Campus mourns death of biology professor William Brown

William Brown, a member of Carnegie Mellon’s department of biological sciences for 34 years and an innovator who was involved with some of the university’s most well-known interdisciplinary initiatives, died Sunday, July 15, at UPMC Presbyterian in Oakland. He was 62.

The cause of death was complications from brain surgery, according to an e-mail message sent by Richard McCullough, dean of the Mellon College of Science, to members of the campus community. After a bike accident several weeks prior to his death, doctors discovered that Brown had a brain tumor. After two unsuccessful surgeries to remove the tumor, Brown died.

For Brown, cycling was only one of a vast array of passions, both personal and professional. At the time of his death, Brown was a member of the Biological Sciences Student Advisory Council (BioSAC), the Science and Humanities Scholars advisory board, and the Faculty Review Committee. He had taught Modern Biology to first-year students, he brought educational technology to Pittsburgh Public Schools and universities in Latin and Central America, and he served on the boards of such prestigious national organizations as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

“Bill had no limits and he had no boundaries,” said Amy Burkert, associate department head for undergraduate affairs in the department of biological sciences. “He didn’t see disciplinary borders. He was the bridge in so many ways between people, programs, everything.”

Brown came to Carnegie Mellon in 1973 as an assistant professor of biological sciences. For the next several decades, he would give new meaning to the word “interdisciplinary,” dividing his time between teaching undergraduate courses, mentoring graduate students in his lab, serving on the Faculty Senate from 2004 to 2005, and playing key roles in the development of the Bachelor of Humanities and Arts program, Science and Humanities Scholars program, Master of Biotechnology and Management program, and the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Sciences. Brown served as acting head of the biological sciences department from 1993 to 1995 and department head from 1995 to 2000. In 2004, he was awarded Carnegie Mellon’s Robert Doherty Award, which recognizes faculty members who contribute significantly to the “development, implementation, and evaluation of educational programs at all levels, and to the creation and maintenance of an environment that fosters excellence in education,” according to the Carnegie Mellon website.

“He had an energy you couldn’t even imagine,” Burkert said. “He didn’t ever see that there wasn’t a challenge he couldn’t take on.”

Burkert and Brown met in 1982, when she was a Ph.D. student in his advanced biochemistry class. After work as a post-doctoral fellow in Brown’s lab, Brown named Burkert associate department head for undergraduate affairs once he had become head of the department of biological sciences. Together, they co-taught courses and developed new ones, and worked as co-administrators, co-researchers, and co-educators.

“The whole spectrum of my career has been in conjunction with him,” Burkert said.

While Brown’s credentials are impressive, many of his former colleagues agree that some of his greatest accomplishments were the relationships he fostered with students and faculty members.

“He was everywhere,” said William Alba, director of the Science and Humanities Scholars program. “He was so giving and so dedicated. It was clear how generous he was with his time.”

Alba described how Brown would visit the SHS living/learning cluster in New House on a regular basis to be available for any student who wanted tutoring in Modern Biology.

“Whether one student or a roomful showed up ... it didn’t matter,” Alba said.

Shelly Kucherer, a junior in biological sciences, described a similar experience when she sought Brown’s help as a first-year student taking Modern Biology in the fall of 2005.

“I sought his help outside of class a lot,” she said. “Every time I went to ask him questions, he made me feel welcome and made sure to explain the material in a way that would make me understand it. I think everyone thought of him as a really good teacher. It was very easy to see that he loved his job and was willing to help anyone with questions.”

But Brown extended a hand even further outside of the classroom, from taking a part in the department’s murder mystery dinner, a fixture since 1997, to playing Santa at the annual Christmas party.

“He was involved in whatever we were doing,” said Jared Wenger, who graduated in 2006 with a degree in biological sciences and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in genetics at Stanford University. Wenger recalled how Brown lent students his own backyard so they could build the BioSAC booth for Carnival, a tradition begun in 2005. He also routinely took students up to his family’s cabin in Irwin, Pa.

Like Kucherer, Wenger met Brown as a first-year student taking Modern Biology. “In a room full of 300 kids, he still somehow managed to notice the individuals,” Wenger wrote in a page-long note he posted on Facebook on July 18. “He had a way of teaching and describing so many of the basic biological concepts that just really reached out and took a hold of me. He didn’t just teach the class, but invested in us as well.”

Brown also invested in educational initiatives for students around the world, from the Pittsburgh public schools and the Carnegie Science Center to Latin America and Central America, where he traveled to establish educational programs. He spent the Spring 2007 semester as a visiting professor on the Qatar campus, teaching a hybrid biology course he developed to integrate online multimedia into the traditional classroom lecture setting.

“Bill was a really unusual person — an internationally renowned researcher, internationally renowned educator, and then on top of that, a tremendous mentor and a wonderful human being,” said Eric Grotzinger, associate dean of the Mellon College of Science and teaching professor of biological sciences. Grotzinger began working with Brown when he joined the department of biology in 1979.

Foreign countries were not foreign to Brown, as his father’s job in the lumber industry allowed Brown and his five siblings to grow up in such places as Africa and South America.

“Bill grew up as a world citizen,” Burkert said.

However, during his tenure at Carnegie Mellon, Brown made Pittsburgh and, in particular, the university, his home. He bought season tickets for the Pittsburgh Pirates and regularly turned out for Tartan football games on the weekends.

“He knew I was on the football team, and every time I saw him, he asked me how football was going,” Wenger said.

Brown also made his home in his lab, where he mentored a diverse group of students.

“A lot of time faculty want the best students to do research in their labs, and Bill had some of the best,” Grotzinger said. “But Bill would also take into his lab students who weren’t doing well academically, and for many of then that was the transformative experience in their education. Bill helped out a lot by taking students who were struggling and changed them.”

Former graduate student Christine Wang was one of Brown’s advisees on a thesis project that involved using microorganisms in river sediment to clean up contaminants in the water. It was a project, she said, that exemplified Brown’s commitment to interdisciplinary education, combining the departments of biology, civil and environmental engineering, biomedical engineering, and engineering and public policy.

“I think he’s the best thesis adviser and mentor any student could as for,” Wang said. “He was always very supportive and allowed students the freedom and luxury to explore.”

She and several other graduate students even accompanied Brown on a 150-mile bike ride for multiple sclerosis, during which they traveled from Cranberry, Pa., to Erie, Pa., in two days.

“Just as in our research, he waited for me and supported me when I felt like I couldn’t keep going,” she said. “He was a good cheerleader, whether in the lab or on a bike.”

After post-doc work in an E. coli genetics lab at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Wang will begin work at Academica Sinica in Taipei, Taiwan, this fall, on a project using microorganisms to develop biofuels. She credits Brown’s counseling for the switch.

“Originally, I didn’t consider [Academica Sinica] very much,” she said. “After his comments and advice, I accepted that offer. That tells how important this mentor is.”

Narayanan Raghupathy, who graduated from Carnegie Mellon this spring with a Ph.D. in biological sciences, served twice as a TA for Brown’s Modern Biology course. Brown also served on Raghupathy’s thesis committee, even while in Qatar.

“Before he moved to Qatar, he made sure that his absence would not affect my defense and graduation,” Raghupathy said. “He attended my defense through conference call and returned my thesis draft with corrections within a week. I will cherish his congratulatory note on my thesis draft forever.”

Prior to his accident, Brown had planned to return to Qatar for three years as special assistant to Chuck Thorpe, dean of Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar.

“Bill does live on because he’s touched so many people that there are no limits to the impact that he’s going to have,” Burkert said. “He’s taught us all a lot of very important lessons, not just about science, but about education and about dealing with people and being a leader and a doer.”

Brown is survived by his wife, Linda, and sons Kevin and Eric. Eric is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center.

A private funeral was held in Brown’s honor on July 20 at Sixth Presbyterian Church in Squirrel Hill. A campus memorial service will take place in the fall.