Christopher Oribaza, a fourth-year health studies student at Boise State University, has been working with chemistry Professor Owen McDougal to study the dietary supplement Kratom as part of his Ralph Jones Fellowship.
We asked Oribaza some questions about his experience. Read on to see what he had to say!
What kind of project are you working on with Dr. McDougal? And can you share a short overview of the research?
In Dr. McDougal’s lab, we have been working with a dietary supplement called Kratom. It is a plant that originates from southeast Asia. This plant has dose-dependent effects. This means that at low doses, it has a stimulant-like effect, and at high doses, it has an opioid-like effect.
Here in the US, there is no regulation at a federal level. This means that anyone can access it unless there is regulation at the state or local level. This also means there is no quality control. We are currently testing the hypothesis that since there is no quality control for Kratom in the United States, there will be variation in the amount of eight active compounds called alkaloids between and within commercially available Kratom products.
What is the main role you have been given as a fellow in Dr. McDougal’s lab?
The primary role I was given was to work as a research technician. This consists of looking through literature to see what other researchers have used in the past to extract the alkaloids from Kratom, modifying their methods to suit our needs best and testing them.
Sometimes there won’t be any valuable studies or information in any research databases, leading us to create our own methods from scratch. My coworkers and I would then test these methods and observe what happens so we could later optimize them if they worked.
Now that you have spent a great deal of time in Dr. McDougal’s lab and with the research, what interests you most about the project?
Method development and learning how to use all the machines were what interested me the most in the lab. The reason these two things were interesting to me was that it allowed me to use the knowledge I had gathered from my studies here at Boise State to create a method that would solve actual problems that have real-life consequences. I had never conducted research before this opportunity and I never realized how enjoyable it could be.
When (and why) did you first know you wanted to study health and medicine?
I first realized that I wanted to study health and medicine around high school when I took my first course in anatomy and physiology. It was one of those classes that I took out of curiosity. At that time I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I got out of high school.
I slowly started to enjoy learning about all the different structures inside the human body, how these structures influence their function and how these same structures can malfunction or be attacked by foreign bodies which can lead to sickness and death. My desire to know more about the human body and how it functions was the catalyst that eventually led me to pursue the medical field.
What skills have you learned throughout this research experience that you’ll take into a future career?
One of the more important skills I have learned through my research experience is patience.
The unfortunate thing about research is that you can’t do everything quickly and you need to take your time to plan out what you are going to do and how you are going to do it. Sometimes a machine can take hours to days to complete its task.
I also learned a bit about working independently. When developing methods, I would be allowed to develop one alone. This gave me the freedom to pursue ideas that I thought could be fruitful, but it also meant that my coworkers wouldn’t know what I was doing completely and wouldn’t be able to help me as much. One of the things I am proud of is that I developed the first extraction method we used to extract the alkaloids from the Kratom plant.
What advice would you give to other students thinking about applying to the Ralph Jones Fellowship?
Some advice that I would give to other students applying to the Ralph Jones fellowship is that science is never a straight line. There will be many bumps and turns along the way. Sometimes the thing you are working on will fail over and over again, but you just have to persevere.
Depending on what lab you get placed in, they might be barely starting a new project from scratch. This could lead to a very slow startup, but, if you give it time, it will turn out to be a great experience!
Has working on this research project changed your view of the medical field in any way?
This has changed my view on how the medical field functions in the background. You usually hear about doctors and nurses when you learn about the medical field, but that’s not the entire story.
Lab techs and researchers are one of the cornerstones of the medical field. Being in the lab gave me some insight into the processes and machinery that lab techs use and the processes that researchers use to make discoveries. All this has shown me that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to the medical field.
What was your favorite takeaway from this fellowship?
My favorite takeaway from this fellowship was that research can be an enjoyable experience and it is something I can see myself doing in the future. I never really saw myself doing research while I was at college. It wasn’t until I was nearing graduation that it dawned on me that I needed to do research in order to be competitive when signing up for medical school.
Adding a small amount to the knowledge we as humans have collected is gratifying in a way. I got to work with like-minded people and learn so much from them. This fellowship gave me the opportunity to explore things that I never considered and for that, I am truly grateful.