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Gretchen Fujimura standing outside in a white lab coat.

Prestigious Goldwater award will pave the way for developing life-saving vaccines

By Grace Peterman

Gretchen Fujimura found her niche doing research in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics.

Gretchen Fujimura is one of two Oregon State students to receive the 2022 Goldwater Scholarships, the nation’s top undergraduate award for sophomores and juniors in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Goldwater scholars are selected for their intellectual intensity in STEM, strong commitment to research and potential for significant future contribution to innovation in their fields. The award provides up to $7.5K per year for a maximum of two years for tuition, fees, books and housing expenses. Science majors have won a total of 26 Goldwater scholarships — the most at Oregon State University to date.

Fujimura's career goal is to earn a M.D./Ph.D. in Immunology with a focus on virology and biochemistry. She aspires to lead a research team developing vaccines and carrying out clinical trials at organizations such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Just writing the Goldwater application itself was valuable,” said Fujimura, an Honors student majoring in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. “It made me compile my life and research into one packet of information and reevaluate what I want to do.”

Applying for the scholarship solidified Fujimura’s decision to pursue an M.D. Ph.D. after graduation. This eight-year dual degree process will empower her to become a doctor-scientist working “from the bench to the bedside,” finding research questions with patients and bringing them back to the lab.

“I knew the Biochemistry and Biophysics Department at OSU was amazing”

Originally from Portland, Fujimura grew up with her medical assistant mother. “One time when I was in fourth or fifth grade, my mom was telling me to wash my hands,” she said. “I was like, why?” As her mom explained bacteria and viruses, Fujimura became fascinated by how non-living microbes could have such a strong effect on human health. “I ran with that and started asking my teachers all about them,” she said.

After a successful science fair that enforced her love of research, Fujimura encountered some obstacles in high school. “I took AP Chemistry my senior year and I dropped it, I hated it so much!” she said. “Biology and chemistry by themselves were both kind of boring to me.” As it turns out, the perfect fusion of the disciplines was waiting for her at Oregon State: Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

“OSU was actually the only school I applied to,” she said with a laugh. “I knew there were huge research opportunities here for undergraduates, and I knew the biochemistry department was amazing, so I definitely wanted to join that community.” When she found the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology major at Oregon State, things just started to click. This innovative, interdisciplinary major in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics provides thorough training in biochemistry, molecular and cellular biology, chemistry, molecular genetics, physics and statistics.

Sophomore year, Fujimura plugged into research through the Undergraduate Research, Scholarship and the Arts (URSA) Engage program. This program allows first- and second-year and transfer students from any college to receive funding for research and present their work. Fujimura completed her research under the mentorship of Elisar Barbar, head of the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics.

The following summer, Fujimura continued her career trajectory with the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) Science program, also with Barbar. Exclusive to the College, SURE Science allows students of any year to get paid to do full-time research over the summer with faculty from any college.

“SURE was critical for getting me to where I’m at,” Fujimura said. “It propelled my research and my ability to be a scientist so much.”

“She is honestly so amazing,” said Fujimura of her mentor. “She juggles so many things, but she still cares and pays attention to even undergraduates in our lab. She has a sense of authority and respect in our department, which is something I aspire to.”

Fujimura’s biophysics research in the Barbar lab looks at interactions between rabies virus proteins and host cells, to contribute to vaccine development for other related viruses, like Ebola and common cold viruses that cause pneumonia in vulnerable populations.

Thanks to SURE Science and travel funding from the College, Fujimura was able to attend the Biophysical Society conference last February and present her research there. “That was definitely the icing on the cake for my Goldwater application: not only had I done a lot of research, but I presented a poster at an international conference.”

At the conference, Fujimura learned about a relatively new research technique: cryogenic electron microscopy (cryo-EM). Cryo-EM allows researchers to image proteins in higher detail than any other technology, down to the level of atomic structures, by using beams of electrons rather than light. This technique may have implications in the study of neurological diseases associated with protein abnormalities, such as multiple sclerosis (MS).

“Gretchen has been highly prolific at this very early stage in her career,” said Barbar. “Two papers, one in print and one submitted, two presentations, and one in person at a major international meeting. This level of excitement, activity and engagement from an undergraduate is very exceptional and inspiring.”

Fujimura volunteers with adults who have MS at Oregon State’s Adaptive Exercise Clinic, so cryo-EM has personal relevance as well as scientific interest. “I haven’t been able to stop thinking about cryo-EM ever since the conference!” said Fujimura. Research innovation inspires and propels her through the challenges of lab life. “I spend weekends in the lab, I spend time in between classes; I go in in the morning and the evening,” she said. “I literally spent all last weekend in the lab, and all my experiments failed. A lot of research involves perseverance through the setbacks.”

“I’m their only international student going to Tokyo this year. So, I’m really hyped for that.”

Fujimura’s research enthusiasm will take her to Japan this summer for an internship at Amgen Inc., an American multinational biopharmaceutical company. “I’m their only international student going to Tokyo this year. So, I’m really hyped for that,” she said.

Fujimura’s father is Japanese, and she has extended family in Japan that she hasn’t been able to visit since before the pandemic. The internship will be a chance to develop professionally, improve her Japanese and reconnect with family.

Over the years, Fujimura has benefitted from mentors who have encouraged her to step into greater opportunities. Her first year, the Beaver Connect program helped her get involved with research. This program, which started in the College in 2018, connects new-to-OSU students, peers, and faculty members to ease the student transition to college, facilitate faculty-student interaction, and build a network of support to help all students succeed during their time at OSU.

Fujimura now serves as a peer mentor for the Beaver Connect program, encouraging other students to get the most out of their time in college. She is also president of the National Residence Hall Honorary Club, which is devoted to serving the local community and recognizing the hard work of OSU student leaders. In her free time, she plays volleyball and piano. “I try to be a well-rounded person,” she said. “Even if one aspect of life is kind of bringing me down, there are always other avenues I can go down and be successful.”

As she starts to think about applying to M.D. Ph.D. programs next year, Fujimura has a strong foundation of knowledge and habits to build on. “In my 24 years teaching and research career, I have worked with over 75 undergraduate students,” said Barbar. “Gretchen is easily at the top of this group in her motivation, ability to multi-task and energy. She knows exactly what she wants and figures out how to get there and where to get help. I am sure she will go far.”