Northwestern: How did you first become involved with Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University? What were your first impressions?
Irene: I first became involved with giving to the Lurie Cancer Center when I first formed the IDP Foundation in 2008. One of the things we realized quickly as a foundation was that we wanted to make sure that our grants were going to be leveraged for more funding through organizations like the National Cancer Institute. I was impressed with the work being done at Northwestern then, and I still am now.
Northwestern: Could you tell us a bit about your leadership of the IDP Foundation? What is your mission?
Irene: IDP’s mission is to look at sustainable solutions for large global problems, including health and education. We accomplish this through program-related investments as well as rigorously ensuring that we always invest for impact. It’s important to note the initials of the foundation—IDP stands for Innovation, Development, and Progress. Those are more than just nice-sounding words—they really drive a lot of what the foundation is about.
Some of the hardest grants for institutions to get are those that fund post-docs, fellows and protected research time. I think that our support of these areas has helped other foundations to follow in our footsteps and put their confidence directly into scientists at Northwestern.
Northwestern: You initially supported cancer research at the medical school and have broadened your support to include other diverse areas at Feinberg. Why have you chosen to strengthen and diversify your support across areas including cardiology, Parkinson’s disease research, neuro-gastroenterology, ophthalmology and cancer, among others?
Irene: I had a healthy interest in Parkinson’s disease because of a strong family history of the disease. I started to talk to Department of Physiology Chair D. James Surmeier, PhD, who helped me to understand the complex science and causes behind this illness. As I began to understand a little bit more about what Jim was working on, I got very excited about it.
Over the years, I became connected with doctors across Northwestern, particularly through various medical appointments. If the interest was there, I would ask them about their clinical and research work. I would oftentimes become very interested in the research part, and I would ask them about their funding needs—“What do you wish you could be doing?”
One such area is the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, where for some time clinical research physicians have wanted to use virtual reality solutions to relieve pain and reduce symptoms. It’s being done in California but it’s a new and tricky science to use—pretty cutting-edge stuff. The IDP Foundation agreed to help fund this work at Northwestern under the leadership of Dr. Darren Brenner.
Northwestern: As a donor, what advancements do you want to see through the IDP Foundation’s charitable support of dedicated faculty and their research programs and new initiatives?
Irene: I’m already seeing it—the increasing recruitment of cutting-edge scientists, clinicians, programs, clinical trials, and beyond. I am seeing it rapidly escalating and as a donor, that is exactly what I want to see. It’s great.
Northwestern: What words would you use to describe Northwestern and the faculty members that you support through your philanthropy? How important is it for you to connect with the people behind a research program or new effort and learn of their progress?
Irene: The faculty members at Northwestern are passionate and dedicated people, and I count many of them as friends. Dean Eric G. Neilson, MD, is definitely responsible for the caliber of Northwestern’s faculty. As executive director of the Lurie Cancer Center, Dr. Leon Platanias’s many contributions to the center and its new direction also have been extraordinary. When we compare Northwestern to others, these people are the cream of the crop, the top-notch scientists and doctors that are continually amazing us. It’s evident that they are committed and at the top of their class, and that is why they are the ones in whom we invest. At Northwestern, if someone writes that they are a hematological oncologist on their business card, you know that they are a well-trained specialist—the best of the best.
It is important for me to connect with the physician-scientists behind a research program. I love visiting various research labs and seeing them come alive when they talk about their work.
Northwestern: On a number of occasions, you have generously supported Northwestern by hosting events in your home. These events have helped us to showcase our faculty and our progress in research, patient care, and education. What do you hope to accomplish through these gatherings?
Irene: I host dinners in my home for patients and friends of the University to get together with physicians and scientists so that the findings and the latest research can be shared. That way we can perhaps encourage some of the patients, their friends or their families to support some of the amazing work that is taking place. Northwestern has been quickly gaining more national recognition and the hope is that by spreading the word about the wonderful research happening, it will inspire others to give.
Northwestern: Why do you give to causes that you care about? What is your philosophy of giving?
Irene: I think that people give to causes they care about because there is passion there. In the case of a foundation like IDP, it is important to assemble a strong senior management team that becomes experts in those areas of passion. Then we try to give strategically. My philosophy is to give “smart”, to see our grants and investments as catalytic seed stage funding and to always strive for future scalability, replication and sustainability of any program we support. It is true that scientists are eternally dependent upon funding, but bigger funding often comes as a result of smaller funding. At Northwestern, we see what we are doing as creating stepping stones, but we always want to see where those stepping stones are leading. We have not been disappointed!
Northwestern: What would you say to encourage current supporters and new supporters of the medical school at Northwestern?
Irene: I would tell people that, if they are genuinely interested in supporting an area, they should get involved and follow that interest. Meet with the scientists, meet with the Development office, and let them know you’re interested. While there is a protocol to this sort of thing, it’s incredibly helpful to show interest to the doctors and commit all the way through.I would also tell people that you don’t have to give millions for your gift to matter. Every gift matters and I think donors should strive to really understand the institutions and causes they want to support.