Gerontology, Research

Faculty Profile: Andrew Sixsmith, Gerontology

June 25, 2015
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Andrew Sixsmith, Professor and Director of SFU’s Gerontology Research Centre and recently appointed co-director of national research network, AGE-WELL, knows about making academic research relevant and applicable to industry. Before coming to SFU in 2007, Andrew spent nearly twenty years with the University of Liverpool working in the Department of Psychiatry, the Institute of Human Ageing, and the Department of Primary Care. Andrew says having academic mentors who were “incredibly entrepreneurial” during his graduate career inspired him to “look beyond the books” in applying academic research.

“During the 1980s, I was doing my PhD at King’s College, London under the supervision of Tony Warnes, but I was also very integrated with researchers at University of Surrey. There I met David Canter, whose conceptual work on offender profiling helped found the field of forensic psychology […] he and John Beaumont (who is essentially the inventor of direct marketing) gave me the idea that research wasn’t just about sitting in a library, but that it had a place in and impact on the ‘real world.’ They were both respected academics and well-published, but also, working with them, we got contracts to do all sorts of research outside the academic sector: I worked on projects to do with safety and security in built environments, or evacuation procedures, for example.”

Andrew completed his undergraduate degree in Geography and American Studies at Keele University in the UK. He says although he was “very interested in things like economic geography, health care, and social welfare” he also did a lot of quantitative analysis during his undergraduate degree and spent five years working as a computer programmer for the British Royal Ordnance Factories after graduating his undergrad. As an analyst and programmer, Andrew honed skills to carry forward into future research contexts and eventually did a Master’s degree at Keele University.

Andrew says he took on a lot of mathematical modeling during that time and “applied optimization models to optimize the location of healthcare facilities according to the distribution of the population.” He laughs remembering how much of the research was outside of required coursework: “It was entirely a research project that was not part of my coursework. I would work on my studies all day and do the research all night. But people were really interested in this right away; it got publications and pretty much convinced me that I wanted to carry on with research and pursue an academic career.”

While Andrew says he wouldn’t call himself a commercial entrepreneur, he says the field of gerontology has encouraged him to become something of a research entrepreneur: “Typically, as researchers, we develop an interest, pursue it, write papers, books and publish in our very specific fields. However, I think in the field of gerontology, we are by definition interested in seniors and how we can help seniors so the practical, applied side of research is very important.” In addition to running a project that investigated how seniors conceptualized home, for example, Andrew also contributed to projects that actually designed housing for older people. More recently, he signed on to help design technology for people with dementia to listen to music. 

The Simple Music Player, he explains, is a product that addresses a quality of life issue researchers note in seniors with dementia. “We usually think of people with dementia as being sick and helpless, yet there’s ways that we can improve the quality of life drastically with very small interventions. As researchers, we know that those who suffer from dementia do still like to listen to music, they enjoy it, however they can’t access music themselves. Or they don’t remember that they like music. So the Simple Music Player is a prototype we designed, we gave the design to a company who took it to market. It’s a simple interface, with simple cues: you merely lift the lid to play music.” Andrew notes that the Simple Music Player is an Mp3 player that also features controls at the back for caregivers to adjust the volume or add music while the main controls are kept basic.

During his time as a researcher in the UK, Andrew was involved with setting up a strategic European research network, and worked to set international research agendas and develop educational initiatives around technology and accessibility. Recently, he was appointed to co‑direct the research network, AGE-WELL (Ageing Gracefully across Environments to Ensure Well-being, Engagement and Long Life), a National Centre of Excellence whose mandate is to help “accelerate innovation in the field of technology and aging.”

In addition to connecting researchers across Canada, AGE-WELL has recently launched funding opportunities for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. Andrew says tresearchers is crucial in showing graduate students and postdocs how to apply their research. “Statistically, I cite that 80% of postdocs never have an academic career. We should be teaching them to use their specialist training in the real world and this will allow us to build capacity within Canadian industry.” While Andrew says not every project needs to be conceived of in terms of a commercial enterprise, he instructs his graduate students and postdocs to always be thinking about the broader application of their research beyond publications: “if we choose to research something, I think we need to be thinking about what the impact or endpoint is, whether that is a new idea for a care practice or policy, a product or intervention, we should be thinking in those terms right from the start.”

Andrew Sixsmith

This applied approach, Andrew says, and the concern with “bridging the digital divide,” so to speak, has become increasingly important. Many people are using the most up-to-date technology, but Andrew notes that there are many people who don’t or can’t use advancing technology for a variety of complex reasons. As an athlete who does triathlons and is a consumer of a lot of online health information, Andrew says can identify with the struggle to keep up-to-date. “I’m someone who is relatively well-educated and able to make sense of the information that is out there but in the area of nutrition, for example, you read contradictory information all the time and it’s very confusing.” Likewise, he says, regarding technological know-how, “It’s hard to imagine being a full participant in society these days unless you are able to use these technologies. So it’s become part of a social agenda. By helping people gain access to the things others take for granted, you’re also helping them help themselves and while it’s not necessarily a health service, it is preventative and it’s part of having a strong participatory society.”

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