Facebook Pixel Code
Banner image
About the Institute

Profile of Sharon Dell

Staff profile photo
Dr. Sharon Dell

By: Elissa Hanna

Dr. Sharon Dell, MD, BEng, FRCPC

  • Senior Associate Scientist, Child Health Evaluative Sciences
  • Staff Physician and Clinical Investigator – Respiratory Medicine
  • Associate Professor, Paediatrics and Program Director
    Clinical Epidemiology & Health Care Research Program, University of Toronto

1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I spent most of my childhood in St. Catharines, but my family travelled quite a bit when I was a child, so I spent a couple of years in Thailand and a couple of years in Northern Ontario. We tended to go where big hydroelectric power plants were being built which tends to be in quite remote places, so it was quite an exciting childhood of travel.

I followed my father’s footsteps in university, and I did my first undergraduate degree in engineering at McMaster University. I didn’t have any medical role models in my family, so although I thought medicine would be interesting I also loved the physical sciences and I ended up in engineering. I spent the summer between third and fourth year doing a clinical project at Hamilton General Hospital, looking at the strength of the sternocleidomastoid muscles (a muscle in your neck) as a predictor for weaning patients from the ventilator. I absolutely loved the hospital atmosphere there, and that made me think of applying to medicine.

I came to the University of Toronto and did most of my paediatric and respiratory training here at SickKids. I spent a year training in London, England, and then did clinical epidemiology training at the University of Toronto. I ended up being trained as a paediatric respiratologist and a clinical epidemiologist, and I came on staff at SickKids in 2002.       

2. What are you researching right now?
Most of the research projects that I do come from questions that arise from my clinical practice. My clinical practice focuses on asthma, primary ciliary dyskinsesia (PCD), and interstitial lung disease (ILD). I started out as an asthma researcher.

With time, I have become more interested in rare lung diseases such as PCD and ILD. Although they are rare, these diseases are associated with a lot of morbidity and require multi-centre collaboration to move forward. A real joy in my career has been being part of multi-centre collaborations around the world, trying to solve problems that patients face. The type of research I do focuses on diagnosis and management of disease, and the dissemination of evidence-based practices to patients with diseases and to physicians who care for these diseases.

Recently we’ve looked at a very simple non-invasive nasal nitric oxide test that we use to screen for PCD. PCD is a difficult disease to diagnose because the diagnostic tests are very difficult to do. These tests are only done in specialized centres like SickKids and they’re not 100 per cent sensitive or specific.

Children with PCD are born with it, but the average age of diagnosis is age 10 because it is difficult to diagnose. We’ve developed a nasal nitric oxide test where we take air from the nose and sinuses through a small tube and measure the amount of nitric oxide in the gas with a nitric oxide analyzer. If you have PCD, the nitric oxide levels are very low.

It’s a very good screening test for the disease. We’ve been able to catch more kids with the disease and know on which kids we need to run more expensive tests, like genetic tests and biopsies in the nose. By doing the nitric oxide test we save kids from having to do these more invasive tests.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist and why?
I’m not sure that I have an all-time favourite, but I have some that I really admire. The first one is David Sackett, who was a physician and founder of evidence-based medicine which insists that clinicians use the best possible scientific evidence when deciding how to manage their patients. Prior to that, a lot of people practiced opinion-based medicine. He also founded the Clinical Epidemiology Program at McMaster University, which was the first clinical epidemiology program in the world. The founders of the program at the University of Toronto initially trained at McMaster.

One of the things I really admire about him was that, while he was really clever and innovative, he was also an excellent leader. He was a very collegiate, collaborative person, and I think that’s why his program really took off. He was 32 years old when he founded that graduate department! I think it was his leadership style that made it flourish; I really admire people who can work so collegially and passionately, and inspire that type of enthusiasm in others. The types of questions we’re asking in clinical research are very difficult questions that require very collaborative efforts with people from other disciplines, countries and cultures. The people who are most successful are those who can work collaboratively. I’ve also heard that he loves cottaging, and I really love cottaging!

I also admire Watson and Crick because conciseness and brevity is something that I really value in academic medicine. They published a one-page manuscript on the structure of DNA in Nature in the 1950s. It had a huge impact on medicine and studying the mechanisms of diseases, and it was only a one-page paper.

4. What in your opinion is the most important scientific breakthrough and why?
The first thing that comes to mind is the discovery of insulin because it turned a universally fatal disease – Type 1 diabetes – into a chronic disease that is associated with a normal lifespan and an excellent quality of life. This discovery had a huge impact on the life of individuals. My son was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes just about a year ago, so I’ve been able to personally see the impact that this discovery has made.

Before that diagnosis, I would have said that the most important breakthroughs are sanitation, vaccines and antibiotics. They have been the three scientific discoveries that have increased our life span from the mid-30s to mid-80s, and have brought childhood mortality down to less than one per cent. My father is a hydro-electric engineer and has always been very proud that I went into medicine, but I always tell him that he saves a lot more lives than I do. He brings electricity to developing countries and enables the sanitation of water, enormously improving the health of the population.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
The thing I do most outside of these walls is spend time with my family. I have a fantastic husband and three teenagers. We all love music and outdoor activities, so we spend a lot of time together making and listening to music, and doing outdoor activities like biking, water-skiing and swimming. I play the piano and sing, but my children and husband are all much better at it than I am! My husband plays all types of other instruments; I keep discovering new instruments that he plays that I didn’t know about after 20 years of marriage. My kids all play piano and my 13-year-old daughter loves being in musical productions so I spend time carting them around to their various musical classes.

6. Why science?
I’ve asked myself why I am a clinical scientist and not just a clinician. During my training here at SickKids, I have seen firsthand the difference that clinical research makes in patient outcome. It is the number one thing that improves outcomes for patient diseases. There is data out there that proves that if patients participate in a clinical research study, they have improved health outcomes. I’m a big believer in that. Science is also very interesting; it’s always changing and there’s always something new and exciting. It’s a fantastic career. You really have to work hard, but it’s easy to do that when you enjoy what you do.

7. Why SickKids?
People ask me all the time what it’s like to be at SickKids. I’ve spent a long time here and I tell people that SickKids has that magical feeling. It’s a place where people are very committed to their work and strive for excellence. You’re able to achieve so much more than you ever thought you’d be able to achieve because everybody’s on the same wavelength. Everybody is looking for excellence in what they do and that allows us to move forward in a more innovative and collaborative way. At SickKids innovation is valued and we’re always pushing the boundaries.

I’ve known about SickKids since I was a child because SickKids saved my little sister’s life. When she was one-year-old, my little sister inhaled a sewing pin. We took her to local hospitals and they couldn’t do anything. Finally, she was sent to SickKids. They operated on her but the surgeons weren’t able to remove the pin. There were two options: either remove the lung or try to get a new piece of equipment from Rochester, NY that was small enough to get into her airways. They chose to get this equipment, waited for it to arrive, and removed the pin. That’s very much the way people are at SickKids; whether on the clinical or research side, they go that extra step to try to fix the problem.

More recently I have experience with my son being treated at the diabetes clinic. Now that I’m here as a parent I understand from that perspective why it’s so great to be at SickKids. Anyone from the clerk at the front desk, to the nurse, to the dietitian is 100 per cent committed.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
The big question is what’s causing the asthma epidemic. We’ve had a huge epidemic of asthma in the last 50 years. It’s quadrupled from two to three per cent to 15 per cent. Interestingly, the things that I said are the biggest scientific breakthroughs – sanitation, vaccination, and antibiotics – are involved in the top hypothesis as far as the causes of the asthma epidemic. There’s something called the hygiene hypothesis, where many people think it’s our use of sanitation, vaccines and antibiotics, and decreased exposure to infections and bacteria by children that has caused the epidemic. The things that have improved our health the most may be what are causing the asthma epidemic. I think that these things are probably involved indirectly, but I’m not sure that they’re directly causative in the asthmatic process.

Interestingly, the presence of asthma has started to go down at the same time that our air has gotten cleaner and rates of second-hand smoke in the home have gone down. I certainly think that asthma rates have something to do with the air that we breathe.

9. What are you reading right now?
I am not a big fan of fiction. I do an awful lot of reading related to my work, but one book that I am reading right now is called The Blue Zone. It’s a study of cultures that have a large portion of the population that grow to be centurions. It’s very revealing as to the social nature of human beings, and how much we need social interactions to survive.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
First of all, I would say if you love it, be persistent. Keep going with the small steps, because many small steps culminate into a research career. There are very few people who have giant steps forward, particularly early on in their careers. If this is what you love to do, be persistent.

The second thing I would say is to learn to write quickly and well. Writing is a very important process in science so it’s a good skill to acquire early.

11. What does the SickKids Centre for Research and Learning mean to you?
My office is not going to be moving. It is ideally situated for the clinical research I do because I have to see patients. But my research team, which is part of Child Health Evaluative Sciences program, is two blocks south. I have to trek south, or my research team has to come here, at least twice a week. I am so thrilled that my team will be moving to a building that is much more accessible.

I am also really looking forward to the open concept design because it’s really going to foster collaboration. Child Health Evaluative Sciences has been separated from the bench sciences and the wet labs, but we really need to work hand-in-hand with them to get results. I collect samples from patients and rely on my collaborations with my wet lab-based colleagues to process the samples. I think that the open-concept design is going to help foster that collaboration.

April 2013

View scientific profile »»