Why I Am a Professor

I never planned to be a university professor. I believe that life is a result of “chance and necessity.” Being at the “right place at the right time” is as much a function of our own designs as it is of chance. My academic career is certainly the result of my hard work, my drive to always learn and share knowledge, my curiosity, and my enjoyment in discovery. And, the fact that I was lucky enough to have mentors who steered me in that direction, sometimes against my first instincts. I have no regrets and would do it all over again.

I love being a professor. Entrepreneurs talk about “pivoting,” changing directions when your original idea fails. As a professor, I am expected to “pivot” all the time; not because of failure, but because knowledge evolves at an increasing pace. I make it a habit to change topics, and work, about every 10 years. I must do so to keep current, and it is exciting.

But the pursuit of knowledge is only one face of the professor’s job. Educating people, mentoring people, shaping minds and characters in the classroom and in one-on-one situations is the other face. In my opinion, it is in this second face where I have made the most important contribution. This face is also the most fulfilling.

I have achieved the highest accolades of research. I feel proud of my role as academic leader at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of California – Irvine, and Georgia Tech and believe that those institutions are better because of my contributions. But when I am gone, I am convinced that my only long-lasting legacy will be my students, their children, and their students. From my very first students in the classroom to those I had the honor to meet last term in GT1000, and from my very first Ph.D. student to my present Ph.D. students, I strive, and hope, that I make them better people, not just better educated. 

There is nothing more fulfilling than to observe and rejoice in the success of former students. Nothing is more humbling than their words of gratitude. Over the last few weeks, I had a couple of reminders of how much I love my work. A large number of former students and friends surprised me with a dinner in Perugia, Italy, where I was giving a lecture. I spent the evening talking, laughing, and reminiscing over more than 35 years of great memories.

Then last week I spent one of the most intensely painful but encouraging hours of my life with one of my first students. I was devastated to learn he has been stricken with terminal cancer. We talked about the good times, about former colleagues and students. We talked about his career, his family, and about my family. At the end, we embraced. I told him I loved him, and he said, “thank you for all you have done for me.”

And that is why I am a professor.

Rafael L. Bras

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