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Recognizing a revered contribution

By Matthew Pariselli  •  July 30, 2018

Dr. Sandra Black, a senior scientist at Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI), has been given an honorary doctor of science degree from the University of Waterloo, an institution with which she has many ties. Black, who is the director of the Hurvitz Brain Sciences Research Program at SRI, was acknowledged for her work around stroke and dementia. She has been collaborating with scientists now based at the university for over two decades.

It was about 25 years ago when Black, whose work centres on preventing, diagnosing and treating brain disease, began partnering with Dr. Eric Roy, a neuroscientist who is a professor at the University of Waterloo. One of Roy’s interests is apraxia, a motor disorder that is triggered by diseases or damage to the left side of the brain, and results in a person’s inability to perform skilled movements.

Black and Roy have been studying the disorder for years, resulting in 30 publications and an accumulation of data on over 160 patients. “We’re in the middle of gathering information to see which parts of the brain are engaged when you have a left hemisphere or right hemisphere stroke and you’re trying to carry out actions,” says Black, who is also a professor at the University of Toronto. This has not been well-studied and will give new insight to the brain networks that mediate knowledge to action. “We think it’ll be a nice contribution to the literature,” Black notes.

When discussing her affiliation with Waterloo, Black also mentions Dr. William McIlroy, another neuroscientist who is a colleague of hers at SRI, but who additionally is the chair of and a professor in the department of kinesiology at the University of Waterloo. Much of his research has focused on gait and balance in aging, dementia and stroke. He is currently evaluating the usefulness of wearable monitors that can provide information about people’s physical activity in their natural environments.

Black and McIlroy first teamed up in the early 1990s, and their working relationship hasn’t waned. “One reason I value this ongoing collaboration with Bill and his group [at the University of Waterloo] is that gait and balance fundamentally are a manifestation of cognitive functioning, and I look forward to continuing the collaboration,” Black says. “Gathering data with wearable monitors during everyday activity will generate ‘big data’ that can be analyzed with machine learning techniques and may lead to better ways to avoid falls.”

What will also continue is her desire to carry out influential work. A multidisciplinary, Canadian Institutes of Health Research-funded study of hers was just awarded a Foundation Grant, which provides core funding to continue the project for the next seven years. The Sunnybrook Dementia Study has been investigating brain-behaviour relationships in over 1,300 people with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, and has had a large impact on the research landscape. Over 200 peer-reviewed publications in high-quality journals have drawn on the archive, including insights into small vessel disease, and reports of novel gene mutations in frontotemporal dementia. Today, Black pushes forward and remains at the forefront—among active areas of research, she is a co-principal investigator of the first-in-human focused ultrasound-Alzheimer’s disease clinical trial. Here, focused ultrasound is paired with microbubbles to open the blood-brain barrier—a protective shield made up of tightly packed cells—safely and noninvasively to target brain regions implicated in Alzheimer’s disease. Currently, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease.

Black’s degree was presented to her during the faculty of applied health sciences convocation on June 12, 2018. She addressed the graduating class, speaking to the importance of personalized care, and sat on stage next to the chancellor of the university as students were called up to accept their degrees and were each asked about their plans. “It’s a joy to see young people finding their passion, and setting out to pursue their career paths. It gives me a great deal of pleasure,” she says. Following the ceremony, she was given a tour of the labs in the new applied health sciences building.

“The convocation day was a highlight of my year. It was a lovely occasion,” Black says. No stranger to accolades—she was appointed as Officer to the Order of Canada in 2015, elected to the Royal Society of Canada in 2012 and appointed to the Order of Ontario in 2011—she continues: “This acknowledgement by U Waterloo is sweet and very much appreciated. I’m quite honoured.”

Before she bolts off to her next meeting, Black emphasizes the significance of collaboration in research. “You need all areas of expertise weighing in—not just one piece of the puzzle—to make progress. That came home to me at this event. It’s something I value very much.”

Black, who held the inaugural Deborah Ivy Christian Brill Chair in Neurology at U of T, is also the director of the LC Campbell Cognitive Neurology Research Unit at SRI.

In a nutshell

  • SRI senior scientist Dr. Sandra Black was presented an honorary doctor of science degree from the University of Waterloo.
  • She was selected for her work in brain health and for her partnerships with scientists at the university.
  • She received the honour during the faculty of applied health sciences convocation on June 12, 2018.