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A woman with a dark t-shirt and pulled back hair smiles widely at the camera, the cityscape of Paris blurred in a sunset behind her.

Microbiology pre-med senior pursues passion for patient care

By Elana Roldan

At times, medicine can feel like a paradox. Everything is built around a patient’s well-being, yet, it may gradually become easier for practitioners to focus on physical issues rather than emotional ones.

Microbiology senior Catherine Sterrett remembers a time when medicine for her had boiled down to colorless facts from a book — these symptoms meant this condition which meant this treatment. But after she found herself in a hospital as a patient, not a scientist, her greatest motivation became bringing humanity into medicine.

“You get focused on school and academics and everything from books and paper versus the real human experience of being scared in the hospital, not knowing what's going to happen,” she said. “To me, it highlighted some of the issues that happen when you're the patient in the bed and how I want to go forward to be better.”

After she graduates this June, Sterrett will be heading to Western University of Health Sciences for medical school. The opportunities she’s had and the impact she leaves behind at OSU have built the path forward to her career. Working in this field calls for kindness and trust, Sterrett says, and she plans to bring both in spades.

Two sides of medicine

Before she came to Oregon State, Sterrett took community college courses through her high school for three years. When graduation rolled around and she prepared to head to Corvallis, her plans (much like everyone else’s) were abruptly cut short by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Still, she refused to let this keep her from finding a community.

Sigma Delta Omega is a sorority dedicated to women in STEM and is exclusive to Oregon State University. As an unhoused sorority, it was a perfect match while Sterrett lived in Portland, Oregon during her first year.

“I ended up reaching out and going to recruitment. For me, it was one of the most amazing decisions I could have made,” she said. “I got into the Zoom room and got to talk to people who wanted to talk to me, who were there to make friends. That's the whole point.”

Before she’d even had a year under her belt, Sterrett decided to become the membership development chair for SDO. She organized conversations between other pre-med members and health care alumni, helping students see different routes they could take in medicine and giving them the chance to network with professionals from many fields.

Later, she transitioned into philanthropy co-chair and organized one of the sorority’s most profitable events, a Halloween porch decorating contest, which raised money for the precollege OSU Stem Academy program.

A group of students dressed in dark shirts and jackets, jeans and a few Halloween costumes gather beneath vibrant fall trees. They stand on the sidewalk of a street lined with houses and lawns that are covered in leaves. A black dog with a graying muzzle sits in front of the group wearing a jack-o-lantern costume.

SDO members dress up for the sorority’s first-ever porch decorating competition co-organized by Sterrett.

But halfway through her time at Oregon State, she faced an obstacle she’d never seen coming.

“I unfortunately had to go to the ICU with sepsis and pneumonia and have emergency surgery during winter term of my second year. And boy, does that mess some things up,” she recalled.

Out of the whirlwind of emotions this brought, the most potent were shock and fear. Going from worrying about tests to worrying about the safety of her own body was rattling. While in the hospital, Sterrett saw two very different ways professionals approached patient care.

“I had some medical practitioners who did an extremely good job at interacting with me, explaining things to me and making sure I was in the loop, and then I'd have other people who would basically just do things to me in the hospital. Like, do medical procedures and not even speak a word to me, which is — especially when you can't communicate, because I had oxygen in and I had a very hard time talking for the first week that I was there — is scary and overwhelming,” she said.

Fortunately, her partner, roommate and family were there to help her navigate the difficult circumstances. Several weeks later, she recovered enough to be discharged and eventually resume school. It was an exhausting experience to say the least, but when she did return, her resolve toward quality patient care had grown exponentially stronger. It has even influenced the specialty she wants to pursue.

“I think it can be very easy during pre-med to become very detached,” she said. “I like being able to cultivate that relationship with people and build that trust, which you can do as a family practitioner when you're seeing people over long periods of time.”

Support and success

Now that she’s reached the finish line at Oregon State, Sterrett is especially grateful for the work she’s done with College of Science faculty.

During fall term in 2021, she started working with Ryan Mueller from the microbiology department after meeting him at a research mixer. It was a particularly exciting opportunity because the project they tackled was completely new, meaning they worked together to get it running. She even developed a cost-friendly method of creating anaerobic media for bacteria that would otherwise die in the presence of oxygen, a method also used successfully later in a graduate student’s research.

In her microbiology classes, professors Allison Evans and Linda Bruslind brought a joy to teaching and didn’t hesitate to support students however they could. Evans even wrote her a letter of recommendation for her medical school application.

“Allison Evans and Linda Bruslind are the two best teachers at OSU hands down. They are the best people ever,” she said. “Allison Evans is one of the most friendly people you've ever met. She will talk to you whenever, and she's just so nice. Linda's the same way. They're both so happy and excited to help you.”

Two people gather at a microscope, one with long, curly hair pulled back looking intently into the lens, one with mid-length hair overlooking the other. The microscope is on a table with various other metal pieces of equipment and plastic bottles.

Sterrett, president of the Microbiology Student Association, uses a microscope at the club's Spring Microscopy Night.

With the support of her science mentors, the skills of a strong leader and a passion for helping those who need it, Sterrett’s leap beyond her bachelor’s is sure to land somewhere she will thrive.