At first, a hospital seems an unlikely workplace for a former electrical engineer, but this doesn’t matter to Ervin Sejdić, the new Research Chair in Artificial Intelligence for Health Outcomes at North York General Hospital (NYGH). What matters to him is finding the best and most efficient ways to care for patients, using whatever technologies or theories he can find.
“There’s plenty of great discoveries out there,” he explains. “The problem is often researchers develop things without thinking about the practical applications. My focus is linking everything that’s out there already so that it makes the most sense for the patients.”
As a translational researcher, Sejdić is interested in using basic scientific discoveries to build new therapies or medical procedures, picking through insights gleaned from a laboratory setting and mix-and-matching them with other theories or devices. “We’ve made amazing advances in basic science but there are still ways to go before they are useful to our patients,” Sejdic says. “My feeling is that you don’t develop a hammer looking for a nail. You have a nail and then you develop the hammer that is suitable for the nail.”
While an electrical engineer by trade, Sejdić was initially attracted to health care by the idea of helping patients after his mother passed away from cancer. After completing his PhD, he learned of a project involving swallowing with children, under the guidance of the late Dr. Glenn Berall, a physician at North York General who specialized in paediatric nutrition. Sejdić’s post-doc advisor was working at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital with Dr. Berall to develop different strategies to help children with swallowing disorders (dysphagia).
“My post-doc advisor knew that I was into data analytics and that’s what they were looking for on their team,” Sejdić says. “So I guess you could say I was in the right place at the right time – I knew I wanted to branch out into medicine and they were looking for someone with my skills.”
What started off as a one-year stint at Holland Bloorview ended up being three. Since then, his work has led him to discoveries in areas including vascular aging, swallowing difficulties, gait analysis, advanced information systems in medicine, rehabilitation engineering, assistive technologies and anticipatory medical devices. His research studies have resulted in co-authoring over 100 scientific publications in the last seven years.
After working for three years at Holland Bloorview, Sejdić was recruited to work as a research fellow at Harvard Medical School. A year later, he became an Assistant Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Swanson School of Engineering, University of Pittsburgh, where he was promoted to an Associate Professor in 2017. His enormous potential has been recognized by his peers through numerous awards, including the National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Award and the 2013 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, which is the highest honour bestowed by the United States.
“It was quite surreal being in the White House,” he remembers. “Of course, it was a real honour to be recognized by the Obama administration for the work in dysphagia – work that I initially began in Toronto.”
When Sejdić learned of the opportunity of the new research chair at NYGH, he jumped at the opportunity. “It’s like I’ve come full circle, as I began my career in health care working with Dr. Berall,” he says. “I’m also very attracted in working with translational research at a community academic hospital. This isn’t about innovating for the sake of innovation. This is about innovating to address pressing needs.”
These needs can include everything from continuing his work in dysphagia to falls prevention. “We can still achieve a lot using existing technology,” Sejdić says. “I will use anything that works. It’s all about stripping everything down to the absolute necessity.”
Ervin Sejdić is North York General’s fifth Research Chair, joining Monika Kastner, the Research Chair in Knowledge Translation and Implementation, Patricia Trbovich, the Badeau Family Research Chair in Patient Safety and Quality Improvement, Katie Dainty, the Research Chair in Patient-Centred Outcomes, and Michelle Greiver, the Gordon F. Cheesbrough Research Chair in Family and Community Medicine, in our effort to strengthen the spirit of inquiry and our capacity to generate evidence that will transform the delivery of health care in Ontario. The hospital is immensely grateful to our generous donors and our North York General Foundation who supported the establishment of the Research Chairs.
This article first appeared in the December 2019- January 2020 issue of The Pulse.
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