Dr. Sam Weiss, PhD’83
Distinguished Alumni Award | Lifetime Achievement
Dr. Sam Weiss is the scientific director of the Canadian Institutes of Health — Institute of Neuroscience, Mental Health and Addiction (INMHA)
Sure, he may have received his doctorate in chemistry from UCalgary only five years after completing a BSc at McGill University and, in 1992, was the first to discover neural stem cells in the brains of adult mammals. And, yes, he has advanced research in areas such as multiple sclerosis and brain tumours; led a team of 127 faculty members, 300 neuroscience trainees and 250 professional staff as founder and director of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute; and has published a staggering 110 peer-reviewed journal articles and nine book chapters.But that doesn’t mean Dr. Sam Weiss is so scholarly that he would never stoop to use a sports analogy or metaphor.
In fact, this year’s down-to-earth recipient of UCalgary Alumni Association’s highest honour attributes one of the most influential and gratifying relationships of his life — with Harley Hotchkiss — to a chat about hockey.
“We were at a breakfast back in 2003 at the Chamber of Commerce when Harley and I started talking hockey and couldn’t stop,” recalls Weiss. “At some point, I told him I had a presentation that I wanted to show him, but he didn’t really want to see it — he just wanted to talk about hockey and he wanted me to leave him with an idea. Just one.
“That idea was based on my vision of a model that would bring the community together with the academic brain health group that is at the University of Calgary. In other words, we’d go from the ivory tower to the pavement.”
Weiss likens the university’s investigator-initiated, discovery-based research as the “light bulb,” but stresses the “spark” is rarely accomplished in isolation. “The goal line is the team approach, and it became obvious to me where the puck was going and that, if we continued to operate as individuals, and not a team, we’d always be chasing after it. We’d never get ahead of it,” he says.
It turns out Hotchkiss, Hon. LLD’96, shared not only Weiss’s love of the puck (Weiss was a right-winger on a men’s league), but also his vision, and backed it with an initial $5-million donation (that, eventually, grew to more than $50-million from the Hotchkiss family).
Today, the Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI) is one of Canada’s top research institutes and is responsible for advancing seminal contributions such as endovascular treatment that can dramatically improve patient outcomes after an acute ischemic stroke (a.k.a. the ESCAPE trial), and that a common acne medication, minocycline, can slow the progress of multiple sclerosis (MS).
“Frankly, meeting Harley changed my life; it was like discovering a long-lost soulmate,” chuckles Weiss, who, besides being hockey player, is also an avid hiker. “We connected on so many levels — from sports, to the principles of why we are on this earth, to bringing like-minded people together, to breaking down silos.”
Team science is at the root of Weiss’s passion for collaborative research — the risky, freewheeling type that, ultimately, drives a collective experience toward the people you serve.
Just as you might form a cohort of all-star players, Weiss and his colleagues at HBI recruited more than 50 new investigators over 12 years, enough to feel like “we were constantly renewing, building through the draft,” says Weiss. “That’s where I believe our future is, with young investigators trained in the most modern approaches. They come in with the broadest of ideas and they’re not tarred with years of battling bureaucracies and the need to establish a hierarchy.
“If you give people a runway [OK, his affinity for metaphors stretches beyond sports], they will take off.”
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