“Research is fundamental. It is so important because understanding how we prevent disease from occurring in the first place will allow us to live long and healthy lives with all our loved ones.”
Vikki Ho is a professor at the Université de Montréal who is a recipient of the Cancer Research Society’s GRePEC salary award. She is one of Canada’s leading epidemiologists who looks at how environmental factors affect the risks and chances of getting cancer.
“I’m a cancer epidemiologist and what that means is I’m interested in studying people who are going to get cancer or patients that already have cancer. I’m really focused on cancer prevention so figuring out what are certain risk factors, or what are other factors people can adopt to prevent them from getting cancer in the first place.”
Her research focuses on studying things that we do every day, in particular exposure in the workplace to carcinogens that could be putting people at risk of developing cancers.
“When we talk about the environment it’s like this all-encompassing term that we can use for basically everything that you’re exposed to that you can’t change. So, I specifically am interested in occupational exposure. People that are exposed to pollutants or chemicals are exposed as much much much higher concentration than the general population and so studying workers is actually easier to detect, and easier to follow through on.”
Epidemiology requires large studies on vast amounts of the population and to analyze the data to see what common conclusions these large-scale studies come to. In following certain populations over large amounts of time, decades in many cases, epidemiologists can extrapolate that information back to the general population to obtain an idea of the distribution of exposure.
“A lot of our work in this kind of discovery science aims to look at the big risk associated with the highly exposed population and then later there would be smaller studies that are more about refining what is the dose of exposure and in parallel, basic science studies in toxicology that would give us a lot of this idea around the dose-response and how it affects the human body.”
Dr. Ho’s research was only made possible thanks to the generosity of Canadians who donated to the Cancer Research Society and helped her and her team unlock crucial breakthroughs.
“The things that we find through research affect lives and so we don’t just need people to be interested in science for now, or interested in cancer, for now, we need people that really invest in science and invest in cancer research in Canada for the long term because you know an initial investment is fantastic, we can do a lot with it but cancer’s a really slow-growing disease, particularly in epidemiology where we study people. We need studies to go on for 10, 20, sometimes 30 years before we see an effect of exposure and that’s just the only way.”
Although she wasn’t directly affected by having a family member touched by cancer when choosing her field of study, she knew that cancer is something that will affect all Canadians in one way or another.
“I wanted to study something that was really important. I also wanted to study something that I believe is potentially preventable; that there are things we can do to not get cancer and so I find that really important and very motivating, so that’s why I do what I do.”