A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A CE: Lyn Sonnenberg


Lyn Kathryn Sonnenberg (@lynsonnenberg)
Associate Dean, Educational Innovation & Academic Technologies,
University of Alberta;
Vice Chair, Specialty Committee, Developmental Pediatrics,
Royal College of Physicians & Surgeons of Canada;
Neurodevelopmental Pediatrician,
Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital;
Clinical Director, Infant/Preschool Assessment,
Alberta Health Services.
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Lyn Kathryn Sonnenberg, BSc (Hon), MSc (Kin), MD, MEd (HSE), FRCPC (Peds, Dev Peds), wanted to be a teacher from as far back as she can remember: “My mom was a teacher, and my grandmother taught in a one-room schoolhouse in rural Ontario – teaching is literally in my DNA.” She pursued a liberal arts degree with the intention of being a teacher, but was drawn to medicine along the way. While she never appreciated that teaching and medicine could go hand in hand; she now lives that dream as a clinician-educator.  Dr. Sonnenberg currently practices as a neurodevelopmental pediatrician, overseeing infant preschool assessment services for the largest geographical catchment area in North America. Additionally, she holds the position of Vice-Chair of the Developmental Pediatrics Specialty Committee at the Royal College, and of Associate Dean of Educational Innovation & Academic Technology for her Faculty at the University of Alberta.

Work hard, play harder

When she’s asked how she disperses her time among her work activities, Dr. Sonnenberg responds, “Do you want to know what it says on paper? …because I don’t know the reality.” She adds, “No week ever looks the same – and that’s one thing I love about my career.” While on paper, 35% of her time is devoted to clinical work, 35% to administrative tasks, 15% to education, and 15% to research, Lyn confides, “to be honest, I don’t know what time I spend doing what. I know that it never occurs only between 8 and 5.” That being said, she carefully safeguards her weekends to prioritize family and other passions, explaining, “I have things that I love outside of medicine, like my family, faith, nature photography, and traveling, just as much as the things I love inside medicine.” She lives by the mantra, Work hard, play harder!

Make your work count: finding overlap in your passions

“Finding areas of overlap between my passions is a gamechanger. Don’t just do things for a single purpose.” For instance, her Master of Education Project was focused on the interprofessional assessment of learners for the roles of communication and collaboration in her clinical specialty of developmental pediatrics. It also counted toward her master’s degree as well as educational work that needed to be done as program director, and research. She published the work and was nominated for paper of the year by the editor! Additionally, “I also developed ongoing collaborations/connections with other colleagues, which I still have to this day, and that was likely the most meaningful outcome.”

“Play by the rules, but colour outside of the lines!”

As a former varsity athlete in soccer and basketball (she was named to the National Academic All-American NCCAA Basketball team in 1995!), she knew the importance of rules: “When becoming program director, the first thing I did was to study the “blue book” (or standards) to truly understand the ‘rules of engagement.’” During her nine-year tenure as Program Director, she underwent two “flawless” reviews while creating an innovative and leading program. She learned to “Play by the rules, but colour outside the lines! By knowing the heart behind the guidelines, colouring outside the lines was easy.” 

“Find your allies and mentors”

Lyn had not appreciated that she had a role as an advocate outside of patient care until she realized that medical education is ‘broken.’ “I believe that I have been given my position for a purpose.” The list of Lyn’s educational advocacy passions is long: health-promoting learning environments; adaptive learning; technological-preparedness; equity, diversity, and inclusivity; allyship; influence… “but”, she adds, “so is the road ahead.” She is thankful to not be on the road alone and advises: find your allies and mentors. She calls her learners and junior faculty her “best mentors”, and credits them for reminding her: “why I do what I do, while keeping me focused on the things that matter.”

“By getting below the surface, you might get dirty”

While she admits it is not easy to move people out of their comfort zones and see things differently, she says it doesn’t get any more exciting than seeing your vision come to life before your eyes. Her passion is to break down perceived silos and help others see the natural connections that lie beneath the surface. She uses a nature analogy, explaining that each aspen tree appears siloed, though they actually have a complex root system that supports, feeds, and helps weather the storms of life. But, by getting below the surface, you might get dirty, that is, not everyone will appreciate what you are trying to do. When confronted with these situations, she takes a cue from Brené Brown quote: The solution is getting totally clear on the people whose opinions actually matter.

Dr. Sonnenberg finishes her interview by saying, “When I look back at the end of my career, I want to know that what I did mattered. That it made the difference in the lives of my learners, my patients, and the larger system. And I know the best way to do that is by being a clinician-educator.”

Three tips for junior CEs: Work together, beware of imposter syndrome, transform the learner

  1. If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together. While the journey does take longer, you actually reach your destination with sustainable ideas. Early in my career, I was very efficient and made incredible changes in my little sphere of influence. But as my responsibilities increased, I needed buy-in from a culture that wasn’t necessarily wanting change. When I took the time to engage a wider group of stakeholders in the process, suddenly implementation wasn’t an issue, as I had the changemakers leading alongside me. We are so much stronger together.” To help with this, she recommends the book, Our Iceberg is Melting.
  2. Imposter syndrome is real. “I experience this near-daily. Instead of pulling back, lean into that vulnerability and discomfort; give voice to it. I’ll state, ‘I’m out of my league’ and a colleague will counter-argue, ‘well, if you can’t do this, then nobody can.’ I love this quote by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: ‘If your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough.’ By looking at it every day, I remind myself that I have to keep dreaming big, while remembering that I can’t pour from an empty cup.  Self-care and self-compassion are also keys to success.”
  3. If we transform the learner, we transform care. “This is the reason I am a clinician-educator (and now an administrator). I wholeheartedly believe this. Since we don’t know what that future will look like, we have to equip learners with tools that will grow with them, so they will navigate the journey ahead successfully.

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