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Research and Medicine: A Truly Honors Experience

“Getting into Oregon State University and the Honors College was a surprise,” says Greg Heinonen, HBS ’19. “I wasn’t the best academically in high school.” However, Greg’s diverse resume impressed the HC admissions committee, and, four years later, with honors degree in hand, he has lived up to the HC ideal and then some.

Greg got involved in research starting in his very first term as an undergraduate, ultimately completing his honors thesis as a sophomore. He has presented his work at several prestigious undergraduate research conferences, and he now works as the undergraduate research coordinator at Oregon State. And throughout his years as an undergraduate, he found time to work as a certified nursing assistant and emergency department technician in local medical centers.

What drove Greg to work so hard? The answer, he says, came in realizing that his goals were in reach – but only if he allowed his passion to drive him. “What your passion is – that’s what motivates you to do the work,” Greg says.

During his sophomore year of high school, Greg began volunteering with medically fragile children in Portland, Oregon. Seeing firsthand how knowledge and skills learned through a college education could be put into direct patient care helped Greg to apply himself to his studies, and he went on to earn his Certified Nursing Assistant certification at age 16. Greg worked in a skilled nursing facility all throughout his senior year of high school before coming to Corvallis and continuing work in nursing while a student at OSU.

Fueled by his passion for research, he participated in Celebrating Undergraduate Excellence during his first year, and he cites that experience as his introduction to presenting academic work. His research examined parent interaction with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder in two different settings and was funded through the Undergraduate Research Awards Program of the College of Public Health and Human Sciences. This experience ended up connecting Greg with the professor that would later mentor him through his honors thesis process.

“I view the thesis as a final culmination or as a learning opportunity,” Greg says. He chose to use the thesis as a way to build a foundation for further work and finished in the spring of his second year – unusually early, even for an honors student. His thesis looked at the relationship between parent and child health in young children with developmental disabilities, determining if a correlation existed between a parent’s weight and that of their young child with a disability.

Greg would later go on to present his honors thesis at academic conferences across the country, including at Stanford, Harvard and even on Capitol Hill during Posters on the Hill, where Greg presented his work directly to legislative staff and members of Congress. The challenges – and stresses – of each conference helped Greg to grow as a student and researcher.

“The most stressful conference was at the Oregon Public Health Association,” Greg says. This conference didn’t involve presenting to other undergraduates or professionals outside of his field. Instead, everyone in the audience was involved in public health practice; every person watching was experienced in the field Greg had done his research in. “Everyone was in my position at some point,” Greg says. “I took the experience to learn from them.”

“My primary theme during undergrad was engagement outside the classroom,” Greg says. Beyond his research experiences, Greg also worked and volunteered all throughout his time as a student. He spent every Friday night of his college career with IMPACT, a program designed to help children with disabilities get active and build motor skills fitness.

He also worked in the medical field for all four years of his undergrad experience; starting out as a certified nursing assistant, he later transitioned to work as an emergency department technician. This experience had a strong impact on Greg, reminding him why he wanted to enter the medical field and grounding his research.

“I was able to actually assist in helping save people’s lives as an undergrad,” Greg says. “Working in the emergency department, you see public health problems unfold right before your eyes.”

Starting in fall, 2016, Greg worked as an undergraduate research ambassador through the Office of Undergraduate Research, Scholarship, and the Arts. Undergraduate research ambassadors advise other student’s research efforts during regular informal office hours and events. In fall, 2017, Greg became the lead undergraduate research ambassador, helping to run the office and mentor other research ambassadors.

“It’s our job to use our experiences to encourage others and reduce the barriers to undergraduate research,” Greg says. “We want to make research seem more approachable.”

What the future holds for Greg is uncertain but full of possibilities. His current position as undergraduate research coordinator has been extended to August, 2020, giving him another year in his current role. Greg took the MCAT – the exam required for admission to medical schools in the United States – in March, and he is considering applying in the next year.

No matter his path, Greg can breathe easy knowing that he has a solid base for his next steps. His research, volunteering and work experiences have all informed and confirmed his passions; he knows that he did all he could to set himself up for success and now can enjoy the fruits of his labor.

“I thought a lot about where I’d be in five or ten years during undergrad,” Greg says. “My primary goal now is to be better at balancing work and life. I’m focusing on now, enjoying where I am.”

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