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The Student Newspaper of MAST Academy, since 1991.
The Student News Site of MAST Academy

The Beacon

The Beacon

Brandi Cossairt: Life is not a solo sport

By Jorden Demerritte
Staff Writer

Seen in a lab zoom with a blend of Ph.D. students, postdoctoral scholars, and undergraduate students engaged in research in the area of inorganic nano materials, Brandi Cossairt is in the second column of the first row. (Photo by Brandi Cossairt).

“I came to MAST [Academy] thinking I wanted to be a Marine Biologist (I know this sounds cliche!),” Brandi Cossairt responded through email. Brandi Cossairt is a MAST alumnus whose story expresses how far MAST students can go with the knowledge they learn and their determination. 

Dr. Hood, a current physics teacher at MAST, weaves in supplemental information that offers perspective on Cossairt as an individual.  

Cossairt attended MAST Academy when it was smaller in size (1998 – 2002): a total of only 535 students throughout, from ninth to twelfth grade.  

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Cossairt lived in North Miami, which is about a 30-minute drive from MAST Academy without considering traffic. Dr. Hood reflects that “she basically won the lottery,” however she took the initiative to commit to traveling by trains and buses while juggling schoolwork and a myriad of after-school activities. Her days would start with the sun gleaming on the horizon at 6 a.m. and end with daylight bracing over the edge by 7 p.m.. 

While at MAST, she took a multitude of internships, including research at RSMAS, and worked at the Medical Examiner’s Office, where she assisted with autopsies.

RSMAS, also known as the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, is located right across from MAST Academy. Here, she began a “foray into chemistry research through the Advanced Academic Internship Program” with Professor Anthony Hynes.

At RSMAS she became enthralled by all aspects of life as a scientist—asking questions and devising ways to find answers. 

“I also started a club, The Free Minds at MAST (to talk about cool things in the world—any topic—science, technology, society, philosophy, etc.). I was also in the National Ocean Sciences Bowl group,” Cossairt said.

Throughout high school, she attained major awards, such as recognition for the Siemens Westinghouse Competition for her research, where it is noted that “20 people in the whole country” get recognition for their research. 

Dr. Hood’s class out at the marquee changing the sign from semi-finalist to finalist when it was announced. It was Halloween and she was dressed up as “Limit Girl!” (Photo by Brandi Cossairt).

This is a photo of Dr. Hood’s class out at the marquee changing the sign from semi-finalist to finalist when it was announced. It was Halloween and she was dressed up as “Limit Girl!”

In Dr. Hood’s doting reflections, she elaborates who Cossairt was as a student, whom she knew from the ninth grade.  Cossairt was quoted as “very driven and bright.”   

Cossairt was involved in the Math Club since ninth grade, which Dr. Hood sponsored. Cossairt reflects that she “was never great at math” and that “Dr. Hood didn’t let that stop me from participating!” 

Cossairt was equally astonished by the teachers as they were of her.

“The teachers at MAST were everything to me. The teachers and experiences I had at MAST were what set me on my path for sure. Dr. Hood, Mr. Zawodny, Mr. Garcia, Mr. Tohulka, Dr. Khalil—just to name a few—these folks inspired in me the idea that there was so much amazing stuff to learn in science and that the mysteries of the world were mine to unravel,” Cossairt said. 

Both Dr. Hood and Mr. Zowadney inspired Cossairt’s interest in chemistry. Along with Dr. Tony-Hynes who influenced her as a mentor at RSMAS. Also, Dr. Hood illustrated, in Cossairt’s senior physics class, that women were more than capable of doing “hard sciences too.”

Cossairt’s time in high school was not without personal struggles. In the summer after freshman year, she suffered from a severe case of anorexia—an eating disorder characterized by attempts to lose weight, to the point of starvation. This became a crushing worry for the Cossairt’s support system. 

“She was really sick and that was scary,” Dr. Hood said, “When she came back to school… she was like a little skeleton ghost and could hardly walk.”

Even more so because MAST was smaller, she “didn’t fall through the cracks.” 

The teachers at MAST noticed her declining body weight and helped get her get help. 

“I was in and out of the hospital a lot my sophomore year,” Cossairt said. “I always told myself that I could get through this and that school was my lifeline. It was the thing I loved most in life and the thing that was going to help keep me alive. It did. A lot of good friends and teachers stuck by me and helped me succeed during those days,” Cossairt said.

Also during this time, her mom would pick up the daily assignments and homework. 

“I am forever grateful for that,” Cossairt said. “This also led to my understanding (and telling myself over and over) that I cannot succeed alone. Life is not a solo sport.” 

The phrase above is supported by a multitude of high school experiences—from teachers igniting her passion for chemistry to supporting her throughout her struggle with anorexia to inspiring her to attend prom. 

In senior year, Cossairt initially chose not to attend prom. Dr. Hood quickly uncovered this and she nudged her to go, even saying to Cossairt, ‘Come on! I’ll be your prom date.’ 

Dr. Hood picked her up and brought her to prom, where she showed up in her sister’s borrowed clothing.

“Everyone was thrilled to see her and she had an amazing time!” Dr. Hood said.  

Eventually, the end of senior year arrived, and Cossairt was on her way to the California Institute of Technology. Before she left, Dr. Hood and her had a passing conversation that left Cossairt with a significant suggestion. 

“I said to her, you know it would be really good since you have a scholarship and they’re paying for all your classes… I said you should take weight training, not to bulk up, just to do reps and get some strength,” Dr. Hood said. “A year or two later, she came to see me… And she told me that she took weight training and has been doing it ever since and it changed her life.”

Since that conversation, Cossairt has learned more about nutrition and has taken up open water swimming frigid waters of Lake Washington and the Puget Sound. As well as, she was able to get through anorexia.

As much as Cossairt received, she gave back just as much. 

“On a personal note, resilience, and perseverance, but she actually taught me something about physics, that was in my early years of teaching the subject and there were quite a few gaps that I did not quite yet understand a few topics,” Dr. Hood said. “And she figured this one thing out and she came in and taught me and the class. And she understood it well enough and her explanation finally made it clear for me… it’s called the Parallel Axis Theorem.”

Dr. Hood also recalls that Cossairt handmade a little potted plant with flowers with a personalized thank you note. 

“She put her love and time into it, which means a lot more… When a kid makes something for ya that took the time to make it personal, it means a lot,” Dr. Hood said.

Scientific research has allured Cossairt “since diving into the research lab as a high school student… That being said, towards the end of college I considered many other options. Teach for America, the Peace Corps, the US Postal Service, and baking were all on my list of possibilities. I explored them all and decided I would give graduate school a try and see how it went. I decided if I ever stopped having fun, there were lots of plan B options.”

Cossairt briefly contemplated working for the FBI as a forensic scientist, too.

“Brandi went to CalTech as an undergrad; studied inorganic chemistry,” Dr. Hood said. CalTech is also known as the California Institute of Technology. The school is referred to by Dr. Hood as a “big deal school:” a charming slogan that encapsulates both the high measure of competition and rivalry required to enter the rigorous university.

Each step to her future revealed to Cossairt her strengths, weaknesses, and her passion. 

“College taught me that I wasn’t super into analytical chemistry as a sub-discipline—and that I really loved making things. This is what led me into the area of synthetic chemistry and eventually to inorganic nanomaterials,” Cossairt said. 

The heftiest feat to overcome once fastening her eyes onto her career field was getting through graduate school. 

“It’s the first time I really experienced failure and it just happens again and again and again. It’s tough to make it through that with your confidence and passion for science intact. You are also surrounded by lots of people that are way way smarter than you and have had many different life experiences,” Cossairt said. “ It’s humbling and inspiring.” 

Hit after hit after hit, Cossairt sailed into top-ranking schools to achieve her desired profession and life. Striving to attain her Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then doing her postdoctoral research at the Columbia University in New York City. Next, she obtained a tenure-track professor appointment at the University of Washington and now has a thriving research lab where she trains and teaches the next generation of chemists.

She received an impressive career award from the National Science Foundation: those awarded receive support for fundamental research and education in all the non-medical fields of science and engineering. She also received a Packard Fellowship, which provides “the nation’s most promising early-career scientists and engineers with flexible funding and the freedom to take risks and explore new frontiers in their fields of study”.

“And now she’s married and she has a cute little girl and she’s doing these cold water, like, marathon swims… She’s overcome her earlier problems. She’s blossomed!” Dr. Hood said. 

Currently, Cossairt is a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Washington in Seattle. 

“I lead a team of [about] ~15 Ph.D. students, postdoctoral scholars, and undergraduate students on research in the area of inorganic nanomaterials. We discover new materials and new ways to make materials for applications in displays, quantum information, and catalysis. I also teach undergraduate inorganic and general chemistry courses and am an Associate Editor with the American Chemical Society journal Inorganic Chemistry,” Cossairt said.

Brandi Cossairt is seen in a swirly headpiece and butterfly-esque costume on the bottom right] She is seen with a whimsically shaped smoke pipe—a nod to the Hookah-Smoking Caterpillar in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. (Photo credit to Brandi Cossairt).

As for what keeps Cossairt going: it is “the feeling that comes with new discoveries in science” and her “love [of] helping students to develop to their fullest potential.”

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Brandi Cossairt: Life is not a solo sport