> Bobby Hollingsworth
Bobby Hollingsworth embarks on lifelong pursuit of mentors and cures
When Bobby Hollingsworth thinks of his childhood years in Botswana, he thinks of the scenery and of a seven-year-old named Prosper. The son of Hollingsworth’s nanny, Prosper was Hollingsworth’s first childhood friend.
In the late 1990s, Prosper died of HIV. Not long after, Prosper’s parents also died. At the time, five-year-old Hollingsworth didn’t know much about the virus that weakens immune systems and has to date claimed over 35 million lives globally.
Now, he’s on the cutting edge of the cure.
“I could've been born into a very different situation,” Hollingsworth said. “Seeing that early has helped me define my mission and my motivations because it was horrible that that could happen — that someone is born into this situation where they can't do anything about it.”
A senior Honors student with triple degrees in chemical engineering, biochemistry, and chemistry, Hollingsworth has worked in labs at Virginia Tech, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and as an Amgen Scholar at Harvard University, with a focus on researching viruses and diseases — most notably, HIV and cancer — and how they interact with vaccines and drugs. Hollingsworth is also a Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship recipient and an Honors College Class of 1954 Fellow.
On a brisk Thursday evening during the 2016 fall semester, Hollingsworth is working in a lab in Engel Hall, only a two minute walk from where he lives in East Ambler Johnston, the Honors living-learning community known as the Honors Residential Commons (HRC).
"He’s on the cutting edge of the cure."
“He is capable of excelling at anything he chooses and several things simultaneously. He has all the earmarks of an individual who will make a difference in the world.”
He’s created a digital animation of a protein — a computational model, to be more specific — to visualize its movement. The short video helps researchers like himself better understand the protein’s behavior, and in doing so, Hollingsworth explains, researchers can manipulate drugs to be more effective against disease and viruses.
“If you model this protein that's on HIV in 3-D space, and you model the drug in 3-D space, then you allow the two to come together, you can see how that happens,” he says, replaying the clip. “We characterize that interaction, then determine how that drug is binding, and then make it a stronger drug.”
Hollingsworth easily and comprehensively explains this complicated research work, no doubt because he’s spent the last four years doing just that. His research has taken him across the nation and the globe as he’s delivered presentations, proposed projects, and won fellowships.
“As a first-year undergraduate student, Bobby impressed me with his ability to grasp complex topics quickly,” said Rich Gandour, professor of chemistry and faculty member of one of the labs Hollingsworth has worked in. “He is capable of excelling at anything he chooses and several things simultaneously. He has all the earmarks of an individual who will make a difference in the world.”
Growing up with a father who worked for the Foreign Service in the U.S. State Department, Hollingsworth moved from place to place across the globe every few years. He was born in the U.S., but spent the first few years of his life in India. His family then moved to Botswana, transferred to Hungary during the first of Hollingsworth’s middle school years, and returned to the U.S., where Hollingsworth completed the rest of middle and high school in Northern Virginia.
Surprisingly, he says he wasn’t exactly motivated in school before he came to Virginia Tech. As a child, Hollingsworth would tell his parents that someday he would find the cure to cancer — a notion he developed after watching his grandmother fight the disease for five years. But by high school, Hollingsworth still didn’t have much exposure to research and was unsure how he could actually pursue that childhood goal.
Once he arrived on campus, Hollingsworth sought out the advice and mentorship of researchers — starting with upperclassmen in the HRC. One such mentor was Deirdre Kilcoyne, who completed her undergraduate and graduate degrees in chemical engineering at Virginia Tech, went on to a career at NASA, and was Hollingsworth’s mentor assigned by the HRC mentorship program.
Hollingsworth credits Kilcoyne not only with being a good friend, but also with playing “a crucial role” in his academic success. Aside from all the resume and cover letter help, Kilcoyne also told Hollingsworth about her path to research, which helped Hollingsworth find his own.
“From there, the snowball just kept rolling and things were just very exciting,” Hollingsworth said.
“I have never seen a freshman get involved in research that quickly — one foot came onto Virginia Tech's campus, and the next was into a lab,” Kilcoyne said. “He has the dream, but he's smart enough to ask for guidance to achieve it.”
" It’s a reoccurring theme in Hollingsworth’s life: the thoughtful pursuit of secondhand knowledge. "
During winter break of his freshman year, Hollingsworth studied abroad through Timothy Long’s Western Europe study abroad trip, “International Perspectives on the Nanoscience of Macromolecules,” examining the role of science in other countries. By his second semester, he was accepted to work in Gandour’s lab, researching nanoscale drug delivery. He also earned a seat on the Chem-E-Car team, which competes with other universities to create a chemical-reaction-powered vehicle each year.
Meanwhile in his classes, Hollingsworth dropped introductory level courses in favor of more challenging, sophomore-level coursework. Even though looking back Hollingsworth says he might have been naive to jump into heavy coursework so quickly, it started a momentum he would continue building on for the rest of his undergraduate years.
"I think I was lucky to be surrounded by supportive people saying, 'you can do this,'" Hollingsworth said. “It could've hurt me really badly, but a little bit of being naive ended up being a good thing."
The following summer, Hollingsworth landed a research internship in the NIH’s structural biology lab, thanks in part to a recommendation from another mentor, Thao Do, a 2010 graduate of Virginia Tech and a National Institutes of Health-Oxford-Cambridge Scholar. Hollingsworth would continue doing research work based on a proposal he wrote for the NIH throughout the winter and spring the following year.
Hollingsworth came back to Virginia Tech for his sophomore year ready to take on new, more intense challenges, like taking on a managerial role in the lab he joined freshman year.
“By the time sophomore year is over, if you haven't done anything really major, then it can really start hurting you. It doesn't hurt you to go through the discovery [phase] freshman year, but I think sophomore year is when you need to get involved,” Hollingsworth said of his outlook at the time.
Hollingsworth also enrolled in graduate level coursework and began preparing an application for the Goldwater Scholarship, awarded to 300 outstanding students nationally who plan to pursue a research career, and for the Honors College Class of 1954 Fellowship, which provides up to $10,000 for one sophomore Honors student to design their own fellowship opportunity.
He won both.
For the fellowship, Hollingsworth proposed a five-week trip to Botswana, where he would work directly with pediatric HIV patients at the Botswana-Baylor Children's Clinical Center of Excellence. He would continue researching the virus’ mutations and resistance to drugs, but mostly he wanted to spend the summer after his junior year witnessing the human factors of HIV treatment.
“When I observed the disease when I was younger, Prosper and my nanny, they didn't have treatment,” he said. “That wasn't a thing in the 1990s. Now it is."
In the meantime, Hollingsworth began looking for a summer job. He sent out over a dozen applications, and eventually landed a position at Harvard University through the Amgen Scholar Program, designed to provide undergraduates with cutting-edge research experience at top global institutions.
"I applied to a bunch of jobs,” Hollingsworth said, laughing, “and had gotten declined from all of them except from Harvard.”
While in Boston, Hollingsworth performed biomedical and biotechnological research, studying cells and how they can be altered by disease. Most notably, Hollingsworth had access to CRISPR, a revolutionary tool that allows researchers to edit genes by altering portions of a DNA sequence. The work Hollingsworth did with his team at Harvard would be published a year later in the biology journal Molecular Cell, with Hollingsworth listed as an author.
But Hollingsworth can’t mention his time at Harvard without talking about the 20 other Amgen Scholars he met there. He says they were “some of the most humble, intelligent, and driven people” he had ever met. Outside the lab, the group would play ultimate frisbee, compete in kickball tournaments with a group from MIT, and congregate in Hollingsworth’s room to watch Game of Thrones and Supernatural.
While at Harvard, Hollingsworth continued his constant search for mentors, emailing professors he had heard speak to ask if they would talk with him about their work and the trajectory of their careers. It’s a reoccurring theme in Hollingsworth’s life: the thoughtful pursuit of secondhand knowledge.
"Wherever I go, I'll talk to people that are in interesting fields, whether or not I'm going that direction," he explained. "I think that helps with developing ideas in research — hearing other people's ideas and thinking, 'this is a very interesting way to think.’”
By the time Hollingsworth returned to Virginia Tech for his junior year, he felt he was ready to start mentoring others, too.
"By junior year, I felt equipped with my experiences to start contributing and mentoring other people — still recognizing that … [I myself wasn’t] done being mentored,” he said. “I wanted to contribute to that cycle where you start to mentor other people, which can really make a difference in people's lives, just as it made a difference in my life.” Hollingsworth took the lead in forming a collaboration focused on HIV research with the lab of David Bevan, professor of biochemistry, under the mentorship of Anne Brown, then a doctoral student in the Department of Biochemistry. He brought students onto the team and worked closely with and mentored them. He also continued mentoring other students in the HRC, where he had first found his own mentors. Considering the difficulty of classes during his junior year, especially as he traveled to seven different conferences and was a finalist for the Harry S. Truman Scholarship, Hollingsworth said taking the time to help underclassmen was a conscious effort, but worthwhile.
"I think no one person's success is more valuable than another person," Hollingsworth said. But that outlook “holds for a lot of different things, not just success,” he said.
For Hollingsworth, it also holds true for healthcare. Often, factors like socioeconomic status, education level, and stigma influence a person’s level of healthcare, but Hollingsworth fully believes that “no one person’s quality of life is more valuable than another person's.”
“Reducing these gaps in healthcare is where my career is going to go, but someone else might be doing something just as useful for society and people as that, so contributing to their success could help everyone,” he said.
This philosophy was put to the test for Hollingsworth the summer after his junior year, when he traveled to Botswana as part of his Honors College Class of 1954 Fellowship.
While there, he witnessed the exact healthcare gaps he hopes to close. As he shadowed physicians in the clinic, he learned about the factors that prevent HIV patients from being treating, like the stigma surrounding HIV in the region. Even though some patients had access to medicine, they would throw away the pills, refusing to recognize and treat the virus.
“It's hard seeing those things and all these barriers that I didn't know existed,” Hollingsworth said. “I was a little naive in thinking, you know, I can make this drug, and 'it's magic, it's cured the disease!'”
His time in Botswana shaped his outlook on research. It’s one thing to design a drug in a lab, he said, “but then the human factor impacts so much."
Now, Hollingsworth is taking that mindset with him as he finishes his last semester at Virginia Tech. The newly-named Chemical Engineering Outstanding Senior will graduate in May 2017 with an Honors Baccalaureate diploma and, hopefully, a published first-authored paper. He also hopes to wrap up three other projects he started his senior year by this summer.
Hollingsworth plans to obtain a doctorate in biochemistry or biophysics, and hopes to split his time between experimental and computational work. He already has interviews lined up during spring semester for some of the 12 graduate programs he has applied to across the country.
Long-term, Hollingsworth says he wants to work in biomedical research and public health, running a lab and acting as an advocate for reducing costs of creating life-saving drugs in order to better reach underserved communities. He wants to continue learning all aspects of the lab-to-patient drug delivery process, including how government policies, education, and other real-world factors impact whether or not a patient receives the medicine they need — because for him, that’s what all of this is about.
"It comes down to a patient and their quality of life,” Hollingsworth said. “It's the individual patient — that's what matters to me in the end.”
Written by Erica Corder