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Pushing the Boundaries of Science and Self: Brandon Lopez

A hispanic man in a lab coat smiles in front of lab test vials
Photo by Megan Mulliner

After completing his undergraduate degree in molecular biology at BYU, Brandon Lopez, MS '24 (MMBIO), was unsure what his future would hold. Graduate school was definitely on the docket, but it was never his plan to stay at BYU. After considerable searching, Lopez decided to follow the prompting to stay at BYU for his master’s degree, which started a journey of self-discovery.

Working under the tutelage of Dr. Brad Berges and Dr. Richard Robison as an undergraduate student, Lopez developed a passion for microbiology and immunology. He worked on projects related to the coronavirus throughout the pandemic. As a master’s student, his studies have remained true to his microbiology and immunology roots.

Prior to the pandemic, Lopez researched how HIV mutations affect the rate at which a patient develops AIDS. To conduct the study central to his thesis, Lopez added mutant cancer cells to embryonic kidney cells (HEKs), so they can express the plasmid to make HIV, a cell that can mimic human DNA. He then looked for the cell death rate and the cytokine release, or inflammatory response, in the cancer cell lines. Lopez and his fellow lab researchers found that mutations linked to a slower onset of AIDS were those that had more cell deaths and less inflammation. He also hypothesized that the inflammation itself was driving the faster onset of AIDS. This research enables other studies that are seeking to combat HIV and AIDS onset.

A vial filled with yellow liquid is held in the gloved hand of a scientist in a white lab coat.
Photo by Megan Mulliner

Lopez recently presented his findings at the American Society for Virology. Although initially nervous to exhibit his research in front of seasoned scientists, Lopez’s preparation set him at ease: “I found myself with more than just baseless confidence when answering questions, but also an understanding that I could respond to whatever question they asked.” Because he performed so well, several scientists later sought him out for networking and future collaboration.

In addition to these presentations, Lopez's findings have been included in five different publications related to SARS-CoV-2 and one on A. fabrum. He partnered with Dr. Pickett, the University of Utah, and ARUP, a medical firm based in Salt Lake City, to accomplish this study.

Undergraduate Mentor Extraordinaire

One of Lopez’s most meaningful growth opportunities came from teaching and mentoring undergraduate students in the lab. Lopez coached the students through every stage of the scientific process. “The undergrads and their progress was as important if not slightly more important than mine as a master's student,” shared Lopez.

A blue pipette is seen filling a vial held by a gloved scientist's hand
Photo by Megan Mulliner

Lopez relishes the opportunity to answer student questions and support them through the unknown as a more experienced scientific veteran. Whether working on cytokine release analysis or protein localization, Lopez made sure he had an undergraduate student at his side learning the process for themselves. He also advocated for each student's inclusion in brainstorming and problem-solving. He loves it when students go from needing hands-on help to generating new ideas for current and future studies.

Lopez also was grateful for the support he received from the students he mentored while preparing to present at conferences. “I never felt like I was doing it alone; I felt like I had my lab team backing me the entire time,” he reflected. “That felt really special to me because I felt like I was presenting what my team and I, whom I consider very close friends, created and discovered together.”

One of his fondest memories at BYU was the night before an RNA sequencing write-up was due. He invited all of his undergraduate students to the lab and ordered pizza. Ideas and questions flowed as the team collaborated on their vision for the final draft. The paper was completed before the deadline, and the students learned how dedication and teamwork lead to excellent results.

Lopez celebrates the student’s successes and accomplishments: “I love my undergrads to death. I would not be where I want to be without them. I would not have learned as much without them. I wouldn't be as fulfilled as I am without them.”

Learning Outside the Lab

Two people both wearing black stand mid-dance on.a ballroom florr
Photo by Aubrey Johnson

A unique twist in Lopez’s journey occurred in his new-found passion for ballroom dancing. Urged by his brother to take the class as a graduate student, Lopez unexpectedly found an outlet for self-expression as an artist and an athlete. While a novice in the sport, ballroom dancing helped him get out of his comfort zone. This new-found confidence translated well into the lab environment, where new experiments, protocols, and ideas were constantly thrown at him.

Lopez’s efforts to help students extended beyond mentoring undergraduates. He served on the Graduate Student Society as the MMBIO department delegate. He became intimately aware of concerns and needs within the department. His efforts helped solve problems his fellow MMBIO master’s students were facing. He was also a lead TA for MMBIO 241. He continued developing his teaching abilities and take the time to help students gain a deeper understanding of research methodologies, striving to pass his passion on to them. To Lopez, science is more than a discovery; it’s a story.

Lopez credits his success over the last five years to BYU and the relationships he built. His future now holds a number of opportunities in the corporate world and eventually, a PhD. To anyone considering a master's degree at BYU, Lopez shares a simple, two-word mantra, “Do it!”

A hispanic man in a white lab coat smiles in a laboratory
Photo by Megan Mulliner