Facebook Pixel Code
Banner image
About the Institute

Profile of Diego Bassani

Photo of Diego Bassani
Dr. Diego Bassani

By: Anne Coffey

Dr. Diego Bassani, PhD, DDS, M.Sc

  • Scientist, Child Health Evaluative Sciences
  • Epidemiologist, Paediatrics and the Centre for Global Child Health
  • Assistant Professor, Department of Paediatrics and Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto

1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I’m from the south of Brazil. I did all my training in Brazil including my doctoral degree at the Universidade Federal de Pelotas in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. In 2003, I came to Canada to finish my PhD thesis at The Princess Margaret Hospital and ended up falling in love with the country and with the possibility of conducting research work here in Canada. The research opportunities are quite different here from what is available in a low or middle-income country.         

2. What are you researching right now?
I’m involved in a number of projects related to maternal and child health in low and middle income countries. We’re just starting a pregnancy and birth cohort in southern Brazil where I studied, and this project is taking most of my time. We’re going to follow-up with about 4,000 children born in the city of Pelotas during 2015. This is the fourth time this is being done in Pelotas, but what makes this cohort different from the previous ones is that we will start enrolling the mothers in 2014 after they become pregnant. The Pelotas birth cohorts (1982, 1993, 2004 and 2015) are incredible platforms for a number of different studies and to be a lead investigator in such studies is a very decisive moment in my career. It is not only because of the honour of being invited to be part of the team of lead investigators in this cohort study but also because  it offers a lifetime of possibilities for research work. As an epidemiologist working in this area it is a second-to-none opportunity. The cohort from 1982 is still being followed up with minimal losses, meaning that those babies from 1982 are now 31 years old. It is a very unique opportunity to have a population that you can use to study multiple outcomes and exposures. It’s a very exciting time for me but the pressure is also on.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist and why?
That is a difficult one. I’ll choose a modern-day scientist I really admire – Cesar Victora – who was one of my professors in Pelotas and continues to mentor me today. He’s one of the most prominent epidemiologists working in my area of work, maternal and child health. He is a very, very generous mentor and someone who I’m really grateful I can get advice from and learn from observing how he works. His work is grounded in the realities of the people and the countries he works on, it is highly applied and useful for policy-making and this makes all the difference in a world submerged in disconnected science. He’s the scientist I look up to – out of the many great ones out there.

4. What in your opinion is the most important scientific breakthrough and why?
I thought a lot about this one and I think because of the breadth of the applicability of the discovery I think the studies on oral rehydration therapy (ORT) in the 60s. Even though it was known that the combination of salt and sugar (low osmolarity fluids) help rehydrate people, it was not until late 1960s that oral rehydration solution (ORS) was formulated by American and Bengali researchers to treat cholera at the Pakistan-SEATO, now the International Centre for Diarrhoel Disease Research, Bangladesh (icddr,b). There were no IV fluids available for all the people that were being taken ill with cholera. When ORT was administered, mortality declined by 96 per cent in the blink of the eye. In 1978 the Lancet identified ORS as potentially the most important medical advance of the 20th century and yet it’s something so simple. It still works today and will continue to. It’s a solution that can be prepared at home with simple ingredients and saves children’s lives all over the world. It still has a lot of potential, as long as we start working to identify and address the bottlenecks to increasing its coverage. There are still millions of children dying from diarrhea every year and the answer is as simple as salt and sugar in the right proportions mixed with clean water. I find it just amazing because of the simplicity of the formulation, its impressive impact and breadth of application.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
My family – I really value protecting my personal and family time outside of work. Someone from our team recently complimented me on my commitment to having a good work-life balance. I have a two and a half year old daughter. It has been an amazing experience to raise a child, and I am learning so much every day. I also like cooking, photography, watching movies, doing work around the house, fixing things. Things that are not scientific at all – but I have fun.

6. Why science?
It was a long route – I’m a dentist by training. I remember around Grade 5 I got home and told my mom that I was going to be a scientist, not even knowing what is really was. I think I was probably inspired by seeing some experiments in class that probably weren’t even really all that scientific.  I thought, this is something interesting – trying things out and seeing what works and what doesn’t.  It was during university that I started engaging in research and science. But then I went into a very clinically oriented career. As a dentist, I specialized in periodontics and I was doing clinical work.

It was a difficult decision once I reached that moment when I realized that I didn’t want to do the clinical work anymore; I only wanted to do research, and in another area. When I started my PhD after finishing dentistry school, doing a residency in periodontics and a master’s degree in the area, I had more time to think about the research world and considering a career as a scientist.

A big motivation was coming to Canada and seeing that it was a real possibility to dedicate 100 per cent of my time to research. That’s not an easy thing to do in Brazil, because you have to balance your clinical work, where you make most of your income, with research that you do in your free time or when it’s available. It takes a long time (as in decades) for a young researcher to be able to make a living from research.  It’s funny to think about it now – it’s something that started really early and I deviated from it and went kind of full circle to be here doing what I said I was going to be, in a very naive way, in Grade 5.

7. Why SickKids?
I’ve been here since 2011 thanks to Dr. Denis Daneman. In my head SickKids was obviously the right place for me to do the work that I’m doing, and I am thrilled Denis thought it was a good idea as well. It is the right place because it’s where my peers are – people that think alike and that are building knowledge in the same direction as I am. We have so much fun working together, and we are building a very good working environment. Having the leadership of Dr. Zulfiqar Bhutta from the get go is also thrilling and I could not have imagined it would be possible but I am so happy to be learning from him.  It is the perfect environment and I’m really glad that I ended up here.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
There are so many questions still needing urgent answers but the one that will generate the biggest results once we figure out what’s wrong with it is the issue of implementation. Why can’t we successfully implement interventions and programs in places that most need them? Why can’t we increase coverage of vaccines, for example, beyond what we have right now? Back to oral rehydration therapies, it’s appalling how low the coverage still is among kids that have diarrhea in many countries. Why is it so difficult to increase it beyond these plateaus? I think understanding why people accept some interventions and why they do not is the big question mark in our field, in public health in general and also in global health. The fact that we are at this crossroads right now has a lot to do with the lack of collaboration with other fields. The answer may be in other sciences anthropology, for example, or education. It may not be so obvious and numerical as we have been trying to make it. Perhaps we’re not asking the question in the proper way or not using the right methods, but there’s certainly something missing there and it will be a game changing discovery once we figure out what makes people change their behavior, accept an intervention and adopt it. There are lots of hints about what works, but it’s not clear and much work needs to be done.

9. What are you reading right now?
I’m actually reading a book that has to do with this big question. It’s called The Idealist by Nina Munk. It’s about Jeffrey Sachs – director of  The Earth Institute at Columbia University – who’s a man that took a bold step and decided to study the implementation of a very broad and expensive intervention called the Millennium Villages Project. The premise was that investing heavily in certain villages in the world giving them not only improved health facilities but also schools, improving water treatment, roads, creating financing structures so people could start hunting or raising cattle, among others. It was intuitively the complete package of what you would think a village would need to succeed and to improve health conditions in a place – and it didn’t work as expected. It is very expensive and does not yield results that are better than what one can achieve with much simpler and less costly interventions.

Munk was commissioned to follow his work in several of the villages Africa for several years. I’m only half way through the book, but it’s a very interesting and informative non-scientific impression of why it didn’t work as expected – where his idealism failed him and did not allow him and his team to see what was really happening – and  that people don’t change their behavior that easily. It’s not a matter of having everything in place. There’s something else in there. There’s a lot to learn from mistakes. It’s a sad story – it would have been amazing if it did work as expected, but it did not.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
Do it if you really love it. Because if you don’t, there are so many frustrations along the way that I don’t think it’s possible to persevere. You have to believe in your work and I think it needs to be in your heart. It’s very rewarding most of the time, but when it’s not rewarding, it can be very frustrating. I can’t imagine what goes on in Jeffrey Sach’s head when he looks back to what he has done with such heavy investments and realizes it just didn’t work as well – but I am certain he will continue because he loves what he does. As with any profession, you really have to be invested in it so you can survive the difficult times.

11. What does the Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning mean to you?
For us especially as a new group at SickKids, the Centre for Global Child Health, it is the first time that we’re physically working together. We were spread all over the hospital. None of us in the research arm of the centre were working near each other. We would meet at seminars and talk to each other and meet for different projects, but then we would go back to our offices and work mostly alone. Interactions had to be scheduled and that is not very conducive to sharing and collaborating outside specific projects. I think the difference that being in the same physical space makes has been unexpected – we didn’t anticipate it would be so conducive to working together. Being able to have our teams and the other scientists right here at our doors increases collaboration and interaction.

December 2013

Scientific profile »»