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Grace Petrina – HC Student Spotlight

From research opportunities and experiential learning, to its network of connections to outside organizations, the Oregon State University Honors College prides itself on its ability to provide an undergraduate experience that transcends boundaries. But how much can one student accomplish in just four short years? With a growing list of extracurriculars and a resume already ripe with professional achievements, OSU junior Grace Petrina is determined to find out.

“The atmosphere and campus itself are just beautiful.”

Originally from Eugene, Oregon, Grace chose OSU for its financial accessibility as well as the holistic approach offered by the Honors College. “The atmosphere and campus itself are just beautiful,” she says. She got involved with the Honors College in her first year and is now in her third year at OSU, majoring in biochemistry and biophysics, with minors in public health and history.

Since arriving at OSU, Grace has proven herself to be an exceptionally versatile student — a testament to not only her personal drive, but to the expansive opportunities offered by the Honors College. In her current position with the Mehl Research Group — an opportunity she discovered through an honors colloquium course — she is conducting groundbreaking research on non-canonical amino acids. Her primary role in the lab is related to crystallography, where she maps different proteins. “Being involved in a lab helped me learn basic techniques, and I also learned to have a job that was very independent, which was good for me,” she says. Her biggest accomplishment in the lab has been the protein purification and crystallization of a d2 domain protein, which hadn’t been analyzed by anyone before.

Recently, Grace’s focus has shifted from the lab to two new areas of interest: public health and reproductive justice, both of which she discovered through resources found at OSU. Her passion for these topics led to her involvement with a public health research group, where she worked alongside Dr. Jessica Gorman, an associate professor in OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences, researching the effects of cancer survivorship on reproductive health and interpersonal relationships.

OSU Rotaract

Of all her accomplishments at OSU, Grace is particularly proud of her role as president of OSU Rotaract. “This is a club focused on community service, like a rotary club,” she says. She joined midway through her first year, when the COVID-19 pandemic started. “It was small at first, but it allowed me to get close with the people in the club,” she says. They went out and volunteered in their spare time and focused on ways they could partner with other community groups and further support other clubs on campus. Grace was elected president in September 2021.

Girls’ Empowerment Education and Outreach Club

Grace’s on-campus involvement is not limited to the Rotaract Club, either. In May 2021, she was elected co-president of the Girls’ Empowerment Education and Outreach Club, a student-led organization whose mission is to “engage elementary, middle school and high school girls in topics related to the STEM fields and to inspire girls to pursue careers related to these fields.”

“I found this group through the College of Engineering,” she says, noting that she was one of the only non-engineering students involved at first. Last year, the club focused on virtual outreach with local elementary schools, empowering and engaging girls across multiple age groups — efforts that were especially important during remote learning. Now, the club creates STEM boxes that are given to local elementary and middle school classrooms, with the intended goal of getting girls involved with and passionate about STEM. “The Girls’ Empowerment Education and Outreach Club is a really awesome way to inspire young girls, and it helps current OSU students who are interested in mentoring, equity and STEM,” Grace says.

“I believe wholeheartedly that research can expand your professional development.”

Grace became a physics learning assistant during spring term of 2021, giving her a chance to continue her involvement in STEM in a new way. She works closely with Dr. Paul Emigh, an instructor in OSU’s College of Science. “The 200-level physics series inspired me to become an LA because it was the first subject that truly challenged me, so I wanted to help others,” she says. At the time, nearly all of the learning assistants were men, inspiring Grace’s desire to provide more representation in the physics field for women. “I want to create a more supportive environment in STEM,” she says.

In addition to her role as a learning assistant, Grace has also served as an ambassador for the Office of Undergraduate Research, Scholarship and the Arts, an OSU program focused on making research more accessible to undergraduate students. This involves the planning of workshops and presentations and teaching students about URSA and research in general. “I believe wholeheartedly that research can expand your professional development,” Grace says. “It inspires personal growth and exploration.”

Honors College Experience

Not only does Grace take time to engage in a plethora of on- and off-campus experiences, she is passionate about educating others about these opportunities as well. She recently started a new position as a mentor with the Honors College in September of 2021. This term, she is working with an assigned peer whom she meets for coffee every other week. Grace provides resources and advice about the honors requirements, how to get involved in research and how to navigate the college experience as an honors student.

Aside from her duties as a mentor, Grace is working steadily on her own honors thesis, which has involved implementing and documenting a new sexual education program in Botswana. “Intellectually, I am interested in this work and want to focus on reproductive justice because I believe it’s important,” she says. With Dr. Sunil Khanna, a professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences, as her mentor, Grace plans to defend next year.

“Start wide. Don’t count out opportunities.”

In her free time, Grace gives back to her community by volunteering for and being involved with a variety of local events and organizations, including vaccine clinics, a community garden, the Honors College Winter Book Club, the Salmon Bowl (a high school oceanic science competition), as well as the South Corvallis Food Bank, Room at the Inn and the Polk Community Free Clinic.

Grace’s advice to incoming Honors College students comes from her own experiences, trials and errors. “Start wide. Don’t count out opportunities,” she says. Joining clubs has helped her narrow her attention to the things she cares about most while also keeping an open mind. “Cast a wide net. Don’t take on more than you can, but try to say ‘yes’ to things.”

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