Graduate Student Q&A: Brendan Sperling

By Wendy Plump
Monday, Nov. 7, 2022

As a child, Brendan Sperling boiled flowers from his mother’s flower garden to extract different colors. He memorized the Periodic Table of Elements. And he fell in love with the Harry Potter movies, not least of all because they elevated the power of alchemy to the silver screen (polyjuice potion, anyone?). A few years of poor teaching in high school took a toll on Sperling’s STEM ambitions. But, following an undergraduate degree from Hofstra University, he has firmly settled in the field as a first-year grad student in the Hecht Lab. Here, Sperling talks about his work in chemistry and the faith that informs his identity as a scientist.

HOW ARE YOU ENJOYING PRINCETON?

I came for a visiting weekend last spring and thought it was absolutely magical. Hofstra is smaller and very urban. This is different. I’m a huge Harry Potter fan (and I wrote that in my personal statement), so when I came here, I was like, is this Hogwarts? My first time in Princeton was when I was younger and came for a Westminster Choir College concert. We went to the chapel on campus. When I first stepped onto Princeton soil, it was just amazing. I love Princeton. It’s been my dream since I was little.

DO YOU STILL TAP INTO YOUR CHILDHOOD FASCINATION WITH CHEMISTRY?

Brendan Sperling, first-year grad student
Brendan Sperling, a first-year graduate student in the Hecht Lab.
Photo by Jesse Condon

I think it’s very easy, especially when you’re in a research setting, to forget why you’re doing this. You’re doing the same thing over and over again. It’s research and more research. So it’s very important to remind yourself why you love chemistry–to look at a really fancy inorganic chemistry complex that changes color when you add something to it to remind yourself. Sometimes you need to step away from the journals and go back to what drew you in.

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THE HECHT LAB?

I was kind of nervous during visiting weekends last spring because when I was meeting all of the professors, I wasn’t really drawn to any of the research. It was cool but nothing I thought I could spend five years doing. Michael Hecht was the last one on my list. We went to lunch afterwards and I said, I want to be in your lab. He was very, very big picture, and that’s exactly how I think. I have an end goal. I’ll do whatever I need to do to get there. Even when we’re sharing ideas, I can see that we think in the same ways.

DESCRIBE THE LAB’S ATMOSPHERE ….

The lab itself is very close-knit. One of the most exciting things, at least for me, is how personable Michael is. He runs his lab in a way that’s like, “What are you up to?” and, “Did you think about trying this?” It’s a very nurturing environment, very welcoming and warm. We don’t have something to present on every week. It’s more of a meeting of the minds where you present a problem you’re having or where you’ve gotten to in your work, and then we discuss it.

WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON?

I knew when I came into this lab that I wanted to work with proteins. Enzymes are biomolecules that catalyze the chemical reactions necessary to sustain life. My current research focuses on the purification and in vitro assay of a de novo kinase we built called AltTPase bound to a kanamycin binding domain. When in vivo, this enzyme can provide rescue of bacteria from kanamycin—a potent antibiotic—by phosphorylating it. My portion is recreating the experiments of two former graduate students who got this to work in the cell. I’m trying to make it work in the test tube. That’s the basic gist of it.

WHAT’S THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE FOR FIRST-YEAR GRAD STUDENTS?

One of my biggest challenges is the imposter syndrome. I’m a Christian so I believe that God put me here for a reason and I think that helps. He doesn’t put anything on you that you can’t handle, so that in itself gives me a peace beyond logic. That’s been the most important thing to know, that I’m here for a purpose—this didn’t just happen by chance. It’s been a challenge because I am amongst people who are ridiculously smart. They’re smarticle particles. And I think, wow, should I really be here?

HOW HAS YOUR CHRISTIANITY INFORMED YOUR IDENTITY AS A SCIENTIST?

I think in understanding from a Christian perspective that everything was designed. The more I investigate the natural world, the more I find confirmation of that. There’s no way that all of these chemical pathways just came into being on their own. Matter is not sentient–it doesn’t know, oh, go here or go there. There has to be some level of architecture that’s knit into it. I was brought up in an environment where we didn’t have AP Biology because it’s evolution and they didn’t want to teach that. But from some sense of understanding, I believe in my heart that God created everything; and as everything evolved, it evolved in pursuit of what God said.

DO YOU SEE A ROLE FOR YOURSELF AS A BRIDGE BETWEEN BEING A CHRISTIAN AND A SCIENTIST?

I think that there is some type of demonization of the scientist. I went to a Lutheran school growing up and it was just like, basically, evolution is bad, science is bad. The Bible says, The heavens declare the glory of God. So to me, that means that when you look at everything and examine it down to the cell, it shows God’s glory and design. Every time I look at a cell or at a protein, I’m so overwhelmed with this belief. I want to be that Christian who says, well, here’s the proof. I’m a chemist and a scientist. I’ve lived this.

ANY ADVICE ON CHOOSING A P.I.?

Make sure that it’s going to be a nurturing environment for you. No matter how much funding somebody has or how many papers they’re pushing out, you want to make sure you’re in an environment that is going to nurture you because you are a person before you’re a graduate student. You’re making a decision on someone who’s going to be not only a boss but a life coach. 

HOW DO YOU MAXIMIZE YOUR TIME AT PRINCETON?

For one thing, I’m not going to wait to finish my Ph.D. to live my life. I’m going to do things that I love to do now. So, I sing in the choir. I’m in Glee Club and I’m taking vocal lessons. In general, I’m making sure that I know that five years is five years for a reason—not everything is going to come perfectly. We’re given time to make mistakes, and from that we grow. I was auditing a synthetic organic chemistry class with Erik Sorensen—it’s such good teaching and such good information. I’m just enjoying everything to the fullest.

 

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