The Graduate Student: Brenden Herrera

Credit: Jeff Wilson

Chemistry PhD student, alumnus of and mentor in the Freshman Research Initiative. Interviewed by Ellen Airhart

What was your undergraduate research about when you were in the Freshman Research Initiative?

In the Supramolecular Sensors lab, we had a wine analysis team and a synthesis team. The goal of the analysis team was to differentiate wine varietals based on tannin composition. …It’s fascinating because there was also this huge lawsuit that’s part of the reason the stream got funding. A French company had sold grapes under a different name, as better grapes than they actually were, and a wine distributor sold wine made from them. There was an investigation, and a court decision set aside money for science, including in this lab at UT. In the FRI Stream, we were analyzing a bunch of different wines and trying to classify them, but there was one that was an outlier. It was showing that it was not a pinot noir when it should have been. Because of the investigation, we know why it was an outlier.

Now as a mentor, how do you help students care about research? 

I try to explain concepts in a way so that their meaning is obvious. I like to present cool case studies of scientists using techniques similar to ours to detect diseases. In the FRI class, students present a summary of research related to our field. We have to make it relevant. Otherwise, I’m just telling them what to do.

What motivates you to do what you do?

I get to collaborate with tons of different people. Right now we are working with UT biochemistry. My research could speed up reaction discovery, which ultimately could be applied to synthesizing a new pharmaceutical drug.

“My research could speed up reaction discovery, which ultimately could be applied to synthesizing a new pharmaceutical drug.”

I want to do something no one else has ever done. Also, I’m the first person to ever go to college in my family. If I get my PhD, my mom would be pretty proud.

What are the most surprising things you’ve learned?

I’ve learned that it’s completely up to me how much work I get done. No one else can change that. I can have bad days—maybe my reaction didn’t work, or maybe I dropped a vial that had 15 milligrams of something I’ve been making for weeks. Those days happen, but ultimately everything is up to me. I’m responsible for how much I get done and how successful I am. It’s okay to dream big, but if I don’t work, the dreams are never going to come true.

Read more about the wine analysis research and see our animation about this science in action.