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Materials science professor balances teaching, research, administration

STANFORD -- Ask John Bravman whether he prefers doing research to teaching students, or serving on a faculty committee to looking over his research budgets, and he won't know how to answer.

For Bravman, a recently tenured associate professor in the department of materials science and engineering at Stanford University, the question is moot.

"Virtually everything I do is related in some way to the education of our students," he said.

Whether he's lecturing to 90 undergraduates, or conferring with one graduate on his dissertation, or chairing a subcommittee, Bravman stays focused on his mission of educating students.

A career in higher education was not always what Bravman intended. After completing his own education at Stanford (bachelor's in 1979, doctorate in 1984), he had offers to work in large corporate research labs and with a small start-up company. He also interviewed for a new faculty position in materials science, and was quite surprised when it was offered to him.

Because he hadn't focused his graduate career on becoming an academic, Bravman had to do some serious soul- searching. He had never been a teaching assistant, and had given only a few lectures or demonstrations. Nonetheless, he said, "I knew this might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

The change was a bit of a shock at first.

"It was like, one day I was a graduate student and the next day I put on a tie and I was on the faculty," he said. "I was the same person, but they started calling me Dr. Bravman instead of John. It was strange for a while."

Bravman quickly "decided to put time and energy into developing proper teaching style." It wasn't unusual for him to spend eight to 12 hours to prepare a 50-minute lecture. In his first years teaching, he put in hundreds of hours making drawings and developing charts and graphs, as well as writing research proposals.

He worked on his personal style as well, trying to make his lectures stimulating. He teaches an introductory materials science class, which students take to fulfill a distribution requirement; a required graduate course in crystallography, which, he said, "to most people is as dry as sand"; and some upper-level graduate courses.

No matter what the level of instruction, he discovered he would "rather cover less material well than more material poorly. Rushing a lecture always ends up being a mistake."

His students felt the payoff, and recognition came quickly. He was named the School of Engineering's Distinguished Adviser in 1987, and received the Excellence in Teaching Award from the Society of Black Scientists and Engineers in 1988 and the university's highest honor for excellence in teaching, the Walter J. Gores Award, in 1990.

In addition, he picked up the Tau Beta Pi Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Engineering Teaching in 1990 and the American Society for Metals' Bradley Stoughton Award for Young Teachers in 1991.

At the same time, he continued his research in thin-film materials. Today he manages contracts worth three-quarters of a million dollars, working with nine graduate students and a postdoctoral fellow on five projects.

The attraction for him is not in building widgits, but in understanding basic properties.

"Materials science is understanding the relationships between the way you process a material, the structure you create in the material and the properties which that structure makes the material have," he said.

Applications for thin-film materials can be found in fields as far-reaching as high-speed electronics, optical data storage and hard surface coatings. Some of his work is in superconducting materials, a class of materials that has no electrical resistance below a certain temperature.

"Materials science will remain one of the most technologically important fields for the foreseeable future, along with computer science and biotechnology," he said.

Although Bravman has 65 publications on his resume, he said he doesn't spend much time in the lab anymore. "I have very bright students," he said. "You try to direct them in an intelligent way, but it's the students who do the lab work."

From the beginning, Bravman has been heavily involved with both administration, professional organizations and faculty committees. Beginning in September he'll be associate chairman of his department. He was also elected to a three-year term on the executive council of the national Materials Research Society. He's up for election as vice president of that organization.

He has served on committees devoted to everything from Student Faculty Liaison to Space and Building. He chairs the department's Computer, Building and Space, and Financial Aids committees.

As an award-winning teacher, Bravman is well aware of the costs involved in balancing his teaching and research responsibilities with his administrative work.

"There's a real tension at the university because we tend to put faculty into many kinds of administrative roles and they're not necessarily the best pool to draw from for those tasks, not so much through (lack of) talent and ability, but through (lack of) desire," he said.

"That creates a basic problem because it draws faculty away from what they do best, teaching and research. I don't know how to solve that problem."

One solution is to rotate faculty into administrative positions, but, Bravman said, that has its own limitations. It's one thing to go back to teaching after a five-year break, but quite another to start up a new funded research program and to have remained on top of one's field scientifically.

"As soon as you get into one of those high-level jobs, you are probably making a decision to change your career, or you're taking an awful big risk if you think you can get back to being a regular faculty member," he said.

While Bravman hasn't ruled out an administrative job in future, it is teaching that holds him now. "I would hate to give up the day-to-day involvement I have with students so that would make it a very difficult choice," he said.

"The best thing about this job is when you take a student from ignorance to understanding. I think service to other people is what we're called to do, and I try to do it through education. I'm fortunate to be here, so I'm going to make the most of it."



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