Kitten research? For many people, that probably sounds like an especially cuddly dream. But for Oregon State University Honors College and Animal Science Major Naomi Sakaguchi, it was the basis for her honors thesis.
It all started with an email from the College of Agricultural Sciences that described a research opportunity involving kitten observation. “I knew I wanted to go to vet school, so my experience has not been, ‘What do I want to do?’ but ‘What do I need to do to get there?’ says Naomi, who will graduate this spring with her HBS in animal sciences and start veterinary school in the fall at Oregon State’s Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine. “I always knew I wanted to do companion animal medicine (dogs and cats), so I wanted to focus on it for my research.”
Shortly after receiving that email, Naomi began working in the OSU Human-Animal Interaction (HAI) laboratory with a graduate student, who eventually connected Naomi with her thesis mentor, Dr. Monique Udell, the HAI lab director. Naomi’s work was studying whether oxytocin causes shelter cats to behave more sociably and act more friendly, potentially increasing their adoptability. The team observed factors such as whether the cats vocalized more or spent more time with a person in a ½-meter radius.
Naomi’s research, which became her honors thesis work, concluded that oxytocin does significantly increase the number of times cats will approach humans in the test setting, paralleling similar findings for dogs. “It was really fun – the process of data collection, going to shelters and interacting with the cats, working with Ph.D. and graduate students. It was very interesting to look into how research is being conducted because that’s not something I had ever done before.”
The research wasn’t the only new experience the Honors College offered Naomi.
One of the opportunities Naomi has particularly appreciated is the Pre-Veterinary Scholars Program, a collaboration between the Honors College and the OSU College of Veterinary Medicine. Naomi says the program allowed pre-vet honors students to experience aspects of veterinary medicine, to see what vet school would be like and to participate in the clinic with doctors. Students enjoyed activities together such as volunteering for the OSU Pet Day, touring facilities at the Oregon zoo, doing safari tours together and engaging in professional and character development opportunities and symposiums. Besides this peer support, the program provides students with an additional veterinary medicine mentor through their college experience, and many students find research through these mentors.
“Besides graduating with a prestigious degree, there are a number of opportunities open to you in the Honors College, especially in looking for research – people are willing to work with you and take you seriously,” says Naomi. “It’s nice that we can meet people in the Honors College on the same track. It feels like everyone is trying to help each other and support each other to reach the same goal.”
Another important support for Naomi has been Multicultural Young Scholars Training in Animal and Rangeland Sciences (MYSTARS), sponsored by the USDA. The program, led at Oregon State by Dr. Gerd Bobe, focuses on recruiting, retaining, mentoring and training multicultural students, an underrepresented population in the agriculture field. Naomi and three other students receiving MYSTARS scholarships met with Dr. Bobe weekly and had additional assistance in finding mentors and opportunities to conduct research, a requirement of the MYSTARS program.
“Of course it was nice to have financial help, but getting to know people who shared the scholarship with me was helpful as well. It was a circle of support, and Dr. Bobe was instrumental in connecting a lot of us with potential mentors. One student even did research with Dr. Bobe. If we needed to be in contact with someone, he’d send an email and connect us. It helped to have someone who could vouch for us.”
As she prepares to begin veterinary school in the fall, Naomi is reflective on the benefits of an honors education. In addition to thesis and research mentorship and support from other pre-vet scholars, she participated in an Honors College alternative winter break service trip to Denver, Colorado this past winter, receiving an Honors Experience Scholarship in support of her involvement. She volunteered with other honors students working in a Habitat for Humanity ReStore and on a site helping to build houses.
“It was a great experience,” she says. “I met a lot of people, and working in the community in Denver was eye-opening. I’m so glad the Honors College gave me the opportunity to do that during my last year. As you get further along in your education, it narrows – you see all the same people in your classes. I had the opportunity to meet people just starting out and think – I was there three years ago.”
Her support for the Honors College inspired her to become an HC Ambassador, giving her the opportunity to pass along what she has learned to prospective students and new undergraduates just starting out. “During my time at OSU, the Honors College has been my community. I lived in West Hall, and our hall was so close – I still live with people I lived with freshman year. When I moved off campus, I wanted to stay in the loop.”
As an HC Ambassador, Naomi has had the opportunity to reflect on all of the elements that have been important in her honors experience – the thesis, scholarship opportunities, academic and social community, and support – and let prospective students know about what might be ahead.
“It’s fun for me to talk with prospective vet students and give little tips that advisors have given me along the way. It’s great to be able to pass it on.”