Current president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) Dr. Alan Bernstein has been a scientist all his life.
“When I was asked if I was interested in the [CIFAR] position, it was a natural evolution of my own journey through science, so I said yes immediately,” said Bernstein. “It’s a great organization and I’m having a tremendous amount of fun running it and making the kinds of changes I think are necessary to stay current and take CIFAR with the strengths when I started to the next level, which we are in the middle of doing.”
For more than 30 years, CIFAR has been bringing some of the top researchers in Canada and around the world together to focus on worldwide challenges. It provides a space for sustained, small-scale, intimate conversations between groups of investigators that come from diverse disciplines and perspectives.
“We need to take risks,” said Bernstein. “We expect our researchers to take risks. Tough questions are always, by definition, risky.
“We’ve always been global in the sense that half our fellows come from outside Canada. We have 14 programs divided into three broad initiatives. One is a brain initiative. The second is around … the environmental and physical sciences. And, the third one is around building stronger societies. Within that, there are a number of programs. Each program typically has 20-30 fellows who meet on a regular basis and discuss issues around their particular program.”
One program concerns child and brain development. “There are about 25 people in that program and they range from pediatricians to fruit fly neurogeneticists, psychologists, epidemiologists, molecular biologists and policy people,” said the doctor.
While all of the 25 have their own particular research program, they come to CIFAR to focus on one question, which, in this case, is how do we optimize child and brain development?
Fifteen years ago, Bernstein became the first president of the Canadian Institute of Health Research, the national funding agency for health research. It was a job he had to create. Seven years later, he joined CIFAR.
During his first five years there, Bernstein also ran a lab. “My lab was in Toronto at the Mount Sinai Hospital, where I’d been the director,” he explained. “I just found that, after five years, I wasn’t being fair to the people in my lab in the sense that I just couldn’t devote the kind of time, energy and brainpower to my own scientists that they deserved … and that the science deserved. So, I made the tough decision after a year of agonizing about it, to give up my lab.”
When he closed his lab, Bernstein made sure that everybody had a job. Although the transition was quite traumatic for him at the time, he realized he was still a scientist, that he did not need to run a lab to be one.
“I still do, maybe more so than before, think very deeply about science and read much more widely now than I ever used to,” said Bernstein. “Before, I only read about health research things, but now I read about everything – from cosmology and gravity to successful societies, and childhood development.”
In April of this year, Bernstein was one of six inductees into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame. Laureates “are individuals whose outstanding contributions to medicine and the health sciences have led to extraordinary improvements in human health. Their work may be a single meritorious contribution or a lifetime of superior accomplishments. Pioneers in their field, they are role models and inspiration to young Canadians to pursue careers in the health sciences.”
“I was deeply honored,” said Bernstein of being chosen. “It’s a high honor, indeed. I know a lot about the Hall of Fame because when I was the president of CIHR, I had to chair the selection committee.… I had a chance to go to a lot of the ceremonies.
“It’s one of those things that your colleagues bestow on you, so it was especially meaningful to me, as these are my colleagues, saying, ‘Alan, we think your contributions to Canadian medicine and health research have been at a calibre that you’re deserving to be inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame.’”
Some of Bernstein’s family was able to be at the April 23 ceremony – his wife, sister and son. “So, that was also very nice for me,” he said. “Actually, it was very nice to be in Winnipeg. The ceremony moves around from year to year and, this year, it was in Winnipeg.”
Bernstein had not been back to Winnipeg for a long time and was looking forward to seeing some familiar faces and places. And also some new ones, such as visiting the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. “That was an especially moving experience,” he said. “I’m sure it is for everybody who goes there. It’s incredible.”
For the induction ceremony, a video was made in which some of his former students were interviewed, as well as some colleagues from his time at CIHR.
“Sir John Bell, who’s a Canadian, but also the Regis Professor of Medicine at Oxford University – a very accomplished, very senior guy in the global medical scene – also said some nice words about me,” said Bernstein.
“It’s always interesting to hear what other people think about you. It was very meaningful to me that a couple of my students – a post-op in my lab and one who’d been a student with me – spoke. To hear what they had to say from their perspective about what it was like to be in my lab, that meant great deal to me.”
What Bernstein found most moving about the video was the message that it conveyed – that the most important legacy a scientist leaves behind is the training of his or her students.
“Science is never-ending, so the art of doing science has to be passed from one generation to the next,” said Bernstein. “That’s just a privilege, to be able to interact with and help introduce young people to science.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.