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Optimistic Innovation

Emily Whitaker '17 is a student-leader on campus and a barista for the student-run, sustainably sourced coffee stand, The Peddler.

Emily Whitaker ’17

Summer research led physics major and first-year mentor Emily Whitaker ’17 to write a peer-reviewed paper and to present at the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Conference. Here, she talks about her love of science and the spirit of optimism that drives her, both inside the lab and out.


Physics, and pursuing a certificate in social innovation and entrepreneurship.

Clubs and organizations:

Devils’ Advocates, first-year mentor, Alpha Phi Omega (communication chair), Tritons, The Peddler (barista), Community Board and Dickinson College Women in Science.


Kenderdine Student Travel Grant.

Favorite book:

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.

Favorite movie:

August Rush or The Royal Tenenbaums.

On choosing Dickinson:

From an early point in the college search process, I knew that I wanted a small, liberal-arts school with a strong science program. Dickinson checked off all these boxes and more. Even though I only visited on rainy days, I could easily picture being a student here. So many students, faculty and staff reached out during my visits and were friendly and helpful.

Favorite place on campus:

The Trellis.

Favorite professor:

Professor [of Physics] Hans Pfister. He lights up the classroom with his positivity and energy. He makes time in his day for his students and advisees, despite being really busy with teaching and research. I have learned so many things about physics, life as a scientist and how to create a work-life balance from Professor Pfister.

On being a first-year mentor:
I love Dickinson, and I really want other people to love it here too. I benefited from having unofficial mentors as a first year, so I understand how important this relationship can be.

About my internship:

This past summer I interned at the Desai Atmospheric and Oceanic Science Labs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and was able to work on two independent research projects. Getting this internship was a very Dickinson moment for me. A visiting professor took over the Physics Junior Seminar, and I thought I was making the world's worst impression when the class started discussing summer plans. After class, the professor took me aside and said there was an available Research Experiences for Undergraduates position, if I wanted to apply. The internship focused on one of my main interests, water, and I felt incredibly lucky to have been accepted for it.

What I learned:

Working in the Desai Labs made me realize that energy and water are the top two topics that interest me. I would like to continue research in these areas, particularly in developing a way to naturally purify water.

As a kid, I wanted to be …

… a lot of things. I wanted to own a dog kennel, to design roads and bridges and to own a coffee shop. Now I am thinking about how to make systems more energy efficient.

In a perfect world …

… everyone would have enough materially and spiritually, and everyone would find joy in their lives. Also, there would be lots of coffee.

About my research project:

This summer I researched innovative ways to measure lake-ice depth with sensors that normally measure water content in soil. A robust correlation exists between volumetric water content in time as a function of environmental temperature. This relationship allowed me to convert volumetric water content into ice depth. This was found to be an inexpensive and reliable method of measuring ice depth.

I chose this project because it made me get out of my comfort zone by living 1,000 miles away from home and working on independent projects. Not only was it a great way to apply what I learned at Dickinson, but also it enabled me to learn new research techniques in a very different environment, and work with a new water ecosystem.

What I learned:

I learned to expect the unexpected and that the scientific method works and works really, really well. The thought behind the project was driven more by a desire to save money than a real belief that the idea would work—we weren't sure what would happen during the actual research. That's where being positive and optimistic are so important. The final project was a success, but it took a lot of effort and being willing to reject an approach if it didn't pan out and start over. From this summer's research, I wrote a paper that was peer reviewed, and I was asked to present the work at the American Geophysical Union’s fall conference.

Most important thing I’ve learned so far:

To be optimistic about every situation. It’s easy to get down and frustrated when you have a bunch of papers due or tests coming up, but optimism is my number-one motivator.

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Published February 19, 2016