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Fearless Curiosity

Picture of Phoebe Oldach

Phoebe Oldach '13.

Fulbright scholar Phoebe Oldach '13's bold path to success

by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson

Picture of Phoebe Oldach
Phoebe Oldach ’13 doesn’t just talk with her hands. She talks with her pen—accompanying every in-depth explanation with a brisk doodle or scrawl that visualizes her point.

By the end of our hour together, she’s filled a once-pristine sheet of computer paper with illustrations of chemical chains, fish fins and toxic-waste dump sites—a visual guide to a conversational path that takes several small detours, but in the end, progresses to one destination: a Fulbright award.

It’s a good basic analogy for her academic career. After exploring several related areas of interest at Dickinson—each experience leading to the next—Oldach will work as a Fulbright scholar at the University of Delhi, performing research that combines her passions and skills in cutting-edge ways.

Beautiful structures

A tutor in chemistry and teaching assistant in biology, Oldach began at Dickinson as an environmental-science major, but soon learned that her true calling lay elsewhere. “I’m still passionate about environmental causes, but I just fell in love with organic chemistry and biochemistry, because I like getting things down to basic principles and then applying them to a large set of scenarios,” she explains. “You learn the basics—the patterns—and then you can take on this whole universe of molecules and get creative. It’s beautiful to see how the structures work.”  That realization led to diverse research experiences. Oldach conducted on-campus research with Michael Roberts, associate professor of biology, and Jeffrey Forrester, assistant professor of mathematics, in their investigation of the genomic remodeling of leukemia cells. And, through the Global Scholars program, she also investigated how carbon-dioxide levels affect fish-feeding preferences off the coast of Australia in a project led by Associate Professor of Biology Tom Arnold.  

Last year, Oldach’s work earned her the prestigious Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education award, but while her future was bright, its precise path was not yet clear. Oldach wasn’t sure if she wanted to enter medicine or research—only that whatever she did, she wanted to combine elements of what she’d learned and done thus far.  

She began to review current research projects that combined her interests in environmental science and public health, at first focusing on laboratories in South America, where she could put her Spanish-language skills to the test. But the research led her to another corner of the globe. “One name kept coming up in the literature—a professor at the University of Delhi who had a ridiculous number of papers characterizing bacteria that no one had ever seen before,” she says. She began to look more closely at his work.  

Converging interests 

Oldach was interested in zoologist Rup Lal’s public-health papers on the distribution of the organic pollutant HCH, or lindane, and the development and spread of the bacterial enzymatic pathway allowing for the breakdown of the pollutant.

Used as a pesticide since World War II, lindane persists in the environment and bio-accumulates, posing potential danger to humans as a neurotoxin, endocrine disruptor and possibly, a carcinogen. Lal cultures bacteria from dump sites in India and characterizes the quickly evolving system for lindane degradation, the lin catabolic system, and the ways in which the system is structured, conserved and changed when transferred between species. 

“The extent of the potential danger is unclear, but all signs point to bad,” says Oldach, explaining that lindane was recently added to the list of Persistant Organic Pollutants (POPs) published by the Stockholm Convention in 2009, and there are estimated to be more stockpiles of dumped lindane than all other POPs combined. “It has been found infiltrating various sectors of the ecosystem, from water to the breast milk of women in Calcutta and Mumbai.” 

To Oldach, Lal’s cutting-edge work in in this field seemed a perfect fit. It draws on Oldach’s interests in public health, environmental health, molecular biology, organic chemistry and biochemistry and tapped skills she gathered in the lab, while researching cancer, and in the field, while researching aquatic life. Oldach also was delighted to learn that Lal had longstanding research collaborators in Australia, where she’d made a few contacts while studying abroad. 

Last year she e-mailed Lal to explain her interest in the work and the approach she would take, got the green light, and began the Fulbright application process. She received an acceptance e-mail from the Fulbright Program last month and will begin her work at the University of Delhi in August. 

Going boldly 

Asked where she expects her Fulbright work might lead her, Oldach invokes advice imparted by acclaimed chemist and 2012 Joseph Priestley Award-winner George Whitesides, whom she met during a luncheon on campus last year for science majors. 

“He told us that you cut off so much when you limit yourself to a predetermined plan; when he was an undergraduate, the [field he works in] now—the things that he’s lauded for—didn’t even exist,” she says. “So for him, it wasn’t about finding a precise path and sticking to it. It was about finding the next thing that was the most exciting, or that seemed like it would be valuable in some way.” 

She discovered the wisdom of that philosophy during her study-abroad experience in Australia. As part of student-faculty research on pollutants in aquatic life, her research group had to capture a specific breed of fish by wading out into the water at night and dragging a large net along the ocean floor. The net snagged the fish they wanted, along with many other species, and the professors held each fish up and identified it for the group before tossing it back in the water. 

“So now I can identify fish species that are specific to Queensland, Australia. And unless I end up working in an aquarium in Queensland, I don’t think I’ll ever need that information,” Oldach says. “But that wasn’t the point.” The point, she stresses, was the process of discovery that led her to her current success. 

“In cancer research, for example, you might learn how to do a microarray, and that’s great, but in the future, they're absolutely going to have entirely new techniques. So you have to learn how to ask questions, or how you can think about what you want to ask,” she explains. “You have to know how to learn something new, and how to design and experiment.”

Oldach goes on to describe what she learned in Australia in greater detail, taking a brief detour to sketch the unusual anatomy of her favorite Queensland fish, the leatherjacket. When she realizes that the paper in front of her is now full of sketches, she laughs and says that the students she tutors often tease her about her habit of sketching as she speaks.

“I always come prepared,” she says, referring to the small stack of paper she brings to every tutoring session. “I guess I’m a kinesthetic learner—I have to physically work out what I’m thinking. That’s how I know where I am.”  

She reaches for a fresh sheet. And the adventure continues.

Published April 17, 2013