Our Research Challenge Areas

As a non-departmentalized faculty, Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS) avoids the siloed biomedical focus that characterizes many medical faculties, enabling research and teaching around important and complex health challenges that require interdisciplinary solutions. In its “cell to society” design, FHS interests are broader than other Schools of Public Health, integrating natural sciences, social sciences and humanities with population health, policy and societal applications.

The Faculty of Health Sciences has six major research challenge areas (RCAs) identified as complex problems of high societal concern. These RCAs bring researchers from multiple disciplines together in new synergies. Across the RCAs we have identified several core themes from the faculty mission: to improve health and reduce health inequities locally, nationally and globally with a commitment to social justice. These core themes span disciplinary boundaries, disease foci, and methodological perspectives and are central to the faculty mission. Click below for more information about each of these six research challenge areas, or continue reading for additional information about our cross cutting themes, and educational challenge areas.

Big Data

Harnessing Big Data and technological and social innovation to influence individual and population health.

Admin lead: Jamie Scott

Innovations in digital technologies have led to the explosion in growth of “big data”. Big data present both opportunities and challenges for individual and population health. FHS brings strength in (1) the development of new, interdisciplinary methods for big data analysis; (2) the analysis of big data applied to public and global health; and (3) the consideration of the social, legal, and ethical challenges associated with the use of big data.

Our primary goal is to develop and support interdisciplinary development of methods, health applications, and policies for the ethical and socially valuable use of big data that lead to improved health outcomes in different settings, globally. These developments are hampered at SFU by limited access to high-performance computing for data storage, processing and analysis as well as the lack of a bioinformatic core service facility to assist investigators in methods development. It is hoped that SFU’s Key big data initiative can bridge this need and thereby help this RCA develop within the University.

A secondary goal is to align FHS with SFU priorities to take a leadership role in “big data” research and development and training initiatives at the local, national and international levels, while applying a ethical, social, and legal lens. While the development of innovative methods can lead to new digital and visualization technologies, it is also imperative that these advances address social inequities and not exacerbate them. Current social legal and ethical challenges of Big Data arise in the stewardship and governance of shared and/or integrated data that promote equitable use and access, patient and public participation and consent, and privacy considerations across a diverse set of stakeholders. Anticipatory challenges reflect the impact of big data applications in business and finance on global health.

Developmental Trajectories

Optimizing developmental trajectories across the life course.

Admin lead: Pablo Nepomnaschy

Social and environmental conditions faced early in life can have critical long-term consequences for development, which, in turn, can generate, sustain, or promote health inequities. Our objective is to investigate how social, environmental and biological conditions and experiences as well as other extrinsic factors, interact across the lifespan. The ultimate goal is to better understand how to prevent or remediate developmental trajectories that create, perpetuate or exacerbate social inequities and health problems. Currently, FHS researchers are leading multiple longitudinal and cross-sectional cohorts and research programs that evaluate interactions among a broad range of social factors, environmental conditions and biological processes, and their collective influence on early development, current and subsequent disease risk, and health inequities in a variety of populations across the globe.

We are committed to building strong and sustainable inter-sectoral partnerships that unite the pillars of health, natural and social sciences with practitioners, policymakers and community members. To this aim our overarching goal is to develop a community of practice with a clear vision of research interests and common goals to build and promote essential inter-sectoral and community connections and strengthen bridges with external colleagues and research partners (e.g., BC Children’s Health Research Institute (BCCHRI) Healthy Starts, Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP), First Nations Health Authority (FNHA), Kids Brain Health Network (KBHN) (formerly NeuroDevNet), etc.).

Infectious Diseases

Anticipating and responding to changing threats and burdens of HIV and other infectious diseases to improve the health of human populations.

Admin lead: Mark Brockman

Communicable diseases accounted for ~20% of deaths globally in 2015 (World Bank); however, they disproportionately affected children, marginalized populations, and individuals living in low- and middle-income countries. Increased globalization, population migration, and climate change are likely to exacerbate the incidence and transmission of infectious diseases (ID) within Canada and globally. Given the complexity and inter-connectedness of social, behavioral, political and biomedical factors that often contribute to the severity of communicable diseases, multi-disciplinary perspectives and approaches are necessary to anticipate and respond effectively to the changing threats and burdens of ID that affect human health. Our overarching goal is to establish and maintain effective interdisciplinary, team-based approaches to investigate and mitigate the impact of ID in diverse Canadian and international contexts, and, in doing so, distinguish FHS as a leader in interdisciplinary ID research and training at the local, national and international levels.

Five priorities identified by the ID group are: (1) to support research and training excellence among FHS faculty in diverse fields related to infectious disease; (2) to enhance the ability of FHS faculty to lead translational research and implementation/evaluation projects, particularly in the area of HIV and related infections; (3) to extend expertise in HIV to examine other ID-related health concerns; (4) to develop multi-disciplinary population health strategies that combine ID and non-ID interests of FHS faculty; and (5) to link FHS-based ID activities with those of local, national, and global partners and community to increase impact.

Mental Health and Substance Use

Transforming mental health and substance use through social determinants.

Admin leads: Will Small and Julian Somers

Many of the most urgent challenges facing population and public health relate to mental health or substance use. In the domain of substance use, major changes in the legal status of recreational drugs such as cannabis coincide with the emergence of new forms of synthetic drugs and drug delivery systems (e.g., vaping). These novel and poorly understood threats to population health compound the well-recognized harms posed by tobacco, alcohol, opioids, and other drugs. Following decades of neglect, mental health is increasingly recognized as one of the most important and preventable forms of human suffering, and is fundamentally linked with contemporary epidemics involving homelessness, infectious diseases, and exposure to the justice system. Responding to these challenges requires not only excellence in research, but also expertise in both the development and implementation of new methods, paradigms, and interdisciplinary approaches to generate relevant results and effectively translate them into effective interventions. FHS researchers are investigating problems involving mental health and substance use (MH&SU) from cell to society. Our research extends from the regulation of genes to the regulation of psychoactive substances and commercial interests. Collectively, we take a life-course perspective to discover the distinct risks and opportunities associated with critical life stages from gestation and childhood to senescence.

Few universities in Canada rival the critical mass of expertise currently concentrated in MH&SU within FHS. In less than ten years our researchers have led seminal projects involving randomized trials, population level studies, mixed-methods designs, molecular neurobiology, and the creation of highly sensitive big data, having designed internationally unique repositories. We are leaders in the practice of working directly with policy makers and other senior decision makers across sectors that influence, and are influenced by, MH&SU. As such, our achievements have influenced public policies in Canada and abroad, in domains such as child and youth mental health, services for people with addictions, HIV prevention and treatment, tobacco regulation, specialized courts for people who are mentally ill or substance dependent, and housing for people with severe mental illness.

Planetary Health

Responding to the challenge of humans irreversibly changing the planet.

Admin lead: Tim Takaro

The goals of planetary health include preservation of biodiversity, productive agriculture and sustainable foods for a growing population, habitable lands, adequate quantity and quality of water, socioeconomic equity, reduction of disease and the promotion of human health and wellbeing, safeguarding of human rights, elimination of toxic chemicals and pollutants, preserving and restoring positive emotional connections to nature and place, climate stability, and respecting personal and community spiritual values. FHS researchers currently lead several ongoing collaborations focused on the built environment, climate change, air pollution, and impacts of resource extraction and exposure to chemical mixtures.

To reduce threats to planetary health, FHS aims to (1) modify and augment our existing research foci to encompass the broader planetary health agenda and (2) expand our ability to direct public health efforts to specific vulnerable populations and communities seeking equity in disease prevention by informing and advocating for policy to achieve access to clean air and water, equitable access to resources across populations, prevention of disease, promotion of health and wellbeing, the right to a healthy environment, the development of healthy communities, climate stability, and the preservation and restoration of positive connections to nature and place.

FHS Core theme expertise acknowledges that  the impacts of planetary change are not distributed equally across populations or nation-states. For example, in Canada, Indigenous communities face disproportionate burdens of environmental risk. Low-lying coastal and riverine communities around the world face the impacts of sea-level rise and displacement. This RCA will incorporate the core FHS themes of global health and equity in its research approaches as is appropriate.

Policy and Systems Research

Policy and systems as influences on health

Admin lead: Stuart Peacock

We strive to better understand how equity, health and wellbeing are influenced by the complex interplay of policies and systems within and spanning health and other sectors. Policy and systems research spans the entire spectrum of health sciences disciplines, encompassing the humanities, social sciences, and life sciences. Research efforts under ‘Policy and Systems’ share common goals to foster excellence in disciplinary, interdisciplinary and inter-sectoral research methods, and to promote the application of research findings in policies, systems, programs and practices that enhance population health. The different types of evidence generated will play a critical role in developing policies and systems that are effective, efficient, high quality, accessible, acceptable, and fair for all of our communities.

Strategic goals for FHS in this domain are to:

1.      Build on and expand our research strengths in Indigenous Health Governance. Led by, and in partnership with Indigenous communities, this initiative will seek to address critical issues in health policy, systems, and care affecting the delivery of high quality health and medical services to Indigenous communities, and to help close social and economic gaps between Indigenous communities, and non-Indigenous populations in terms of education, health, housing, infrastructure and economic opportunities. This initiative will also advance? Indigenous self-support and seek ways to support reconciliation in sincere partnership.

2.      Build on and expand research strengths in Implementation Science. This initiative will seek to improve and enhance methods used to promote the adoption and integration of evidence-based health and inter-sectoral policies, programs and practices to address inequities and improve population health. FHS has significant expertise in research into health services and systems; to mobilize research and put it into practice, FHS needs to develop implementation sciences, including complex systems analysis.

3.      FHS Core theme expertise would strengthen health systems and policy research in global health contexts, with a focus on addressing health inequities through research and practice (i.e. community-based innovations and interventions and implementation)

4.      Further develop our research strengths in inter-sectoral policy and its influences on equity, health and wellbeing. This initiative will coalesce around several world-class research foci already established at FHS. The aim is to develop methodology and methods interest groups in key areas, for example in community engagement, community-based research, health systems and policy research, and patient-oriented research.

5.      Improve and enhance existing FHS research strengths in addressing inequities. There is an ongoing need to address fundamental inequities, such as funding for basic health and social services, with Indigenous communities a key priority. FHS will strengthen and deepen its commitment to improving health and social services for all members of our communities, especially the most vulnerable by building on and developing methodology and methods interest groups in key areas related to addressing inequities, for example in Indigenous Health, health equity, ethics, political economy and health economics. FHS Core theme expertise includes a specific goal that would be to address health and social disparities affecting Indigenous health in Canada and developing responses to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations.

6.      Build on and strengthen our existing relationships with key stakeholders from across the health system and other sectors, as well as the wider community by developing public resources for the community to improve student, stakeholder and community engagement and to raise the profile of FHS. Our aims are to (1) foster debate and discussion in an interactive format on contemporary ‘Policy and Systems’ goals and challenges and (2) develop capacity to undertake rapid reviews for key stakeholders (e.g. Fraser Health, FNHA, Ministry of Health). This could include, establishing an underpinning of MOU’s with key stakeholders that clearly outlines goals and expectations, and recognition by FHS of rapid reviews as a service function that FHS provides to key stakeholders, including recognizing faculty for their supervisory roles (of graduate students and research staff who carry out these reviews) under this initiative.

7.      FHS Core theme expertise would manifest through evaluation and definition of the role of science in addressing health inequities through the application of public health ethics, law and regulation, and implementation science and prioritizing knowledge exchange, research dissemination and communication with research, policy, practice and community partners.

Our Cross-Cutting Core Themes

The Faculty of Health Sciences has identified a number of approaches or “cross-cutting core themes” as central to its commitment to social justice and mission to improve health and reduce health inequities locally, nationally and globally. These core themes span disciplinary boundaries, disease foci, and methodological perspectives and are central to and build upon all of FHS’ disciplines and research topics, thereby informing and integrating into the six other research challenge areas and education challenge area.

The interdisciplinary structure of FHS is key to making progress in each of these areas. The FHS  has the advantage of bringing researchers from multiple disciplines and research clusters together, enabling an approach to these cross-cutting core themes from multiple of perspectives and research priorities that intersect with mental health and addictions; health policy and systems; infectious diseases; developmental origins of health and disease; and planetary change. We can learn about similar underlying challenges from diverse research areas and cross-pollinate ideas to formulate innovative responses to these challenges. We can also use these themes to explain how a targeted intervention in one research area could have  wider impacts on other areas. For example, interventions to adapt to challenges of climate change and air pollution could have impacts on mental health and health services as stress disorders are propagated across populations     

Our Education Challenge Area

An important step for the Faculty of Health Sciences involves joining our innovative research programs to the intersection of teaching and engagement. Three challenge areas have been identified which are based on the key themes of educational and academic planning, curriculum, and pedagogy. You can read more about these challenges by clicking below.

Health Sciences Education Challenge Area

Health sciences education/public health education; the challenge of integrating research into teaching

Admin leads: Nienke Van Houten and Kate Tairyan

This group has identified their role to bring teaching and learning (T&L) scholarship from an individual-level endeavour to a faculty-wide approach that is embedded within the research challenge areas. Research can influence and inform teaching, and teaching can influence and inform research. “Reflexivity”, the intentional investigation of this cycle, can impact both research quality and student experience. By ostensibly combining teaching and research, we hope to enable more praxis among all who work and study in FHS.

Three challenges have been identified in this process:

1.      Teaching and research are compartmentalized (Educational/academic planning). The separation of teaching (T), learning (L), and research (R) creates tensions for faculty. Yet, T&L&R are intricately connected and can inform one another; the separation produces a false dichotomy of practice. Furthermore, the scholarship of T&L and endeavours to apply a research approach to teaching are individualized and have no unifying focus and purpose as yet in FHS. Our goal is to use T&L scholarship to identify ways to alleviate tensions and promote a culture within FHS that bridges T&L&R.

2.      Create a curriculum that builds research and workforce capacity (Curriculum). Training qualified personnel is a core requirement of research funding opportunities. Anecdotally, FHS researchers report that students are under prepared for research which requires supplemental training. Our undergraduate curriculum could work to offset this individualized training and facilitate preparation of students for research. Our goal is to work within research challenge areas to identify the gaps in training to inform curriculum and investigate how our programs prepare students for health research and practice.

3.      Experiential practices are not universally available to students (Pedagogy). FHS has the opportunity to lead in innovative learning experiences as demand for “field courses” and “real world” learning increases. However, these course offerings are resource intensive and their learning impact is undefined. Our goal is to identify impact of these types of instructional approaches on student learning and research, and create an FHS brand that maximizes access to these pedagogies for all students.

We propose the following strategies to collectively address the challenges identified above to achieve the overall outcome of developing, sharing and modeling model a vision for a community of practice around T&L&R scholarship that enhances student learning using evidence-based approaches.

·         Create a culture of reflexivity in T&L&R and a shared vision for scholarship by building community around FHS pedagogies in various Research Challenge Areas.

·         Identify and support faculty with teaching interest/expertise in research challenge areas who will foster the dialogue on bridging T&L&R across all Research Challenge Areas.

·         Identify, assess, and expand high-impact signature pedagogies in FHS focusing on interdisciplinarity and experiential learning which will strengthen “our brand” as Canada’s most engaged university and transform FHS T&L&R into a student-centered practice at and beyond the university.

·         Empowering FHS faculty to lead T&L&R dialogue and emphasize the ongoing importance of the core value around education in FHS.