Choral director Dr. Jennifer Lang and immunologist Dr. John Gordon.
Choral director Dr. Jennifer Lang (PhD) and immunologist Dr. John Gordon (PhD) are co-leading USask’s new Health and Wellness signature area of research. (Photo: Jeanette Neufeld)

New connections advance health and wellness at USask

While experts in music and immunology may not typically have much in common, an unlikely pair of researchers are leading a new area of research focus for the University of Saskatchewan (USask).

By Jeanette Neufeld

On closer examination it makes sense: As a choral director, Dr. Jennifer Lang (PhD) is exceptionally well trained at uniting many different voices. As one of Canada’s leading immunologists, Dr. John Gordon (PhD) is adept at crafting the perfect question.

Together they will use their unique skills to lead one of the university’s new Signature Areas of Research – bringing together a large community of people whose work at USask intersects with the broad theme of Health and Wellness.

“We all have this unique interest and vantage point in exploring what health and wellness is,” said Lang, a faculty member in the College of Arts and Science and director of choral activities at USask. Her research explores how bringing people together to make music enhances well-being. “If everybody comes at something from a different angle, you’re able to see a bigger picture.”

USask’s Signature Areas of Research bring emphasis to the institution’s strengths and provide a vision for its future. Health and Wellness was named as a new Signature Area of Research in early 2022 after a campus-wide renewal process which solicited input from more than 500 participants across campus.

Within the category of health and wellness are five distinct “pillars” or areas of focus: origins of health and disease; population and public health; music, arts and well-being; climate change and population demographics. Each of these pillars is represented by a “pillar lead” who engages in group discussions to determine next steps for the research area.

“We’re exploring these intersections of how one area might influence and affect another area. These conversations are the really important initial steps,” said Lang. “Because of the recognition of health and wellness at this university, really strong community connections have been formed and facilitated.”

While at first glance health and wellness might seem exclusive provenance of the USask College of Medicine, Gordon notes that more than 10 colleges and units on campus have connections to this signature research area.

“We have an embarrassment of wealth in terms of the numbers of colleges and schools who engage in health or wellness-relevant research or training programs,” said Gordon, who is a faculty member in the Department of Medicine within the College of Medicine. “There’s almost an endless depth of resources for engagement of people who are interested in this.”

Both Lang and Gordon said they were met with an immediate, enthusiastic response from many people across campus who saw themselves represented in this new category.

In the long term, they believe this signature area recognition will lead to new training programs for students, opportunities for students to work on cross-disciplinary research projects, increased collaboration across disciplines, and more external funding to the university.

“The idea is that you can do a lot more as a well-integrated team than you can as individuals,” said Gordon.

He gives the example of a team of investigators who might come from the “music, arts and wellness” pillar working with researchers who have an interest in Indigenous health and are part of the “origins” pillar. Together they might explore the impact of Indigenous music and arts on intergenerational health.

“Such a proposal could more likely be a winner with granting agencies because of the fact that it involves multidisciplinary teams and community researchers,” said Gordon. “Together they could accomplish so much more than a single individual.”

When viewed broadly, research into health and wellness at USask has the potential to increase effectiveness of health care, health promotion and disease prevention in society, while also elevating the role of the arts in the scientific discourse.

“If done properly, this could be a nationally and internationally important 25-year initiative,” Gordon said.