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Profile of Padmaja Subbarao

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Dr. Padmaja Subbarao

Dr. Padmaja Subbarao, MD, M.Sc., FRCP (C), FAAP, LMCC

  • Scientist, Translational Medicine
  • Staff Respirologist, Respiratory Medicine
  • Assistant Professor in the Department of Paediatrics, University of Toronto

1. Where are you from? Where did you study?
I grew up in Ottawa, Ontario and attended the University of Ottawa for my undergraduate studies. I came to the University of Toronto for my fellowship and then moved to Hamilton, Ontario to join McMaster University for a research fellowship. Following my studies at McMaster, I moved to London, England to do another research fellowship at Great Ormond Street Hospital.

2. What are you researching right now?
Right now my team and I are looking into the origins of asthma.

I am involved in national research study called CHILD. Based out of McMaster, I am the lead for the Toronto site and in addition to Toronto; we also have sites in Vancouver, Edmonton and Winnipeg. We are following 5,000 women across Canada and tracking their babies (aged 0 to 6 years) as their lungs develop. We are investigating the role of the environment on lung development. And environment in this context includes not just our physical space, but other factors such as stress and psychological determinants, socio-economic factors and exposure to infection. We are testing infant pulmonary function and will follow these children and with this data get more information on the causes and determining factors of asthma.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist, and why?
This is a tough question as there are so many fantastic people to emulate. Historically speaking, Charles Darwin is an inspiring individual to me. He was a man who really had little formal training and through his powers of observation he was able to understand a great deal about the world we live in. Those early observations and interpretations have literally led the way for how mankind has developed the basis of much of our understanding.

4. What in your opinion is the single most important scientific breakthrough, and why?
This is another challenging question – there are really so many to choose from. I would say that computers have probably been the most important breakthrough. I see their contributions to data management and analysis as revolutionizing how we work and how we study science. Without these enhancements and the ability to process huge amounts of data, we would not have been able to have gained the knowledge we now have in areas like genomics. In my particular field of study, computers have been instrumental in developing epigenetic research. Without the data and analysis provided by computer technology, we wouldn’t understand today, the depth to which enivronment affects our development – not just within our own life span, but also through our past generations. We didn’t realize before that an environmental experience that our grandparent may have faced could still have an impact in our own genetic makeup in subsequent generations.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
Any time I spend out of my lab I generally spend travelling, reading and spending time with my family. I have traveled fairly extensively throughout Europe and Asia, including visiting Angkor Watt in Cambodia and hiking in the Himalayas in Nepal. I have also been to Australia.

In terms of reading, I enjoy fiction and particularly enjoy the classics. Of course, my number one priority is my family. I have a three-year-old daughter who is the most amazing thing in my life. She now has the travel bug too and I love to introduce new things and new culture to her life experience.

6. Why science?
I have always liked science. I enjoy the opportunity it affords me to reflect, to observe and to really examine the order of things. I am fascinated by the relationship between cause and effect and love to try and uncover the why. I am driven to understand both why and how things happen and then try and find ways to prevent negative outcomes. It is a luxury to be in a field where I can spend my time doing critical thinking to work toward change and to have the opportunity to make my mark in the world.

7. Why SickKids?
SickKids is an amazing place and I am thankful that SickKids found me. I was very lucky to do a fellowship here and to work with Hugh O’Brodovich [Dr. O’Brodovich was Paediatrician-in-Chief at The Hospital for Sick Children and the chair of the Department of Paediatrics at the University of Toronto from 1996 to 2006.] He had a major implact on me and helped me to find my path.

I have had the good fortune to have worked and studied in several different places so far in my career and I can honestly say that the breadth and depth of the scientists and their expertise and the quality of research that happens here is absolutely outstanding. SickKids is truly a unique institution with amazing infrastructure and research space, a huge support network which nurtures its members and invests in young talent and is world leading in its global view and spirit of collaboration.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
For me the question is definitely around the causes of asthma. When does it start – before birth, after, or is it imprinted in us from previous generations? Until we truly understand the causes, our ability to intervene and prevent and effectively treat this illness will be difficult.

January 2010

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