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Tari Tan headshot.

Young Alumni Award: Excellence in neuroscience education

By Hannah Ashton

One question changed the course of Tari Tan’s (Biochemistry & Biophysics, ‘08) professional career.

Tan was a pre-med student until the fall of her senior year when her Oregon State Honors College professor asked each student to answer, “why medicine?” The common answers, “I like helping people” or “I like science,” weren’t allowed.

“That existential question threw me into an identity crisis and got me reflecting a lot on ‘Hmm, I don’t actually know why I want to do medicine. I know I really enjoy teaching and I really enjoy research,’ and then I realized there was another career path if you get a Ph.D. and go into academia, you get to do those things,” Tan said.

So she did just that. With her College of Science degree, she entered Harvard University, graduating with her Ph.D. in Neurobiology in 2016. She then began teaching “Sex, Gender and the Brain,” an upper-division undergraduate course she created.

Currently, Tan is the Harvard Program in Neuroscience associate director, director of education, and lecturer in the Department of Neurobiology. She runs a variety of programs focused on neuroscience education and making STEM education as a whole more equitable and inclusive.

“I have an incredibly fulfilling job because I am able to educate and mentor students at different stages of their careers and can help them achieve their goals, just as my excellent mentors at OSU did for me,” she said.

Tan was selected for the 2022 Young Alumni Award in the College of Science because of her extraordinary professional accomplishments achieved within a decade after graduating with her most recent degree.

The value of mentorship

Her Oregon State mentors were the backbone of her success.

“The mentors and the community I had at OSU are still very much a part of my life today. None of my friends have the same connection to their alma mater or their former professors that I do to mine,” Tan said. “Fred Stormshak, Kevin Ahern, Indira Rajagopal, Andy Karplus, all these people who I still keep in touch with. It’s unique among my colleagues, and I am very grateful for that. I think that is a special aspect of the College of Science.”

Tan started forming these connections through undergraduate research opportunities. In her freshman year she worked in two different laboratories: psychology and molecular biology.

The majority of her research occurred in Fred Stormshak’s lab in the Department of Animal and Rangeland Sciences, studying the molecular and genetic basis of sexual behavior in sheep. Tan spent three years in the lab and chose to do her honors thesis there as well.

Her proudest Oregon State accomplishment was leaving behind a legacy for other women in STEM. Tan co-founded Sigma Delta Omega, a sorority dedicated to women in science.

“It not only still exists but it is thriving, and that is probably the coolest thing for me to have been able to start something that has grown way beyond my expectations,” Tan said. “All the credit to the women who took the mantle and continued to build the organization into what it is today.”