Philip J. Brown was a preemie, born months before his due date in 1987. His prognosis was so dire that his parents flew him from their home in Carmel, California, more than 100 miles north to a medical center in San Francisco to save his life.
Brown was one of three boys born to Jay and Kari Brown, a civil engineer and a social worker, respectively. Perhaps a result of his early entry into the world, Brown was slow early on, off kilter in so many ways — yet he had this weirdly mechanical mindset from the time he could walk. At the zoo, for example, his brothers would gape at the lions and tigers, but Brown remembers preferring to stare at the gate latch, trying to understand how it held so much weight.
No foreshadowing of brilliance was evident in elementary school. He was, by pure reason of being born too early, developmentally delayed. As a self-described Army brat, his family moved around. His teachers saw little in him but a mundane future. One teacher — perhaps thinking she was being kind — offered his parents what she deemed a ray of hope: “If you’re lucky, he might be able to become a bus driver.”
But developmentally, Brown caught up, and he didn’t just blossom, he exploded.
“A big goal in my life is to improve the human condition. That’s what motivates me.”Tweet
— Philip J. Brown
All grown up
Now 28, Brown is a Ph.D. biomechanical engineer who works with clinicians, surgeons, and nurses from a variety of medical specialties at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He specializes in turning innovative ideas into viable and valuable medical devices for patient use.
A typical day for Brown: “I work with physicians to solve medical device development questions,” Brown says, outside his office and lab. “They say, ‘I have an idea to improve a particular surgical technique. I need a model to know whether my new device is an improvement over the standard of care.’ ”
“My job,” he adds, “is to develop the strategy, the software programs, and the applications to solve medical-device design challenges and turn these ideas into medical advances.”
So how did Brown get to where he is today?
Two years ago, Brown was in his office when Dr. Wesley Hsu, a neurosurgeon at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, came in bearing a screw — a blue, thin, 2-inch screw with narrow threads, meant for a highly common procedure among aging Baby Boomers: lumbar fusion to address spinal disk deterioration. Anyone age 55 to 75 — simply by virtue of walking, bending, lifting, living — is a likely candidate for Dr. Hsu’s skills one day.
“Dr. Hsu came in with this screw that he believed had medical advantages over the most commonly used screw,” Brown explains. “The screw was unique and interesting for me to study. It was smaller and could be inserted with greater precision. Traditional screws require a large incision and a lot of moving of muscle, which is always risky. The new screw would come into the disk from a different angle. You don’t have to cut as much. You don’t have to move as much muscle. All this would reduce recovery time and surgery time.”
At the zoo, his brothers would gape at the lions and tigers, but Philip J. Brown remembers preferring to stare at the gate latch, trying to understand how it held so much weight.Tweet
The idea is a win-win — if it works. And that’s really where Brown’s brain is most valuable. He’s the one who needs to figure out how to establish whether a thing as tiny as a blue titanium screw can enhance lumbar surgery, the painful scourge of millions, thus improving outcomes and saving money.
“I had to build a lab to do the necessary experiment,” Brown says. “Before testing was even possible, I needed approval to buy a $125,000 robot [he got it]. Once I had a set of cadaver spines, I would insert the various screws in different places, then program the robot to move the spine in a variety of ways.”
Brown focused on realistic movements, like the way we use our backs to climb steps, take a seat, twist around to grab our coffee, or bend over to pick up a dropped item. As the robot moved the spines in ways Brown had programmed, he could assess whether the new screw was adding more strength than the traditional screw; whether there was greater rigidity in the disk; and whether the screw itself could endure metal fatigue.
In the end, Brown concluded that a combination of Dr. Hsu’s new screw and the traditional screws offered the best outcomes, especially for women with osteoporosis. The two years Brown spent working this project earned him his Ph.D. from Wake Forest’s joint engineering program with Virginia Tech.
Brown knows the importance of his work, but says he works no more than 50 hours a week. He got married in September to a contract writer and wants to spend plenty of time with her. He’s also got big ideas when it comes to education and improving creativity. He’s currently developing plans for a new graduate program at Wake Forest that would put entrepreneurs in a joint program with the medical center and law school. He wants to design a tricked-out mobile lab with all kinds of fun tools — a so-called “maker space” — that can drive into economically challenged neighborhoods and inspire young kids there to achieve the kinds of dreams he has always nurtured.
“A big goal in my life is to improve the human condition,” Brown says. “That’s what motivates me.”
Then with a wry smile, he adds, “If it doesn’t work out, I can always drive a school bus. I’ll just hang my Ph.D. from the rearview mirror.”
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