Dr. Richard Brennan began his undergraduate studies at Boston University where he was initially a chemistry major, but eventually transitioned to studying biology. Dr. Brennan fell in love with studying English and communication, leading him to a minor in history. Till this day, he emphasizes the importance of language and communication within science and advocates for all scientists to become trained writers. He noted to me that during his undergraduate years he found that science is just as creative as the arts, furthermore, scientists are creative in a unique way that blends subjects from multiple areas. This passion led him into research the summer before his junior year where he was part of a fellowship research program. The creativity in the lab instantly drew him towards research, and during his junior and senior year he worked in a biochemistry lab. In some sense, Boston had become the perfect place for him to begin his research career as it offered rich history and advanced resources in research.
After his undergraduate studies, Dr. Brennan attended Cornell to start a Ph.D in biochemistry. However, as he went straight into graduate school without a break, he decided to take a year off and research at biochemical genetics lab with the purpose of going back to school in a year. Through this process he came to become very interested in structural biology: throughout his earlier years he had worked on a project involving proteins that centered around the develop of a male birth control pill, and he came to find he interested in being able to see the things he was studying. With that interest, he found a home in the University of Wisconsin which was, and still is, one of the leaders in x-ray crystallography research and biochemistry. Here, Dr. Brennan did a lot of work with creating structures for long DNA and made restriction enzymes. After his work in Wisconsin, he chose to set out to the University of Oregon where he solved a structure of a protein DNA complex (only 3 or 4 other known structure at the time!). He was faced with a decision to take a job in Boston or in Portland. Eventually he chose to work at the Portland Medical School where he would spend 20 years, become an endowed chair, and build a strong program. After some time, he moved to MD Anderson in Houston where he was tasked with strengthen their biochemistry department. Here, his program did extremely well in their research and scientific endeavors; however, due to academic structure, it was difficult to attract students. Then one day, Duke University contacted Dr. Brennan about becoming Chair of Biochemistry. Dr. Brennan has since been the Chair of Biochemistry at Duke as of January 2011, where he continues to do research.
I asked Dr. Brennan what his goals were along the way and whether he experienced any hardship along that way that might have altered them. The over-encompassing question he was interested in figuring out was how things work. His focus in structural biology allows to develop and understanding in how certain functions work and develop a deep understanding in the “why.” Further, Dr. Brennan had a goal on figuring how to see why certain things worked the way they did. This fit the idea of structural biology and how solving a structural allows you to truly understand why it works the way it does. Without the basic information on what something looks like, you cannot do any further experiments or research with this specific thing of interest. His goal was to apply creativity in research in order to answer these questions.
Yet, Dr. Brennan accounted to me that during his Postdoc work, he became curious with the idea of leaving academic science and turning toward a career in scientific writing. And so, he interviewed for the head editor at a science journal. He was selected for job and was forced to make a decision. He evaluated which road would give him the most creative freedom as that was of utmost importance in his research and academic endeavors. Eventually he chose to stick with academic science as it offered him the best route to continue answering his questions, and he could also continue to write within academic science. To this day, Dr. Brennan has continued his work in research and contributing towards the structural biology field. Dr. Brennan is currently interested in studying how multi-tolerant cells work and how activation signals are triggered.
Dr. Brennan has continued to share his perspective in the creativity of science through teaching at Duke University. He enjoys teaching due to the interaction and opportunities there are to inspire future scientists. He believes that individuals should teach at schools with high-end resources as it’s important to share what you’ve learned others.
As one final piece of advice, Dr. Brennan warned against the elitism in science. Very much discouraging this attitude, he cites the stereotyping when it comes to choosing universities and places to study. Often times scientists miss out on opportunities because they make choices with predetermined ideas. It’s important for scientists to adopt an open-mindset and one that truly values everything on the same playing field.