concern: cyanobacteria, commonly known as blue- reen algae.

NOSM researcher Dr. Joe Eibl is working to develop a new, faster method of screening lakes and waterways for blue-green algae blooms. Exposure to cyanobacteria can cause a wide array of significant health effects, which range from nausea and vomiting to kidney toxicity.

Eibl’s goal is to be able to circulate information about affected waterways to the public faster, to avoid exposure to the bacteria by the people who use Northern Ontario lakes for drinking water and recreation.

Across the whole of the North, chronicdisease prevention and management are substantial issues faced by patients and health-care service providers.

Unfortunately, this is to a larger extent than in other geographic locations. In order to address this priority health concern, I am thrilled to announce the addition of Dr. Sheldon Tobe to our complement of researchers.

Tobe is the new NOSM/Heart and Stroke Foundation Research Chair in Aboriginal and Rural Health. His research focuses on improving cardiovascular outcomes, with the primary goal of preventing heart attack and stroke – initiatives that I am very excited about.

In the words of NOSM researcher Dr. Carita Lannér, “we have ground-breaking, innovative work happening in Northern Ontario.

It doesn’t all have to happen in Toronto or Ottawa at the big universities. Up here, people have innovative ideas that we can bring to fruition.”

With a vision of expanding the research culture of Northern Ontario, we have further strengthened our team with the addition of a new assistant dean of research, Dr. David MacLean.

A well-respected researcher himself, MacLean will be responsible for aspects of planning, development, and implementation of a research strategy that supports NOSM’s ever-expanding work in socially accountable research.

I would not consider myself a budding vocalist. So when I say that NOSM’s unsung health-care heroes are our researchers, I am exceptionally thankful that the Northern Ontario Medical Journal is a print publication.

As you can imagine, the initiatives I have outlined here are just the tip of NOSM’s research iceberg. The next time you hear about new drug technologies, new screening methods, new curriculum developments, think of the unsung health-care heroes, and give thanks for researchers who made health promotion their life’s work. I know I do.

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