Hard work and dedication are paying dividends for Materials Science & Engineering graduate student Bryan James. Some of his more recent accolades include winning the 2019 Biomaterials Education Challenge and securing a prestigious National Institute of Health Ruth L. Kirschtein Predoctoral Individual National Research Service Award. James is also a UF Department of Materials Science & Engineering’s Bette and Paul Holloway Scholarship recipient, President of the UF Chapter of the Society for Biomaterials and the associate editor of the UF Journal of Undergraduate Research.
One spontaneous decision would eventually lead him to Gainesville as a doctoral student, becoming part of the Allen Research Group headed by Josephine Allen, Ph.D., and, if all goes as intended, a Materials Science & Engineering Ph.D. in 2021.
Eight years ago, as a high school senior from New Canaan, Connecticut, James was in Canada visiting his sister. While he was having lunch in downtown Toronto, James realized he was right across the street from the University of Toronto and thought, “I’m right here. Why not check it out?”
“I hadn’t planned on touring the University of Toronto or even going to college in Canada, to be honest. But I’ve always been open to learning new things so I figured it couldn’t hurt to see what it was about.”
James’ current research interests and work experience mirror that same openness to learning something new and drawing upon it to help inform his work in the lab. He’s spent the past several summers studying microelectronics in Japan, marine biofouling prevention in Woods Hole, Massachusetts and as a research assistant in both Toronto and here at the University of Florida. He’s also mentored nearly two dozen students over the years and has even been a UF guest instructor.
What brought you to UF?
Originally, UF was on my radar because of my interest in marine biofouling. During my sophomore year studying Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Toronto, I did a presentation on Sharklet, Dr. Tony Brennan’s biomimetic technology to prevent biofouling. I knew about the Gator Nation even being up in Canada. So, when I applied to graduate school, Dr. Brennan’s lab was one of my top choices. Unfortunately, the timing was off, as Dr. Brennan was not accepting new students. Nonetheless, I was joining the Gator Nation and hit it off with Dr. Josephine Allen during my Spring Visit to UF. I was going to be a Gator studying biomaterials!
What are your specific areas of research?
I became interested in biomaterials during my undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto. I always had an interest in organism-material interactions, i.e. how do organisms (cells/animals/people) detect and respond to the materials they encounter? Cells are able to detect and modify their behavior in response to a material’s mechanical properties through a process called mechanotransduction. I thought this was so cool. Here was a way to alter cell behavior simply by using an easily controllable material property. A cell could be coaxed from acting in a diseased state to a healthy state only by changes in material properties. Specifically, I study vascular cell-material interactions and the differences in those interactions between men and women.
How would you describe your area of study/ specific research to a friend or family member unfamiliar with your work?
I study materials for personalized medicine. Historically, materials for biomedical devices have been chosen for a device, like a hip implant, without considering sex (if the patient is male or female). However, physiologically men and women develop disease differently and their bodies respond differently to material properties. I study the fundamental behavior of the body to material properties while accounting for the sex of the patient.
What got you interested in this field of study?
Surprisingly, the sex of the patient is one of those things that gets overlooked in biomaterial design and research. I became aware of the issue largely from my mom’s concern about osteoporosis (a disease more prevalent in women). At the same time, it came from a chance encounter with a nurse at the airport who enlightened me on the differences in cardiovascular disease between men and women. That meeting reinforced to me that to design effective biomaterials requires an understanding of the biology – not just the chemistry and physics. This sentiment is also something my advisor, Dr. Allen, does not let you forget.
What has been your favorite part of the graduate school experience at UF?
School spirit! Coming from the University of Toronto I didn’t know what it meant to have school spirit. This was something I always wanted in my university experience. Now, you’ll be hard pressed not to hear me cheering, “It’s great … to be … a Florida Gator!” while exiting The Swamp after a Gator victory on Saturday.
What do you feel is the greatest challenge that graduate students face and how have you dealt with this challenge?
I think it has to be dealing with continued failure. An experiment not working. Going through 20 rounds of revisions. Not receiving a fellowship after months of writing. For me, dealing with it is all about perspective. When an experiment fails, it’s a learning experience for how to design a better one. When negative reviewer comments come back, it’s a learning experience for how to do my science better. When a fellowship is not funded, it’s a learning experience in how to articulate a research question better. Sure, you can mope for a little bit, but at the end of the day having grit and a reflective attitude is the name of the game for succeeding in graduate school. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
What advice would you give to first year grad students?
Focus on classes, learn how to operate the different instruments in your lab, and organize and participate in social events. Classes are an important box to check off on your way towards the Ph.D. Practicing in the lab during your first year is a great way to become accustomed to the lab space and to get to know your lab mates. At the end of a long, isolating day in the lab, it’s also good to let your brain rest. Going to trivia night with your peers is a great way to unplug for a while.
What do you like to do when you’re not in the lab or working on research?
I like eating and cooking, so my way of relaxing has been learning all of the local eateries in Gainesville. Likewise, hosting barbecues and potluck dinners with my friends. You can always count on me to have an appetite.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Running my own research lab at an R1 institution – ideally back in Toronto, Canada.