It takes a broad perspective to understand something as small as DNA.

That was a lesson Deborah Pohlmann, ’13, learned quickly as a freshman. The recent graduate and Richmond Scholar, now studying for a Ph.D. in biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was a member of the first cohort to go through the Integrated Quantitative (IQ) Science course, a year-long program for first-year students that combines introductory classes in biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, and computer science.

“That course really broadened not only my interests, but also my awareness of the scientific field,” says Pohlmann. “By combining math and biology and chemistry and computer science and physics in one class, it made me realize just how intertwined those disciplines are. Most of the time, you really can’t solve a problem by only using chemistry or only using math. You have to use a combination of them.”

For Pohlmann, the IQ program didn’t just change the way she thought about and approached science — it also had one very practical benefit: it introduced her to April Hill, a professor of biology who became Pohlmann’s primary mentor throughout her four years at Richmond.

It was under Hill that Pohlmann began to navigate laboratory research, first through a study of sponges as part of the IQ course that aimed to see whether the organisms, which harbor large communities of bacteria, were also home to antibiotic-resistant bacteria or antibiotic-producing bacteria.

“As it turns out, we found both!” says Pohlmann. She remembers the experience as being “phenomenal. It was actually research; it was a new question where the results weren’t actually published. We’d be looking at the results, and we’d be interpreting them for the first time anyone had seen them.”

She was hooked. The summer after the IQ program, Pohlmann returned to the lab to work on the evolution of sponges, research that she continued throughout the rest of her college career. This time, though, her research also focused on epigenetics, a subject that piqued her interest after Hill introduced her to it. A growing area of scientific interest, epigenetics is the study of changes in gene expression that are not controlled by the DNA sequence itself, including the study of chemical modifications to DNA and changes in DNA packaging that affect how often a gene is expressed.

Pohlmann’s interest in genetics wasn’t purely intellectual. As an adolescent, she was diagnosed with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a hereditary genetic disorder that she shares with her father. And although she isn’t interested in focusing on this particular disease in her own research, she attributes some of her interest in genetics to this personal experience.

So when it came time to decide her next step after Richmond, Pohlmann began looking at graduate schools with standout programs in epigenetics and genetics. MIT is consistently ranked among the best institutions in this field, and when the Biology Department extended her an offer of admission, she accepted.

“Having classes taught by Nobel Prize winners and having the opportunity to join a lab where cutting-edge research is being done by cutting-edge techniques — that’s what I was looking for,” she says.
Now, a little over one semester into the program, Pohlmann is ready to head back into the lab yet again for rotations. The students will spend four to five weeks in each of three different labs, ultimately picking the one in which they’ll work until they complete their thesis.

“At this point, it’s kind of like auditioning for a new lab home,” says Pohlmann.

It’s an apt choice of words. For the student who found a passion in the lab during her freshman-year IQ course, “home” and “lab” may never be far apart.