Q&A with Dr. Florence Dzierszinski, the new IMHR president and vice-president of research

Florence Dzierszinski
Dr. Florence Dzierszinski

Dr. Florence Dzierszinski has recently been named the new president of The Royal’s Institute of Mental Health Research, affiliated with the University of Ottawa, and vice-president of research at The Royal. In this role, Dr. Dzierszinski will champion the next chapter in ground-breaking mental health research and foster an integrated research and clinical model at The Royal, driven by the needs and experiences of clients and families in our region.​

Q: Congratulations on your appointment! What is going through your mind right now?

FD: Excitement is the first word that comes to mind. I feel privileged and proud to have the trust of The Royal and the IMHR board of directors to take on the research portfolio for the organization and the possibilities we have going forward. 

Q: Tell us about what inspired you to first go into the sciences? We’d love to hear some career highlights too. 

FD: As far as I can remember, even as a kid, the world of research was already my world. I did my PhD and graduated in France. I’m from a little town 20 minutes from Vimy, so the links with Canada were already there. I moved to the U.S for my post-doc, which I thought was going to last two years - but I was having way too much fun at Penn. You’d think about an experiment in the morning and do it in the afternoon. There was a lot of focus on building an environment for researchers and trainees to thrive. I spent six years in Philadelphia and then received an offer from McGill University. That’s when I was awarded a Canada Research Chair. And I started a research program using a brain parasite as a model to probe immune responses in the brain. 

There was a career turn in my life at that time. The Dean asked me to be involved in academic management matters, specifically around the management of technological platforms and also the animal facility. I first thought, ‘I’ve never done this, this is not what I know how to do.’ It turned out that I enjoyed it very much, as it positively impacted our common research environment. In parallel, I had been commuting between Montreal and Ottawa for a while because my family is here in Ottawa and an opportunity opened up at Carleton University as a director of the research office. That’s how I made the leap between my academic career and a career in research development. 

I arrived at The Royal in 2017. In early 2017 The Royal was developing an incubator for early career researchers in mental health (Emerging Research Innovators in Mental Health – eRIMh). The idea of working with these young, bright minds was very appealing to me, together with the aspects of research development across the organization. 

2019 was a year of transition, and saw the beginning of the planning for a new integrated strategic plan focused on patient-oriented research and evidence-based care. That opened up new possibilities moving into the future; especially right now, amid the current pandemic. Our world – professionally and personally – has been turned upside down. It’s a really good time to think deeply about why we do what we do. Scientists, clinicians, staff, program leads - we all do what we do for the same purpose, and that’s to positively impact our clients and families. 

Q: Innovation is a term that comes up frequently in a health care context. What does innovation mean to you, and what does it look like in mental health care and research?

FD: There are so many different definitions for ‘innovation.’ If we use a very practical definition it would simply be ‘new or better ways to do valued things’ - simple, but all words are key words. If we think about the fields of cardiovascular diseases or cancer, we can actually correlate health improvements with scientific discoveries over the years; we are not yet able to do this with mental health or addictions. It is important to know that each one of these scientific discoveries corresponds to a major and convergent body of interdisciplinary research issued from the research community over time - which has been designed, peer-reviewed, funded, supported, evaluated, disseminated, translated, implemented within the ecosystem - each single dot is actually issued from a large ensemble of connected activities that lead to research impact. 

Q: What does the future of research look like at The Royal?

FD: It’s about research-informed care and vice-versa, and there is a need to include different perspectives all along the research-care spectrum; co-designed questions between clients and families, clinicians, program leaders, and scientists, who come together and formulate these questions with different expertise. As we know, participatory action research is a fairly broad spectrum; it is important to include its full diversity. 

In line with my answers to your previous questions, it is critical to develop and foster an environment for research and innovation to grow. And we build on strengths - we are fortunate at the IMHR and at The Royal, to have a fantastic team. I could go on and on. It is my privilege, for sure, to work with such a team day in and day out.

I would also say that the vision of the Hospital without Walls resonates with me in many ways, and one of them is open science – more on that topic later.

Q: Dr. Kim Corace has said clients and families drive every research question that we have. As the IMHR president how will you improve the engagement of clients and family members?

FD: We hear a lot about strategy for patient-oriented research (SPOR) - at the end of the day it’s clearly about respect, listening, relevance, inclusion. It is well known that inclusion of diverse views leads to better outcomes. There are a number of ways to foster meaningful engagement of clients and families. Our partnerships with the Family Advisory Council and our Client Advisory Council are key. Take for example, a recently-funded project funded by CIHR that will set up a framework for meaningful engagement of caregivers. It’s about co-design, involving clients and families in the decision-making process, having a seat at the table in our research committee, launching educational programs. It’s about establishing a strategy for client- and family-centered research for The Royal as a whole, integrated with our variety of programs and services. At the end of the day it’s about addressing the needs of the people we serve. 

Q: Supporting young researchers is also important to you.

FD: Absolutely. It’s one of my soapboxes, enabling young talent so they can go on and contribute to the world. One of the proudest memories of my academic career was my first PhD student graduation. That was very special. I’m very committed to my team’s professional development and of course I am particularly committed to the career of our clinicians and scientists. I could cite several examples. Most recently we, as a collective*, were successful in securing a junior clinical research chair in Schizophrenia for Dr. Naista Zhand. This is part of the strategy to support and reward talent in research. 

* uOttawa Faculty of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry, The Royal and the Schizophrenia Recovery Program, IMHR, Foundation

Q: What do you think is the most important challenge or question right now in the field of mental health, that you hope research will one day help answer?

FD: We have touched upon this question earlier, but further to this: we still are facing the challenge that we have to advocate for the fact that mental health is health. We still have to fight stigma. One way to do this is to better understand a condition through research – because mental health and addictions involve brain dysfunctions, just like cardiovascular diseases involve heart dysfunctions.