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Biochemistry senior takes the reins and thinks big

Graduating Honors College senior Mai Le hoped to attend a small college but instead found herself at Oregon State University, a large public institution.

“To be honest, my decision was heavily influenced by my parents.” Her parents had argued persuasively that Oregon State was a solid choice financially, logistically and academically. They also liked that their daughter would be close to home and that OSU was a familiar place – her older sister also attended.

Although Mai landed at a place she had not planned on, as soon as she arrived on campus she experienced a surprising bolt of energy.

“It was the first night I’d ever been away from home. It was so exciting and nerve-wracking that I woke up at 6 a.m. before any of my alarms.”

In the next few weeks, Mai reveled in her new autonomy and freedom, not “to do reckless crazy things” but to be “able to listen to myself and honor my own decisions.

Over the next four years, Mai found herself taking advantage of some of those small college experiences she was yearning for as a major in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics. She also consciously expanded her circle of influence to root her academic studies in real-world research and volunteering.

As a freshman, Mai began working in Arup Indra’s skin disease lab in the College of Pharmacy, researching how skin responds to ultraviolet radiation, melanoma and wound healing. She continued her research for four years, work which laid the foundation for her senior thesis:  new ways to approach wound care stemming from an understanding of underlying biochemical reactions and new technologies such as nanofiber sutures.

In addition to mastering fundamental molecular biology techniques (and how to handle lab mice), Mai rattles off a list of other benefits: “I learned how to prioritize tasks, handle multiple projects while being a full-time student, troubleshoot and work with others to achieve a common goal.”

Her lab research was rewarding but Mai still felt a little “disconnected” during her first two years, especially in her required, lower division science courses in large lecture halls, where she felt as if she were learning “in a bubble, floating through campus to simply earn grades.” So she added a social justice minor and sought out volunteer opportunities to give back to others while becoming more deeply engaged herself.

“I wanted to be able to reflect on my time here and be proud of it,” said Mai.

After seeing a recruiting ad for Beaver Hangouts, a program that connects college student coaches with underserved K-12 populations in Oregon to help them understand why and how to go to college, Mai signed up. She realized she was really lucky to be able to pursue higher education and understood firsthand how confusing the process could be. In this volunteer experience, Mai helped middle- and high school students via Skype clarify their thoughts and values about such questions as whether or not to take advantage of free community college tuition or instead pursue the recruiting process. She found helping these students navigate the higher education system to be very rewarding, indirectly helping Mai herself to feel more purposeful in her studies.

Mai also volunteered with the Multiple Sclerosis Exercise Program, where she enjoyed connecting with people from all walks of life. Her volunteering experiences made a significant difference in her college life, and she advises new students to “participate in activities that you are passionate about to gain your footing on a large campus.”

Mai was glad to find a home in biochemistry and biophysics, a department she describes as “small enough where I don’t feel like I am just floating through.” Professors were intimidating from a distance, but up close they were surprisingly “fun and relaxed,” often inviting students to collaborate with their research groups. In her junior and senior years, Mai began engaging more deeply in her academic life as upper-level courses in her major were smaller and had more of a seminar feel to them.

Mai singles out her “awesome” immunology class with Professor Malcolm Lowry, which challenged her thinking about a career in research and reinforced her interests in health and physiology. She liked that her professor for Advanced Molecular Genetics, Michael Frietag, created a safe, open space for discussion in class so that she was motivated to keep learning despite the challenging material. She was also felt supported to take risks in her presentations “even if I might be saying something that is completely incorrect.”

Mai also sings the praises of her biochemistry and biophysics advisor, Kari van Zee, for always going above and beyond, staying late to talk when needed, encouraging her to follow her passion and to do things that “fill my soul.”

“Kari Van Zee is so busy, but somehow she makes students feel like they’re the only ones on campus who matter. I don’t think my college experience would have been as fulfilling if I didn’t have her support.“

Like many students, Mai found herself occasionally overfocusing on her grades.

“I was getting wrapped up into this awful mentality of unnecessarily stressing myself out because I am comparing myself to others or worrying that I am not enough.”

She learned how to manage these challenging times by making a conscious effort to “not beat myself up for feeling this way,” allowing her feelings some airspace, and then distracting herself by doing things to help her get back on track, such as planning out her week or, even something as simple as taking the stairs in LINC. Ritual Friday nights out with her friends was also restorative, something Mai says she will cherish forever.

Next up for Mai is to apply to medical school and explore ideas for a “meaningful gap year, whatever that may be!”

During her time at OSU, Mai said she has learned to be both responsible for her own destiny and comfortable with uncertainty — essential qualities for success in science, medicine and most other fields. She is grateful to her family, her advisors and professors and several scholarships that supported her education, including the OSU Finley Academic Excellence Scholarship, the Janet Richens Wiesner University Honors College Scholarship for Undergraduate Women in Science, and two College of Science scholarships, the George and Marthel Porter Pre-Medical Scholarship and the Merrill Family Foundation Scholarship.

While Mai may not have been an eager Beaver when she first arrived on campus four years ago, she is clearly one now.

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