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Exploring the developing brain with postdoctoral fellow Dr. Julie Sato
9 minute read

Exploring the developing brain with postdoctoral fellow Dr. Julie Sato

Summary:

From using wearable neuroimaging technology to taking hikes with her sheepadoodle, Dr. Julie Sato is a postdoctoral fellow pursing research breakthroughs and work-life balance.

Dr. Julie Sato

Dr. Julie Sato is a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Margot Taylor’s lab, working with top-notch wearable brain imaging technology that is informing new research on early brain development and autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

This story is part of PROPEL, a series exploring the life and research of postdoctoral fellows at SickKids.

Beneath The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), a brimming box of toys is nestled next to a shelf on which four brightly coloured helmets rest, ready to be buckled up. Amid a projection screen and eye-catching wall decals, Sato is helping capture childrens brain recordings in never-before-seen detail 

Her research aims to determine how particular networks in the brain support early perceptual and socio-cognitive development in young children aged one to five years, with and without ASD. To date, the lab has scanned the brains of more than 100 children.  

“I really wanted to be involved in this one-of-a-kind project being the first to use this wearable neuroimaging system, called optically pumped magnetometers, to scan young children who have a higher likelihood of developing ASD, before they are diagnosed,” she says. 

“There are no other labs doing this kind of research.”

Sato splits her time between working from home and either the Peter Gilgan Center for Research and Learning (PGCRL), or the Research MEG Facility at SickKids. On a study visit day in the hospital, Sato assists the facilitation of young study participants – juggling data capture with the reality of wriggling children. On non-study-visit days, Sato is at the PGCRL analyzing data, writing up papers for publication and helping to manage junior lab members. 

“One- to five-year-olds are a very fun age group to work with. You really have to be on your feet and match their energy to keep them engaged,” says Sato. “I like interacting with the little ones and their families to get them interested in science and participating in research.” 

Finding balance outside of the lab  

Originally from Yokohama – right outside of Tokyo – Sato came to Toronto for her undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto.   

“I never visited Toronto before I moved here, so it was a big change for me at that time. But because Toronto is such a multicultural and diverse city, I never felt homesick.” Sato finds there is almost always something going on or new to try in the city. 

Dr. Julie Sato working on a computer.

“Plus, I feel like I’m never too far from a good Japanese meal!” she says. 

On the weekends, she tries to be outdoors as much as possible, taking long hikes with her husband and their sheepadoodle, Checo – named after the F1 driver, Sergio “Checo” Pérez. For Sato, work-life balance is important, and it’s a message she wants to send to others in the postdoctoral community.  

“Maintaining a good work life balance as a postdoc can be hard, but it is vital,” she says. “I know it can be difficult, but that’s why I think balance is so important to prioritize. It’s still possible to get publications and have other interests outside of research.”  

For those considering a postdoctorate, Sato suggests choosing an institution that allows you to utilize the skill set honed during your PhD, while also learning something new.  

“Research requires a lot of patience and persistence, but it can be very rewarding too,” Sato says. “SickKids offers access to resources and supports that make my work possible.” 

Sato’s journey to SickKids  

Sato met her supervisor Taylor, Director of Functional Neuroimaging and Diagnostic Imaging and Senior Scientist in the Neurosciences & Mental Health program, in the third year of her undergraduate studies when she worked as a Summer Research Student in Taylor’s lab. Having previously worked in a wet lab doing cell work, Sato was almost convinced that research would not be a part of her career – but the summer placement ultimately led her to consider grad school more seriously. 

Dr. Julie Sato holding wearable brain scanners, which are shaped like helmets.

Sato completed her PhD in Psychology at U of T where she received the SickKids Restracomp PhD Award and the Exceptional Training award. Her doctoral work focused on investigating the impact of early postnatal nutrition on brain development in children born with a very low birth weight using magnetoencephalography (MEG) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). She was also the co-chair of the Neurosciences and Mental Health Training Council throughout the pandemic, helping keep the community together when many felt isolated.  

As a research fellow, Sato holds a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) fellowship award, is a previous recipient of the LiUNA! Fellowship award and has authored 21 peer-reviewed publications. She also serves as the co-chair of the Postdoctoral Advisory Committee (PDAC) and is passionate about improving the postdoctoral experience at SickKids.   

Research highlights

Participate in the study

If your child is between one to five years old with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, your child and any neuro-typical siblings may be eligible to participate in this study. The study is also currently recruiting children aged one to five without a family diagnosis of autism to act as a control group. The research team will work with you and your family to accommodate your schedule. Contact babiesandtoddlers.science@sickkids.ca to learn more.

View the study flyer (PDF)

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