Bob Buhrman, former vice provost for research, dies at 75

Applied physicist Robert “Bob” Buhrman, M.S. ’69, Ph.D. ’73, the John Edson Sweet Memorial Professor of Engineering Emeritus and Cornell’s second senior vice provost for research, and vice president for technology transfer and intellectual property, who helped expand emerging science and engineering programs, and obtain funding for research, died April 13 in Rochester, New York. He was 75.

“Bob Buhrman was a visionary and effective leader for more than 50 years at Cornell, helping to organize numerous research centers, serving as director of Applied and Engineering Physics and as vice provost for research,” said Dan Ralph, Ph.D. ’93, the F.R. Newman Professor of Physics in the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S). “He was a valued mentor to countless students and young faculty, providing wisdom on how to succeed in science and engineering.”

Applied physicist Robert “Bob” Buhrman, M.S. ’69, Ph.D. ’73.

At Cornell, Buhrman held a dual appointment in the College of Engineering and A&S.

Throughout his professional career, Buhrman examined applied condensed matter physics, in nanoscale science and engineering. Early on, he studied superconducting devices and materials for solar absorbers. Later, he pioneered ways to control magnetism in order to store digital information, according to Ralph and Gregory Fuchs, Ph.D. ’07, associate professor of applied and engineering physics.

Buhrman led his field in developing methods to reorient nanoscale magnets (electrons) to make magnetic memories faster and more efficient. His innovations enabled spin-transfer-torque magnetic random-access memory, now in production at leading semiconductor foundries. His work was the first to demonstrate magnetic switching in a multilayer device driven by spin-transfer torque, and he also discovered a giant spin Hall effect in heavy metals, which can enable even more efficient magnetic switching.

While he helped to expand Cornell’s science research programs and bring brick-and-mortar facilities to Cornell, friends and colleagues said he was always guided by his love for physics, engineering and teaching.

“As a doctoral student, my experience was that Bob always knew when not to help,” Fuchs said. “He let you figure things out. If Bob thought it was the right thing to do, he would stand back, pull his hands away and let you learn.”

Brian Moeckly, Ph.D. ’94, the head of superconductor research at Commonwealth Fusion Systems, enjoyed Buhrman’s acumen. Moeckly had been having trouble deciding on a postdoctoral career path, asked Buhrman for guidance – knowing that he eschewed offering advice. But Buhrman did.

“Bob said, ‘If you don't know what you want to do, do that which will maximize your short-term happiness,’” said Moeckly. “I've never forgotten that sentence.”

Robert Alan Buhrman was born in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania on April 24, 1945, and he grew up on a small farm in Smithsburg, Maryland. He earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering physics at Johns Hopkins University in 1967 and his master’s and doctoral degrees in applied physics from Cornell.

Buhrman joined the Cornell faculty in 1973 as an assistant professor in the School of Applied and Engineering Physics. He became an associate professor in 1978 and a professor in 1983. He was named the John Edson Sweet Professor of Engineering in 1993.

Buhrman served as the associate director of the National Research and Resource Facility for Submicron Structures from 1980-83 and director of the School of Applied and Engineering Physics from 1988-98. He was the first director of Cornell’s Center for Nanoscale Systems in Information Technologies.

As part of that center’s funding, Buhrman planned for physics outreach throughout New York. His daughter Susannah Buhrman-Deever ’00, Ph.D. ’07, a biologist, suggested he create a Cornell Institute for Physics Teachers (CIPT) – modelled after the Cornell Institute for Biology Teachers.

He did, and the new institute served up workshops and a summer institute for high school teachers, and provided access to kits for hands-on activities through a lending-library, according to Monica Plisch Ph.D. ’01, who was the first director of CIPT, now with the American Physical Society. Within five years, the CIPT had reached more than 25% of New York’s physics teachers and Buhrman’s Center for Nanoscale Systems had helped to start similar programs in Cleveland, Ohio; Jackson, Mississippi; Los Angeles and Singapore.

In 2007, Buhrman became the senior vice provost for research, succeeding the late Nobel laureate Robert Richardson. As vice provost, he oversaw the four national research centers, 12 Cornell research centers, the Cornell Center for Technology, Enterprise and Commercialization, the Center for Animal Resources and Education, and several other research administrative offices, and helped secure essential funding for the Center for Nanoscale Systems in Information Technologies (CNS).

In 2011, Cornell added the position of vice president for technology transfer, intellectual property and research policy to Buhrman’s responsibilities. That position reported to the Cornell president and provost. Buhrman held the vice provost and vice president positions until 2017, when he stepped down.

Buhrman treated staff with complete respect. Cathy Long, now executive director of administration and finance at the Division of Nutritional Sciences, started with Buhrman as department manager at Applied and Engineering Physics, and later joined him in the Office of the Senior Vice Provost for Research.

“Bob was an exceptional mentor and genuinely supportive of those who worked for him,” Long said. “He always made time to listen. Often at the end of the day, we would sit down and recap it. He had a way of guiding and helping me and my colleagues learn how to evaluate issues and find solutions to help faculty and support the university’s mission.”

Andrew Bass, the Horace White Professor of Neurobiology and Behavior, and the senior associate dean for math and science in A&S, worked closely with Buhrman, when he was the associate vice provost for research.

“Traits that come to mind when I think about Bob’s leadership include integrity, dedication, keen judgment and rigorous but compassionate mentorship of faculty, staff and students,” Bass said. “He strove to maintain the very highest standards in scholarly research and administration. And Bob was a keen observer of the human condition – as his understanding of the universe went far beyond its physical principles. His death has left a deep void in the lives of many.”

He leaves his wife, Karen Buhrman M.S. ’70, as well as his children Kristina Buhrman ’99; Susannah Buhrman-Deever; and John Buhrman ’04, J.D. ’08; and five grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements will be private. Memorial plans have not been set.

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Abby Butler