LIVERMORE -- As a high school kid in Ukiah, Christine Gulbranson recalls watching her science teacher writing on the blackboard,
"Physics," he wrote, "is phun."
There was pause in the class as the students mulled the alternate spelling of fun -- "a smiler," those who ply the comic trade would call it.
Gulbranson, now Dr. Gulbranson, a scientist with a resume as long and circuitous as the road between Ukiah and Fort Bragg, recalls that time (along with the day as a UC Davis undergrad she was set free in the Livermore Lab to do her own research) as one of the "aha" moments that led to her most remarkable career.
The most recent hairpin turn in the Livermore resident's vocational path was becoming a full-time judge on the Discovery TV show "The Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius" (10 p.m. Wednesdays on the Discovery Channel).
"TV? Never thought about that, but there I am," says Gulbranson, who was urged to inquire about the show by one of her friends. "It's a reality show, but it uses science as the point of the show, and I think making science sexy and fun and making it accessible -- that's what I like about it."
Her goal for her appearance on the show as well as through much of her career is to get students interested in STEM -- Science, Technology, Engineering and Math -- and to make it as accessible as possible. She is pleased that Mark Fuller, the show's other judge, shares her interest and will give the winner a one-year contract with his company, Water Entertainment Technologies, which has projects including the dancing-water show at the Bellagio Casino in Las Vegas. The show's host, actor Kal Penn, took a two-year leave from his career to work for the Obama administration, helping to lead outreach to young people. Books, concepts and lectures, while important, play second fiddle to hands-on experience in the lab, says Gulbranson.
"Sometimes, just reading a book won't do it," she says. "But when you do it, actually touch and feel it, that's when it starts to work."
Her family encouraged her in hands-on work. Her mom was a math whiz, her father a self-taught mechanic and her grandfather, who had a truck parts business, was a self-taught engineer who sat down with her and went over stories in technical magazines, all the while urging her to learn all the math and science she could.
The only bump in the road came when Gulbranson's father gave her a ratchet wrench set as a present, and she picked it up and headed toward the car.
"When my dad gave me the ratchet set, my mom looked at me and said, 'She's not going to lose a finger?' If I had been a boy, it wouldn't have come up," she said. "It really shouldn't matter if you're a girl or boy, we should all have the same experiences. But society has these preconceived notions of what boys should do and what girls should do,"
She never got into serious automotive technology, but with the encouragement of her whole family, she went to college with the idea of becoming an engineer. And true to form, she did most of her learning in the lab.
"Actually working with materials, wearing a gas mask, getting stuff all over your face, going home with burns, I think that's what really solidified it for me," she says. "I remember thinking, 'I can do this.' "
She got her first patent as an undergraduate at UC Davis, when she invented a new sort of insulator, and was presented the award for top researcher of the entire university system. That launched her into the graduate school system. Naturally, she went into engineering, but she continued work as a researcher at the Livermore lab. She eventually got her doctorate from Davis.
Then, however, she was encouraged to get an MBA, which led to her helping with startups, working to create a variety of technologies, consulting with various businesses and governments, traveling the world as a speaker (she missed shooting one "Big Brain" episode because of a previous speaking engagement in Finland), forming companies of her own, all (and more) leading to the goal of making science fun and appealing to students and to spreading word of scientific achievements to ordinary people.
She has her finger in a lot of industries, including being founder and CEO of Christalis LLC, a strategic advisory firm; CEO of the Nevada Institute for Renewable Energy Commercialization; and a specialist in the Industrial Partnership and Commercialization Division at Lawrence Livermore. She also established an incubator to accelerate entrepreneurial business growth through new business formation and commercialization of laboratory-developed technology.
"Science is so cool, and I want everybody else to get excited about it. I want scientists working in labs to think about the impacts their work can have on the world. That kind of shift can make the way we look at science completely different," Gulbranson says. "Taxpayers have invested so many dollars on core research. They need to see when they get their investments back."