Nourishing the mind, hand, and stomach

A love of food and cooking unlocked senior Branden Spitzer’s interest in materials science and engineering.

As early as middle school, Branden Spitzer loved to watch cooking shows and experiment with recipes in his family’s kitchen. It was a clear harbinger of his interest in materials science, he says now. Once he discovered that he could delight others with a perfectly executed pie, he began to see the many ways that his passion for baking might branch into other areas requiring technical acuity.

“We have this deep connection to food, the things that we wear, the products around us that we experience or work with every day,” says Spitzer, who earned his bachelor’s in materials science and engineering in February. “I hope we can make those things even better using science and engineering.”

Spitzer rounded out his education by cross registering for food science classes at Harvard University. He has pursued a variety of research opportunities related to food and sustainability, from extending the shelf-life of produce to developing lab-grown meat.

Spitzer also sees food as a means of social nourishment. He enjoys exploring restaurants and having dinners with friends, and takes special pleasure in planning and putting together meals. “I love making pies and cooking because you can share something with people that they think is really tasty,” he says. “And by eating the food they can understand all the thought and everything that went into it. I want the work or research I go on to do to have that same sort of tangible impact.”

Sampling a huge menu

Upon beginning his first year at MIT, Spitzer was overwhelmed by the seemingly endless amount of activities the Institute had to offer. He says the busy student culture was one of the things that attracted him to MIT, yet once he was face-to-face with it all, he didn’t know where to begin. He recalls one of his first-year advisors instructing him to “ride the wave,” and he took this to heart. Open to trying anything, Spitzer set forth on several academic and extracurricular journeys that would lead him in completely different directions through his four years.

He pursued research projects centered on food and sustainability. In one of his first research positions, Spitzer worked for Mori, a Cambridge-based startup that makes a silk-based coating that slows the spoiling of fruits and vegetables. His longest-running research project, in Professor Markus Buehler’s Laboratory for Atomistic and Molecular Mechanics, involves working with mycelium, the root systems of mushrooms, to improve and alter the growth of the material for use in 3D printing. He spent a summer interning for a company in South Africa that is working on a lab-grown meat product, and currently he is interning for Faerm, a plant-based cheese company in Copenhagen, Denmark. He hopes to continue in this direction after graduation, either at a startup or in graduate school studying materials science or biological engineering.

Spitzer also strives to make a positive impact on his local community at MIT through his work. He participated in activities ranging from physical education to the arts, and everything in between. He joined the student organization MCG, the MIT Consulting Group, solving real-world business problems for clients. Spitzer is also a member of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity, where he served as vice president for three semesters and introduced an initiative to prioritize inclusivity and mental health awareness. And, he joined MIT’s lighting design group, which he says exposed him to new entirely new communities of artists and engineers.  

Spitzer has been fond of traveling since he was a child. He recalls taking trips with his family often, visiting historical and global landmarks. In the past four years he has embarked on multiple study abroad and work experiences through MISTI and is enthusiastic about the unexpected places his internships have taken him. He has spent time in the U.K., Brazil, and South Africa, and will be studying in Denmark this semester.

In Brazil, Spitzer helped to develop and teach a materials science program and class. He says it was exciting to share the subjects of polymers, recycling, and sustainability with students in a different part of the world. In South Africa, Spitzer interned for the Mzansi Meat Co. (now Newform Foods), which he came across by surprise after searching for companies that were making cultured meat products.

Spitzer’s longest-running research project involves working with mycelium, the root systems of mushrooms and pictured here, to improve and alter the growth of the material for use in 3D printing. Photo: Jodi Hilton

Pirates at MIT

Spurred by MIT’s physical education requirements, Spitzer has found a passion for several sports activities. Sailing, for example, has become one of his favorite hobbies. “It’s super cool that we have a chance to do these crazy things,” he says when referring to his time spent taking out sailboats to practice for his sailing class on the Charles River.

Sailing is one of four physical education classes needed to obtain the MIT Pirate Certificate, an incentive that encourages participation in MIT’s P.E. offerings. Spitzer pursued this achievement, enrolling in archery, rifle, and fencing classes over several semesters. The diverse course selection allowed for unexpected discoveries. “I was surprised and blown away by how much the rifle practice was an exercise in thought, focus, and meditation,” he says. “It was very different than I expected, in a very pleasant way.”

Ice skating is another discovery Spitzer made through his four required gym classes. He has taken many more classes by now though since they are “super fun.” Beginning as a nervous newcomer with no experience, Spitzer now takes an intermediate skating class where he develops his skills in turns and speed skating.

Spitzer also enjoys recreational cycling and indoor rock climbing in his spare time, as well as yoga and dancing. He has taken multiple dance classes in his time at MIT and has been a member of the organization MIT DanceTroupe for four years.

Whether in the kitchen, lab, or gym, Spitzer has found a robust community in all corners of the MIT campus and beyond. Rather than choosing one area of focus, Spitzer states the most integral aspect of his student experience at MIT was getting a taste for everything: “You just try things out here. You learn the things you love or the things you hate, and get to do something really cool along the way.”