Tom Chau spends his days working to find ways for children with severe disabilities to interact with the world around them. He toils in a laboratory in the largest rehabilitation hospital in Canada where he sees kids and their families on a day-to-day basis. He employs what he knows about biology and engineering to create technologies that allow severely physically disabled kids that cannot speak to communicate with eye blinks, head turns or hand gestures. Chau gives voices to children that have never uttered a word or taken a single step.
Tom Chau is Vice President for Research at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital and Director of Research at Bloorview Research Institute in Toronto, Canada. He is a Professor in the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto.
“I liked to design and draw things as a child, especially vehicles, with intricate parts going this way and that way. I had the creative aspect early on,” said Chau. Chau also benefited from early experiences volunteering with his siblings in the hospital where his mother worked. He helped out where he could, entertaining and singing to patients. It was a familiar setting for Chau, one to which he would return for a thriving career in biomedical engineering.
After graduating from the University of Waterloo with a Ph.D. in systems design engineering, Chau worked for IBM and immersed himself in the corporate world. But Chau realized that he wanted to pursue a career that made a societal impact and had more of a human connection. Chau decided to return to Bloorview Hospital where he worked for a summer during his graduate training. There, he secured funding as a postdoctoral fellow and developed a program for children’s rehabilitation engineering.
Chau has been helping children in the Bloorview Research Institute for the past 10 years. He is especially proud of helping “Jonathan,” a young adult patient with profound disabilities, find his voice. Using thermal imaging technology, Chau and colleagues tracked Jonathan’s mouth movements, one of the few voluntary movements he could control. Over several months, they trained him to open and close his mouth to communicate. When Chau connected the thermal imaging technology to a keyboard, he got amazing results – Jonathan’s first typed word was “muther,” his first communication with his mom. “It was really incredible,” said Chau.
Chau’s technological breakthroughs in the field of pediatric disability have transformed the lives of children and their families worldwide. “At the end of the day, you can see that your efforts are really having an impact on people’s lives. Not 10 or 15 years down the road, but now,” said Chau.