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Tom Chau is giving children with physical challenges tools to speak out Add to ...

The Transformational Canadians program celebrates 25 living citizens who have made a difference by immeasurably improving the lives of others. Readers were invited to nominate Canadians who fit this description. Over several weeks, a panel of six judges will select 25 Transformational Canadians from among the nominees.

Nominations remain open until November 26. Submit yours today.

Tom Chau, biomedical engineer, has been selected as one of 25 Transformational Canadians.


In the late 1990s, Tom Chau was making a good living as a technical consultant for IBM. Dr. Chau - who had recently graduated from the University of Waterloo with a PhD in systems design engineering - found the job financially and intellectually rewarding.

But the Toronto native kept thinking about his childhood, when he and his four siblings would volunteer with their mother at a local palliative care hospital. "It was always part of our life, and it was something that I was starting to miss," Dr. Chau remembers.

So he quit IBM and called up Toronto's Bloorview Research Institute. While completing his master's degree in engineering, Dr. Chau had collaborated with a scientist at Bloorview, a division of Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital that develops assistive technologies and other solutions for disabled children.

The institute was happy to have him back, but funding was tight at first. Dr. Chau covered his salary by winning a fellowship at the Hospital for Sick Children - and never looked back.

Now senior scientist and Canada Research Chair in Paediatric Rehabilitation Engineering at Bloorview, he leads a 30-member team that brings together scientists with clinicians such as occupational and musical therapists. Over the past decade, the group has invented several life-changing devices.

One early success was the Virtual Music Instrument (VMI). Designed for children who can't hold an instrument, this software allows them to play music by sitting in front of a TV screen that translates their movements and gestures into notes. Bloorview has also developed a low-cost prosthetic knee joint and a lightweight, waterproof prosthetic hand for paediatric use.

Lately, Dr. Chau's team is most excited about its work in body-machine interfaces. The father of three says this research focuses on giving children who are non-verbal and have limited motor control the power to communicate. Beyond speech and gestures, he explains, the human body can transmit messages through everything from heart rate to facial temperature.

"The whole metaphor of body language - we're taking it to the real extreme," says Dr. Chau, 40, an associate professor at the University of Toronto. "We're tapping into all of these different physiological modalities to really try to extend out the notion of communication to allow these kids to interact more meaningfully with the world."

Bloorview has licensed several of its inventions to manufacturers, and the VMI is now available in Australia. But as Dr. Chau admits, the economic argument against these devices is that they serve a very small population. To get around that problem, Bloorview has applied for more than a dozen patents and secured two. It's looking to apply its intellectual property to secondary markets such as the video-game industry and home automation.

Dr. Chau, who runs the master's program in clinical engineering at U of T, is also busy grooming the next generation of rehabilitation engineering scientists. Bloorview now works with some 20 graduate students and two post-doctoral fellows. In many cases, Dr. Chau says, these brilliant master's and PhD candidates leave school with a working prototype of an assistive device.

Within the next five years, Bloorview is hoping to establish the Infinity Centre for Access Innovations, a facility that will include a physiological assessment suite and a rapid prototyping lab. Dr. Chau says the idea is to provide body-machine communication tools for large numbers of non-verbal clients. "We can put them through this assessment suite, identify the signals in their body that can be used for communication and then very quickly develop a solution for them."

Dr. Chau takes pride in the fact that his team - which draws students from countries such as Australia, China, France, India and Mexico - is international and multicultural. "That adds a real richness to the research, because it forces us to look at problems from many different perspectives."

Describing this country as inherently multicultural and multidisciplinary, Dr. Chau says Canadians don't give themselves enough credit as innovators. "There's such a supportive culture here in Canada to allow people to think outside for the box, to challenge the status quo," he says. "That's something that's quite unique to Canada, and I think that attracts a lot of budding scientists from other places."

Tom Chau on the role of a leader

A good leader needs to be passionate about what they do. They need to be able to motivate other people and build other people up. That's a really important quality, because I think everybody on a team has got potential, but somebody's got to believe in them.

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