Scientists Rock! is a monthly Q&A where we pull an AbbVie scientist out of the lab to hear what makes them tick. This month, we chat with Brian Calimlim, DRPH, MS, Director, HEOR, AbbVie.
The simple addition of sliced bananas to his old conventional, childhood lunch opened young Brian Calimlim’s taste buds – and worldview – to infinite possibilities. Combined with an endless fascination of the many wonders surrounding him, he grew up questioning everything under the lens of scientific observation. These days, instead of manufacturing mouthwatering sandwiches … he’s dedicated to a different sort flavorful creation: that of data, value and health care decision making.
Tell us the story of how you fell in love with science.
Growing up, my siblings and I would watch a television show called “Mr. Wizard” where the host, Don Herbert, would conduct a series of scientific demonstrations, and then would explain the science behind it all. As a child, I felt like I was watching a magic show – except Mr. Wizard would reveal the secret behind the trick! This instilled a fascination within me, challenging me to search deeply and to curiously question the world around me as a scientific observer. This mindset transformed my perspective, and I began to experience and see the world through a scientific lens, which gave me a heightened appreciation of the intricate complexities of the world. Even today, I can still hear the same child-like voice within me asking, “Why is that?” and I still experience the wonder of scientific pursuit.
Your current role is in a field known as Health Economics and Outcomes Research. For those unfamiliar, can you explain what exactly this type of research entails?
Health Economics and Outcomes Research, otherwise known as HEOR, is all about value and the communication of that value. Imagine you are a high school student and you are trying to convince your parents to buy you a car. That car will cost your parents a hefty sum of money, and so you will have to communicate the value that a car brings. Perhaps giving you a car will teach you responsibility and equip you in the future when you live on your own. Perhaps giving you a car will mean an extra hand in running errands, such as grocery shopping or picking up your younger siblings from their after-school soccer games. There is more to the car than just the cost itself, and so it is up to you to understand what is important to your parents and to show that the overall value that the car brings exceeds the price tag.
What is your advice to kids interested in a career like yours?
First, train yourself to be compassionate and empathize with others. As you cultivate this discipline, it will add new dimensions to the way you think and how to best serve patients. Second, build an appreciation and respect for data because it is the basic building block to scientific truth. Similar to how a master chef uses culinary ingredients as building blocks to create a tantalizing gastronomic creation, HEOR scientists use the building blocks of data in order to reveal a compelling, underlying truth. Finally, expend the majority of your mental energy in the lifelong endeavor of understanding what is important and valuable to people. It will impart deep meaning to whatever you do and will be a driving force that will help you overcome obstacles.
It seems the way you met your wife was right out of a romantic comedy. Can you share with us what odd set of circumstances brought you two together?
It all went down in the faraway land of Peru, which will always hold a special place in my heart. In 2008, I was looking to book a solo trip to see Machu Picchu. A friend desperate for a vacation asked if he could join, then he later invited four other people. It ended up being a trip of five strangers who knew only one person in the group. While that may sound like a recipe for a travel disaster, it ended up being quite the opposite and was one of the most fun vacations I have taken. And, as it turns out, one of those strangers eventually became my wife!
And I hear the marriage ceremony was just as unconventional. Can you share some details from the fun event?
There is a traditional Korean marriage ceremony called “Pyebaek,” and as part of that ceremony, the husband carries his wife on “piggy-back” around the room to demonstrate supporting and carrying her throughout marriage. However, the wedding hall had an open space layout, which meant that I had a very long piggy-back journey! To make things a bit more fun, the MC decided to add another twist: I had to do pushups with my wife sitting on my back! The pushups certainly aren’t part of the traditional ceremony, but I can certainly claim that my wedding day felt like a gym workout.
I hear through the grapevine you know your way around a kitchen, but that this wasn’t always the case. How did you acquire your mad cooking skills?
Among my friends, I am known for being a skilled cook. However, my love for cooking only came because I was bad at it. One day after college, my friends and I were complaining how our jobs weren’t exactly lucrative and that rent and bills left us with little funds for anything fun. However, quite a bit of our money was spent on eating out because we didn’t know how to cook. So we decided to have a weekly “cooking night” where we would each rotate cooking dinner for the group and we would experiment and learn how to cook together. While things started with some questionably edible dishes, we kept at it and steadily became better cooks. Other friends eventually heard about our cooking nights, and it slowly became a time for us as friends to hang out and enjoy some good food.
If you could talk to the 10-year-old version of yourself, what would you tell yourself about your career?
First, I would tell myself that I will have multiple careers throughout life, often simultaneously, and each of those careers will have a purposeful season. Therefore, instead of worrying about what I will be when I grow up, I should focus my attention on the purpose each of those careers serve. Second, I would encourage myself to persevere. Failures are inevitable, but they can only serve their intended purpose when I stand back up and keep going. Finally, I would tell myself to hone my writing and drawing skills because they will be crucial in the future. While it’s true that a scientific manuscript will never make it on the New York Times bestseller list, nor will bar charts ever come close to a Picasso, there is still room for enjoyment in verbal and visual communications in HEOR that make them worth cultivating.
What was the last science-related movie/TV show/book you saw?
I’ve actually been on a sci-fi kick recently, watching Star Trek Discovery (the latest series in the Star Trek saga) and The Orville (a comedic take on the Star Trek series). The basic premise of both television shows are similar: a ship exploring the unknown depths of outer space. What appeals to me about these and other sci-fi shows and films is that the scientific search for something external somehow seems to point toward something internal – either within a person or within a community or society of people. I believe the same is true for science in general. I do see it as an external pursuit by its very nature, yet there is something deeply personal about it. And just like Star Trek Discovery and The Orville, it can be both dramatic and comedic depending on your perspective.
What keeps you coming to work every day?
There are many unanswered questions, but what keeps me coming to work every day are the almost-answered questions. Similar to how a runner might find an untapped source of energy upon seeing the finish line and sprint the last few meters of a race, I feel that way every day in HEOR. The answers are almost within grasp, and as a team, we are inching our way toward them all.
In your opinion, why does science rock?
Science is a pursuit of an unknown truth. There will always be territory that is uncharted, which makes it novel, exciting, and adventurous. However, the reward of science isn’t the revelation or discovery of the truth itself. Rather, it is the meaning that it imparts on all that is already known. It’s like seeing a picture, then discovering that it is a single frame within a film strip. Or painting with yellow and blue paint, and then mixing it together by mistake and discovering the color green. Or, as I encountered sometime during my childhood, having a peanut butter sandwich, and then one day adding sliced bananas to it. The discovery becomes a game-changer!