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About the Institute

Profile of Teresa To

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Dr. Teresa To

By: Jacob Sintzel

Dr. Teresa To, PhD

  • Senior Scientist, Child Health Evaluative Sciences
  • Professor, Dalla Lana Graduate School of Public Health, Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation, Institute of Medical Sciences, University of Toronto

1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I was born and raised in Hong Kong, and I completed my undergraduate training there as well. After that, I went to the U.S. and finished my graduate training, both my MSc and PhD. Then met my husband, got married and immigrated to Canada. I did my postdoc at the University of Saskatchewan for a year before I moved with my husband to Toronto. Ever since then, Toronto has been my home.         

2. What are you researching right now?
I am an epidemiologist and my area of interest and expertise is asthma. My lab is largely funded through an evergreen contract with the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-term Care to build a registry of people diagnosed and living with asthma. Since 2002, we have used multiple data sources including hospital admissions, emergency room visits, outpatient physician visits and laboratory claims data to identify people living with asthma.

The asthma registry we have established is called OASIS — which stands for Ontario Asthma Surveillance Information System. Throughout the years, we have identified over 2 million asthma individuals in Ontario. We follow these 2 million asthma individuals via the registry databases to monitor their pattern of health care use, their health status and health outcomes. We study factors contribute to asthma exacerbations (i.e. what make patients with asthma get worse) so we can target interventions to improve their health outcomes and quality of life. For the last 5 years, we have also received funding from the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change and the CIHR-Canadian Respiratory Research Network to study the association of air pollution and asthma.

Together with my colleagues at Queen’s University and Western University, we have developed a mobile app called breathe intended to be used by patients with asthma.  Through this app, information about the environment and health (particularly about the level of air pollution) is being sent to patients using the app in real-time.  This will raise patients’ awareness of the potential impact of the environment on their asthma and may “prevent” adverse health outcomes (e.g. asthma attack) that are triggered by air pollution.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist and why?
Randy Pausch was a professor of computer science, human-computer interaction and design at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In his book The Last Lecture, which is a New York Times best-selling book, he wrote about his passions and viewpoints as a professor for his family and students before dying of cancer. There is a lot of advice in his book, but also underlying pain because he knew he could no longer teach and that the end of his life was near. He wanted his legacy to continue so people after him would benefit from what he went through. His last lecture was titled "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams."  I think we all want to achieve our childhood dreams and this can really be enlightened by his “lecture.”  Although Randy Pausch was a computer scientist and in a field I am not a part of, his journey, his attitude and philosophy resonate with me deeply.

4. What in your opinion is the most important scientific breakthrough and why?
I think the way Steve Jobs developed Apple computers as well as their apps and platforms really changed people’s lives. Especially now, we’re trying to use mobile technology to reach out to patients to make disease management personalized.  The mobile technology and networking platform really have revolutionized the way we live such that our research vision and mission of developing mobile health apps for personalized medicine and patient self-management can materialize.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
I love music; I play a little bit of the piano and the guitar. A few of us at SickKids “jam” regularly on Wednesday evenings after work.  We play the guitar and sing songs. This is therapeutic for us as it gives us joy and relaxation and we have become quite good together!  I like sports as well. In my younger days, I used to be a “serious” swimmer.  I was a marathon swimmer for my university’s swim team. I was a competitive swimmer then but not anymore. However, I still continue to swim for health as much as I can - once a week will be very nice!

6. Why science?
By default, I’m not very artistic. I love art, but I’m not very good at it. From day one, I liked solving analytical problems. I remember even in elementary school I loved math. During free time (recess) at school, most kids would play LEGO or games for fun while I would sit in a corner and do math problems “for fun.” I loved solving problems; it gives me kind of a “high” (gratification). After finishing my undergrad in social science and statistics, I was determined that I would continue on with my graduate straining.  I was attracted to the quantitative and analytical field of biostatistics and epidemiology. This field uses quantitative methods to study the incidence and prevalence of diseases and to explain why the distributions may differ in different groups of the population.

7. Why SickKids?
I have been here at SickKids since 1999, so it has been almost 18 years! Prior to coming to SickKids, I was a research scientist at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES). ICES is a super data warehouse where researchers use data to study the health-care system in Ontario in terms of access to care and health outcomes. At the time, I was particularly interested in examining child health care use in Ontario.  Partnering with experts at SickKids to carry out this kind of research would be ideal.  So, I visited the Division of Paediatric Medicine at SickKids for the first time.  The Division Chief at the time was Dr. William Feldman. He suggested we examine the top reasons for children being hospitalized. Using the data housed at ICES, we discovered that the number one reason for children being hospitalized was asthma. I was very surprised and perplexed by the finding because I thought asthma was very treatable and children should not be hospitalized for it let alone most commonly hospitalized for it! I was very determined at that point to devote my research in examining what could be done to improve asthma health in children. I decided then that I wanted to make this my mission, and I wanted to know everything about asthma. A few years later, when SickKids Research Institute established the Population Health Sciences (now called Child Health Evaluative Sciences, CHES), I was recruited as a research scientist and I have been here since then and now a senior scientist of CHES leading a population asthma research program.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
While there is no argument when it comes to cigarettes because we know they are bad for your health, e-cigarettes and vaping is still a controversial issue in my field.  Some may consider e-cigarettes as an alternative for quitting smoking and that it is less harmful, but the jury is still out. There is some evidence out now which says that smoking e-cigarettes ultimately doesn’t really stop people from smoking regular cigarettes, but instead, it may make people smoke both. There is not enough research evidence to support that the material used in e-cigarettes and vaping is actually less harmful. We just don’t know as much as we do about the harmful effects of the chemicals in regular cigarettes. I think it still needs to be demonstrated whether this is a good alternative or not.

9. What are you reading right now?
I read the book by Dalai Lama entitled “The Art of Happiness” which was very enjoyable to read and very enlightening.  I am currently reading his latest book entitled “The Book of Joy” that he co-wrote with Desmond Tutu (Archbishop).  They are both Nobel Prize winners, and are two great spiritual masters.  The writing provides amazing wisdom and means of having positive thinking and living with joy even in the face of adversity.  It is inspiring and uplifting and I am enjoying reading it!  I am also reading “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini.  It is a novel, not an easy read by any means, not sure I can say I am enjoying reading it, but it is certainly a power story of family, love, and friendship. I hope I will finish reading it!

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
I think it is really important to identify your passion because working in research is not easy, especially since there is not a lot of funding for research in this current climate. Competition is also very high. At the end of the day, your passion is what will keep you going and face whatever challenges that you may come across in your research.  I also think research is no doubt a “full-time” endeavor, one cannot “dabble.” To go full-steam in research, you need to not only build up your skills but also try to find what would make you feel excited every morning to come to work. Research and getting your work out there can be tough. Sometimes you may face a lot of rejections. For example, you may have to try many times before your journal article may be accepted for publication. This is why you need to really find and know what your passion is before you get yourself into research!

11. What does the Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning mean to you?
For me, although the building itself is beautiful, it is the people inside that have meant the most to me so far. The attitude and atmosphere of everyone I meet and interact with is always so positive and this makes a big difference on my work environment. Sometimes I have a problem convincing myself to go home! There is honestly an added boost to your productivity simply by working in this building and experiencing the community of the PGCRL.

May 2017

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