Brandon Huy Pham | 2015 Goldwater Scholar

In high school, I was drawn to the complexity of the immune system and its role as an essential defense against pathogens. The immune system, while crucial to protecting our bodies from microbes, can cause countless pathologies if improperly regulated. Inspired to learn more about this elegant organ system, I declared a major in Microbiology, Immunology, and Molecular Genetics upon matriculating into UCLA in Fall 2013 and joined Dr. Ram Singh’s autoimmune and tolerance laboratory at UCLA.

For four years, I investigated mechanisms underlying gender bias in autoimmunity with support from the Lupus Foundation of America, as one of six students nationwide selected for the Gina M. Finzi Student Fellowship. Through my work, I found that sex chromosomes modulate the composition of immune cells and their responsiveness to innate receptors, which in turn significantly alters immune responses. I presented these findings at various local and national conferences, including the American College of Rheumatology and American Association of Immunologist annual meetings. Although the discovery of new knowledge fascinated me, I wondered how these findings could translate to improved patient outcomes in the hospital.

While working as a stroke clinical research coordinator at UCLA Medical Center, I began to fully appreciate how medicine and research are deeply intertwined to improve the quality of human life. In the emergency room, I was surprised to find how few treatments existed for ischemic stroke patients. Current treatments, such as tissue plasminogen activator, have inherent risks and need to be administered within a constricted time window to be effective. To address the limitations of medicine, countless clinical trials are devoted to the advent of novel therapeutic interventions. The implication of life-long learning through science for the benefit of others drew me further toward medicine.

When I began medical school at Stanford, I continued related research by working on a project investigating a type of retinopathy caused by hydroxychloroquine, a drug commonly used to treat autoimmune disorders such as lupus. I became captivated by the array of innovative modalities for evaluating retinal health and the opportunity to uncover findings with exciting translational potential. My work has resulted in four published manuscripts, including two first-author papers in Retina and Documenta Ophthalmologica, and over a dozen oral and poster presentations at various local, national, and international meetings, including those hosted by the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology, Retina Society, and Macula Society. In the future, I hope to apply the skills I have gained through my research experiences to my future career in academic medicine.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, during which clerkship medical students were dismissed from clinical rotations, I worked with colleagues to secure blood donations and personal protective equipment for local hospitals, provide support remotely to clinic staff, and organize COVID-19 related research studies, with an emphasis on investigating how the management and outcomes of acute surgical conditions differ since the arrival of COVID-19 as compared to the pre-COVID-19 control period.

By supporting me in pursuing long-term, independent research, the Goldwater Foundation has helped me to unify my complementary passions in medicine and science. My work at UCLA, the Lupus Foundation of America, and Stanford has taught me the value of basic science research in advancing the medical field—one small discovery at a time. Over time, I have come to believe that the most meaningful difference I can make in society is by improving the quality of people’s lives through health.