Health researchers take lead

July 07, 2005, vol. 33, no. 6
By Carol Thorbes

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Simon Fraser University researchers figure prominently in a new initiative designed to boost B.C.'s capacity to help solve society's Rubik's cube of health issues.

The Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research (MSFHR), a provincially funded granting agency, recently created and awarded a total of $3 million to eight province-wide research networks. Researchers based at universities, colleges, hospitals and health-related industries competed for funding to create networks and become co-leaders.

The networks will amass researchers from many disciplines, geographic areas and sectors to leverage federal and international funding to help designated health populations.

Andrew Wister, chair of the department of gerontology, and Gloria Gutman, director of the gerontology research centre, at SFU, co-lead the B.C. network for aging research.

Olena Hankivsky, an associate professor of political science and acting director of the institute for critical studies in gender and health at SFU, co-leads the women's health research network.

“Rapid social change is complicating the health problems associated with an aging population,” says Wister. “For example, a shortage of long-term care beds in the province is aggravating the problems associated with increased cases of dementia. Only collaborative research can dispel misinformation about drug interactions, myths about dietary changes and exercise and quickly resolve critical problems such as falling and mental illness in the elderly.”

Wister notes there is a pressing need to train “the next generation of gerontologists in B.C. We have to make sure there is a new cohort of vibrant well-trained researchers to replace those who are aging and retiring.”

The networks will hook their capacity building and fund leveraging initiatives around four themes. They will bridge researchers with mutual interests and foster knowledge exchange between researchers about a plethora of research databases.

The networks will provide seed funding and grant writing support to help disparate groups of researchers collaborate on developing new technologies. The networks will also develop programs to educate the public and mentor new academic and community researchers.

Gutman, the founder of SFU's pioneering gerontology research centre and program, says the designation of the centre as the secretariat of the aging network is significant. “It increases our visibility as a centre of excellence,” says Gutman.

“This in turn draws students, visiting scholars, companies and research investors to our centre and SFU.”

The women's health network will be unprecedented in research scope and geographical reach. SFU's institute for critical studies in gender and health will play a key role in broadening the conventional scope of women's health research.

The pioneering group studies how biological, gender and socio-economic factors intersect to make women a vulnerable health population in different ways. “Women's health is about more than reproductive capabilities and maternal health,” explains Hankivsky. “Often the public, researchers and policy makers don't understand the differences between sex and gender. Sex refers to biological characteristics while gender refers to social constructions of men and women. Any analysis of women's health must recognize that gender is inseparable from other forms of social difference such as race, culture, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation and ability.”

Co-leaders of the women's health network are responsible for bringing together researchers around key themes. SFU is responsible for research methodologies. Other themes are: health determinants, sex and gender, and an online database about gender research.

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