The “nifty” scientist
Bioengineer Bryan Cornwall relishes his role as a role model for kids and as a booster of science education.
One of the newest members of San Diego’s “Nifty 50” – a group of elite scientists with a mission to motivate youngsters to enter their field – is Queen’s engineering graduate Bryan Cornwall, Sc’87, MSc’90, PhD’96.
As a bioengineer and Senior Vice-President of Research and Clinical Resources with leading medical device company NuVasive, Bryan worked closely with spine surgeons (orthopedic and neurosurgeons) to develop and test surgical implants and other devices for repairing degeneration, deformities, and fractures of the spine: once one of the most difficult areas to treat. His dedication and passion for this work prompted San Diego Science Festival organizers to choose Bryan as one of the southern California city’s “science role models.”
Inspired by international science festivals that draw crowds in the hundreds of thousands, the goal of the San Diego event is to increase community awareness of science and to encourage American youth to consider science-related careers. This is accomplished in part by having accomplished local scientists visit area middle and high schools to share with students stories about their professional successes and stumbling blocks, and to generate excitement about careers in science.
“We also have students come to visit us at work, to give them a deeper overview of things we’re involved with,” says Bryan. “It’s a great opportunity for them, but also for me and my colleagues to give back to the community, and to stimulate an interest in science.”
Noting the “alarming” decrease in the number of youngsters choosing science as a career, he adds that one of his company’s goals is to expose students to people who are passionate about the world of science.
Born in Baltimore, where his father was studying civil engineering, Bryan moved to Canada with his family at an early age and grew up in the Ottawa suburb of Kanata. It was his father and a high school guidance counselor who steered him toward Queen’s engineering – a choice he believes had an important impact on the rest of his life.
With a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering, a Master’s in Metallurgical and a Doctorate in Orthopedic Biomechanics, Bryan attributes much of his career success to the education he received at Queen’s.
While studying under Mechanical and Materials professor Tim Bryant in what was then known as the Clinical Mechanics Group (now the Human Mobility Research Centre) – a collaboration between orthopedic surgeons and engineering professors – Bryan discovered his true calling. “After hearing my mother’s operating room descriptions from her time as a surgical nurse, I’d set my goals to become a surgeon,” he recalls.
You can also contribute to medicine by being a good engineer.
“But Prof. Bryant pointed out in my third year, ‘You can also contribute to medicine by being a good engineer.’ I’ll never forget those words.”
Working that summer with the Clinical Mechanics Group provided Bryan with a sense of what research is all about, and he became hooked on science. “That was a real turning point for me,” he recalls.
After earning his PhD, Bryan took a position with Terray Corporation, a medical device manufacturer in Arnprior, Ontario. As the company’s only engineer, he gained valuable experience in both design and manufacturing. During the ice storm of January 1998, Bryan received a recruiting call “out of the blue” from a California company. From shivering in the dark, without power, he and his family moved to a new life in sunny San Diego.
Today, 11 years later, Bryan and his wife, Deeanne (McLenaghan), Sc ’89, have three children – two of their own (one with Canadian citizenship, the other American) and one whom they adopted from China three years ago. Later this year they intend to adopt another child, this one from Africa.
Both Queen’s alumni believe strongly in giving back to their community – and to their alma mater. “We feel extremely fortunate to have studied at Queen’s and think it’s important to contribute annually, designating our gift towards engineering, which is our interest and our passion,” says Bryan.
And as a member of San Diego’s Nifty 50, he contributes in a different way by visiting local schools to encourage budding Einsteins and Curies. Drawing on his experience with another passion – running – Bryan tells students that completing a marathon has some parallels with being successful in science. “Setting goals, making the proper preparations to achieve them, and then persevering despite any obstacles you may encounter, is a winning formula for both a race and a career,” he says.