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For her address to McGill University’s fall graduating class in Montreal, Naomi Azrieli plans to focus on a line of text written by a rabbi in the 18th century.

“It says, ‘The whole world is a narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to be afraid,’” says Azrieli, who will receive an honorary doctorate from McGill on Monday for her philanthropy and promotion of brain research.

She wants to convey to the new graduates that failure is necessary, and fear of failure should not hold them back.

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Naomi Azrieli, seen in the Azrieli Foundation office in Toronto on Nov. 14, 2018, will receive an honorary doctorate from McGill University for her work.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Bridges – both crossing and building them – are themes that run through Azrieli’s work, which has earned her this recognition from McGill. Also receiving an honorary doctorate will be hockey legend and politician Ken Dryden, who in recent years has become a health advocate for athletes, speaking out on the impact of brain injuries in sports.

The Azrieli Foundation, which Azrieli chairs, has invested more than $200-million under her guidance in a recent series of initiatives aimed at changing the landscape of brain science and medicine, according to McGill.

For Toronto-based Azrieli, the path to becoming a leader in supporting brain research has been circuitous and not altogether planned. A self-proclaimed “science nerd,” she has a background in humanities and social sciences. Her first career was in business, and she enjoyed a second career in teaching, after returning to school to earn a doctor of philosophy degree in history from the University of Oxford. But in 2003, her father, the late David Azrieli, decided he wanted the Azrieli Foundation to expand and to last. To do that, he enlisted the help of his daughter.

“At first, I wasn’t sure I wanted to get involved, because I loved teaching and I loved my academic career, and also, I think it’s hard for a child to work with their parent,” Naomi Azrieli says. “But it ended up being really great, and I did eventually come on full-time.”

As the foundation grew, Azrieli says, it also began eyeing areas that required a lot of money to make an impact. The idea of making a difference, coupled with the family’s personal desire to shed light on a particular neurodevelopmental disorder, led them to look into funding scientific research, and brain research in particular. Azrieli explains that her older brother Rafael, 60, and two other family members have Fragile X syndrome, a rare genetic condition often associated with intellectual disability.

“When he was a kid …, nobody really knew what it was. So we said, ‘Okay, if we’re going to try and make a difference, let’s make a difference in something that’s really meaningful to us,'” she says.

As she discovered, however, research into one brain-related disorder can have a direct impact on others. Yet funding for brain research has traditionally been put into silos, according to individual disorders. And despite the widespread impact of brain disorders, research in this area, she found, is woefully underfunded.

“I felt like a revolution needed to happen in the way people think about the brain and think about funding for the brain,” she says, explaining she recognized the need to bridge various areas of brain science.

At the Brain Canada Foundation, which Azrieli also chairs, president and chief executive Inez Jabalpurwala describes her leadership as “paradigm-changing.” For example, Jabalpurwala says, Azrieli has steered the organization to launch a program dedicated to funding early-career researchers, who are at a critical juncture of pursuing their work, and her understanding of what matters to donors has helped the organization increase and broaden its donor base.

Azrieli says big breakthroughs will require financial supporters to take big risks. Yet governments, which are sensitive to time-limited budgets and mandates, can be hesitant to fund brain research, especially when outcomes can be distant and difficult to predict. So this is where philanthropy can play a special role in funding science, she says: “We’re in it for the long haul."

“Governments fear failure, and people do too. But I think failure is okay,” she says. "Something will be learned along the way.”

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