Excellence and enrichment: personal success accompanied by community engagement

Michele Drake
August 25, 2020
Brandon Young

You never know which moment will be the defining one when planning for the future. But for Brandon Young, soon-to-be graduate of the MUSC College of Graduate Studies, that moment happened when he was accepted into Project SEED (Summer Experiences for the Economically Disadvantaged) at the age of 14.

Project SEED places minority high school students into basic science research labs, offering them an in-depth view of science and the possibilities it might offer for them. Brandon’s experiences set him on a journey to MUSC and to his Ph.D. research, “Investigating the Molecular Mechanism of Cephalosporin-Resistance in Neisseria Gonorrhoeae.”

Brandon was first exposed to local and state science competitions because of Dr. Clay Clark at North Carolina State University. While working with Dr. Clark, Brandon performed biochemistry and protein purification/structural techniques to determine if a procaspase-3 activating compound could jumpstart the apoptotic cascade and lead to cell death of cancerous cells. Brandon presented his data at the Beijing Youth Science Creation Competition, where he was one of only four American students.

He pursued his undergraduate degree at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County as a Meyerhoff Scholar. In this prestigious program, Brandon began to build his scientific knowledge and create innovative solutions in his research with Dr. Janice Zengel, looking at how mutations within ribosomal L4 protein affected the functionality of the bacterial 50S ribosomal subunit. He also pursued summer internships at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) with Dr. Alice Yu and Yale with Nobel laureate Dr. Thomas Steitz. Brandon’s expanding view of the frontiers of biomedical science were coupled with his commitment to mentoring other youth interested in science. 

Brandon’s interest in the relationship between protein structure and function has continued during his Ph.D. studies at MUSC. Brandon has become an accomplished structural biologist, using nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy to tackle important questions in bacterial drug-resistance. Brandon’s tenacity, intelligence and creativity has led to success. Dr. Christopher Davies, Brandon’s dissertation advisor, says, “Single-handedly, Brandon has opened up an entirely new area for us in our quest to understand the molecular mechanisms underpinning the cephalosporin resistance of Neisseria gonorrhoeae. He did this by succeeding in very challenging NMR experiments, thus demonstrating the feasibility of this approach. Others had tried before him, but Brandon has been the only one that made it work.”

While at MUSC, Brandon has continued to embrace a greater role in the community. Brandon has sought opportunities to support the education, personal and professional development of Charleston’s African American community. On campus, he has been a leader in two CGS-sponsored outreach societies: SC-PEACH (public engagement and advocacy in Charleston), which is focused on teaching interactive science labs in a nearby elementary school, and the SC-PEAR (South Carolina policy, engagement, advocacy and research) student group, which is focused on science policy and advocacy. Brandon’s many contributions to MUSC and the Charleston community led to his induction into the prestigious MUSC Student Leadership Society in 2020. 

As Brandon moves on to the next phase of his scientific career, he will continue to build a career that blends fundamental science with a commitment to his community. He will be joining the Faculty Information on Research, Scholarship, and Teaching (FIRST) program at Emory University as a postdoctoral scholar. This four-year Institutional Research and Academic Development Award (IRACDA) program allows participants to pursue fundamental research at a high level, gain teaching experience at historically Black colleges and universities, and continue to develop the skills essential for career success. Brandon is committed to building a more diverse research community as he pursues a research career in an academic setting.

We asked Brandon to share some of his thoughts about science and his MUSC experiences.

What drives your commitment to science?

I have always enjoyed being able to learn new things and then ask the questions “Why” or “What if?” Fortunately, science is the ideal field for this type of curiosity. As scientists we are encouraged to think independently and come up with new innovative ways to solve problems. So, for me, committing to science is easy as it feeds my curiosity and innovation, while also letting me express myself in ways other fields cannot.

How has your experience at MUSC and the College of Graduate Studies impacted your approach to science and opportunities for the future?

Obtaining my Ph.D. from the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) has been an incredibly valuable experience. I think MUSC provides unique opportunities for students to become self-sufficient and truly learn what they want to do with their graduate degree. I was fortunate enough to help create two new student groups at MUSC, and the support we received from the school and the College of Graduate Studies (CGS) was amazing. Also, the CGS staff is unrivaled in terms of supporting their students. They have truly been so helpful in handling all the logistics of being a graduate student while also making sure that you stay sane (They provided me with more than a few free lunches! 😊). In the end as students, all we can ask for are opportunities for us to thrive and MUSC provided me with plenty of those.

What do you think MUSC and CGS should be focusing on for the future?

I think MUSC and the CGS in recent years have really invested in career counseling for their students. This is something that seems to be unique to MUSC and CGS and is something they should really lean into. Many of us are not aware of the plethora of options out there once we obtain our degree. Learning about these options is so important because we can then start to focus our efforts on things that interest us and make us great applicants for those future jobs. Obtaining the Ph.D. gives us a unique set of skills and being able to know that these skills can be applied to many different situations is key for finding a career that fits.