Thus Spake Zuska

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Abel Pharmboy
    January 22, 2009

    What a lovely remembrance of a man who used his knowledge for human good and his position to effect change. Your point is incredibly well-taken – I get accused of being maudlin but I try my best to write, call, or otherwise acknowledge those people who made very kind and influential gestures in my career.

    In fact, a blogging friend just recently told me how much it meant to her that I chose to read and respond to her writing early on. I had no idea it was important but the sentiment sure made me feel really happy inside.

    You got me thinking about the concept of the festschrift, the European tradition of getting together a volume of papers and a symposium in honor of influential scientists, usually at some milestone birthday or retirement. My first advisor took me to one for Albert Lehninger but he had passed away during planning of the meeting; hence it became a Gedenkschrift.

    I agree with you – as one moves along in academia, one sometimes loses sight of how valuable a kind word or gesture can be for a struggling young person. Not only will I call my mentor this weekend but I may actually say some nice encouraging things to a couple of people tomorrow.

    Thank you so much for letting us know about Dr. Brownell.

  2. #2 jc
    January 22, 2009

    I write to my former profs and advisors every xmas. I tell them about papers published, grants, trips, family, etc. They write back about their travels, families, how the school/dept is doing. Those old coots shaped my career and bent over backwards for me constantly, I really am eternally grateful for their presence in my life. I am sick thinking about reading an obit about any of them. I lost a fantastic mentor and pioneer in my field to cancer a few years ago and found out at a meeting that had a scholarship banner at the info desk “in memory of Dr. BigWig.” I nearly passed out when it sunk in.

    Three cheers for Dr. Brownell – I’m sure he’s reading this post and smiling down on you!

  3. #3 FSP
    January 24, 2009

    This is interesting and timely. A colleague recently asked me whether it is OK to write to a female grad applicant and ask her whether she and a male applicant from the same university are a couple. He already tried to find out indirectly (Facebook etc.) but no luck. The female applicant has already been accepted — she is an outstanding applicant, perhaps the best one of the entire pool this year — but the male student will only be accepted if his admission would positively influence the decision of the female applicant. It’s an uncomfortable situation in some ways, but I showed my colleague your post.

  4. #4 DrugMonkey
    January 26, 2009

    No WAY shape or form should FSP’s colleague bring it up as a direct question. And frankly the Google/facebook search is a little raw.

    What can be done is to ask during the recruiting phase what factors might be influencing her decision and explain that they have some latitude with top recruits. You have to wait for her to volunteer.

  5. #5 Zuska
    January 27, 2009

    I agree 100% with DrugMonkey. Note that Dr. Brownell did not call me up and ask if I was married to someone who applied, or if I was not coming because of partner issues. He just asked why I turned down their acceptance. I then volunteered the information about my partner, which gave him leave to act on it. DM’s advice about asking what factors are influencing her decision and explaining they have some latitude with top recruits is excellent.

  6. #6 quasarpulse
    January 28, 2009

    I can’t say I see anything wrong with the Facebook search technique – they weren’t trying to dig up dirt and there’s definitely no question of discrimination against a protected class. They were acting with the intent of doing something nice for both students (which may be in the interest of the university, but that’s beside the point). Information posted online is public and any sane grad (or job) applicant knows to scrub his/her Facebook and Myspace of inappropriate stuff because it’s well-known that prospective employers may Google you.

    That being said, the delicate approach is almost certainly better than the direct approach. If it turned out these two were not a couple, the female student would come away from the direct conversation feeling insulted – not a good way to get her feeling positive about the department.

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