A career in research hadn’t crossed Ryan Brownlee’s mind when he entered Mercer University. Now he can’t imagine a future doing anything else. The rising senior uncovered a love for research through hands-on lab experiences and hopes to conduct research on the molecular mechanisms of diseases, including in patient care settings.
Brownlee, a biochemistry and molecular biology major from Flowery Branch, was one of three Mercer students to be awarded the prestigious Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, which recognizes undergraduates in science, mathematics and engineering, this spring. Rising seniors Dakota Ellis and Bryana Whitaker were profiled in Den stories earlier this summer.
“Ryan truly wants to understand the ‘why’ behind the research,” said Dr. Christy Bridges, professor of biomedical sciences in the School of Medicine. “He asks numerous questions to make sure that he understands why he is doing certain experiments and why it is important. Ryan has set a high academic standard and goals for himself, and he has pursued opportunities to achieve his goals.”
The welcoming and scenic Macon campus, newly constructed Godsey Science Center, and strong biochemistry and molecular biology program drew Brownlee to Mercer. He also loved the University’s focus on service, close proximity to his hometown, and the fact that the medical school was located on campus, which would allow for potential opportunities to work with professors and students there.
Brownlee’s research skills, knowledge and understanding has flourished in the labs of Dr. Bridges and Dr. Linda Hensel, professor of biology. He has worked with Dr. Bridges since summer 2021, when he first discovered his interest in research as a participant in the 10-week Mercer Undergraduate Research Scholar Training Initiative.
“This was my first research experience and really helped me to realize the power that research has in progressing our understanding of disease and for bettering patient outcomes,” he said. “Dr. Bridges was an amazing mentor and taught me how to use essential lab equipment, and taught experimental design, troubleshooting of results and methods, and how to determine the next steps of a project.”
Brownlee got to know Dr. Hensel in his University 101 course and then as a student in the Biology, Organic Chemistry, and Mathematical Modeling program, an integrated, authentic laboratory research experience. He said Dr. Hensel’s passion and excitement for research was contagious, and he joined her lab in spring 2022, contributing to her research on biofilm-inhibiting drug compounds. With assistance from Dr. Hensel, he secured grant funding for a research project from the Beta Beta Beta Biological Honor Society.
“I first met Ryan in my first-year advising class, UNV 101, and in my 29 years of teaching, no one has impressed me more in having an honest, persistent desire to pursue research than this young man,” Dr. Hensel said. “Ryan has demonstrated initiative, persistence and interest in research that is beyond that of 99% of the 3,000 undergraduates I have taught, the over 150 I have mentored in undergraduate research, and most of the graduate students I have known. He clearly has an aptitude for bench work, teamwork and leadership.”
Brownlee spent the summer of 2022 at the University of Alabama at Birmingham for the Kidney Undergraduate Research Experience (KURE) program. There, he conducted computational biology research on autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease with Dr. Brittany Lasseigne.
“It was amazing because I was able to continue my interest in nephrology research and learn new skills that I could take back to Mercer and use to aid my research,” he said.
This summer, Brownlee is serving as a certified clinical medical assistant in a rural clinic in North Georgia and working with Dr. Bridges on a paper about their most recent research, looking at how mercury cyanide is transported in the kidneys. He will also present his latest research results at the national Goldwater Symposium in August.
His research has led him to co-author papers with his mentors and present at events such as the SoCon Undergraduate Research Forum, Southeastern Medical Scientist Symposium, Association of Southeastern Biologists Annual Conference, Mercer’s BEAR Day, Tri-Beta Southeastern Conference, Georgia Undergraduate Research Conference, Mercer University School of Medicine Joint Research Conference, University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Undergraduate Research Programs Exposition and KURE Symposium, and National Institutes of Health Kidney, Urology and Hematology Symposium.
Outside his academic work, Brownlee is involved in Mercer’s student-run service leadership board, MerServe. He will take the reins as executive director in August. He is also an active member of Beta Beta Beta and Alpha Epsilon Delta pre-health honor society. For the upcoming school year, he will serve as chapter president and region one vice president for the former and historian for the latter.
Brownlee said receiving the Goldwater Scholarship is a major life milestone and something he will never forget.
“I know that this moment is one I’ll always pause to remember,” he said. “It’s an opportunity that I understand is very hard to come by, and I’m very thankful to have had the mentorship and guidance that allowed me to receive the award.”
After he finishes his undergraduate degree at Mercer, Brownlee plans to continue his studies in molecular and cellular biology through a graduate degree program.
“I believe he will be a competitive applicant for these programs, and I am sure that he will make a difference in patient lives through his patient care and research,” Dr. Bridges said.
Brownlee said he is especially interested in the research of diseases that currently have limited or no treatment options, such polycystic kidney disease, chronic kidney disease and neurodegenerative diseases such as multiple sclerosis.
“I plan to continue researching and lead my chosen field in contributing to the betterment of patient outcomes and treatment of disease,” he said. “When patients have no choice but to just manage their disease or watch it progress, it breaks my heart for them, and I want to do everything I can to bring an end to their suffering.”