Brain trust

Fifty years ago, Dorothy Killam decided she wanted to help halt Canada’s brain drain. In the half century since, the Killam Trusts have funded Canada’s top scholars, including almost 1,800 Dalhousie researchers.

There’s a segment in the documentary film Peace Warrior when former Canadian soldier Trevor Greene resolves to walk again one day. It’s a remarkable decision for many reasons, not the least of which is that just a few years prior doctors predicted Greene might be stuck in a coma for life after suffering a massive brain injury from a brutal axe attack to the head while on duty in Afghanistan.

The story of Captain Greene’s survival in the surprise 2006 Taliban attack and subsequent recovery brims with dramatic twists and turns, hingeing on the heroic, split-second decisions of a number of individuals and, later, Greene’s own determination to rebuild his life. But it was a scene in the film where Greene meets with an orthopaedic specialist years after the incident that elicited the biggest reaction from neuroscientist Ryan D’Arcy (MSc’98, PhD’02).

“This orthopaedic specialist basically tells him, ‘Do I think you’re going to walk again? No,’” recalls Dr. D’Arcy, who had tuned into an airing of the film on TV one evening during some downtime on a holiday break in 2009. “At that point, I was yelling at the TV because it wasn’t an orthopaedic problem, it was a problem with his brain.”

Dr. D’Arcy felt so moved by Greene’s story that he reached out to him with an offer to help in his quest to walk again. As founder and head of the National Research Council’s Institute for Biodiagnostics in Halifax at the time (now BIOTIC), the Dal alum was already a leading light in the field of neuroscience and medical technologies in Canada.

Thankfully, Greene and his wife, Debbie, were receptive to Dr. D’Arcy’s unconventional idea of using advanced brain imaging over the long term to monitor changes in his brain during the rehabilitation process. Initial results of the study—on which the Greenes are co-investigators—shattered the conventional view that people who suffer traumatic brain injury don’t heal much beyond the first sixth months. It also illustrated how mentally visualizing physical activity (competitive rowing, in Greene’s case) can contribute to the rewiring of the brain during healing.

“We could show a linear change in recovery of his brain activity that matched these amazing milestones of his ability to regain walking function, which was very profound,” says Dr. D’Arcy, now a professor at Simon Fraser University and head of health sciences and innovation at Surrey Memorial Hospital in B.C. “Now, we are seeing a massive uptake in the switch to using advanced brain imaging to monitor the effects of different treatments over time.”

Dr. D’Arcy’s groundbreaking work with Greene, currently in a second, even more ambitious phase dubbed Project Iron Soldier, and on other innovative projects has catapulted him to the forefront of the diagnosis and treatment of brain injury in Canada. It’s a journey he links back to his time as a Dalhousie University Killam scholar.

“It gave me confidence I was launching a career where I could make a difference,” Dr. D’Arcy says of the award. “Recognition as a Killam Scholar encouraged me to always strive for the best and to be innovative in my work.”

“The Killam encouraged me to be innovative in my work.” – neuroscientist Dr. Ryan D’Arcy

Dr. D’Arcy is one of the many exceptional individuals to have gotten his start as a scholar with the support of the Killam Trusts. The Trusts, which marked their 50th anniversary last fall, have provided funding of more than $85 million for almost 1,800 Dal graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, enabling them to create new knowledge and make a difference in fields as varied as immigration policy, climate change and cancer research. And it’s work that is continuing, as a new generation of Killam scholars are funded each year.

Helping build Canada’s future through advanced study in this way was central to the vision of Dorothy J. Killam. Her generous gifts before and after her death in 1965 of more than $100 million helped transform the university research landscape in Canada.

The bequests placed Dalhousie among an elite group of universities. It is one of five institutions in Canada to award Killam Scholarships, alongside the University of Calgary, the University of Alberta and the University of British Columbia, as well as the Montreal Neurological Institute, a McGill University-based world leader in brain research and care. The Canada Council for the Arts was also established as part of the Killam gifts and awards a separate research fellowship as well as five Killam Prizes, worth $100,000 each, given annually in the fields of health sciences, natural sciences, engineering, social sciences and humanities.

Dorothy Killam’s gift was built on the fortune her late Yarmouth-born husband, Izaak Walton Killam, earned as a financier. Izaak got his start in business as a paperboy and at the time of his death in 1955 was one of Canada’s wealthiest individuals.

Initial reaction to the Killam endowments was one of “unalloyed glee” and “unparalleled enthusiasm,” says George Cooper, the former lawyer, politician and University of King’s College president who spent 25 years as managing trustee of the Killam Trusts.

“Canada was losing well-educated scholars and researchers to England and the United States as many would stay after their graduate or post-graduate training, and Dorothy’s idea was, ‘I want to do what I can to reverse the brain drain,’” explains Dr. Cooper, who studied at Dal in the 1960s alongside Killam Fellowship (1998) and Prize (2010) winner Art McDonald, now also a Nobel Laureate in physics.

By giving Dal the largest piece of the gift (a nod to her late husband’s Nova Scotian roots), Dorothy Killam was instrumental in supporting the university’s transformation from a “little college by the sea” into a national university with a robust research agenda. Additional funds for research chairs, faculty salaries and general-purpose projects on top of the scholarships and fellowships ensured Dal was able to attract and retain top-level professors and researchers.

Dorothy Killam: her gift helped transform Canada’s university research landscape.

While the university sector was already on the cusp of a boom heading into the 1970s, Dr. Cooper says the Killam gift was special in that its primary purpose was to support students and the academic mission, rather than as a means for building legacy infrastructure projects.

“There have been a lot of people who have given a lot of money to Canadian universities for buildings,” says Dr. Cooper. “But the Killams wanted a non-stop, perpetual trust to support students and university research.”

Literary historian Annette Hayward, a recipient of one of the inaugural Killam Scholarships in 1967, recalls just how important the award was in setting her up for success. “It encouraged me to pursue my interest at a time when academic and career opportunities were opening up for women,” says Dr. Hayward, who continues to write books on Quebec literary history nearly a decade after she retired from a French professorship at Queen’s University. “The scholarship made it possible for me to earn my master’s in just a year and go on directly to do my PhD, so it helped to steer me toward an academic career.”

The history of the Killam Trusts at Dalhousie is filled with stories of personal and professional empowerment. For Jing Kong, winning a Killam Scholarship in 1994 gave him the motivation and freedom to focus on theoretical chemistry studies and primed him to be a leader in the area of computational chemistry, where he and colleagues harness the power of technology to make drug development more efficient. But it also gave the Chinese-born scholar something invaluable. “As much as it helped me academically, the Dalhousie Killam Scholarship was important to me personally because I was able to bring my family over from China,” explains Dr. Kong, now an associate professor in the department of chemistry at Middle Tennessee State University.

Unlike many government-funded scholarships in Canada, most of the Killam awards are open to international students and scholars. And as some of the most competitive awards programs in the country, they carry a particular prestige that can be extremely valuable to young scholars.

“Receiving it was like being told ‘You have that it factor, you’re going to do something spectacular and we want to make sure you have everything possible to be successful,’” says Nicole Ward, a 1997 awardee who is now a tenured professor in the dermatology department at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. “That recognition was a stepping stone for every award or grant I’ve been given since, because I had already been vetted by something as prestigious as the Killam Trust.”

Dr. Ward, whose PhD research at Dal focused on how the brain changes during development and aging, has since gained international notice for her leading-edge work demonstrating how treating chronic, organ-contained skin inflammation (psoriasis) has the capacity to reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease.

“That recognition was a stepping stone.” – Dr. Nicole Ward, 1997 Killam scholar

And that legacy continues today with current Dal students such as Lin Ma, who is working in collaboration with energy storage company Tesla in Jeff Dahn’s lab. The PhD student says he was excited and a bit shocked when he first found out he’d received a Killam scholarship last year. “I never expected to get this,” says Ma, who first came to Dal as a master’s student in 2012 and now focuses his research on increasing energy density in lithium-ion batteries. “It’s a big honour for me, so I want to take this honour to heart and work hard and focus on the research and get more results.”

Ma first got involved in lithium-ion research back in his home country of China as an undergraduate. Realizing the impact fossil fuels were having on global warming, he decided he could use his research skills to work on technologies supporting more sustainable forms of energy production and storage.

On the cusp of publishing four research papers (co-authored with Dr. Dahn) and on track to defend his doctoral thesis this summer—well ahead of previous plans—it’s safe to say Ma has already made good on his promise of producing bigger results. “It’s been a lot of help and given me a lot of encouragement.”

While certain federal and provincial governments over the past half-century—including the current Trudeau Liberals in Ottawa—also deserve credit for investing in impactful post-secondary research, government funding can prove a fickle beast. “The next government may decide that’s not where they want to put their money and that may fade away, but this Killam money is here to stay and to do good well into the future,” says Marty Leonard, Dal’s current dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies.

Dr. Leonard’s team works with scholarship committees composed of faculty from across Dalhousie University, overseeing and organizing the candidate-review process for the Killam awards each year. Unlike some scholarships and fellowships that are targeted towards scholars in relatively narrow areas, the Killam awards are open to nearly all disciplines across the university. It’s the kind of broad-based approach Dorothy Killam described in her will when she spoke of “developing and expanding the work of Canadian universities.”

“All I can think is that Mrs. Killam would be very pleased to know how it all worked out,” says Dr. Leonard.

With files from Mark Campbell

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