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Research opportunities led Eugene native to Oregon State

Originally published in IMPACT

Not many undergraduate students get to be listed as co-authors on research papers. But after more than three years doing research as an undergraduate, honors biochemistry and biophysics senior Seth Harris Pinckney has co-authored two manuscripts, one of which is already published in a prestigious scientific journal. It shares early results on the SARS-CoV-2 virus from one of the few labs in the world that determines the structure of disordered proteins in viruses in a nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy facility.

Even in high school, Seth Pinckney knew he wanted to be involved in research in college. That desire led the Eugene, Ore. native to Oregon State University in fall 2017. “Oregon State was close to home, but not too far away,” and has a strong reputation as a place where undergraduate students can engage in research. As an incoming first year student, Pinckney received the Finley Academic Excellence scholarship and the International Baccalaureate Diploma scholarship – both awarded to outstanding new students.

Early in his first year, Pinckney applied to the Undergraduate Research, Scholarship and the Arts, or URSA Engage, program that provides funding for transfer, first- and second-year students to pursue research opportunities under a faculty mentor. After looking up different professors, he landed on the webpage of Elisar Barbar, biophysics professor and director of the Biomolecular Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) Facility at Oregon State University.

“I ended up reading some of her papers, which was really daunting for freshman Seth because I didn’t know how to read research papers at that time,” said Pinckney. “I sent her an email asking to meet to talk about her research. She invited me to go to lab meetings to spectate and learn. I ended up going into the Barbar Lab, and almost three-and-a-half years later, here I am!”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, several members of the lab switched their focus to the SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid protein, or N protein, to better understand its role in the virus’ infection life cycle. “The nucleocapsid protein is known to be very important for the life cycle of COVID. It interacts with and protects the genome of the virus. The genome is extremely huge. It’s almost 30,000 nucleotides, which is quite long relative to viruses,” explained Pinckney. “The full-length protein is really hard to study. Luckily, complex disordered proteins are Elisar Barbar’s specialty, and we were able to use NMR and other biophysical techniques to figure out what’s going on in the virus.”

Seth Pinckney in a lab coat and face mask in a scientific laboratory
Seth Pinckney worked in Professor Elisar Barbar’s lab for three-and-a-half years. His senior year they examined the nucleocapsid protein in the SARS-CoV-2 virus, resulting in a published paper.

Their research resulted in a published paper in Biophysical Journal, and is an important jumping point for possible new drugs or vaccines that target this key protein within the virus genome.

“I feel extremely fortunate to have been a part of the incredible work that occurs at the Barbar Lab,” said Pinckney. “Working as a part of the Barbar team has provided me with an exceptional research and work foundation. I will miss Professor Barbar and the friendships I’ve made at OSU.”

Along with his URSA Engage scholarships to conduct research Pinckney also received the CURE Fellowship for biochemistry students to conduct paid research over the summer. He is also a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society.

Finding his place

Pinckney was undecided on a major before arriving at Oregon State. Then he attended START, new student orientation, and met Kari Van Zee, biochemistry and biophysics lead advisor and instructor. “She was super supportive and had a really good understanding of the university and the biochemistry department and what you need to do if you’re pre-med. On top of that, she has a really good understanding of people. She knows how to connect, and I instantly had a sense of belonging.”

The more he learned about the major and the department, the more it felt like the right fit. “I enjoyed that the department was smaller and had a high rate of students who do research,” said Pinckney. The content also fit his interests: “I’m very intrigued by chemistry and with how the body works. I knew that pursuing a degree in biochemistry would give me that insight and more of a higher-level understanding of what’s occurring” in the body. And as for the physics portion of the major? “I took physics in high school and really liked it, and it’s just worked out.”

Helping others feel welcome

After his first year at college, Pinckney wanted to help other students find their place at Oregon State. He served as a peer mentor for two years through a new program called the Faculty-Student Mentor Program (now called Beaver Connect) which connects new-to-Oregon State students with peers and faculty members to help ease their transition to college.

“When I got here, I didn’t know what I was doing and I needed help. It was nice to have resources and people to talk to. I think OSU is a pretty great place, and I was happy to help increase the welcome feeling for students and help them navigate the university,” he said.

The program also encourages students to connect with their professors by connecting them with faculty. “Faculty can be scary when you first start out at university. It’s daunting to talk to a professor as a first-year student. Creating an environment where you can have a friendship with a faculty member can really help,” he said.

Looking toward a future in medicine

Young man looking at a waterfall in the distance.

Pinckney hopes to put his knowledge of biochemistry to work with a career as a physician. To gain more firsthand experience in the medical field, he worked as a medical scribe in the emergency department in Corvallis his sophomore, junior and part of his senior years. There, he worked with numerous physicians specializing in emergency medicine, following them to each patient room and taking notes on behalf of the doctor for the patient’s file.

“I loved it. It was hard. There is a very high learning curve to learn how to write like a doctor would. It was pretty scary and hard at the beginning. But eventually you learn and become really good friends with everyone, and you really learn how to function as a team,” he said.

“The hours were rough sometimes,” he said. “There were some long shifts, and I also had some on-call days, but overall I learned a lot, and it solidified that I want to go into the medical field.”

One of the fields that caught his attention was orthopedics and orthopedic surgery. “It’s a holistically wholesome field. The goal is helping people regain their mobility or helping people get back to a point where they can do standards-of-life things. There’s also a lot of chemistry that I didn’t think about, especially when introducing prosthetics. I want to end up in something where I’m having to constantly learn and push myself to feel fulfilled professionally.”

A major benefit of working in the emergency room: Pinckney is now familiar with many screening labs and imaging studies. “If I have a family member who had a test done, for the most part, I now have a little bit of knowledge to talk to them about what things actually mean.”

After graduating in June, Pinckney has a job lined up as a technician in a dialysis clinic in his hometown. “I did not want to feel rushed going through college, and I want to make sure I get into medical school the first round of applications,” he said. Waiting to take the MCAT exam until fall 2021 allows him to gain more experience shadowing physicians and working at the dialysis clinic while studying for the MCAT test. He hopes to enter medical school in the fall of 2023.

Young man in graduation gown with his two parents on either side smiling.

Until then, this biochemistry major and French and chemistry minor is enjoying his last few weeks of classes. His parents visited him in Corvallis in May to take graduation photos and reflect on his upcoming commencement. “I’m not a huge fan of big celebrations,” he said. “A big part of graduating college is my parents – it’s something that makes them proud.”

When asked what classes he enjoyed most, he struggled to pick just one. “I really enjoyed the biophysics series this year. It’s been interesting to be able to dive deeper into experiments and techniques that I’ve used in the Barbar Lab in my biophysics classes.”

His advice to future students: “It’s easy to get caught up comparing yourself with others. Do things you enjoy. If you don’t enjoy a class or a job, those aren’t failures. You can change your direction. Just listen to your heart.”

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