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Kendra Yasui

BioHealth Sciences senior breaks down barriers to bring healing and science education

By Tom Henderson

The future Dr. Kendra Yasui began her medical education during her early years working in her family's orchard near Hood River, Oregon.

"I grew up picking and sorting cherries, and my coworkers and I all spoke in Spanish," said Yasui, who graduated this spring from OSU. "It was very interesting to hear all their different life stories."

Yet she worried about the other workers.

"I've seen a lot of folks who haven't been able to access health-care providers who speak their language or understand their culture, so my hope is to be able to provide health care for those folks in Spanish," Yasui said.

She graduated with two bachelor’s degrees through the OSU Honors College. One is in biohealth sciences with a minor in chemistry, an option in pre-medicine and a certificate in medical humanities. Her other degree is in Spanish.

"I'm most interested in emergency medicine," Yasui said. "That's an area where being able to speak to someone in their first language is particularly useful. I'm also interested in primary care or internal medicine."

Yasui has begun applying for medical school. If she's accepted, she will start next summer. In the meantime, she is moving to Worcester, Massachusetts, to live with her sister.

She said she wants to obtain a medical degree while simultaneously earning a master's degree in public health. One of her academic choices is the University of California at Davis. "I would be excited to get in anywhere," she said.

However, she added she would also love to return to Oregon.

"If I do emergency medicine, I think Oregon Health & Science University would be super-interesting," Yasui said. "They get a lot of interesting cases. If I end up in the primary care or internal medicine side, perhaps I would go closer to Hood River."

Communicating the pandemic

Although she was born in Pendleton, the Hood River Valley has been her home most of her life. Her mother, a former English-as-a-second-language teacher, is the principal of Mid-Valley Elementary School in Hood River. Her father is a paramedic.

Yasui graduated from Hood River Valley High School and came to OSU in 2019.

"It was cheaper than the other options," she said. "I also really liked the campus. It's quite pretty out here. I thought I could be close to home, at least for a little while. I drove through Corvallis one time and thought, 'Yes, I could do that.'"

She was president of the OSU Blood Drive Association in 2022-2023 and the secretary the previous year. She was also a member of the OSU Bioethics Society.

The Blood Drive Association organizes one blood drive on campus per term. Students in the association recruit volunteers and donors and staff the event as well. The first five or six weeks of the term are spent getting set up, reaching out to classes and doing presentations. The drive lasts a full week.

Members of the Bioethics Society meet once a week for most of the term. They pick a topic or a case study and learn about it before discussing it through the lenses of biology, biotechnology, genetics, medicine, philosophy, politics, law and other relevant disciplines.

"It's very informal, but the ethical concerns we discuss are interesting, like allocation of resources or balancing patient autonomy," Yasui said.

Like most university students at this moment in history, Yasui's education was significantly affected by the pandemic.

She was working as a medication technician at Corvallis Caring Place, an assisted living facility, when the pandemic started. She put in excruciating hours for a year and a half, but that was only part of her work during the crisis.

"I've heard everything from vaccines being full of mercury to we're trying to put computer chips in people. I've heard all of that. My role is a lot of correcting misinformation, a lot of saying, 'Here's the science that I have. Here's what I can offer."

She also began working for the Oregon Health Authority through the OSU Center for Health Innovation in 2021. The university and the state agency created what they called the Surge Bench Team to provide direct COVID assistance.

"I've had some extraordinarily unique opportunities to see chaos in motion and also some teamwork on these massive projects," Yasui said of her ongoing efforts with the program.

"For the first six months, I did case investigations," she said. "I would call folks who tested positive for COVID and ask them questions, identifying who their contacts might have been, offering wrap-around resources, that sort of thing."

She also helped people gain access to vaccines if they had mobility issues and other barriers.

Her work took her to Umatilla County to take part in a rapid community assessment project through the Centers for Disease Control. "That was going door-to-door, just seeing if we could get people to answer some survey questions about their opinions about vaccines," she said.

In all, Yasui worked on four projects during her first six months. For the past year and a half, she's been assigned to the COVID Feedback Team. The team answers people's COVID questions via voicemail, email and plain old-fashioned mail.

Yasui said she seldom worried about contracting COVID herself. "I was less worried about myself than I was in my ability to transmit it to others," she said.

"Everyone I was with was very supportive of the work I was doing, but I also didn't go home for the first year and a half," she added. "I was in the dorms, basically on my own for the first several months. I didn't see anyone for a long time."

Yasui has spent much of the past three years combatting misinformation. "I've heard everything from vaccines being full of mercury to we're trying to put computer chips in people," she said. "I've heard all of that. My role is a lot of correcting misinformation, a lot of saying, 'Here's the science that I have. Here's what I can offer."

Although she's not concerned about her own safety, Yasui said she remains concerned about other people's safety even as the pandemic winds down.

"I wear my mask everywhere," she said. "I'm just now at the point where, if I'm at the library at 7:30 in the morning on a Friday or Saturday morning when there's no one there, I may take my mask off. I wear my mask everywhere. There's still enough of COVID circulating.

"I've gotten used to being one of the only people in a classroom who is masked," she added.

For all the horrors of COVID, Yasui said it has been amazing to be actively involved in history. "I feel like I ended up with a much different experience than I would have gotten three and a half, four years ago," she said.

Yasui will stay in Corvallis a bit longer. For the next month or so, she will be defending her Honors College thesis on using community voices to build public trust. Much of it is based on the feedback she's received while working for the Oregon Health Authority, she said.

"If anything, I'm more excited to do more with more education"

That work will also continue through a Health Authority project to reassess people for Medicare, Medicaid and the Oregon Health Plan as the worst of the pandemic dissipates.

For all the work she has put in through the rigors of her undergraduate education – especially in the grip of a health crisis of historic proportions – Yasui said she's eager to keep going.

"If anything, I'm more excited to do more with more education," she said.