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A Symphony of Success

Engineer, doctor, and university president William Brody

By Viva Hardigg

In an age of specialization, William Brody preaches the gospel of breadth. The Johns Hopkins University president urges freshmen not to focus too vigorously on one single subject with a specific career in mind. photos by Tom Fedot Courtesy of the Tech GazetteHe warns that the linear choice of the moment may not exist a decade from now, and that one's character and capabilities can cause some very unexpected professional shifts. "I try to give them examples of people who ended up in an area very far from where they started," Brody explains.

One of his favorite stories is that of an MIT classmate who got his doctorate in physics before becoming a poet and publishing inspirational books. He also likes to tell of a friend from Stanford Medical School who, noting the mediocre food in the hospital cafeteria, started selling sandwiches in the medical student lounge. After his internship, he ended up quitting medicine and running one of the largest catering companies in California.

Of course, if Johns Hopkins students are interested in an inspiring example of a hydra-headed career, they need look no further than Brody himself. University presidents tend to have impressive resumes, but few can match the scope of Brody's background as an electrical engineer, physician, professor, university medical administrator, and entrepreneur. Somewhere along the way, Brody also learned to play the piano and has been known to sit down at the keys and break into a boogie when he and his wife are entertaining students

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Early Plans

As a young man, Brody needed no encouragement to steer away from a myopic career vision. From as early as junior high school (in the late 1950s), he knew that a single discipline would not satisfy him. photos by Tom Fedot Courtesy of the Tech GazetteThe son of an ophthalmologist, he wanted to be a doctor and an engineer. Not everyone around him understood the dual ambition. "It seemed like you had to do one or the other," Brody recalls, "and I kept flip-flopping back and forth."

An amateur radio operator as a teen, he had a passion for science in all forms. Although most of his classmates were not college-bound, his high school in Stockton, California, offered excellent science classes, partially because of a nationwide response to Russia's Sputnik program. "I had phenomenal physics and math teachers in Stockton. They gave me a strong background, even though the environment was a bit different than the ethereal Eastern prep school," he says with a chuckle.

His selection of MIT was a bit of a fluke. He knew nothing about the place until one day, to escape chemistry class, he went to hear a recruiter speak on campus. Brody was not impressed. "The guy really turned me off," he remembers. "He had a thick Boston accent and was really boring." Only when the MIT course catalogue appeared in the mail did Brody's interest perk up. He saw dozens of classes that excited him. In retrospect, he figures it's a blessing he never visited the place first. "If I had gone to MIT and looked at it, I never would have applied," he says, remembering the cold, damp winters on the banks of the Charles River. "In Boston, they spoke a foreign language. It was so different from California."

Brody flourished at MIT after learning an important lesson from Amar Bose, who taught his introductory electrical engineering course. "I was struggling to understand the material because I was focused on the answers," he says. "Bose taught me to focus on the concepts. After that MIT seemed easy-easier, I should say." Bose, who went on to build the renowned Bose speaker company, once gave the young Brody a problem that, at first glance, appeared unsolvable. "You had to do one step that didn't make sense and then another one that didn't make sense. But if you did the two steps in a row, it worked," he says. "I'll never forget that problem because it said, 'Don't always take the most logical approach.' If you took the most logical approach, you couldn't solve the problem."

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To a Different Drummer

Brody's decision to go to medical school immediately following his master's in electrical engineering in 1966 did not seem a logical step to the administrations of either MIT or Harvard, which he hoped to attend. "I was a bit of a freak when I applied to medical school," he says. "Biomedical engineering wasn't really a field at the time, and the general comment was engineers don't do well in medical school." Harvard called him in for multiple interviews and finally set him up to talk to a psychiatrist about what the admissions committee perceived as an outlandish switch of course.photos by Tom Fedot Courtesy of the Tech Gazette

Harvard ultimately admitted him. But Brody's interest shifted to Stanford, where the medical school dean had pointed to the nearby electrical engineering department and told him he could take courses there while he was studying anatomy. Sure enough, after taking a couple of engineering classes his first term, he decided to take the Ph.D. qualifying exams in electrical engineering in his second. "I studied a couple of days for them-I didn't have more time than that," he recalls. "I didn't realize that the engineering students would spend a year or two studying for the exams." Stanford couldn't find a rule in their books prohibiting a medical student from simultaneously pursuing a doctorate in engineering, so he did just that.

Since then, he's found felicitous ways to combine his interests. After practicing medicine and then switching gears to hold various teaching appointments in biomedical engineering, radiology, and electrical and computer engineering, the fusion of his medical and engineering backgrounds took entrepreneurial form in the early 1980s when he founded Resonex, a successful medical imaging company. He also obtained a patent for an X ray system.

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The Engineer as President

His current job running a major research university has provided an ample stage for Brody's protean talephotos by Tom Fedot Courtesy of the Tech Gazettents. Since he took office in August 1996, the problem-solving skills of the engineer have come in handy on a daily basis. And, as in Bose's problem, logic alone does not always rule the day in a highly intellectual and creative community. "You have to have a high tolerance for dissonance and ambiguity," Brody says.

Given the autonomy of Johns Hopkins's various academic departments, Brody likens his job to that of running a holding company. He eschews the corporate model of top-down management and praises Hopkins's decentralized power structure. "For a university to operate efficiently, the key decisions must be made at the lowest level in an organization," he says. "The role of the administration, other than to make sure the books balance and the place operates efficiently, is really like the role of a wine taster. You have to have an exquisite nose for quality so you can hire the very best people and then let them do their jobs."

For all his accomplishments, Brody retains the air of a modest and approachable professor. Visitors to his Garland Hall office do not speak to a distant figurehead behind an imposing desk. Rather, they find themselves sitting across a seminar table from an alert, kindly man who enjoys a good joke.

Brody lives only a short walk from his office. Hoping to maintain a close connection with students, he is the first Hopkins president to reside on campus in 25 years. "Being on campus creates a different level of interaction with students," he says. "Here my wife and I can hop out after dinner and catch the second half of a basketball game or a concert or lecture." He hopes to make Hopkins his home for some time to come. "For one thing, I'm just tired of moving," he says. He's heard that the average tenure of a university president is probably five years, but the optimal life is more like eight to 10.

He says he often finds himself thinking about the "chicken test" that Rolls-Royce developed after a jet plane flew into a flock of pigeons and crashed. Since then, a new jet engine design isn't deemed flight-worthy unless it still functions after a chicken has been thrown into it. "I liken my job to the chicken test. You're walking down the street and you never know when someone's going to throw a chicken at you," he says with a smile. "It may be a financial scandal, it may be a union strike. Whatever it is, you try to be diligent." Given Brody's record, it's hard to imagine an inbound challenge that would hinder his flight.

Viva Hardigg is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C

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