Luncheon at the Plaza…A peek at philanthropy in NYC

À la Odd Mom Out, I recently found myself at a benefit fundraiser at the Grand Ballroom at the Plaza Hotel.

To be honest, it all came about rather innocently. In December I mentioned to some of my new “mom friends” that my Christmas wish was a book called The Gene: An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee which was on Bill Gates’ annual list of books to read. My friend piped up: she would be attending a benefit in the spring and the author was the keynote speaker. Would I like to attend? Yesss…..of course!

Before you get any ideas about my friend, she is also very down-to-earth. This was her first fancy benefit luncheon…she happens to be childhood friends with one of the organizer’s family members.

The benefit was for Gray Matters at Columbia which supports scientists at the Columbia University Department of Psychiatry. This year the focus was on precision psychiatry, whereby targeted interventions can be developed based on a person’s own genetic makeup. This is something we are already seeing in the treatment of some cancers, and to think it may be the rule vs. the exception is enlightening.

The keynote address was done in the style of an interview, which was fascinating.  Since Siddhartha Mukherjee’s books are very personal (he is also a Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer) you feel like you already kind of know him. “Sid” not only spoke more at length of his family’s history of mental illness but also offered up the hypothetical: what if pre-natal (or post-natal) genetic tests for mental illness become available? Knowing that genes, environment and chance are what determine our fate, would we choose to intervene given a 20%, 30% etc. lifelong probability of a particular mental illness? And what does it say of our humanity?

I was definitely not the target demographic for this philanthropic venture. One of the attendees pledged a $60,000 donation on the spot. As the event founder said:  U.S. tax laws allow humanity and philanthropy to come together for projects that might not otherwise receive funding.

In addition to the philanthropists in attendance, I was humbled to be sitting among some of the brightest scientific minds in NYC. The gentleman sitting next to me was a Harvard trained mathematician who is now on the board of a not-for-profit biomedical research institution; his wife is a professor of Epidemiology and Psychiatry at Columbia; the wife’s late husband was a Nobel Prize winner; the keynote speaker is an author, practicing oncologist and cancer researcher, and those were just the people I met!

My luncheon experience at the Plaza was humbling and a bit out-of-worldly, as I didn’t “quite” fit in, but I enjoyed a peek into the life of a socialite none-the-less.


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