Meet Rob Appleton, Our New Executive Director


In January, Arthritis Research Canada/Arthrite-recherche Canada announced Rob Appleton as its new Executive Director.

Appleton joins the organization following six years at the helm of the Sarah McLachlan School of Music and, before that, over five years as executive director of the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre.

But his career in the charitable sector spans more than 25 years. We sat down with Appleton over Zoom to learn more about him and his passion for arthritis research.

You’ve worked in the non-profit sector for more than 25 years, can you share some details about your background?


I started my career in zoology. I was a practicing marine biologist and researcher after my undergraduate degree and was involved in running a freshwater research facility in Alberta. I realized I was stronger on the administration side, but I knew I also wanted to be involved in research. As such, I returned to school and did my MBA at the University of British Columbia with the goal of working in the non-profit sector. After graduating, I started at BC Children’s Hospital in the Special Care Nursery. Because it was an academic hospital, I was able to work with many physicians who were also researchers. From there, I was invited to join the fundraising side and work for BC Children’s Hospital Foundation. I also worked with BC Cancer, UBC and Canadian Blood Services where I was in charge of recruiting blood donors.

I have been in leadership roles in charity since 2003 and have held the executive director title four times at three completely different organizations: once previously with Arthritis Research Canada, the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre, the Sarah McLachlan School of Music and now Arthritis Research Canada again.

Why the return to arthritis research?


While I left Arthritis Research Canada to pursue other opportunities, my return is also a personal return to my research roots. I spent the summers of my undergraduate degree working at the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre as a research assistant. I can definitely say that in my 15-year gap from Arthritis Research Canada, a lot has changed. I am amazed by the advancements in arthritis research. For example, when I first started, it was the early days of biologics. Now they are used much more commonly to treat people with inflammatory arthritis.

On a personal level, 15 years ago, I was an avid runner and an arthritis research scientist told me that I should stop because it could damage my joints. Fast forward to today and that same scientist tells me running has many health benefits and recent evidence is inconclusive about whether or not running actually causes knee osteoarthritis. I am fascinated by the research journey because science is always evolving. What is best practice today could be different tomorrow.

Given the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of research has never been greater. Our scientists are doing groundbreaking work on COVID-19 that is changing the lives of people with arthritis. Care for patients has improved because of arthritis research and Arthritis Research Canada.

How has your background informed your work at Arthritis Research Canada?


Working alongside scientists throughout my career has given me an appreciation for the job they do and the patience they have. I’ve lived long enough to see the impact of research in my day-to-day life. The advancements in healthcare treatments are unbelievable. Twenty years ago, people with arthritis were discouraged from doing physical activity. Today, because of arthritis research, we now know that disease can be mitigated with physical activity. I think the whole world now knows the important role research plays in our lives due to the global pandemic.

Why did you want to work at Arthritis Research Canada?


Three things come to mind. First, the quality of the researchers. They are dedicated, hardworking and focused on outcomes for people living with arthritis. Second, I have a fascination for advancing research in Canada. It’s a passion that has persisted since my undergraduate degree. Third, arthritis is still not given the prominence it should have in Canada. The impact of this disease is huge. It is the leading cause of disability. It costs the economy billions each year. Over 137,000 knee and hip replacements are performed in Canada annually. Osteoarthritis is a main cause of that. And that’s just one of over 100 types of arthritis. I’ve seen arthritis impact a bunch of people in my life over the last 20 years. It’s time people understand just how serious and life-changing this disease can be.

What are you most looking forward to in your new role?


I’m excited to be working with Dr. Diane Lacaille, Arthritis Research Canada’s Scientific Director, to move arthritis research forward, to grow our research teams across the country and expand their research programs. I also look forward to continuing to push government to put more research dollars into arthritis research.

What excites you most about arthritis research?


The most exciting part of arthritis research is the impact. Care is completely informed by research. Having a concentration of scientists focusing on arthritis research has a direct impact on the quality of patient care in Canada. Over 6 million Canadians live with the pain and disability of arthritis. Arthritis research is extremely important.

Can you tell us a unique fact about yourself?


I’m in a choir. I also have a blue belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Unfortunately, I’ve had to stop both of these activities due to the COVID-19 restrictions but when those are lifted, I’m excited to return to both. I’m of the “use it or lose it” mentality when it comes to physical fitness.

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