The thrill of the ride

By Nick Holden

When he was seven years old, Brandon Holloway first gazed up at Apollo’s Chariot — the tallest, fastest roller coaster at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Va. “It was so huge you could see it from the highway,” he says. “When I finally got the courage to ride it, it was the middle of the night — pitch black — and I went by myself. The rest of my family was deathly afraid.”

Holloway strapped in, ascended the signature 170-foot chain lift hill, and took the plunge. “The drop went on forever. I was screaming all the way down,” he says. “I remember explicitly thinking afterward, ‘I want to design rides like this.’”

As a graduating senior in mechanical engineering, Holloway is on his way to a career in ride design. Although his track from rural Virginia to MIT featured a number of unexpected dips and turns, he held on and recently made the stop on Killian Court to pick up his diploma.

Brandon Holloway was inspired by a roller coaster and had his passions fueled by MITES.Brandon Holloway was inspired by a roller coaster and had his passions fueled by MITES.

Rural roots

Holloway grew up in Smithfield, a town of 8,000 residents, about 70 miles southeast of Richmond. Graduates of Smithfield High School tend not to stray far from home. “A lot of the kids don’t leave the state for college — if they do go to college. There’s a cotton field across from my high school,” he says. “Honestly, MIT wasn’t even on my radar.”

Holloway had other plans. He exhausted the Advanced Placement and honors math and science courses at his high school and sought additional online resources to prepare for a future beyond Smithfield. During his junior year, his guidance counselor told him about MIT’s Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES) Program — a six-week residential, academic enrichment experience that aims to engage highly talented students from traditionally underserved or underrepresented populations. Holloway applied, was accepted, and travelled to Boston in June 2009 for his first visit to the MIT campus.

“It kicked my butt”

Arriving in Boston, Holloway experienced his first extended stay in a major city — and was reminded of what had brought him there. “Riding the subway for the first time was the coolest experience,” he says. “I was thinking, ‘How does this work? How is it going so fast? How does it not go off the track?’”

Through his classes in the MITES Program, Holloway experienced something else he hadn’t in Virginia: failure. “It kicked my butt,” he says. “In high school, I was getting As left and right; I didn’t even have to try. At MITES, you get that first grade back, and it’s a shock to your whole system.”

Holloway found support with his peers. Through long days and late-night study sessions, he and his classmates formed a family, he says. The experience made him more comfortable with the idea of studying at a world-class institution. “It got my brain into the ‘MIT gear,’” he says. Along with academic support, Holloway’s peers also gave him a new cultural perspective. “In Smithfield, you’re black or you’re white,” he says. “When you come to MITES, not only are you not black or white, you’re African American, or African, or Spanish, or Portuguese — or anything under the rainbow. Everybody has their culture, and everybody’s so proud of that culture.”

Coursework and connections

After MITES, Holloway returned home inspired to aim higher. He applied to MIT early action and matriculated in fall 2010. He thrived in courses with direct connections to his passion for ride design. “When you start taking the core classes like 2.001 (Mechanics and Materials) and 2.007 (Design and Manufacturing), that’s when you start making cool stuff and learning awesome skills — like working with SolidWorks and turning a drawing into a physical product,” he says.

Outside the classroom, Holloway connected with MIT alum Matt DuPlessie ’99 to land an internship at 5 Wits Productions, a company that designs adventure experiences and interactive exhibits for museums, theme parks, and theaters. He also leveraged the Infinite Connection to meet other alumni who work for theme parks and ride builders. With his connections, internship experience, and mechanical engineering degree, Holloway plans to enter the industry soon after graduation.

But Holloway has one debt to settle first. This summer, he returned to MITES as head teaching assistant. While his students grapple with the program’s academic rigor, he plans to help them keep everything in perspective and focus on their goals. “A lot of times people can get bogged down in the classwork and the grading,” he says. “Students need to remember that they’re working toward their passions.” Currently, Holloway is program assistant for national programs for the Office of Engineering Outreach Programs.

This story was also published on MIT News.