Faculty member's son forges own path in chemical engineering

Brandon Curtis started working in his father's lab at Penn State when he was eight years old. Wayne Curtis, professor of chemical engineering, said his son started washing disposable test tubes in his lab to earn "credit" to purchase his latest interests at the time, whether it was a rocket, musical instrument or telescope.

"He asked, 'How much would it be worth to wash them?' and when I said it would be a dollar an hour, that was the start of his lab career," the elder Curtis explained. "He offered his services and started to come to work with me on weekends."

Curtis said Brandon used to keep a bar chart in his room of his earnings towards his next tech toy — like a 12-inch Dobsonian telescope that he decided on after "researching' used Astronomy Magazine articles.

Brandon said he started coming to his father's lab each summer because he was always interested in what he was doing, although he only knew that he was a science teacher.

"I came in just for fun and I wanted to help out — I cleaned glassware," he explained. "The graduate students thought I was amusing, and they started to teach me things." Within two years, he was making solutions and knew the periodic table.

Every summer from age 8 until he went to college — except for one summer during his time at State College Area High School — Brandon helped his dad in the lab and grew his passion for both chemistry and engineering.

Though Brandon formed an early interest in chemical engineering from his father's lab, he didn’t have a concrete idea of what he wanted to study in college. At State High, he studied a lot of math and science and appreciated the school's chemistry program. "I took all that stuff, I didn’t know when to stop," he joked. "As I got more into [chemistry] and [biology], I started to wonder whether engineering or science was the way I wanted to go? I ended up doing both."

Despite the obvious family connection, Curtis said Brandon's decision to pursue chemical engineering in college was not directly influenced by him. "I never really talked with Brandon about majors ...  he entered chemical engineering while I was on sabbatical at Harvard," he claimed.

After getting more acquainted with chemical engineering at Penn State his freshman year, Brandon took a semester off to work at a co-op at Genentech in San Francisco. There, he helped make cancer vaccines. Although he loved the location and the experience, Brandon made important realizations about what he wanted to pursue.

"I decided that industry research really wasn't for me, and I prefer the academic mindset," Brandon admitted. "Finding things you don't want to do is just as important, if not more so, than finding the things you do want to do."

Now, in his undergraduate research at Penn State — which he became involved with during his sophomore year — Brandon is helping to develop a way to produce membrane proteins fast and effectively to be studied medically. The proteins are associated with a plethora of illnesses, including cancer and neurological diseases. Brandon's research team is not the group of people doing the study, but they're enabling it.

"It's right on the edge of science and engineering, so it's the perfect project for me," he said.

To aid even more with his research and engineering endeavors, Brandon decided to add another area of study to his workload -- German.

"In [engineering] literature, I found that over and over, research comes from Berlin and Stuttgart," Brandon observed. "Friends of mine have done [engineering] internships in Germany, and a friend went back to visit and I went along."

After getting the "foreigner experience" in Germany, Brandon came back to Penn State this summer and enrolled in an intensive eight-week German program. Though different than anything he's done, Brandon said it has been interesting and helpful to learn the language.

In addition to his coursework and research, Brandon joined forces with his longtime "informal adviser," Chemical Engineering Department Head Andrew Zydney, to restore Penn State's Omega Chi Epsilon (OCE), the National Chemical Engineering Honor Society.

The Penn State chapter had become somewhat dormant three years ago, Zydney said. And with one of the largest and most active chemical engineering departments, it was unfortunate for Penn State not to have an active OCE chapter.

"Probably about a year and a half ago, I really felt we needed to re-invigorate the chapter of the honor society here," Zydney explained. Usually, the student members elect an officer to lead the chapter — but since it was inactive, Zydney decided to choose an officer for the first year.

"Brandon was the person who immediately came to mind as the perfect person to take this on," Zydney revealed, adding that he is energetic, committed, very active and willing to get things done.

Beyond the initial re-instatement of the chapter, Zydney hoped Brandon could help get more students involved to continue the society's success in following years.

"Brandon did just a great job — he did all the things I was hoping he would do in terms of getting the chapter going again and getting students interested in participating," Zydney claimed.

After graduating this December, Brandon knows he wants to continue his education in graduate school. He just doesn’t know where, or even on what continent. He has applied to schools in both the United States and Germany.

Ultimately, Brandon said he sees himself becoming a professor at a public university. "[Public schools have] so many resources. I've looked at little specialized engineering technical schools," he explained. "Teaching at a public school gives you the opportunity to reach so many people with so many backgrounds — you're not going to get that at Princeton."

Zydney has no doubt that Brandon will continue to be successful in his ventures. He joked that Brandon seems to need Iittle to no sleep. "He is up and working at all hours, literally all hours of the day, and he is truly dedicated to chemical engineering," he explained, adding that his dedication extends into all his other activities, whether it's serving as a tutor or as president of OCE.

"He just throws himself into everything with a real passion; he is a very passionate person about whatever he does," Zydney reflected.

Brandon Curtis, a chemical engineering student Credit: Robin TilleyAll Rights Reserved.

Last Updated March 22, 2011