April Faculty Spotlight: Prof. Bryan Bryson

Photo credit: B. Bryson

April 9, 2019

From MechE to TB

Biological Engineering's Assistant Professor Bryan Bryson shares his journey from MIT undergraduate to MIT faculty member.

J. Carota | CSB Graduate Office

Bryan Bryson has been building robots since he was three--but what keeps him up at night is not just building systems, but understanding how natural systems work.

Born in Worcester, Bryson comes from a close-knit family, none of whom are scientists. Even though his grandmother did not progress past the 5thgrade, “she is the true engineer and scientist in the family,” Bryson says. She has been known to create high-quality miniature airplanes from soda cans, and she tracks the pH of her garden to ensure optimal growth. Bryson believes he inherited his interest in science and engineering from her.

Growing up, Bryson found another role model in his grandfather, an academic who obtained his degrees later in life and focused on teaching  sociology and education. Not only his grandfather’s academic achievements influenced Bryson, but also his grandfather’s confidence in him. Bryson recalls his grandfather pushing a young Bryson around MIT campus in a stroller, declaring “One day you are going to go here.” And he was right--Bryson applied and was admitted to MIT for his undergraduate studies.

“I always wanted to study biological engineering, but the undergrad major hadn’t yet been created at MIT when I was an undergraduate.” Bryson knew he would have to pick an alternate course, as his family wouldn’t hear of him rejecting admission to MIT. He opted for mechanical engineering because it provided a strong foundation in engineering that could be applied to study biological systems.

During his sophomore year, a poster in the hallway caught Bryson’s eye, and his journey into research began as a UROP in the Griffith Lab. 

With Linda Griffith, his work focused on a liver chip, a microfluidic device used to culture hepatocytes into liver tissue. He approached his research with the mind of a mechanical engineer, and quickly learned that the microfluidic device working properly did not necessarily mean that the biology was working. Rather than optimizing the device, Bryson realized that what he really wanted to understand was how cells made decisions and how they processed their environmental signals. This curiosity lead Bryson back to MIT for a Ph.D. in the lab of Forest White in the Biological Engineering department.

In the White Lab, Bryson quickly began work studying post-translational protein modifications. His research ran smoothly until one day everything came to a grinding halt--his experiments stopped working entirely. At first, Bryson believed he himself was in error. He wrestled with the experiment and questioned for months before he finally reached out for help from his lab mates. When the experiment didn’t work for them either, he felt relieved that his technique wasn’t at fault. After further investigation, they found that the company providing the antibodies needed for the experiment had started shipping a new batch and this was why the experiment stopped working. Bryson emerged a stronger person and a better researcher from those months of floundering; he  learned that when faced with failures or difficulties, one must develop a new way of thinking. Bryson explains, “I’m always reminded of something my mom told me as a child when doing art projects: ‘We don’t make mistakes. We create new ideas.’”

Beantown continued to call to Bryson, and in the lab of Sarah Fortune at the Harvard School of Public Health he embarked on his postdoctoral training. Here he gained cloning skills, but more importantly, he gained an investigative interest in the infectious disease tuberculosis.

Bryson’s grandfather had yellow fever so he had a longstanding interest in infectious diseases, but it was in the Fortune Lab that Bryson found his scientific calling.

After his postdoctoral training, Bryson returned to MIT and is now an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biological Engineering. His lab, just shy of its first birthday, is setting out to develop new tools to dissect the complex dynamics of tuberculosis at a variety of scales ranging from single cells to infected animals. Combining new technologies with classical approaches, his lab is focused on answering a critical question: “how can we manipulate the immune system to improve its potency against bacterial infection?”

The Bryson Lab aims to create a model of how the bacterium and the macrophage interact to understand what factors drive the outcome of the infection. Bryson’s ultimategoal is to manipulate these cells therapeutically to fight tuberculosis infection. Just like in graduate school, he is in uncharted territory, and is eager to roll up his sleeves and get to work. 

Bryson embraces the challenge of eliminating mycobacterium tuberculosis, but what motivates him most is his family’s investment in him. “I always knew I wanted to do something in STEM,” states Bryson, and he aspires to do his absolute best in order to give back to the family that supported him throughout this journey from undergraduate to faculty member. 

Bryson offers this advice to students considering graduate school in the STEM fields: “[Begin a Ph.D.] if it gets you up in the morning and if you have a fundamental curiosity. Graduate school offers you the opportunity to pick your future and how you work on it”. 

A characteristic that Bryson believes potential graduate students should hold? Self-motivation. Graduate school requires intense self-motivation, as a student will typically be embedded in their research for 4-6 years. In research, “you must be willing to take a problem from concept to completion and become the expert on that project”.  Triumphs and failures are a part of the process that students should be ready for, and as much can be learned from the failures as the successes.


Photo credit: B. Bryson