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About the Institute

Profile of Jennifer Stinson

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Dr. Jennifer Stinson

By: Daniel Puiatti

Dr. Jennifer Stinson, PhD, RN-EC, CPNP

  • Scientist, Child Health and Evaluative Sciences
  • Nurse Practitioner, Chronic Pain Program Anaesthesia, SickKids
  • Assistant Professor, Nursing, Paediatrics, University of Toronto Centre for the Study of Pain

1. Where are you from? Where did you study?
I completed my undergraduate degree in nursing at the University of Western Ontario and following that I came to SickKids to work as a nurse in the Cardiology and Cardiovascular Surgery Unit. After a year of working at SickKids I decided to go back and do my Masters of Nursing at the University of Toronto (U of T). I then worked as an advanced practice nurse (APN) in surgical services and on the acute pain service at SickKids for about four years. I was fortunate to be one of the APNs selected to do my Pediatric Nurse Practitioner Post-Master Certificate at The State University of New York in Buffalo. Following that, I became a Nurse Practitioner in the Chronic Pain Program in the Department of Anesthesia and Pain Medicine at SickKids. In 2002, I returned to U of T to pursue my PhD in nursing, and in 2009 I completed a post-doctoral study with Dr. Patrick McGrath at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.

2. What are you researching right now?
I am one of the few nurse clinician-scientists in Canada and roughly 75 per cent of my time is spent conducting research. My research focuses on how we can use information and communications technologies, the internet and mobile phones, to both assess and manage symptoms such as pain in children. In my PhD work, I developed an electronic diary to help teens with arthritis track their pain. In my post-doctoral work I also developed one of the first internet-based self-management programs for teens with arthritis. I designed this program to give teens information about their disease, management strategies, and to provide an opportunity for social support. By teaching youth about their health condition and ways to manage it, they are able to develop skills to reduce the impact of the disease on their quality of life.

3. Who is your all-time favorite scientist, and why?
My all time favorite scientist is Dr. Ronald Melzack, a neurophysiologist from McGill, who basically revolutionized the way we think about pain in humans. Dr. Melzack developed the gate control theory which changed the way we understand pain. We used to think that if you felt pain it was proportional to the size of the injury. Thanks to Dr. Melzack we know that is not the case. Rather, we know that in the brain and spinal cord there is a complex gating mechanism. Understanding the gating mechanisms led us to recognize that our perception of pain can be modulated by our thoughts, feelings and behaviours. I also admire Dr. Melzack because he was a true clinician-scientist. Dr. Melzack worked in a chronic pain clinic, with patients, while researching how someone could perceive feeling in a limb that had been amputated. From his clinical work he developed one of the first multidimensional pain tools, called the McGill Pain Questionnaire, which helps us distinguish between nociceptive (pain caused by injury or damage to body parts or tissue) and neuropathic pain (pain caused by damage to the peripheral or centra nervous system).

4. What in your opinion is the single most important scientific breakthrough, and why?
For years, health care providers did not believe that infants could feel pain because their nervous system was believed to be too immature. Doctors routinely performed surgery on them without anesthesia or pain medication. However, we now know that newborn infants, including those born prematurely, have functional nervous systems that are capable of perceiving pain. In fact, they are more sensitive to pain and untreated pain has short and long-term negative consequences for infants and children.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
I love to bake for others and it really helps with recruitment in the clinic. I am often asked when I am recruiting next. I also enjoy exercising and everything outdoors: running, hiking, kayaking and skiing. Most importantly, I love doing things with my family: my husband (who likes extreme outdoor adventures) and my two daughters (who are less keen on extreme adventures).

6. Why science?
Within the first year of nursing I saw that many things I learned in school were not being implemented in practice. I began to wonder why we were doing things in a particular way when I just read a research article to the contrary. It was the disconnect between what was happening in practice and what was being taught and discovered that made me realize I needed to go back to school. Going back to school allowed me to develop the knowledge and skills to address these issues through clinically-driven research.

7. Why SickKids?
SickKids is like a magnet for people and it has this warmth and energy for striving to provide the best in clinical care. The staff is incredibly supportive and there are so many people who are open to collaboration. My research is not confined to a silo, it is all about interdisciplinary collaboration, and SickKids is a rich and stimulating environment that allows me to do just that. 

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
It comes back to the fundamental question of when and how infants begin to discriminate painful from innocuous stimuli. Clinical experience and a huge body of research on neonatal pain suggests that infants as young as 26 weeks are capable of perceiving pain. However, a recent article in Current Biology concluded that babies don’t perceived pain until 35-37 weeks of gestational age on the basis of EEG recordings. This study has generated a lot of controversy and debate in the field of infant pain.

9. What are you reading right now?
I am what you would call an eclectic reader. When I travel I love to read about the particulars of the countries I am in. I was just recently in Sweden where I got the opportunity to travel to a little café where Stieg Larson wrote The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I also have two daughters, one in high school and one in university, so I try to keep up with what they are reading. I recently finished Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight and I now know more about vampires than I ever wanted to. I am also reading a book called Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath. The book is a really useful guide on how to communicate effectively about my research. I also enjoy the occasional cooking and fitness book.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
Love what you do and do what you love. You need to be passionate about your research. You will experience ups and downs in your research career but if you love what you do then you will most certainly find a natural balance. Having a great mentor or two helps as well.

11. What does the Research & Learning Tower mean to you?
The Research and Learning Tower at SickKids will be the epicenter of innovation in clinical care, education and research. Bringing research, clinical care and education together in one hub will allow ideas to flourish. Right now, clinical researchers are scattered and operate in isolation. I think the physical space that the research and learning tower will provide will lead to incredible innovation and collaboration.

November 2011

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