When Brandon Presley was applying to different Philadelphia high schools almost two decades ago, it was on a whim that he chose to study environmental science. It was that impromptu decision that ultimately led him to the American Chemical Society Project SEED program and the start of his life as a chemist.
Next month, Presley will receive a master’s in chemistry from Temple University. He hopes to complete his Ph.D., also in chemistry, next year.
Presley’s interest in discovering and understanding facets of the natural world began at a young age.
In elementary school, Presley was a fierce science-fair competitor, often leading the pack among his classmates. “I had teachers who realized I was good at science, and they made sure that I stayed involved in science-related activities,” he says.
Then came his time at Philadelphia’s Abraham Lincoln High School, where Presley spontaneously decided to major in environmental science.
▸ Hometown: Philadelphia
▸ Years in Project SEED: 2004 and 2005
▸ Education: B.S., chemistry, Temple University, 2010
▸ Current position: Ph.D. candidate, chemistry, Temple University
▸ Advice to students: “Learn to lead. If you lead well, it benefits everything around you.”
As fate would have it, one of the advisers in that program knew of a summer research internship in forensic science that he thought Presley would be perfect for. That internship happened to be affiliated with the ACS Project SEED program, which provides summer research experiences for economically disadvantaged students. Presley was accepted into Project SEED and entered the world of research, garnering skills that would serve him well in the future. Presley spent the summers of 2004 and 2005 participating in Project SEED. “Before Project SEED, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to go to college for, but afterward I was positive I wanted to go for chemistry,” Presley recalls.
He went on to major in chemistry at Temple University in Philadelphia. While there, he was accepted into the ACS Scholars Program, which provided him with a scholarship to pursue his chemistry degree.
After earning his bachelor’s, Presley began work at NMS Labs, a clinical and forensic toxicology and criminalistics laboratory. At NMS Labs, he held roles in both forensic toxicology and chemistry, and for a couple of years he led a team of researchers and conducted special projects with major pharmaceutical companies.
While working at NMS Labs, Presley started a Ph.D. program in chemistry at Temple University, which he admits is not the most traditional approach to earning a Ph.D. Despite the struggle to achieve a healthy work-life balance, Presley stresses that it was by far his best option, as it allowed him to be secure enough financially to start a family while not giving up his passion for chemistry. He encourages others pursuing their dream careers to think outside the box as well. “Maybe someone wants to go back and get a graduate degree, but they have a family and are trying to juggle a bunch of different responsibilities,” he says. “They should know it’s not impossible.” Presley has always felt grateful for the time he has been able to enjoy with his wife and three sons, spending time outdoors appreciating the beauty of the natural world as he did as a kid.
Presley’s research has given him the opportunity to travel internationally to places like South Korea, Denmark, and Brazil to present his ongoing thesis work and engage with renowned chemists in his field. When working at NMS Labs, he had the opportunity to present his work in Puerto Rico on behalf of Johnson & Johnson.
The traveling aspect of Presley’s work is inarguably fun, but his enthusiasm when talking about his thesis work is palpable.
Presley recently moved into his Ph.D. program full-time, working in the lab of Susan Jansen-Varnum. He is studying synthetic cannabinoids, products sold as cannabis alternatives and thought by many to be harmless. In reality, they are diverse herbal materials doused in highly potent chemicals that can be deadly to smoke, Presley says. “My research for the last several years has been on determining the metabolism of various synthetic cannabinoids and their toxicological impact.”
Beyond his work in the lab, Presley is passionate about encouraging young students, especially underrepresented minority students, to consider careers in science. “It may seem daunting,” says Presley. “But it’s not out of reach.”
The drive and curiosity Presley experienced as a kid continues to grow. “I love being at the forefront of discovering new things, especially those relevant to today’s real-world problems.”
At the end of the day, Presley’s time in the lab and traveling around the world meeting other researchers has been a reminder that courtesy and understanding go a long way. “During my experiences in Project SEED and working in research, I’ve learned that relating to and respecting others is essential,” he says.
It is with that self-awareness that Presley enters the final year of his Ph.D., with the goal of one day becoming a chemistry professor at a university and conducting collaborative research in drug distribution and metabolism.