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Brain is the quintessential life-long learner who is driven to teach others, especially young people. In fact, in 1997 he self-published The Teenager’s Guide to the Real World, a book, Brain says, “I wish someone had handed me when I was a teenager.”

It was named by the New York Public Library as one of the top 50 books for teens. The book offers advice to teens on how to get adults to take them seriously, how to improve confidence and self-esteem, how to make smart choices about sex, and how to manage money and plan for success, among many other topics.

“I wondered ‘why didn’t someone tell me all this stuff as a teenager,’” Brain says. “Being rejected, for example, is devastating to everyone except perhaps the captain of the football team. When you’re older, you understand it better, but I didn’t think anyone was giving teenagers that perspective now.”

Brain says he had a particularly tough time in high school, an experience made worse by the loss of his father before his 15th birthday. David Brain was an aeronautical engineer for McDonnell Douglas and worked on the Apollo missions in the 1960s. Brain remembers his father as a “tinkerer” who always “took apart and put stuff together and created serious and goofy stuff.” He constructed the family’s stereo system from scratch and made a bubble machine and built radios with his son.

Unfortunately, Brain says, just when “my brain was getting to a point where I could understand what my father does in his work, he passes away.” But he believes his fascination with the intricacies of machines and systems may be hardwired into his brain. It certainly was a major influence in his early years growing up in California.

Brain arrived at Rensselaer as an electrical engineering major who intended to design and build computers. His need to learn broadly—and quickly—led him to take junior- and senior-level courses as a freshman. “I learned what I really wanted to learn amazingly early at RPI.” He also spent a lot of time at the School of Architecture. “They were cool people, had a great library, and lots of project demonstrations on the lawn that I attended,” he says.

Brain adds that the small campus and interconnected disciplines were perfect for his hungry mind. In fact, his favorite professor was the late Douglas Washburn, a member of the language, literature, and communication faculty in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences from 1949 to 1986.

“I was not a writer in college,” Brain says. “Now, of course, it’s a big part of what I do.” He remembers Washburn’s writing exercises to help students describe what they were seeing in ways that would be compelling to readers—very much like his writing assignments today. “One day for class we sat looking at the [Voorhees Computing Center] to think about how we would describe it,” Brain says.

Brain’s off-campus adventures were educational as well. He was fascinated by the 19th-century industrial history of the Capital Region—“it was the Silicon Valley of the mid 1800s”—and he and a friend would often explore the old mill and factory sites in Troy and Cohoes.

“This was the place to be technologically,” Brain says. “The history is unbelievable.” He was fascinated especially by the remnants of the old Erie Canal—the engineering feat of its day—that had been abandoned when a newer canal was built in the early 20th century to carry larger vessels. To Brain, attending Rensselaer brought him closer to how things worked a century and a half before he arrived in Troy.
 

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Rensselaer Magazine: June 2002
President's View Your Mail From the Archives Hawk Talk Class Notes Features
Front Page At Rensselaer Milestones
In Memoriam Making a Difference Staying Connected
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