Post-Doc Profile: Sarah Canham, Gerontology

December 03, 2014

Sarah Canham became enthralled with the topics of aging and the course of life after an “inspiring” internship at a hospice. Her strong interest and commitment to these fields is evident in her work as a post-doctoral researcher in the Gerontology Research Center and IRMACS at SFU, where she pursues investigations of mental health, substance abuse, and social isolation in later life. Holding a PhD in Gerontology from the University of Maryland, Canham’s current position is her second post-doc, representing a suite of research areas that link directly with the field of her first post-doc in Drug Dependence Epidemiology, completed at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

During her doctoral work, Canham was the principle investigator in a cultural analysis of the experience of drug dependence among older women, a study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Canham’s post-doc at SFU derived from conversations with Andrew Sixsmith, Director of the Gerontology Research Centre at SFU, during the Gerontological Society of America Conference in San Diego, California in 2012. This in turn led to exchanges with IRMAC’s Norm O’Rourke, who would become Canham’s co-mentor with Sixsmith.

Canham’s current work spans three distinct projects which feature a productive overlap: a study investigating Bipolar Affective Disorder and older adults that “examines the sociodemographic and contextual factors associated with the wellness of adults with Bipolar Disorder over time,” and has received funding from The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and from the William and Ada Isabelle Steel Fund to collect life history interviews of patterns of substance use and misuse. A second project has Canham involved in a two-year study of “the effect of the change in built environment on staff, residents, and families as they transition from one institutional setting into another.” In her third current project, Canham aims to capture the place-based needs, including services and amenities, of residents moving into an affordable housing development.

Canham’s research takes full advantage of resources and networks unique to SFU, including those accessible through the Gerontology Research Centre and the Interdisciplinary Research in the Mathematical and Computational Sciences (IRMACS) Centre. The Gerontology Research Centre works with the Department of Gerontology to conduct interdisciplinary research relating to both individual and population aging, and recently published the sixth edition of The Fact Book on Aging for British Columbia and Canada.

The IRMACS Centre, billed as a “one stop shop for research support at SFU,” promotes collaborative work among interdisciplinary groups that make intensive use of information technology in their research and has become the technological hub of the Bipolar Disorder study which aims to rectify a gap in psychosocial research specific to older adults with Bipolar Disorder. Using an innovative iPhone app, the study takes GPS- and time-stamped mood “snapshots” of some of the estimated 75,000 Canadians with Bipolar Disorder who are fifty years old or older.

The analysis of this data will seek correlations between geographic areas, rapid movement, or novel experiences with the mania or depression episodes experienced by participants. Canham notes that her work “is strengthened by the resources available in the IRMACS Centre and the collaboration between myself, Dr. Norm O’Rourke and fellow postdoc, Dr. David King. We each bring unique skills to a productive academic relationship, and these intellectual collaborations enable [us] to think about social issues in new and exciting ways,” she explains.

Canham is simultaneously pursuing a project with the Modelling of Complex Social Systems (MoCSSy) group within IRMACS which combines gerontology, including issues of dependence/loss of independence, with modelling, aiming to eventually map these transitions.

She notes that the project will match her gerontological expertise “with students who have modelling and visualization skills so that we can bridge disciplines. Together, we will be able to address research questions at the macro-level.”

While pursuing these varied (yet inter-related) projects, Canham is currently teaching Gerontology 101: Aging and Society at SFU’s Surrey campus. Describing her “great” experience at SFU, Canham reports, “Vancouver and the surrounding areas are beautiful and everyone has been so kind. I’ve also been able to learn new skills and develop great professional relationships.”