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Alyssa Pratt stands in front of a pole with a sign that reads "We did it." She is wearing her graduation cap and gown.

Biochemistry and computer science senior bridges gap between the byte and the gene

By Emily Osborne

Goldwater scholar and graduating senior Alyssa Pratt has always had a love for the sciences. She started with a love for the stars and now spends her day in the cyberspace realm with her double major in computer science and biochemistry and molecular biology at Oregon State University.

“I really liked the idea of being behind the scenes and making things happen,” she said.

During late middle school and early high school, Pratt’s love for biology grew exponentially. She was taking classes that fueled her interests in the lowest levels of biology.

Pratt soon landed herself in the Extreme Virus lab at Portland State University the summer before her junior year in high school. She calls this lab the defining moment of her current path. During this summer internship, Pratt was working with environmental DNA to research cruciviruses, small DNA viruses that are likely the result of a DNA-RNA hybridization event. She continued working with the lab over the course of her senior year and began looking into what a computational biology lab at Oregon State looks like.

It was also during this internship that Pratt met some of her biggest influences. Her mentors at this lab were supportive in teaching her about the field, encouraged her to see herself as a scientist and helped Pratt come to the decision to pursue a Ph.D.

Alyssa Pratt holding a fishing rod near a river.

Alyssa Pratt stands on the side of a river holding a device used to catch specimens during her summer internship with the Extreme Virus Lab at Portland State University.

The impact of mentorship

While the path to studying biology was straightforward for Pratt, her journey to find computer science was more like hiking a mountain. She was interested in computer science early on, but acknowledges she felt excluded from it during middle school and high school.

During an outreach opportunity in high school, she realized that she still loved the field as she helped expose other young girls to computer science and electronics. “That gave me the confidence to pursue computer science, and I knew that it was something that I could do,” she said. When she got to Oregon State, she realized she had the capacity and determination to take on a double degree.

Pratt’s science-loving heart has only grown bigger with her love for computational biology in college. In fact, a couple of her favorite courses include algorithms and computational molecular biology. She found the classes to be enjoyable and they synthesized a lot of her previous learning. She also enjoyed a wilderness first aid course during her freshman year, appreciating how different it was from her other classes.

Community and mentorship have been keys to her success in college. From people in research to her professors and her mentor, their support and encouragement throughout her journey has had a huge impact.

Many of her professors have been exceptional but one in particular stands out—Lauren Dalton, an instructor in the biochemistry and biophysics department. Pratt was first introduced to Dalton through her molecular biology and scientific theory class, taught virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite being virtual, Dalton made Pratt’s classes very interactive.

If great professors weren’t enough, Pratt has also had a great mentor in her time at Oregon State, Dave Hendrix, a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics.

Alyssa Pratt points to a computer screen sitting at a desk next to Dave Hendrix.

Alyssa Pratt and her mentor Dave Hendrix working on a laptop.

She first met Hendrix when she was touring Oregon State during her senior year of high school.

That single interaction with Hendrix sparked her interest in his work and she was able to get back in touch with him when she joined the Beaver family. Pratt has worked alongside Hendrix for the last four years and was able to participate in the URSA (Undergraduate Research, Scholarship and the Arts) engage program through his lab. This program allows first- and second-year and transfer students from any college to receive funding for research and present their work.

Pratt joined the Hendrix lab just before the pandemic. This led to a lot of remote work writing code, running computational experiments, visualizing outputs and analyzing results. “Despite working remotely, it has been a very supportive environment and one where I feel comfortable making mistakes and challenging myself,” she said.

"I think OSU is very accepting and encouraging of women in STEM and providing access. I have been really thankful for that, particularly within the College of Science and the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics."

“He’s been really great in helping me develop a lot of my skills throughout these last four years and has encouraged me to go present at conferences and really advance my research and my professional development,” she said.

Part of that development included attending the 2023 American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology conference. Pratt enjoyed attending with people from the department and watching the different information sessions.

“I could really apply everything I’ve learned in my major to understand it and keep up with everything. It was exciting to realize how much I have learned in the past four years,” she said.

The conference also allowed her to engage in some good scientific conversations,and learn about some fields of research she had only seen in class. The cherry on top was feeling the conference reaffirmed she is in the right field.

In the future, she hopes that her path leads to more opportunities where she can help make science more efficient and collaborative. She also wants to work on software and computational research that involves both experimental and computational scientists.

Alyssa Pratt at a conference.

Alyssa Pratt (far left), Dave Hendrix and a Ph.D. student pose for a photo during the 2022 RNA Conference in Boulder, Colorado.

Helping the next generation

Based on her own K-12 experience and her role as a woman in STEM, Pratt believes more could be done to improve the way that science is perceived during K-12. Increasing community accessibility, especially in communication, is an important goal to Pratt.

“I think OSU is very accepting and encouraging of women in STEM and providing access. I have been really thankful for that, particularly within the College of Science and the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics,” she said.

Pratt’s work with SMILE, Science & Math Investigative Learning Experiences, and the Oregon State Office of Precollege Programs has already helped her make progress toward making science more accessible to youth.

She has been working with SMILE since her freshman year and saw it as an opportunity to have a creative outlet that was still connected to STEM and youth outreach. Pratt does media design for the program, engaging in areas such as making videos, working on their webpage and creating graphics.

“I really enjoy it because I get to work on something that is still helping youth get into science, but in a way that is not just doing research,” she said.

Pratt plans to apply to Ph.D. programs in computational biology in the fall.

With her love for the sciences and passion for outreach, Alyssa Pratt wants to create a world where a younger version of herself, who loved the stars, knows she can be a scientist.