‘I’ve Become a Part of History. That’s What It Means’

Being honoured with a prestigious Gairdner Award can be life-changing for a scientist. Hear what it meant to some of the 2021 laureates.

 |  Transcript [PDF]

Even as many workplaces around the world were shuttered for pandemic lockdowns, researchers seeking answers in health and medicine were still busy pushing forward in their labs. Science continued moving forward, and it was a particularly critical year to recognize international contributions to human health.

Since their inception in 1957, 402 Gairdner Awards have been given to laureates from over 40 countries. To date, 96 of those laureates have gone on to receive Nobel Prizes. So it’s a big deal to get that phone call from the Gairdner Foundation’s President and Scientific Director Janet Rossant with the good news that one of these prestigious awards is going to you.

“Winning a Gairdner and getting a phone call from Janet Rossant in the middle of one of the darkest winters that we have suffered through as a society was a beam of light,” says Elizabeth Eisenhauer, 2021 Canada Gairdner Wightman Award laureate.

“I think it’s particularly important that we kept it up this year even through COVID,” adds Mary-Claire King, 2021 Canada Gairdner International Award laureate.

“We are scientists and we are teachers, and the science continues. And nothing has been more important during this period than good science.”

Beyond personal pride, winning a Gairdner Award shines a light on a laureate’s entire field and the global impact that their work has had on patients. The 2021 laureates contributed groundbreaking research in a wide variety of medical conditions, including cancer, infectious diseases, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and intestinal disorders.

“I’m particularly pleased because I believe it is a recognition for our whole team here at Hong Kong U for the work that we all have been doing together for over 20 years now,” says Malik Peiris, 2021 John Dirks Canada Gairdner Award laureate.

“It’s very surprising. It’s a huge super honour,” adds Jens Juul Holst, 2021 Canada Gairdner International Award laureate.

“It’s wonderful that this field of research is getting the attention of the world because this is what happens with a prize like this. And so I am extremely happy, particularly on behalf of the use of these molecules at their future.”

Daniel Drucker, 2021 Canada Gairdner International Award laureate, echoes these sentiments, pointing to the hardworking people he collaborates with.

“It really validates the ideas that we’ve had, the outcomes that we’ve realized, and I think is tremendously satisfying not just for me but for the dozens of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows and collaborating scientists,” says Drucker.

“This award is as much recognition for their work as it is for mine.”

Notably, the Gairdner Award laureates are all selected by peers, making the nod even more special.

“Peer recognition such as is provided by this award is a strong indication that I’ve actually accomplished something useful and important,” says Joel Habener, 2021 Canada Gairdner International Award laureate.

“It reminds me what I did, that my work is still remembered by somebody,” adds Yi Guan, 2021 John Dirks Canada Gairdner Award laureate.

“I’ve become a part of history. That’s what it means for me.”

All of the laureates also pay it forward, speaking at outreach events across Canada. That helps these bright minds reach students and the general public, and inspiring their audiences with their accomplishments.

“To have a prestigious organization like the Gairdner see the importance and value of academic clinical trials research is huge,” says Eisenhauer.

“I’m extremely grateful and will try to do my best to live up to the honour that they’ve given me.”

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