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.”