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July 17: Biology Professor William Brown Was Beloved, Revered Throughout University


Lauren Ward

Obituary: Biology Professor William Brown Was Beloved,
Revered Throughout University Community

PITTSBURGH—William Brown, an honored educator and leader at Carnegie Mellon University, where he was a professor of biological sciences, died Sunday, July 15, after brain surgery.

Brown was a member of the Carnegie Mellon community since 1973, when he joined the faculty as an assistant professor of biological sciences at the Mellon College of Science (MCS). In 1993, he became professor and served as acting head of the Department of Biological Sciences from 1993 to 1995. He subsequently served as department head from 1995 to 2000.

Bill Brown"The loss of Bill Brown is tragic," said Rick McCullough, dean of MCS. "During his life, Bill gave so much to his students. His generosity is reflected in the many important legacies he leaves not only to Carnegie Mellon, but also to regional and international academic communities."

Over 37 years, Brown advanced undergraduate education, receiving the 1986 Julius Ashkin Teaching Award and the 2002 Richard Moore Education Award, both from MCS. In 2004, he received the Robert Doherty Award for his contributions to university education. According to colleagues who supported his nomination for this award, Brown "was a wonderful teacher, deeply concerned with the learning and development of students."

"Bill was a beloved and gifted educator who was devoted to undergraduates and to Carnegie Mellon," said Elizabeth Jones, the Dr. Frederick Schwertz Distinguished Professor of Life Sciences and head of the Department of Biological Sciences. "In his understated way, he made everyone feel part of a community, willing to work together to achieve whatever needed to be done. He was a wonderful colleague, and we will miss him sorely."

Brown demanded much of his students intellectually, but also knew how to have fun, according to Jones. He helped biology students build the departmental booth for carnival and acted in corny parts for the MCS annual Murder Mystery dinner.

"Bill's life held no boundaries — no boundaries to travel, to intellectual curiosity; no boundaries between work and friends and family," added Chuck Thorpe, dean of Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar. "He brought us all together and made us feel like family."

Brown was particularly aggressive in incorporating computers to teach biology and pursue research at Carnegie Mellon, and in improving Pittsburgh Public School science education. Brown helped establish the Pennsylvania Governor's School for the Sciences for highly talented high school students, a program now in its 25th year. He helped create the Internet Connectivity and Teacher Resource Center at the Carnegie Science Center, where he served on the board of directors. Brown also engaged in developing educational technology through the university's Technology Enhanced Learning Lab and several Latin American universities. In recent years, Brown played an instrumental role in the Open Learning Initiative development team's efforts to create an online Modern Biology course.

In 2005, Brown helped launch the Master of Biotechnology and Management program, one of the few truly interdisciplinary programs that ensure an equally balanced, in-depth emphasis on business and science. Earlier in his career, Brown helped launch the Bachelor of Science and Arts program.

In spring 2007, Brown was a visiting professor of biological sciences at Carnegie Mellon in Qatar, where he taught a hybrid biology course. The course, which he developed to integrate online learning and classroom lecture, was previously adopted by 26 U.S. universities and a university in Santiago, Chile.

Just prior to his death, Brown had been named special assistant to Thorpe. In this role, he worked with the dean to provide support on a wide range of faculty issues, including faculty orientation. He also worked with Thorpe on faculty course evaluation, providing assistance to faculty on class management and with freshman-level course support.

"Bill brought an infectious and unstoppable enthusiasm to the Qatar campus," said Thorpe. "He was passionate about teaching, excited about helping junior faculty and upbeat about the potential for doing really great things in Doha. He made the Qatar campus a real part of Carnegie Mellon: rigorous, demanding and, at the same time, exciting and fun."

Brown also maintained an active laboratory, pursuing molecular research to improve diagnostics for toxic agents in the workplace and designing biological methods to remediate harmful chemicals released into the environment.

Christine Wang, a former graduate student of Brown's, remembered his mentorship style. "If an experiment was not working, he was very supportive and helped guide you in a sophisticated way. He didn't micromanage," said Wang, now a post-doctoral fellow at Baylor Medical College in Houston. "Professor Brown was very understanding, very encouraging," she said, adding that he listened seriously to students as he helped them in their research.

During his tenure at Carnegie Mellon, Brown held key roles on numerous committees, including the Faculty Review Committee (2005–2007), the Science and Humanities Scholars Advisory Committee, the Globalization Subcommittee, and the Learning and Development Advisory Board. He chaired Faculty Senate from 2004 to 2005, and co-directed the Carnegie Mellon/University of Pittsburgh MD/Ph.D. program.

Brown's distinguished career included service on review and advisory boards for scientific educational programs with the National Science Foundation, Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the National Institutes of Health. He was elected to Sigma Xi, the American Chemical Society and the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

Brown received his doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Minnesota in 1971 and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in biophysics in 1973 at Yale University before coming to Carnegie Mellon.

In addition to his distinguished academic career, Brown was an avid cyclist and world traveler. Each year, he participated in numerous charitable fundraisers. This June, he rode in the Multiple Sclerosis Bike Ride from Pittsburgh to Erie.

Brown is survived by his wife, Linda; his two sons, Kevin and Eric; and brothers and sisters. Eric is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center and a co-creator of the video game Peacemaker. The funeral and interment are private, and there will be no visitation. A campus tribute will be held this fall. In lieu of flowers, remembrances may be made to Carnegie Mellon University for the Dr. William E. Brown Scholarship Fund, c/o Sharon King, 6 PPG Place, 11th Floor, Pittsburgh, PA 15222-5488.