The intern diaries: “Research is about diving into the unknown, and the unknown is where I learn the most”

By Riley Omonaka

At the end of every semester, when the dorms close on Linfield University’s campus, I drive a few hours north from McMinnville, Oregon to my hometown in Washington. The drive is gorgeous, I love watching the sun set over Oregon vineyards and seeing the trees roll by as I head home. My drive almost always takes me through Portland past exit 287, where in bold white letters the exit sign says “OHSU.”

Every time I’ve driven home for the last three years that sign stands out to me, the letters are bright against the dark green background. The exit sign reminds me of the Oregon Health & Science University campus itself. The clean, crisp buildings stand out amongst the trees and greenery. On the hill, research centers and hospitals stand glittering, elevated above all of the other buildings. OHSU buildings seem intimidating in and of themselves, like intelligence was mixed with the cement that laid their foundations and scientific rigor reinforces the walls. I wasn’t sure what sort of people worked in this fortress of science and medicine, but I wasn’t convinced I would ever be cut out to be one of them.

And truthfully, I’m not. Yet. When my mentor at Linfield suggested I pursue a summer internship at OHSU through the Murdock Scholars’ program, I was skeptical I would get in. The exposure to research that I had thus far was casual and fun. Time spent in the lab was an extension of the things I learned in lecture. I love learning about biology, but I was unconvinced that I had a future working in the field. To my surprise and delight I got into the program and was assigned to Dr. Beth Habecker’s lab.

My excitement was quickly dampened by dread and anxiety. OHSU looked like a castle in the sky and I felt wholly unequipped to hold my own in a serious lab. I knew I would make mistakes, but that wasn’t what was causing my uneasiness. I was more worried about how my coworkers would react to a novice. Would they think I was deadweight? Would they get frustrated by my confusion? Ultimately the answers to both those doubting questions (and the hundred others I had) were no. Maybe I got lucky, but the Habecker lab is filled with curiosity and kindness.

More than just being kind, the people here are interesting. I’m learning about so much more than how to pipette and make solutions. I’m learning about how others got to where they are, or how they decided where they’re going. I’ve learned that there are so many different paths I can pursue. When I tell people about my summer job, I’m filled with immense gratitude. I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn about myself and hone my skills. I’m grateful for the stories that my labmates share with me. I’m even grateful that I get to talk about one of my favorite television shows with my boss (because, plot twist, researchers are people, too).

Don’t get me wrong, it can still be intimidating reporting my mistakes to my brilliant superiors, yet that little bit of anxiety dissolves when my lab mates work with me to solve the problem. They’re so patient and answer all of my silly questions. I’m not sure what the rest of this summer holds for me, but I am so excited to find out. I think the thing that made me the most nervous was the unknown. I was going into this internship with no expectation to succeed and I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. There have been many (many) lessons I’ve learned this summer, but maybe the most important one so far has been this: research is about diving into the unknown. So, while I may make mistakes and be frustrated at moments, the unknown is where I learn the most.

I feel like a small part of me will always drive past the campus in awe, but it’s different now. I know that the sparkling windows and prestige of the institution only scratch the surface of what OHSU has to offer. Those things are nice yes, but the quality of the people I have met at OHSU far surpasses the shiny buildings in value. Above all else, I’m grateful for the time I get to spend learning from, talking to, and laughing with everyone in the Habecker lab.

Linfield University student Riley Omonaka is a Murdock Scholar interning at OHSU this summer. The Murdock Undergraduate Collaborate Research Program is designed for talented students in their junior year from Corban University, George Fox University, Lewis & Clark College, Linfield College, Pacific University, University of Portland, Warner Pacific College, and Willamette University who are interested in pursuing a career in biomedical research, particularly those who are considering graduate school or an M.D./Ph.D. program. Students participate in ongoing research projects with investigators at OHSU and are paid a stipend. 

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