For this NASA engineer, how things work is their essence

“Because you have to build it out of something,” has been Robert Bryant’s mantra since he was a boy in Chicago.

As materials research engineer, chief engineer and branch head at NASA Langley Research Center, Bryant wrote more than 100 technical papers, several encyclopedia chapters, has more than 40 U.S. and foreign patents and he contributed to the development of a new pacemaker that uses a material he developed. It has helped more than a quarter million people.

He is the recipient of the NASA Medal of Exceptional Achievement and was induced into the Space Foundation’s Technology Hall of Fame. According to Joel Levine, who served as senior scientist at NASA for 41 years, “Rob is one of the brightest and most innovative scientists at NASA.”

“I always had a curiosity about how things worked,” he said in a recent interview with the Gazette. “I also wanted to understand how people knew what materials to use in order to make things. When I was in elementary school, I started to disassemble and reassemble various toys, including electric trains and cars. This was my foundation to how things worked.”

Bryant said he was a mediocre student and didn’t think he would become a research engineer. “I had two major hurdles. As a minority kid, Afro-American growing up in the 60s and 70s in Chicago, I was subtlety made victim of directed condescension. What I had to overcome was not to let other people determine who I should be.”

The second challenge was eyesight. He had marginally poor, uncorrectable eyesight.

“Most people do not appreciate that 90-95 percent of learned information is visual. We read, write, paint, look through microscopes and telescopes, use videos and demonstrate through eye and hand. Since I couldn’t read the blackboards in elementary school, this resulted in the assumption that I had learning disability,” he recalled.

His mother was a librarian and always had books for him to read. “Thus I developed a love for reading, which meant that I also developed good reading comprehension. This gave me an advantage later on when it came to reading technical books and papers.”

Bryant considers himself fortunate that as a child he had access to technical toys, tools and books.

“This helped to encourage my curiosity, which continued through my high school science classes and college. I also give credit to those rare teachers and professors who taught me how to pose problems and communicate information. I cannot emphasize enough what a good teacher can do.”

As far as technology goes, Bryant and his team at NASA contributed to the development of new materials used in electronic medical devices that are less intrusive and have extended capabilities. The new pacemaker system that uses a material Bryant developed is on its third generation and is the leading pacemaker technology worldwide.

His team also developed several other materials and device technologies that are used by different companies for applications ranging from aerospace to machine robotics.

Although many people credit Bryant with inventing and developing the materials and devices that proved to be so important in many fields of technology, he gives credit to the engineers who designed the parts and the surgical teams who did what he calls the “heavy lifting.”

In turn, for his success at NASA, Bryant pays tribute to his mentors.

“As we continue to grow, we continue to seek knowledge, and various people continue to influence us through our lives. People, that really helped my career at NASA where Drs. Terry St. Clair, Joel Levine, Charlie Harris, and other colleagues that worked behind the scenes so that we could be successful.”

Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,” the compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at Bruton Parish Shop and

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