Jan Willem Gorter

CurioCity
7 July 2017

Jan Willem Gorter

I’m the Director of CanChild. I’m also Professor in the Department of Pediatrics and hold the Scotiabank Chair in Child Health Research at McMaster University. I supervise students from the undergraduate through to the postdoctoral level. As well, I work as a physiatrist at McMaster Children’s Hospital.

Tell us about yourself

I was raised and educated in the Netherlands. I moved to Canada in 2008, and now live in the beautiful town of Dundas with my spouse and our dog, Brodie. While we visit the Netherlands three or four times a year, Ontario is now “home” for us as well. I like to take advantage of the natural beauty of our area and enjoy sailing on Lake Ontario. I also play the euphonium in the Dundas Concert Band.

What is your research about?

Focusing on the themes of family, function and fitness, my research aims to improve the physical health, mental health and wellbeing of children and youth with disabilities and their families. I have a special research interest in the transition from pediatric to adult healthcare services.

What have you enjoyed the most about your research?

As a clinician scientist, I work directly with teenagers in a clinic. I want to see what they are struggling with and help them find ways to take charge of their health. I also study brain changes during adolescence and youth, including the development of executive functions necessary for reasoning, problem solving and planning. I enjoy that what I learn in the clinic links back to my research and vice versa, forming a complete cycle.

What have you found most challenging about your research?

The recruitment process can be very challenging. We know that research is important and that, in principle, people value research. We also know that individuals who do participate in research indicate that it is a valuable experience for them. Still, we don’t have as many participants as we would like. Teenagers and their families already have busy lives, and it can be difficult to find people in the community who want to get involved.

How has your research experience influenced your career path?

Through my recent research experience at the Ontario Brain Institute I see the opportunity to link day-to-day life issues and experiences with underlying brain function. As well, children with cerebral palsy grow up to be adults with cerebral palsy - I believe that a life course approach is important, and I think we can play an important role in creating links between pediatric and adult health research.

How has your research impacted the world?

In 2012, I co-authored the paper “The ‘F-words’ in Childhood Disability: I swear this is how we should think!” with my colleague, Dr. Peter Rosenbaum. These “F-words” – Function, Family, Fitness, Fun, Friends and Future – emphasize what is important to the development of all youth. The “F-words” concept has really resonated with youth and families and has now taken on a life of its own, appearing in posters, presentations, news articles and blogs around the world.

What do you predict will be the next big breakthrough in your field of research?

I think a preventative approach will be the next field breakthrough. I’m interested in how to best support young people so they can live their fulfilling lives, and prevent the development of additional health problems such as pain, fatigue, anxiety and depression down the road. Learning more about how the brain works will help medical professionals develop more strategies for improving well-being and mental health. For example, mindfulness may have great potential in improving these outcomes.

What motivates you to do research?

I have always wanted to do research! I want to know how things work and how we can do things better, which is what evidence-based research is all about. I’m also motivated by the interdisciplinary nature of childhood disability research. Treating complex conditions requires us to work together – it’s a big puzzle and no one has all of the pieces. We need to work in partnership, and that includes families and young people.

Tell us about your 'Eureka' moment

After 15 years of training as a physician, I thought I was ready to help children with disabilities and their families. However, I soon discovered that my medical knowledge wasn’t enough. I needed a wider lens to see how these children fit within their families, and how their families fit within the community. It was an important realization that helped lead me in the direction of the “F-words”.

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