Brandon Turner (‘12), a Guy and Clara Carswell Scholar, has learned the purposeful power that comes when a dedication to one’s work and a heart of compassion unite.
When Turner began his experiments at the age of six, they didn’t turn out exactly as he hoped. “I decided to mix different things around the house,” he says. “I hoped for an explosion, but my creation just smelled bad.”
Never one to admit defeat, Turner held tight to his dream of becoming a scientist. In Wake Forest, Turner found the ideal environment to pursue his passions for both science and service. “I was intrigued by Wake Forest’s reputation as a small school with a liberal-arts approach that could still hold its own with the research powerhouses,” reflects Turner. During his time at the University, his groundbreaking biophysics research and inspired commitment to community service paved the way for him to become the 12th Wake Forest student to be named a Rhodes Scholar in the past 25 years.
As a first-year student, Turner attended an event showcasing physics department faculty research. When Reynolds Professor of Computational Physics Jacque Fetrow said she was looking for students interested in chemistry, math, biology and physics, Turner immediately volunteered. He became an integral part of Fetrow’s research group. “His contributions to my research and to the lab group rivaled those of graduate students,” said Fetrow, who was his mentor for four years and helped him connect the dots between his math and science interests.
With summer project funding through his Carswell Scholarship, Turner collaborated with physicists at the University of California and journeyed to a scientific meeting in Shanghai to present a paper called “Rapid Characterization of the Haloacid Dehalogenase Superfamily Using Active Site Profiling.” Although the title is guaranteed to intimidate those who took more classes in Tribble Hall than Olin, the research has an easily explainable, practical goal: the discovery of better and more specific drugs to prevent disease.
In his research on the molecular structure of proteins, Turner focused on computational methods to better understand protein functional sites. It is an important piece of the drug discovery puzzle because proteins not functioning correctly cause many diseases. Turner speaks eloquently of proteins and the challenges of deciphering their mysteries: “Proteins are arguably one of the most important molecules in our bodies. However, just to find out how they transform from shapeless balls of string, which is how they are made, into a beautiful, three-dimensional functioning protein would take the fastest supercomputer in the world months and months. In nature? This miraculous transformation takes less than one-tenth of a second.”
Turner was awarded the 2010-11 American Physical Society Scholarship for Minority Undergraduate Physics Majors, a highly competitive national scholarship that provides funding and mentoring to underrepresented minorities pursuing degrees in physics. His classes and lab work helped Turner develop a physicist’s approach to problem solving that transferred to many of his other endeavors, including his sociology studies and his service work.
“My passion will always be to realize the marriage between the incredible power of analysis and that special value of each individual’s quality of life,” said Turner, who spent a summer building computer labs and establishing a computer literacy education program to make a difference in the lives of low-income schoolchildren in Cameroon.
“So much of my commitment to others has been the result of conversations with other students or professors on campus who have similar passions to help others,” said Turner, who also coordinated groups of eight to 10 Wake Forest students each month to serve meals at the Samaritan Inn, a local homeless shelter. “The Wake Forest environment is one that not only supports these passions, but challenges us to do even more and dream even bigger with various forms of social, intellectual and financial support to make these visions become reality.”
“Brandon has an unusual balance of quantitative gifts and humanitarian spirit,” said Tom Phillips (’74, MA ’78), director of the Wake Forest Scholars Program. “He is fearless, whether attacking biophysical computer imaging or speaking at international science conferences or racing with a rugby ball.”