Community mourns loss of Stanford alum

Feb. 19, 2010, 1:09 a.m.

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, The Daily incorrectly printed Ms. Mourad’s first name as Dana. Her first name is Dorris.

Doug Bourn ’73 spent only four years at Stanford as an undergraduate, but his impact in and near the Stanford community resounded today as friends and students remembered the alumnus who was killed yesterday when his twin-engine plane crashed into an East Palo Alto neighborhood.

Bourn, 56, a senior electrical engineer at the San Carlos-based Tesla Motors, and two other Tesla engineers — senior interactive electronics manager Brian Finn and electrical engineer Andrew Ingram — died Wednesday morning when the plane Bourn piloted clipped a transmission tower just after takeoff from the Palo Alto Airport and crashed near homes and cars on an East Palo Alto Street.

Bourn’s twin-engine Cessna 310R clipped three power lines before crashing. The three men were headed for Hawthorne Municipal Airport south of Los Angeles, twelve miles from the proposed site for Tesla’s Southern California plant.

A pilot licensed to fly single and multi-engine aircraft, Bourn had held a pilot’s license since 1974, according to the San Jose Mercury News. During his free time, Bourn, a licensed flying instructor, also taught others how to fly.

Stanford Graduate School of Business student Emily Ma ’04 M.B.A. ’10, who worked with Bourn when he worked at engineering consulting firm IDEO, remembered him Thursday.

“[People like Doug] are so far and few between — how do you find them?” Ma said.

The two continued to work together after IDEO as mentors in Palo Alto to Castilleja School’s robotics team.

“He was a gem. He was a diamond in the rough, and he’s gone,” Ma said.

‘Efficient’ at Tesla, Says Stanford Student

Bourn managed many labs and projects during his five years as an electrical engineer at Tesla; he played a significant role in developing the electric Tesla Roadster, the company’s first offering to the burgeoning electric vehicle market.

Sasha Zbrozek ’10 met Bourn while interning at the company’s San Carlos labs in the summer of 2007.

“He contributed a large amount of the stuff at the Tesla EE labs. And so if you walked around, you’d notice bins of parts or chairs or soldering irons or any number of tools that all had ‘Doug Bourn’ Sharpied on the side,” said Zbrozek, who worked in the battery pack department adjacent to Bourn’s power electronics module (PEM) unit. “He just seemed like a really nice guy — but very ‘get things done’ oriented, very efficient.”

Bourn was one of the early members of Tesla’s electrical engineering team. One of his first and most significant projects at Tesla was the PEM, a combined power inverter that switches an alternating current to direct current and serves as a battery charger behind the Tesla Roadster’s electric powertrain.

“I think the biggest effect is a giant demoralizer, not so much any particular change in the thinking of the company,” Zbrozek said. “I can imagine that the feel, if you will, out at Tesla’s going to be pretty quiet and subdued for some time.”

Loved Science Education

To relieve the stress of the early days of Tesla, in 2004 Bourn joined a team of local engineers to help mentor the then-new Gatorbotics, the competitive robot building team at Castilleja School, an all-girls college preparatory school in Palo Alto.

As the team’s mentor, Bourn donated his engineering know-how, time and money, students there said, often donating tools and equipment to help the girls remain within their budget. Bourn also recruited Stanford engineering graduate students to help mentor the team.

The night before Wednesday’s crash, Bourn worked with the girls to finish their robot ahead of a Feb. 23 contest deadline until they urged him to go home to rest before his early flight, according to Gatorbotics faculty advisor Dorris Mourad.

“He just did it because he enjoyed seeing the girls build these things and enjoy learning and having fun doing engineering,” said Farrokh Billimoria, whose daughter, Sherri, is the Gatorbotics’ captain.

Those who worked with Bourn in Gatorbotics remembered an “amazingly compassionate,” “absurdly smart” man.

Sherri Billimoria, a senior at Castilleja, credits Bourn with helping her realize her love of engineering.

“If you asked him about a sensor, he’d give you all the nitty gritty about how it worked and exactly anything you ever wanted to know,” she said. “He makes science interesting; he loved to share what he knows and explains things. He was good at it.”

The more than two dozen Gatorbotics alumnas who have gone on to study science and engineering at schools such as Princeton, Rice and Stanford are testaments to Bourn’s impact on the girls, Ma said.

“It’s very hard to find role models, especially if you go into something like an all-girls high school robotics team. [There are not] a lot of men who can do that well,” Ma said. “You could probably count them on one hand, and he was the best.”

Mentored at GSB

Bourn also informally mentored many Stanford graduates. Recently, he invited students from the Graduate School of Business to tour Tesla to enhance their study on electric cars in the U.S. and China, Ma said.

“We come to Stanford and we talk about living a life of consequence and we study it from all sides, but nobody lived a life of consequence as much as Doug did.”

Bourn’s family and friends are planning a memorial service in his honor set for next week, Ma said. She believes an award dedicated to women in science and engineering would be the best tribute to Bourn’s memory.

“There are a lot of people within the Stanford community who know Doug, who benefitted from Doug’s mentorship and friendship,” Ma said. “He loved teaching and he loved sharing. I hope that there’s some way we can carry on those values.”

-Elizabeth Titus and Devin Banerjee contributed to this report.

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