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Meet Canada Research Chair, Dr. Olga Theou

Posted by Lil Crump on October 31, 2019 in News
Dr. Olga Theou
Dr. Olga Theou

Dalhousie University is home to an impressively talented group of Canada Research Chair (CRC) holders who are proven research leaders. The School of Physiotherapy is thrilled that Tier II Canada Research Chair, Dr. Olga Theou brings her expertise in the area of Physical Activity, Mobility and Healthy Aging to the School.

Prior to joining the School of Physiotherapy, Dr. Olga Theo was an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Dalhousie University. She is cross appointed with the Department of Medicine at Dalhousie University and continues to be an Affiliated Scientist of Geriatric Medicine with the Nova Scotia Health Authority and an Adjunct Senior Lecturer of Medicine with the University of Adelaide, Australia.

CRC chairs are described as the world’s most accomplished and promising minds who aim to achieve research excellence. But what does a CRC Chair do with their day? What ignites their research passion? Do they like avocados? These are just a few of the questions that will be answered in this month’s faculty profile interview.

When did you become a Dalhousie University Canada Research Chair (CRC) and what is your current research about?
I became a Dalhousie University Canada Research in July 2019. My current research is on the epidemiological and clinical aspects of frailty, aging, physical activity, and sedentary behaviors.

What triggered your interest in studying frailty in older adults?
During graduate school, I was involved with exercise programs for healthy older adults as well as older adults with high levels of frailty. Through that work I began to recognize the variability in how people age. It sparked my interest and really got me thinking about why some older adults age so healthily and others with so many health problems - even among people of the same age. To investigate this topic, I moved to Halifax in 2011 to work with Dr. Kenneth Rockwood, one of the top leaders in frailty research.

Your post-secondary studies include a variety of International University stops before your arrival at Dalhousie. Can you share with us some instances that prompted you to study abroad?
I have always been interested in other countries and cultures. I realized early in life that living and studying abroad would be very beneficial for both my career and my personal growth. I’ve trained in Greece, the Unites States, and several provinces in Canada, and those exposures not only increased my personal and professional networks but helped me learn how to adapt to different environments. Through studying and working in different countries with very different academic systems, I learned how to not be scared to be outside my comfort zone. This has helped me tremendously throughout my career. Also, living abroad exposed me to avocado and soy sauce which were not very common in Greece 15 years ago; life without them would have definitely be different.

What are the duties and expectations in your role as a Dalhousie Canada Research Chair and how does being a CRC at Dal help your research?
Being a CRC allows me to spend most of my work time doing research. Being a CRC at Dalhousie and especially within Physiotherapy allows me to collaborate with various health care professionals and appreciate the whole picture of health care. What frailty means for a physiotherapist is not the same as a nurse or a physician. Even so, they may all treat the same frail patient, so it is important that we don’t work in silos when trying to understand and treat aging and frailty. As a CRC at Dalhousie I hope to work towards this goal of breaking down silos.  

What does an average week look like for you?

I spend almost half of my time in meetings with colleagues and trainees to discuss the design or findings of research projects. A big part of my day also involves drafting and revising documents such as research protocols, manuscripts, abstracts, and grant applications. The rest of my time is usually spent on responding to emails.

How does your research affect or involve Dalhousie students?

I am always keen to work with new trainees. Students and postdoctoral trainees are the life blood of research. The relationships are always different, but both sides get something out of it. Some students come to work with me and help implement the projects that I’ve designed and (when I’m lucky) received research grants for. They get training and experience while I get productivity on my studies. Others come with their own ideas and work on projects that they’ve designed. Either way, I’m learning and they’re learning. My research interests are quite broad, and I’ve been very fortunate to work with trainees with different backgrounds from a variety of disciplines.

Is your research locally focused in your own community or does it involve a national or international approach?
Initially, my research had a real international focus, working with various international datasets and trying to understand how things were different in different parts of the world. But I learned that everything doesn’t always have to be done on an international scale to be applicable internationally. Most of my currently funded projects have a national (looking at frailty norms for Canadians) or local focus (examining the impact of staying in bed on outcomes for patients admitted to hospital for geriatric care). We can study what is relevant and impactful at a local level and then scale up, with adjustments as needed.

If you were to speak to someone who knows nothing about your research and expertise, can you summarize why they should be interested in your work?
Aging and frailty are topics that most of us are familiar with. Many of us observed and experienced the changes that were associated with the aging of our parents and grandparents and most of us feel how aging is affecting our own health and lives. I think most people relate to the statement: “I am not the same as I was 10 years ago” – at least those of us who are over 30 years old can. That is exactly what I am working on. How we can be as close to what we were like 10 years ago and how we can prevent reaching age 60 and having the health of a 70-year-old.

Do you have advice for a student who is considering physiotherapy research as a career path?
Physiotherapy research is such an important field. Keeping people mobile is extremely important in their later years. Many older people have multiple health problems including musculoskeletal impairments. There is great value in helping older people stay independent. We need more research to understand how we can achieve this. I expect the field of physiotherapy research, especially with a focus on aging, to grow substantially over the next decades. It is such a rewarding job.

What are some of your favourite non-work-related activities to do?
I play recreational basketball. I also love travelling and sharing meals, which I have no involvement in preparing, with my friends.