It was March 11, 2011. Glenna Burmer, M.D. ’83, Ph.D. ’83, Res. ’84, ’86, and her son were vacationing on the Japanese island of Miyajima when a massive earthquake and tsunami struck the mainland. Sirens blew, the news of destruction started to filter in, and Burmer wondered what she could do to help. An answer came the next day: she decided to produce a benefit concert for the Sendai Symphony Orchestra, located a bit north of the epicenter of the disaster.
On the face of it, this was an unlikely solution for Burmer, the co-founder of the biotech LifeSpan BioSciences, to come to. She’d been trained as a scientist and a physician, not a producer. Burmer had never learned an instrument — “I was not musical as a child,” she says — and she did not know how to write music. Even so, Burmer hears original music in her head. And not just simple tunes, but full orchestral pieces. With her son’s encouragement, Burmer set about learning a whole new field: musical composition.
Pursuing her interests full-throttle is par for the course for Burmer, who graduated from the Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) at the UW School of Medicine. “I was extremely interested in aging research,” she says, and she came to UW Medicine to learn from some of the masters, including George Martin, M.D., and Larry Loeb, M.D., Ph.D. She found the program, which combines four years of medical training and four years of research, highly useful.
“In science, you learn how to phrase a question,” Burmer says. And in medical school, you learn a highly technical profession. The marriage of these two disciplines, of theory and application, is very productive. “My job [as a translational scientist] is to figure out what’s really going on,” says Burmer. To devise the right question, to figure out the answer, then to make it work for physicians and patients.
“The people who succeed at the MSTP are those who are infinitely curious: questioning all the time,” Burmer says.
This intellectual restlessness may explain why, when Burmer leaves her day job at LifeSpan, she starts work on her second job: as managing director of Burmer Music LLC. First, she put together the concert for Sendai Symphony Orchestra. Then Burmer produced a celebration of world music, followed by a benefit for the Bellevue Ballet, in which she created a score for Dante’s Inferno. Now she’s putting on a benefit for the astrobiology program in the Department of Astronomy at the University of Washington, complete with orchestra and video.
“At some point in the future, it would be tons of fun to do a concert on a voyage through the human body or a futuristic look at medicine in the year 2500,” says Burmer. “Break the boundaries.”