A daughter’s privilege: Advancing the arts, forestry and medical discoveries

Dr. Irene Bettinger. Photo: Martin Dee
Dr. Irene Bettinger. Photo: Martin Dee

For Dr. Irene Bettinger, the job of giving away money is a privilege, as she gets to choose projects of great consequence in keeping with her parents’ final wishes.

Edwina and Paul Heller, a UBC pianist and BC lumber mill owner, were great supporters of music, education and Vancouver’s Jewish community. Having fled Europe shortly after the Nazi invasion of Warsaw, Poland, they eventually settled in Vancouver, their home for more than 70 years. To build on her parents’ many contributions to the city, Dr. Bettinger decided to up the ante: In addition to existing scholarships, she allotted $710,000 from her parents’ estate to create UBC fellowships in opera, forestry and medicine.

“My mother loved people and my father loved education, so creating fellowships made perfect sense,” says Dr. Bettinger, who wanted to build up areas of strength at UBC. “Medicine, the arts, forestry, and helping young people get a better education—all these things they would have loved.”

By following these guiding principles as executor of the Heller estate, Dr. Bettinger continues the family heritage of generosity, though she is quick to point out that the money is not hers: “This is my parents’ story. Philanthropy was very important to them—it is considered a responsibility in the Jewish community to take care of others.”

 

Helping students hit the high notes

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UBC Opera performed The Cunning Little Vixen in the Czech Republic (summer 2013). Photo courtesy of UBC Opera

Creating awards for talented young singers made perfect sense to Dr. Bettinger. Her parents were ardent supporters of the arts in Vancouver and particularly enjoyed attending the opera. They held season tickets to the Vancouver Opera, and Mr. Heller attended shows until the age of 101.

In memory of her mother—who taught piano at UBC (1960-1964) and was a patron of the Vancouver Recital Society—Dr. Bettinger allotted $200,000 (over 10 years) from the Heller estate to establish the Edwina Heller Memorial Award in Opera, which supports two outstanding singers in UBC’s renowned opera training program each year.

“Opera is a competitive industry. We are so grateful for these generous awards, which will help students take advantage of opportunities—like private coaching sessions, masterclasses and competitions—to land coveted roles on stages around the world,” says Nancy Hermiston, head of the voice and opera divisions.

With the inaugural awards, soprano Nicole Brooks and bass Geoffrey Schellenberg hope to join the ranks of opera stars like UBC alumni Ben Heppner (BMus’79, LLD’97) and Judith Forst (BMus’65, DLitt‘91).

 

Honouring the legacy of a BC lumber mill owner

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Suzi Malan. Photo courtesy of Suzi Malan

Paying homage to her father’s legacy in the lumber industry, Dr. Bettinger allotted $300,000 (over 10 years) from her parents’ estate to create two fellowships for graduate forestry students. The inaugural Paul Heller Memorial Fellowship in International Forestry was awarded to a mother of three whose PhD research focuses on forest resource management in Africa.

Given complex issues such as poaching and the forced removal of communities, this fellowship could not have come at a more critical time. Fellowship recipient Suzi Malan—who has self-funded research trips to Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Botswana and South Africa—will be able to complete her work faster and provide southern African governments with research findings on which to base their conservation decisions.

“The cost of studying abroad for someone from a developing country is very dear,” says Malan, a native of South Africa whose passion for environmental governance brought her to UBC. “If not for donor support, many students would simply be unable to enrol in graduate studies, and thus contribute to increasing the breadth and depth of research. In my mind, this is probably the most worthwhile and lasting legacy anyone can leave behind.”

The Paul Heller Memorial Fellowship in Forestry has enabled Zac Zabawa to investigate forest management practices in India and Nepal in order to improve communication between forest-dependent peoples and the government.

“Studying at UBC is a fantastic opportunity because BC is currently witnessing one of the greatest experiments in indigenous rights and community-based land tenure worldwide,” says Zabawa. “This helps to analyse other nations’ approaches to forestry.”

 

Curing Alzheimer’s disease

Dr. Irene Bettinger & Dr. Judith Maxwell Silverman (photo by Martin Dee)-844x370
Dr. Irene Bettinger & Dr. Judith Maxwell Silverman. Photo: Martin Dee

Dr. Bettinger, a neurologist in Kansas City, Missouri, first heard about Dr. Neil Cashman’s work at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology. His talk, “Prion-Like Diseases: The Future is Unfolding,” laid out his investigation of misfolded proteins and their connection to neurodegenerative diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease.

Excited by this work, Dr. Bettinger allotted $210,000 from the Heller estate to fund a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Cashman’s lab. The fellowship will go to Dr. Judith Maxwell Silverman to help block the misfolding of proteins, so that they remain in a proper, non-pathological shape.

“We’re after actual cures for these protein-related diseases and it’s a very, very expensive process requiring millions of dollars over the long term,” says Dr. Cashman, a UBC Professor of Neurology. “We greatly appreciate donors like Dr. Bettinger who contribute support over several years. It allows us to concentrate on the work and that is absolutely invaluable.”

Bettinger named the fellowship for her parents’ close friends, Drs. Ludmila and Henry Zeldowicz, who were also Polish refugees from World War II. Ludmila, known as “Lola,” was a Clinical Assistant Professor in UBC’s Division of Neurology and Henry was a Clinical Assistant Professor in Psychiatry.

“What Neil is doing at UBC would have excited both of them, especially Lola—not only because she was a neurologist, but because she died of complications relating to Alzheimer’s disease,” says Dr. Bettinger, who also supported robotics training for UBC urology residents and fellows. “The fact that this work is going on at UBC, where they were faculty members, made it the perfect way to honour them.”