In Profile: Catherine Birken

Catherine Birken
Professor Catherine Birken

For Professor Catherine Birken, few things are more powerful than research partnerships. Birken is a paediatrician and associate scientist at The Hospital for Sick Children, and she is involved with several collaborative research projects on childhood obesity.

“The possibility to prevent disease is what really motivates me,” says Birken. “It is inspiring working with people from different disciplines: dietitians, nutrition researchers, public health experts, nurses and 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 Professors 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 they are very limited in children under six,” says 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.

Birken’s second TARGet Kids! Study, Fit for School Fit for Life, 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.

Together with fellow researchers across Canada, including Professor Jill Hamilton, Birken also participates in a Canada-wide study of severe childhood obesity. Partnering with Professor Karen Tu and relying on electronic medical records analysis, Birken studies the prevalence of severe obesity in children in Ontario. She 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.”