Interview with Helen Burt

The retiring UBC scientist on inspirational partners, the precarious state of career options, and the formative value of stink bombs

June 24, 2021
Helen Burt has just retired as professor of pharmaceutical sciences and associate vice-president for research and innovation at the University of British Columbia

Helen Burt has just retired as professor of pharmaceutical sciences and associate vice-president for research and innovation at the University of British Columbia, where her work has centred on applying nanotechnology to drug delivery. Her approach has led to critical new ways of delivering medications to specific places in the body at necessary intervals. It also earned the UK native the Order of Canada, her adopted nation’s recognition of a lifetime of outstanding achievement.

Where and when were you born?
Manchester, England, in 1954.

How has this shaped who you are?
My mother was a stay-at-home mum and my father ran the family business – several menswear stores. They encouraged my passion for chemistry by giving me my first chemistry set when I was about 12. I recall growing a lot of crystals and making “stink bombs”. Best of all, they gave me opportunities as a young teenager to travel independently abroad to experience different cultures through Rotary International Camps. We would go to a different country every year, and it was a way to meet lots of young people from all over the world. I think this gave me the motivation to go overseas to pursue graduate studies.

How did this get you to Canada and the University of British Columbia?
I was influenced by my dad who did part of his RAF flight training in Canada at the start of the Second World War and loved everything about this country.

What’s your most memorable moment at university?
My parents came over from England for my PhD thesis defence. We celebrated by hiring a camper van and going on a trip through the Canadian Rockies. This was closely followed by getting my very first research grant.

Why should people care about your research?
For drugs to have the best possible effect, they must be delivered chemically intact to their site of action in the body, at the right concentrations, over an appropriate period of time. Side-effects can occur when drugs go to off-target sites. To solve that, my research team has spent 25 years focused on the controlled delivery of drugs by embedding them in polymers. These polymers can be shaped into coatings, films, implants and various microparticles to target different sites in the body. There, the drugs can help treat diseases and conditions that include restenosis, cancers, arthritis, infections and inflammation.

Have you had a ‘eureka’ moment?
It was my very first meeting with William Hunter, a young physician-scientist-entrepreneur and UBC graduate. He first presented me with the problem of how to deliver drugs used in fighting cancer to different places in the body at specific rates. I then realised this was a fantastic opportunity for us to work together to solve this drug delivery challenge.

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
My first taste of university leadership at UBC was in 2001 as the health research coordinator, working with the then vice-president of research, Indira Samarasekera. Over many years, Indira has been an inspiring leader in the post-secondary sector, working nationally and internationally to push for top levels of research and innovation. She is a role model for many academic women and has been an outstanding friend and mentor to many of us.

What has changed most in higher education worldwide over the past five to 10 years?
So much – practically everything – has changed. We now see a strong focus on pedagogy and curriculum, on learning outcomes, enhanced teaching strategies, student assessment, programme evaluation, and work-integrated learning. There is also increased competitiveness in research and the pursuit of global rankings; trans- and interdisciplinary research and scholarship; team science; equity, diversity and inclusion; and innovation and knowledge translation – to name but a few of the changes.

What were the best and worst things about your job?
The best part at UBC was the talented, supportive and hardworking staff. The worst thing over the past year has been the pandemic-related remote work policy – I enjoy the real, not the virtual, workplace.

What keeps you awake at night?
Thinking about the impacts of the pandemic on economic, career, job, health and family outcomes – locally, nationally and globally.

And beyond the pandemic, as that hopefully recedes?
I worry about young people and their careers in science, and about Canada ensuring they have good futures. These are high-stakes degrees, especially PhDs, and you always wonder, as the supervisor: is this student, at the end of five years, going to find a great job? Fewer professors are retiring at 65 because they don’t have to any more, and so academic jobs are diminishing. Helping PhD-level graduates often is about preparing people for a different pathway.

What divided your life into a ‘before’ and ‘after’?
Definitely having kids.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
As a young academic researcher, don’t be afraid to think big, collaborate and partner, and get involved in team science earlier.

What do you do for fun?
Cycling and walking holidays, good meals at restaurants, playing with my grandchildren.

What advice do you give your students?
Network, network, network!


Susan Elliott has been promoted to provost of Monash University. She has been deputy vice-chancellor and senior vice-president (education) at Monash since 2017, and before that was deputy provost at the University of Melbourne. Monash has also appointed Rebekah Brown as deputy vice-chancellor (research), promoting her from her current post of senior vice-provost and vice-provost (research). Monash vice-chancellor Margaret Gardner said that the appointments were “testament to the talent and capability within the senior executive team at the university”.

Richard Blythe is joining Curtin University as pro vice-chancellor of the Faculty of Humanities. The Australian is currently dean of the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and was previously dean of the School of Architecture and Design at RMIT University. Curtin vice-chancellor Harlene Hayne said that Professor Blythe’s “proven teaching and research capacity and ability to bring people, institutions and industry together aligns with Curtin’s own focus on providing impactful and practical learning experiences and opportunities for our students”.

Gene Andrew Jarrett has been appointed dean of the faculty at Princeton University, a role that focuses on supporting researchers across the institution. Currently Seryl Kushner dean of the College of Arts and Science and professor of English at New York University, he will also become William S. Tod professor of English at Princeton.

Paul Fieldsend-Danks has been appointed interim principal of Plymouth College of Art for the coming academic year. The institution’s academic dean will hold the role following the retirement of Andrew Brewerton.

Douglas Proctor is heading to Swinburne University of Technology as pro vice-chancellor (global engagement). He joins from University College Dublin, where he is director of UCD Global.

Matthew Dames will be the next Edward H. Arnold university librarian at the University of Notre Dame. He is currently university librarian at Boston University.

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