Brinkman cops top award

May 13, 2004, vol. 30 no. 2
By Carol Thorbes

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Simon Fraser University's Fiona Brinkman is on a roll.

At the age of 36, the assistant professor of molecular biology and biochemistry has collected her third major career achievement award for work that often takes a lifetime to perform.

This time Brinkman has become the third SFU researcher to make Canada's Top 40 Under 40 list, since its inception nine years ago.

Caldwell Partners International, the first and largest executive search firm in Canada, composes the list of movers and shakers annually. The Globe and Mail newspaper publishes it in its magazine Report On Business.

A panel of 31 business and community leaders selects 40 honorees based on five criteria: vision and leadership, innovation and achievement, community involve-ment, impact and growth and development strategy.

A pioneer in bioinformatics, Brinkman uses high-powered computers to unravel the DNA of living creatures.

Last year, her research garnered her the Science Council of B.C.'s Young Innovator award.

In 2002, it secured her a spot on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) list of the world's top 100 young innovators.

Since coming to SFU three years ago, Brinkman has secured a total of about $2 million in grants from numerous organizations.

How does Brinkman manage to successfully mesh work at the work-bench with life as a young mother?

The Burnaby renter, soon-to-be a first time Coquitlam homebuyer, identifies several keys to success.

She and her husband of seven years Ryan, also a bioinformatics researcher, “work as a team” to care for their 16-month-old son Ewan.

Brinkman credits her lab researchers, her department and SFU's childcare centre with enabling her to raise a family while breaking new ground in research.

“There are a lot of successful, female researchers with children in my department because it is a flexible, supportive environment. The childcare here is a warm, nurturing and stimulating environment for my son. I also have 10 people in my lab who have been instrumental in helping me advance my research,” says Brinkman.

Personal experience with infectious diseases has also made the Ontario-born scientist a relentless hunter of the proteins that build disease-causing bacteria.

“My aunt died of meningitis at the age of two, antibiotics saved me from succumbing to it at the same age, and now I want to protect my son,” explains Brinkman.

Like a hunter, armed with an evolving genetic map, Brinkman isolates proteins that turn harmless microbes into disease-spreading bacteria or make them drug resistant.

Bacterial proteins can be used to develop vaccines that boost people's immune systems against infectious diseases.

With a disarming smile, Brinkman likens the strategy to that of the great Chinese warrior Sun Tzu (circa 400-320 B.C).

“Attack your enemy where he is unprepared,” quotes Brinkman from a translation of Sun Tzu's military treatise.

In the last few years, Brinkman has pioneered a number of developments.

They include inventing the world's most precise program for predicting which proteins are on the surface of bacteria, and could be primary candidates for producing vaccines.

Brinkman has also developed software for deciphering which genes are turned on and off in humans and animals by infectious diseases.

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