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November 8, 2017

Q&A with Brandon Farmer

Brandon Farmer profileWhere do you call home?
Huntsville, Alabama

Where are you from?
Virginia Beach, Virginia

Tell us about your family.
We have a very full house. I am married with two children, two dogs and a cat: all girls, so I am completely outnumbered. We have two beautiful girls, Adelaide and Beatrice “Birdie.” My wife is a chemistry graduate from UAB, and we met while teaching high school chemistry laboratories through Alabama Science in Motion. She practices as an OB-GYN in Huntsville.

What is your profession?
I am the director of advanced materials of the Aerospace Technologies Directorate at NeXolve. We focus on the synthesis of polymers designed to survive the harsh environment of space. I completed my Ph.D. in polymer chemistry at the University of Tennessee after receiving a B.S. in chemistry from UM.

Tell us about your educational foundation.
I felt I had a great foundation and understanding of core chemistry concepts and had no difficulty transitioning to graduate school at a large university. In fact, I felt I had an advantage. Montevallo’s small class size was a significant benefit. It allowed the opportunity to work on instruments that most undergraduates are not afforded at larger universities. I also benefited from the student-to-teacher ratio. When the class has six or seven people, there is no place to hide if you don’t understand the material or haven’t kept up with the assigned work. The faculty was invested in our success and took the time to make sure we understood the material.

What skills did you gain from participating in Undergraduate Research Day at UM?
Undergraduate Research Day showed me that communication is vital to the success of your research. The research conducted may have been successful, but if the outcome of the research is not communicated well, then the impact of the research will be lost. This has been an important lesson that has followed me through my career in aerospace plastics and has been useful working on teams with different types of scientists towards a common goal.

How did undergraduate research affect your career?
Undergraduate research was a great kick-start to my graduate and professional career. I was able to get published in a total of four publications from the two summers of research. When applying for graduate schools, I was accepted into every program, I believe in part, because of the research experience I already had as an undergraduate; I also think because of the close interactions in the labs and classes with Dr. Byrd and Dr. O’Donnell — their letters of recommendation to the universities was an additional benefit.

What awards/honors have you received? Is there a most significant honor? If so, please tell us about it.
I have received eight patents for various polymer inventions and an R&D 100 award for inventing a polymer that can survive the low earth orbit space environment. However, the one award that was the most significant, I received while in graduate school: the C.W. Keenan Outstanding Graduate Teaching Award. It was an honor to have been chosen by the faculty at UT to receive the award. I enjoy my current profession, but I miss teaching. I would eventually like to get back into teaching chemistry at some point in my career.

What is your secret for success?
Learning how to fail. If there is one thing chemistry research teaches you, it is learning how things don’t work. In fact, it’s learning how lots and lots of experiments don’t work. Being able to look back on all the failed experiments is how you move forward with a successful research program. You set the goal before you start; you lay out the best approach to get to your goal. However, once the rubber hits the road and the experiments don’t turn out the way you thought they should, you have to regroup, review the results and then alter the approach for the goal.

What is your favorite Montevallo memory?
The first summer I lived away from home was also the first summer I lived in Montevallo. I think I played Rook or Spades every night (and maybe into the early morning). My days were spent doing research in the lab, and every evening I would get together with my friends at the fraternity house and play cards and then repeat. It was my version of Groundhog Day, and it was awesome.