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Student in front of a green and white flowers

Triumphing over adversity with perseverance, sacrifice and science

By Debbie Farris

Yuriyah Reed-Harris, student in biology

Yuriyah Reed-Harris had never even been to Oregon when she arrived from Las Vegas, Nevada, after graduating from high school for her freshmen year at Oregon State University.

“It was definitely a big leap,” laughed Yuriyah.

A big city girl born in Los Angeles with a big personality to match, Yuriyah had big plans. Raised by a single mom and an extended family who are Jehovah’s Witnesses, Yuriyah had her sights set on becoming a neurologist. This was problematic.

Comprising just less than one percent of U.S. adults, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that the destruction of the present world system at Armageddon is imminent, and that the establishment of God's kingdom over the Earth is the only solution for all problems faced by humanity. They accept most medical treatments but believe it’s a sin to receive blood, including infusions.

“Because they believe that the end of the world is coming soon, they don’t really value doctors,” said Yuriyah. “They also do not believe in pursuing wealth or worldly possessions.”

Like many other highly religious Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses tend to take conservative positions on social issues, according to a 2016 survey from the Pew Research Center. For example, they found that 75% oppose same-sex marriage and say homosexuality should be discouraged by society. Roughly three-quarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses surveyed said they reject evolution, saying humans have always existed in their present form since the beginning of time.

Ironically, Evolution is the very last class Yuriyah needs to graduate and will take the course online or on campus in the fall after walking in OSU’s Commencement ceremony in June.

Adding to the dissonance, is the fact that no one in Yuriyah’s family on either side went to college. She was clearly in uncharted territory often crossing tenuous terrain, but Yuriyah’s trademark enthusiasm, optimism and conviction carried her through the toughest of times.

With the help of Google, Yuriyah conducted her college search and developed a plan to reach her goal of becoming a physician. When she typed in “how to get into medical school,” the search engine informed her that undergraduate research was very helpful. So she typed in “undergraduate research in science” and Oregon State was one of the schools that appeared in the search results.

Factoring in proximity to family and quality of academic programs in science, Yuriyah compiled a list of schools and applied to 11, including OSU. After getting accepted to UCLA, Hofstra University and others, she ultimately chose OSU and enrolled as a biology major.

As a first-generation student, Yuriyah knew scholarships were an important part of the college equation for her. As an underrepresented woman in STEM with a strong academic record, she was an attractive applicant to many universities.

“OSU gave me a ton of scholarships, it was close to home and family (in California and Las Vegas) but not too close, had good research programs and was affordable,” said Yuriyah, who paid OSU’s $45,000 out-of-state tuition, 50 percent of which was covered by scholarships.

She received numerous scholarships from the OSU, the College and Department of Integrative Biology, including the John and Gretchen Morris Cell Biology Scholarship, Powis Lee & Winifred Carloss Heitmeyer Scholarship, College of Science Scholars Fund and an OSU Provost Scholarship.

Despite this significant financial support, Yuriyah needed employment since she was paying for her living expenses and eventually her college education all on her own. For most of her four years at OSU, she worked four jobs and struggled between working to pay the bills and working to further her education and her career aspirations.

Finding her way as a researcher

One of her jobs was working in Dr. Julie Greenwood’s Lab in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics. Greenwood remains one of her most trusted mentors and a source of inspiration four years later.

“I was lucky to land in the Greenwood Lab. I worked there all four years and researched glioblastoma multiforme using zebrafish. That connected really well with my interest in neurology,” said Yuriyah. Glioblastoma multiforme is a fast-growing, aggressive type of brain cancer that forms on the supportive tissue.

Yuriyah Reed-Harris working with samples in lab
Yuriyah working on glioblastoma multiforme using zebrafish in the Greenwood Lab.

She had heard about Dr. Greenwood’s research as an LSAMP (Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation) student but landed a research position after connecting with Julie when she reached out at a STEM Leaders meeting.

Both programs—LSAMP and STEM Leaders—have played a profound role in connecting Yuriyah to opportunities and helping her find a place in a supportive community at OSU. LSAMP is funded by the National Science Foundation and is dedicated to increasing the number of traditionally underrepresented students who successfully complete STEM programs. The OSU STEM Leaders program fosters early, cohort-based STEM integration and offers an expanded, enduring culture of undergraduate research at OSU with emphasis on facilitating early access to research under peer and faculty mentorship.

That guidance has paid off.

Yuriyah has amassed an impressive record of academic accomplishments for an undergraduate, including conducting research, presenting at national conferences, publishing a paper in a peer-reviewed journal, participating in poster sessions, even fitting in a two-week internship at a community medical clinic in Honduras her junior year.

This is yet another opportunity that Yuriyah created for herself. Her godmother lives in Honduras and had been encouraging Yuriyah to come visit and spend time there for years. So she took her up on the offer. The experience substantially shifted her perspective and enhanced her experience.

“That experience made me realize that I want to treat people medically and culturally.”

Her work at the Center for Civic Engagement shaped how she wanted to do science and the type of career she wanted in medicine.

“By mentoring students and understanding their culture, identity and background, it really, really shifted how I viewed science,” said Yuriyah. “That was a huge moment for me.”

A big city dream of becoming a neurologist

Even as a high school student, Yuriyah found her way to research. Her mom worked in a dental office and Yuriyah began helping out there. Given her affable and extroverted nature, she talked to many of the patients. One, a neurologist, made an impact on her and not only seeded her interest in the field but helped her see that she could pursue a career in it. Inspired, she interned at a local neurology clinic that focused on traumatic brain injuries.

“I like how neurology combines hard and the soft sciences,” said Yuriyah. “I also realized that I like working with people in clinical research but I don’t want to be stuck in a lab all the time. Fortunately, I can do both!”

Juggling many jobs and responsibilities—from researcher, Peer Advisor in the College of Science, movie theatre employee and part-time staff in OSU’s Center for Civic Engagement where she worked 20 hours per week—hasn’t been easy.

After four years of long days, heavy workloads, personal challenges and financial stress, Yuriyah is experiencing burn out and has decided to push pause and take a year off before medical school.

“I have always loved learning. It has always excited me. But I feel so burned out after this past year that I have fallen out of love with learning,” admits Yuriyah.

Bridging the gap

A heart-wrenching falling out and estranged relationships with her entire family as well as her mom have taken their toll on the aspiring neurologist.

Relationships first became strained when she came out as gay in high school. While her family and grandmother severed or limited communication with Yuriyah, her mom stood by her and offered support. That enabled Yuriyah to weather the painful rhetoric and harsh criticism from her relatives.

But when her mom and stepdad split up, things unraveled for Yuriyah. Her relationship with both of them changed. Eventually, they stopped the financial support they previously provided for her education at the end of her junior year, forcing Yuriyah to work four jobs to cover rent, food, tuition and living expenses.

“When my parents stopped all financial support all of a sudden, I was so stressed. I had to figure out what to do. I could not take summer classes. I ended up petitioning FAFSA to file as an independent so I could qualify for more financial aid,” said Yuriyah, adding that some OSU professors and advisors guided her and wrote letters of support.

Although the lack of financial support presented a tremendous hardship for Yuriyah, the loss of love and connection and family was a far worse blow.

After a particularly tense and heated argument with her mom last summer on a trip to Costa Rica, tensions were at their highest. Communication was at an all-time low, recalled Yuriyah. When she returned home to Las Vegas with plans to intern in a neurology clinic for a month during winter break, an even more heated and detrimental argument ensued. As a result, her mom refused to allow Yuriyah to stay in the same house as her. She completed one week of the internship before having to return home. Yuriyah explains those stressful times as her mom having some sort of breakdown or personality change.

“My mom and I would talk for hours on the phone. We talked every day,” said Yuriyah. “We were always on the phone and talked about everything.” Yuriyah has not spoken to her mom in a year.

Thanks to her steadfast determination and focus, she was able to graduate this spring.

This summer Yuriyah will finish the two remaining courses—the History of Medicine and Marine and Estuary Invertebrate at the coast—and earn three credits working in the Siva Lab on toxicology studies using zebrafish, a position she landed because of her experience in the Greenwood Lab. She will continue working as a Peer Advisor in the College of Science and at her job at the movie theatre.

Yuriyah is looking forward to this “lighter load,” her words for two jobs, 12 credits and a summer of research. She will take one last course online in the fall—Evolution—since it wasn’t offered in the summer.

Yuriyah playing tennis with her friends
Yuriyah balanced her intense schedule and rigorous studies with tennis and friends.

Taking science out there

Yuriyah is already planning for life after OSU. She wants to do research for a few years and “make some money.” She’s busy applying to lab technician positions, ideally at NIH in Washington, DC, but is also looking at positions with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Mayo Clinic and the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta.

“I would love to be in DC! That’s my goal. I want to be on the East coast. There’s an energy there, diversity, people like me,” said Yuriyah, referring to the city’s 48% African American community of DC steeped in tradition, culture and history.

“It was hard to be a black student at OSU. I saw more cultural appropriation instead of cultural appreciation. It was small town vs urban city,” said Yuriyah. “I struggled with how to find common ground.”

Yuriyah in Washington DC
Yuriyah visiting Washington, D.C.

“But I am so grateful for my education, for the all of the people who helped me along the way at OSU—the many mentors I had and the students I mentored as a Peer Advisor who helped me so much.”

With heartfelt gratitude, Yuriyah said she cherishes the privileges and education she has earned, alluding to others who are worse off in her “impoverished, gang-ridden hometown.” She adds, “A lot of people I went to high school with are in jail. I don’t want to go into any of that, but let’s just say it was a huge motivator for me.”

Looking ahead to a promising, bright future, Yuriah exudes a youthful confidence and energy. When asked if she is worried about the future, she responds, “Not really. There are so many opportunities for me with a science degree. I’m looking at jobs in clinical research and cancer studies. I have that experience and I can use my degree. I am very excited about moving ahead, about making connections.”

Despite the estranged relationship with her mom, Yuriyah imparts a wisdom and maturity beyond her years. She is trying to reconnect and build a relationship with her grandmother in California. “She seems open to that but still ignores that I’m gay,” says Yuriyah, who is healing after a five-year relationship with her long-time partner ended this year.

She wonders about having a relationship with her mom someday.

“My mom motivated me. I would not be the woman I am today if it weren’t for my mom,” said Yuriyah. “I wouldn’t.”