Christine Gulbranson on the set of "The Big Brain Theory." (photo courtesy Discovery Channel)
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Alumna Christine Gulbranson Judges Contest to Find the Next Great American Innovator–and Inspire More
Discovery Channel's "The Big Brain Theory" Celebrates Extreme Intelligence, Ingenuity and Talent

By Andy Fell

UC Davis multi-alumna Christine Gulbranson is bringing her talents as a scientist, engineer and investor to a new challenge: She is one of two regular judges on a new reality TV show, “The Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius” which begins an eight-week run on the Discovery Channel on May 1.

Gulbranson MBA 96 said she hopes the show can help get young people excited about in careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

“In my experience, it was when I was working in a physics lab, doing things, that a light bulb clicked on and I realized, ‘I can do this,’” she said.

STEM is the core of American ingenuity. If we get kids to see that they can build something, that it is fun, sexy, and attainable, we can get them excited about it, and that’s what we need for our economic engine.”

Each week, the 10 contestants work in teams that go head-to-head to solve a tricky engineering challenge. In the first episode, they have to come up with a way to stop explosives from detonating in a pair of colliding full-size pickup trucks. Later challenges include building a robot that can compete in athletic events and building a portable bunker to resist fire, storm and flood.

Gulbranson holds five degrees from UC Davis: a bachelor’s degree in physics; a bachelor’s, a master’s and a Ph.D. in chemical engineering and materials science; and an MBA.

She is founder and CEO of Christalis LLC, a strategic advisory firm specializing in business development, strategic management, operations and technology transfer/commercialization. Her clients include Fortune 1000 companies, international governments as well as start-up companies, especially in the areas of clean technology and renewable energy, “with a bit of nanotechnology sprinkled in,” she said.

Gulbranson is rising star in the world of tech innovation, having been named to the “Top 40 Under 40 Business Leaders of Silicon Valley” and MIT Technology Review’s “Innovator for the 21st Century.” She was recognized with UC Davis’ CAAA Young Alumnus Award in 2002. She said that judging the show drew on her experience at UC Davis.

“There’s a lot of physics and a lot of mechanical engineering involved in these challenges and I definitely drew on that,” she said. “And of course my MBA, because a lot of it is about team dynamics, how they work together.”

“As a venture capitalist, you judge not just technology but people on a daily basis,” Gulbranson said. “These contestants did not know each other prior to the show, so from day one they had to figure out who would lead each project and what they needed to do to make their team work.”

Team dynamics are especially complicated in “The Big Brain Theory” because of the way the show works. In most reality shows losing contestants leave the show each week. In “The Big Brain Theory,” the contestants — who lived and worked together in near-isolation throughout the filming — remained on the show to help their teams, even after they were eliminated from winning the $50,000 prize and a plum opportunity with WET, a design and engineering company.

It’s Gulbranson’s first experience with television, but not as a judge. She’s judged the UC Davis Big Bang Business Plan Competition, the Harvard Innovation Challenge, the Arab Technology Business Plan Competition and MIT’s Clean Energy Prize, among others.

“The Big Brain Theory” is hosted by actor and producer Kal Penn of “Harold and Kumar,” “House” and White House Office of Public Engagement fame. Gulbranson is joined each week by judge Mark Fuller, president and CEO of WET.

Appearing as a guest judge in one episode is another UC Davis alumnus, NASA engineer Adam Steltzner, who will speak at UC Davis on May 21.

Learn more about Christine Gulbranson.

Video: Extended trailer for “The Big Bang Theory: Pure Genius”