A surprising self-discovery
Author: Madison Schultz
Posted: February 6, 2019

A FEW years ago, Karen Kinnison was working an unfulfilling retail job when she had an epiphany.

“I had this job I hated and I wanted something more satisfying, something that I could see myself working at and feeling proud of the work that I had done,” Kinnison says. “I wanted to be around like-minded people, people who committed themselves to their work.”

All she needed was a mentor.

Kinnison, 33, a first-generation college student, found that mentorship at Portland State through assistant chemistry professor Marilyn Mackiewicz, who gave her a research job in her lab, and the McNair Scholars Program, which provides guidance and assistance to low-income and first-generation students who have Ph.D. aspirations. In turn, she’s gone on to mentor others.

It’s changed the trajectory of her life, but it took a while to get to this point.

Growing up in Corvallis and transferring to Jefferson in Portland during her senior year in high school, Kinnison didn’t see herself working in science. She struggled through algebra, hated math in general, and didn’t finish the requirements to graduate. She eventually got her GED.

“I think what really derailed me from finishing high school and immediately pursuing college was that I was sick and tired of my teachers and my parents telling me that I had to get this diploma and go to college,” Kinnison says. “They were like, ‘This is the only option you have or you’re going to work at McDonald's.

“Being the rebellious teenager I was, I said, ‘I’m never going to work at McDonald's, and I’m not gonna get my degree, and I’m gonna show you.’ My natural talents leaned toward the arts, and I was not encouraged to pursue those dreams. I felt like my dreams were being crushed.”

Kinnison had a difficult home life at the time and felt unsupported at school.

“If I’d had someone to go to, a mentor to look up to, maybe things would have gone differently,” Kinnison says. “But I just felt like I didn’t have a lot of guidance.”

IT COULD have been just gaining some maturity, or maybe it was wanting to escape the job she hated, but in her late 20s, Kinnison made the decision to go to college. She started taking classes at Portland Community College, completed her associate’s degree in 2014, and transferred to Portland State. She’s currently pursuing a bachelor’s in chemistry and expects to graduate in December 2019.

Despite her previous problems in math, she found herself gravitating toward the sciences and began attending Women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) meetings on campus. That’s when she met Mackiewicz, who gave a presentation on mentorship. For Kinnison, it was serendipity—Mackiewicz had an opening in her lab, so Kinnison began working as an undergraduate research assistant, studying nanoparticles.

Her research on using nanostructured materials for biomedical applications went so well that she presented it at the second annual American Chemical Society meeting at PSU; the 2016 Sigma Xi Research Symposium, where she won a first-place award; and at the 253rd American Chemical Society national meeting and exposition in San Francisco. 

In October 2016, Kinnison was named a McNair scholar, which included a stipend that allowed her to continue studying nanoparticles full-time over the summer under Mackiewicz. Kinnison’s fellow McNair scholars had faced similar challenges and obstacles to find success in their fields, and she enjoyed getting to know them.

“I can’t speak for everyone in the program, but I struggled through a lot of insecurity and self-doubt and feeling like I don’t belong here,” Kinnison says. “I was never interested in science in high school; it wasn’t something that I went straight into. With those types of struggles, you’re constantly questioning yourself. So, it’s really helpful to have consistent support.”

IN ADDITION to finding her own mentors, Kinnison has worked as a mentor to others. From September 2017 through June 2018, she worked with Build EXITO, a program that helps undergraduate students develop as researchers. As a peer mentor, she met one-on-one and in groups with her mentees and helped design and lead workshops on subjects such as personal development and dealing with the same kinds of self-doubt that she had experienced.

“It’s harder to go back to college when you have a life established as opposed to being a kid right out of high school,” Kinnison says. “But programs like McNair, EXITO—the people who provide those programs are doing a lot to try to support people like me.”

Kinnison also credits her professors and other students at PSU who had similar life experiences to hers with allowing her to flourish and feel like part of a community, even while she works full-time to help pay for classes. At her current job, Kinnison does plant tissue cultures as a laboratory technician for a company called Phytelligence. Although it doesn’t involve chemistry, the job works with her class schedule, and she enjoys getting to wear a lab coat with her name on it. 

“I never felt like an outsider [at PSU] just because I was older,” Kinnison says. “A lot of the professors are pretty understanding and accessible if you work a full-time job, or if you have kids. But I would say there are times when I obviously get down on myself, when I wish I had just done this when I was younger.”

ALTHOUGH Kinnison’s path toward graduation has been longer and more circuitous than most, the careful balance of work, classes, research and extracurricular activities has paid dividends. Contrary to what she believed in high school, she actually enjoys math—she’s aced every class she’s taken up through calculus—and her research experience in the Mackiewicz lab will give her a leg up over other students when she does graduate.

“I tell my mom, ‘Man, I just wanted to be graduated sooner, and I’m really struggling toward the end here with these last few classes. I just don’t want you to think I’m a loser,’” Kinnison says. 

“And she says, ‘I can’t possibly think of you as a loser. You’ve done so much, you’ve come so far.’”

Madison Schultz is a graduate assistant in the Office of University Communications.

Caption: Chemistry major Karen Kinnison designs nano-scale drug delivery applications in a PSU laboratory, where she was a research assistant. Photo by NashCO photography.