5 questions with… professor, MRI entrepreneur Robert Brown

Robert Brown holding the Green BibleWhen asked about his career accomplishments, Robert Brown’s answer always centers on one theme: his students.

It’s a fitting response for someone who, over the years, has not only earned the university’s highest faculty honor—Distinguished University Professor—but also the university’s Carl F. Wittke Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching and its John S. Diekhoff Award for Graduate Teaching and Mentoring.

For Brown, though, the students haven’t just been important in helping him grow as an instructor—they’ve actually changed his career path.

Throughout his four-decade career at Case Western Reserve University, the Institute Professor in the Department of Physics has become a prolific magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) researcher, launched the physics department’s PhD concentration in imaging and co-authored the leading physics textbook on MRIs (known widely in the field as “The Green Bible,” due to the 900-page book’s green cover).

But without his students, Brown is quick to point out, none of those achievements would have happened.

After working on basic physics research (think Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory) in his first decade at the university, two former students approached Brown for help in modeling MRI.

He had always been keen on helping his students find new approaches to learning, but it was those students who helped steer him down a new path for his career.

“It was the start of the MRI revolution,” he said. “I thought I would just be doing that on the side, but no. That revolution overwhelmed me and I began to work on it regularly.”

Currently, Brown researches industrial-product modeling optimization in an effort to improve industrial products and programming instructions for the associated software.

Given that it was originally former students who approached him about MRI, it’s only fitting that his past students have continued to push the field forwar​d—at last count ​they hold at least 150 patents—and to help him to expand his knowledge in the area.

Brown has advised as many as two dozen graduate students to pass through the physics department’s PhD program with an MRI concentration. Led by one enterprising past pupil, Brown co-launched Quality Electrodynamics, which develops and manufactures medical equipment electronics, including for MRIs.

“Thinking back now, it’s incredibly wonderful because you teach some students for perhaps just one semester, but you may have contact with them forever after,” Brown said.

One such undergraduate student from 30 years ago has drawn Brown back to collaborate on some of his “Sheldon Cooper” high-energy physics; earlier efforts already have resulted in publications of major successful tests at Illinois’ Fermilab and Switzerland’s Large Hadron Collider involving hundreds of experimenters.

Even after many years of helping students with their theses, Brown’s own MIT PhD thesis has been rejuvenated through citations to it in recent work on the size of protons.​

Now, Brown is focused on ensuring all students—even those beyond CWRU—are successful in physics, just as his students pushed him forward in the field.

Years ago, he was shocked by how much students forgot from one semester to another—not to mention what they had learned early in their education. This presented a major problem for students planning to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). He knew he needed to do something, so he created a set of physics flashcards.

Those flashcards help establish a point of reference for students when taking the GRE, so that remembering basic concepts and formulas doesn’t eat up their precious time when taking the exam.

“When [students] study these flashcards, lots of testimonials tell us this has prepared them for practically all the questions,” he said.

He has had more than 2,000 sets printed up for students at CWRU—and all over the world. The American Physical Society has given away the flashcards as door prizes at conferences for three years running. Another thousand students have used a web app version created by a physics colleague this past year. And the next step is making a flashcard smartphone app to meet the learning needs of all students.

For Brown, helping students reach a moment of clarity while working on challenging problems—watching the “light blub come on”—is the best part of teaching.

“That’s a real thrill,” Brown said.

Read on to see Brown’s answers to this week’s questions.

1. What’s the one place in Cleveland that’s your must-visit for out-of-towners?

Even if they want to go downtown for the obvious, I would insist that our visitors see the Peter B. Lewis Building. That amazing structure should be on a hill viewable from miles around!

2. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received from a teacher?

Among lots of great lessons I’ve learned from many mentors, what pops into my mind is a teacher who squelched my complaint about how I lost credit even though I got the correct answer. He gave me a simple example: If you cancel out the sixes in the fraction 16/64, you get the right answer, but the method is horribly wrong and would get you into terrible trouble in general.

3. What’s one thing people would be surprised to know about you?

I have fun telling people I went to college [at the University of Minnesota] with Robert Zimmerman. I didn’t really get to know him, especially because he dropped out in a few weeks, and I would have felt sorry for him [for not completing school]. You might recognize Zimmerman better by the name Bob Dylan.

4. What famous person—past or present—would you most like to have dinner with and where would you go?

I just have to go again with what pops into my mind: I’d have such fun taking Garrison Keillor (of Prairie Home Companion fame) to Tommy’s in Coventry. We also went to the same college at the same time, but I did not know him, and it would be great fun comparing our very different paths taken since.

5. What’s your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?

Through the many years I’ve been at CWRU, I have been so admiring of and impressed by how much my long-time colleagues and former students have accomplished, how present students seem to be doing so well, and by the highly talented new people who have come on board. They all are adding to CWRU’s reputation.