Time well spent in the lab

Driessen’s time at TU defined by undergraduate research opportunities.

Olivia Driessen
Olivia Driessen is graduating Towson University having spent years conducting original undergraduate research.

Olivia Driessen ’21 already knows where she’s headed next: Canada.

The Fairfax, Virginia, native was accepted into a doctoral chemistry program at the University of Toronto, one of the top schools in the country. There, she’ll continue the work she started as an undergrad at Towson University.

Undergraduate research has defined her time at TU.

“It’s made me more confident in myself as a scientist,” she says.

John Sivey, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry in whose lab Driessen works, says she produces a quality of work that he’d normally expect to see in graduate students.

“Olivia has had such a high level of commitment to the research group,” Sivey says. “She demonstrates a confidence that is beyond her years.” 

In the lab, Driessen studies “the chemistry and consequences of chlorinating drinking water,” Sivey explains. Chlorine is a common disinfectant to make sure drinking water is safe.

But that chlorine can react with other chemicals in the water; it’s the reactions between those chemicals and chlorine that Sivey’s lab is researching.

Earning a spot in a doctoral program is not the first recognition Driessen has received for her work.

She won an award from the Maryland section of the American Chemical Society in 2021, recognizing outstanding achievement in a student’s early career. And in 2018, she worked at the University of Iowa’s Summer Research Opportunities Program, an eight-week, immersive program to give undergraduate students research experience.

Most recently, Driessen won a prestigious fellowship from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The NSF’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program supports students pursuing research-based master’s or doctoral programs.

“ Towson University has given me the experience I need to take the next step. ”

Olivia Driessen

Driessen ultimately turned it down, she says, because she’s not attending a university in the United States, so she was not eligible.

“I submitted the application back in the fall, and it was late in March when I got the offer,” she says. “So it was still super exciting. It’s still a great achievement.”

She was active in other parts of campus life, too. Driessen thinks back fondly on performing with her friends in the a cappella group Original Blend. She’s also, since her freshman year, been a part of the Honors College.

One benefit of the Honors College, she says, is the priority registration that Honors students have. That helped her stay on top of her studies, which, in addition to chemistry, included a minor in molecular biology, biochemistry & bioinformatics (MB3).

And the other Honors College requirements — like seminars in special topics — helped Driessen expand her horizons.

“Those classes built up my writing and discussion chops. No matter what you’re going to do, you have to be able to write,” she says. “Too many STEM people are like, ‘Oh, I’m not in an English class, I don’t want to write.’ But communication is one of the biggest parts of science.”

Her Honors research thesis will also be submitted to a scientific journal, Driessen says, but that is still a work in progress.

Sivey—Driessen’s mentor—says she carries herself with poise in the lab and adapts well to new research challenges.

“Perserverance is pretty important for research students,” Sivey says with a laugh. “It’s not ‘if’ things go wrong in the lab, it’s, ‘When things go wrong in the lab, how do you deal with that?’”

As she looks toward the future, Driessen feels prepared for what comes next.

“Towson University has given me the experience I need to take the next step,” she says.

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