When Bobby Hollingsworth thinks of his childhood years in Botswana, he thinks of the scenery and of a seven-year-old named Prosper. The son of Hollingsworth’s nanny, Prosper was Hollingsworth’s first childhood friend.
In the late 1990s, Prosper died of HIV. Not long after, Prosper’s parents also died. At the time, five-year-old Hollingsworth didn’t know much about the virus that weakens immune systems and has to date claimed over 35 million lives globally.
Now, he’s on the cutting edge of the cure.
“I could’ve been born into a very different situation,” Hollingsworth said. “Seeing that early has helped me define my mission and my motivations because it was horrible that that could happen — that someone is born into this situation where they can’t do anything about it.”
A senior Honors student with triple degrees in chemical engineering, biochemistry, and chemistry, Hollingsworth has worked in labs at Virginia Tech, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and as an Amgen Scholar at Harvard University, with a focus on researching viruses and diseases — most notably, HIV and cancer — and how they interact with vaccines and drugs. Hollingsworth is also a Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship recipient and an Honors College Class of 1954 Fellow.
On a brisk Thursday evening during the 2016 fall semester, Hollingsworth is working in a lab in Engel Hall, only a two minute walk from where he lives in East Ambler Johnston, the Honors living-learning community known as the Honors Residential Commons (HRC).
He’s created a digital animation of a protein — a computational model, to be more specific — to visualize its movement. The short video helps researchers like himself better understand the protein’s behavior, and in doing so, Hollingsworth explains, researchers can manipulate drugs to be more effective against disease and viruses.
“If you model this protein that’s on HIV in 3-D space, and you model the drug in 3-D space, then you allow the two to come together, you can see how that happens,” he says, replaying the clip. “We characterize that interaction, then determine how that drug is binding, and then make it a stronger drug.”