Profile with Karlee Silver

Karlee Silver (Manitoba & Magdalen 2002) is the Vice President of Targeted Challenges for Grand Challenges Canada.  Dr. Silver leads the Saving Lives at Birth, Saving Brains and Global Mental Health programs.  She is a member of the Knowledge Exchange Working Group for the Canadian Network for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health.  Dr Silver holds a DPhil from the University of Oxford, and a BSc in Biochemistry from the University of Winnipeg.

Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?

Karlee Silver: Right now my home would be Toronto in Canada.  I’ve been here for coming up on six years.  I went travelling after Oxford and then moved here – it’s a great place.

Rhodes Project: Who is your favourite author?

Karlee Silver: I would have to say it’s a toss-up between Douglas Coupland (a Canadian author), and Salman Rushdie.

Rhodes Project: What surprised you most about Oxford?

Karlee Silver: The people.  I knew the experience would be interesting and somewhat surreal for someone coming from a fairly modern university in Canada - I expected the history, the old buildings and the legacy of academics, but didn’t expect the contemporary peers from all over the world who absolutely made the experience.

Rhodes Project: When did you first become passionate about medicine?

Karlee Silver: For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been interested in how the body works and what powers we have in terms of being able to make it more or less healthy, where it messes up when the body has things programmed to go a way that’s not very conducive to a healthy lifestyle, and what we can do to correct that.  So, on a broad scale I’ve always been interested, but it took me a while to figure out what exactly within the field of medicine would make me feel passionate.

It was when I became exposed to the world, a process in which Oxford (and the Rhodes) played a role, that I really started to become passionate about global health.  The scholarship allowed me to travel to places in the world where people had explored hundreds of years ago, and to see what the impact of these world events were, and how different parts of the world have taken different courses.  Having been born in Canada, I became really interested in how extremely privileged I was in terms of health and wellbeing, and that women in other parts of the world have not had that same luck, just by the nature of where they were born and the situations they were born into. I started realising I could use my knowledge of medicine and biology to help shape the world to become a bit of a better place, and that was something that was very motivating.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about a favourite past project?

Karlee Silver: One project that I really enjoyed was during my post-doc when I first moved to Toronto.  It was a great time, post PhD, post thesis stress, and I really enjoyed the freedom of thinking and problem solving, and applying innovative techniques to a problem. I used techniques and knowledge from different areas to better understand how a malaria parasite causes a developing baby to be low birth weight.  I pulled together techniques used in other areas of medicine that were new to the malaria field and the pregnancy field, and was able to show that there was less vessel growth when malaria was in the mix, but taking out one of the key proteins that responds to infection in the body prevented that same decline in blood vessel growth.  It was a fun project because it was very logical, but I [and my co-authors] had a resistance from the field because they weren’t quite ready for these different techniques; that there is a lot to be gained from other fields, rather than just repeating the same approaches time and again.  But finally, it caught on.

Rhodes Project: What is an average work day like for you?

Karlee Silver: It depends if I’m in Toronto or travelling for work.  The general theme of my job is that it involves the actions of many people. So, my average work day involves a lot of phone calls or meetings to be able to work with the people I need to work with in order to make things happen.  The nature of our organisation is that we invest in ideas, mostly in developing countries, and therefore I might have a vision of what types of project we might need, or certain solutions we might want to support, but at the end of the day it takes some really brilliant and dedicated people to make that happen.  We also deal with huge challenges in the world, and are under no illusion that our organisation is going to be the only solution, and so have to work with a lot of other partners who are either funders or actors in global health in order to be able to make a larger impact.  Lots of meetings, lots of emails (sadly!), but also lots of fantastic experiences of travelling to see different projects or to meet with really interesting and passionate people who want to see tomorrow be a better day than today.

Rhodes Project: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Karlee Silver: My whole mandate is to solve grand challenges, and to do that I have to find the people in the world who are focused on doing that, and then align myself with them, which brings me into contact with some of the most interesting people from all walks of life, from all over the world but who all have an extremely common vision of preventing deaths around the time of birth, or promoting early child development, or increasing the access to care for mental health conditions.  All of these issues unite us, and I find that incredibly motivating.  We bring the people we invest in and our partners together a couple of times a year, and every time that happens there’s this amazing community of innovators and people who want to change the world assembled in one space, accelerating impact against the problems.

Rhodes Project: Do you have any role models?

Karlee Silver: I’ve always found this challenging, since I’ve never had one single role model – I’ve had so many people throughout my life who have had elements I really admire.  I certainly have a mentor in my current CEO who is a visionary, and who has been amazing in believing in my abilities and pushing me forward to do things that, if left to my own devices, wouldn’t have done (or at least not as quickly!).  Generally I find that my role models are people who take any sorts of situations and see the positive in them and the opportunity to do better.  It’s certainly a unique skill!

Rhodes Project: What advice would you offer to a woman interested in pursuing a career in your field?

Karlee Silver: Follow the opportunities, and do what you think sounds fun and motivating.  As much as I’ve not been able to identify a single role model to follow, I’ve not been able to identify where my career path is meant to be, and at the moment I’m just loving what I’m doing and where I’ve been.  I don’t have a vision of where I’ll be in ten years, but I’m also not worried about that – if you are doing what you love doing and you stay open to opportunities that might present themselves, and are willing to take the risk if something that sounds better for you comes along then I think it will all work out.

Rhodes Project: If you could have one super-power, what would it be and why?

Karlee Silver: It would definitely be instant teleportation across long distances!  Since I travel a lot for work, I find that being able to spend weekends and evenings at home makes my life a lot more manageable, so if I was able to finish my meetings in some other part of the world and teleport home for the evenings and weekends I’d be a very happy woman!

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