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Student Snapshot: Sophie Kivlehan ’21

Sophie Kivlehan '21,

After an eventful first year during which she shared her involvement with an environmental lawsuit through the Rose-Walters Award-winning Our Children’s Trust, Sophie Kivlehan ’21 has made a mark as a biochemistry & molecular biology major and music minor who researches cancer and plays in the Dickinson College Community Orchestra. Below, she shares what she loved about living in Dickinson’s Center for Sustainable Living (aka “The Treehouse”), how she’s discovered the value of reaching out for help and what she appreciates most about her undergrad years so far.


Allentown, Pennsylvania.


Biochemistry & molecular biology, with a minor in music (cello performance).

Clubs and organizations:  

Dickinson College Community Orchestra.

Favorite book:

The Introvert’s Way by Sophia Dembling.

Favorite movie:

What We Do in the Shadows.

On choosing a major:

My junior year of high school I took a chemistry class and a music theory class. I loved the precision and order of chemistry and the composition of music theory, the transformation of small units (notes) into a whole (harmonies) to produce something bigger than itself. I find biochemistry is a wonderful combination of these two areas of thought. I study the characteristics of parts (elements and small molecules) and how they come together to make up human health.

Favorite place on campus:

Britton Plaza.

Favorite Dining Hall food:

Mac and cheese.

On choosing Dickinson:

I went to a large public high school with about 3,200 students, which lacked the nurturing and supportive environment that a young student needs. At Dickinson, whenever I need advice, be it academic or personal, I can run over to a professor’s office and get the reassurance I need so that I do not become discouraged, and so I am reenergized and inspired to push myself further.

If I could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, it would be …

… Marie Curie.

Favorite class/learning experience:

In the fall semester of my sophomore year I lived in the Treehouse (Center for Sustainable Living). It was so important for me to make friends with upperclassmen studying fields that are related to my major and also those studying seemingly unrelated fields. The encouragement from people who had been recently going through the challenges I faced as a new student gave me the confidence that allowed me to have fun throughout the rest of college. Combined with the supportive academic atmosphere from professional mentors, I’m able to prepare to be a scientist who’s capable of researching the unknown without burning out. 

Favorite professor:

I am especially grateful for these professors: Associate Professor of Biology Mike Roberts, Assistant Professor of Biology Tiffany Frey, Assistant Professor of Chemistry Jason Gavenonis, Contributing Faculty in Music Michael Cameron and Associate Professor of Physics & Astronomy Brett Pearson.

About my internship:

Over winter break I shadowed Kellyn Madden ’19, a laboratory technician in Dr. Kai Tan's Ph-like ALL lab at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Oncology Research Division. I experienced RNA-seq and cell culture techniques in ALL cell lines. I also shadowed a physician scientist's patient interactions in the Buerger Center for Advanced Pediatric Care. It affirmed my love for the lab.

Best thing about my Dickinson experience:

What I love about college is that I can invest myself in the science that I am passionate about, surrounded by supportive professors, and come home at the end of the day to my best friends.

As I kid, I wanted to be …

… a florist.

Post-Dickinson plans:

After Dickinson I’d like to work in a lab that researches molecular biology or cancer treatments and/or prevention. I plan to work in a lab for a couple of years to familiarize myself with the field and learn what I like and don’t like. After that I want to go to grad school to get a Ph.D. in something like molecular genetics. I’d eventually love to have my own lab to study fertility and work in a clinic to do in vitro fertilization or prenatal diagnostics. 

About my research:

I am a student researcher in Professor Mike Roberts’ Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) Lab. Cancer is an unbelievably complex group of illnesses which result from a combination of a bad environment, bad genes and bad luck. In terms of the treatment of cancer which has already progressed, targeting specific genes seems to be the least difficult variable in that equation to manipulate. We study the roles of specific genes in AML.

The human genome has been sequenced, which is super-cool, but that data is like a bunch of unconnected dots that have yet to make up a clear picture. Scientists need to understand the roles of key genes in the molecular physiology of the cells of the disease they want to treat.

My individual long-term project is to research the effects of the NR4A3 transcription factor in AML cells (HL-60 cell lines) in proliferation, differentiation, and apoptosis. I am currently using RT q-PCR to determine the amount of over expression of NR4A3 and will be looking at the expression of NR4A3 target genes. Ideally, I will connect some dots between NR4A3 and other genes in the genome to clarify how AML works, so scientists can better treat it with specific targeted medications, rather than traditional chemotherapy.

Little-known hobby/talent:


Most important thing I’ve learned so far:

The most important thing I’ve learned so far is to just keep showing up. I’ve felt behind countless times, especially during my first semester on campus, because I hadn’t taken any AP science courses in high school. I’ve never had a 4.0; I often struggle at the beginning of each semester to adjust to my new classes; and I’ve probably set a record for the number of internships to be rejected from. But as long as I make it to a professor’s office hours and tell them I’m willing to put in the work, and follow through with that, I end up successful.

Read more Student Snapshots.



Published June 12, 2020