Aim High, Shoot Higher

Olivia Wilkins

From hydrocarbons to protostars, Goldwater Scholarship recipient Olivia Wilkins ’15 wants to spend a lifetime immersed in science

by Christine Baksi

Olivia Wilkins ’15 says that a memorable family road trip that took her past the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Green Bank, W.Va., when she was 6 years old set her on a path to future interdisciplinary study. Now, years later at Dickinson, Wilkins is a double major in chemistry and mathematics exploring astrochemistry and chemical ecology in the lab.

“Anyone who knows me knows that math and science are my absolute favorite things in the world,” says Wilkins. “When I was little, I had this list of 50 professions I wanted in my lifetime, but I realized that there was no way I could do everything—from volcanologist to archaeologist to astronomer. But I thought chemistry and math would let me do anything.”

Go for the Goldwater

Academic success, a love of science and what Associate Professor of Chemistry Amy Witter calls “an insatiable curiosity in so many areas of science” recently earned Wilkins a scholarship through the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program. She is one of only 283 students nationwide to receive the prestigious Goldwater, which fosters excellence in science and mathematics.

“The Goldwater stands for equipping people with the tools they need to continue their education in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics],” says Wilkins.

Research opportunities abound

As a first-year student, Wilkins joined Witter and Associate Professor of Biology Tom Arnold in studying the antioxidant properties of grapes on a chemical-ecology research project funded by the National Science Foundation. Witter was so impressed with Wilkins' lab reports and quantitative reasoning that she invited Wilkins to participate in what has become a much-publicized study of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)—a known toxin that Witter and her research team identified in the sediment of a local waterway. Wilkins compiled and extracted PAH data to identify its sources using an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) model.

Last summer, Wilkins was a research assistant at the NRAO—the very place that inspired her academic pursuits. And this summer, Wilkins will conduct research as an intern at Harvard University, where she’ll study carbon chains in protostars—gas clouds in the early-formation state of low-mass stars. When she returns as a senior, Wilkins will dive into honors research in chemistry by again teaming up with Witter to study newly identified PAH biomarkers.

“Every opportunity Olivia pursues is intentional, authentic and with whole-hearted effort,” says Witter. “I can’t wait to see where her intellect and creativity take her.”

Seizing those opportunities

On top of it all, Wilkins, who is currently studying abroad through the Dickinson in England Norwich Science Program, is a teaching assistant in mathematics; a peer advisor and tutor, exam proctor and Web assistant in the Office of Academic Advising; and a writing associate in the Norman M. Eberly Writing Center.

“I have 10 jobs, and I'm extremely happy with what I get to do,” says Wilkins. “I feel like if you have an opportunity, you should definitely seize it. My philosophy is aim high, shoot higher.”

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Published Apr. 22, 2014