It was a stray bullet – the product of gang violence – that left Washington State University senior Joey McDonald’s father paralyzed from the shoulders down in 2019.
“He was just working on his car,” said McDonald, whose father, John Joseph Pryor, died nearly two years later due to complications from his injuries, coupled with a bacterial infection in his lung.
McDonald, who was in his sophomore year at WSU when his father was shot, could have given up. But instead, he decided to pursue a career as a medical research scientist so he could help improve the lives of people like his father who are experiencing quadriplegia, or other types of paralysis, disability, and disease.
“I was hoping I would be able to do something before then,” McDonald said. “I’ve always wanted to go into science, but when that happened it pulled me into a certain direction.”
The first-generation college student is now on track to earn his microbiology degree from WSU’s School of Molecular Biosciences this spring. His dream is to start his own research company.
“I would specifically like to work with regeneration,” he said. “Let’s say you’re paralyzed from the neck down, I would maybe want to facilitate you getting your arms back.”
But the dream goes a little deeper.
“And if I was to start a company, I would want it to be a company that provides a community where people of all ages can come and be around science, almost like a Boys and Girls Club type of thing, where they can learn and be around science at an early age,” he said. “If I had that, things would be a lot different and a lot easier for me.”
At WSU, McDonald is building his resume by seizing the research opportunities that come his way, one of the main reasons he turned down five universities to attend WSU.
McDonald has worked at a lab each of his four years on campus, first for the United States Department of Agriculture – Agricultural Research Service Western Wheat Quality Laboratory, and now the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory.
McDonald mans the Sampling and Receiving department for the nationally recognized, accredited, full-service veterinary testing laboratory.
“I make sure we have payment, accession forms, and that we have an idea of what testing they want, then I route them to the appropriate department,” McDonald said. “I need to make sure every little detail is secure before I send it, otherwise we could lose financial standing, accreditation; it’s high stakes.”
McDonald admits he was intimidated and doubted himself at first, but now he’s confident and works comfortably with the pathologists throughout the lab.
Through all the adversity in his short time at WSU, McDonald said he’s learned to better communicate his feelings – something he’s always struggled with.
He said it started with the scientists in the lab and the musicians he connected with in the WSU Pep Band, where he has been a fixture on the drumline for three years.
“Once I learned to communicate that everything was hard, my co-workers, students, and boss were always trying to help in any way they could, including last-minute extensions,” McDonald said.
McDonald’s graduation is May 7, and he plans to become a medical laboratory scientist to gain experience before pursuing a doctorate. He said his dad would be proud.
“He just wanted me to be happy in whatever it was that I was doing, but I know he would be happy with this path I chose,” he said.