When Derek Huell first came to Georgia Tech, he was ready for an academic environment to challenge, support, and nurture him in his journey as a neuroscience student on the path to medical school. However, as a 330-pound former football player, Huell noticed that many of his classmates wanted to talk more about his high school sporting career and physique than his hopes to become a physician.
“More often than not, when I would meet people, especially in my first semester, one of the common questions I was met with was, ‘do you play football?’” Huell remembers. “People meant no harm. But at the same time, it is just kind of appeared like my physical being, my outer presence was saying that I was an athlete — versus in my head, I was here to be a student.”
As a student majoring in neuroscience — an undergraduate degree program with a majority of female students and a minority of African-American students — Huell says that early on, he would often look around a classroom and realize he was the only Black male student there.
“If they say ‘form groups’ or something, I look around the room to see if there are other minorities in the room,” he explains. “I can join because I know that those people will be more likely to accept me and be willing to work with me.”
Huell pivoted around two things in those early days at Tech: first, he says he was inspired to focus on health, well-being, and a different kind of fitness — and has since lost 100 pounds. Second, he zeroed in on academics and personal growth — and a mission to mentor and advocate for others also finding their freshman footing at Georgia Tech.
Journey to Georgia Tech
Growing up with a father in the military, Huell moved to several different places in the United States before settling in Columbus, Georgia in fourth grade. At Columbus High School, Huell says he felt supported and motivated academically by his teachers.
Through his guidance counselor Christopher Porch, Ph.D., whom Huell shares is “definitely one of the shining stars of Columbus High School,” Huell was connected to the Gamma Psi Boulé mentee program in Columbus, which connects Black male professionals with students during monthly meetings where students have the opportunity to meet mentors and gain personal, professional, and academic advice.
Meetings would begin with a presentation on various topics. Huell remembers one about how to deal with the police if you are pulled over as a Black male and how to de-escalate the situation. After each presentation, the program’s students and leaders would have casual conversation over dinner about school and their career. During one of these meetings, Huell met Dr. William E. Roundtree.
“Dr. Roundtree and I — we started talking about medicine and his kind of ‘pursuit’ of it,” says Huell. “And he even shared how it wasn't easy for him, and some of the barriers he faced, with like, racism and stuff.”
Huell shadowed under Roundtree at his medical practice, and soon began to consider a future working in medicine, cementing his interest in the medical field.
Mentors through the Gamma Psi Boulé program, including Roundtree, helped Huell think through the college decision process.
“I think that always, the biggest thing was that I was looking for was a school where I wasn’t just going to learn the textbooks,” notes Huell. “I wasn’t just going to learn from lecture. But I really was going to be pushed to keep the motto of ‘progress and service’ and transform the future.”
Through Tech’s dedication to undergraduate research and thriving startup culture, Huell says he knew that he would have unique opportunities at Georgia Tech that might not have been available elsewhere.
“Right now, I'm taking a neuro engineering course,” he says. “And at most schools, I wouldn't be able to take their engineering courses because it's not something that is very common. And so, just things like that, I think, were really big and kind of enhanced my experience beyond just like, taking the same classes everywhere.”
With advice from his mentors and substantial research on a number of colleges, Huell ultimately decided to attend Georgia Tech to study Neuroscience with a minor in Health and Medical Sciences on track to medical school — and earned a Stamps President's Scholarship along the way.
Making an Impact on Campus
Within his first semester at Georgia Tech, Huell joined several organizations across campus, which Huell says opened up opportunities to give back to the community, access resources for personal and professional development, and form meaningful friendships.
Huell also saw leadership roles in various organizations as an opportunity to impart lasting change on organizations that positively influenced him.
“You can actually kind of shape the path that the club goes down, have a voice and work with the other members to make sure — that the value that I saw in it translates to the next board and just continues a good, long line down the club,” says Huell. “You kind of have the opportunity to help establish a long continuity of successful organization.”
Now, as a third-year student, he serves as founder of the Precious Angel Project, Vice President of the Minority-Association of Pre-Medical Students, Vice Basileus of the Delta Kappa Chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, President of Neuroscience Club, and is also on the undergraduate portion of the College of Sciences Diversity Council.
Through the Neuroscience Club, Huell represents his relatively new major and forms connections with professors and fellow students. Club events encourage students to meet researchers at Georgia Tech and connect their coursework with real-life research.
“Neuroscience is good — definitely is one of the newer programs at Tech,” notes Huell. “It's been very open to student feedback and is very versatile.”
Through the Precious Angel Project, Huell has combined his interest in healthcare with his passion for community service by establishing relationships between Georgia Tech students and Alzheimer’s patients in nursing homes. Though the organization is not currently able to physically visit nursing homes due to Covid-19, a pen pal letter writing program has helped safely maintain connections.
Huell also gives back to the Atlanta community through service with Omega Psi Phi, where he has become friends with fellow Black men at Georgia Tech who share his vision to help positively impact Atlanta through service and volunteering.
“We had a ‘luggage for love’ event where we accepted donations of luggage and then donated that to the foster care system for Georgia so that foster kids can have just something to put their stuff in, instead of traveling from place to place with only a trash bag or whatnot.”
Huell says these activities have highlighted the importance and impact of community service and giving back. He adds that doing these activities with his friends makes them more memorable and enjoyable.
“It's a good way, especially during college, to kind of create those bonds with other people who are on a similar track, achieving high goals, going great places. It's great having brothers, great having friends. And then on the flip side, you get a lot of career influence, career help — as well as giving back to the community. So, it's kind of the best of both worlds.”
That combination of service and brotherhood also encouraged Huell’s deep involvement in Omega Psi Phi. The organization’s emphasis on giving back and creating a lasting and tangible impact on the community has shaped the vision he sees for his future.
“We have kind of illuminated that fact — that an important aspect of my career should not just be what I do in the hospital, but it should also be what I do in the community,” he shares. “And when I think about my career, hopefully as a physician — you think you're helping people just in the operating room. I think it's also important that my fraternity showed me that getting back in the community can be just as valuable — because you could inspire the next Black male physician.”
Goals to inspire the next future physician are echoed in Huell’s leadership in the Minority-Association of Pre-Medical Students, where intentional emphasis is placed on encouraging minority students to explore and achieve their career goals.
“Diverse positions are valuable in the workforce, because sometimes when information is communicated by people who maybe reflect you, or may have faced similar difficulties as you, they can relate more and then they kind of give a higher impact level — and you know how they can help you. And so, I think that that's the biggest thing — is just creating an easy sense of community, if you know you face similar barriers or if you know you'll be facing similar barriers moving forward socially.”
Huell’s goal of increasing resources available to minority students is further emphasized through his involvement with the College of Sciences Diversity Council, which he was invited to after meeting now-retired Director for Academic Diversity, Keith Oden, at a College of Sciences event.
In the beginning, Huell notes that the Diversity Council did not include undergraduate students — and he was a part of that first cohort of younger student members. He shares that through the Council, he has appreciated the opportunity to concretely impact diversity and inclusion initiatives to help other students like himself.
“It's been really good, because I think that it allowed me to see how you can play a role in giving back early — while you're still a student — helping the next on campus, as well as sculpting your own experience through your continued involvement and using your voice.”
Celebrating Black History Month
While the spectrum of academics and activities that Huell focuses on are a daily practice in inspiring, helping, he notes that Black History Month is a celebratory marker each year that symbolizes “the progress and inherent improvement that Black people have been able to make and contribute to society despite many barriers they may have faced.”
“If we're looking at different poets or different writers, they may have been undervalued due to their race,” he notes. “But they keep writing. Or if we look at civil rights leaders, they may have been arrested or beaten, but they keep fighting for equality. So, I think a lot of it is about kind of that perseverance of Black people as a whole — as well as kind of commemorating and honoring a lot of the progress that we've made as a race, especially in the United States."
Huell says that this year, Black History Month is especially relevant to him as he remembers the death of Georgia Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and others that sparked powerful social justice protests and movements last summer and fall.
“I attended multiple protests in my hometown after we finished finals,” he shares. “And it was really powerful to be out there, and be uniting with other people who you may not know.”
He adds that every Black History Month, he tries to engage with a different book, documentary, poem, or artwork weekly that was written by a Black author or highlights the history of African-Americans in the United States.
“I actually do enjoy poetry, so I'll read significant Black poets, such as Langston Hughes, to relate the words that they're saying, and their symbolic mechanisms to stuff that's going on now because, well, times have changed, but we still do see some similar struggles. And because we are seeing those things, I think that, largely, a lot of their writings and things are still applicable.”
He specifically recommends reading Hughes’ “I, Too” and “Mother to Son” poems.
Huell also encourages people to talk to older Black people in their families and communities to learn about their stories and experiences living through segregation and discrimination.
Huell says he talked to his grandfather, who lived in Miami, Florida, and learned about the discrimination he faced while purchasing a house decades ago.
Huell shares that talking to older generations is like “uncovering history.” He adds that he recently learned about the national response to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1968 death in Memphis, Tennessee through conversations with elders and was surprised that he had never heard about that part of history. Through these talks, he also uncovered more details about his grandfather’s background and personal history.
A drive to honor the legacy and strength of his family members encourages Huell daily through his activities as a student and leader. He reflects on the support of his parents, teachers, advisors, friends, and mentors with gratitude.
In the future, Huell hopes to create a network of Black mentors to support pre-med students in their educational careers — just as leaders and friends have supported him.
“My eventual goal is to create a national network of minority physicians looking to uplift the next generation” of pre-med students, says Huell. “80% of pre-med students don't go to medical school. And so, there's kind of like a big drop off between being pre-med and then becoming a doctor. You lose a lot of people there, just because classes are hard and it's difficult. I think that it would be good to have, kind of like a constant person you can look to and be like, ‘I can ask them if I need anything, or I can call them and they'll give me advice or we can relate based upon, you know, we both have been through this.’”