Dr. Chris Brown is one spaced-out Ph.D. — literally.
Brown, who holds two degrees from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, a master’s degree in horticulture and a Ph.D. in botany, became the director of space programs at the Kenan Institute for Engineering, Technology & Science at N.C. State University earlier this year.
“Chris has a knack for innovation and creativity,” says Dr. Eric Young, assistant director of the Agricultural Research Service in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, who served as Brown’s lead advisor during his master’s degree program. “The fact that he decided to do his master’s work on a commodity-oriented problem and his Ph.D. work in fundamental plant physiology is evidence of that. His graduate work here gave him a broader and more holistic view of how research should be approached.”
After earning his Ph.D. in 1987, Brown went to the University of Missouri to begin post-doctorate work. It was there that Brown became aware of a program — one that involved plants —at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
NASA recruited Brown to establish the plant space biology lab at the Kennedy Space Center. “Researchers from around the world who conduct biological experiments on the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station process their specimens through labs at the Kennedy Space Center,” Brown explains. NASA realized the importance of having an active research program on site.
“I came to Kennedy Space Center to do plant gravitational biology, studying the basic mechanisms on how plants respond to gravity, particularly microgravity,” says Brown. “We wanted to get those plants into space to see what would happen to them.”
While the knowledge gained from such experiments in exposing plants to out-of-this-world living conditions will be useful in developing life support systems for long-term space travel, it also holds very practical implications for agricultural crops here on earth, Brown says.
“When you have plants blown over by the wind, with hurricanes for example, the plants will grow back up, but it is usually slow, and that crop can be counted as a loss. We want to understand how to accelerate that process to benefit the crop,” he says.
He also points to forestry and floriculture as other industries that stand to benefit economically from these experiments.
After seven years at the Kennedy Space Center, Brown searched up and down the East Coast for an engaging scientific community where he could further delve into what outer space can teach us about improving earth’s food and fiber. An opportunity arose to compete for a large NASA grant to study gravitational biology, and he immediately thought of his alma mater. He worked with Dr. Wendy Boss, professor in the College’s Botany Department, to win the grant.
“I came back to N.C. State University because of the high caliber of basic science and also the grasp the people here have of the real-world applications of their research,” says Brown.
It was as the gravitational biology grant work began nearing completion that Brown was appointed the director of Space Programs for the Kenan Institute. His highest priority is to establish the North Carolina Space Institute (NCSI).
The mission of NCSI is to develop a network of researchers, educators and business leaders to foster the use of space research and technology to address important issues that affect our state, nation and world, such as biotechnology, agriculture and the environment.
“To bring efforts like this together in meaningful ways takes coordination. The NCSI will be that coordinating unit,” notes Brown, who will be working with researchers from several colleges within N.C. State University, other universities and industrial leaders to form the institute.
Brown is also exploring the possibility of creating a Challenger Learning Center on Centennial Campus. The focus of such centers, sub-groups of The Challenger Center for Space Science Education headquartered in Washington, D.C., is to encourage long-term interest in math, science and technology and to motivate students to pursue careers in these fields. The program is geared toward middle-school students.
“Most kids love space. A Challenger Learning Center is a great way to involve students in an exciting, cooperative learning environment that exposes them to the challenges of teamwork, problem-solving, communication and decision-making,” he says.
In addition to frequent visits to school groups in the state, Brown also reaches students in a more traditional setting, teaching a course in space biology to undergraduates in the College as well as students from UNC-Chapel Hill. He is working with the Fundamental Biology Outreach office at the Kennedy Space Center and the College’s Department of Communication Services to put the course on CD for wider distribution.
“We have excellent people doing excellent work in our state in space-related areas,” Brown says. “I hope to be able to elevate the profile of North Carolina as a state that can make significant contributions in humankind’s exploration and use of space.”