Gordon Brownell is the person who got me to go to MIT.
I had turned down my acceptance at MIT because my then fiance (now ex-husband) did not get in. Dr. Brownell telephoned me himself to ask why I had declined the nuclear engineering department’s offer. When I explained the circumstances, he replied, “oh, is that all? Well, we can take care of that!” And he did. He arranged for my fiance to be accepted into nuclear engineering as well, and so off the two of us went to MIT.
And that, my friends, is how you actively recruit women into your program.*
It was with great sadness that I learned recently of Dr. Brownell’s death. I was perusing an issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. I almost never look at the notices section but for some reason this time I did, and there was the announcement of his passing on November 11, 2008 at age 86.
Dr. Brownell was not the world’s best lecturer but he was clearly a brilliant man and knew everything there was to know about medical imaging, a subject I was passionate about. If you invested the time with him, you would reap the rewards. And unlike some of my other professors, he was all understanding and kindness itself when my father died at the end of my first year at MIT. He was brilliant, and he was a human being.
Though I did my master’s research in another researcher’s lab at Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. Brownell was my official MIT thesis reader, and I am proud to have his name associated with my master’s thesis. I only wish my life had been less emotionally turbulent (death of my father, marital troubles) during my time at MIT so that I could have taken more advantage of the brief time I spent working with Dr. Brownell in his lab. If I hadn’t had all that turmoil to deal with I probably would have ended up being his doctoral student.
As it was, when I left MIT for Duke University, he was kind enough to send on an introduction for me in advance to one of the professors in the biomedical engineering department at the time, Ron Jaczak. Whether it was foolish of me or not, I did not end up working with him. But he did share with me the kind words of praise Dr. Brownell had passed on about me, and that was a very important thing for me to hear at what was a very, very low point in my graduate career. Many were the times over the next several years that I repeated those words to myself in my head, to remind myself that someone as brilliant and respected as Dr. Brownell thought well of me.
I really regret that I have never acted on the impulse I’ve had on occasion over the years to pick up the pen or the phone, and write or call Dr. Brownell to let him know how much his attention and regard for me meant. Now I’ll never have that chance. If there’s someone in your past who provided encouragement or support at a crucial point, take the time to let them know about it. If you have been one of those people, please know that even the small acts you do, the small words of praise you pass along, can have a profound effect on a young student’s life.
There is a wonderful obituary of Dr. Brownell here. If you are not familiar with him I encourage you to read it and get a sense of what a great person he was.
*getting into MIT that way may or may not have been the best thing for my husband and our marriage but I’m glad I had the experience of going there.