Dr. Helen Burt took the chances that life presented her and turned them into meaningful action and personal fulfillment.
In the tranquility of her home and with her cat, Tofino, curiously peering through the patio door window, Helen Burt, PhD’80, begins to tell a story of the fateful encounters that she says have defined her career and volunteerism.
“It all started in high school when the school coordinated shadowing opportunities for students to learn about different careers paths,” she says. “I signed up, and mine happened to be in a hospital pharmacy.” It turned out to be a fortuitous match, and Helen soon became entranced with the idea of combining chemistry and biology. When she graduated with a degree in pharmaceutical sciences from the University of Bath in the UK a few years later, her passion for research and love of travelling led her to UBC, where she completed a PhD and then remained to start and independent research program and to teach.
In 1992, shortly before Christmas, an unexpected phone call eventually brought Helen face to face with a young MD resident, Bill Hunter, who wanted to create a novel type of drug-delivery system for a pharmaceutical that could inhibit the pathological growth of blood vessels associated with certain groups of diseases, such as cancer and chronic inflammation.
“I was really taken with this young man and his ideas and knew immediately that I wanted to work with him,” Helen recalls. The drug, however, was insoluble in water and Hunter needed to find ways for it to be absorbed into the body and delivered in a controlled manner to local sites of disease. And this is where Helen came into play; her research focused on understanding the physical properties of drugs and how they behaved once introduced into the body. Her expertise meant she was able to attract the grant funding needed to find methods for increasing the solubility of the drug and controlling its release.The incredible synergy between the two researchers led to the birth of the company now known as Angiotech, which has grown into a global specialty pharmaceutical and medical device company. However, after taking a 60 per cent leave of absence from UBC for one year to help set up the company’s research and development programs, and with her heart still fixed on teaching and her own research, the mother of two returned as a full time professor. She recently became Associate VP, Research & International.
Helen says chance played a huge role in her volunteering activities as well, when, about four years ago, she happened to hear a BC woman named Cathy Emmerson being interviewed on the radio. Cathy is a former real estate agent who decided to move to Rwanda and founded an NGO that built a pre-school, which also doubles as a community centre for the local villages. At a time when Helen was still struggling with the loss of her husband – with whom she had explored the world far and wide – the thought of travelling again felt like a breath of fresh air. Enthralled by Cathy’s dedication to her cause, Helen decided she must meet her and join the effort. One Google search and a few e-mails later, the pair met and Helen was soon on her way to Africa. She now recognizes this experience as life-changing. She speaks with great fondness of her time spent at the preschool taking care of and playing with the Rwandan children, listening to them chatter away in a language she couldn’t comprehend.
But Helen’s most fascinating feat is probably her involvement with the National University of Rwanda. On one of her short weekend excursions into the country, she stopped at the university and asked to speak with the Dean of Pharmacy. “While I was there, he asked if there was any way that I could help them teach, because they had a very small number of staff teaching the entire four years of the Pharmacy program,” she recalls. “I said I could, but unfortunately there was no way that I could come over for a whole term.”
As luck would have it, the Dean was able to accommodate a concentrated version of the course to make the most of the time she had in Rwanda. Helen taught the same course she teaches at UBC. The Rwandan students she met were inspirational and their attitude amazed her. “They were just as keen and enthusiastic to learn as UBC students, even though many acted as parents to their younger siblings and were even responsible for entire households. You would never know the burden that they carry.” She finds it humbling to be among people who have had to overcome so many barriers in their lives.
For Helen, what started as a summer fling has become a full-blown romance: she now returns to Rwanda every year to volunteer at the preschool and teach at the university, and loves it. A multitude of albums filled with pictures of smiling women and children have found a permanent spot on the shelves of her den, while the small hallway at her front door is lined with souvenirs and gifts from the Rwandan students. They now form an integral part of her home and, together with the many memories, will forever hold an innermost place in her heart.