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Turning Down Harvard: A Q&A with Dr. Mary Olanich '05
03.27.14 |
As a high school student Dr. Mary Olanich ’05 was what college admissions counselors call well-rounded. 

“I was very interested in the natural sciences, but I was also trained in music and had some luck with sports—field hockey was my great love,” she says. “So I was looking for a college that was strong academically in the natural sciences, and also strong in music, and I also kept open the idea of playing field hockey, so all of those things brought me to LVC.” 

Olanich ultimately narrowed her interests to double major in psychology and biology, and set her sights on graduate school—but not before taking a year off, preferably abroad. Dr. Walter Patton, associate professor of chemistry and chair of biochemistry and molecular biology, and Dr. Dale J. Erskine, professor and chair of biology, encouraged Olanich to make the most of that year by applying for a Fulbright fellowship. 

“I wasn’t sure how competitive I’d be, but I thought I had to take a risk and play to win,” Olanich says. And she did win—she learned in April of her senior year that she’d been awarded a Fulbright fellowship to pursue a laboratory neuroscience project in Strasbourg, France. 

“When I arrived in France, to be honest, I was a little intimidated by the other scholars,” Olanich says. “At one point I can remember sitting back and thinking how fortunate I was to be here with these really remarkable people, and being so grateful to LVC for the liberal arts education I had received. And then being able to have my own scientific project there was an incredible experience—an experience that LVC prepared me very, very well for.” 

After completing her Fulbright, Olanich returned to the states to begin her doctoral training at Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine—but not before turning down an offer of admission from Harvard University. Again, Olanich looked to her LVC faculty advisors for help in making that decision. 

“I was holding these acceptance letters and it was amazing, but I didn’t want to make the wrong decision,” she says. “I had this gut feeling that Wash U. would be the best place for me, but people kept telling me I’d be a fool not to go to Harvard. I remember very distinctly Dr. Erskine saying to me, ‘Mary, it doesn’t matter that it’s Harvard. You choose to go where you think your training will be best.’ It was a very simple statement and yet it was so profound. I finally let go of the idea that I had to please anyone else, because this was my training and I had to do what was best for me. So, I went to Washington University.” 

Olanich was very happy with her choice to pursue graduates studies at Washington University. “Initially, I was intimidated because this was the most selective school of medicine in the country, and there were people from really big name schools. Yet, it quickly became really clear to me that the hands-on lab experience that I received at LVC prepared me extremely well for a place such as Wash U.,” she says. “I never felt that by attending a smaller private liberal arts institution that I was somehow at a deficit, in fact, completely to the contrary. Having that one-on-one experience and attention proved to be a personal advantage.” 

Today, Olanich is completing a post-doctoral fellowship in cancer biology at the National Institutes of Health National Cancer Institute. “LVC is sort of woven into me,” she says. “When I look back on it as I get older, college is a time when you’re evolving at such a rapid pace. I think because of that, LVC really is interwoven in my biology.”

How did you acquire your competitive spirit?
In the world of research science, everything is competition. It’s always a race to publish your findings, and of course we want to win that race, because we spend years gathering data and are really invested in it. We want to be the first ones to report our findings. Sometimes my colleagues and I talk about how, as research scientists, we’re constantly feeling pressure to do our experiments carefully and gather data that’s accurate, but also to do it swiftly.

What motivates you?
I’m fortunate to be doing research that has the potential to be translated to patient care. My current lab studies a rare but incredibly aggressive pediatric cancer, and right now there are no targeted therapies for this particular tumor type. What that means is that these kids overall have a fairly poor prognosis. For my colleagues and me, that’s a huge motivating force. We put in long hours seven days a week, but I think we do it because we’re very aware that what we’re doing might have an impact on how children are treated, and it may prolong their life if not ideally result in complete remission.

What activities, people, or courses at LVC helped you prepare for success?
I was given the opportunity my first summer at LVC to do research with Dr. [Deanna] Dodson [professor of psychology], Dr. [Stacy] Goodman [professor of biology], and Dr. Erskine. It was amazing and I completely fell in love with research. That first grant was only for that summer, but luckily, Dr. Patton invited me to do research with his group in subsequent summers. That work formed the foundation of my research background. There’s no equivalent to hands-on experience in a lab, and LVC absolutely provided me with that. It was one-on-one. We could discuss what a result meant, how we needed to set up an experiment, and what that experiment could tell us and what it couldn’t tell us.

How has global competition changed your field?
Global competition is something that is just part of this business. There are people across the United States who are studying the same tumor type that my lab is studying, particularly at St. Jude’s. Internationally, there is a prominent group in the U.K. and a prominent group in Italy, so we’re very aware of that.

What’s most important to remain competitive in your field?
I don’t think there’s really any replacement for just working really hard. In addition, I believe in thinking outside the box in terms of using established techniques in a new way or asking a question in a slightly different manner. In science, every answer begs another question. You’re partly trying to answer this question, but you also have to prepare for the next questions. You need to think creatively, not looking at anything at face value.

How do you prepare physically and mentally for competition?
The world of research science is an interesting environment because as scientists we’re trained to be critical, to question the data, and to question whether the interpretation of some result is truly valid. When I prepare to give a talk on my work, or in writing a paper, I try to remove myself from the project so that I can be as objective as possible. I envision myself as an audience member, and ask myself, “What would I see as a hole in the data? What would I question?” There’s also the mental preparation of being very well versed in the literature and being able to compare your findings to others. That requires reading lots of papers and making sure that you’re well informed.

Who is your favorite competitive role model?
It becomes a blend of different people that I’ve encountered.

Do you have a guiding philosophy about competition?
I decided early on, maybe in my graduate training—because Wash U. is a really competitive, aggressive place—that I would never stomp on another scientist to put my science ahead. There’s a fundamental respect for what we do, because we all know how much time and effort and skill it takes. And certainly as cancer researchers, our ultimate goal is the same—to improve patient care. Is it great to have a first-author paper? Absolutely. But it wouldn’t feel very exciting to have achieved that knowing it was achieved it in a way that was disrespectful to others in the field.

What makes LVC competitive?
In addition to what I said before, I would add the liberal arts education. Regardless of your expertise, it is important to be well rounded. In all of my encounters with the faculty, they genuinely care about their students and about their students’ success. They’re invested in each student’s journey and wanting to make it one that’s meaningful and beneficial.

What advice would you give to current LVC students?
Follow your passion. If it’s truly what you love to do and what you’re passionate about, then you’ll make it work. You’ll show up and give it the best effort that you can.


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