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Just a few days before graduating as valedictorian of Princeton’s Class of 2022, Natalia Orlovsky spoke with PAW about her love for both the sciences and humanities and her hopes for going into academia. As a student she worked in a bioengineering lab, served on the peer review board of the Princeton Undergraduate Research Journal, was an undergraduate course assistant, served on the board of Theatre Intime, and has been involved with the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center. Her advice to future students is to shrug off the feeling that there’s a prescribed arc to their experience, so they can “feel like they’re doing Princeton correctly, regardless of how they’re doing Princeton.”
Carlett Spike: From an early age, Natalia Orlovsky has had a love for both the sciences and humanities. In 2018, while a senior in high school, she was featured in a Washington Post article about these two varying interests as she was debating whether to attend Princeton to study science or Oxford to study history. While today Natalia is just a few days shy of graduating from Princeton as the valedictorian for the Class of 2022, she ultimately picked the University because it offered a bit of both. She could study science and explore the humanities through her extracurriculars.
Natalia is a molecular biology concentrator from Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and pursuing a certificate in quantitative and computational biology. She has earned 10 A-plus grades in six different departments while at Princeton. Here’s a few of things she’s done on campus: Natalia has worked in the bioengineering lab of Cliff Brangwynne, served on the peer review board of the Princeton Undergraduate Research Journal, was an undergraduate course assistant for both Organic Chemistry and Introduction to Data Science, served on the board of Theatre Intime, and has been involved with the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center. Her thesis work studies how two different proteins help determine the physical properties, or squishiness, of the cell nucleus, which in turn influences how easily cells can crawl through narrow passageways.
I’m Carlett Spike, PAW’s associate editor, and I’m here today with Natalia to reflect on her Princeton journey, the lessons she’s learned, and her plans for the future.
Welcome, Natalia, and thank you for coming on the PAWcast.
Natalia Orlovsky: Thank you for having me.
CS: It’s a pleasure. Congratulations again on this huge accomplishment.
NO: Thank you.
CS: Can you tell us how you first found out and your reaction to the news?
NO: Oh man. So, I got an email from Jill Dolan, cryptically informing me that I should get on a Zoom call with her, and I think I, initially in response was like, “Oh man, you’re kidding!” And she was like, “No, I’m not.” (laughter) And I was like, “OK, I see!” But, I don’t know; it’s been really overwhelming, and I feel super lucky.
CS: When she reached out, did you know the news was coming, or...
NO: Yeah, so I had a bit of forewarning. (laughs)
CS: OK, nice. So we know why you chose Princeton, for the bit of both worlds, but can you reflect on your journey up until this point and how you were able to take classes in both the sciences and humanities?
NO: Yeah, for sure. I think the main thing that drew me to Princeton was that I could do original research as an undergraduate in particular in the sciences, and so I think I’ve spent a lot of time doing my independent work and doing research. Before, I started doing my formal independent work and that’s been my primary mode of engagement with science, and then for a lot of my elective coursework, I’ve leaned more towards English and theater, and then also I’ve been really involved in the student theater community on campus, which have been my main routes of entry to the arts sphere.
CS: Can you talk a little bit more about being involved in the arts while focusing on science and finding time for both, and how you find the balance with it all?
NO: Yeah, for sure. It’s interesting because I think there is this sense that most art students focus on the arts in their academic coursework as well, so I guess it is somewhat less common to have STEM folks in performing arts, but there are a lot of people who are. And it’s actually quite cool because it’s such a different mode of exploration, so it’s like in the lab you’re doing one type of hands-on work and then in the classroom you’re doing potentially computational work or you’re doing more formal studying, test-taking, etc., and then in a theater context you’re on your feet and you’re thinking on a completely different axis, and so it’s kind of nice because then your hobby is legitimately relaxing, (laughs) so it’s — I think it provides a kind of built-in break, so it becomes quite manageable.
CS: Nice. So you’ve taken a ton of classes at this point. What have been some of your favorites?
NO: Oh, man. So I took a few classes with Professor Bob Sandberg in the English department, which were really, really great. I think they changed how I think about theater a lot and how I think about how storytelling works and what it does for people. I think I — I also took a philosophy class called “Death,” (laughs) which was really interesting. I was taking that during the start of the pandemic, which made for a bizarre relevance (laughs) that I didn’t anticipate beforehand, but it, I think, shaped some of my more existential positions at this point.
And then, I think, the other one that I would say is I’ve taken a couple of quantitative biology classes that have been super important to me, so one of them is Professor Corina Tarnita’s class in the EEB department, and then another one is Ned Wingreen’s graduate seminar in quantitative biology, and I think — I mean, I like math, and I’ve liked math for a long time, but I think I didn’t really see the overlap between that interest and my very experimental approach to life sciences that I generally take, and so it’s been really cool to learn about how to apply quantitative tools to answer questions that you can’t really answer by experimental means, like questions about how things evolved, for instance, which there’s not really a different angle that you can take, and it’s really cool to see that even with my, I think, comparatively more limited math background, there are lots of cool quantitative avenues towards science that I can take.
CS: Nice. So, you mentioned the pandemic. I was going to ask you about that. Obviously, it’s been a major part of your college journey. Can you talk about how the pandemic has impacted you personally, and if there’s ways that it’s shifted your perspective and outlook on maybe both what it means to be a student and your career moving forward?
NO: Yeah. I mean, I think a couple of things, but then the first thing is that I think every Princeton student had a different pandemic Princeton experience, and I was really lucky in that I went home to a safe learning environment. And I know that wasn’t true for a lot of students, so I think that’s worth acknowledging. So I think personally, it was obviously very disappointing to not be able to interact with people and to not be able to do hands-on research for a long time and especially to not be able to do in-person theater performances because Zoom theater really doesn’t cut it for me. (laughs)
But I think, all in all, I was really lucky. But I think, more broadly, it’s — I think people have been talking a lot more about what kind of public relationships to science are, so I’ve been thinking more about issues of science communication and how I want that to be a part of my future career in science education because I think it’s increasingly apparent that there is a need to speak responsibly about science and to educate people about science so that the world as a whole can respond to global challenges in an appropriate way.
CS: Following that line of thinking, ultimately, what would you say would be your dream job then?
NO: Oh, man. I think — so, tentatively speaking, I think I would like to go into academia because I like both research and teaching a lot, and I want both of those things to be part of my life in some capacity, and even if I don’t go into academia, I think informally, at least, I want both mentorship and research to be part of my future career. But that’s all I’ve got worked out at this stage.
CS: It’s totally fine. There’s still tons of time to decide and figure out what you want to do. Switching gears a little bit to the upcoming Commencement, have you given your thought some — your speech some thought? Have you written it? It’s OK if you haven’t.
NO: Yeah. I’m taking the time-honored Princeton approach of writing it at the last minute, I think.
CS: Are there any themes or messages that you’ve — you really hope to impart on your classmates and how you want to leave them with?
NO: This is very tentative. It might not make it in, but I think some of what I’m thinking about right now is that, I think, it’s an interesting moment to be thinking about transition and to be celebrating transition because I think there’s a lot of things that are happening in the world that are really terrible for a lot of people, and things for a long time have been unpleasant for pandemic reasons and social inequality reasons and global turmoil reasons, and so I think that kind of changes the valence of what I think a graduation experience feels like in the moment. And so, I want to be cognizant of that, and I want to acknowledge that, but I don’t quite know how yet.
And I think the other thing is that, I think if I could impart anything, I think it would be some kind of wish that people take care of themselves and each other, and I haven’t thought of a great articulation for that yet, but that’s where I’m thinking.
CS: Those are good messages.
NO: Thank you.
CS: I wanted to also ask you about your thesis. Can you talk about where the idea came from, and what it’s been like working on it for a while now?
NO: Yeah, for sure. In my thesis, I’m looking at how these two proteins contribute to how squishy the nucleus is, the idea being that the squishier the cell nucleus, the better the cell is at climbing through little spaces and maybe at metastasizing, if it’s in a cancer context. And, so Cliff’s lab generally works on these physical approaches to biology, and so this is, I think, not one of the main focuses of the lab at this point, but that kind of mechanical thinking is very much a part of how he approaches biology, and so I think that’s where a lot of it comes from. And for me personally, I think there’s just a lot of appeal in being able to take a tiny, microscopic thing and then poke it and see how it changes shape. And I’m a massive microscopy nerd, so it’s been a lot of fun to both learn the relevant techniques to actually do the experiments and to conceptualize the project as a whole.
CS: Nice. So reflecting on the entirety of your journey as a Princeton student, what has been some of the most challenging parts?
NO: For me definitely managing mental health has been a challenge. I think even more so because of the pandemic because you’re automatically also isolated from other students and from University resources. So I think a lot of it for me has been learning to manage anxiety and patterns of thinking under intense stress, because I think the Princeton semester is really fast, often painfully so.
And then I think also learning to juggle academic rigor and social health. I think especially during my first two years at Princeton, I was very much locked in a library until two in the morning, that kind of thing, and then I think the pandemic shifted a lot for me in terms of what I prioritize because I think now I spend more time with friends and I try to seek out the people I care about and make sure that they’re doing OK and in the process make sure that I’m doing OK, which sometimes it feels like that’s not what Princeton is built for. It feels a little bit like the expectation is that school is the first thing that you do and maybe also the last thing that you do, and if you’re able to squeeze in a little bit of socializing, then good on you, but I think I’ve struggled with that a bit, but I’ve come to a better balance now.
CS: That’s good. You mentioned social life. What do you do outside of academics, and what do you do for fun?
NO: I play a lot of board games lately. That’s been what’s been happening.
CS: Are you on the Wordle trend?
NO: I am. My friends and I all do it together, which I think is an exceptionally nerdy thing. My partner’s really into board games, so is our broader friend group, so that’s become my go-to social activity.
CS: Favorite board game?
NO: Race for the Galaxy. It’s a sci-fi themed card game, essentially.
CS: Awesome. So, you reflected on your own journey, but I’m curious what advice you would offer to the incoming class if you could talk to them and just share some tidbits and tips from your journey.
NO: Sure. I think my main thought is that there is no wrong way to do Princeton. I think you come in with the sense that there’s this particular arc that is prescribed and that it culminates in thesis work, and thesis work must be massively rewarding in order for you have done Princeton correctly, and the priority has to be this but then you also have to be in 70 million extracurriculars, and I think that that’s ridiculous and most people don’t actually live like that. I think I don’t know anyone who actually lives like that. But coming to that conclusion is hard and is a process, and I think everyone goes through that process. And so I just — I hope that incoming students can increasingly feel like they’re doing Princeton correctly, regardless of how they’re doing Princeton.
And also I think I would tell people that this place is hard, and it is OK to be finding it hard, and it is OK to be finding it hard in terms of academics and in terms of social things and in terms of extracurricular things because I think everyone struggles with different stuff.
CS: Absolutely. Great advice. You talked about your dream job. We won’t hold it in stone. It’s OK if you change your mind, but can you talk about what we can expect to see from you next; what are your plans after Princeton, after graduation; and if you have any other goals you’d like to share?
NO: Yeah, sure. So, I’m starting a Ph.D. program in the fall, because clearly I didn’t get enough of school yet, but yes, I’m starting a biological and biomedical sciences program at Harvard, and I’m really excited to get to do research full time. I think I’ve been pretending to be a grad student for a while, and I’ve generally really enjoyed that mode of existence, so I think I’m excited to keep doing basic biology research and then really excited to keep growing as an educator in particular, so, those are — after taking the summer off because I think a break would be nice.
CS: Are you planning to do anything fun with your break?
NO: Yeah, I’m planning to do nothing for much of it, which I think —
CS: That sounds lovely.
NO: — is a top priority right now, but spending time with family mainly.
CS: Absolutely. Great. Well, Natalia, it’s been wonderful speaking with you and getting to know you. Thanks again for coming on the PAWcast and best of luck.
NO: Yeah, thank you so much.
PAWcast is a monthly interview podcast produced by the Princeton Alumni Weekly. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe. You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and SoundCloud. You can read transcripts of every episode on our website, paw.princeton.edu. Music for this podcast is licensed from Universal Production Music.