An Honor’s senior double majoring in biochemistry and psychology, Diego Rodriguez exemplifies the power of using perseverance and dedication to achieve one’s goals. An award-winning scholar and undergraduate researcher in biochemistry assistant professor Afua Nyarko’s lab, he credits her guidance in allowing him to realize his dreams. Last summer he was selected by the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard for a highly competitive summer research program and will return this year for a two-year position advancing developments in drug therapy.
Growing up in Medford, Oregon, Rodriguez learned the value of hard work at an early age. “My dad never went to high school; my mom was a high school dropout. My parents probably work close to 200 hours a week,” says Rodriguez. Despite working punishing hours, his mother was eventually able to complete a bachelor’s degree. “We graduated a year apart, me from high school, and my mom with her bachelors,” said Rodriguez.
Overcoming obstacles has been a recurrent theme for Rodriguez, starting in infancy when he was born prematurely, and his parents were told by his doctors that he wouldn’t be able to run. An avid soccer fan, Rodriguez’s father gave him a soccer ball that he would keep with him day and night, igniting a passion for the sport that would continue until college. Overcoming his handicap, Rodriguez became a talented athlete, with offers to play in college.
“My summer internship was important for my future, but without OSU and OSU faculty supporting me, it may never have happened.”
Despite his parents’ own lack of formal education, they instilled in him a value system of diligence and a love of learning. “My dad was very focused on making sure that we were educated. In his mind, he wasn’t educated and that’s what held him back. My education was his way of ensuring I would have a life that he would want for me.”
In addition to working hard manual labor jobs to support the family, Rodriguez’s father builds custom cabinetry, which he learned and taught himself while he was working as a janitor for a construction firm. He gifted Diego his first book, an Audubon bird encyclopedia. A treasured possession, he soon became interested in the inner mechanisms of all life forms.
A stellar high school student, Rodriguez chose to come to OSU because of the research opportunities that were available at a price he could afford. “I wanted the opportunity to get experience in writing and conducting experiments that I wouldn’t be able to find in other places.”
“When I first came to OSU, I was majoring in microbiology and political science. I’ve always liked science, but I also like people and understanding how people work, so I’m very interested in the social sciences. But after freshman year, I started getting more into mechanisms and systems biology.”
“If I owe anyone for my success, present and future, it is Afua and Kari.”
Rodriguez is grateful for the mentorship and guidance provided by the Biochemistry and Biophysics Department, particularly Senior Advisor Kari van Zee, as well as Afua Nyarko, who he has worked with since his sophomore year at Oregon State.
“Without Kari, I may not have graduated. She sponsored me for scholarships, and helped me with my applications. She gave me advice, always helped me become confident, and found opportunities for me,” Rodriguez said. “If I owe anyone for my success, present and future, it is Afua and Kari.”