Central to Dr. Valerie Verge’s Career is asking “Why?”
There is a unique generation of women in our midst. These women did it all — studied, raised families, volunteered, made their professional mark and took care of aging parents — and they did it quietly and progressively, without social media to document every moment of their journeys. These remarkable women set the stage for the younger generation of successful entrepreneurs and professionals we see today. It’s time to celebrate their quiet accomplishments and the trails they blazed in our province!
Dr. Valerie Verge
Dr. Valerie Verge grew up in a large family in the Montreal area and describes herself as being “a very curious kid.” Her inquisitive nature has led to decades of achievements as a neuroscientist and scientific researcher with a focus on nervous system repair and multiple sclerosis (MS).
Valerie is a Professor of Anatomy, Physiology & Pharmacology in the College of Medicine and Director of the Cameco MS Neuroscience Research Centre in Saskatoon City Hospital, a research centre of the University of Saskatchewan (U of S) in Saskatoon.
Valerie earned her Ph.D. with Dr. Peter Richardson at the prestigious McGill University and pursued postdoctoral studies with Professor Tomas Hökfelt at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. She also has a BSc from Concordia University and a degree in computer programming from McGill University. She is a past president of the Canadian Association for Neuroscience and emeritus Medical Research Council of Canada Fellow and Scholar.
It was Valerie’s time in Sweden that led to an unexpected life turn. On a flight back to Canada, she sat beside a handsome fellow who knew a lot more about the nervous system and, in particular, a chemical used in her research than the average person. It turned out that Ole Olsen was a farmer from Plenty, Saskatchewan and the chemical was also used on farms to deal with pests (he was in Scandinavia travelling and visiting relatives). The rest is history and Valerie moved to our province in 1992. “After meeting my future spouse on a plane, I stopped trying to predict life,” says Valerie.
It was fortunate that Valerie decided to pursue a career in neurological research. “Just as I entered graduate school, my best friend growing up was diagnosed with MS and that drove my interest in the disease.” Valerie’s career-long hope is that her research into how to more effectively repair the nervous system can provide new therapeutic strategies for people with MS. Her priority is for people with MS to have a dramatically better quality of life.
After moving to Saskatchewan and settling into her faculty role, Valerie had their son, Erik Olson. “I took a six-month maternity leave. I was lucky our son was a very easy child, so I was able to take him with me to scientific talks and meetings when necessary. Just one generation before me, a woman in my position would usually have to choose between a career in science or being a mother.”
Today, Erik is a 23-year old Master's student in Mechanical Engineering at the U of S. She credits Ole’s mechanical expertise around the farm, combined with her own role as a professor and scientific researcher, for influencing their son’s chosen career path.
Valerie has had many influential mentors. She cites Dr. Tessa Gordon (now a senior neuroscientist at SickKids in Toronto and University of Alberta Professor Emeritus) as a pivotal female mentor in her own career. “Tessa showed me that a woman could be a world-renowned scientist and have children and successful marriage. It’s no longer a foreign expectation for young women in science today, although there is still a paucity of female scientists in academia.”
In her role, Valerie is often asked why MS is highly prevalent in Saskatchewan. “There is no easy answer to that question. We do know that MS is most common in places farthest from the equator, with the highest incidence observed at higher latitudes and possibly influenced by a lesser ability to make vitamin D at these latitudes. As well, two to three times as many women as men are diagnosed with MS.”
This year, Valerie was selected as the 2019 Women Against MS honouree. This distinction honours her remarkable MS research efforts and her leadership as Director of the Cameco MS Neuroscience Research Centre.
Valerie plans to transition to Professor Emeritus in five years. Reflecting on her career, she says: “Research is a team effort and I’ve been privileged to work with and train a wealth of driven and gifted people. I’ve had a long and fruitful career and have more research yet to do with the goal of our findings impacting clinical practice.”
MS Society of Canada