When Brandon Harrison-Smith arrived at Cheyney University in 2006, he had no desire or intention of becoming a teacher. He planned to pursue an undergraduate degree and then a master’s degree in bioengineering.
He didn’t even know Cheyney existed until the university president at the time walked up to him at a scholarship banquet to recruit him. Now, 16 years later, he has earned his Ph.D. at Temple University and has begun a two-year research fellowship at Purdue University, and is on track to reach his new career goal, professor.
But the narrative of how Brandon, now also known as Dr. Harrison-Smith, caught the teaching bug is the best part of the story because it happened by accident.
In his freshman year, word quickly spread that he was highly intelligent, so students in the dorm began showing up, asking for tutoring.
“Students would randomly knock on my door asking for help. Tutoring wasn’t something I was used to,” he said. “I went over to the academic success center to say I was already tutoring so many students that I wanted a job doing it, figuring I might as well get paid for my trouble.”
But the center did not hire first-year students, so they told him to come back next year, which he did. He got the job and continued tutoring throughout his time as an undergraduate.
“Oddly enough, I never thought I’d grow a passion for teaching and tutoring, but I did over time, Harrison-Smith said. “Just having so many people run up and hug me out of nowhere and tell me ‘You’re the reason I passed and am able to graduate’ were very fulfilling moments in my life. I still didn’t have any intentions of pursuing being a professor or anything like that.”
Cheyney professor of chemistry and chairperson of the Department of Natural and Applied Sciences, Adedoyin Adeyiga, Ph.D., has known Harrison-Smith since he was a freshman. He said he saw the same transformation to teaching in his student that he experienced himself as a college student.
“I was bound for medical school but as a graduate student I taught, and I got hooked,” Adeyiga said. “I always tell students to go for the passion and what makes you happy. I tell people like Brandon teaching gives you instant gratification. Seeing all the students I’ve taught who have advanced to Ph.Ds., and MDs, money can’t buy that. Brandon now knows what I’m talking about.”
Harrison-Smith took full advantage of internship opportunities, working every summer. First, he interned as a building engineer at the VA Medical Center in Coatesville. The next year he conducted nanofabrication research at Penn State, Main Campus. In his junior year, he worked at the Environmental Protection Agency in Philadelphia. Finally, in his senior year, he participated in a U.S. Department of Agriculture study on catfish, with Cheyney Professor Steven Hughes.
Harrison-Smith then went on to work at IBM as an engineer, but after a few years decided to pursue a master’s degree at Temple University. While there, he returned to Cheyney as a professional tutor. He took the job to earn some extra money, but he also realized he was benefiting beyond that point.
“I thoroughly enjoyed tutoring the students and mentoring them, and what started to slowly grow there was this idea that I potentially wanted to pursue academia. Instead of just getting my master’s to make me more competitive in the industry, I now wanted to put myself on a track to be a professor,” he said.
From the master’s program, Harrison-Smith went on to his Ph.D. at Temple, all the while continuing to tutor, eventually advancing to adjunct professor at Cheyney, teaching biology lab, academic learning communities, and chemistry.
For his dissertation, Harrison-Smith designed a novel low-cost diagnostic device that measures bilirubin levels in newborn babies with jaundice. The device looks like a cellphone.
In his post-doctorate fellowship, Harrison-Smith wants to continue to develop low-cost diagnostic devices like that one and address racial bias as it pertains to optical diagnostic techniques. He has begun working on building a photoacoustic gas sensor that can detect viruses.
After that, Dr. Harrison-Smith plans to catch on as an associate professor and do what he has come to love – teach. He said it all traces back to Cheyney.
“Cheyney represents a developmental period in my life,” he said. “I was able to grow by leaps and bounds. I went in one way and came out another. I believe that’s because I took advantage of a lot of opportunities, and I was willing to push myself and grow. Cheyney was one of the fundamental building blocks of my life.”
Fortunately for future college students, Harrison-Smith plans to pay similar opportunities forward.