From Ph.D. to Podcaster: Brandon Harrison-Smith
Brandon grew up in Coatesville, a small town outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “I was destined for engineering,” he remembers. “I would take apart the VCR to see how it worked, and my dad would get so upset with me!”
He wanted to pursue the sciences, but didn’t have funding to attend a big engineering school. He enrolled in Cheyney University, a nearby HBCU (Historically Black College and University) that was so small, it didn’t have an engineering department. But that didn’t stop Brandon.
“Recruiters told me that as long as I took a lot of science and math courses, I could still pursue engineering in the future,” remembers Brandon. “It was a struggle. But as any Purdue student will tell you, being in engineering is also a struggle! It’s definitely a love-hate relationship. But I don’t like giving up, and that tenacity kept me going.”
Brandon excelled so much at his courses, that he began tutoring other students, even as a freshman. He also jumped at the opportunity to participate in off-campus internships and undergraduate research – everything from nanofabrication, to civil engineering, to analyzing catfish for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He began to gravitate to biomedical engineering, and eventually enrolled at Temple University in Philadelphia to pursue a graduate degree, where he attempted to use technology to tackle racial biases in medicine.
“There’s a condition called neo-natal jaundice, where newborns can’t yet break down red blood cells,” says Brandon. “The test for jaundice involves shining light through the skin, which appears yellowish. But with darker skin, these tests are not as accurate; and since many children of color are born in low-income areas, they might not even have these tests available. So I helped to develop a cellphone-based device that can accurately conduct these jaundice tests in any setting. We did clinical trials in Tanzania.”
He also published research on the inherent racial bias of pulse oximeters, another medical device that uses light to measure the oxygen content of a patient’s blood. This became a crucial issue during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Black patients were often misdiagnosed or mistreated as a result of these medical instruments. “A lot of these instruments try to be one-size-fits-all,” says Brandon, “but skin color can vary from person-to-person, even between siblings or family members. All of this needs to be factored into clinical trials and testing before these devices are ever used.”
After all of this research, Brandon discovered something unusual: the letters “Ph.D.” after his name! “I didn’t set out to become a doctor,” he says. “I wanted to become the best engineer I could be. It’s been a big mountain to climb, but it’s not the end; now I have a bit more responsibility in my work. That’s what brought me to Purdue.”
He had heard about Purdue’s Trailblazers in Engineering, a program designed to increase representation of people of color in science and engineering, particularly as new faculty members in academia. “It just knocked my socks off,” remembers Brandon. “It was everything I needed. Any time I felt like I was struggling, this group of people would tell me, ‘Keep going, it’s worth it! You can do it!’ They would also share job opportunities and advice. To see their research and experiences, it was so encouraging.”
One of the founders of the Trailblazers program is Luciano Castillo, Kenninger Professor of Renewable Energy and Power Systems in Mechanical Engineering. He saw something in Brandon, and invited him to come back to campus as a postdoctoral researcher. Today, Brandon is working with Castillo and Dana Weinstein to develop photoacoustic devices that can detect viruses in the air. “Everything about COVID was very reactive,” says Brandon. “We want to start to be proactive. Can we detect the next pandemic while it’s still in the air? It’s our hope to create a room-based airborne virus detector that is just as common as a smoke detector or CO2 detector.”
Testing 1, 2, 3
So how did Brandon Harrison-Smith, Ph.D., become Brandon Harrison-Smith, podcast host?
“I have always loved mentoring people, even going back to when I was an undergrad at Cheyney,” says Brandon. “Here at Purdue, I saw a great need for that. Just like the Trailblazers program showed me all the people of color who were accomplishing great things in academia, I feel that the Black students here at Purdue also need encouragement. They need to see there are successful faculty who look like them, and also went through the same struggles to get here.”
But building these mentoring relationships can be difficult. “As an undergrad student, it’s intimidating enough to approach professors,” says Brandon. “Purdue is a big school, and you might not even know there are Black professors in your department! So I definitely saw a need to find these examples of Black excellence at Purdue, and magnify them to as wide an audience as possible.”
A podcast seemed to be an ideal compromise – it’s not an in-person event, which can be intimidating; and it’s not time-sensitive, so busy students can listen on their own schedule. That’s how the “B-Xcellent” podcast was born.
“The format of B-Xcellent is pretty simple,” says Brandon. “I talk one-on-one with a Black researcher and ask them about their work. I listen to the obstacles they had to overcome, how they dealt with it, and how that advice can help current students. Impostor’s syndrome is something that Black academics have to deal with all the time. I want to lower the veil; these professors are people like you and me. They made it through, so you can too!”
In one episode, assistant professor of mechanical engineering Monique McClain describes how joining a rocket club as an undergrad helped to break up the monotony of textbook learning with actual hands-on experiences (McClain now develops 3D-printed rocket propellants). Another podcast guest, assistant professor of biomedical engineering Leopold Green, discussed how he started out pursuing architecture, but then transitioned to studying DNA – while still using architecture as its foundation. “It’s important to show students that their life is a journey,” says Brandon. “Not everything can be planned out; some things just happen organically!”
When it came to Brandon’s journey of becoming a podcaster, he was not ashamed to ask for help. He collaborated with the Knowledge Lab, a Purdue Libraries outreach that offers students the opportunity to try their hand at creative arts like sewing, vinyl cutting, and 3D printing. For their new podcast studio, Brandon helped to outfit an old office with sound-dampening materials, microphones, cameras, lights, and a recording mixer. The B-Xcellent podcast was the first project ever recorded in the new space. “It’s a lot like a Ph.D.,” laughs Brandon, “you have to become an expert in something you weren’t previously an expert in!”
Brandon stresses that he has a focused goal for the project. “The conversations taking place here are important,” says Brandon, “not just for Purdue students, but for Black people everywhere. Some families may not know what to do when their kid says, ‘I want to be an engineer,’ and this gives them a blueprint of how others have succeeded. I want this podcast to connect people, both here at Purdue and beyond.”
“All of this is a means to an end,” he says. “I want to make an impact on the world, and particularly people who look like me. Everything I’ve done – the Ph.D., the research, the podcasts – it’s all to help people on their journey, and show them that their dreams are obtainable!”
Writer: Jared Pike, firstname.lastname@example.org, 765-496-0374
Source: Brandon Harrison-Smith, email@example.com