August: Meet Laura Syron

BIOGRAPHY
Laura Syron is a Research Assistant in the School of Biological and Population Health Sciences at Oregon State University. A fifth-generation Oregonian, in 2008 she earned a BA from the University of Oregon with majors in Philosophy, Political Science, and Spanish, and a minor in Latin American Studies. As an undergraduate, she studied in Quito, Ecuador and completed an internship in Santiago, Chile.  In 2010, she earned a Master’s degree in Public Health from Oregon State University, with a focus on International Health. After completing her MPH, she worked for law firms in Alaska and Oregon. Currently, she is continuing her graduate studies in the Environmental and Occupational Health program at Oregon State University.  

PROFESSIONAL JOURNEY
An important “Aha!” moment occurred during the first year of my environmental and occupational health program. A faculty member had emailed graduate students about an opportunity to prepare a report on nanotechnology safety. Although I had been interested in this topic for a few years, I convinced myself that I was unqualified for the task because I did not have expertise in nanotechnology. So, I decided not to apply. Months later, I learned that a male colleague had completed the report. “Wait, what?” I thought. “He’s not an expert on nanotechnology!” In fact, he had less experience in risk assessment than I did. “Why did he get to do the report?” I wondered. The answer was simple, once I took a minute to think about it. Whereas my colleague had valued his skills at synthesizing scientific literature and applied for the opportunity, I had self-selected out of it, for fear that I was not one-hundred percent qualified. 

Since that enlightening experience with the report, I have reflected on examples of confident professional women who have not allowed doubt to hold them back. Thankfully, I’ve encountered many such people.  My mother grew up poor and was the first person in her family to attend college. Having faced struggles as a young person, she always encouraged and supported my educational and professional goals. I’ve worked in a wide variety of jobs since entering the workforce at 14 years old. These experiences taught me to respect the daily struggles faced by low-income workers. Having the opportunity to study and travel as a young person was a privilege.

As an undergraduate student, spending time in South America changed my life. Traveling abroad, learning another language, and experiencing different cultures and worldviews were invaluable. Cultural humility became a key to being an effective professional. While studying abroad in Quito, Ecuador I became interested in the field of public health. After returning home with a newfound passion for preventing adverse health outcomes (i.e., pain and suffering), I applied for an internship at Fundación Educación Popular en Salud (EPES) in Santiago, Chile. There I had the privilege to learn from inspirational women who had fought for human rights during the dictatorship and continued to work tirelessly for all peoples’ dignity and health. This was my first experience with the concepts involved in community-based participatory research. 
During my master’s program, amazing professors introduced me to the field of environmental and occupational health. I interned at Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW) and learned how partners throughout the world utilized strong scientific evidence and legal advocacy to improve the well-being of entire populations. Later, while working for law firms I witnessed the same commitment to fighting for clients’ best interests. A desire to expand my quantitative and research skills ultimately led me back to OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences.

Over the past two years, the Principal Investigator on my research projects has challenged me to continue growing as a professional. She encourages me to present research findings at conferences, collaborate with other professionals in State and Federal agencies, and take on leadership roles. These roles have included working with fellow committee members to revitalize the American Society of Safety Engineers student group, acting as a steward for the Coalition of Graduate Employees, and joining the Graduate Student Council. Volunteering at the campus’s Writing Center has been truly enjoyable and a wonderful way to interact with students outside of my field. 

As I continue along my professional journey, it becomes more and more clear that the problems we face can only be solved through partnerships and multidisciplinary collaboration. When I feel overwhelmed that there is not enough time to “learn everything,” my PI points out that we cannot be experts in everything, so our true goal is to learn how to work with each other.

ADVICE
1. Make time for activities that you find intellectually stimulating or provide a sense of personal satisfaction. This helps to avoid burnout during periods of intense stress. 
2. Even if you experience “imposter syndrome” when presented with an exciting but intimidating professional opportunity, be confident in your abilities and have the courage to apply for it. Do not cheat yourself out of a great experience!

Contact Information: Laura.Syron@oregonstate.edu

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