Providence College Commencement 2013
Academic Lives of Meaning and Purpose
Brennan Discovers, Nutures Love of Research at PC
~ Liz F. Kay, Assistant Director of Editorial Services
Providence, R.I. - Christopher Brennan ’13 (Litchfield, N.H.) thought he wanted to spend his college years chasing waves on the West Coast. But he found a home — and a love of research — in Providence College’s biology labs.
The New Hampshire native had taken advantage of the state’s 13 miles of coastline and summer vacations off Cape Cod to learn to surf, so during his senior year of high school he checked out several coastal colleges. But when none seemed like a good fit, Brennan’s mother convinced him to check out schools closer to home.
His tour of PC was one of several scheduled on one chilly winter day, but it convinced him to enroll. His Friars Club tour guide sent him to Albertus Magnus Hall to learn more about the biology program. Brennan met two students — now his friends — who worked in a biology laboratory and raved about the College.
Brennan, who became a Friars Club member himself, said that experience served as the tipping point. “I found that even though it was freezing cold, the warmth of the welcome I received was really remarkable,” Brennan said. “People seemed really happy.”
Brennan took General Biology course with Dr. Brett J. Pellock, assistant professor of biology, as a freshman, and the professor briefly mentioned research opportunities during one lecture. Brennan inquired, and Pellock asked him if he wanted to get started the following semester.
This launched Brennan on a mission that they thought would only take a few months, but ended up stretching over two years. Pellock’s lab focuses on Shewanella oneidensis, a bacterium that can break down heavy metals, and how its small RNA regulate the bacteria’s functions.
He set out to isolate a mutant form of “Shewie,” as he and his fellow “lab rats” affectionately nicknamed their subject.
Brennan, who worked in a research lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology last summer, said that of his counterparts that summer, “none of them had that type of experience — just going up to a professor and having them give you a project within a couple of days.”
He made the most of this opportunity. Brennan volunteered to work in the lab during breaks and spent weekends last summer working on experiments at PC while he was also working at MIT.
He also plans to stay the summer following graduation to get another paper published. “Along the way, Chris has learned a ton, and he’s a very dedicated student,” Pellock said. “I can barely keep him out of the lab at times.”
After much hard work, he was the first author on a paper about the mutant that was published in BMC Microbiology, a peer-reviewed journal, in February. He has presented his research at conferences at Harvard University and the University of Rhode Island.
It’s very unusual for an undergraduate to be a first author, Pellock said, and it required Brennan to work as the lead investigator, working side by side with his professor to run experiments, to write the paper, and to respond to the reviewers’ comments.
“By nature of the training relationship, it’s a full collaboration between me and him, but he is far and away the one who contributed the most,” Pellock said. “His work is good science, and it launched several other lines of inquiry.”
He was also able to work directly with Pellock, a primary investigator, rather than being supervised by a post-doctoral or graduate student as he would be at a larger research institution.
“I was being challenged to think about the problems with my [primary investigator]. I wasn’t just told to do an experiment by a grad student,” Brennan said. “I was told to do an experiment and then I would analyze the data and the two of us would interpret it together.”
As he grew in skill and knowledge, Brennan began proposing his own experiments to Pellock. “At a certain point, we both had no idea what was going on,” he said.
It was these experiences that solidified Brennan’s passion for research. “It felt criminal that I could get paid to do research,” he said. “I’m asking a question I find interesting, and getting paid to find an answer.
“Even the process of finding an answer, I enjoy. When you do find that answer, it’s a great feeling,” he said.
Brennan has excelled not only in the research lab but also by helping other students with their courses. He started tutoring in the Office of Academic Services as a sophomore after Pellock asked him to replace a graduating senior as a study group leader. That position required him to sign up as a peer tutor, which led Brennan to take on individual tutoring appointments in other courses as well.
Both Pellock and Sister Carolyn Sullivan, O.P., assistant director of tutorial services, praised Brennan for going out of his way for students he tutors — organizing study groups before big exams and even reading papers from scholarly journals for classes he is not enrolled in.
“He’s so good natured, which helps tutees really trust him and listen to him,” Sister Sullivan said. Also, Brennan has helped train students newer to Pellock’s lab. “He understands that he represents not only himself but also Providence College, and that the things that he does that enhance students’ learning also make Providence College a better learning environment,” Pellock said.
Brennan said he gained a lot from tutoring.“They say you don’t truly master something until you teach it,” Brennan said. “I think my grasp of foundational concepts in biology and chemistry and physics have been developed and fleshed out in a way that wouldn’t have been just from taking the class.”
Pellock said that the faculty want all students to enrich their in-classroom learning with experiential and application-based learning the way Brennan has. “He really is a poster child for student engagement and learning,” Pellock said.
In addition to these commitments, Brennan also found time during his junior and senior years to volunteer with Big Brothers of Rhode Island, Inc.
After he graduates, Brennan will head to MIT to pursue a doctorate in biology. Once again he turned down opportunities at schools closer to surfing meccas such as the University of California, San Diego. But he did not put his surfboard in storage while studying at PC. He found fellow surfers here and served as a board member of the PC Surfing Club.