Army engineer known for edgy ideas that raise millions for lifesaving research

January 22, 2016

By Joyce P. Brayboy, ARL Public Affairs

Brendan M. Hanrahan was pursuing grand challenges a decade ago when a few words in a physics textbook put him on course to be the one who would find a room-temperature superconductor.

At 16, Hanrahan was not as interested in energy as he was the possibility of making the breakthrough that authors said would solve many problems for humanity. "It presented such a tangible challenge," he said. "I wanted to solve hard problems."

These days, experts argue the validity of the Georgia native's catalyst, but his drive towards solving big problems is undeniable. This drive is what brought him to the U.S. Army Research Laboratory a few years ago as a graduate student.

Hanrahan is a materials engineer at ARL who explores pyroelectric energy conversion for military uses, whose colleagues may never associate as the man behind the Cupid's Undie Run, a fundraiser next month that has spread to 39 cities and raised millions of dollars for neurofibromatosis research.

As if a full-time job was not enough for a University of Maryland doctoral candidate, he added on what may have been his wackiest idea so far — a mile-ish charity run on Valentine's Day in underwear. The eventfollowed D.C.'s snowiest days this decade, and was organized to help the brother of one of his best friends who had been diagnosed with the Neurofibromatosis (NF) genetic disorder. Hanrahan's roommate in 2010, Bobby Gill, was the first to tell him the idea would never work. Hanrahan remembers him saying, "You're going to do it anyway, aren't you?" It was not long before the two, along with Chad Leathers, were working feverishly to register participants for the inaugural run.

"Most people at one time or another have sat around with friends and brainstormed crazy ideas," Hanrahan said, but he told them. "Let's make this one happen."

Leathers' brother Drew had been diagnosed with NF when he was in high school. Leathers' childhood friend, Hanrahan, and many of the people in their Gwinnett County community that raised money as the Tumornators at the time, knew about the genetic disorder that causes tumors to grow throughout the nervous system — that is, before it affected one of their own.

By the time Hanrahan got to graduate school, Drew's battle with NF had become severe. He was spending half of his waking hours under doctor's care. The first Cupid's Undie Run that was hosted by a bar on Capitol Hill was a way of raising awareness about it the disease. The run, less than a week after the dump of snowmaggedon was the perfect storm Hanrahan said. "We had about 250 people sign up for this crazy event, 650 people showed up and we probably had the logistics ready for about 50 people.

"It was one of the best days of our lives," Hanrahan said. "We forgot to eat. All hands were on deck. I was sure it was going to work. I never considered another possibility."

Even with an outpouring of support for Drew, the run was not without those critical of the underwear theme. "I tell people it's a bucket-list thing," Hanrahan said. "Participants spend a little time feeling awkward to help children who spend a lifetime being uncomfortable. The challenge is to present the run in a way that seems fun and weird, but does not cross the line."

Drew lived to see the dream fulfilled. He attended the run in Atlanta every year it was held. This Valentine's Day will be the first Cupid's Undie Run since he passed away in August of last year, and to date, Cupid Charities has raised over $8 million for the Children's Tumor Foundation bringing them just a little closer to the ultimate goal of curing NF.

Hanrahan is proud of the run's success and more proud that Gill, co-founder and ultramarathoner, was featured in Runner's World as the "winner for the cover search" in October. When the charity grew, Gill left his bioengineering job to expand the vision. Hanrahan's philanthropic focus has shifted to helping communities find creative ways to raise money for their causes.

Hanrahan is also exploring an efficient way to make the electricity from heated or cooled pyroelectric materials powerful enough to charge something like a sensor on the battlefield. He presented research on the thermodynamic implications of running high frequency pyroelectric cycles at the Materials Research Society during the fall of 2015. He is looking forward to demonstrating a laser-based wireless pyroelectric energy transfer in 2016, he said.

"I'd like to engineer materials that make the conversion between heat and electricity the most efficient that is possible," he said.

The commonality between the charity and his work at ARL is the grand challenge. Hanrahan has taken that strength of pursuing crazy ideas to come up with new fundraising concepts. Here at ARL, he is one of two-thousand scientists and engineers pursuing high-risk, high-reward ideas to bring, in this case, unexpected energy conversion techniques, he said.

"If I listened to people who didn't think pyroelectrics were viable, I wouldn't have started down this path, which has yielded some exciting early results," Hanrahan said.

"There will always be people who say something can't be done. But I will do it anyway," he said.

For more information about Hanrahan, visit his website. Registration is open for Cupid's Undie Run noon, Feb. 13, in Washington D.C.

 

Last Update / Reviewed: January 22, 2016