Mentor of Distinction
If it weren’t for the intervention of her high school physics teacher, Sabina Bruehlmann might have ended up dissecting not mice, but Of Mice and Men.
“In Grade 10, I wanted to be an English teacher,” the biomedical engineer recalls. “But my physics teacher, Mr. Renneberg, told me I that he thought I would be better suited to science and that besides, my grammar skills were terrible.”
Bruehlmann admits that as a teen, science was not her first career choice because of the stereotypes of “keeners” who were more interested in the periodic table than in fourth-period gym.
I probably was a little scared off by the idea (pursuing a career in science) simply because of the stigma attached with kids who hang out at science camp for the summer.
However, her ever-persistent teacher worked with the school board to send Bruehlmann to the Deep River Science Academy in Ontario for summer camp, hoping to convince her that science was indeed her calling.
“After six weeks of making friends with kids possessing above-average science aptitudes, I discovered that we shared more similarities than I first imagined. That’s what really switched my interests. After that, those social barriers just sort of dropped away.”
Today, Bruehlmann is Project Manager, Medical; Life Sciences for University Technologies International (UTI), which helps to commercialize the technology being created through academic research at the University of Calgary.
“We work with researchers to evaluate their work for commercial potential. Often, there are aspects that will only transfer to societal benefit if they are properly protected and licensed to the right companies,” Bruehlmann says. “My job is to identify companies in the medical and life sciences fields that might benefit from a technology that has been disclosed to us, ranging from medical devices to pharmaceutical compounds, ensure it is properly protected with patents if necessary, and then work with them to negotiate a license.”
Before joining UTI 18 months ago, Bruehlmann worked for a start-up company that was developing a surgical device for spine surgery. It was there that she discovered a need for people well-versed in the language of science to act as a liaison between researchers and business executives.
“My current position needs people with strong technical backgrounds who can translate from science to business. With our backgrounds, we can work with the researchers one-on-one about their work and then communicate the advantages of the technology to companies. I don’t have a business degree, so it was trial by fire at first.”
Communication is always a challenge, Bruehlmann says, but that only adds to the appeal of her job.
“You’re working with experts in the field of science who don’t always understand the business implications behind their technologies,” she says. “It is exciting to be able to help them move their work into reality – and being able to work with the latest, cutting-edge technology keeps it interesting.”
Bruehlmann first got involved in Operation Minerva while completing her PhD in biomedical engineering at the University of Calgary. As one of the program’s mentors, she would meet students who already had their sights set on science careers, some of whom “knew more about what they wanted to do than I did at the time,” she laughs.
“I would actually like to see teachers send students who are more on the fence about science,” she says, undoubtedly recalling her own teenage misperceptions. “Those are the ones who could really stand to have their eyes opened to all the possibilities.”
At the same time, Bruehlmann believes that teachers need to be aware of the messaging they are sending female students about their futures.
“I have seen some driven young women pressured into science and engineering although their brain is wired for something else or their interests lie elsewhere,” she says. “Science and engineering are only options – they shouldn’t be the only measure of your intelligence or ability to contribute.
“I saw several smart girls in their third year of university suddenly realizing, ‘I’m just not that interested in this. I can do it, but it’s not where my heart is.’ Then they backtrack to music or English,” Bruehlmann says, noting that in her case, she was not pressured into science but was instead guided into the field that was best suited to her.
“My physics teacher was a positive influence because he realized what my interests were before I did. Believe me, I really am an engineer in the obsessively logical way that I solve problems… I’m an engineer to a T.”
Bruehlmann’s career choice has not only brought her professional success, it has been of personal benefit as well – introducing her to her new husband, a civil engineer, as well as igniting a passion for the outdoors, where she now loves to spend leisure time skiing, hiking and canoeing.
And just for the record, Bruehlmann is still as enthusiastic about her chosen field as the day she graduated.
“It all comes down to this: do what interests you. If that happens to be science and engineering, great – don’t shy away from it for some ridiculous reason like I nearly did,” she says.
“Follow what interests you most because in the end, you’ve got a long and hopefully, satisfying career ahead of you.