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Student Interviews: A Reflective Q&A with Students Bryanna White and Donovan Brown

15 January 2021

This past year has presented the Eberly community with unprecedented challenges ranging from adapting for remote research to working on how we can foster more-inclusive environments, especially for our students. We recognize that while the student experience has taken an unexpected turn, our young scientists are rising to the test and taking on obstacles with creativity and perseverance. Bryanna White and Donovan Brown, both undergraduate students, spoke on their Penn State experiences and shared a message for the alumni community.


Bryanna White

Bryanna White

White is a Milton Hershey Scholar and intends to graduate in 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in global health studies. In recognition of her academic achievements, White has been awarded the Bunton-Waller Scholarship, Wilson Family Trustee Scholarship, and Elbasch Trustee Scholarship. 

First of all, congratulations on making it through another semester of remote learning! It seems that 2020 was a landmark year. What are your thoughts looking back?
2020 was definitely a year I’d like to call 20/20 vision. I’m taking things day by day because there’s so much going on and so much that I’m learning. 

This past semester has definitely seen a big social shift, not just from COVID-19 but also in social activism. How has being a student-scientist of color impacted your experience in academia?
As a student of color, I feel like there’s a lot on my plate between balancing school and family.  We want to break barriers. As a student in college, I feel like I need to go above and beyond to succeed, and to do this I want to take advantage of opportunities that can set me apart. It’s been a hard year and there have been times where I struggle, but with that there are times that I have been able to balance.

Can you tell me more about the research opportunity that you’ve pursued and how it has been impacted by remote learning?
I joined Claire Thomas’s lab in 2019. During my sophomore year, I applied for a program that was looking specifically for women and minority groups to work in lab. My research this year has been a little different. We’ve transitioned to remote work on bioinformatic investigation. We try and find new protein properties and connections that we might have missed, specifically about cytoskeleton. 

Are there organizations or people that you’d like to mention or credit?
Natalie James from the Office of Scholars Programs has been like a mother figure for me at Penn State. Claire Thomas has really taken me under her wing and I’m looking forward to growing under her mentorship. I’ve worked with Amber Boston as part of the mentor-mentee program where we connect with first-year students to help them adapt and find the answers they need. I’d also like to give a shout out to MAPS (the Minority Association of Pre-Medical/Health Students). 

Alumni are often curious about how current students are doing. What would you like them to know about you or your class?
I feel like we’re really set apart from other class years that didn’t experience being a student during the pandemic. We’ve been told to adapt and change frequently from our familiar rhythm that we were accustomed to. The way we study and prepare for opportunities is different now, and some previous opportunities don’t even exist anymore. We’ve been learning in a changing environment and steering through adversity by changing our tactics, but now we feel better prepared.


Donovan Brown

Donovan Brown

Brown is a member of the Millennium Scholars Program and intends to graduate in 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in biology with a concentration in genetics and developmental biology. In recognition of his academic achievements, Brown has been honored with the ABRCMS Presentation Award by the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS), the Science Dean’s Scholarship by the Eberly College of Science, the President’s Freshman Award by Penn State, and the Lou De Felice Summer Student Travel Award by Vanderbilt University. 

Congratulations on successfully completing a semester of remote learning! 2020 has certainly been a landmark year. What are your thoughts looking back?
I think 2020 has really opened my eyes to a lot of ideas from a variety of perspectives, ranging from a worldly level to internal reflection. It's really helped me shape the person that I want to take into medical school and beyond. With graduation coming up, I think having all of these stressors over the last year has really helped me figure out the type of person I want to be.

Can you tell me more about your research experience and how your time at Penn State is preparing you for medical school?
As a first-year student, being a biology major felt like an open door to so many opportunities. I started with understanding protein biology and eventually diversified into a biomedical engineering lab where we model blood cancers. Since then, I’ve shifted interest to synthetic DNA technology, and I've continued through with the modeling blood cancers in the biomedical engineering department. I currently work with Dr. Justin Pritchard in the biomedical engineering department of the College of Engineering. I'm really excited about pursuing a physician-scientist career.

How has your research been impacted by remote learning?
Fortunately, my family lives in a State College area. With remote learning, I've been able to stay in the area and also be physically in the lab. The shift to remote learning, especially in the spring of 2020, really meant undergraduate students needed to learn how to use new resources and build new skills. Personally, I've been learning how to analyze data computationally from home. I've also gotten really comfortable reading and navigating science literature.

It’s always great to hear about students finding their passions. Is there anything you’d like to share with the greater Eberly community, which is interested in making sure that students continue to have opportunities to excel?
One of the best ways that alumni can help current students is by making themselves available.
I probably get 10 emails from various people in the Eberly College of Science every week about research or fellowships or mentoring resources. Just think if one of these emails every week were to come from an alum with an opportunity or offering guidance. I think it would be really impactful for students!