Philanthropy, politics and the power of research

“Multiple sclerosis has been my best teacher. It’s taught me about appreciating life and finding joy.”

With these words, Ann Romney, author, advocate and former First Lady of Massachusetts, connected on a personal level with captivated attendees at Robarts Research Institute’s 2017 Leaders in Innovation Dinner on November 15.

Joined on stage by her husband and former Governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, Ann shared her experience of living with multiple sclerosis (MS), as well as her investment in research through the Ann Romney Center for Neurologic Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

At several points, she spoke directly to MS patients in the room. “I know what it’s like, I know how frightening it is, and how important it is for us to continue the work to move research forward,” she said.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for researchers, philanthropists and patients to come together,” she added.

It was an evening of candour, emotion and laughter – including a particularly entertaining call to dessert delivered by London physician and medical leader and Robarts founder Dr. Cal Stiller, and a lively round of applause for the spouses in the room led by Andrew Graham.

Multiple sclerosis research was on display throughout the evening – through a large and colourful video installation and trainee presentations during the cocktail reception.

The event honoured renowned MS researcher V. Wee Yong, PhD, the 2017 recipient of the J. Allyn Taylor International Prize in Medicine.

Introducing the award recipient, Robarts’ Scientific and Executive Director Marlys Koschinsky, PhD, described his accomplishments with admiration and emotion.

“At Robarts, we believe in the power of science – it’s the hope, the promise and the belief that biomedical research has the potential to transform lives,” she said. “Our dream as scientists is to find something that can eventually be translated to the clinic, to impact patients. And Dr. Yong has done this in a lifetime.”

The University of Calgary researcher took the stage to accept the award, recognized by attendees with a standing ovation. “I am tremendously honoured. I look at the list of previous winners, some of whom are Nobel laureates, and to be put in a category with people at the very top of their field is quite humbling and a great honour,” he said during his speech.
In addition to accepting his award, Yong joined the Romneys for a portion of their armchair discussion with the evening’s emcee, Heather Hiscox, Anchor at CBC News Network. Together, the three special guests emphasized the importance of international collaboration in advancing research.

Yong also delivered the keynote address earlier in the day at the J. Allyn Taylor International Prize in Medicine Symposium, which brought together MS researchers and clinicians from around the world to present their latest findings in diagnosis, prevention and treatment.

The Symposium included a panel discussion moderated by André Picard, health columnist with The Globe and Mail. Panellists covered topics ranging from the challenge of understanding disease progression to the affordability of medication.

As part of the daytime event, researchers Ravi Menon, PhD, Steven Kerfoot, PhD, and Dr. Sarah Morrow provided an update on MS research in London, sharing their experiences working as part of an interdisciplinary team, and accessing the unique imaging facilities at Robarts.

The annual event landed on National Philanthropy Day this year, a theme that Hiscox raised during her post-dinner conversation with the Romneys.

Asked how people should get involved in philanthropy, Mitt encouraged attendees to look at building relationships in their own community. “Giving is most effective where you know people, where you have built trust,” he said.

Not surprisingly, talk briefly turned to politics. Mitt remained diplomatic about the current political situation in the United States, but acknowledged the importance of electing leaders of integrity, regardless of political ideology. “My hope is that we select people of integrity – because I happen to think that’s the most important thing when choosing a leader,” he said. “I want my kids and grandkids to see people of integrity.”

With community leaders, local politicians and prominent researchers in the room, the evening instilled a sense of energy, commitment and hope. The final takeaway message for the night was a poignant call to action – we’re in this together.

Can't see the photo galleries above? View photos from the Dinner here. View photos from the Taylor Symposium here.