Profile with Olivia Rissland

Olivia Rissland (Rhode Island & Christ Church 2004) is a post-doctoral fellow at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, MA, doing molecular biology research. She holds a DPhil in Biology from the University of Oxford and an Sc. B. in Biology, Mathematics and Latin from Brown University.

Rhodes Project: What is your favorite thing to do in Cambridge?

Olivia Rissland: I really enjoy running in Cambridge. One of my favorite things to do outside of work is to run the marathon course.

Rhodes Project: What was the last book you couldn’t put down?

Olivia Rissland: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I just love that book. It’s a Russian-Doll type novel, where these stories move forward through time then backward again, with each being related and interlinked. There’s a possibility that the same soul is making an appearance in each of the stories, but that is open to interpretation. It begins in the British Empire when people are exploring the New World, and moves forward to a post-apocalyptic world.

Rhodes Project: If you weren’t a molecular biologist, what do you think you would be doing instead?

Olivia Rissland: There’s the fantastical answer, which would be to go off and work ski patrol somewhere in the mountain, or maybe some kind of hiking guide, anything that involves spending a lot of time in nature. In real life, I might have chosen constitutional law. In the ninth grade, I had thought that I really wanted to be a lawyer - being paid to argue seems like a great job. Sometimes I think I could have been a teacher of some sort, that I could have taught high school or undergraduate maths and/or science and really have enjoyed it.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about your time as DJ Olive at Brown University?

Olivia Rissland: It was a lot of fun.  Brown has two radio stations; one is more what people think of as a college radio station, independent and a little quirky, while the other, WBRU, is the one that I worked at. It is much more of a commercial radio station. I somehow got involved in freshman year, and ended up being the morning drive DJ for eight months in 2002. It was, obviously, very outside the realm of what a molecular biologist does, and it was awesome! It uses a completely different part of your mind. Looking back, it was easily one of the best things that I did in college.

Rhodes Project: What is the best part of your job?

Olivia Rissland: I essentially get paid to think about how the universe works. I often feel that being a scientist is like being an explorer, but the world we are exploring is very small and you have no idea what it might look like. Usually, it’s much more amazing than you think it’s going to be. The feeling of discovery and of trying to sort out what’s going on is addictive. The most amazing thing in all of this is that what I am looking at has been around for thousands of millions of years, but often, I am the first person to discover it, to see it, to know it. It means that my job doesn’t really feel like a job. I am the luckiest person in the world to be able to do what I love.

Rhodes Project: What is the most challenging part of your job?

Olivia Rissland: I think the most challenging part is when you’re stuck on the problem. You have a place that you want to go but you don’t know how to get there. You can’t find a way into the problem—a little bit like being in the Fellowship of the Ring, from Lord of the Rings.

Sometimes it feels as though there is a smooth surface that you’re trying to get inside of but you just can’t get a toe-hold anywhere. There’s nothing to pry open the problem so you just keep going around the outside. Times like that can be really frustrating. Then, of course, you figure it out, and it’s really rewarding.

Rhodes Project: What advice would you give a young woman aspiring to become a molecular biologist?

Olivia Rissland: In anything, but especially in science, it’s really important to do what you love. The thing that you’re studying should be the thing that you want to study above everything else in the world. You should be thinking about it all the time. If you’re not, then you should think about what does get you out of bed in the morning. Figure out the problem that you cannot wait to solve. Never be afraid of chasing after things that you love, even if they’re very difficult.

Rhodes Project: What is the hardest thing you’ve ever done?

Olivia Rissland: The hardest thing I’ve ever done is a fifty-mile ultra-marathon. In the last year, I’ve started running ultra-marathons. A little bit like science, they are very rewarding once you’ve finished, you feel like a rockstar! I did a fifty mile race in Tennessee last December, and it turns out that fifty miles is a pretty long way to go. For the first nine hours, I was just so happy that I was doing it and to be out in the mountains. Then, I hit a pretty big wall. I remember those last two hours, at which point I was almost crawling. This continued for seven or eight miles – some of the longest miles I had ever walked or run. I had total tunnel vision putting one foot in front of the other. It ended up taking twelve hours and twenty minutes. I was going to finish the race come hell or high water, but it was pretty hard.

Rhodes Project: What do you like to do to relax?

Olivia Rissland: I find running to be a great relaxation activity. It’s obviously physically tiring, but mentally, it’s such a change of pace from the lab that it’s very relaxing. It helps me get perspective on what I’m doing. I find running and my friends make me a little bit saner and help me keep some semblance of the work-life balance.

Rhodes Project: What are you most looking forward to at the moment?

Olivia Rissland: The first is applying for faculty positions beginning this fall. Hopefully in fourteen months, I’ll be starting my own lab. I think this is really exciting. I can’t wait to generate my own research program and drive where the science goes. In a very real sense, it’s what I’ve been training for during the last twelve years.

On a totally unrelated note, I have an ultra-marathon in the Alps in August. It’s quite long; seventy-five miles with 7300 meters elevation change. It’s a little worrying when I think about it too seriously, but this race is the reason why I started running ultra-marathons and so I couldn’t be more excited about it.

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