From Lab Coat to Power Suits: One Women’s Journey in Science Success

Dec. 16, 2020

By STEVE ARNOLD

Turning in her lab coat for a business suit was never part of Julia Levy’s career plan.

Her world was test tubes and the battle against disease, not profit and loss statements and the endless battle for another few pennies a share in profits.

In 1995, however, she made the leap from the lab to the boardroom of the company she had helped found and, as a result, helped create one of Canada’s leading biotech success stories.

Her success was even more remarkable because it all happened in the days when a woman was still more likely to be taken for the company CEO’s secretary than the boss herself.

Levy, 86, tells her story in a new memoir, In Sight: My Life in Science and  Health Innovation, recently published by University of Toronto Press. As well the personal story of a woman’s life spent in search of new medicines, it’s the tale of how Canada carved out a place for itself in the world of biotechnology.

“I thought it might be a useful thing to do for other people wanting to go into the biotechnology field in Canada,” Levy told the CJR in an interview from her home in British Columbia. “It gives the background to what it’s like to be an academic and then move into business. That is quite often quite counter to what a basic scientist thinks is important in their lives.

“If I had been asked in 1970 if I could envisage myself going into a business and being successful at it, I would have thought people were certifiably crazy,” she added. “I never had any inclination to do that at all because my big passion was science and teaching science. I loved to do that. Perhaps the memoir is my final lesson in teaching about science and technology.”

Born in Singapore and sent to Canada with her mother and sister as refugees just ahead of the Second World War, Levy was raised in Vancouver and graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1955 with a BA in immunology and bacteriology. She followed that with a doctorate in experimental pathology from the University of London before returning to UBC as an assistant professor in 1959.

In those days, she said, life could be difficult for a woman in science.

“I was a woman doing graduate work in the 1950s. The world has changed a lot, but it also hasn’t changed a lot,” she reflected. “I certainly suffered from that when I was in graduate school. The gender bias comes in, and the harassment and all of the unpleasantness that women have to put up with. It’s much worse when you’re just starting out.

“The other thing of course is the assumptions people make when you are starting out. If you’re a young woman and you’re at a scientific meeting and you’ve got a faculty position and you’re on your way, you have a lab of your own, you would still automatically get the question, ‘whose lab do you work in?’ That happened to me so many times.”

In the world of science, however, that pettiness falls away with time and a record of achievement in research papers published, she went on.

“That kind of harassment and bias tends to go away in science because your accomplishments are readily quantifiable. You can say on a piece of paper, ‘I published this many papers this year in these kind of journals,’ and there is no way anyone with a bias who wants to hold you back can do that,” Levy said.

Levy spent 27 years pursuing knowledge in her UBC lab, but two developments in the 1980s changed her life’s trajectory entirely.

The first happened on land, where she and her husband, Edwin (Ed) Levy, a physicist at UBC, were planning to build a vacation home. As related in a company history, in getting ready for that cottage, Levy gave her seven-year-old son Ben a machete and let him clear weeds on the property. One of those weeds was a plant called cow parsley, and Ben attacked it with such enthusiasm, his skin was soon covered in fluid that, when exposed to the sun, caused the skin to blister.

Intrigued, Levy learned that a substance in cow parsley’s leaves can attack and destroy certain kinds of tissue, skin cells included, when activated by exposure to light.

She started to think about the potential of photo-activated drugs and embarked on research that lead to her co-invention of photodynamic therapy (PDT).

What she helped to develop was a two-step process that started with an injection of a drug that collected around abnormal blood vessels. The drug could then be activated by a dose of non-thermal laser light, triggering a process that destroyed abnormal cells.

Seeing great potential for this kind of drug in treating cancer and other conditions, Levy and colleagues John Brown, Jim Miller, Anthony Phillips, and Ron MacKenzie formed a company they called Quadra Logic Technologies, now QLT Inc.

The company’s initial financing came from its founders, with Levy mortgaging her home to raise capital. That was after they approached UBC and a number of investment banks.

“It was a pretty naive scene in the early ‘80s, when biotech was just barely rolling in the U.S. and Canada,” she recalled. “The biggest thing was that investment money in Canada in those days was all resource based. The banks either hadn’t heard of biotech or thought it was pretty squirrely.”

QLT’s initial office and lab was over a Vancouver bakery where the founders worked after hours to turn their ideas into marketable drugs. In 1985, that search took on a personal element for Levy when her mother began to develop age-related macular degeneration, an incurable deterioration of the central portion of the retina and a leading cause of blindness in people over age 50.

Levy noticed that, like cancer, the eye condition manifested itself by forming new, abnormal tissues. Finding a way to attack those tissues with the light-activated drugs became her mission.

It took 15 years, but by 2000, that work resulted in regulatory approval for Visudyne, a drug that became QLT’s signature achievement.

“With Visudyne we had no competition for the first few years; I mean we sold a million dollars worth of the drug on the first day it was approved. It was hundreds of millions of dollars a year that we were making,” Levy said. “It was a very big product and the company was valued at over a billion dollars because of it.”

Julia Levy, David Dolphin, Visudyne
Julia Levy with David Dolphin, creator of the Visudyne molecule, in 1990

Visudyne was released in April 2000. By the end of the second quarter of that year, sales hit $25 million and more than doubled within a year to $56 million as the drug spread to more than 50 countries.

During Visudyne’s tortured trial and approval process, the other founders of the company had left and it was decided Levy should take over as president rather than risk bringing in someone entirely new.

“I felt comfortable doing that because by that time our company was quite mature and we had a great finance department and good human resources, we had all the divisions properly taken care of with senior people who knew what they were doing,” she said. “To find someone who was up to speed to take over was just impossible. We were working very well as a team so at that point I said I would do it. It was the right thing to do.”

Levy held the top position until 2002, leading the company through a period of explosive growth before stepping down. She continued to serve on the board of directors until 2006, when she became director emerita, and was actively involved with its scientific advisory board until 2008, when she retired from QLT entirely.

Today, she remains actively involved in mentoring and investing in early stage life sciences ventures and serves as an advisor to several academic and non-profit programs.

Her scientific reputation has been marked with seven honorary doctorates from Canadian universities, research chairs in her honour at Johns Hopkins University and the University of British Columbia departments of ophthalmology. In addition, the Chemical Institute of Canada awards the Julia Levy Award for successful commercialization of innovation in the field of biomedical science and engineering.

Beyond its actual products, Levy said she hopes QLT has helped create a vibrant biotech industrial scene in Vancouver.

“There were no role models when we started, but today, the biotech scene in Vancouver carries the hallmarks of the QLT experience,” she said. “I think that’s one of the best things that we did was to help create that environment where other people flourished too.”

Vera Schiff, Holocaust Survivor, Named to Order of Canada

Dec. 9, 2020

By SUSAN MINUK

A tattered diary no bigger than a credit card inspired Holocaust survivor Vera Schiff to spend a lifetime spreading her message of tolerance and gratitude across Canada.

Her efforts to educate students have not gone unnoticed. On Nov. 27, Schiff was named to the Order of Canada – among 114 new appointments.

Schiff (née Katz), 94, was honoured for her “illustrious career as an author, historian and public speaker who is nationally recognized for sharing her moving experiences of the Holocaust,” said a statement from Governor General Julie Payette.

It came as a surprise,” Schiff told the CJR. “I am very honoured and humbled. To be recognized gives me a great deal of satisfaction and gratitude to the government of Canada and those who recommended me.”

Vera Schiff

Schiff was born in 1926 in Prague, Czechoslovakia, to Elsie and Siegfried Schiff. Raised with her sister Eva, her childhood was a happy one. On March 15, 1939, the German army invaded and occupied the country and her life was forever changed. Schiff and her family were deported in 1942 to Terezin (Theresienstadt), where only Schiff survived from among about 50 members of her extended family.

She found the strength to move forward after discovering her mother’s small journal.

“I think she found comfort in entering these little day-by-day pains from Terezin,” said Schiff. “It’s my greatest treasure, the only thing I have from her.”

In the book, Elsie offered her daughter valuable life advice.

“She knew I would need medical attention and said after my recovery [that] I should go back to school to acquire skills and knowledge to make my way through life, and to become a contributing member to society,” Schiff recalled. “Every time I am at a crossroad, I turn to the diary. And although it’s always the same, I somehow know what she would have hoped me to do. The last page was a letter to me… a blueprint on how to live my life.”

Schiff met her future husband, Arthur Schiff, in the Theresienstadt ghetto (see B&W photo with story). After the war, they settled in Prague, and then moved to Israel in 1949. In 1961, they came to Toronto, where Schiff worked as a medical technologist at Toronto General Hospital and Arthur was a pharmacist. She and her husband have two sons, six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Arthur died in 2001.

In recognition of her contributions to literature, Schiff was awarded an Honourary Doctorate of Letters from the University of New Brunswick in 2012, and this summer, received an Honourary Doctor of Letters degree during a virtual convocation ceremony at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia.

Schiff has published seven books. Theresienstadt: The Town the Nazis Gave to the Jews won the Elie Wiesel History of the Holocaust Award.

She was also a Czech language court interpreter during the trial of Toronto’s neo-Nazi Holocaust denier, Ernst Zundel in the 1980s. “He said the Holocaust did not exist – it was a Jewish invention,” Schiff recalled. “I couldn’t believe in my lifetime people would deny what I lived through.”

Schiff’s message never wavers. “Each and every one of us must do his share to make this world a better place. I tell students to remember: Freedom is not a gift, it is a privilege. We are very fortunate in Canada to live in a wonderful country with freedom and dignity. We must preserve it and pass it on. It is our duty.”

Schiff remains steadfast in her quest to educate Canadians. Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, she has adapted to new technology and continues to educate students by Zoom.

Cardiologist Follows his Heart and Becomes Composer

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—Jaap Nico Hamburger’s mother gave him two invaluable pieces of advice. 

When he was young, she told him that, yes, he played the piano very well, but he must have a reliable profession. Decades later, after Hamburger had achieved international recognition as a cardiac surgeon, she said he had worked hard enough as a doctor and it was time to devote himself to his first love, music.

So it was that, mid-life, Hamburger gradually wound down his practice in Vancouver in minimally invasive heart procedures, which had begun in his native Holland, and embarked on “the great adventure” of being a full-time composer of classical music.

That transition was completed this year when he left the University of British Columbia where he had been a clinical professor since 2000, and moved permanently to Montreal to be composer-in-residence for Mécénat Musica, a donor-supported cultural program.

The cross-country relocation also meant settling down with his new wife, Kathy Assayag, executive director of the Jewish Community Foundation of Montreal.

His mother’s counsel proved wise – not that Hamburger ever doubted it. Janny Moffie-Bolle, after all, had survived Auschwitz and other camps. This formidable woman died in 2016 at age 95, still a force to be reckoned with.

The Holocaust was not an off-limits topic when Hamburger was growing up, but he has not attempted to give it musical expression – until now.

In advance of Remembrance Day, Hamburger released an album on the Canadian label Leaf Music of two new compositions for chamber orchestra that evoke the Holocaust and commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Europe. (His Piano Concerto, featuring Israeli pianist Assaff Weisman, was put out by Leaf in August.)

Chamber Symphony No. 1, performed by Montreal’s Ensemble Caprice conducted by Matthias Maute, is subtitled “Remember to Forget,” a phrase from the Tanach that cautions against the futility, even destructiveness, of second-guessing oneself. Self-criticism should lead to self-improvement, he explained, and the biblical Joseph serves as a model for perseverance.

Hamburger was inspired by the life of Hungarian-Jewish composer Gyorgy Ligeti (1923-2006), who survived the Holocaust, unlike his father and brother. Ligeti, who later fled communism, became an outstanding classical composer, known for his avant-garde style. The soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was designed from Ligetti’s work.

Hamburger’s Chamber Symphony No. 2, “Children’s War Diaries,” performed by the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal under the baton of the Dutch Vincent de Kort, is also optimistic.

About 20 years ago, Hamburger read the diaries of five teens who had perished in the Holocaust. Anne Frank’s was, of course, the most famous. The other four, largely forgotten – unlike Frank, who stopped writing after she was discovered in hiding – bore witness to what they experienced in the death camps.

In 2010, Hamburger’s 89-year-old mother, who was a teen at the start of the war, published her autobiography. With her at Yad Vashem for the book’s launch, he was shaken by the memorial to the 1.5 million murdered Jewish children. After emerging from its darkness to the blazing Jerusalem sun, he was impelled to translate his overwhelming emotions into music.

“The contours of a new symphonic work came to mind virtually complete,” he said. “I went home and wrote “Children’s War Diaries” in five short movements.”

The work’s world premiere was recorded at the “Violins of Hope” concert held last November at the Maison symphonique de Montréal in tribute to the victims of the Holocaust and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Holland by the 1st Canadian Army.

The actual Violins of Hope, which belonged to Jewish musicians before and during the Holocaust, have been restored by father-and-son luthiers in Israel. They are played with orchestras around the world as a symbol of victory over tyranny.

This is the spirit Hamburger intends in his symphonies. He is not, he emphasizes, trying to capture the horror experienced by those who survived the Holocaust.

“That would be presumptuous and impossible,” said Hamburger, who was obsessed with Beethoven at age three and began his music education soon after. “I could read scores before I could read language,” he said.

He earned a soloist degree in piano from Amsterdam’s Royal Conservatory while studying medicine. He became an expert in the development of laser coronary angioplasty at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, and travelling around the world. He stopped giving recitals, but continued to compose in his limited spare time.

“The only thing I can do is try to use the language of music to express how I experience what I know, and what I think the Holocaust means for the world today. We always said, ‘Never again’, but we see what is happening all over.”

The release of his album on Nov. 6, fortunately, was not stopped by the COVID pandemic, unlike another of Hamburger’s big projects. His first opera, Goldwasser, was scheduled to premiere at the Lincoln Center in New York in March, featuring laureates of the Richard Tucker Music Foundation. All being well, Goldwasser will debut next season.

Typically, Hamburger looks on the bright side. It was at the foundation gala in 2018 in New York that he met Kathy, a fellow opera lover, and would start a new chapter of his extraordinary life in Montreal.

Leila Khaled and the Corruption of the Academy

Sept. 14, 2020 – By DAVID ROYTENBERG

On Sept. 6, 1970, 50 years ago last week, Leila Khaled, a Palestinian refugee from Haifa, participated in the hijacking of El Al flight 219 from Amsterdam to New York. The crime was part of a coordinated attack involving 600 passengers on four commercial jets from four airlines, all bound for New York.

Leila Khaled
Leila Khaled

The Israeli pilot and crew overpowered the hijackers. Khaled’s accomplice wounded two members of the flight crew and was himself killed. Khaled was handed over to the British authorities when the Israeli pilot landed at Heathrow.

The hijacking was the second one for Khaled, who was also involved in an attack on TWA flight 840 on Aug. 29, 1969. In that earlier act of terrorism, a flight bound for Tel Aviv was diverted to Damascus by six attackers.

With three other aircraft captured on Sept 6, 1970 on the ground in Beirut and Amman, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which was responsible for all of the hijackings, demanded Khaled’s release in return for the release of British hostages. On Sept. 10, the PFLP highjacked a British VC10 to Amman, and on Sept 12, they blew up the airliner. They were holding 300 hostages in Jordan and Lebanon, and by Oct. 1, the UK surrendered to their demands. Khaled, two-time air pirate, was set free. She never stood trial and never expressed any regrets.

More shocking than the fact that she was never tried is that Khaled has spent the 50 years since she escaped justice being treated as an honoured spokesperson for the Palestinian people and their cause. In recent years, she has been a globetrotting advocate of the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel.

In 2013, B’nai Brith Canada protested when a student group invited Khaled to speak via remote video link at a conference at the University of British Colombia. The organizing group was “Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights,” registered with the Alma Mater Society affiliated with the UBC.

Six years ago, Michael Mostyn, CEO of B’nai Brith Canada wondered, as did many others, “at a time when we’ve just seen a terrorist tragedy in Boston, and arrests here in Canada due to a bombing plot … which has all been speculated to be a product of homegrown radicalization, why would we [allow] a public institution in Canada to bring in a convicted terrorist to speak to students?”

Khaled, now 76, was back in the news this week because San Francisco State University (SFSU), also funded with public dollars, is implicated in a Zoom panel discussion hosted by the university’s “Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Studies” program, and scheduled for Sept. 23. University president Lynn Mahoney defended the panel, which is entirely composed of anti-Zionists, as promoting “diversity.”

As news spread of the planned anti-Israel event, held with SFSU’s endorsement, protests were heard from many quarters, but none as poignant as a letter from Rodney Khazzam, who was a child hostage on the flight Khaled hijacked on Sept 6, 1970.

In his letter to the SFSU president, Khazzam bluntly states that Khaled “attempted to kill me, an innocent, civilian child at the time. I am alive because of the heroic pilot who thwarted the hijacking. … When she realized she was being captured and her plan was being foiled, she detonated a grenade and indiscriminately attempted to set if off onboard. By sheer fortune, all her attempts failed.”

In March 2019, SFSU settled two lawsuits alleging that it failed to prevent an atmosphere of antisemitism on campus. This time, the welcome extended to a life-long member of a terrorist organization dedicated to Israel’s annihilation suggests that the university has not made the changes necessary to prevent antisemitism.

More broadly, the celebration of violence in the academic sphere reveals a profound moral rot, not just at SFSU, but at other universities that welcome unrepentant terrorists.

Addendum: Rodney Khazzam has begun a petition calling on SFSU president Lynn Maloney to cancel Khaled’s appearance.

The aircraft Khaled helped commandeer were “all passenger planes filled with civilians. These were not war planes. Would it be OK for a 9/11 hijacker to teach university students has one survived?” the petition asks.

Khaled, it goes on, is being given the “honour” of speaking at the university “for one reason only: She is an infamous female hijacker/terrorist. That is her claim to fame…It is deplorable to see a State university in America rolling out the red carpet for this woman, to speak and influence college kids on campus. We must sign and stop this from happening.”

The petition is at: 

https://www.gopetition.com/petitions/stop-hijackerterrorist-leila-khaled-from-speaking-at-sfsu.html


David Roytenberg
David Roytenberg

David Roytenberg is a computer consultant living in Ottawa.  He is Secretary of MERCAZ Canada and chair of adult education at Kehillat Beth Israel congregation.