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A love for science and marching band shapes a chemistry grad’s path towards medicine

Originally published in IMPACT

Linus Unitan has never shied away from putting himself out there — whether as a drum major in Oregon State’s marching band, or riding his unicycle around campus during exam weeks to encourage people before their tests. Now, as a senior in Honor’s chemistry, he hopes the leadership skills he fostered at Oregon State will make him a strong candidate as he begins applying for medical school this spring.

“I can definitely see myself as a leader in medical situations now,” he said. “I like the intensity of the job, especially in the OR. You need to make split second decisions that are going to have long-lasting ramifications.”

A native of Portland, OR, Unitan developed an interest in science from a young age, attending science camps and later, volunteering, at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). He soon found that chemistry held a particular appeal.

“It felt like the Goldilocks of the sciences to me — it combines the logical structure of physics with the tangibility of biology.”

“I had a wonderful chemistry teacher in high school and I just really loved it,” he said. “It felt like the Goldilocks of the sciences to me — it combines the logical structure of physics with the tangibility of biology. You can see what’s happening but there’s also this underlying mathematical structure to it that I found very appealing.”

Although many of Unitan’s friends had chosen to attend smaller liberal arts schools for college, he found himself looking more and more at Oregon State.

“I visited on Earth Day with my dad in 2017 and attended this big Earth Day rally downtown by the courthouse, and it just felt like I was one with my people,” he said. “It felt like my kind of place.”

Chemistry with real-world applications

Linus Unitan enjoys riding his unicycle around campus.
Never afraid to stand out at the crowded bike racks, Unitan enjoys riding his unicycle to his classes throughout the year. 

Entering OSU with International Baccalaureate credits and an aptitude for chemistry, Unitan was on the fence about whether he should take honors general chemistry first, or continue right into organic chemistry — generally taken sophomore year. After attending the first lecture with Chemistry Professor Vince Remcho, he decided he knew the material enough to go on ahead, but — he really liked the professor.

“I decided to go to his office hours to say ‘hello, I’m dropping your class — but not because I’m scared of it,’” he said. “We got to talking about his research, and he asked if I would come to a group meeting next week.”

As an analytical chemist, Remcho’s lab uses high-tech machinery to assess the structure and composition of matter. “Some of the machines I use in the Remcho lab include the laser cutter, spin-coater, D300 dispenser, and home-built oxygen radical decontaminator,” said Unitan. “The laser cutter is definitely my favorite — to practice using it I designed and made a bunch of greeting cards,” he said.

“He’s been there for me with a can of seltzer and unconditional support every step of the way, I can’t thank him enough.”

The lab is particularly interested in making microfluidic blood separators — glass microfiber membrane-based devices that are treated to have channels that blood can flow through. Roughly the size of a silver dollar, these devices have the ability isolate plasma from as little as a pinprick volume of blood — a far cry from the blood-work that normally takes place in a laboratory. This will be highly desirable for a number of applications; for instance, helping increase access to diagnostic services in settings where access to advanced medical equipment is limited.

Originally, when the device separated plasma from other blood cells, its use was limited to what could be studied on the device itself. Unitan’s individual research project focused on finding a way to extract the plasma so that it could be studied separately.

“We tried all sorts of things and ended up focusing on this sort of two-sided device that had a wicking component and a cut-capillary component where the fluid could be gathered into one spot and pipetted out,” he said.

This option of sample collection helps open up a broad range of applications, including a wider range of diagnostics that extend into environmental monitoring. The patent-pending ‘blood separation and diagnostic device’ is now awaiting approval from the U.S. government to make these products commercially available.

“I like the machines, I like the chemistry being used in immediate application of something — taking the principles and harnessing them to impact peoples’ lives.”

Linus Unitan will graduate this spring with a degree in Honor's chemistry and a minor in biology.
Unitan will graduate this spring with an honors degree in chemistry and a minor in biology

Unitan’s efforts have resulted in a recently accepted second-author paper in Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry, and he has presented at conferences including the 35th International Symposium on Capillary Chromatography in Fort Worth, TX, and the 43rd Microscale and Bioanalysis Conference, which the Remcho group hosted at Oregon State.

“His insightful bent for research — coupled with his cheerful spirit, willing heart, and talented hands — have made him an invaluable member of our lab,” said Remcho. “Linus is destined for great things and will lift those around him as he moves forward.”

Although both of his parents are physicians, for Unitan the real draw to medicine is in the way it applies science to some of the world’s most challenging problems. After shadowing doctors in the operating room, he was fascinated to see how much similarity there was with the equipment used in his own research lab. “I like the machines, I like the chemistry being used in immediate application of something — taking the principles and harnessing them to impact peoples’ lives,” he said. “Medicine is an excellent way to do that.”

Saying ‘yes’ to opportunities

As a drum major in Oregon State’s marching band, Unitan remembers his first audition for the role as an exhilarating — if terrifying — experience. Conducting a band of more than 200 people as a freshman is no small task.

“I remember stepping off the podium, my knees shaking, and just thinking — conducting the band is so cool, I’m going to show up at auditions every year even if I never get the position!”

Fortunately, he got the position his sophomore year, the second time around.

Never afraid of a challenge, he made the massive switch his freshman year from playing the piccolo to the sousaphone — the big tuba that wraps around your body. “In the OSU Marching Band we have a lot of personality — we like to dance around in the stands. Doing that with an instrument that weighs a third of what I do is good exercise!”

A Beaver fan to the core, Unitan looks back on Oregon State’s 2019 football victory with the joy of a proud parent. “I was crying my eyes out,” he said. “Definitely a night I’ll remember forever.”

“I think that’s the truest summation of what we accomplished this year — we really did our beaver best to make band happen.”

The COVID-19 pandemic brought more serious problems. “There’s an expression in marching band that we — I — often use, which is to ‘do your beaver best,'” he said. “It means to try your hardest and do whatever you can — whatever the circumstances. I think that’s the truest summation of what we accomplished this year — we really did our beaver best to make band happen.”

In addition to band and research, Unitan has undertaken an impressive amount of additional experience — volunteering in the Community Outreach Medical Clinic, working as a staffer in the Honor’s College Student Lounge, and working at a small plant nursery outside Philomath on the weekends. He also has a job tutoring student athletes in academics.

“I have a wonderful time doing that,” he said. “I help with all sorts of subjects, but my favorite is definitely chemistry because I can get excited about it.”

Unitan plans to stay in Corvallis working as an emergency room scribe for the next year to gain more experience before starting medical school. He is deeply grateful for the support and mentorship he received throughout his time in college.

“I’m so thankful to have had such excellent professors and mentors during my time at OSU, especially Dr. Remcho,” he said. “He’s been there for me with a can of seltzer and unconditional support every step of the way, I can’t thank him enough.”

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