Dr. Geoff Fernie's legacy is one that's related to the positive outcomes people experience in their lives: helping people live their lives to the fullest following life-altering disease or illness. (Photo: The KITE Research Institute)

In 2003, Dr. Geoff Fernie had what he admits was a wild idea: convert a smallish hole, destined to be a parking garage, underneath University Ave. in Toronto into a massive opening that could house four large research labs.

At the time, Dr. Fernie was the Director for the Centre for Studies in Aging at Sunnybrook, while KITE, which was then called the Toronto Rehab Research Institute, was just in its infancy.

When he proposed the concept to the leadership team at Toronto Rehab – the hole would contain four large cylindrical structures where KITE's growing stable of scientists could conduct their research – they were skeptical.

"They said, 'Well, if you dig a big hole under this hospital, it will sink because it's on a raft floating over Taddle Creek,'" Dr. Fernie jokes, referring to the underground river that runs beneath University Ave.

Then, he deadpans, "You could actually fish in Taddle Creek from the lab today, if you wanted. But I wouldn't eat the fish you caught."

Fortunately for Dr. Fernie, who spent 15 years as Research Director at KITE and is currently the Creaghan Family Chair in Prevention and Healthcare Technologies, it didn't take much to convince Mark Rochon, then CEO of Toronto Rehab, that having these labs – simulators that would mimic everything from weather and driving to conditions to help researchers study accidents accurately – was a good idea.

"Sure, there was an issue that had to be dealt with," recalls Rochon, "but it wasn't anywhere near a showstopper."

It was then that the Toronto Rehab Research Institute, renamed the KITE Research Institute at UHN in 2019, started becoming the world-leading rehabilitation research institute that it is today.

The centre's evolution is also a result of strong leadership, generous funding and smart scientists and clinicians, but the institute wouldn't be what it is today without Dr. Geoff Fernie.

We spoke with Dr. Fernie, Mark Rochon, research associate Pam Holliday and postdoctoral student-turned-scientist Dr. Alison Novak to find out how KITE – which is an acronym for Knowledge, Innovation, Talent, Everywhere – came to be.

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