Tarun Katapally, a digital epidemiologist in the Faculty of Health Sciences, is Western’s newest Canada Research Chair (CRC).
Katapally’s appointment as the CRC in Digital Health for Equity came as part of an announcement released today by François-Philippe Champagne, minister of innovation, science and industry. The funding is part of a $1 billion investment supporting researchers, scientists and students across Canada.
As a population health researcher, Katapally is at the forefront of his field, utilizing digital tools to engage citizens with diverse voices to help create societal solutions and inform health policies. He also brings to his work perspective as a trained physician who previously worked in emergency medicine.
He came to Western earlier this year from the University of Saskatchewan, where he retains an adjunct appointment.
“We are thrilled to have attracted Professor Katapally and the innovative approaches he takes to digital health to Western,” says Bryan Neff, acting vice-president (Research). “These chairs are widely seen as the gold standard for excellence in Canadian research and provide unique benefits that support our community’s efforts to advance knowledge and foster innovation to solve challenges that matter in our region and around the world.”
As a CRC, Katapally will advance his work as founder and director of the Digital Epidemiology and Population Health Laboratory (DEPth Lab). The goal of the lab is to build a network of interdisciplinary researchers, community partners and multi-sector stakeholders to develop digital solutions for existing and emerging population health crises.
“If we are going to conceptualize societal solutions, we have to work across disciplines and across sectors,” Katapally said, noting the ability to collaborate with leading experts helped draw him to Western. “I’ve only been here for a few months, and I’ve been lucky enough to establish partnerships with researchers at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, Lawson Health Research Institute and with experts in computer science and data analytics.”
Also key to Katapally’s approach is engaging citizens in community-based, participatory research and viewing them as equal partners on the DEPth team.
“We go to our citizen scientists to figure out and address the problems,” he said. “Talking with communities and citizens helps us understand the need before we even build these solutions.
“Citizen science allows citizens to take ownership and drive the questions being asked. They can work with us to conceive a study, to figure out how to collect and analyze the data and how to translate that knowledge into creating equitable solutions.”
By building capacity in the DEPth lab, Katapally is hoping to address challenges in areas that include active living, child and youth health, climate change, food security and sovereignty, global health, Indigenous health, infectious disease, mental health and substance misuse.
“The cool thing about citizen science is you can apply it to many problems,” Katapally said. “From a health-care perspective, we see the long wait times in emergency rooms right now and people going to the ER for preventive care. Can we address some of these issues of people who don’t have access to a family doctor to get the services they need? Can we build digital platforms to provide support to youth in real time if they have anxiety or depression ─ not just in urban areas but in rural and remote areas where access is low? We’re looking to use digital tools to minimize some of those issues.”
The DEPth lab uses the Smart platform, an innovative “big data toolkit” Katapally developed that allows researchers to engage citizen scientists in real-time, primarily through ubiquitous tools such as smartphones and smartwatches.
“The smartphone is an incredible tool that promotes equity,” he said. “It levels the playing field across different demographics of people with different socioeconomic status.”
And in an age of misinformation, where “alternative facts” challenge scientific rigour, Katapally is inspired by the potential of smartphones to source data “driven by the people for the people.”
“One of the big reasons I enjoy working in citizen science is it is an ethical way to engage with populations to obtain big data. You engage with citizens from the conceptualization of a set project, including them in the decision-making about what data you will collect and how you will collect it,” he said.
Such was the case in 2020, when the DEPth lab worked with citizens in Ille-a-la-Crosse, Saskatchewan to develop Co-Away, a mobile app designed to help monitor and better manage the spread of COVID-19 in Indigenous and northern communities.
With residents volunteering to monitor and report any COVID-19 symptoms, Katapally is hopeful the data will provide evidence to help northern communities be better prepared for subsequent waves of COVID-19 and other future potential health threats.
One of the first steps Katapally and his team took was to create a citizen scientist advisory council, which included the town’s mayor, high school students, elders and a social worker. All the collected data is co-owned with the Indigenous communities.
Katapally looks forward to engaging with more communities in Canada and around the world through the digital tools his team will develop further with the support of the CRC funding.
“It’s an incredible privilege to receive this chair,” he said. “The title means a lot to me because it means my team can continue to try to use digital health to promote equity. I’m also excited by the opportunities for my students. We can’t build these research programs without highly skilled trainees. Western has some excellent students who are now working with us to build the research program we need.”
The Canada Research Chair (CRC) program is designed to attract and retain some of the world’s most accomplished and promising minds in engineering, natural sciences, health sciences, humanities and social sciences.
The CRC program is supported by participating universities and funded through three federal funding agencies: Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). There are two levels to the CRC program: Tier 1 chairs (seven-year term) are recognized by their peers as world leaders in their respective fields, while Tier 2 chairs (five-year term) are recognized as emerging leaders in their research areas.
Currently, Western is home to 66 Canada Research Chairs.