Scholar Spotlight: Brandon Yu

University of Toronto Laidlaw Scholar Brandon on his research "The effects of N-acetylglucosamine (GlcNAc) on B-cell activation" and launching his startup, iAscend.

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Brandon Yu, a Laidlaw Scholar at the University of Toronto, on his research"The effects of N-acetylglucosamine (GlcNAc) on B-cell activation," and a student-led nonprofit organization, iAscend.

I have the incredible privilege of working with Dr. Bebhinn Treanor and her laboratory to conduct my research. My proposed research orients itself around the glycan-galectin interactions within B cells – continuing Dr. Treanor’s work on the sugar binding protein galectin-9 as it regulates B cells. Specifically, I aim to investigate whether altered glycosylation of galectin-9 ligands impacts B cell activation. 

Dr. Treanor’s laboratory has already demonstrated that supplementation of cells with GlcNAc, a metabolite of the glycosylation pathway, increases binding of galectin-9 to cell surface glycoproteins. I hypothesize that increased galectin-9 binding, as a result of supplementation of cells with GlcNAc, will suppress B cell activation. These studies will be the first to examine if B cell activation can be modulated by GlcNAc supplementation, and thus has potential clinical implications for the treatment of autoimmune diseases. COVID-19 has postponed my research to the summer of 2021, where I am extremely excited to carry out this proposal.

Where did your passion for this research originate?

The origin for this research is quite personal – troubling experiences that I view as a complete life-changer and a blessing within my life.

I was only 13 when I had my first episode of pediatric acute-onset neuropsychiatric syndrome (PANS). This 10-day long ordeal was the first of three episodes of PANS, all occurring within the span of 3 years. My episodic symptoms included complete dissociation, extreme OCD, severe separation anxiety, hallucinations, and a very limited cognitive recollection – just to mention a few.

15 months after the latest occurrence, I was diagnosed with immune thrombocytopenia purpura (ITP), maintaining a platelet count of 5 x109/L. This commenced a 9-month struggle against this disorder – countless amount of blood draws and haematology visits, a bone marrow biopsy to rule out leukemia, and several futile attempts with IVIG, prednisone, and non-traditional therapies.

Both of these disorders yielded no explanation – no one had any answers as to why, and how, these conditions manifested. Having been affected by two distinct autoimmune diseases, I have experienced depressing guilt, societal judgement, and a complete lifestyle metamorphosis that patients suffering from autoimmune diseases endure on a daily basis. Realizing that the causes of these diseases were due to my own body’s self-destruction is an exacerbating feeling I do not want anyone else to experience.

My aspirations are that through my research, we will be one step closer to elucidating the mechanisms of immune function and, ultimately, understanding the pathogenesis of autoimmune diseases.

March 2018 – I was informed of my second autoimmune disease (ITP) and currently receiving an IVIG treatment to combat the disorder.

Leadership insights and founding iAscend

I have always searched for ways to embrace my inner leader. Through multiple endeavours in several fields, such as music, athletics, and NPOs, I have had the unique opportunity to hone these skills and foster additional leaders. The global pandemic has illuminated the need for critical thinkers and leaders throughout the world. I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to be on the leadership teams in several NPOs where I was directly able to implement change.

At the University of Toronto, I am very fortunate to have led 1 of 65 COVID-19 related projects recognized for the UofT COVID-19 Student Engagement Award. Through this recognition, I was able to launch iAscend – a centralized platform where students are able to find a plethora of resources, support, and opportunities as they transition to, and during, post-secondary education. This initiative stemmed from a clear need for support for this specific demographic of students, as exemplified by my peers and also through a common theme across institutions.

Furthermore, I had the privilege of participating in the Reaction for Education program hosted by makesense and the Laidlaw Foundation. This collaboration aimed to cultivate a response towards the educational challenges induced by the global pandemic. The needs of various educators, students, and parents were assessed and solutions were proposed from all over the world. Notably, I was able to collaborate with several Laidlaw Scholars to accelerate iAscend into the United Kingdom (iAscend UK) and the United States (iAscend USA).

These are two examples of my real life application within leadership. It has been inspirational, to say the least, to collaborate with the brilliant and incredible Laidlaw Scholars on these endeavours, as well as many other students. My biggest takeaway from all of my leadership experiences is that leadership is not just a “characteristic” with which certain individuals are privileged; it really can stem from anyone, anywhere. Many have this “uncultivated” leader within them – and I am continuously searching for ways to foster the research-based and passion-driven leader in everyone around me. 

Top leadership tips

⚡️ Start with Why – be a visionary. Being grounded in your passion, your mantra, your why – this is the foundation of effective leadership.

⚡️ Focus on Empowerment – as a leader, you want to lift up everyone together. Although it can take time, continuously investing in the development and empowerment of those around you, breeding leaders, is a key attribute of leadership.

⚡️ Embrace Proactivity – taking initiative and continuously searching for potential for impact is a trait that never serves a leader wrong.

⚡️ Communicate Effectively – leaders are transparent and excellent communicators. Effectively conveying your message and having the capacity to motivate others is a trait reflected in quality leaders.

⚡️ Practise Empathy – be relatable and empathetic. Being people-focused rather than product- or result-focused always enhances one’s leadership style.

What does it mean for you to be a Laidlaw Scholar?

Being a Laidlaw Scholar is an incredible opportunity. If I could sum up the impact of my journey as a Laidlaw Scholar, it would be: revolutionary. Sounds cheesy, I know, but being just an 18 year old kid with a baggage of experiences, a heart of passion, and an unwavering drive towards success, and then being given the opportunity to utilize these attributes within an environment of research-driven leadership – it is completely life-changing.

For me, being a Laidlaw Scholar is being a beacon to those around me, continuously sharing and gaining inspiration, knowledge, and support from the most incredible cohort of brilliant and curious minds from across the globe. It means diving headfirst into the unknown and paving the way for future student leaders. It means being a contributor to change, an advocate for the truth – being a leader.

Which particular leaders inspire you the most and why?

Personally, I draw the most inspiration from everyday student leaders. I am a firm believer that student-led change is the most powerful action in the world – these ideas stem from a heart of passion and are built on the willingness to succeed. From getting to know personally students from across the world, I have been exposed to their resilience, drive, and desire to create change throughout the world. Despite juggling the demands of their education, future career path, relationships, and so much more, student leaders find the initiative to continue pursuing their interests in leadership. They say that students are the leaders of tomorrow, but in my opinion, they are already the leaders of today.

Describe a scene from the future you are striving to create:

In the future, I am hopeful for an educated world of peace, respect, and innovation. Led by research-based and passion-driven leaders, I aspire to see the world come to a common consensus on basic human rights, accessible education, and an opportunity to succeed granted to every single individual on this planet. I want to see a world that resonates with positivity, support, and continual encouragement – a world where everyone can be themselves and feel comfortable to take strides in personal and professional development.

Quick-fire Questions

📺 Currently binging: The Chicago Series – all of them. Chicago Med, Chicago Fire, and Chicago PD...but Chicago Med is my undisputed favourite.

New Addition to the “Chicago” Franchise | We Love TV Shows

🎵 My quarantine anthem: Rise Up (cover by Morissette Amon)

Morissette Amon continues to rise up - Wish FM 107.5

📚 My top book recommendation: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air: Kalanithi, Paul: Books

🎧 Podcast obsession: Beyond the Breakthrough – a podcast by the University Health Network in Toronto, Canada

UHN Podcast Behind the Breakthrough Cover

🌈 Something that made me feel joy recently: Twitter. No, honestly, seeing the unity of the world as we fight off a global pandemic is quite heartwarming – and I have to thank Twitter for sharing the good news.

For those of you wanting to get in touch, feel free to visit my website, where you will be able to find my blogs, my YouTube videos, and of course, all of my contact information. I would love to speak with anyone reading this so don’t be afraid to reach out :)

Nikol Chen (she/her)

Digital Content Manager, Laidlaw Foundation

Hello! I have been with the Laidlaw Foundation for over 2 years, helping us strengthen the global Laidlaw community and expand our programmes to break the cycle of poverty, reduce inequality, and develop a new generation of leaders.

I am originally from Kazakhstan and I studied Human Sciences at UCL. I am a fan of all things human- and design-related, as well as an avid swimmer, obsessive podcast listener, documentary enthusiast, and film photography fan.

Drop me a line if you'd like to chat! 💬👀


Go to the profile of Jude Hanlon (he/him)
over 1 year ago

Brandon, I am filled with inspiration from you, your research story, and all your tips. Extraordinary!