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2021 Pursuit Award

Holland Bloorview’s research institute hosted the 11th annual Pursuit Award competition on June 1 – recognizing PhD students and recent alumni from across the globe for their outstanding contributions to and achievements in childhood disability research.

Each year, some of the leading young minds across the country apply to this prestigious award competition, showcasing their research and its impact on the field of childhood disability.

For a second year, due to COVID19 restrictions, the competition was held virtually.

This year's recipients were announced at the awards ceremony:

  • First place: Dr. Dianne Macdonald ($3,000)
  • Second place: Dr. Victoria Sherman ($2,000)
  • Third place: Dr. Karen Hurtubise ($1,000)

Additionally, the competition featured a keynote interview with Dr. Stephanie Snow, first-place recipient of the 2020 Pursuit Awards, and Amy and Macie Spurway, a family who was closely involved in her research in a program to improve care to children with autism around the time of their surgery.

The annual Pursuit Award is made possible by the generous contributions of Holland Bloorview Foundation donors, The Ward Family Foundation, and the Bloorview Research Institute.

Congratulations to all the recipients!

Link to the virtual 2021 Pursuit Awards Ceremony is found here.

Read the story here.

Dianne Macdonald

McGill University, Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology

Research Thesis:
Understanding emergent literacy and improving reading comprehension of preschool children with autism spectrum disorder and hyperlexia

Dianne Macdonald: Research & Bio

People with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are known to have a number of strengths and special interests, such as hyperlexia.

Those with hyperlexia demonstrate a strength in early word reading, alongside an intense special interest in letters and words. However, this strength in early word reading is accompanied by challenges in reading comprehension.

I first compared the emergent literacy skills of preschoolers with ASD and hyperlexia, and ASD without hyperlexia, to their typically developing (TD) peers. Findings indicated that preschoolers with ASD and hyperlexia demonstrate an alternate route to word reading that is unlike their TD peers. Subsequently, I evaluated a novel, tablet-based, parent-supported, reading comprehension intervention aimed at improving reading comprehension associated with hyperlexia from a very early age.

The results of this 6-week intervention demonstrated gains in reading comprehension for the group with ASD and hyperlexia as compared to a TD group, and a group with ASD without hyperlexia. Gains in receptive language were observed for all groups. Findings support teaching reading comprehension at the preschool level at the first signs of hyperlexia. This dissertation also adds to a growing body of research that emphasizes a strength-based approach to intervention for those with ASD.

About Dianne
Dr. Dianne Macdonald is a very recent PhD graduate of the Human Development program in the Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology at McGill University. She is a part-time instructor at Concordia University, teaching courses on inclusive education and evidence-based practice in the Department of Education, Child Studies program. Her research focuses on strength-based interventions that target a child’s strength to support challenging areas. Dianne’s dissertation clarifies the early literacy profile of preschoolers with autism and hyperlexia. Outlining a successful parent-supported, tablet-based, early reading comprehension intervention that harnesses their strength in advanced, early word reading to improve their challenges with reading comprehension and listening comprehension. Dianne’s background and continued work as a Speech-Language Pathologist, with a passionate concentration on autism spectrum disorders, and reading disorders for preschoolers, school-age children, and adults informs her research and motivates her to study and develop evidence-based practices to enrich their lives.

Victoria Sherman

University of Toronto, Rehabilitation Sciences Institute

Research Thesis:
Early Identification of Dysphagia Post Pediatric Ischemic Stroke

Karen Hurtubise: Research & Bio

Chronic pain in youth is disabling. For an important subset, this pain is detrimental to youth’s personal and social lives, their families and society.

Given its complexity, multidisciplinary rehabilitation is required. Intensive interdisciplinary pain (IIPT) and multimodal (MMT) treatments are existing options, yet IIPT is rare.

This study aimed to 1) analyze the theoretical foundation of a Canadian IIPT, 2) identify stakeholder prioritized outcomes, and 3) evaluate the 12-month effects of an IIPT compared to those of an MMT.

A recruited 13-member advisory group (including youth) completed a logic analysis process. Outcomes were prioritized via nominal group technique. A pre-post effect analysis analyzed questionnaire data on the prioritized outcomes collected from 44 IIPT and 138 MMT youth. Interviews with a subset of participants guided by narrative timelines followed. Finding highlighted the IIPT theoretical soundness.

Six outcome domains were prioritized: activities of daily living, participation in meaningful activities, mood and affect, school engagement, roles and responsibilities, and self-efficacy. Positive effects were demonstrated in both the IIPT and MMT, with unique advantages and disadvantages identified for each. Merged findings provided better understanding of what treatment works, for whom, and why, generating pivotal knowledge to improving matching of youth with the appropriate treatment.

About Karen
Karen received a Bachelor of Science in Physiotherapy from the University of Ottawa, a Masters in Rehabilitation Sciences from the University of British Columbia, and supported by a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship, recently completed her doctoral studies in Health Sciences Research, University of Sherbrooke.  

Her clinical research has aimed to better understand the experiences of children, youth, and caregivers with the healthcare system, and apply patients and public engagement strategies in co-designing, implementing, and evaluating novel interdisciplinary rehabilitation models to improve service access. Using a participatory approach, her doctoral thesis evaluates the theoretical foundation and the effectiveness of an interdisciplinary intensive rehabilitation pain treatment for youth with pain-related disability.

Karen is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the School of Rehabilitation, University of Sherbrooke, with a focus on the use of parent coaching approaches in pediatric rehabilitation using telehealth. She is also leveraging her doctoral study findings in assisting the co-creation of a provincial chronic pain step service model for children, youth and their families in Newfoundland and Labrador. She is the vice chair of the International Organization for Physical Therapists in Pediatrics, and the co-founder of the international group of physical and occupational therapists interested in pediatric rehabilitation pain programs.

Application Process for the 2022 Pursuit Award


We encourage you to apply if your PhD research is focused on pediatric disability and you are a:

  • Current PhD student (less than six months away from defense); OR
  • Postdoctoral trainee (within one year of receiving PhD); OR
  • Recent graduate (within one year of receiving their PhD).


Finalists are evaluated based on significance of research results, methodological rigour, empirical content, and impact and relevance to the field of childhood disability.

How to apply

Applications will open in early 2022. Please check back next year.

Previous Pursuit Award ceremonies

2020 Pursuit Award Ceremony

2018 Pursuit Award Ceremony

2017 Pursuit Award Ceremony

2016 Pursuit Award Ceremony

2015 Pursuit Award Ceremony

2014 Pursuit Award Ceremony

2013 Pursuit Award Ceremony