The baby boom generation hits retirement age in four years and the university—with key support from alumni Erich and Shelley Mohr—is ready to embark on a new program of long-term research and education surrounding the changing nature of aging in Canada.
FROM THEIR HOME, PERCHED AT THE SOUTHERN ENTRANCE OF CADBORO BAY, Drs. Erich and Shelley Mohr are a matter of minutes from Ring Road. Which is appropriate. The University of Victoria is where the couple met in the early ’80s when he was working toward his PhD in neuropsychology and she was completing her psychology degree. It’s the place where their lives together began and it’s the place from where they launched their careers. And now the university, and the community, are about to benefit from their gratitude.
The Mohrs have donated $2.25 million to start a research program concentrating on adult development and aging, bridging the university’s strengths in gerontology and adult health research. The gift means the university can hire a top-calibre scholar to spearhead discoveries about the aging process and the factors that contribute to health or illness in later years.
The program will fund graduate and post-doctoral students and is expected to draw additional resources from public and non-profit agencies. The university is contributing the equivalent of a junior faculty position.
“The gift is intended to create a nucleus, to really leverage this to further not only research but to further education and opportunities for young people,” says Erich Mohr, chairman and CEO of Victoria-based MedGenesis Therapeutix. “The plans that I’ve seen are focused on this, so that’s something we really want to support.”
The endowment is named for his parents, Harald and Wilhelma Mohr, who were both medical doctors specializing in, respectively, obstetrics and learning and development disabilities in young people. “Education was just so important to them,” says Shelley Mohr. “All of their children excelled academically and their careers were just amazing. We really wanted to honour that.”
The new research chair will lead the university’s participation in national and international research initiatives, including the CLSA (Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging)—the first national study on the process of aging. Late next year, the CLSA will begin monitoring a cohort of 50,000 Canadians starting from their 40s and following them through to retirement. Information will be collected on life changes (biological, medical, social, psychological and economic) to gain insight into their impacts on healthy living or the development of disease and disability.
The findings will inform new public policies on aging, particularly as baby boomers put their unique stamp on what it means to be retired (there will be a near doubling of the number of Canadians between the ages of 65 and 74—to a total of 4.5 million—over the next two decades).
UVic already has several key players involved in the CLSA, including Sociology Prof. Neena Chappell, a senior scientific advisor to the study. And, with strengths in gerontology and health, the university anticipates a greater role in collaborative research on the dynamics of aging.
“With the leadership of a world renowned chair in adult development and aging, our researchers will be able to further establish the University of Victoria’s ental aging,” says President David Turpin. “The university is truly honoured and grateful that Erich and Shelley share our vision and are willing to support us so generously.”
“It’s ingenious. It’s exactly what UVic needed.”
Based in the Department of Psychology, the program will be linked to the UVic Centre on Aging and its multidisciplinary, community-based research on gerontology and healthy aging.
“The Mohrs’ funding means we will always have a senior chair to assure the continuity of (our role in) longitudinal studies,” says Peter Keller, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences. “So we can replace a very senior (retiring) scholar with another advanced researcher with an international reputation. It’s ingenious. It’s exactly what UVic needed.”
What UVic needed, and how the Mohrs could best help, were front and centre from the beginning. “We felt strongly that we wanted to give back to the community,” says Erich. “Both of us are very committed to excellence in education and research. So, when I first approached President Turpin I didn’t say, I want to give X amount of money for a research chair in X. Plans were developed and the one that was most appealing to us was in this area of aging.”
“We also felt we wanted to give back in terms of people who had given their time to participate in clinical studies and research,” adds Shelley, a clinical child psychologist at Queen Alexandra Centre for Children’s Health.
She has a more personal motivation for advancing research on aging, too: “I have a grandmother in a nursing home and issues of mobility and learning about exercise and nutrition are important to get established at a young age. Better care for older people and a better quality of life are important because nursing homes can be very sad places.”
Ten years ago, Erich Mohr, a specialist in the treatment of central nervous system disorders, had become a successful biotech entrepreneur. Based in Ottawa, he was thinking about moving the headquarters of CroMedica Inc. (it would later merge with PRA International in 2002). Victoria’s location—between Tokyo and London, and its proximity to the West Coast’s biotech corridor—seemed like a natural choice.
But there was one other important factor behind the move.
“I love Victoria. I grew up here,” says Shelley. “I guess throughout our marriage I might have mentioned once or twice I would like to go home to Victoria. And I remember saying, you know it’s so beautiful that people are going to want to come here.”
“That’s exactly what happened,” adds Erich, who was born in Tuebingen, Germany. “At every Christmas party somebody would come up to Shelley and say, thank you for bringing us here to Victoria.”
Since coming back, they’ve raised three daughters and Erich, a past recipient of the alumni association’s Distinguished Alumni Award, has been at the centre of Victoria’s burgeoning biotech sector. He’s co-founded several companies and last year created MedGenesis, which is developing treatments for Alzheimer’s and dementia. “UVic really launched my career. It allowed me to be successful as a biotechnology entrepreneur and to really initiate a number of areas of research.”
And now, just like getting around the Ring, things have come back to where they began.