Leah Cahill is the Howard Webster Department of Medicine Research Chair, and Assistant Professor in the Department of Medicine, with a cross-appointment to the Department of Community Health and Epidemiology. She is also an Affiliated Scientist with the Nova Scotia Health Authority and a Visiting Scientist at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. Her research interests include dietary and genetic origins of cardiometabolic disease (cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes) and immune-mediated disease (inflammatory bowel disease, leukemia), nutritional sciences and dietetics (in-patient, out-patient, and public health), and patient-centered research. Her work aims to identify the optimal eating practices and the biological pathways, proteins, and microbiota that are important for the prevention and treatment of cardiometabolic and immune-mediated disease, researching at both the patient and population levels.
1. What made you want to be a part of HPI?
I am new to Halifax and I wanted to meet researchers that had similar interests but different skills and backgrounds. HPI was a perfect opportunity to find collaborators and trainees.
2. When and how did you decide that health research would be your career?
I did not originally set out to be a researcher, I just started asking questions that I was interested in about health-related topics, diet and nutrition in particular. I would ask questions, and someone would say “why don’t you do a masters to answer that question” and so then I did, and I just kept going.
3. How have your research interests changed or grown over the years? Where did you first start and how did you get to where you are now?
My masters thesis was about genetic determinants of vitamin C concentrations in the blood, looking at how some people's bodies metabolize vitamin C differently than others based on genetics. We did the study with university students and we observed that 1 in 7 was vitamin C deficient to the levels of almost having scurvy. That morphed into a bigger public health project. Once you complete a project, it opens up more ideas for new projects, so I have just kept going. I realized that the most important skill for my research was to learn how to analyze data well, because you can have really good questions, and you can have wonderful data, but if you don’t know how to analyze it properly, you can really miss out on opportunities to find valuable information to give to the world. With each subsequent degree and project, I learned new data analysis skills. It's an exciting time for me now because I have just started as a professor, so I get to bring together all of the data analysis tools I have learned over the years to come up with my own research program that is still affiliated with Harvard (where I worked the last 5 years), but also has local relevance to Nova Scotia.
4. What’s been most surprising along the journey of your career path?
I think the most surprising thing is that there is never a dull moment; there is always going to be something interesting. Nutrition research is a dynamic field. It sounds very simple because food is such a relatable topic, but it can be complicated, and it is related to so many other fields, like medicine, genetics, biology, culinary arts, marketing, psychology, counselling, farming, agriculture, chemistry etc.
5. As a health researcher, how do you take care of your own health? What hobbies, sports, or extra-curricular activities do you partake in?
Cooking, playing on the beach or at the park with my kids, and hiking are all things that I love to do, and I like attending all the different farmer’s markets. My family and I are discovering Nova Scotia through nature and food. It is wonderful.
6. How does your research impact the everyday lives of Canadians?
We all have to eat every day, and it sounds really easy to eat healthily, but it takes time, money, work, and knowledge, and so often it is easier to eat unhealthy food. There is a high burden of preventable disease in Canada, and diet is a major contributor to many of these diseases. It breaks my heart that they are not being prevented when diet is a modifiable risk factor.
7. What advice would you give a junior colleague or student just starting their career?
Find a topic that you really care about. Also, talk to and learn from as many different people as you can.