Interview with Dr. Dawn Mackey

Assistant Professor, Department of Biomedical Physiology & Kinesiology

Aging and Population Health Lab

Dr. Mackey is passionate about promoting mobility for older Canadians.  With her team in the Aging and Population Health Lab, she is leading the way to improved mobility through asking the most relevant research questions and translating her findings into action for maximum impact on improving the lives of older adults. Her research program includes both laboratory- and community-based studies, with the overall aim of developing and implementing strategies to increase physical activity, prevent falls and injuries, and reduce physical activity-related fatigue in older adults.

What motivates your research?
Physical activity is extremely beneficial to our health and we can achieve it simply by walking, yet the number of Canadians who are attaining this basic level of activity is small. Almost 90% percent of older Canadians don't get enough physical activity to achieve a health benefit. This big gap between what we know is good for us and the action we take motivates me to contribute, to offer novel ideas and solutions to improve physical activity at the population level. Figuring out effective ways to intervene is challenging, and this is what keeps me thinking and awake at night.

What topics are you studying right now?
The main focus of my program is to improve mobility for older Canadians. By mobility I mean the ability to walk and perform daily activities, to be physically active, and to participate in society. When the physical ability and mobility of older adults begins to decline, their independence diminishes, and that can make it difficult for an older adult to continue living in their own home and to enjoy a high quality of life.

Under the umbrella of mobility, my research is focused on: 1) preventing fall-related injuries, 2) promoting physical activity, and 3) understanding and reducing the causes of fatigue during walking and other physical activities.

How did you initiate your research enterprise?
In the beginning, my team partnered with Fraser Health and hosted a community consultation with older adults. We had a series of roundtable discussions with older adults who self-identified as being inactive. By talking to patients you find out what's important to them, what motivates them, and what barriers they face. This information drives the research questions that we address, thereby making our research outcomes more relevant. An integrated knowledge translation approach is key to our work, and having the input from “knowledge users” at the very beginning of the process is critical.

Do you conduct your research in a lab or directly in the community?
Some of our work is conducted in the laboratory, which we do here on the Simon Fraser University (SFU) Burnaby campus, but much of the program is out in the community. For instance, I've run physical activity intervention trials out of the Centre for Hip Health and Mobility on the Vancouver General Hospital campus and out of community centres. And some of my research is conducted in the long-term care environment through partnerships with local long-term care facilities.

What other ways do you engage the aging population for translation of your research?
One of the current studies we are conducting out of the Centre for Hip Health and Mobility, called Men on the Move, involves partnerships with community centres in the City of Vancouver and the British Columbia Recreation and Parks Association. This study of physical activity targets older men – a group that is very much underrepresented in research in general. In that study, the physical activity intervention is happening among the target population, so the translation is direct.

In another study conducted in partnership with a long-term care home, we are assessing the effect of safety flooring installed in residents’ bedrooms on fall-related injuries. One benefit of using flooring to reduce risk of injury is that it is a passive intervention, one that does not rely on the user’s cooperation to prevent injury; this is in contrast to a fall injury prevention strategy such as wearing a hip protector.

In addition, I have participated in Café Scientifique, a public discourse program, which is a great mechanism for reaching the general public. And in all of our research, we try to provide participants with feedback about our findings as a way to give back to those who have volunteered their time for research. We host participant appreciation events at the end of studies to thank and recognize participants’ efforts, and this is also a great opportunity to discuss the importance of the work.

How do you find working with the aging adult population?
It is a very rewarding population to work with. Feedback from participants is positive: they really enjoy being part of the research and interacting with members of the research team, who tend to be younger adults. We find repeatedly that our participants enjoy the intergenerational opportunities.

As a Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research Scholar, can you describe the advantages that award brings?
It provides protected time to invest in my research program. It allows me to spend more time on developing research ideas, writing grants, working on papers, and working with trainees.

During this time, I aim to develop new collaborations and partnerships with stakeholders at the provincial and national levels. I'd also like to better understand the policy landscape around the aging society, especially now that the baby boomers are reaching the age of retirement. Health policy is a new area to me, and I would like to learn more to understand how my research can be relevant to policy at local, provincial, and national levels for maximum impact.

What educational backgrounds and personal strengths do you look for in prospective graduate students?
Backgrounds in kinesiology, epidemiology, health sciences, public health, and even biomedical engineering would all be relevant. I look for people who are hard working, who persevere through difficulties and are passionate about the research process, and those who take initiative.

As an affiliate of both the Centre for Hip Health and Mobility and Community Health Solutions, what resources are available to your students?
The Centre for Hip Health and Mobility (located at Vancouver General Hospital) offers training events and opportunities: journal clubs, lunch and learn events, visiting scientists who meet with trainees or give seminars, and training workshops on specialized software. Some of my trainees work at this Centre during parts of their degree to engage with mobility researchers from other disciplines.

Community Health Solutions is a relatively new research institute at SFU that brings together researchers and community partners to develop solutions for the prevention and management of chronic disease. They provide central communication support to help disseminate our research to the public. They also host seminars, which give my trainees more exposure to chronic disease researchers and local community organizations.

How has the funding landscape for your field changed in recent years?
It's more and more competitive. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) recently initiated major changes in their funding programs and the impact of those changes is not yet clear. Generally, I think there is an increased emphasis on team-based and multidisciplinary research, and this helps with the translational aspects of research because it brings together people from different disciplines. I think team-based research is important and will be impactful in the long term, but that approach can be at odds with the traditional metrics used in academia for evaluating the progress of independent researchers. Overall, with such a competitive funding environment there is an increased need for researchers to look for funding sources beyond Canada’s Tri-Council agencies (i.e., CIHR, NSERC, and SSHRC).

What general approach do you take to funding your program?
Start small and leverage from there. The first grant I received was from a philanthropic organization called the Drummond Foundation. They fund new investigators who work in the area of aging adult health, which was a perfect fit for me. That funding helped get my first study off the ground, and helped me to secure an NSERC Discovery Grant. My approach with CIHR has been to apply to their strategic programs. For instance, my first CIHR grant was a planning grant that allowed me to start developing part of my research program and the team. I have also invested time and effort to build and contribute to competitive and productive research teams.

What contemporary scientific issue concerns you the most and needs more attention?
The burden of chronic disease. People may be living longer than in the past, but the quality of their later years may be compromised by chronic disease. Many people are coping with not just one but multiple chronic diseases, which can impact independence and make it difficult to live in one’s home for as long as one otherwise would want to.

Many of the chronic diseases that burden our society are preventable by making healthy lifestyle decisions.  This is where I see great opportunities to contribute.

What do you want people to understand about your work?
Ultimately, we hope that the work we're doing will have a positive impact on the health and mobility of older adults.


Read more: Dr. Mackey’s profile on the Biomedical Physiology & Kinesiology website, the Centre for Hip Health & Mobility site, the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research site and the Featured Researchers page

Interview by Jacqueline Watson with Theresa Kitos