An Outstanding Leader

Called a “visionary” by his colleagues, Dr. Grant Pierce will soon step down as Executive Director of St. Boniface Hospital Research after 15 years in the leadership role.

Pierce’s time – three consecutive terms – in the proverbial corner office at St. Boniface Hospital Albrechtsen Research Centre and I. H. Asper Clinical Research Institute will come to an end when he steps down from his administrative duties this New Year’s Eve.

The veteran researcher said that after stepping down, he will continue working in the new year as a principal investigator (a title he’s held since the late 1980s) in his laboratory in the Albrechtsen Research Centre. There, he plans to follow his ongoing interest in the benefits to heart health of regular flaxseed consumption, and to pursue his more recent study of a new platform that he and his team have developed for antibiotics. He also plans to keep working as a Distinguished Professor of Physiology and Pathophysiology at the University of Manitoba.

Pierce considers it a privilege and an honour to have helped many of his colleagues promote their careers but said it’s time for him to move on. He noted that Dr. John Foerster, the first Executive Director of Research at the Hospital (1986-2006) and his predecessor, was at a similar point in his tenure when he relinquished the position.

“Dr. Foerster said then that it was time for new energy, new direction, and new thought processes. I appreciate now what he was saying, because I think it’s similar. I’ve put all the energy, thought and inspiration I could into the people who are here, trying to build up the research environment and make it as good as we can. Now it’s time for somebody else to take over the reins and do better than I ever could,” said Pierce.

Dr. Elissavet Kardami, Principal Investigator, Muscle Cell Biochemistry, Institute of Cardiovascular Sciences, has worked with Dr. Pierce for more than 30 years. She described him as “a benevolent but assertive leader” and “a visionary”.

“His lab has always been open. Any technology that me or my students might have needed, he was very forthcoming with, and very encouraging towards any endeavour. Always asking, ‘How can we help?’ This is the attitude I associate most with Grant – not, ‘This cannot be done,’ but, ‘How can we help?’”

Pierce himself agreed,

The primary role of this job is service, there’s no question. You must be in this job to serve others.

“It is not to serve yourself, it is not to promote your own research, or anything else. It’s to serve everybody else and to help them in their pursuits of research excellence.”

A distinguished career

Under Pierce’s leadership, Research Infosource Inc. has ranked St. Boniface Hospital as Western Canada’s number 1 research-intensive hospital, eight years in a row. “I’m proud of that, because that’s not about me, that’s about the research environment we’ve created here. So, that’s exciting for everybody else.”

He played a pivotal role in developing the Institute of Cardiovascular Sciences (ICS) and he also helped found the Canadian Centre for Agri-Food Research in Health and Medicine (CCARM) and built up the RBC Youth BIOlab Jeunesse on the foundation of an earlier program.

International research collaborations were highlights of Pierce’s time as Executive Director. They included the Canada Italy Tissue Engineering Laboratory (CITEL) cardiac stem cell program – a relationship between the ICS and the University of Rome Tor Vergata in Italy, and Research Without Borders – a partnership with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel; a collaboration Kardami called “powerful”.

Dr. Pawan Singal, Principal Investigator, Cell Pathophysiology, and former Director, Institute of Cardiovascular Sciences, called Pierce “someone who made a positive difference during his time.” The two researchers have been friends and colleagues for more than 30 years.

“In a word, he’s ‘outstanding’,” said Singal. “He was successful in bringing new programs to St. Boniface Hospital, and he was also successful in expanding our existing programs. The result being that both of our buildings at the Hospital, the Albrechtsen Research Centre and the I. H. Asper Clinical Research Institute, are now filled fully up.” St. Boniface Hospital Research now boasts 30 labs, 250 staff, and serves as training ground for about 100 students each year.

“When we were operating in an environment of austerity, that never fazed him. We had the support of the Foundation donors, which made a huge difference. He was instrumental in fundraising – we not only continued; we grew,” said Singal.

In response, Pierce is characteristically humble. “The work that we’ve done, and the work that we’ve accomplished in the last 15 years, has no ‘I’ in it. It’s due to the tremendous expertise that we have assembled here,” he said.

“If I have any leadership quality, it’s been in my ability to listen. All I do is listen to the advice that I get from the staff we have here. They are just great people with great ideas, great expertise, and great knowledge. All I’ve had to do is say, ‘Yeah, great idea! Let’s do that.’ It has been a lot of fun to see that energy and to see that, many times, youthful enthusiasm. I will miss that.”

The last word goes to Singal. “I wrote him a note and said, ‘You have done a phenomenal job. You could have done one term more, but it’s good that you’re coming back to the lab where you’ll be available as a principal investigator.’”

“My comment to him was, ‘A principal investigator with a little more experience of the functioning of the ICS and the Research Centre!’ So, he will be an asset.”

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