Sticking to science

UWL senior Emily Von Dollen graduates Sunday, May 14. Despite health issues and academic challenges, Von Dollen hasn’t slowed down in her pursuit of a future in chemistry.

Health challenges, academic roadblocks don’t stop May grad from a career in medicine

As young teen, Emily Von Dollen set goals for a future career in medicine. But after two open-heart surgeries and a cancer diagnosis that resulted in losing her right hand — all by age 17 — Von Dollen was fed up with the healthcare field that was “ruining my life.”

She was tired of doctors and nurses and trying to comprehend what synovial sarcoma, a rare form of cancer, was doing to her body.

“I wanted someone who could explain what was happening in common-folk terms — someone I could relate to and who I could trust,” she recalls.

So the academically-strong and ambitious graduating senior from San Luis Obispo, California, gave up on medicine and embarked on a career in engineering at a top-ranked California university instead. She had ambitions to one day pursue a career developing prosthetics and improve upon the “paper weight,” cosmetic hand she used.

Von Dollen started out taking classes in California and was surprised when she flunked her first general chemistry class. She realized she was now competing with some of the best and brightest students in the country. The failed test changed her academic course again — but not in the direction one would suspect.

“I decided I wanted to make chemistry my major,” says Von Dollen. “Chemistry was hard. There are all these rules and all these exceptions to the rules. And everything was applicable to everyday life.”

But when Von Dollen tried to switch majors at her former university, it wasn’t easy. So in September 2015, she decided to switch universities instead, coming to another highly-ranked university where her sister and brother-in-law worked — UW-La Crosse.

Now at UWL, Von Dollen strolls into chemistry classes with a smile on her face. Professors describe her as “enthusiastic,” “absolutely buoyant” and “eager to learn.”

Von Dollen regularly visits Janet Kirsch’s office just to recap a recent lecture. Her questions will typically lead to more in-depth and interesting conversations, says Kirsch, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry. “She likes to take it a little further, and I enjoy having conversations like that and getting to know students on a more personal level,” Kirsch adds.

The feeling is mutual.

“I feel so privileged sitting there understanding stuff that Bohr or Einstein discovered — talking about equations these people spent their lifetimes on,” says Von Dollen.

Unlike her previous school, Von Dollen says she doesn’t feel like a number at UWL. She doesn’t feel like she is artificially being weeded out of the sciences. Her professors have high expectations — but for a reason.

“They genuinely care about you and want you to leave with as much knowledge as they possibly can,” she says.

Professor Jeff Bryan regularly watches his students rise to meet his high expectations. One of the most rewarding parts of his job comes at the end of the semester when he gets to grade their final work and see how much they’ve learned.

Kirsch adds that one of the most important outcomes for students, whether continuing in careers or graduate school, is that they become flexible problem solvers. “Developing those skills isn’t something you can do without being challenged,” she says.

Kirsch’s physical chemistry class is one of the most difficult Von Dollen has taken, but it’s pushed her mentally. In other classes, she’s excelled at lab work most people would consider technically difficult with two hands. Students in one of her courses had to use a glove box — a sealed container that allows a chemical reaction to be contained. They manipulate the experiment by putting their arms into gloves that enter the box. Von Dollen not only completed the experiment, but she did it in about 10 minutes — while some of her peers took 30.

Professors say they are impressed with not only her skills, but her resilience and determination.

“Someone in her circumstance could easily get weighed down by other things going on in life,” says Bryan. “It’s easy to turn in a lack-luster effort. In nuclear chemistry, a lack-luster effort is not going to cut it. You have to be devoted to this class or it’s not going to work. She is not only devoted, but she goes at it with this positive attitude.”

Von Dollen says she is now setting her sights on the medical field again — motivated by her love for science — chemistry, in particular.

With a minority of women in STEM fields, Von Dollen encourages more to give it a try. She’s failed tests, changed majors, changed universities, and has overcome physical challenges performing chemical lab techniques, but she keeps at it anyway.

“A lot of students fail their first chemistry class and then they say, ‘that’s it. I’m done,’” she says. “You are going to college to be challenged and to earn a degree you worked hard for. If you fail a test, you shouldn’t give up if it’s what you are passionate about.”

Von Dollen plans to eventually become a nurse practitioner “with a strong chemistry background.” She wants to be the one to walk into a hospital room after a child is diagnosed with cancer or heart disease and explain what’s going on in everyday terms. She wants to be someone they can trust.

Pairing service with science

In addition to being an academic, UWL senior Emily Von Dollen is also a volunteer. She has been director of philanthropy for Alpha Phi, a volunteer with a kids’ cancer camp organized by Jacks Helping Hand, and a volunteer for Sarcoma Alliance.