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.