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From research to winemaking, Rachel Palmer has finally found the career that feels 'just right'

By Emily Osborne

Rachel Palmer, the new assistant director of career development in the College of Science has always "hit the ground running" and has no intention of slowing down. In this new position, Palmer aims to educate students on the importance of career development.

Since graduating in 2015 with her bachelor's degree in Biology, with an option in Marine Biology from Oregon State University she has explored a number of career tracks, from working as a research assistant to working at a vineyard. Her new position, she says, feels just right.

Gearing up

Palmer entered the 2022-2023 academic year ready to get her name out to students and start building a program to meet College of Science students’ career goals. One of her first steps has been reaching out to each department in the College to learn more about the specific needs of each major.

"My goal with that is to gain some background knowledge in all of our fabulous departments and create a culture in career development where all of our faculty partners are on board with career programming and career forward-thinking," Palmer said.

With a full arsenal of information, Palmer is now planning several alumni panels and workshops to highlight what students can do with degrees from the College of Science. The panels will highlight the accomplishments of recent graduates, some of whom have graduate degrees and others who do not, to illustrate the variety of career possibilities available. She is also planning out workshops where students can hear about some of the lesser-talked-about careers in science.

"I hope that these initiatives help build confidence in students about their abilities to navigate careers," she said.

From testing the waters to helping students ride the wave

As an undergraduate at Oregon State, Palmer worked as a student ambassador and research assistant. While serving as an undergraduate research assistant she worked in a Chinook salmon lab and an Aiptasia anemone lab. After completing her Master of Science from Portland State University, she began working as a research assistant in the Phibro Animal Health, an animal health company helping to coordinate and schedule research studies, ensure laboratory safety and proper data collection.

"When I was a first-year at Oregon State I was dead set, blinders on, running as fast as I could to becoming a Marine Biology professor. There was full stop, nothing else in the world I wanted and I wouldn't listen to anything else. I really wish that I had just taken time to pursue my interests, but also be open to other experiences."

Looking back on her time she believes that if she had taken the blinders off, she could have more meaningfully reflected on what she enjoyed and what she was gaining energy from.

Wanting to try something entirely new, Palmer then worked as a harvest intern/enologist at Lachini Vineyards, a local winery. This role entailed fruit sampling and sorting, laboratory analysis, punchdowns, barrel and racking and taught her about the ins and outs of being a winemaker.

These experiences helped her realize that research and winemaking were not things that she wanted to do forever, so in 2019, she found her way back to Oregon State as an academic advisor in the Department of Integrative Biology.

While in this role, she participated in an Oregon State young alumni career panel. This experience was the initial spark that working in advising, and now career development was something she would enjoy doing.

"When I got to meet with those individuals, the Integrated Professional Development team, I started thinking about new ways to talk about those careers and then teaching was when I first got the chance to lead those discussions and I took off from there."

She also taught Professional Development I: Biology and Zoology, a required course for all majors in the Department of Integrative Biology. The course introduces students to life science careers that are outside of human health professions. The course puts an emphasis on exploring relevant social and cognitive concepts and gets students to engage in experiential learning and networking. Palmer then had the opportunity to develop the Ecampus version of the course. This online version is a key part of Oregon State's online Zoology degree, which is the only one of its kind in the country. This experience cemented Palmer's desire to work with students and help them navigate their careers. In 2022, Palmer received the Olaf Boedtker Award for Excellence in Academic Advising, a testament to her dedication and passion for working with students.

Palmer has not had a straight career path, and she will always be the first to point this out - whether at student orientation presentations or in her meetings with students. She wants them to know that careers rarely follow a straight line. When she shares her own story, she is often met with a return of vulnerability and connection from students. Getting to have these one-on-one meetings with students and getting to hear what they are excited about is Palmer's favorite part of her job.

Palmer wants to; normalize conversations around failure, uncertainty and imposter syndrome. Palmer is also keenly aware of her own experiences working and listening to students from diverse backgrounds has helped her to gain an understanding of students' considerations and needs as they pertain to career explorations, coursework and overall experiences at Oregon State University.

"My favorite part of this work is the privilege to interact with students every day," Palmer said.

You live, you learn, you share

Palmer advises her students to frame their careers as hypothesis testing.

"With a career goal I want everyone to view it as a hypothesis," she said. "Then, once you have that hypothesis, your goal is to be out there data collecting and doing the work to see if that is true."

She wants people to keep working on experiences and courses that might support or refute that hypothesis. Palmer also likes to point out to her students that a hypothesis can be revised - and so can a career plan.

One of the best pieces of advice Palmer offers to her students is a piece of advice she received as an undergraduate, which is not to pursue a graduate degree unless you know why you want it.

She also heavily encourages students to explore different opportunities and experiences, even if they do not see a direct connection to their career goals, because skills are transferrable. After her winding path from research to grape harvesting to advising she has finally found the answer to her hypothesis, and it feels great.