Vasanti Malik’s research into the dietary and lifestyle risk factors for chronic diseases has far-reaching implications – for both individuals and the world.
By considering risk factors for type 2 diabetes across the lifespan – including in utero exposures, maternal health and childhood obesity – the assistant professor of nutritional sciences in the University of Toronto’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine intends to develop a “dietary environmental index.”
The index would allow health practitioners and the public to understand how food and lifestyle choices can affect their own health as well as the health of the planet.
“What we eat has an impact on greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use and so on,” says Malik, adding that she can envision a smartphone app that helps underscore such connections for Canadians.
Soon, she will also be working with pregnant women in Chennai, India to study how reducing refined carbohydrate intake (for instance, substituting brown rice for white rice) can prevent gestational diabetes. This data could not only improve maternal health, but also potentially reduce childhood obesity, a risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes later in life.
Malik is one of 29 researchers at U of T – and among 259 nationwide – to receive new or renewed Canada Research Chairs, which support exceptional work across a wide variety of fields. (See the full list below.)
“I would like to congratulate all the University of Toronto researchers who received a new chair or had their chair renewed in this round,” says University Professor Ted Sargent, U of T’s vice-president, research and innovation, and strategic initiatives.
“This important federal support and recognition will enable our leading researchers to pursue critical research across a number of fields, helping generate new knowledge and innovative ideas that could ultimately change the way we live here in Canada and around the world.”
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Canada Research Chairs program, established by the federal government to attract and retain top Canadian researchers working in a variety of disciplines – from engineering, the natural sciences and health sciences to the humanities and social sciences. The investment is significant: up to $295 million each year.
With 315 chairs total, U of T receives more than $46 million annually in funding from the Canada Research Chairs program.
At the same time, the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) – in collaboration with the CRC program – announced support for two U of T researchers through its John R. Evans Leaders Fund (JELF), which helps universities pay for cutting edge laboratories and equipment. The two U of T researchers are Kieran Campbell and Hartland Jackson, both of the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute in the Sinai Health System.
As for Malik, her tier two Chair in Nutrition and Chronic Disease Prevention brings with it five years of funding (renewable once) and the chance to pursue an ambitious three-part research project that will span Canada and India and involve collaboration with experts from nutritional science, environmental science and economics.
She says the award seemed “unattainable” during her many years of graduate and post-doctoral training, which she began at U of T and completed at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.
Malik adds that being situated within the Temerty Faculty of Medicine is an asset, allowing her to collaborate with clinicians working in partner hospitals and giving her a front row seat to how her research might impact clinical care guidelines.
“My ultimate goal is to create evidence for policy – evidence that links diet and lifestyle choices to chronic disease prevention,” Malik says.
Malik says she is looking forward to the opportunity to collaborate with economists and other researchers at U of T and beyond. She has many questions: Would a plant-based diet be feasible for low-income Canadian households? Would brown rice be easily accessible to Indian families living in poverty? Can governments here and abroad afford not to invest in chronic disease prevention, given the high costs of an unhealthy population?
While COVID-19 has put her travel plans on pause, Malik is excited to prepare for teaching her first class at U of T, a fourth-year international and community nutrition course that aligns with her research interests. As she strategizes how to make the course as interactive as possible, Malik looks forward to the energy generated by her students as they learn and discuss new ideas.
Here are the new and renewed Canada Research Chairs at U of T:
New Canada Research Chairs
- Jennifer Adese of the department of sociology at U of T Mississauga, tier two in Métis women, politics, and identity
- Gillian Booth of the department of medicine in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and St. Michael’s Hospital, Unity Health Toronto, tier one in policy solutions for diabetes prevention and management
- Kieran Campbell of the department of molecular genetics in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, Sinai Health System, tier two in machine learning for translational biomedicine
- Angela Colantonio of the department of occupational science and occupational therapy in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine, tier one in traumatic brain injury in underserved populations
- Herbert Gaisano of the department of medicine in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine, and the Toronto General Hospital Research Institute, tier one in diseases of endocrine and exocrine pancreas
- Jennifer Gommerman of the department of immunology in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine, tier one in tissue-specific immunity
- Ali Hooshyar of the Edward S. Rogers Sr. department of electrical and computer engineering in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, tier two in electric power systems
- Timothy Hughes of the Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine, tier one in decoding gene regulation
- Hartland Jackson of the department of molecular genetics in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, Sinai Health System, tier two in systems pathology
- Hae-Young Kee of the department of physics in the Faculty of Arts & Science, tier one in theory of quantum materials
- David Lie of the department of electrical and computer engineering in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, tier one in secure and reliable systems
- Radhakrishnan Mahadevan of the department of chemical engineering and applied chemistry in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, tier one in metabolic systems engineering
- Vasanti Malik of the department of nutritional sciences in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine, tier two in nutrition and chronic disease prevention
- Stephen Matthews of the department of physiology in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine, tier one in early development and health
- Nick Reed of the department of occupational science and occupational therapy in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine, tier two in pediatric concussion
- Lisa Robinson of the department of paediatrics in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and the Hospital for Sick Children, tier one in vascular inflammation and kidney injury
- John Rogers of the department of English in the Faculty of Arts & Science, tier one in early modern literature and culture
- Shoshanna Saxe of the department of civil and mineral engineering in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, tier two in sustainable infrastructure
- Greg Stanisz of the department of medical biophysics in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and Sunnybrook Research Institute, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, tier one in cancer imaging
- Harindra Wijeysundera of the department of medicine in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and Sunnybrook Research Institute, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, tier two in structural heart disease policy and outcomes
- Hannah Wunsch of the department of anesthesiology and pain medicine in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and Sunnybrook Research Institute, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, tier two in critical care organization and outcomes
- Azadeh Yadollahi of the Institute of Biomedical Engineering in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering and University Health Network, tier two in cardiorespiratory engineering
Renewed Canada Research Chairs
- Jo Bovy of the David A. Dunlap department of astronomy and astrophysics in the Faculty of Arts & Science, tier two in galactic astrophysics
- Birsen Donmez of the department of mechanical and industrial engineering in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, tier two in human factors and transportation
- Lisa Forman of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, tier two in human rights and global health equity
- Alan Moses of the department of cell and systems biology in the Faculty of Arts & Science, tier two in computational biology
- Anthony Niblett of the Faculty of Law, tier two in law, economics and innovation
- Laura Rosella of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, tier two in population health analytics
- Arjumand Siddiqi of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, tier two in population health equity