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About the Institute

Profile of Lara Leijser

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Dr. Lara Leijser

By: Jacob Sintzel

Dr. Lara Leijser, MD, M.Sc., PhD

  • Clinical Research Fellow, Neurosciences & Mental Health

1. Where are you from? Where did you study?
I’m from the Netherlands originally. That’s also where I did most of my training. I completed both my master’s degree in biomedical sciences and my MD at Leiden University, which is in the western part of the Netherlands. In the first few years of my studies, I did several research projects, which evolved into a PhD study on imaging the preterm infant’s brain that I did after my medical school. I had the opportunity to do that both in London, U.K., and the Netherlands, which was really nice and in many ways greatly contributed to my PhD. Following that, I did my residency training in paediatrics and started my fellowship training in neonatology when I got the opportunity to come here! I didn’t need to think twice about it and took that opportunity to work both in neonatology and neonatal neurology on both the clinical and research sides.

2. What are you researching right now?
I am lucky to be part of a big group of excellent clinicians and researchers trying to promote brain development in newborn infants. My own current focus is two-fold. I’m looking into optimizing brain development and neurodevelopmental outcomes in infants with complex congenital heart disease. More specifically, I am looking into the recovery of brain development after surgery, which most of these infants need. 

This is all thanks to the Integrative Research Training Fellowship program award from the SickKids Research Institute, the Centre for Brain & Mental Health, and the Labatt Family Heart Centre. This program gives me the opportunity to do this innovative project, linking heart conditions with brain development. We’re becoming more and more aware that the heart and the brain are interrelated and children with congenital heart defects have less optimal brain development and neurodevelopmental concerns. This is an innovative project and because of the Restracomp Fellowship Program, I’ve been able to work on that. It also gives me the opportunity to cross boundaries. As a neonatologist in the last year of fellowship training, this allows me to move into cardiology and also into neuroscience, which increases my skills and knowledge in both these fields.

My second focus is an international multi-centre study collaborating with the neonatal unit here at SickKids, looking into the most optimal timing of intervention for preterm infants with post-hemorrhagic ventricular dilatation. It is often preterm infants with intraventricular bleeds early in life that have the tendency to develop ventricular dilatation. Currently there’s no consensus for what the best form and timing of intervention is. There’s a large discrepancy between the approach to post-hemorrhagic ventricular dilatation at various centres, not only within Canada but worldwide. So this research has the potential to make major changes to the management for these children, which is already happening at SickKids.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist and why?
I have several current-day favorite scientists. I’ve had the luck that most of them have been my mentors during the different stages of my training and my career so far. My mentors have all taught me very valuable lessons. By working with them, I’ve seen different approaches not only to research but also to clinical work. All of that has shaped me to what I am now. My current mentor, in terms of research, is Steven Miller. He’s the current Head of Neurology at SickKids and is very accomplished in neonatal neurology and research. He has his own lab group here, which I’m part of. There’s also Linda de Vries who’s a professor of neonatal neurology back home in The Netherlands. She is collaborating with me on the projects I’m doing on preterm infants.

4. What in your opinion is the single most important scientific breakthrough?
As a clinician in paediatrics and neonatology, I would say that vaccinations have been a major scientific breakthrough that have saved many lives and continue to do so in developing but also developed countries. As a scientist focused in neuroscience, I would say that the MRI has been an important, revolutionizing improvement. It has greatly helped us to better understand the brain, which is one of the main determinants of who we are. This is especially true for children to help us predict how they will develop. It has also given us ways to improve the care for newborn infants with brain lesions and to promote better outcomes, by knowing what’s going on within the brain.  

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
I have many interests. I like the outdoors. As a Dutchy, I love to cycle and hike. I also enjoy skiing and playing all sorts of sports that cross my path. Otherwise, I like to get to know new people and learn about different cultures. That is one of the things I love most about living in Toronto. I try to do as many Canadian things as possible, so I went camping with some Canadian colleagues in the back country of Algonquin without any cell reception or Internet, and skiing in the interior of BC. You can also find me watching a ballet performance or listening to an opera. Some people also call me a foodie because I love to catch up with friends over dinner.

6. Why science?
When I was younger, I originally wanted to be a veterinarian, and then I moved towards a career in medicine as I grew older. In the Netherlands, to get into medical school, it’s kind of a lottery. There are more people who want to go into medical school then there are available spaces. It’s different here, but in the Netherlands you get assigned a number and the lowest numbers will get in and the higher numbers don’t get in depending on the number of spaces. In the first two years, I was unlucky, or maybe lucky enough not to get in. 

I started my bachelor’s in biomedical sciences. That sparked my interest in science. It’s also why I took up several research projects over the first years of my biomedical sciences and medical training. That’s where my fascination for science really started. This also made me realize that I wanted to work as both a clinician and a scientist. I wanted to practice as a clinician but also to increase medical knowledge and find ways to improve treatments for newborns. I have the luck with my double background to more easily build a bridge between the scientific world and the clinical world. Part of the reason I chose a career in neonatology is because it’s still a relatively new specialty where there’s still so much more knowledge to gain and improvements to make.

7. Why SickKids?
SickKids is one of the best hospitals in the world and I guess that already speaks for itself. Also, there is such a wealth of expertise as well as the resources here for research. As a clinician and researcher in the medical field, when I got the opportunity to come and work here both in the neonatal unit and in neonatal neurology, I had to jump on the opportunity. It’s a huge privilege to work here and be part of such a great team. Although it’s a big hospital, it feels like a close-knit team. I can learn so much here and gain new knowledge and skills.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field?
One of the most controversial questions in my field may be close to one of the projects I’m working on right now, which is how to improve brain development in fetuses and children with complex congenital heart disease. There’s still a lot to learn and improvements to make in the care of these infants. Gaining more knowledge in this field will directly influence the care of infants with congenital heart defects, and indirectly of newborn infants with cardiovascular problems. Outside of my field, one of the major controversial questions is the influence of the environment and socioeconomic status on brain development and the outcomes of children. We’re becoming more aware of the interrelation between the two.

9. What are you reading right now?
I already read a lot of work-related literature that when I have time off, I prefer to do a physical activity than sit down with a book; I’m too restless. If I’m reading, it can be about various topics. I mostly read travel literature or books about different cities I am going to visit.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
Go for it. Sometimes it can be tough, but it’s all about perseverance. Always keep sight of what’s driving you. I think that’s the most important thing, but also to stay your own critic. Be open to feedback from others. That has really helped me in my career so far. I also would recommend to work with different centres and people to show you alternative approaches and insights.  

11. What does the SickKids Centre for Research and Learning mean to you?
For me, the PGCRL is the perfect environment to do research. There are so many excellent and inspiring researchers here and resources and opportunities to do the research I want to do. This greatly increases my knowledge and skills in research, which will ultimately help me in reaching my career goals.

May 2017