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R.I. man earns Ph.D. from Brown University and becomes physicist at 89

"It is important not to waste your older days. There is a lot of brainpower in older people and I think it can be of enormous benefit to younger generations."

A Rhode Island man achieved a lifelong dream when he earned a Ph.D. in physics from Brown University at 89-years-old.

Though Manfred Steiner already has two doctorates and a 30-year-career in medicine under his belt, a degree in physics has always been a goal.

“It’s an old dream that starts in my childhood,” he said in a post from Brown University. “I always wanted to become a physicist.”

Steiner grew up in Austria, and emigrated to the United States after earning a medical doctorate from the University of Vienna in 1955. 

“I knew physics was my true passion by the time I graduated high school,” Steiner said. “But after the war, my uncle and my mother advised me to take up medicine because it would be a better choice in these turbulent after-war years.” 

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He finished his internal medicine training in Washington, D.C. before starting as a trainee in hematology at Tufts University, which included a three-year biology training at MIT. He earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry from MIT in 1967.

He moved to Rhode Island to work as a hematologist at Brown University, and was appointed as an assistant professor of medicine in 1968, full professor in 1978, and head of hematology in 1985, where he served until 1994. Before retiring and moving back to Rhode Island in 2000, he became chief of hematology at the University of North Carolina, Greenville.

“Even when I was in medical school I went at times to lectures by a renowned physicist Walter Thirring,” Steiner said. “His lectures always fascinated me. I was captivated by quantum physics and wished I could go into more detail in this.”

Though he nurtured a love for physics, Steiner said medicine isn’t something that can be done “halfway” and requires true, lifelong dedication.

 “Physics was always a part of me,” he said, “and when I retired from medicine and I was approaching age 70, I decided to enter the world of physics.”

That’s when Steiner started taking undergraduate courses in Brown’s physics department. Though it started because he just wanted to take courses that interested him, Steiner soon had enough credits to earn a place in the doctoral program.

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Dr. Brad Marston, a professor and condensed matter theorist, agreed to be Steiner’s advisor. 

“To be honest, I was skeptical because people do not usually do physics, especially theoretical physics, at an advanced age,” Marston said. “But in a moment of weakness, I agreed and said ‘yes.’ I knew his story, and I was very sympathetic to his desire to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming a physicist.”

Steiner defended his dissertation, “Corrections to the Geometrical Interpretation of Bosonization,” in September, after recovering from a serious medical condition, according to Brown.

“He has written many papers in medical science, more papers than I’ve written in physics. He already had a scientific way of thinking that younger students have to develop,” Marston told the Associated Press. “And any research problem that’s worth its salt, you’re going to run into roadblocks. If you let obstacles discourage you, you won’t get anywhere. One thing that’s really true about Manfred is he perseveres.”

Steiner will officially receive his Ph.D. in February. He’s working with Marston on editing his dissertation for publication, and intends to continue research.

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“It feels really good,” he said. “I am really on top of the world. …This Ph.D. is the one that I most cherish because it’s the one that I was striving for my whole life.”

Steiner believes everyone — no matter their age — should follow their dreams, especially to keep learning.

“If you have a dream, follow it. Sometimes that dream may never have been verbalized, it may be buried in the subconscious,” he said. “It is important not to waste your older days. There is a lot of brainpower in older people and I think it can be of enormous benefit to younger generations. Older people have experience and many times history repeats itself.”

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