“My parents gave so much to me, and I wanted to give to help others in the future.”
Ever since he was a young boy, Brett Williams (1983 B.S.) has been intrigued by astronomy. Fortunately for the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, native, he was able to learn from a pioneer in the exploration of outer space while attending the University of Iowa: James Van Allen (1936 M.S., 1939 Ph.D.).
Van Allen was a long-time professor within the Department of Physics and Astronomy and is best known for his work on Explorer I, the first U.S. satellite successfully sent into space. Van Allen also happened to be Brett’s undergraduate advisor at the UI. For Brett, he saw this world-renowned space scientist as a humble instructor who loved his students.
“I will always remember going up to his office to ask a simple question—something about the phases of the moon,” says Brett. “After I asked the question, he tapped his chin—something he always did while thinking. He knew the answer all along, and it was probably a trivial question, but he made me feel like it was OK to always ask questions.”
It was professors like Van Allen that gave Brett the confidence to continue asking questions and pursuing challenges throughout his career in anti-missile missile defense, radar work, sensor technology, and software development. Throughout his 30-year career, Brett was granted a total of 21 U.S. patents and was also named Inventor of the Year in 2008 by Lockheed Martin.
Brett started to give back to the Department of Physics and Astronomy as a gesture of appreciation for the role Van Allen played in his education and career. “I always remembered what Dr. Van Allen said, ‘If it happens, there’s a reason for it. Hence, nothing need be a mystery,’” says Brett. “The University of Iowa and professors like Van Allen gave me everything—whether it was a level of intellectual confidence or the fundamental tools to succeed.”
But, Van Allen wasn’t the only influencer in Brett’s professional life. Brett’s parents did not attend college, but they regarded a college education as extremely significant and supported him while he finished his undergraduate degree, which took seven years to complete. In 2009, Brett created the Guy D. and Betty J. Williams Scholarship, an award named for his parents that supports Department of Physics and Astronomy students in the UI Honors Program.
“My parents gave so much to me, and I wanted to give to help others in the future,” says Brett.
Recently, Brett created two additional scholarships for the UI Honors Program through a bequest: The Brett Williams Innovation Invitation Scholarship and the Dr. Louis A. Frank and Dr. John B. Sigwarth Scholarship. The latter scholarship is named after a former professor and a former classmate who have both since passed away. These two scholarships, which will be awarded through Brett’s estate, will benefit students in the UI College of Engineering and the Department of Physics and Astronomy.
“I hope my scholarships help students get the innovation bug,” says Brett. “Whether it’s saving the planet from humans or getting us to Mars, so many innovations are waiting to be discovered. You just have to give yourself the permission to be the individual to change the world, and then have the persistence to go after it.”
Brett understands the innovation bug better than most, and that interest in innovation all started with Van Allen. Today, he’s grateful to pay it forward. “I’ve known since that one fateful day in Dr. Van Allen’s office that I wanted to do something to help others at the University of Iowa,” says Brett. “I’ve been able to accomplish so much because of the University of Iowa. I hope others feel that same debt.”