Helen Danielson ’22: Prioritizing Your Passions
When it came time for Helen Danielson ’22 to select a college, her criteria were straightforward: She wanted a school that offered both a first-rate science curriculum and the opportunity to continue one of her lifelong—albeit unrelated—passions: Dance.
Choosing Smith was a no-brainer.
“Science and math are very important to me, and I knew that was where I wanted to focus my career,” says the engineering major. “But dance has been a huge part of my life since I was very young—I wanted to keep doing it!” Deftly juggling all that accompanies an engineering course load, Danielson also pursued a degree in dance.
“If you know that you have more than one interest that you love, don’t give up on pursuing both of them,” Danielson advises incoming students. “Don’t feel like you have to prioritize one over the other at Smith.”
Danielson demonstrates how two vastly different interests can complement one another. “Dance informs my engineering through the skills it has taught me,” she says. “From dance I have learned respect, self-discipline, determination, reliability, that reaching my goals takes persistence and effort, and that progress doesn't always work in a straight line.”
At the heart of Danielson’s academic career is a keen interest in biomedical research—something she’s been determined to gain experience in.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Smith shifted to remote learning, Danielson returned to her native Fairbanks, Alaska, where she lived in a “Smith pod” with two fellow engineering majors. It was during this time that she worked as a research assistant in a biochemistry lab at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
“I loved that experience,” says Danielson. “It allowed me to continue working in a lab I first became acquainted with through a Praxis grant.” Danielson credits her ability to obtain hands-on research experience at a time when it was exceedingly rare with her acceptance into a number of graduate programs. It also helped her secure a fellowship awarded by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program.
Back on campus, Danielson has been working as a research assistant in associate professor of engineering Sarah Moore’s biomolecular lab, including finishing up an honors thesis on engineering cancer cell-targeting proteins for drug delivery mechanisms. “The goal is to be able to attach a drug to these proteins for more targeted cancer treatment,” Danielson explains.
Helen Danielson dancing in the 2020 Smith Senior Dance Concert, 2020. Photograph by Derek Fowles
Danielson has also been working on a dance thesis—a nine-minute piece titled “Flurries and Storms.”
“I want to showcase the simultaneous beauty and power of something delicate with the patterns of movement evolving in space and time,” she says.
In the fall, Danielson will begin a Ph.D. program in biomedical engineering at Brown University. While she’s looking forward to the experience as a whole, she’s especially excited about continuing her research.
“I’m not sure if I want to eventually go into academia or have a more industry-focused career,” she says. “But I definitely want to continue with my engineering research—there’s so much potential with molecular engineering in that it gives us a lot of tools for solving problems related to disease.”
Of her time at Smith, Danielson will miss the camaraderie the most. “Smith is so focused on community,” she reflects. “There’s such a big emphasis on learning collaboratively—whether it’s in the sciences or in something like dance—and that has been extremely beneficial to me. I hope to be able to continue to foster that throughout my Ph.D. program and beyond.”
Photograph by Jeff Baker