By Stephen Philllips
Characteristically, Olufunmilayo I. Olopade, MD, FACP, was in the field last August when the notification arrived in her in-box informing her she’d been selected for a prestigious Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Medal. The Walter L. Palmer Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine and Human Genetics and associate dean for global health spent much of her summer 2014 vacation on the front lines of Nigeria’s response to the Ebola outbreak, helping rally US aid and coordinate successful efforts to halt the disease’s spread in the African nation. It was only when Olopade, who also directs the Center for Clinical Cancer Genetics, returned to Chicago for the start of term that she opened the message from Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, chair of the board of directors at the Roosevelt Institute and granddaughter of the 32nd President and First Lady.
“I was beyond ecstatic, I felt humbled,” she recounted.
The award is given annually to individuals whose actions exemplify the four principles of democracy enunciated by FDR in an historic 1941 speech. Past recipients in the category in which Olopade is being honored, “Freedom From Want,” include pioneering cancer research advocate Mary Lasker and microfinance guru Muhammad Yunus. The company will be no less distinguished in New York City on September 29 when Olopade receives her award. Among the fellow honorees will be Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The award recognizes Olopade’s path-finding research in Nigeria and America showing that women of African heritage can be genetically susceptible to more aggressive, earlier onset forms of breast cancer. “Her research has therefore changed the way doctors screen black women for this disease, ensuring these patients, underserved by the research community, receive proper care. She has successfully linked disciplines, cultures, and countries in her mission to save lives,” reads the award citation.
In a storied career, Olopade has won numerous accolades—not least a MacArthur “Genius Grant”—but the Four Freedoms award holds special significance, she said.
“I see my work as being about genetic justice, which is part of economic and social justice. This award celebrates these values, which means a lot.”
Olopade said she feels uniquely supported to do this work at UChicago.
“The University has been the perfect home—an environment that pushes us to ask the toughest questions and collaborate with like-minded colleagues. I don’t know of any other place that would have given me the opportunity to do this work. Rather than talking about disparities, I’ve been able to study them to create new, actionable knowledge.”
She was also quick to acknowledge the role of philanthropy in her accomplishments—both as a source of support and inspiration.
The Center for Global Health, a University-wide effort to address worldwide health inequities that is a crucial vehicle for Olopade’s research in cancer genetics, was established thanks in part to generous gifts from the Dr. Ralph and Marian Falk Medical Research Trust, the charitable foundation of Baxter International co-founder Ralph Falk, among others.
And joining Olopade and her family for next week’s award ceremony at St. James Church in Manhattan will be two Chicago couples, Dick and Susie Kiphart and Arnie and Carol Kanter, staunch supporters of the Center in recent years who have become close personal friends. Other key donors include pharma entrepreneur Dr. John Kapoor through his John and Editha Kapoor Charitable Foundation led by Mary Gauwitz.
“Much of the work that changes the world can only be supported by philanthropy,” said Olopade. “It’s not about specific aims or measurable objectives—the things the National Institutes of Health is interested in—it’s about funding students to go to developing nations and bringing scholars from these countries here to partner with us on research.”
“So many people and foundations have supported this work through the years. When we started, there were individuals who simply asked how they could help. Then there are the breast cancer survivors who did sponsored walks and showed solidarity with women around the world. This award is in their honor.”