Get to know Dr. Brennan!

Dr. Richard Brennan began his research journey at Boston University.  He started as a chemistry major but switched to biology, although he maintained his interest in chemistry, which ultimately led him to the field of biochemistry.  He was also interested in history and English, and he emphasized to me the importance of the humanities in science.  Without the ability to communicate, science is meaningless, and scientists need to be good writers in order to effectively write informative and intelligible papers.  Thus, Dr. Brennan’s interest in language and English proved especially beneficial for his life of publishing papers and writing reviews.  This advice from Dr. Brennan made me appreciate the interdisciplinary curriculum I enjoy at Duke: my humanities classes are just as crucial in preparing me for a career in research as my science classes.

The summer after his sophomore year of undergrad, Dr. Brennan participated in a summer research fellowship much like BSURF during which he decided that he might like to pursue research as a career.  After graduating from Boston University, Dr. Brennan went to Cornell University for graduate school, but he quickly realized that he needed to take a break before continuing his education.  He left and took a position as a technician at a hospital in Boston.  This taught me that there isn’t a set career path to research: it’s okay and even important to take breaks and explore other options and fields.  Later, Dr. Brennan returned to school and earned his PhD at the University of Wisconsin and then went to the University of Oregon for his postdoctoral fellowship.  Dr. Brennan emphasized to me the importance of good mentorship: he took his first job at a medical school in Portland because it was geographically close to his mentor at the University of Oregon, allowing them to continue to work together.  He became a full professor at the medical school in Portland.

After seventeen years, Dr. Brennan moved to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston to establish a structural biology center there.  However, after six years, he was offered a job as the Chair of the Department of Biochemistry at Duke University.  Dr. Brennan emphasized how much he enjoys working with students and how he thinks graduate students are essential to laboratory research.  Accepting the position at Duke would allow him to work with highly motivated graduate students, and Duke had an excellent grad student to faculty member ratio in its biochemistry labs which would allow the Brennan lab to bring in many graduate students.  Furthermore, a position as chair of the department would allow Dr. Brennan to build a strong department at an already great school.  Needless to say, Dr. Brennan accepted the position at Duke, and the rest is history.

One takeaway from Dr. Brennan’s journey is that amazing opportunities are often unexpected: he was not looking to leave MD Anderson, but he received an amazing offer to do what he loves most at Duke.

Dr. Brennan truly loves students and teaching.  He believes graduate students are what make research labs great, and he also believes that all faculty members should teach.  Dr. Brennan teaches everything from courses on grant writing to x-rays to his specialty, structural biochemistry, and he usually has at least two undergraduate students in his lab each year.

While Dr. Brennan loves research because of the unique opportunity it gives him to observe something that has never before been observed and to understand something that has never before been understood, he offered me some warnings about the nature of the field.  He encouraged me to study topics that interest me, rather than those considered “hot” in science right now.  Brilliant research is being done everywhere, but not all of it is recognized because not all of it focuses on what is considered new and important in the field at the time.  Focus on what you love, not on what will win you awards and national recognition.

Dr. Brennan’s final advice to me was to seize all the opportunities available to me and try as many different research settings as possible until I find one in which I feel truly comfortable and happy.  There are many different research experiences, and I cannot know how I really feel about conducting research after this one experience, however great it may be.  I should never close myself to other opportunities just because I am comfortable where I am: Dr. Brennan loved his job at MD Anderson, but he was open to a change and got to create an amazing department at Duke, where he is very happy.

TL;DR: Always be on the lookout for new opportunities and never stop pursuing what interests you!

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