In conversation with Karen Lee, PhD, President and CEO, Parkinson Canada

On April 1st, Parkinson Canada welcomed a new president and CEO, Karen Lee, PhD. We sat down with Karen for an interview, so you can get to know her and hear about her vision for the organization. 

What is your connection to Parkinson’s?

KL: Throughout my childhood, I remember spending a lot of time with my grandfather who had Parkinson’s disease. I never knew him without it. The family rallied to support him in whatever way we could—aunts, uncles, cousins—spending weekends, holidays and as much time as we could, visiting with him. It takes a village. Little did I know then what impact this shared experience would have on me, on my studies and on my choice to join Parkinson Canada. I like to think that I honour my grandfather in my new role as President and CEO. It is an opportunity to share my personal experience along with my research lens to create greater impacts for people living with Parkinson’s.

When you accepted the role to lead Parkinson Canada, what did you see as the biggest opportunity for the organization?

KL: I see my role as an opportunity to give back and show gratitude to the organization that directly helped my grandfather live well through his illness. He was very active and benefited from Parkinson Canada’s network of support, where he developed a new community and connections. This expanded community improved his quality of life and I am grateful for this opportunity to extend this gift to others, in honour of my grandfather.

In light of recent events and the pandemic (how) has this changed?

KL: I think the lens is the same—the pandemic is a tough situation, and one where I began my role as CEO on April 1,2020, working remotely and quickly adapting our connections to the community with as little disruption as possible. For us all in the charitable sector, it is a real opportunity to make changes and allow us to be stronger together in a new reality.

What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned in these first 75 days?

KL: I am really impressed on how staff have come together with creativity and compassion, on how the community has come together to best support and care for one another.

What does the word “community” mean to you?

KL: Community is a broad term—and not just about people with Parkinson’s but includes everyone who is touched by the disease—neighbours, family members, researchers, care partners, healthcare professionals—in Canada and around the world.

What is the most important problem we have to solve for the Parkinson’s community?

KL: This is our time as we continue to fundraise so that we can focus on helping the greatest number of people live their best lives while ensuring we find new treatments and one day, a cure.

How do you see charities working more collaboratively?

KL: It is important for Parkinson Canada to build and maintain partnerships, to collaborate with others within Canada, the US and worldwide so that we come together to serve people affected by Parkinson’s with shared goals of living our best lives while searching for a cure. Each week, I make sure to connect with leaders outside our organization to build relationships with that bigger goal in mind. I have had great conversations in my first two months, talking to a lot of people, like the new CEO of the Parkinson Association of Alberta as we share similar positions and circumstances—we learn from one another.

How do you see research changing over the next decade?

KL: As we learn more about Parkinson’s disease, we continue to provide the hope that research brings—opportunities to discover disease-modifying therapies, quicker and accurate diagnosis and new ways of living better. It’s a very exciting time and our donors get excited to support priorities like that.

What do you think is the most important role health charities like Parkinson Canada play?

KL: We are the honest broker. We offer the best advice and resources for people so they can make informed decisions; we fund the best research and information. We are the trusted place to land and we build connections.

If you were to ask individuals to do just one thing to help the Parkinson’s community, what would that be?

KL: I would ask people to truly understand what it is like to live with Parkinson’s or to be a care partner to a person with Parkinson’s It’s about raising awareness of the lived experience for the 100,000 Canadians that live with Parkinson’s, and the hundreds of thousands who care for them.

What lessons can we learn from other sectors and industries?

KL: There is an urgency to be bold and not be afraid to make mistakes—to keep trying and to find new ways to work together.

When you were in school, what teacher had the greatest impact on you and why?

KL: Mr. Brady was my teacher who had the most profound influence on who I am today—I was in grade 4. I was not the best student, and he saw something in me—he challenged me to try different things to unlock my potential. Today, I try to do that for others.

When you were a young child, what career did you picture for yourself?

KL: As a young kid I actually did not know what a job was and being a kid – who doesn’t like chocolate? I wanted to be a chocolate bar.

What three words describe your leadership style?

KL: Personable. Empowering. Decisive.

What is the one thing you can’t live without?

KL: Especially during Covid-19, there are many things I have learned I can live without. However, I have to say my husband and 2 children—my family, I can’t live without them.

What’s your favourite book?

KL: My favourite book is The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields because the story is about family and the everyday joys and struggles that families encounter.

Favourite city to visit?

KL: That’s a tough question I don’t know that I could pick just one. In Canada, I’ve lived in Winnipeg, London, Ottawa and Toronto. But I would say Hawaii would be the place I would like to be right now for vacation.

Favourite cuisine?

KL: I love many kinds of food, so it is hard to choose just one.

When you look back on this time, what will have been your greatest accomplishment?

KL: I hope that when I look back on this time in the organization’s history, I’d like to know that we have made impact for people affected by Parkinson’s and that people see the value we delivered and are part of the movement to make effective change for those living with Parkinson’s.

Dr. Karen Lee holds an Honours B.Sc. degree in Cell Biology from Western University and a Ph.D. in Cellular and Molecular Medicine from the University of Ottawa. Dr. Lee comes to Parkinson Canada from the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada after 12 years and a series of progressive roles. Most recently, she was Vice President of Research & Managing Director, endMS Research and Training Network and a valued member of the management team. Dr. Lee’s passion for science has benefited a number of communities in Canada. In addition to her corporate experience, Karen is an avid volunteer in the non-profit healthcare community, making meaningful contributions to a number of organizations and initiatives.

Look for future installments of In Conversation with Karen Lee, PhD

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Have a story you would like to share with the Parkinson’s community? Write to Annemarie.gabriel@parkinson.ca

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