The Sky’s Not the Limit

Olivia Wilkins, on the train in East Anglia, England.

Olivia Wilkins ’15 

During her sophomore year in high school, Olivia Wilkins ’15 wanted to learn more about Dickinson, so she wrote a paper about one of the college’s co-founders—and even interviewed Dickinson’s president to get the full scoop. Five years later, she discusses the science behind Harry Potter, her internships at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and National Radio Astronomy Observatory as well as the professors who’ve taught her that she can go as far as her imagination allows.


Chemistry and mathematics.

Clubs and organizations:

American Chemical Society, Mathematics & Computer Science Majors Committee, Chemistry Club, Teaching Assistant and Peer Tutor (chemistry and mathematics), Peer Tutor, Writing Center (tutor), peer advisor and first-year mentor.


Fulbright Research Fellowship, Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, Wellington A. Parlin Science Award, Rush Citizenship Award for First-Year Students for the Quads (2012) and Pi Mu Epsilon and Alpha Lambda Delta honor societies.

Favorite books:

The collection of chemistry and math textbooks I inherited from my grandfather.

Favorite movie:

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

On choosing Dickinson:

Growing up, I went to work with my dad (who used to sell outdoor power equipment) in Plainfield, just west of Carlisle, and we always passed the exit sign for Dickinson. For a long time, it was the only college I had ever heard of. During my sophomore year in high school, I figured that I should learn more about Dickinson. So, I did a project about [Dickinson co-founder] Benjamin Rush for history class. President [Emeritus] Durden even agreed to let me interview him about Rush. I became really excited about Dickinson because I saw firsthand how much Dickinson cares about its students. (I had great relationships with my teachers in high school, and being able to connect with my professors was, to me, the most important characteristic of a college.)

I knew it was the right decision when …

… I visited Dickinson my senior year of high school, and I fell in love with the chemistry department. In particular, [Assistant] Professor [of Chemistry] Sarah St. Angelo took time out of her Saturday to talk to my mom and me about the department, classes and research opportunities. Yet again, I experienced the emphasis Dickinson places on its students before even being a part of the community.

Favorite place on campus:

Rush Alcove, Rector Science Complex.

On choosing my majors:

Growing up, I knew I wanted to be a scientist, and in middle school, I had a list of about 50 different professions I wanted to look into, from astronomer and archaeologist to marine biologist and volcanologist. Chemistry is a foundational science that can be applied to virtually any other discipline. Plus, chemistry caught my interest because I got the impression it was like algebra on steroids. It was the perfect fit. As for the math major, I think calculus is the most beautiful, wonderful thing in the world. How could I resist?

Favorite class:

Creating New Worlds: Myth in J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and J.K. Rowling with Professor [of Religion] Mara Donaldson was awesome. One of our assignments was to write about any myth, so I chose to write about the deviation for the typical hero’s journey in The Dark Elf Trilogy by R.A. Salvatore, as well as the main character’s progression through James Fowler’s stages of faith development. I had a lot of fun writing that paper. Also, in that class, each of us had to give a presentation on one of the core texts of the class; mine was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling. I talked about the science behind the magic of Harry Potter, highlighting what had muggle-analogues, what was in development, and what wasn’t likely to be real. It was really cool to look at myth through a scientific lens and at science through a literary lens.

On studying abroad:

I studied abroad at the University of East Anglia in Norwich during the spring 2014 semester. There, I overcame my fear of cities, which was awesome, and I lived in Boston the following summer. I also visited the Lovell Radio Telescope near Manchester, England, and the Radioteleskop Effelsberg near Bad Münstereifel, Germany. I’m a sucker for radio telescopes.

Favorite professors:

[Associate Professor of Chemistry] Amy Witter and Sarah St. Angelo have both exceeded my expectations of what Dickinson professors would be. They are far more than teachers; they are my mentors. Professor Witter is a great advisor and teacher. Whenever I begin to doubt myself, she always makes me believe I’m cut out to push my limits. I’m still learning a lot from her—whether it is about research technique in the lab, about writing, or about working beside her as a teaching assistant—and I haven’t even been in one of her classes since my first semester.

Professor St. Angelo told me that, with my enthusiasm for chemistry and love of learning, I should be a professor. I thought she couldn’t be more wrong, but after being a writing associate for the Summer Institute for International Students at Dickinson, I realized that I did love working with students. Last semester, I was Professor St. Angelo’s writing associate, teaching assistant and learning-community coordinator. She taught me a lot about how to work with students in different situations. Plus, her office is filled with the coolest chemistry (and non-chemistry) gizmos and toys.

Biggest influence:

My parents. For family vacations and day trips, we visited scenic railroads, museums and state parks and explored abandoned tunnels visible only on my dad’s GPS. I value these experiences, not just because they were fun, but because I learned to appreciate history, how things worked and the value of asking questions. My parents gave me the curiosity and willpower to pursue my passion.

About last summer’s internship:

In summer 2014 I worked with Karin Ӧberg’s astrochemistry group at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, Mass. There, I identified and analyzed carbon chains in low-mass, young stellar objects, 200-600 light-years away, which was fascinating. I loved the work, and I got a taste of what grad school is like. It showed me that astrochemistry is definitely my kind of research.

During summer 2013, I worked at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Green Bank, W.Va.—a town of less than 140 people, where Wi-Fi, cell phone service and even microwaves are illegal, because they are sources of radio-frequency interference for the large radio telescopes. That experience was simply out of this world.

What I learned:

A major isn’t a career trajectory; it is a way of looking at the world and a set of malleable tools limited only by your imagination.

Most important thing I’ve learned so far:

The sky is not the limit. (The cosmic microwave background is.)

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Published March 27, 2015