Renowned paediatrician and U of T professor becomes inaugural Edwin S.H. Leong Chair in Child Health Intervention

Nov 1, 2021

Dr. Catherine Birken will spearhead the Leong Centre’s research on child health outcomes—and develop innovative solutions to improve the health of children.

Children playing outdoors hold hands in a circle

Many factors—socioeconomic, political, and cultural, among others—can lead to serious inequities and have a huge impact on child health. Since its launch, the Edwin S.H. Leong Centre for Healthy Children has been bringing together researchers from across the University of Toronto and The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) to understand and address the impact of inequities on child health so that all children can grow up and lead healthy, happy, and productive adult lives. A $25-million gift from U of T alumnus Dr. Edwin S.H. Leong (MSc Computer Science 1974) and the Tai Hung Fai Charitable Foundation helped establish the Leong Centre—the first of its kind in the world.

The Leong Centre is now taking a critical next step to advance its vision by appointing the renowned paediatrician and scientist Dr. Catherine Birken as its inaugural Edwin S.H. Leong Chair in Child Health Intervention.

Dr. Birken is a Professor of Paediatrics and Nutritional Sciences at the Temerty Faculty of Medicine at U of T, and a researcher with the Joannah and Brian Lawson Centre for Child Nutrition. She is also a faculty member at the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation in the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, a staff paediatrician at SickKids, and a senior scientist in Child Health Evaluative Sciences at SickKids Research Institute. The chair role—which spans U of T and SickKids—has a five-year term.

Portrait of Catherine Birken smiling.

Dr. Catherine Birken

“It’s an incredible honour to be the first appointed chair for the Leong Centre,” says Dr. Birken. “We have an amazing opportunity to connect researchers, promote child health equity, and ensure that all children have a chance to flourish.”

Portrait of Catherine Birken smiling.

Dr. Catherine Birken

A bridge-builder and leader focused on innovative research

Dr. Birken is an expert in the area of childhood obesity. She’s also a natural bridge builder; with Dr. Patricia Parkin and Dr. Jonathon Maguire, Dr. Birken leads The Applied Research Group for Kids (TARGet Kids!), North America’s largest patient-oriented and practice-based research network, which follows the growth and development of approximately 12,000 children in Toronto, Montreal, and Kingston—from birth through childhood. Dr. Birken herself is leading several collaborative research projects, including PROMOTE, which focuses on childhood growth in the early years and its impact on cardiometabolic health. Another project—Fit for School, Fit for Life—investigates the impacts of growth in the early years on kids’ readiness for kindergarten.

“Dr. Birken has become one of Canada’s leaders in research on childhood growth,” says Dr. Trevor Young, Dean of the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and Vice-Provost, Relations with Health Care Institutions, who is currently Acting Vice-President and Provost at U of T. “Her unparalleled expertise makes her an ideal candidate to help lead the Leong Centre’s research agenda.”

As the Edwin S.H. Leong Chair in Child Health Intervention, Dr. Birken will measure and identify meaningful child health outcomes. She will also develop innovative and pragmatic implementation strategies and clinical interventions based on leading, up-to-date research. Her work will support the larger vision of the Leong Centre, which is led by co-directors Dr. Eyal Cohen and Dr. Astrid Guttmann.

“Throughout her career, Dr. Birken has led innovative intervention research focused on children,” says Dr. Cohen, speaking on behalf of himself and Dr. Guttmann. “She is also an extraordinary mentor, a critical role in the Leong Centre as we work to foster the next generation of child health research leaders.” Dr. Birken’s work has focused on interventions that are germane to the goals of the Leong Centre—parenting interventions, periconception health, public health partnerships, and many more.

“We are delighted to have Dr. Birken’s leadership and vision,” says Dr. Meric Gertler, President of U of T. “There has been a global rise in chronic disease among children, especially those who are underprivileged and at-risk. Dr. Birken will help the ground-breaking Leong Centre develop the evidence-based strategies we need to improve the lives of young people around the world.”

“Dr. Birken is a brilliant researcher and a true collaborator,” notes Dr. Ronald Cohn, President and CEO of SickKids. “She is creating innovative solutions to help ensure that all children, regardless of background, can lead happy, healthy lives.”