Catherine Birken

Catherine BirkenAssociate Professor,

Catherine Birken knows that in research few things are more powerful than partnerships. Birken, who is a general paediatrician and associate scientist at the Hospital for Sick Children, is involved in a number of major research projects, all helping to advance prevention and care of childhood obesity.

“The possibility to prevent disease is what really motivates me,” says Birken. “It is inspiring working with people from different disciplines: dieticians, nutrition researchers, public health, nursing, mental health specialists. By coming together and combining our areas of expertise and passion for child health, we can come up with ideas that transcend the disciplines.”

Together with her University of Toronto colleagues Patricia Parkin and Jonathon Maguire, Birken leads the Applied Research Group for Kids (TARGet Kids!). This practice-based research network – coordinated by the Hospital for Sick Children and St. Michael’s Hospital – follows the growth and development of approximately 6,200 Ontario children from birth to childhood.

“In Canada, we don’t know that much about childhood growth and its interrelation with other aspects of health because our national data sources – like the Canadian Health Measures Survey – do not collect data on children under three, and is very limited in children under six,” explains Birken. “The TARGet Kids! cohort provides us with a golden opportunity to understand more about growth in the early years and its impact on broader health issues.”

Specifically, Birken leads two trials within TARGet Kids! The first – called PROMOTE – focuses on the growth in the early years and its subsequent impact on cardiometabolic health in young children. PROMOTE also explores how early nutrition impacts health in later childhood.

Fit for school fit for life – Birken’s second TARGet Kids! study – investigates impacts of growth in the early years on kids’ readiness for kindergarten. Using a tool called early developmental index, which measures children’s school preparedness, Birken hopes to link early life nutrition and growth to school outcomes in young children.

Birken, together with fellow researchers across Canada, including Jill Hamilton, also participates in a Canada-wide study focusing on understanding and managing severe childhood obesity. By partnering with Karen Tu and relying on electronic medical records analysis, Birken will focus on prevalence of severe obesity in children in Ontario. She will also investigate the effectiveness of early interventions for young children with obesity, the understanding of which is currently very limited.

“Partnerships are really important to my work,” says Birken. “When you bring people from different fields together to ask and answer important questions, results of this work are disseminated back and contribute to each individual discipline. It makes all of our work more relevant and, hopefully, impactful.”

At a glance:

Catherine Birken, MD, MSc, FRCPC

Research Interests

  • Childhood obesity prevention
  • Health promotion in preschool children through office practice settings
  • Complex morbid obesity treatment

In the Media


  • Associate Professor, Department of Paediatrics, University of Toronto
  • Associate Professor, Institute of Health Policy, Management & Evaluation, University of Toronto
  • Staff Paediatrician, Division of Paediatric Medicine, Hospital for Sick Children
  • Associate Scientist, Child Health Evaluative Sciences, Research Institute, Hospital for Sick Children


See Catherine’s profile on SickKids website for more information.