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Yale-bound senior built ‘diverse skill set’ at Monmouth

Barry McNamara
Brandon Allen receives one of his departmental awards (in chemistry and physics) at Monmouth College's Honors Convocation on April 16.
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MONMOUTH, Ill. – Monmouth College senior Brandon Allen isn’t used to talking about himself, but Monmouth faculty members have no hesitation in singing his praises.

“Brandon is as good as anybody I’ve known who’s gone to an Ivy League school,” said chemistry professor Laura Moore. “It’s been incredible to see how he has grown. I don’t think he even thought what he’s doing now was possible.”

After Allen graduates from Monmouth on May 12, he is headed to Yale University, where he will pursue a Ph.D. in biophysical chemistry. He hopes to one day oversee his own research laboratory.

“He’s super brilliant,” said chemistry professor Audra Sostarecz. “I would call him a scholar. We have students who do the research and they like it, but Brandon has such a passion for it. He was in the lab for 16 hours (on a recent Sunday), collecting data for a paper that I was offered to submit.”

A ‘stubborn’ approach

Allen – who received departmental honors in both chemistry and physics at the College’s Honors Convocation earlier this month – said “stubborn” best describes his approach to learning.

“For better or worse, I’m a little bit stubborn,” he said. “I guess the positive word for it is ‘perseverance.’ I like to sit down and figure out the solution to a problem so I can move on.”

And Allen is known to come up with some complex solutions.

“He built a microscope, with the help of (chemistry department members) Brad Sturgeon and Steve Distin,” said Sostarecz. “I don’t know that I would’ve even attempted that as an undergrad student. He has initiative, intelligence, genuineness and a love of learning. He loves science, he’s going to do the work, he’s going to succeed, and he’s going to go above and beyond. ... After meeting him and seeing his passion and determination, there’s no way Yale could turn him away.”

Allen built the microscope to help with the analysis of cell membranes in Sostarecz’s lab.

“It was a Brewster angle microscope, which are pretty expensive,” he said. “You might get a $60,000 base, if you’re lucky, maybe $70,000.”

The advantage of that particular instrument is that it can be used for “non-invasive” analysis of cell membranes.

“We can then corroborate our conclusions from the data with images,” said Allen. “It gives us a better understanding of what’s actually occurring as we run these trials.”

‘Building a diverse skill set’

Allen said the opportunities he’s received at Monmouth helped him stand out when he applied to graduate school.

“I’ve gained a diverse skill set here,” he said. “My classes have been great, but it’s the things you do outside of class – things like learning how to program or building a microscope or learning how to use a 3D printer so you can build a cover for the microscope – that have really helped me develop my skill set. My background in both chemistry and physics taught me a way of thinking about things that not everyone will have.”

Allen said he chose to study biophysical chemistry at Yale because the discipline brings “a chemical perspective to biologically relevant things ... determining the underlying physical reasons for why things happen.”

The first year of the five-year program will be a rotation through three research groups. Allen will then decide to become a full-time member of one group.

“Ultimately, I’d like to have my own research lab at the graduate level,” he said. “I want to go out and get as much serious research experience as I can so that I can bring back those experiences to a place like Monmouth and teach.”

A five-year college student, Allen spent his first two years at McHenry Community College, near his hometown of Marengo, Ill. His original plan was to use his third and fourth years of undergraduate schooling to complete his prerequisites for pharmacy school.

But research opportunities were presented to him immediately at Monmouth, with the first coming prior to his first semester during the College’s Summer Opportunities for Intellectual Activities (SOFIA) program.

“After that, Audra told me I should get into research,” he said. “That completely changed the trajectory of what I’d be doing. I fell in love with research and being in the lab. The people here make it really easy to get excited about the opportunities that research presents.”

‘A good place for you’

Before deciding on Monmouth, Allen visited two larger schools closer to home. His visit days at both places were shared with scores of other prospective students, and he said he met no faculty members.

“I didn’t think I’d thrive in an environment like that,” he said.

On his Monmouth visit, Moore showed him around the Center for Science and Business. The impressive facilities made a big difference in his decision, said Allen, but so did that personal touch.

“At the end of the visit, she looked at me, and she said, ‘You’re coming here. This is a good place for you.’ Sure enough, she was right. I came in a totally different person than I am now. ... Monmouth has really given me a love of science and research, and I hope to take that with me to Yale and then model that infectious excitement about science when I become a professor.”