Bobby Hollingsworth’s recollection of the childhood years he spent in Botswana are somewhat hazy, but he remembers the close friends the family made, among them the nanny who helped care for him. He later learned that she and her husband died from AIDS.

Bobby Hollingsworth works in the lab.
Bobby Hollingsworth helps with research aimed at reducing side effects of treatment through new combinations of therapies. He also uses software to investigate a recently discovered anti-HIV therapeutic and how it inhibits HIV entry into cells.

As a teenager in the United States, Hollingsworth watched his grandmother die from cancer. She battled the disease for five years, even as doctors gave a grim prognosis, thanks to research that resulted in new treatments. That drug discovery gave the two of them more time together.

As a junior at Virginia Tech majoring in chemical engineering, biochemistry, and chemistry, Hollingsworth said he is determined to be part of finding treatments that will save lives.

“To me, it’s important we find something that would be an end-all,” he said. “I believe that people shouldn’t suffer from diseases due to predisposition genetically, workplace conditions, quality of life, or socio-economic status. I want to work toward curing disease, whether it’s cancer, HIV, or something else.”

In summer 2016, Hollingsworth will return to Botswana for five weeks to pursue HIV relief work and research, supported by the donor-funded University Honors Class of 1954 Fellowship.

“This absolutely wouldn’t be possible for me” without the fellowship, said Hollingsworth, whose parents live in Springfield, Virginia. “I don’t know what I would have done without the support of donors.”

One donor in particular who plays a role in Hollingsworth’s journey is Jerry Gough.

Gough was on the committee that awarded Hollingsworth’s fellowship. For a decade, Gough has helped pick which students will receive fellowships, but he said he’s never met anyone like Hollingsworth.

“I was just blown away,” Gough said. “I’ve never encountered a student possessing so much knowledge, maturity, and gravitas. He knew what he wanted to do and was poised.”

Hollingsworth plans to work at the Baylor College of Medicine’s clinic in Botswana, performing clinical care and researching why HIV is more aggressive in some patients and how mutations can lead to drug resistance. According to the World Health Organization, Botswana has one of the world’s highest rates of HIV infection.

Gough, who graduated from Virginia Tech in 1969 with a degree in economics, said as an undergraduate he was concerned mainly with getting good grades to gain admission to law school — ambitions he admits were not as potentially world changing as Hollingsworth’s.

“If we could all be as bright as him, I think we’d be living in a much different world,” Gough said.

Alumnus Jerry Gough, at left, and Bobby Hollingsworth.
Alumnus Jerry Gough, at left, and Bobby Hollingsworth attend the Odyssey Fellowship dinner. Gough established a different Odyssey Fellowship to assist students planning a medical career. Photo courtesy of Alex Ochs.

Preston Durrill, an adjunct professor and advisor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, said Hollingsworth stood out as a freshman in his mass-and-energy balances course. Durrill said first-year students rarely take his course, but Hollingsworth excelled even though it was his first semester at Virginia Tech.

Since then, Hollingsworth has seized a variety of research opportunities and made the most of them, said Durrill, who serves as Hollingsworth’s honors fellowship advisor.

“His ambitious goals are strongly supported by his interpersonal and leadership skills, his enthusiasm for problem-solving, and his impressive work ethic,” Durrill said. “He's not going to get discouraged, and in research that's very important."

Hollingsworth’s research led him to intern at the National Institutes of Health in summer 2014. In summer 2015, he conducted research at Harvard University through the Amgen Scholars program.

As an Amgen Scholar, Hollingsworth focused on biomedical and biotechnological research. He examined the metabolism of cells and how they can be altered in the case of cancer, diabetes, obesity, and other diseases.

Peter Rim, the Joseph H. Collie Endowed Chaired Professor of Chemical Engineering, said Hollingsworth’s work over the summers and his overall drive to learn is inspiring.
“When a student comes back from an experience like that and you see how they’ve grown, it makes us all better,” Rim said.

Rim serves as faculty advisor to the Chem-E-Car team, which competes against others to design, build and control a chemical reaction-powered vehicle. He said Hollingsworth joined the team as a freshman and has been making contributions ever since, even when it’s tackling challenges outside his focus on biomedical research.

“He has been really self-motivated to take on the programming aspect of the car,” Rim said. “He was able to take his high skill level and find his niche. In one case he’s programming [software] on a vehicle, and then on the other hand he’s looking at cancer research and genetics. You really feel that he’s going to have an impact, not just to advance himself, but to advance society.”

  • For more information on this topic, contact Annie McCallum at 540-231-6845.