Fulbright scholar Phoebe Oldach '13's bold path to success
by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson
April 17, 2013
Fulbright scholar Phoebe Oldach '13 will perform cutting-edge research at the University of Delhi next year.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.