By Greg Basky for SHRF
For USask researcher Dr. Hassan Vatanparast, it was a one-month internship in public health during his medical training in Iran that changed the trajectory of his career – and his perspective on health. Up to that point he’d been enjoying – and excelling at – providing clinical care, serving one patient at a time. However, that month he spent in Sangbast, a rural community in Khorasan, Iran, helped shift his thinking from a treatment focus to prevention.
“That (internship) was a real eye opener for me, because it helped me start to see how you can assess the vital signs of an entire community, rather than focusing solely on individuals, and do an intervention that has an impact on lots of people,” says Vatanparast, the 2023 recipient of SHRF’s Career Achievement Award. “Although treating sick people is important and rewarding, it (public health internship) helped me imagine the difference that could come by moving from treatment to prevention, taking a proactive approach to improving health and preventing diseases.”
Izuchukwi Ejie, Kamsiyochukwi Ejie, Mahla Nava, Kelly Tan, Mojtaba Shafiee, Hassan Vatanparast, Zoe Longworth, Shafaq Saleem, Odette Wills, Michele Monroy Valle de Trejo, Karim Karbin, Mona Alidadi
Photographer: Debra Marshall
His selection for SHRF’s top award recognizes Hassan’s many contributions to advancing health research and making a significant impact on health status in Saskatchewan and beyond. A professor with joint appointments in the College of Pharmacy and Nutrition and School of Public Health since 2009, Vatanparast’s research portfolio is vast and varied, with work ranging from nutritional epidemiology studies based on national survey datasets, to research on migration health, and from building health research collaborations with universities in 13 countries to improving food offerings available in this province’s recreation facilities.
His research results have been cited in major policy documents such as the World Health Organization’s World Report on Health of Refugees and Migrants, and his work with others on the groundbreaking, 25-year-long Bone Mineral Accrual Study in Saskatchewan children, serves as the main line of evidence in the U.S. Institute of Medicine’s recommendations on daily calcium intake for children and adolescents.
As lead investigator, Vatanparast has leveraged support from SHRF to secure more than $5 million in research funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), and Universities Canada, as well as health foundations, not-for-profits, and industry partners. He has worked on national and international teams on several large-scale research and intervention projects, and has served on provincial, national, and international scientific and professional advisory panels on a number of health issues. Vatanparast has published more than 200 papers in academic journals.
SHRF’s Career Achievement Award also recognizes Hassan’s passion for supporting and mentoring the next generation of public health researchers. Gen Clark is a research facilitator for USask’s Colleges of Pharmacy and Nutrition and Kinesiology, and School of Public Health. She notes that, through the Vatanparast Nutritional Epidemiology Lab, Hassan has supervised more than 90 undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students. “His students are incredibly loyal to him,” says Clark. “He inspires and uplifts them and creates opportunities for them to grow and develop their research skills.”
Kelly Tan, Michele Monroy Valle de Trejo, Kamsiyochukwi Ejie, Izuchukwi Ejie, Hassan Vatanparast, Zoe Longworth, Odette Wills, Shafaq Saleem, Mojtaba Shafiee, Mona Alidadi, Karim Karbin
Photographer: Debra Marshall
On paper, Hassan’s research CV is diverse. The thread tying all of those projects together is his commitment to improving the health of people at risk of poor health because of life circumstances, especially immigrants and refugees – but also Indigenous people. The literature refers to these communities as marginalized or at-risk, but Vatanparast prefers a more positive tone.
“Every community has its own potential,” he explains. “(In marginalized groups), their potential hasn’t been realized because they haven’t received what they need or what they deserve to have. That’s the public health lens. To have a population in good health, you need to go to the ones that are at a disadvantage.” Around the globe, says Vatanparast, these communities also tend to be hardest hit by chronic lifestyle-related diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and even some types of cancers. Food insecurity is at the root of a lot of this, and the problem only stands to grow, as climate change forces people to migrate from homelands that are increasingly ravaged by extreme heat and drought. Children within these populations are a major focus of his work. “They are our future,” says Vatanparast. “If we have healthy children, we will have a healthy future.”
Over the past 13 years working with Vatanparast, Clark has come to appreciate how the challenges he’s faced – leaving a leadership role in Iran’s health system to start all over as a Ph.D. student in Canada – and the real-world perspective he brings from his medical training – helps him create connections with the populations he works with.
“He understands health issues from a real-world perspective,” says Clark. “He wasn’t an academic first. He was a health professional.” He’s passionate about immigrant health, and Saskatchewan is one of those provinces that receives a lot of newcomers. “Because of his own experience and background, she says, he understands the issues and is able to establish that emotional connection that helps drive his research. “He’s deeply invested in this work,” says Clark.
Vatanparast credits his father – who taught grade school his entire career – for instilling in him a desire to make a difference in the lives of other people. His dad planted that seed back when Hassan was in high school, where he was scoring grades that put him among the top students in not only his school, but also the province they lived in, and across Iran. His father was proud of his son but challenged him to think beyond academic achievement. “My dad’s philosophy was like, ‘High marks are great. But how will you have an impact on people? What is going to be your footprint in the community? What can you do so you can be proud that you did something for people?’”
Karim Karbin, Kamsiyochukwi Ejie
Photographer: Debra Marshall
After he completed his medical training in Iran, Dr. Hassan Vatanparast fulfilled his commitment to mandatory service in Babolhakam, Bardaskan, a remote rural area where he was directing a healthcare network. Because he’d enjoyed the research he did in his training and had developed a curiosity from his epidemiology classes about patterns of disease, one of the first things he did once he got settled was to map out the patterns of disease, health issues, and priorities he saw for the 11 villages he was responsible for. He wallpapered his office with charts and diagrams illustrating disease prevalence patterns in his region. That data “artwork” made a major impression when officials from the Provincial Ministry of Health dropped by for a meeting.
“They saw my diagrams, and they said, ‘Oh my god, you have all these skills. You are a researcher. We need to get you out of here.” In rapid succession, he was appointed field epidemiologist for a health region, director of a hospital, and then a director of a health region. Within 18 months, he was working in the provincial Ministry of Health, in charge of non-communicable disease prevention and control programs. “That all happened, I think, because of that research lens that I had, and my efforts to have a holistic picture of what is happening (in a population) and then take action based on the evidence.”
When the focus in the field of epidemiology began shifting away from traditional patterns of infectious communicable diseases to non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, Vatanparast recognized he needed to do a deep dive to learn more about nutrition and physical activity – two key drivers of these so-called lifestyle-related diseases. “In a province with a population of 12 million people, I was the one in charge of non-communicable disease prevention and control,” he recalls. “My training in medicine was very good. My training in epi was very good. I was in a leadership position in the healthcare system. But I felt I needed to learn more.”
His plan was to go abroad to do his PhD and then return to his position in the Khorasan Provincial Ministry of Health (Health Centre). He applied for and was accepted to programs in the US and several schools in Canada. He chose the University of Saskatchewan based in large part on the reputation of his supervisor, Dr. Susan Whiting. Vatanparast would go on to do a SHRF-funded postdoctoral fellowship in physical activity with Dr. Phil Chilibeck in the College of Kinesiology; for this work, he received SHRF’s top postdoctoral fellowship award in the socio-health category.
He and his wife, Dr. Zohreh Sabbagh, subsequently decided to stay in Saskatoon and start a new life for their family here; they concluded it would have been too hard for their three children – Behshad, Ali, and Bahar – to catch up with their classmates back in Iran, given the heavy emphasis there on academics in primary and secondary school. Vatanparast is quick to share credit for his achievements with his wife, a general internal medicine specialist working in Saskatoon’s three hospitals and an associate professor in the College of Medicine. “She is an unwavering pillar of support in my academic journey and life, always encouraging and uplifting me with her unwavering belief in my abilities,” says Hassan. “We are now a family of five healthcare professionals, all serving the people of Saskatchewan.” Iran’s loss has been Saskatchewan's huge gain.
With support from a SHRF Impact Grant and a Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) diabetes challenge award, Dr. Vatanparast and his team are working with Cowessess First Nation to develop a homegrown intervention to promote healthy living and address their community’s high prevalence of diabetes. The project, which includes an award-winning youth component, is intended to empower community members to develop and implement their own solutions.
In early December 2023, Vatanparast was part of a community engagement event in Cowessess, involving close to 100 people of all ages. On the agenda was a discussion about how youth could become champions for change in the community.
“It was one of the most rewarding moments I’ve had in that community, seeing elders, young adults, and youth reflecting and coming up with ideas together – ‘we could do this’ ‘we could do that’. I was overwhelmed with happiness at that moment.”
The highlight, he says, came when a girl who’d been quiet up to that point held up her hand to contribute to the discussion. After she spoke, Vatanparast gently encouraged her to think even more broadly. She took up his challenge, answering his new questions with enthusiasm. “She was bursting with ideas,” recalls Vatanparast. The next day, the project’s community coordinator told Hassan the girl’s mother had recounted to her how excited the girl was when she got home, saying how good it felt to think outside the box and think about what role she and other youth in the community could play in bringing about positive change.
“If the only thing that comes out of that community engagement event was changing the way of thinking in even just one youth, that’s a major impact,” says Vatanparast. “That is my hope: that over the next few years, we can help them set an example as an Indigenous community that takes ownership of the problems they have proactively…with solutions generated by the community, not by outsiders. Then they can go to other communities and share their success story.”
Mona Alidadi, Odette Wills, Karim Karbin, Hassan Vatanparast, Mojtaba Shafiee, Michele Monroy Valle de Trejo, Zoe Longworth, Shafaq Saleem, Kelly Tan, Izuchukwi Ejie Photographer: Debra Marshall
When he reflects on his remarkable journey from training as a physician in Iran to becoming a leading researcher in Saskatchewan, Dr. Hassan Vatanparast is struck by the powerful influence his experiences have had on his career and his life. His commitment to improving health in disadvantaged populations – particularly their youngest members – has left a lasting mark on the landscape of public health research. The 2023 recipient of SHRF's Achievement Award, Hassan has made an impact that extends far beyond academic publications and achievements. He has touched countless lives, from the rural villages of Iran to the Indigenous communities of Saskatchewan. His story is a testament to the change that’s possible through the efforts of passionate individuals committed to making a difference.