Dr. Sharon Johnston: New ISM associate VP is driving innovative research for better care

Posted on Tuesday, March 8, 2022

graphic with icons relating to medicine and scientific research

Dr. Johnston discusses lessons learned from family, mentors and peers on her path to top scientific role at the Institut du Savoir Montfort.

By Michelle Read

Dr. Sharon Johnston recalls sitting in a basement research lab as a child, eating cookies with her four sisters as their mother, a PhD student, toiled into the night exploring the relationship between breathing and stuttering.

As her mom doggedly recruited friends, neighbours and colleagues to help with the experiments, young Sharon was absorbing the value of perseverance, communities and collaboration in good research. Now stepping into the role of scientific director and associate vice-president–research at the Institut du Savoir Montfort (ISM)—the first woman in the position—she plans to draw heavily on those principles in executing her vision for the role.


Initially studying law in England, Dr. Johnston was exposed to big court cases deciding on the allocation of health care resources. Awakened to the importance of quality health care in society, she decided to switch the course of her education.

“I wanted to be part of delivering and improving health care,” says Dr. Johnston, who went on to complete a Master of Law and Bioethics focusing on the allocation of health care resources.

In researching and teaching professionalism in medicine and the health care field’s relationship with the society it serves, her mentors and peers—physicians, teachers, and researchers—showcased the inextricable connection between constant learning, relentless research and better medical care.

“Research was always part of my view of medicine: a driving force in helping deliver better care in five or 10 years,” says Dr. Johnston, who now focuses her research on primary health care.

Specifically, Dr. Johnston explores what leads to better health care experiences and outcomes. She is also developing an automated digital communication infrastructure which will allow primary care practices to share health information with their patients efficiently; continually learn from their patients’ reported experiences and outcomes; and learn from other practices.

“This is complicated for hospital systems, and even more complex to link the thousands of primary care practices across the country into a learning health system,” she says.

Fully bilingual, Dr. Johnston is a 16-year veteran of the University of Ottawa Faculty of Medicine and is now an associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine. A clinician researcher since the beginning of her career, she has been with ISM for three years. “I love what I do,” she says.

Beginning in the role of scientific director and associate vice-president–research on April 1, Dr. Johnston will lead research that will improve health and health care systems in the future, while still appreciating the needs and opportunities of today.

Her plans include connecting talented researchers to increase the capacity for interdisciplinary collaborations. She also sees the need to continue to integrate community partners into ISM’s teams, as research institutes need the support and trust of the communities they serve.

“I’m excited to continue to grow the work and impact of the ISM in advancing health and health care for Canada’s francophone minority populations and all Canadians,” she says.

Improving health and health care is interdisciplinary work, she explains, and helping people benefit from each other's expertise must be a core function of the research institute.

“I will build links between the players in the health system: patients, providers, managers and decision makers, innovators and members of the media,” she says, “and I hope to continue to attract and connect talented researchers, clinicians, and community members to continually expand the range of solutions we can bring to the problems we most want to address.”

Dr. Johnston credits many women for their support along her path to the leadership role.

“My community of peers and mentors has always included many remarkable women,” she says. “When I was overwhelmed trying to figure out next steps and how to balance things, my many mentors shared different approaches and a lot of support.

“I have also been fortunate to have had many great men as mentors,” she continues. “As a family physician at uOttawa, male colleagues have at times bulldozed unspoken barriers that might have made my role more difficult at critical times.”

Dr. Johnston’s love of research is driven by that perseverance she saw in her formative years.

“I have never forgotten that the treatments and approaches we offer now could have started in a basement lab because a researcher or research team was building our knowledge,” she says, “and they didn’t quit when the experiments didn’t work out at first.”

Research is incredibly competitive, says Dr. Johnston; securing funding can be a battle of perseverance. She is reminded of waiting with her sisters, snacks in hand, outside lecture halls for their mother.

“Strategizing to find the cookies stashed away in my mother’s lab was good training for the collaboration needed to secure scarce research funding,” she smiles.


Read how Dr. Sharon Johnston is using the power of digital communication to tackle vaccine hesitancy.

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Dr. Sharon Johnston

Dr. Sharon Johnston is the new scientific director and associate vice-president–research at the Institut du Savoir Montfort. Photo credit : Institut du Savoir Montfort


Dr. Johnston’s recommended reading

“I recently read The Code Breaker, the biography of Jennifer Doudna by Walter Isaacson. (Isaacson’s other notable biographies include those of Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Henry Kissinger and Leonardo Da Vinci.)

“The Code Breaker is a great book and I highly recommend it. The author presents the evolution of genetic research over decades, including the research that led to our current mRNA COVID vaccines through the extraordinary research career of Dr. Doudna. It really surprised me to be learning about a major evolution in science and our capacity to heal and prevent disease through the story of a remarkable woman. It was really powerful in ways I had not expected, and it highlighted to me the power of seeing and hearing women leaders, especially in research.”

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