Love of bodybuilding inspires scientific pursuit for Goldwater Scholar Brennan Coffey

Before there were beakers, there were barbells.

Brennan Coffey—one of three CU-Boulder undergraduates to win a coveted Goldwater Scholarship this year for high academic merit—has logged long hours at the gym. An avid bodybuilder, Coffey’s weightlifting sessions have sculpted both his body and his interest in science.

“I’ve been a bodybuilder for quite awhile now,” Coffey said. “It really entails a lot of biochemical understanding. I spent all of high school figuring out how eating things elicits specific results; and I became really interested in how the chemistry of that works.”

When Coffey first came to CU-Boulder, he thought he wanted to be an aerospace engineer. But his fascination with the way the human body works eventually led him to switch to chemical engineering.

Now Coffey, who is double majoring in applied mathematics, is working as an undergraduate researcher in engineering Professor Daniel Schwartz’s lab. To a layman, his project may sound like a mouthful; he’s studying the diffusion of polymers at the solid-liquid interface using fluorescence microscopy to track molecular motion.

But Coffey knows the research he’s involved with could one day help expand our understanding of the way one of our most basic biological building blocks—cells—work.

At its most basic, diffusion is the study of how substances move from regions of high concentration to regions of low concentration. Studying diffusion at the solid-liquid interface is the exploration of how those substances adsorb to a barrier and then move around on it.

When applied to the cell, this line of research could help us better understand how nutrients that are in relatively high concentration in the blood pass through the cell wall to the cell, where the nutrient concentration is relatively low.

Coffey, who is on track to graduate in May 2015, is planning on heading to graduate school to continue to deepen his understanding of the way the body works, perhaps by studying protein and tissue engineering.

“It’s really become a symbiotic relationship: what I study in school and what I do in my daily life,” he said.

Coffey was among 283 elite scholars selected from a field of 1,116 mathematics, science and engineering students nominated for a Goldwater Scholarship by faculty members from colleges and universities nationwide. Coffey attributes his success to the guidance he’s received from his many mentors at CU-Boulder.

The scholarships, which are worth up to $7,500 each, are awarded annually to sophomores and juniors across the nation on the basis of high academic merit. The other two winners from CU-Boulder are Jasmine Brewer, a junior in engineering physics, and Ryan Dewey, a junior in astrophysics and physics.

Read more about this year’s Goldwater Scholars.