Brendan Terry ’20 to Tackle Disease and Disparities with Gates Cambridge Scholarship

Brendan Terry

Brendan Terry ’20 believes his research could offer insights into cancers and chronic diseases that disproportionately affect vulnerable populations — and the Gates Cambridge Trust thinks so, too. The trust, created two decades ago by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has awarded Terry a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, one of 80 full scholarships for postgraduate study awarded to outstanding scholars from around the world with the potential to become leaders in addressing global problems and improving the lives of others.

After graduation, Terry, a chemistry major from Santa Monica, Calif., will pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge in England to study the biochemistry of epigenetics in early embryo development. He will look at epigenetic programming that controls cellular differentiation and can last over the lifespan, sometimes contributing to disease risk.

As an example of the biochemistry of epigenetics in humans, Terry points to the studies of the Dutch Famine that occurred during World War II. These studies look at the health outcomes of children of Dutch mothers pregnant with them during the famine.

“These children were more likely as adults to suffer from diabetes, cardiovascular disease and certain psychiatric disorders. The leading hypothesis is that this effect is due to molecular-level changes in the programming of their gene expression while they were in the womb,” Terry says. “In this way, the ‘trauma’ experienced by the mother was passed on to the child.”

Negative environments are in part products of societal injustice. Terry says that if we can understand how molecular mechanisms connect those negative environments to negative effects on health, we can better understand and document the ways that marginalized groups are disadvantaged. His research at Cambridge will examine some of what are currently thought of as the most important mechanisms for epigenetic programming in mammals.

Disparities in the Day-to-Day

But Terry isn’t thinking of disease and disadvantage merely in theory or history. Before it was a research topic, it was something he lived through. When he was 2 years old, his immediate family moved in with his grandparents to care for his grandmother, who had Alzheimer’s disease. For 10 years they cared for her at home until her death. Under these circumstances, his parents worked with a low income to make ends meet, including paying for health insurance, by going into debt. Terry learned as a child what grown-up social scientists knew and what the field of epigenetics is confirming: Health and social environment are mutually dependent facets of well-being.

That life lesson regarding health and social environment has been the theme of Terry’s studies, research and volunteer work throughout his career as a Pomona College student. His research began early on, during his first year in Chemistry Professor Matthew Sazinsky’s lab, through a Summer Undergraduate Research Project (SURP), a Beckman Scholarship, and a discovery with Joe Ha ’19 of the molecular structure of an enzyme that could one day make better nutrition available to more people. Currently, Terry is working with Nicah Vhin Driza ’21 to modify this enzyme so that it can be used industrially. One ongoing project of Terry’s is in collaboration with Professor of Environmental Analysis Marc Los Huertos  and El Colegio de la Frontera Norte (COLEF) in Tijuana, Mexico, in work funded by a Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Summer Stipend and a Binational Team Project Award from the Health Initiative of the Americas at the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health. They are conducting research that uses chemistry and anthropology to investigate environmental causes of health problems among people who live in the canal that holds the Tijuana River. Terry and the team hope to work with the people who live in the canal, government and nonprofits to improve sanitation services and increase access to permanent shelter and healthcare. Additionally, as a volunteer at the Venice Family Clinic near his hometown, Terry worked with hundreds of patients who struggled to gain access to health care for serious conditions due to socioeconomic, gender, mental health and/or immigration status.

Terry has a long multidisciplinary list of professors and courses that have inspired him—beyond the obvious fields of chemistry and biology are classes on writing and a course on the sociology of poverty. He says all of these professors inspired him thanks to the effort they put into developing their students’ critical thinking skills and affirming that their students’ ideas mattered.

“These professors made me a more independent thinker, more confident at Pomona and more ambitious in my future goals.” 

Long-term, Terry says his dream is to become “a physician-scientist whose research works to understand—and then reverse—biochemical processes that translate adverse life circumstances into poor long-term health.”

Terry thinks the Gates Cambridge Scholarship could be a springboard for so much more.  

“I think that being a part of the Gates Cambridge community will broaden my perspective and open my eyes to new, unexpected possibilities for collaboration on projects aimed at reducing health disparities, which is my major focus.”