Former high school dropout Ngan Nguyen is graduating with her eye on a career in alternative energy.

Ngan Nguyen
Ngan Nguyen

Ngan Nguyen was 15 when she climbed out of her bedroom window after a family argument and caught a ride with some friends to Portland. Unsurprisingly, graduating college was not on her mind. In fact, the idea of college would have seemed ridiculous. Nguyen had dropped out of high school earlier that year, and was title toward a life of cheap apartments, couch surfing and working long hours for low pay in Portland.

It wasn’t promising.

But that wasn’t the life for Nguyen, at least not in the long run. After six months in Portland, she decided to go back to night school. “I don’t remember what drove that decision. I was tired of going out and partying all the time. I actually really enjoyed school. So I went back,” she says.

For the 4 months it took to get her diploma, Nguyen worked at Walgreens in the mornings and Millennia in the Clackamas Mall in the evenings. She did her homework late into the night. “Those jobs barely paid anything. After rent and bills, I’d have about 75 dollars left,” says Nguyen. The teachers at Marshall High School, where Nguyen got her diploma, were understanding of her schedule. They also encouraged her to go to college. “I thought, ‘I’m scraping by,’’ and it sounded like fun,” Nguyen says.

On June 13, Nguyen will graduate from Oregon State with a double major in biochemistry and biophysics and bioengineering, with a degree from the University Honors College. And she’s just getting started. After graduation, she’s staying in Corvallis to work at Beaver Biodiesel, a renewable energy company of which she is co-owner, and where she will also get to use her science and engineering skills. Nguyen is also co-owner of the high-end cosmetics and skin care company, Sulirese, that she and some friends are about to launch.

Nguyen made the most of her time at OSU once she transferred here from Linn-Benton Community College. In her sophomore year, she worked with Professor Tory Hagen and post-doctorate researcher Kate Shay her sophomore year, trying to determine the activation of the protein Nrf2 (which triggers the transcription of a series of antioxidant enzymes). She continued her research throughout that summer with Howard Hughes Medical Institute funding, and used the data for her University Honors thesis. Nguyen also interned at MIT last summer, working in biomedical engineering on sequential drug delivery. When she got back to Corvallis in the fall, she started with Beaver Biodiesel.

Nguyen knows graduate school is in her future – perhaps in biomedical engineering, or chemical engineering in renewable energy. She’s also interested in getting an MBA.

“I’m pretty excited given everything that’s happened,” says Nguyen. “I never would have thought five years ago that I would be in college and have a choice of jobs. I know that things have been the worst and worked out fine. And I’m excited for what the future brings.”

Claire Rogan is learning what sustainable harvesting means.

Claire Rogan
Claire Rogan

When Claire Rogan tells people she is a logger, she gets a range of reactions — anything from a sense of camaraderie from those who live the same lifestyle, to anger from people who think logging is utterly destructive. But for the Oregon State sophomore and University Honors College student, education has been the key to her understanding of the practice, its focus on sustainability, as well as the way to improvements.

“It’s like mountaintop coal removal in West Virginia,” she says. “People usually don’t say ’this is bad and we should do this instead.’ If you’re going to have a strong opinion about something, you need to go in scientifically and say ’this is why, and this is how.’”

Rogan is learning how to answer questions about logging and its impacts as a dual-degree major in forest and civil engineering. And as a member of the Student Logging Crew in the College of Forestry, Rogan gets hands-on experience working with a crew sustainably managing stands in the McDonald-Dunn Research Forest. “Pretty much any logging you see in Oregon is sustainably done. People are becoming more aware of working with, not just in, the environment,” says Rogan.

Working with the environment — for Rogan and others — means creating forest health, says Jeff Wimer, who heads the student crew. “We thin, taking out trees that are dead and dying and leaving a stand that will grow healthily,” he says. They also identify stands where growth has stalled and decide whether to harvest depending on the market and demand, the whole time keeping stream and water health in mind. “The majority of loggers love and enjoy the land where they work,” says Wimer. “They wouldn’t be there otherwise.”

The same is true of Rogan. Growing up in rural West Virginia, she always loved being in the woods. She learned the names of trees from her grandfather. She drove a tractor around her family’s small farm, and her parents instilled in her a deep regard for the natural world. She liked math, too, and science and engineering, which is why OSU was ideal. “The forest and civil engineering dual degree was perfect for me. It was exactly what I wanted to do,” she says.

As a member of the logging crew, Rogan learned to run all aspects of a logging operation, from planning to the actual harvest. She learned to set chokers (a chain or cable used to haul logs from the woods) and cut timber. She graduated from using what she calls “a teeny tiny saw” to a 32-inch bar. Rogan appreciated how she wasn’t treated differently on the crew because she is a woman — and still a minority in the field.

For Rogan, the College of Forestry became such a home away from home that she applied to become an ambassador for it. Rogan talks to alumni at events, and helps recruit prospective students. “It’s so much fun for me,” she says. “I love getting to tell students how awesome it is. It’s provided so many opportunities for me.”

Christina Murphy
Christina Murphy

Aquatic ecologist Christina Murphy is heading to Chile on a Fulbright grant.

It was a frigid winter night on Chile’s central coast, and Christina Murphy was standing in the surf in her wet suit with a night vision monocular, getting pummeled by waves. She was counting her research subjects — nocturnal, carnivorous crabs of the species Acanthocyclus gayi that hide in algae or rock crevices — unaware that she would later regard the experience as one that cemented her love for her work.

It was, however, an unsurprising revelation — Murphy has wanted to be a scientist since the age of six, and has never question that career path.

“I’ve always wanted to be a professor, ” Murphy says. “I got shot down as a kid. But I like getting up in front of crowds. I like talking to people. As I’ve gone further in my education, it’s a given.”

Murphy has pursued her goal throughout her education and has seized opportunities to focus on it at Oregon State University, where she was an IE3 Global intern in Chile and performed reseearch on the coastlines of Washington, Oregon and the Galapagos Islands. Now Murphy, who earned University Honors degrees in biology, fisheries and wildlife and international studies , is planning to use her research and international experience as a Fulbright scholar.

In March 2009, Murphy will return to the small coastal town of Las Cruces, Chile, to continue her work with Acanthocyclus gayi, called simply “la haiba” by the locals. She will study how these predators behave when the algae is tall, which allows more crabs to take refuge in a given area. “These crabs have a big impact on their communities,” Murphy says. “They eat a lot of invertebrates.”

The idea, Murphy says, is to understand how large oceanographic processes, like upwelling, can affect the habitat in which predators live. More upwelling, which brings nutrient-rich water to the surface, means that the crabs’ algal habitat will grow long.

“You can tell how conditions that are coming from the bottom up, like upwelling, influence top-down effects, like predation. We can help put together a model that will extend to large coastal areas and get a bigger picture,” says Murphy.

Murphy will focus on more than her own research when she is in Las Cruces. She plans to mentor local high school students who might not otherwise have the opportunity to do hands-on work with a scientist. “It’s great to get to help someone in the field,” says Murphy. Her knowledge of U.S. pop culture, like the band My Chemical Romance, helps her earn points with the Chilean teenagers, as well.

Murphy credits the international and research opportunities she had at OSU, as well as an engaged faculty, with helping her develop as a scientist and a citizen. “The willingness of OSU faculty to work with undergraduates is unusual. It makes the difference between a lackluster education and a future for someone,” she says.

Anna Putnam uses nanotechnology to create a revolutionary battery.

Anna Putnam is on the edge of innovation with nanotechnology
Anna Putnam is on the edge of innovation with nanotechnology

Undergrad Anna Putnam is squirming. The interviewer has touched a raw nerve in the chemical engineering major. “You’re digging deeply into my life,” she says, shifting in her chair. Her confession comes with reluctance: “My first term at OSU, I struggled in math.” Pressed, she admits the worst: “I got a C in vector calculus.”

For the University Honors College student who had breezed through Advanced Placement calculus and chemistry at Oregon’s Clackamas High School, a grade of “average” was a jarring wake-up call. “Before I got to the university,” the 2005 senior class valedictorian explains, “I never had to study very hard.”

In the three years since that rude awakening, nothing less than an A has darkened Putnam’s grade report. She has gone on to collect scholarships like most students collect songs on their iPods. The American Engineering Association Scholarship from Intel and OSU’s Presidential Scholarship are among them.

Now, Putnam has advanced from the front of the class to the front edge of innovation, where chemical engineering meets nanoscience and “drop-on-demand” printing technologies.

Read more about Anna Putnam and her undergraduate research in the Summer 2008 issue of Terra.

John Frohnmayer’s musical SPIN shows what can happen when personalities clash — over art.

spin_p2Put a controversial performance artist, a conservative U.S. Senator, the chair of the National Endowment of the Arts and a preacher named JoeBob into a room together to discuss art and politics, and the resulting personality clashes are sure to generate comedy. That’s what John Frohnmayer had in mind when he wrote SPIN, a musical that depicts the early ‘90s “culture wars” that pitted artists seeking complete freedom of expression against those who demanded stricter rules for federally funded art.

Frohnmayer, an affiliate professor in OSU’s College of Liberal Arts, knows all about the subject matter. SPIN is loosely based on his years as the chair of the NEA and his 1993 book that chronicles that turbulent experience, “Leaving Town Alive: Confessions of an Arts Warrior.”

SPIN made its first run at Oregon State University on May 8, and its debut was the product of collaborations throughout OSU and beyond. Director Marion Rossi Jr. has helmed more than 30 OSU productions as an associate professor of speech communication. Music instructor Sila Cevikce Shaman wrote SPIN’s compositions, and David Ogden Stiers, best known as Major Winchester on the television series M*A*S*H*, joins a cast of student and community actors.

“To see a director like Marion Rossi, a veteran performer like David Ogden Stiers and some wonderful student actors bring SPIN to life and give it their interpretation is incredibly exciting,” says Frohnmayer.

Rossi, who began workshopping the musical with his students in theater classes more than a year ago, says he’s loved witnessing SPIN develop. “It’s a great experience for the students — working on an original production, seeing how it grows, evolves and changes over time,” he says.

For University Honors College senior Maarika Teose, who plays the outrageous and provocative performance artist Polly, that experience has been even more enhanced by Frohnmayer’s continuing input and presence at rehearsal. “This is the first play I’ve done that hasn’t been performed before, so having the playwright there is fantastic. If we have any questions about the script, or if something isn’t working, he can guide us or make changes,” she says.

Teose says that Stiers, who joined the cast about a week after they began rehearsing winter term, is also a resource. “He’s fun. It’s really nice to have someone there who has a lot of real-world acting experience. He can give some really deep advice,” says Teose, who has been involved in OSU theater for the past five years.

Stiers wanted to join SPIN’s cast because he feels strongly in freedom of expression. Likewise, Rossi hopes audiences leave SPIN with a deeper understanding of art’s importance in their lives.

Although Frohnmayer’s primary motivation for writing SPIN was to entertain his audience, he still believes the issues of free speech and politics that electrified the early ‘90s are relevant today and that people — no matter how extreme their viewpoints — ultimately need to communicate with each other. “We need to learn to deal with differences in the context of a community,” he says. “If a community is going to succeed, then we all have to succeed together. Free speech is an enabler, but we have to listen as well.”

Learning the secrets of seed germination is helping Jing Sun grow her future career as a physician.

Jing Sun is pursuing a career as a physician
Jing Sun is pursuing a career as a physician

Jing Sun, an OSU junior in microbiology, has wanted to become a doctor ever since a childhood bout with hepatitis A put her in the hospital. “That made a big impression on me, mostly on how much I didn’t want to be in the hospital, but also on how grateful I was to the doctors who helped me get better,” she says.

Jing decided to use that experience as motivation to study medicine and become a pediatrician. In her first year at OSU, she wanted to learn to diagnose and solve problems, and she jumped at a chance to learn those skills in a research laboratory.

“It was the first lab I found that was looking for a freshman to do real research. Dr. Nonogaki was specifically looking for someone to take on their own projects, which was pretty unique and very exciting,” she says.

As she learned laboratory techniques, Jing found other undergrads were doing research in her area, the Integrative Seed Biology Program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. Established by associate professor Hiro Nonogaki in the Department of Horticulture, the program offers undergraduates a chance to gain research skills while they discover how seed genes function.

Jing begins by identifying seeds that show a mutation in a gene known as a transcription factor. These genes operate somewhat like light switches, turning other genes on and off. After finding seeds with transcription factor mutations, Jing allows the seeds to sprout, observes the growing plants and documents the results. She then compares the plants to those grown from seeds with normal germination patterns. Her goal is to identify the molecular mechanisms at work and the consequences of the mutation.

Jing, who is in the University Honors College, has accomplished a lot. In 2005, she received a research grant through the Ernest and Pauline Jaworski Scholarship for Underserved Undergraduates in Plant Science. She also received an award for her presentation in OSU’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute summer research program.

In 2006, Jing was selected to study at the University of Freiburg in Germany through RISE (Research Internships for Science and Engineering), a German Academic Exchange Service program created to bring Canadian and American undergraduates to Germany to study with Ph.D. students.

Each year about 2,000 OSU undergraduates are involved in research projects around campus. “I think it is good for undergraduate students to do this research,” Nonogaki says, “and to present their findings at conferences. It is important for them to be exposed to real scientific research and to experts in the field.”

Jing Sun’s University Honors College page

Integrative Seed Biology Program Web site

Department of Microbiology Web site

Jane Clark keeps herself involved in OSU and in the world.

Jane Clark stays very involved at OSU
Jane Clark stays very involved at OSU

Jane Clark is an active student by most standards. She’s the publications coordinator for the OSU Women’s Center, co-chair of the judicial branch of student government, on the University Honors College steering committee, and a member of Mortar Board senior honor society.

But the political science senior from Newport, Oregon, also finds time to serve away from campus.

During the past few years, she has studied abroad in Italy, done a political science internship providing voter information in New England, and taken trips to Brazil and Siberia with Habitat for Humanity to help build houses.

She was prepared for Brazil because she and her family had previously traveled to South America.

“Siberia was a shock because it’s so far removed from everywhere,” Jane says. “Everything is so old and outdated. It’s like it’s still in the Soviet era.”

Getting there was no picnic, either. “We flew to Moscow, then there was a seven hour flight to Ulan Ude,” she says. “Everyone was packed on the flight, and they served pickled fish. It wasn’t a great experience.”

Attending OSU seemed to be a natural decision for Jane. Her parents, aunt, and uncle went to OSU, and her grandfather taught at the university years ago. But being accepted into the Honors College and receiving a Presidential Scholarship were also big factors in her decision.

Currently she’s working on her honors thesis “on the labor movement and why it hasn’t been more politically progressive.” After she graduates, she plans to take a little time off from school and then go to law school.

For a career, she’s “interested in working with a nonprofit organization,” she says. “I’d like to be involved in international development. Women’s development in other countries would be ideal.”

Associated Students of Oregon State University website

University Honors College website

Department of Political Science website

OSU Women’s Center website

Habitat for Humanity website

Melinda von Borstel is getting well-prepared in college so she’ll be ready for whatever curves life throws her way.

Melinda von Borstel is setting a foundation for a solid health care career
Melinda von Borstel is setting a foundation for a solid health care career

Melinda von Borstel is a presidential scholar and University Honors College graduate in nutrition and food management and in international studies, a community volunteer–and a future pharmacist.

Melinda has been preparing herself carefully for her career and her life. She chose nutrition and food management because it provided a good base for a health care career.

She also minored in Spanish, knowing how the country’s demographics are changing. She felt she lacked fluency in Spanish, so she spent several months in Chile, then went on an exchange to Spain. And she took several courses that focused on gerontology, in recognition of our aging population.

That doesn’t even take into consideration the three summers she worked as an undergraduate researcher in the lab of Theresa Filtz, an assistant professor of pharmacy at OSU, for which Melinda received an Undergraduate Research Innovation Scholarship Creativity (URISC) award.

And she’s experienced at working with people in the community. She has earned numerous scholarships for academic excellence and for her volunteer work, which includes teaching Sunday School, working for Habitat for Humanity, staffing soup kitchens, reading to grade school kids, cleaning Oregon beaches and highways, and helping out at food drives.

Her long-term goal is to work as a pharmacist, where she can use her language and people skills, as well as her preparation. “The profession is changing from being a pill counter to working with people in a consultative way,” von Borstel said. “And I can’t wait to be a part of that.”

Joe Hendricks, dean of the University Honors College, puts it into perspective when he says: “If she is going to be a pharmacist, then that is the pharmacy I want to go to in the future.”

College of Pharmacy website

University Honors College website