15 April 2015

How to make a mentor

Jim Brooks at the MagLab's 2014 Open House. Jim Brooks at the MagLab's 2014 Open House.

Jim Brooks was a mentor to practically everyone he met. His life was a primer for educators everywhere on how to groom better scientists — and better people.


Like any good physicist, Jim Brooks knew a lot of equations. Modern physics, after all, is built on scores of them, such as F = m*a (Newton's second law of motion) and E=mc2 (energy equals mass multiplied by the speed of light squared — thanks, Einstein!).

2014 MagLab Reports cover

This story appeared in Vol. 22, No. 1 of MagLab Reports. Read more stories from the lab's triannual magazine.

So it's not entirely kooky to think of Brooks himself as an equation. Given his offbeat sense of humor (he did, after all, pluck a frog from a pond and levitate it in a magnet back when such stunts raised more chuckles than eyebrows), the idea might have tickled his funny bone.

Brooks passed away last year at age 70 after a 20-year career at the MagLab. A fellow of the American Physical Society, he worked in many areas of experimental, low-temperature and high magnetic field physics. As demanding as that research was, Brooks also devoted countless hours to mentoring students, post-docs and colleagues. By all accounts, he was as passionate and gifted at that job as he was at physics: Every moment was a teachable moment for Brooks.

"Jim had an unusually broad range of research interests, and he was also an exceptional human being," said MagLab Director Greg Boebinger, whose friendship with Brooks spanned three decades. "He took great pride in applying his expertise to help younger researchers advance in their careers, which has made his impact on physics all the greater."

Brooks' sudden death prompted a flood of remembrances that spoke as much to his legacy as a mentor as to his impact as a scientist. Below, we've distilled the stories of Brooks the Mentor — or Brooks-sensei, as he was fondly known among his Japanese students and colleagues — into a kind of equation. Add up all these traits and you're bound to come out with a fine mentor on the other side of the equal sign. While no one could ever fill his Birkenstocks, his example may inspire others to walk that same path, helping advance science through quality mentoring for a long time to come.


The Dr. James "Jim" Brooks Graduate Student Award in Materials has been set up in Brooks' memory. Donate by visiting the FSU Foundation; enter F08057 as the designation. A Brooks Memorial Symposium is scheduled for May 16, 2015.

A champion for others

Those who knew Brooks best describe a man whose passion for science was unfettered by ego. "He never pretended to know what he didn't know," said Andhika Kiswandhi, a former Brooks post-doc now at the University of Texas at Dallas, "and he loved to learn from everyone, including his own students." When he advised on a successful project or paper, he scrupulously side-stepped the spotlight.

"He always cared about our careers," said MagLab researcher Eden Steven, another of the half-dozen grad students and postdocs Brooks was supervising at the time of his death. "On every occasion when there was an opportunity for us to shine, he would always give us that chance."

Brooks groomed his students for independence and success. He taught them how to focus their work, when to stop taking data and how to write well. Some mentors, said Steven, will write a paper based on a student's work in order to get the research published more quickly. Not Brooks: He pushed students to author their own papers and to take the credit — even though it meant reviewing every draft along the way.

Brooks didn't reserve encouragement for his students only. When physicist David Graf sought advice as a newbie to the lab in the late 1990s, the common refrain was, "Go see Brooks."

"It didn't matter if you were his student or post-doc: His door was open," said Graf. "He would guide any willing student through the scientific process and then push them forward to take the credit for any success."

The many young scientists who sought out Brooks' office — a space blanketed by papers, instruments, travel mementos and thank-you gifts — always found the door ajar. Brooks also opened many figurative doors for them through introductions and recommendation letters that could clinch a new job or award. When physicist Irinel Chiorescu first came to the MagLab and Florida State University, Brooks took him under his wing. After winning a prestigious National Science Foundation award for early-career scientists, Chiorescu placed a late-night call to Brooks so that he was the first to know.

"I remember he was quite thrilled about it," said Chiorescu. "He was as happy as I was."

Space for mistakes

Of Brooks' many philosophies about science, this was surely one: You can't do it right without making a mess and a few mistakes along the way.

The younger the scientist, of course, the more frequent the mistakes. As a mentor, Brooks knew his students would sometimes stumble, and he always made room for that critical part of the scientific process.

"He didn't watch your back all the time: He gave you an idea and let you work on your own schedule," said Steven. "He always told us that creativity is something you cannot predict. It doesn't work this way. You need to give them space."

Brooks' love for teaching even extended to school-age kids. He taught impromptu physics lessons to pint-size friends using homemade tin-foil masks and magnets; dented classroom ceilings with projectiles in the name of science; and at the annual MagLab Open House entertained thousands of kids and kids-at-heart with demonstrations involving loud noises and smashed fruit. Brooks was never one to spoon-feed science: He threw down the ingredients like a gauntlet and then made room for sticky, smelly, blooper-filled science to happen.

Educational consultant Brenda Crouch, who worked many years with Brooks teaching kids and educators hands-on science through the Panhandle Area Educational Consortium, was awed by his ability to point students in the right direction, then step back and make way for learning. "After he explained how something worked, he really didn't give the students a lot of details, except to say, 'This is what it does; this is how it works. Let's see what you can do.'"

Work hard…

With his Hawaiian shirts, mop of gray hair and socks-and-sandals footwear, Brooks looked the part of a chill dude. That hippieesque demeanor notwithstanding, few people worked harder.

"Nothing was asking too much. He just worked very, very hard," said Crouch. And he never shirked the grunt work. "He was not an assigner of tasks," she added. "He was, 'Let's roll up our sleeves and get the work done.'"

That dedication inspired a similar work ethic in his students. "He never asked us to come in during the weekend, but we always came," said Steven. "I think what drives us is that we saw him work so hard for us, and that made us in turn want to repay that favor."

…Play hard

Long hours in the lab and at the computer could well make for a bunch of dull (and ornery) scientists. Luckily, Brooks had a fun side. He was famous for the parties he hosted, attended or spontaneously sparked: Even a meeting could be a party, as physicist Graf discovered when he first met Brooks back in 1999.

"He was laughing, drinking beer, looking at data and having a great time discussing the results," recalled Graf. "It was the first time of many that he would show me that you could work and have fun at the same time."

In Brooks' book, science was best done with a smile … the more devilish, the better.

Brooks taught MagLab Director Boebinger this lesson early in his career. An assistant professor at Boston University at the time, Brooks shared a magnet with then-grad student Boebinger. One day, Brooks and a visiting scientist were using it for a sensitive experiment on the fractional quantum Hall effect. Tinkering with equipment on his side of the lab, Boebinger chose an ill-fated moment to power up a drill, causing electrical spikes on their data and wrecking the day's work.

The irate scientist fumed. An abashed Boebinger wanted to crawl under a dilution refrigerator.

Brooks? He cracked up.

"It was Brooks who saw the humor and turned things into a teaching moment," said Boebinger.

Humor was indeed one of Brooks' favorite teaching tools, and he wielded it often to tear down walls that inhibited learning.

"He was just irreverent enough to really appeal to his students," said Crouch. "He had a great relationship with the students. He was so accessible to them."

An avid angler who spent rare downtime fishing at his beachfront home, Brooks had enough kid in him to know how to hook a future scientist. Dropping watermelons from the roof of FSU's seven-story physics building ("There was a controlled experiment," recalled MagLab physicist Eun Sang Choi, "but most of the time it was just fun to watch."); smashing objects with junkyard magnets; building "mouse mobiles" to teach energy and friction; incorporating liquid nitrogen into demos whenever feasible: These were just some of Brooks' science stunts. So of course, when he and Crouch decided to use the unique, liquid/solid substance called "oobleck" to teach a group of educators about non-Newtonian fluids, a simple beaker of the stuff wouldn't do. They needed a whole swimming pool full so that they could try to scamper across it before solid turned to liquid, sending them sinking into the goo.

"And you can guess who led the pack," said Crouch.

Know your audience

Although Brooks deployed fun to maximum pedagogical benefit, he was not a one-size-fits-all mentor. Thanks to a keen emotional intelligence, he could discern people's needs, fears and strengths quite well.

"He taught every student differently," said Steven. "He really knew which buttons to push."

Whether you were a kid or adult, physicist or layperson, teacher or student, he knew how to connect, Crouch said. "He had such a gift … for figuring out ways to make complex science content understandable."

Former student Arjun Narayanan said he still turns to his old professor when stumped by something: "Often … I have found the concept I have been struggling with best explained in some paragraph of an old paper of his."

For MagLab physicist Chiorescu, Brooks' secret to science communication was being a caring listener. Whenever he came to Brooks with an issue, the senior scientist listened carefully, interrupting with a question only as needed.

"He was not a talker who spends minutes and minutes talking. He was precise, and all the words had a lot of weight," said Chiorescu. "I had the feeling that he was listening to everybody and always taking that to his heart and trying to help everybody."

In a word: Be a mensch

Of all the attributes that made Brooks a fine mentor, the one remembered most fondly may also be the one most difficult to duplicate: Kindness. He offered to help people move, loaned them his truck, fetched them from the airport with a favorite beverage at the ready. His memorial page chronicles thoughtful acts, large and small.

"Jim was a very caring person, and he had a very open heart for everybody who needed his help and support," wrote physicist Hans Schneider-Muntau.

"I hope someday to learn to treat others with grace, humility, and unearned affection from the first moment, as he did with me," noted his one-time student Narayanan.

The laboratory where Brooks' group worked was, like his office, cluttered with the tools and byproducts of science. Walking in, you felt like you've interrupted a dozen different experiments. Working there recently, the young scientists were excited to observe an interesting phenomenon. The thrill of discovery was quickly dampened, however, by the realization that their mentor was no longer there to share it with them.

"We can talk about it to someone," said Steven, "but nobody will appreciate it as much as Brooks."

Last modified on 15 September 2015