Courtesy Tamara Bodnar
Nov. 17, 2023
Azrieli Accelerator brings new strengths to neurodevelopment research across the lifespan
The Azrieli Accelerator professorship program at the University of Calgary breaks down barriers and makes it easier to forge important connections between departments and faculties, says the program’s inaugural recruit.
“It’s so exciting that UCalgary is creating easy ways for researchers to connect across disciplines,” says Dr. Tamara Bodnar, PhD. “In academia, it’s easy to become siloed in your own department or faculty.”
Bodnar joined the Faculty of Science this year as an assistant professor and the first recruit of the Azrieli Accelerator professorship program. Coming from the University of British Columbia, her work focuses on fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), a neurodevelopmental condition that can occur because of prenatal alcohol exposure. She investigates the impact of prenatal alcohol exposure on the gut-brain-immune system throughout life.
Examining individuals through all stages of life is an essential component of the Azrieli Accelerator, a hub designed to connect researchers from various disciplines to transform neurodevelopment research across the lifespan.
“With neurodevelopmental conditions, there’s a good understanding about how individuals are impacted in childhood, but worry can start to creep in for them as they move into adolescence and early adulthood. That’s why looking at the entire lifespan is so important,” says Bodnar.
A transdisciplinary approach is important to see the full picture.
“Neurodevelopmental conditions are so complex,” says Bodnar. “It’s not just about understanding how the brain is impacted; it’s about understanding stigma; it’s about understanding the justice system and the inequities that exist there.
“There are so many angles to explore, and it’s not always easy to forge the connections needed to make that possible. The fact that’s happening here through the Azrieli Accelerator is really exciting!”
The Azrieli Accelerator was formed at UCalgary thanks to a bold $25-million gift from the Azrieli Foundation. Based in Toronto, the Azrieli Foundation has diverse interests, with the thread of education running through its various funding streams. Along with a deep commitment to investing in neurodevelopment research and programs for neurodiverse communities, the foundation supports promising early-career researchers at critical points in their journeys.
That commitment led the Azrieli Foundation to UCalgary in 2022 and its first transformative philanthropic gift in Western Canada. The investment leveraged existing research excellence that has been fuelled for years by other dedicated philanthropic groups including the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation; the Owerko, Cumming, Hotchkiss, Snyder, Mathison and Fenwick families; and many others.
With the Azrieli Accelerator in place, its professorship program attracts experts and thought leaders who join a dynamic group of researchers engaged in the university’s transdisciplinary strategy. With Bodnar as the first assistant professor to be recruited through the professorship program, there are plans to hire seven more early-career researchers spanning faculties and disciplines.
Each new position is empowered through important partnerships; Bodnar’s is funded through the Azrieli Accelerator, the Faculty of Science and the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, and she will be using research facilities in the Owerko Centre for Neurodevelopment and Child Mental Health.
Since officially starting this past summer, she has been busy forming connections across UCalgary, including investigators at the International Microbiome Centre, the Owerko Centre and other groups across campus. As an Indigenous scholar, it is particularly important for her to build relationships with Treaty 7 communities and for her research to include Indigenous perspectives. She has been very pleased with the welcome she received at UCalgary and the connections she has made with other Indigenous investigators across campus.
As Bodnar builds a network and research team here, she will continue emphasizing the strengths and resilience of people with neurodevelopmental conditions.
“In my research, I don’t just want to examine risk factors or impairments, but on the ways that individuals excel,” she says. “Yes, there is a lot of adversity with a neurodevelopmental condition, but there’s also a lot of resilience. It’s important to understand and utilize that knowledge to see the full picture, understand trajectories and improve outcomes for individuals.”
The support from the Azrieli Foundation and other donors across UCalgary has meant a lot to Bodnar’s work.
“A lot of the work I do wouldn’t be possible without donors like the Azrieli Foundation. Especially with conditions that tend to be highly stigmatized, like FASD, it can be a big challenge.”
"Having donors who care about this research and are willing to invest in it is critical. It has a huge impact on the community and the lives of real people.”
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