As UTMB’s focus on interprofessional education strengthens, it’s fitting that one of the institution’s newest leaders says some of his proudest achievements have come from interdisciplinary collaborations.
David A. Brown, PT, PhD, FAPTA, joined UTMB as senior vice president and dean of the School of Health Professions on March 1. Renowned for his contributions to the rehabilitation science community, he says collaboration has been a key component of his career.
“The things I am most proud of in my career happened in the context of teams of people, all of whom were dedicated to our success,” he said.
His career as a physical therapist, researcher and educator has taken him to institutions across the country. Brown joined UTMB from University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he was a professor of Physical Therapy, director of the PhD in Rehabilitation Science Program and co-director of the University-wide Research Center on Disability Health and Rehabilitation Science.
Now, he’s excited for what’s next as he takes on leadership of SHP’s diverse set of professional and scholarly programs. Since arriving at UTMB, he said he has been impressed by the caliber of work being done in education and in research, citing the SHP’s current NIH funding ranking of 11th nationally and the prevalence of translational research with potential to make a direct impact on patient care.
“Our faculty are leaders in their fields,” Brown said. “I see faculty who are committed to the success of UTMB and their students. I see people who are selfless and who make sacrifices for the good of their commitment to patient care and the students’ learning.”
He certainly understands that inclination. Early in his career as a physical therapist, he said, he felt he needed to do more to be as effective as possible in helping patients—so he made a commitment to go back to school for his PhD, which he earned at the University of Iowa.
Brown went on to complete a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University and worked as a research scientist at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Palo Alto, California, where he first connected with engineering professionals and discovered opportunities to collaborate on translational solutions. His clinical knowledge and the engineers’ mechanical insights complemented one another in ways they found could be advantageous to patients.
Later, at Northwestern University, he engaged in another successful collaboration with engineers. He said it was especially productive because the engineers came into the project asking, “What clinical problems can we help solve?” The team applied for and received a grant to start a company that would develop new products and get them to market.
Although Brown and his partners sold the company in 2011, one of their products, a gait and balance recovery device called KineAssist, is being used to help patients in rehabilitation centers today. It is one of four patents Brown holds for robotic devices that support gait and balance rehabilitation. He is working on a fifth.
His career journey has been “a long arc,” he said, and it has not been without its share of challenges. One constant has been the role that mentorship has played at all stages in his career. He appreciates the value that UTMB leadership places on mentoring and looks forward to seeing the benefits of mentorship in action at UTMB.
“I have learned so much from my mentors, and I have also mentored people who have gone on to do great things,” he said. “I know that I can’t solve everybody’s problems, but I can mentor others who will go out and do good work, and through them I can have an impact on even more patients.”
He sees potential for the School of Health Professions to expand its impact moving forward, as well. Since the Physician Assistant Studies Program moved into the School of Medicine last year, there is an opportunity to develop a new program and enroll more students in the School of Health Professions.
“We are really engaging in a deep dive to find out what are the needs out there? How can we create a program that serves UTMB’s overall mission and develops more skilled health care professionals who will go out and provide the services that are needed?” Brown said.
If it’s not apparent, Brown has an ambitious to-do list. He’s eager to cultivate relationships with the School of Health Professions’ strong, supportive alumni network, and to work with School of Nursing Dean Dr. Deborah Jones to identify opportunities for their schools to collaborate.
He’s also excited about finding opportunities to engage with his new community. The area is a great fit for him, Brown said. He is a fan of the arts, dance and classical music; in fact, his son is a classical violinist who trained at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music. And his wife, who is from China, is excited to connect with the large Asian community across the Houston area.
Brown is also an avid runner. After just a week on the job, he found himself lacing up his running shoes and heading up the Galveston Causeway, as the School of Health Professions hosted its largest annual fundraiser, the Causeway FunD Run. It was a fun event, he said, a good opportunity to connect with his team.
As a new leader at UTMB, Brown wants the people he works with to know a few things about him. One is that he’s not afraid to be challenged—he thinks the most productive interactions always have an edge of conflict to them—and another is that he’s not afraid of failure. As a child in kindergarten, he was tasked with choosing a personal slogan. With his father’s help, he settled with “onward and upward”—and it’s stayed with him ever since.
“No matter how dire or how hopeless a situation may seem, I ask myself, ‘How can I learn from this and move forward?’” he said. “If you were not afraid to fail, what great things could you achieve? I’ve learned from my father and other great mentors, when you take away the stress and anxiety of being afraid to fail, you open up a lot of possibilities.”