Molecular Biology concentrator Natalia Orlovsky Named Valedictorian

Written by
Office of Communications, Liz Fuller-Wright, Princeton University
April 26, 2022

A true Renaissance woman, Princeton’s valedictorian has proved herself an extraordinary scholar and research scientist, and has also starred in stage plays and written stories and poetry, all while earning 10 A+’s in courses from six different departments, including English and psychology as well as molecular biology (her concentration) and quantitative and computational biology (her certificate program). At Princeton, A+ grades require written justifications from the professors. Over the course of her four years, Orlovsky earned no grade below an A. 

She was nominated for the role of valedictorian by Elizabeth Gavis, Princeton’s Damon B. Pfeiffer Professor in the Life Sciences and the director of undergraduate studies for molecular biology. Citing superlative endorsements from multiple professors, Gavis concluded, “Natalia has demonstrated all-out intellectual engagement in both coursework and independent research and a level of scholarship characteristic of a stellar graduate student, rarely seen in an undergraduate student.”

She is a two-time recipient of the Shapiro Prize for Academic Excellence and an early inductee to Phi Beta Kappa. In 2021, she was awarded a Goldwater Scholarship, one of the most prestigious national scholarships in natural sciences, engineering and mathematics. Orlovsky has served on the peer review board of the Princeton Undergraduate Research Journal and as an undergraduate course assistant for both Organic Chemistry and Introduction to Data Science. She has been involved with the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center in various capacities during her career at Princeton, including as a member of the Princeton Pride Alliance.

Since the spring of her first year at Princeton, Orlovsky has worked in the bioengineering lab of Cliff Brangwynne, Princeton’s June K. Wu ’92 Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering. Her research with him culminated in her thesis work, which studies how two different proteins help determine the physical properties (or “squishiness”) of the cell nucleus, which in turn influences how easily cells can crawl through narrow passageways — for example, in cancer metastasis.

“I love the style of question-asking that science uses — getting to build a conceptual basis and then testing it with quantitative work and hands-on experimentation is really fun,” Orlovsky said. “I’ve really enjoyed thinking about the mechanics of the nucleus. I especially love how tactile my project is — a lot of it is, pretty literally, taking cells and squishing them. With the advent of things like atomic force microscopy, we have tools with which you can literally poke things that you can’t see with the naked eye!”

“My enthusiasm for Natalia could not be higher,” Brangwynne said. “Even as a freshman, she was operating like a new and very good Ph.D. student.” He said she has produced the most impressive senior thesis to come out of his lab, and that her data is potentially significant enough to be included in two publications, one of which would recognize her as first author, a rare achievement for an undergraduate.

This fall, Orlovsky will begin her doctoral studies in the biological and biomedical studies program at Harvard. She looks forward to a career in academic research and is especially excited by the prospect of being an educator and a mentor in the lab and in the classroom.

“As she goes on to make an impact in her next adventures,” Brangwynne said, “Natalia represents a shining example of the very best that a Princeton education has to offer to offer to the wider world.”

A strong interest in the arts complements Orlovsky’s dedication to science. Her poetry and short-form fiction have appeared in literary journals, and she has acted in many theater productions and served on the board of Theater Intime. “I’m interested in theater — and, for that matter, in creative writing — primarily because I like to devise and tell stories,” she said. “I think I’ve especially enjoyed my involvement in the theater community here because of how closely intertwined it is with the broader LGBTQ+ community on campus.”

Orlovky said that her modern and world drama classes, both taught by playwright Robert N. Sandberg of the Class of 1970, “profoundly changed the way I think about theater, and especially about the role of empathy in storytelling; they also made me a stronger communicator, a better theater-maker, and a happier, more hopeful person.”