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McGill receives $29M donation for sports science research

McGill receives $29M donation for sports science research

Nearly $25 million will be reserved for the construction of the Sylvan Adams Sports Science Institute and the purchasing of equipment.

Israeli-Canadian billionaire cyclist and businessman Sylvan Adams in 2020.
Israeli-Canadian billionaire cyclist and businessman Sylvan Adams in 2020. « Montreal is my former hometown, and my heart is in Montreal, » he says. Photo by EMMANUEL DUNAND /AFP via Getty Images

It’s an exciting time for McGill University.

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Just a week after it was announced the school would be receiving architect Moshe Safdie’s archives and Habitat 67 apartment, McGill’s faculty of education will be receiving what it says is the largest donation ever given to such a faculty in Canada.

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Quebec-born entrepreneur Sylvan Adams is donating $29 million to the faculty’s department of kinesiology and physical education for research in sports science, with the goal of improving human performance and promoting healthier living, the university announced Wednesday.

“I feel blessed and fortunate to be able to give back to society, and of course in the area of education,” Adams told the Montreal Gazette. “Everything that we do is based on education — it forms the underpinning of how we take care of all problems in society. It’s the way for individuals to advance themselves.”

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A former Montrealer, Adams studied physiology at the University of Toronto before pursuing a graduate degree in business. He previously led a large real estate development company in Canada and now lives in Israel, where a sports science institute in his name opened at Tel Aviv University in 2017.

Another centre will be established at McGill under the name the Sylvan Adams Sports Science Institute, which the university says will boast testing labs, training suites, research offices, and meeting rooms in a facility neighbouring the Montreal Neurological Institute. It will focus primarily on studying elite athletes.

“This contribution will allow McGill researchers and students to develop new insights into sports science education, research and practice, elevate the performance of Canadian athletes and improve our understanding of human health,” McGill principal Suzanne Fortier said in a statement.

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Nearly $25 million will be reserved for the construction of the facility and the purchasing of equipment. The other $4.6 million will go toward grants, conferences, fellowships and exchanges.

Henri Lajeunesse, a master’s student in kinesiology at McGill, is the recipient of one such fellowship and will begin his studies this fall. His project will focus on how different regions of the brain affect performance in endurance runners.

“Throughout my whole life I thought the brain was pretty much the most interesting organ there is, and I’ve always been interested in science, I’ve always been interested in sports, and it just felt like a good merger of both of those together,” he told the Gazette.

Lajeunesse called the fellowship a “huge honour” and said Adams’s donation to the school is “really exciting.”

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“Sports science is not exactly a field that’s been well funded in comparison to other scientific fields,” Lajeunesse said. “And I think that this institute, both the physical actual institute and the funding that (Adams is) giving us, will kind of give us in sports science a leg up to try to … expand our field.”

The professor supervising Lajeunesse’s research agreed.

“I don’t think I need to emphasize too much how excited we are about this amazing gift and the support we’ve been receiving in my lab, in terms of having a grant to advance our research in sports science, but also to support students like Henri,” said Caroline Paquette, an associate professor in the department of kinesiology and physical education.

For Lajeunesse’s research, stimulators will be secured to participants’ heads to induce a current in different parts of the brain in a non-invasive, pain-free way, Paquette said. That alters brain activity for a short period of time.

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“If we increase excitability or the activity in that region, do we have an impact on performance?” she said. “Will that help motivation, for example?”

“I’m very interested in how the brain controls movement, and having this opportunity to study how the brain can impact performance is very exciting for us,” she added.

Adams — who in 2015 signed the Giving Pledge to donate a majority of his wealth to charitable causes — said choosing Montreal as the location for his second institute was a no-brainer.

“Montreal is my former hometown, and my heart is in Montreal,” he said.

He added that he sees establishing institutes in both Montreal and Tel Aviv as an opportunity to do complementary research between the schools, including by exchanging faculty members, researchers and students.

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“To me, it’s kind of a blending of my two nationalities, the institutes being in both countries, and linking them up and creating collaboration,” Adams said. “Like all science, I think I would say collaboration is very important — and by having two institutes doing complementary work, you increase your fire power. And I’m firmly of the belief … that one and one should equal three. A very un-mathematical answer, but the idea behind this collaboration is that one plus one should equal three.”

Sports scientists from both schools will “focus on human performance during intense training, leveraging their respective and complementary research strengths in physiology, biomechanics, motor control, psychology, nutrition, and molecular biology,” McGill said in a statement.

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The dean of McGill’s faculty of education also spoke to the importance of collaboration.

“Working through collaborations, working with different universities and I guess units or institutes across the world will only benefit the growth of the field itself … much faster than if you were doing this work by yourselves, isolated from whatever type of knowledge that is being produced in other places of the world,” said Dilson Rassier.

Adams added he hopes research coming out of the schools will not only stretch human boundaries, “but that these discoveries or this area of research will also contribute to the general health of people in society.”

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