Dr. Don Cockcroft: Mentorship on the prairies

Internationally recognized asthma specialist on the importance of people in successful research

Dr. Donald Cockcroft, Professor in the Division of Respirology, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine at the College of Medicine

“Who in their right mind would want to live on the Canadian prairies for a year?” a young British Columbian, freshly-minted doctor asked himself when choosing a fellowship.

After choosing Hamilton for his training, he eventually did find his way to Saskatchewan and has been here since. The 41 years that followed in Saskatchewan went on to define the un-paralleled career of Dr. Donald Cockcroft, Professor in the Division of Respirology, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine at the College of Medicine.

Dr. Cockcroft’s work on the causal factors of asthma and clinical testing of lung function in asthmatic patients has reverberated internationally. He is the author of over 200 articles and has given lectures around the world on Asthma. Along with his clinical, educator and researcher roles, he is the former head of the Division and is the past president of the Canadian Thoracic Society.

As to why he chose respiratory medicine of all the specialties, he describes journey as “fortunate”. After an unexpected and initially, unwanted rotation in respiratory medicine, Dr. Cockcroft recounts that his exceptional training environment changed his mind:

“My interest in respiratory medicine was the result of a combination of the interesting patients and the mentorship of a very fine clinician, Dr. R.E. Donevan at the University of British Columbia. Mentorship has overall been very important in my career. It was later the mentorship of a now extremely influential clinician – the late Dr. Freddy Hargreave – that sparked my eventual interest in respiratory clinical research and Asthma in particular.”

It is clear that his reverence for mentorship, and especially of Dr. Hargreave for whom he wrote a tribute to in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, carries through to Dr. Cockcroft’s practice today, where he emphasizes his passion for guiding students in his current role:

“The students are the most fun part of my job. Finding doable studies for students to learn from and getting them interest in respirology have been extremely rewarding for me.”

Along with his student-led research, he is a founding member of the Clinical Investigator Collaboration of AllerGen NCE (national centres of excellence) dedicated to investigating the links between allergies, genes and the environment. This multi-center collaborative allows the rapid testing of promising pharmaceuticals targeting asthma.

Throughout all his work, Dr. Cockcroft emphasizes that the key ingredient for successful respiratory research is a focus on people: patients, students, researchers, and clinicians. Having now trained generations of students in respiratory medicine, Dr. Cockcroft is leaving a lasting legacy of respiratory research in Saskatchewan and paving the future for the Respiratory Research Centre:

“Unlocking what people can do, together, is the advantage of the Respiratory Research Centre. Getting respiratory researchers from different areas together to share ideas and collaborate, beyond our Division, will lead to the next generations of innovations.”

So again, “Who in their right mind…?” a young doctor asked himself:

Dr. Cockcroft is a testament to the fact that it might actually take an especially spectacular mind to take the opportunity of a life-long career of clinical research in Saskatchewan.

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