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Center Snapshot: Rob Bryant
04.13.12
 
Center Snapshot: Rob Bryant. Image above: Rob Bryant understands that developing technology is a team effort and looks for signs of when team members are unhappy and, hence, not as productive. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

By: Jim Hodges

He has or is named on more than 30 U.S. patents for new materials and technology, a result of product of what he calls a "personality trait."

"I can see things from beginning to end," said Rob Bryant. "I can visualize the steps involved."

And he's at NASA Langley, at least in part, because the agency and the center have allowed him hands-on access to the invention process.

But just over a year ago, Bryant accepted the job of head of the Advanced Materials and Processing Branch, and that took away the laboratory time, the hands-on experience.

So why do it?

In part, it was because "people know me as the guy who always stands up at the Reid Center and asks questions," Bryant said. "Part of my taking the job was putting my money where my mouth is."

And part was establishing a culture in which the branch's 35-plus civil service researchers and as many contractors work in an environment that feeds creativity, achievement and resulting rewards and recognition.

The number of times per week the treats appear at our coffee pots are a sign that it's working.

"Most every morning I walk in and walk around and say hello to everybody," said Bryant, who has branch members in five buildings, scattered all over Langley. "I was once asked how I know things are going well in the branch. I said, we have three main coffee pot areas. I take the number of days in the week, five, and determine how many days that treats show up by the coffee pots. If it's 60 percent of the time, then I know things are going well.

"When that ratio goes down, something's up. When somebody's upset, the treats don't show up. People don't bring things in when they're angry or upset, nor they productive. They bring things in when they're happy, and when they are happy, they are extremely productive."

Bryant has learned much of that in the 21 years since he came to Langley from the University of Akron's Institute of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering as a graduate student. He had left electrical engineering for science in undergraduate school at Valparaiso University, but retained a sense that engineering helped make science complete.

"I'm always looking for applications," he said. "It's good to understand why things work, but you have to be able to find applications. Otherwise, you have very good journal articles and what-not, but you're not really producing a product."

Products drive Bryant. He sees technology on the shelf and wonders what else it could do. That leads to inventions and patents. The same drive at home leads him to distrust handymen and fix his own appliances.

"I've got ideas piled up in my head that I haven't been able to put into place," Bryant said. "I've developed things right out of the laboratory and had them moved right into applications. I've grabbed things off the shelf and developed some things in a laboratory and moved them into applications. And I've grabbed things off the shelf, assembled them in a different way and moved them.

"So I've been able to start at the very bottom, in the middle and where all the parts are and moved technology out."

And, Bryant added, "I don't mean me. I mean me and the other people I work with."

Understanding that it takes a team to invent a technology is also part of being a branch head.

"With very independent people -- and we have a bunch of them around here -- I assist them," Bryant said. "I stay out of the way. If they have problems relating to personnel, relating to money, relating to having access to the tools that they need to get their jobs done, it's my job to get those things for them. If I can't, I should have a damn good reason for what's going on and why."

A team that took products from a shelf and assembled them in a different way led directly to Macro-Fiber Composites and indirectly to a new hair-do. Yes, Bryant is the guy in cornrows, standing up to ask questions in the Reid Center.

It began when Macro-Fiber Composites was named NASA's Invention of the Year in 2007, and Bryant was invited to a program manager's convention to accept the award. Instead, he asked that it be presented at Kennedy Space Center, where a Langley team was helping with a Macro Fiber Composites experiment on the space shuttle's STS-123 mission.

But he was told after lingering negotiations that, no, he had to be at the program manager's meeting, where he would get the award.

"So I did what Thoreau would have done," he said. "It was an act of civil disobedience."

Any pictures from the convention that show an award that went to Langley showed the recipient standing out from the rest in cornrows.

"I said, if I'm going to be there among all of these program managers, they're going to remember that Langley got this award," Bryant said. "I'm going to do something different, but something tasteful."

That new 'do was reviewed positively, and a long search to find a hairdresser who would keep it up for a reasonable price has proved successful.

It's a part of him now, though certainly less a part than wife Joy, a former research chemist and patent attorney who runs a specialty foods business near their Williamsburg home; and son Jesse, a second-year man at West Point; and daughter Hillary, a junior at Lafayette High School.

The NASA inventor also designed a fitness program for a few cadets to use to quickly come into running shape at West Point. He also cooks dinner 2-4 times a week. A confessed foodie, Bryant enjoys the spatula, dining out and traveling.

"I don't travel for souvenirs," he said. "I travel for the food. I've got a way of judging restaurants. If you're in a strange place and don't know where to eat, look for wooden furniture and either two table cloths or a tablecloth and place setting with a placemat.

"To run a place like that, you have to be making a fair amount of money and that means your food has to be good."

It's Bryant, seeing things from the beginning and understanding the end.

 
 
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