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Researcher Spotlight: Kathryn Fisher

Apr 18, 2022

Kathryn Fisher

“I love doing stats. I could do it all day long,” says Dr. Kathryn Fisher when you ask her about what she enjoys about research. “I like the critical thinking part. It takes a lot of thought up front to really design a study well.”

Statisticians do more than analyze data collected during a project. They also help to design research studies before the work begins. That’s one thing that Fisher says students take away from the courses she teaches. “Quite often, at the end of the term, students say they’ve learned that we need to involve statisticians and design people right up front. Otherwise, we have garbage at the end.”

Another thing Fisher loves about research is working with skilled people. “I’ve been lucky to work with people who are very strong academically. That makes you strong,” she adds.   

Fisher’s research experience goes back to when she was an undergraduate student in the 1980s. “I did a commerce degree here at McMaster University. In my third and fourth years, I worked with the professors on papers.” After graduating, she worked as an accountant but hated it. “So I went back to graduate school and kept doing research.” Fisher earned graduate degrees in engineering as well as architecture and urban planning, and she worked as an environmental consultant for many years. Her first experience with the School of Nursing came when she joined a research team as a statistician on a CIHR-funded project led by Dr. Ploeg and Dr. Markle-Reid in 2014.

Fisher teaches nursing students about research and statistics, works as the statistical analyst for the Aging, Community and Health Research Unit (ACHRU), and acts as a statistician with other researchers on various projects.  

She leads her own research projects as well. In 2017 she received a CIHR grant to study mental health and people with chronic conditions. The project title was: Disability Associated with Multimorbidity and Mental Health Conditions: A Cross-sectional Analysis of Population-Based Data. Her collaborators were: L. Griffith, A. Gruneir, J. Ploeg, and M. Markle-Reid. (For more information about the project, see this publication: PLoS One.  

For this project, she says, the researchers used data from the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging. “We examined people who had multiple chronic conditions, comparing those who did and did not have mental health conditions. We were trying to understand if having a mental health condition like depression or anxiety had an impact on physical functionality in people with multiple chronic conditions. We found there was a differential impact. Since our study, there has been other research corroborating these findings. Next steps are to understand why mental health has this differential impact. We don’t really know the answer to that yet. It’s important, because mental health conditions are underdiagnosed and undertreated, and if someone has a physical health condition, we often don’t consider mental health conditions. More attention to mental health conditions could be quite important to a range of patient behaviours and outcomes. “Our healthcare system is still very single-disease oriented, although this is slowly changing,” Fisher says.    

Currently, Fisher is leading a new project, “Exploring Associations between Environmental Exposures, Biological Indicators and Chronic Disease.” This is funded by Health Canada. Her co-investigators are Dr. Lauren Griffith (HEI, McMaster University) and Dr. Errol Thompson (Health Canada).

For budding researchers, Fisher offers the following advice: “Seize every opportunity to work with rigorous people. If they’re better than you, then you’ll learn from them. If it’s graduate school, go to the best school you can and work with the best person in the department. Don’t ever stop learning. Innovation comes from learning and doing new things.”

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