No Limits

Brianna MacDonald '21Brianna MacDonald ’21 at URI’s Fascitelli Center for Advanced Engineering

Photo credit: Nora Lewis

Things to know about Brianna MacDonald ’21: First, she is one of only four female graduates of URI’s computer engineering program this year.

She also completed a B.A. in Chinese along with minors in cybersecurity and data science. She graduated cum laude. She had a job in her field before she had a diploma in hand.

And she beat cancer her senior year. During a pandemic.

MacDonald would have you remember those details in that order.

‘I’d rather be recognized for my accomplishments’

“A story about females in STEM or female students with two majors and two minors could be inspiring to people,” MacDonald muses. “And that I overcame—with all the pressures and expectations I experienced. I don’t want a cancer diagnosis to define me. I would rather be recognized for accomplishments.”

So, to begin in priority order: MacDonald entered URI as a chemistry major having already studied Chinese for her four years of high school. From a young age, MacDonald said she knew she wanted a career in technology and thought it would serve her well to speak a second language. After a difficult first year grade-wise, MacDonald switched to computer engineering and added a cybersecurity minor. A month before COVID-19 caused a worldwide lockdown, MacDonald jumped at the chance to study in Shanghai as part of URI’s J-Term program, which offers students opportunities to study abroad during winter break.

MacDonald embraced the immersive experience. After five hours of classes every day, she would visit markets, Buddhist temples, and public gardens with friends. She did a lot of walking and climbed the Great Wall of China. Something was wrong, though. MacDonald started getting terrible headaches and losing weight. “I was feeling like crap the entire time,” MacDonald said. “I thought it was just a really bad cold. And I was getting winded from working out, which I never do.”

The scientist in her kicked in. Thinking she could be developing an allergy, MacDonald scaled back on her workout routine, started keeping a food diary, and noted unusual symptoms. “I just knew this wasn’t how I normally felt and then I started getting this shooting pain down the right side of my neck.”

‘I needed answers’

After MacDonald returned to campus, one day in February 2020 when she was on her way to Chinese class she took a detour to URI’s health services center. “I needed answers, and I needed them quickly,” she said. Her anecdotal information, food diary, and a lung x-ray from a bout with pneumonia a year earlier convinced the doctor there to send her to Miriam Hospital in Providence. Within three days, MacDonald had a diagnosis of lymphoma. Her oncologist congratulated her on her analytical approach to her health, MacDonald said. “Most people take months to get diagnosed because the cancer is mistaken for a common cold,” she said. “You think, oh, it’s headaches and, no, it’s cancer. It seems outrageous, like, that never happens.”

Three months shy of graduation, MacDonald had to make the hard decision to postpone her graduation and pare down her course load from 16 to six credits. 

“I promised myself that I wouldn’t let it change me. I’m a happy, positive person. I always have been,” she noted. “And being positive, being optimistic got me through the six months of chemotherapy.”

Since treatment extended her college career to five years, MacDonald took on another minor, data science, and found a remote internship for her final fall semester. Friends and faculty made it possible for her to work at a manageable pace, she wrote in a post on LinkedIn accompanied by a photo of MacDonald in her cap and gown. 

“It has definitely been an unforgettable journey. What was originally supposed to be four years turned into five because of my cancer diagnosis in February of 2020,” MacDonald wrote. “Thankfully, I was declared in remission in July. I had so much support from my friends, family, and professors which helped me to finish my fifth year strong.”

In June, MacDonald began her career as a network security development engineer at VMware, a Palo Alto, California-based company.

Her cancer is fast becoming a footnote.

Marybeth Reilly-McGreen