Holland Bloorview senior scientist receives Order of Ontario
TORONTO, ON (January 29, 2018) – Dr. Tom Chau, vice president of research and senior scientist at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital (Holland Bloorview), was today awarded the highest honour in the province, the Order of Ontario. The Order of Ontario recognizes esteemed individuals whose excellence contributes to the province and leaves a legacy.
For nearly two decades, Chau has dedicated his career to unlocking a world of communication for kids with complex disabilities through technology. An engineer by background, Chau’s research is grounded in treating communication as a fundamental human right and develops innovations that adapt to a person’s unique abilities and needs.
“Tom devotes his entire self to making a difference in the lives of others,” says Julia Hanigsberg, president and CEO of Holland Bloorview. “Nothing is impossible, and no challenge is too great. He’s made it his life’s mission to ensure all children, youth and even adults, have the tools they need to thrive. He does so with a balance of brilliance, tenacity and humility that can only be described as being uniquely Tom. He is one of the most extraordinary scientists of our time.”
A University of Waterloo doctoral graduate in pattern analysis and machine intelligence, Chau worked in the private sector in the 1990s. While passionate about the work, Chau was reminded of his childhood spent volunteering at a local palliative care hospital and making a difference in the lives of others – and it was that same passion that inspired Chau to leave the private sector, pursue his post-doctoral training in paediatric rehabilitation engineering at the University of Toronto, and join Holland Bloorview.
“I am so grateful for the opportunity to serve children, families, trainees and scientists at Holland Bloorview,” says Chau. “From them, I have learned to harness the extraordinary creativity and unrelenting power of the human spirit to study and solve real-world scientific problems. My wish is that this award will help elevate awareness of childhood disability research happening in Ontario and inspire in all of us a world with no boundaries.”
Vice-president of research at Holland Bloorview’s research institute, the Bloorview Research Institute, Chau led the advancement of patient-oriented research through the development of the research family engagement committee. This committee partners families and scientists to address important health challenges facing Ontarians through an integrated leadership approach renowned by families and academics worldwide.
“Throughout Canada and around the world, we need more people who are like Tom,” says Judy Gaudreau, a parent of a former Holland Bloorview client based in Alberta. “People who listen, partner, and understand what it’s like to walk in our shoes. It would be such a good world.”
Chau leads a world-renowned research program at Holland Bloorview and is also a full professor in the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto. He has published over 190 journal articles and holds more than a dozen patents, and has supervised over 250 undergraduate and graduate students.
“I believe that for Tom, research isn’t ‘work’ – it’s his passion. He is motivated by making a difference,” says Donna Cappelli, a family leader and parent of a child with a disability who participated in Chau’s research. “I know that Tom’s work is going to change lives dramatically for many children with disabilities. For the parents, it is Tom’s emphasis on patient-focused research that makes us feel like we are working together for our children’s future.”
Chau’s work has led to the development of several life-changing technologies, such as the Hummer, which converts vocal cord vibrations (such as a hum) into a digital signal compatible with smart phones, iPads and computers. Dozens of children in Canada, as well as Australia and China, are now using the Hummer as their primary means of communication. Additional personalized access technologies include tongue, muscle vibration, and facial thermography switches; eye blink detectors and eye gaze tracker; and various brain-machine interfaces.
“Today, my daughter Maria is a 12-year old girl who is bright and social,” says Elena Chukalovskaya. “Through her integrated communication system, developed and being supported by communication and writing aids specialists, Tom and his research team and others in Maria’s school and life, she communicates using a combination of a synthesized computer voice and her own speech. She likes to write stories and participate in school. She is very proud of her achievements in academics, performing all her school work using her system which she controls with the Hummer. Our family believes that the effect of the technology Maria uses is life-changing. By using the technology, she can communicate in English and Russian, studies French at school and is thinking about learning Spanish.”
For a decade, Chau held the Canada Research Chair in Pediatric Rehabilitation Engineering, Tier II, and is currently the Chang Family Foundation Chair in Access Innovations. In 2017, Chau received the Meritorious Service Cross (civilian) for his work on the virtual music instrument and has received over 31 international, national and local awards for the impact of his research and leadership. In 2011, he was named by the Globe & Mail as one of 25 Transformational Canadians.