Alumna's gift to 'Friends of Patrick' boosts brain research for grad students

July 17, 2020 by Sean McNeely - A&S News

Graduate students are being given an amazing opportunity to advance cognitive neuroscience research, thanks to a fund created to honour Patrick Widdrington.

The generous gift to the Department of Psychology from Patrick’s mother, Lucinda Widdrington, will enable graduate students to explore state-of-the-art neuroimaging to better understand how the brain develops and functions.

Widdrington, a Faculty of Arts & Science alumna, made the gift to The Friends of Patrick fMRI Brain Acceleration Fund, which she helped create in 2017 with her aunt, Colleen Lapp, and close friend (and fellow alumna), Brenda Blackwell (née Thompson).

“Friends of Patrick will be a constant reminder to reflect upon a young man who, while unable to attend university, is a teacher to many,” says Widdrington who graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in 1982 as a member of Victoria College.

Patrick in an blue shirt
Patrick Widdrington, 25, was born with a newly identified and extremely rare syndrome, DYRK1A. Photo: Lucinda Widdrington.

Patrick, 25 years old and a twin, was born with significant cognitive, physical, social and emotional challenges. He has lived with developmental delays, autism and epilepsy, and has undergone several cardiac surgeries.

Doctors recently discovered he was born with a newly identified and extremely rare syndrome, DYRK1A — a syndrome caused by mutations in the DYRK1A gene that is characterized by intellectual disabilities, speech problems, feeding problems and physical movement difficulties.  

“He's really quite a kid,” says Widdrington. “Despite all the obstacles he's had to live with, he's fearless. And he's just a very emotionally intuitive young man. He loves his life and loves being with people.”

Widdrington credits Blackwell, whom she met at Victoria College, with getting Friends of Patrick off the ground.

“She always recognized in Patrick a very engaging child, despite the disabilities he had,” says Widdrington. “She recognized a child who had a lot more going on. It was always in her mind to do something.”

Emerging from humble roots, Friends of Patrick began with small fundraisers that attracted friends and family. This grew to supporting students, hosting guest lectures and organizing networking events, which led to Widdrington, Lapp and Blackwell receiving U of T’s prestigious Arbor Award in 2019 for their outstanding volunteer work.  

Lucinda Widdrington’s sitting in a garden.
Inspired by her son, Arts & Science alumna created Friends of Patrick to advance cognitive neuroscience research. Photo: Lucinda Widdrington.

This year, Widdrington took Friends of Patrick to the next level.  

Her latest gift helped create an endowment of $50,000 that will provide an annual award to a graduate student pursuing imaging work with the University’s functional magnetic imaging (fMRI) scanner.  

“With COVID-19 happening, we didn't want Friends of Patrick to lose momentum, so I was happy to step forward,” says Widdrington. 

Acquired in 2016, the fMRI allows researchers to probe brain activity in real time, giving them a rare opportunity to examine the relationship between the brain and behaviour by visualizing information transfer. 

Professor Susanne Ferber, former chair of the Department of Psychology, has also been involved with Friends of Patrick from the beginning.  

“I was immediately on board,” she says. “It struck me as such a worthwhile case to support. Lucinda is the most caring and warm person. In fact, everyone involved with Friends of Patrick is absolutely wonderful people. 

“Lucinda and Brenda met at U of T and stayed close. If you’re the kind of person who maintains lifelong friendships through hardships and uncertainty, it speaks to who you are as a person.” 

Ferber sees Widdrington’s generous gift as a way of buying precious time with the fMRI — time that could allow students to broaden their research scopes.  

“It might help them think a little more boldly,” says Ferber. “Typically, when you buy time on the fMRI machine, you buy in hour increments and it’s really expensive. We try to be conservative in the experiments we run, but a lot of advances in science are happenstance. Sometimes you need to think big to find something unexpected, but there’s not always time and money to do it. 

Susanne Ferber.
Susanne Ferber, the former chair of the Department of Psychology has been involved with Friends of Patrick since its inception in 2017.

“This initiative alleviates the pressure of time and money a little and encourages students to think a little more broadly. They can use these funds to test a new idea in the fMRI scanner and see if it works.”  

“It will be wonderful to see the students working on this machine and advancing their knowledge in Patrick’s name,” says Widdrington. “It's not specific to any brain issue. It can be memory, it can be autism, it can be dementia — there are a whole list of things this fMRI machine can look into. 

“Professor Ferber has really been terrific to work with,” she continues. “She is such a humanitarian. She has spoken so highly of Patrick and of all that we've tried to do.” 

Widdrington now has her sights set on raising $250,000 for Friends of Patrick.  

“We would like to see this fund grow and give more researchers and students access to neuroimaging with the fMRI machine to really expand the research,” she says.   

“This is the first time in the history of our department that we have done anything like this,” says Ferber. “We didn’t really have any blueprints that we could follow, so it really just came out of people coming together, seeing a worthy cause and pushing it forward.” 

Learn more about Friends of Patrick:

Friends of Patrick from Peter Widdrington on Vimeo.