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Dal Parkinson's expert now suffering from the disorder spurs next‑gen research

Posted by Dayna Park on April 2, 2024 in News
Dal Professor Emeritus Dr. Harold Robertson speaks at a launch event for a new award in Parkinson's research at Dalhousie. (Danny Abriel photos)
Dal Professor Emeritus Dr. Harold Robertson speaks at a launch event for a new award in Parkinson's research at Dalhousie. (Danny Abriel photos)

Dr. Harold Robertson has spent much of his career at Dalhousie working to improve the awareness, prevention, and treatment of Parkinson’s disease and other neurodegenerative disorders.  

Across his four decades in the Faculty of Medicine, Dr. Robertson, professor emeritus in the departments of pharmacology and psychiatry, has been unravelling the role dopamine in particular plays in Parkinson’s — a disease he now lives with. 

Dr. Robertson — or Harry, as he prefers — received a Parkinson’s diagnosis in 2015 after years of experiencing mild symptoms even he did not recognize. 

His family has now established the Harold A. Robertson Award in Parkinson's Research to empower Dalhousie graduate students to follow his example of discovering more about the disease and life with Parkinson’s. 

“It is important to me that the award be open to graduate students across Dalhousie, regardless of faculty or department,” said Dr. Robertson, explaining his vision for an award intended to foster collaboration across faculties and departments.    

His goal is to increase accessibility in all areas of Parkinson’s research, from finding cures and preventions to improving people’s quality of life.

Making meaningful contributions

Faramarz Jalili and Emily Thomson, Dal's inaugural recipients of the award, were celebrated during an event hosted by the Faculty of Graduate Studies (FGS) at the Collaborative Health Education Building on Carleton Campus last month.

Jalili, a Master of Health Administration student, highlighted the impact the award will have on his research’s potential to improve the lives of people living with Parkinson’s.  

“Winning the Harold A. Robertson Award for Parkinson's research fuels my passion to continue making meaningful contributions to improve the lives of those affected by Parkinson's,” said Jalili.  

Emily Thomson and Faramarz Jalili.

Thomson, a student in Pharmacology, emphasized the scarcity of funding opportunities tailored to Parkinson's research.   

“This degenerative disease needs to be researched further because not enough is known about how to effectively diagnose, treat, and prevent it,” said Thomson.

“This gift is also so important because it can help spark interest in other donors giving to this area of research.” 

FGS Dean Marty Leonard commended the awardees for their contributions and thanked Dr. Robertson’s family for their role in emphasizing the critical role philanthropy plays in advancing research. 

Dr. Marty Leonard.

Powering regional research

Dr. Robertson paraphrased Parkinson's advocate Michael J. Fox’s Foundation motto, emphasizing the collective effort required to combat the disease. 

“We’re here until Parkinsons isn’t,” he said.   

“Although I can’t match the over-$1 billion that the Michael J. Fox Foundation has funded for Parkinson’s research to date, I can do my part,” he said. “I thank this enthusiastic group of people for coming together today and offering great support for this effort.”  

Dr. Elizabeth Townsend, Dr. Robertson’s wife and professor emerita at Dalhousie, stressed the importance of regional support for Parkinson's research. 

“The Harold A. Robertson Award is fostering a vibrant research community in Atlantic Canada. Parkinson’s Canada closed their Atlantic office and it’s difficult for Parkinson’s researchers here to get funding,” said Dr. Townsend.   

“We can build a team in this part of Canada—starting with our inaugural awardees, Faramarz and Emily.”   

Left-to-right: Dr. Elizabeth Townsend, Emily Thomson, Dr. Harold Robertson, and Faramarz Jalili.