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Profile of Deborah O'Connor

Photo of Deborah OConnor
Dr. Deborah O'Connor

Dr. Deborah O'Connor, PhD, RD

  • Senior Associate Scientist, Translational Medicine
  • Director, Clinical Dietetics
  • Professor, Nutritional Sciences, University of Toronto

1. Where are you from? Where did you study?
I grew up on a beef farm outside a town called Matheson, Ontario about 800 kilometres north of Toronto.

I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Guelph. It was still rather uncommon for young women to go to university then and so I chose the Guelph because I had a cousin from southern Ontario who had gone to school there and the family lived nearby. I knew that if I got into any trouble, they could help me out. I started out in a general Bachelor’s program and while at school, discovered that the field of nutrition. I became very interested and after my first semester, I switched into the Applied Human Nutrition Program.

I was very intrigued by this field because as a child, I had severe allergies and my skin was covered in eczema. The thought that nutrition could help with that was really very personally interesting to me.

Once I completed my degree, I did my dietetic internship at Kingston General Hospital. I then pursued my Masters and PhD at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. I chose to study maternal and infant nutrition because of the time I spent working as a summer student at SickKids during my second and third of undergrad. I discovered the work of a woman by the name of Louise Bell and was exposed to the work in the lab of  Dr. Paul Pencharz and I got totally turned on by this field of research.

2. What are you researching right now?
I have two areas of research right now. The first is looking at ways we can support human milk-feeding in premature infants. We are investigating donor milk to help babies where for whatever reason, their mothers are not able to provide the child with milk. The current standard of care is to put these infants on pre-term formula if their mothers own milk is unavailable and we are investigating if donor milk could be used as an alternative because there is a lot of evidence in the literature that these children may do a lot better in terms of things like bowel disease (necrotizing enterocolitis) or cognitive development later in life. Because the nutrient needs of these very pre-term infants are so high, we are also looking at ways we can add nutrients to human milk so that these infants can take advantage of the benefits of human milk and also be assisted by the additional nutrients.

The other aspect of research is centred on folate. This B vitamin has recently become very popular because ten years ago we added this nutrient to the food supply and it has probably resulted in a 50 per cent reduction in neural tube defects. There is a thought that there is an opportunity to prevent even more birth defects but we also have to be careful because too high levels of folate are also believed to cause troubles. Our program is based on folate in maternal and infant nutrition and focusing on the issue of exactly how much folate do women need to prevent these birth defects and how best to target the women in need. Some women have suboptimal folate status, often due to genetic issues and malabsorption diseases and we want to figure out ways to best target those women and make sure we elevate their intakes.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist, and why?
I actually have a short list. There are two scientists that I admire and who have mentored me, and one that I have not met but have always admired.

Dr. Mary Francis Picciano was my Master’s and PhD supervisor at the University of Illinois. I find her inspirational because she taught me how creative science and research could be. I never thought of science as a venue to express one’s creativity before I met her. Once I discovered the creativity in science I was completely motivated.

The other mentor that I admire is Dr. Rosalind Gibson. She was a faculty member when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Guelph and for reasons I still don’t know, she plucked out me out of a classroom and asked me to work in her lab for the summer after my fourth year. She approached me, and she apparently saw something she wanted to mentor. She has been a lifelong mentor and has always steered me in the right direction. One day, I told her I wanted to go to graduate school and study infant and maternal nutrition. She told me to go work with Dr. Picciano in Illinois, and I went!

Both of these women have been lifelong influences who have inspired me. I have also always admired the ability of both of these women to find an appropriate balance in their lives between their science and their families.

The scientist whom I have always been inspired by but never met is Dr. Rosalyn Yalow. She won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. It was a shared prize which she won for the development of radioimmunoassay (radioisotope tracing technique) to measure small quantities of biological substances in the blood such as hormones. When I was in grad school I was dragged to a lecture at which she spoke. It was the first ‘big name’ lecture that I as a young student from a little town in northern Ontario had ever attended. And I was completely blown away and inspired from the moment she began. Her first slide was a copy of the rejection letter she got for the paper that formulated the basis of her work that won her the Nobel Prize. That really impressed upon me a few things. 1. Science is about perseverance and patience and 2. Neither of her parents had a high school education and neither did mine. But like her parents, my parents were very wise and immensely supportive of education. I felt very connected to her and was motivated by her.

4. What are your major interests outside the lab?
My position in the Research Insitute is half-time. The other half of my time, I serve as the Director of Clinical Dietetics. In that role I am the professional service director for all of the clinical dieticians and lactation consultants at SickKids. They are a very wonderful group and I am very proud of all that we have been able to accomplish, doing a good job of integrating the clinical aspects of our jobs with the research. Given that there are lots of recommendations about maternal and infant nutrition out there, but when you really look at them critically, a lot of them don’t really have any scientific underpinning. So this dual role that we and specifically I have in the Research Institute and in the Hospital allows us to provide evidence-based guidelines for maternal and infant nutrition. I think it’s really a wonderful opportunity.

While I don’t have a lot of time for hobbies, my major interest outside of work is my family. I have three children (Bridget, Mary Kate and Owen) and a very tolerant, wonderful husband (Michael). As a family, we try to choose collective hobbies so we go camping together – in a tent – and we do quite a lot of hiking. More recently we have taken up downhill skiing.

5. Why science?
What attracted me into this whole business was nutrition, not science per se. It was almost sort of happenstance, because it was only when I discovered how little scientific underpinning there was to most guidelines, that was what got me hooked. I felt that was the contribution that I could make to science.

6. Why SickKids?
My first position after graduate school was on faculty at the University of Guelph. I got tenure and was promoted there but then I decided that I was still very young and I felt that I needed to broaden my horizons. I went to Abbott Nutrition, the world headquarters for nutrition research in Columbus, Ohio. I spent four years there and I was involved in launching a couple of products including human milk fortifier for pre-term infants. However, my husband really wanted to return to Canada and I had begun to realize that I really enjoyed both the academic and the practical. The position that I still hold today, had just been created at SickKids and it was obvious to me that this was the right position for me at just the right time. It is a great fit for what my research interests are and what I can contribute to the field. I returned to SickKids in 2000 and ten years later, I am still here.

7. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
I first started my career in this field, it seemed only nutritionists were interested in nutrition. Now, I think perhaps because the public are excited about nutrition for a variety of reasons, there is a lack of understanding about the importance of a balance in nutrition. Too little nutrition is bad, but people do not understand that too much nutrition can also be a problem. For example, you don’t want to over-feed sick infants because you could be setting them up for something else. You want to make sure you have enough of micronutrients but you could also overdo it. It is this lack of understanding about balance that is causing a lot of confusion and conflicting information in the media and literature. As scientists, we need to do a better job of communicating that message. More is not always necessarily better – balance is the big word.

8. What are you reading right now?
I always have a book on the go, even though it sometimes takes me a long time to get through it. At the moment I am reading a book called, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley. It is a murder mystery, based in London, England. The tale is about a very precocious 11 year-old girl who finds a dead man in her garden and she is sleuthing to solve the mystery.

9. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
I would say choose something that you are passionate about. Research is not a nine-to-five job, especially if you are going to go the clinician-scientist route. It has to be something that doesn’t feel like a job, it should be a pre-occupation. I would also suggest that you look for mentors to guide you.

January 2010

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