Phoebe Handler

Major: Environmental Studies
Hometown: Allison Park, Pennsylvania


Phoebe Handler '12

What made you choose Wellesley?

Though I decided to apply to Wellesley because of its reputation as an elite liberal arts institution, I found that I was always a bit skeptical about how the school would “fit” me. Even coming from an all-girls high school, I was unconvinced that any single-sex college would be the right place for me. It took about an hour of my Spring Open Campus visit for me to realize that Wellesley was actually the perfect “fit” for me. Never before had I felt so engaged by my peers—I was surrounded by women like me who were interested, engaged, and ambitious about their passions. That was the environment I wanted to spend four years in!

What's been your most memorable class so far?

Environmental Policy (ES/POL 312). Each week about 12 of us gathered in a seminar room around a large square table. Class meetings were structured around discussion of that week’s readings and were generally very active, with minimal lecture from the professor. In one class we split into pairs to portray ambassadors representing a particular nation’s arguments in a debate about the legalization of whaling. We had a heated debate as my classmates and I took on the characters of these national opinions in arguing the merits of this controversial topic.

The course also had two major projects. The first was a group project with the purpose of “bringing about an environmental change on campus” by the end of the semester. My group took on the challenge of institutionalizing composting at all large on-campus events. We met with dining services, facilities management, custodial, and other offices on campus to coordinate the effort. Our group facilitated composting at the Tanner Conference, saving about 180 pounds of compost from entering the waste stream. With the help of a “Green Grant,” we were able to fund two positions within the Office of Sustainability to coordinate composting at future events.

The second component of the course was an independent research paper in which we designed a study to explore how policy was used to mitigate an environmental problem in the United States. I assessed how the Precautionary Principal was applied to regulations of toxic chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. This taught me about the nuances of regulations and the muddy nature of environmental regulations. This project, which required us to formulate and carry out our own research investigation, was definitely an academic challenge!

What is your favorite spot on campus?

The path around Lake Waban. When I need an escape from schoolwork, I can always take a run or walk through the woods and lose myself in the trees and glistening water. I also love to spend time on the wooden benches that are suspended over Lake Waban from the lake path. For me, those benches are a retreat where I can go to take a deep breath and watch the moonlight reflecting on the lake. Sometimes you can even hear the swans!

Is there something you are especially passionate about?

I am particularly interested in environmental chemicals and their impacts on human health. This year, I am working on a senior honors thesis project exploring the role of dietary deficits in childhood lead poisoning. Today in the United States, childhood lead poisoning is most common in low-income African American and Latino children. By studying the role of particular dietary components in lead metabolism, I hope to gain a better understanding of how diet can influence lead poisoning risk. I am interested in discovering if some ethnic groups are more susceptible to lead poisoning than others due to their dietary and lifestyle interactions. The ultimate goal of this research is to identify culturally specific dietary factors that may exacerbate or mediate lead poisoning risk in order to create a culturally specific outreach program to protect against lead exposure.

Do you think you've changed since you've been at Wellesley?

As a senior, I often find myself reflecting on how much I have changed since coming to Wellesley. I have “grown up.” I have learned to live away from home and find comfort in friends. I have taken on academic challenges that I had never imagined before coming here. I rowed crew, sang in the choir, tutored, served as president of campus orgs, and even joined a co-op! I think, most of all, I have become more adventurous.

Have you done an internship, special project, or research?

During my junior year, I joined Professor Brabander’s geosciences research laboratory. As a member of the research group, I got to sit in on weekly meetings and participate in the research process of many projects. I participated in a project examining the lead content of common Indian, Middle Eastern, and North African eye cosmetics. My lab partner and I collected and analyzed samples of kohl and kajal for lead content. We then simulated human eye fluid to assess how much of the lead from the contaminated cosmetics became mobilized in the eye fluid. We are now in the process of publishing our results, which may uncover an understudied exposure pathway of lead poisoning.

Can you share an interesting interaction with a faculty member?

My mom, a Wellesley alumna, graduated as a pre-med biology major but spent all four years with an advisor in the Philosophy Department. I had always heard stories about Professor Menkiti growing up, particularly some of his signature African proverbs, which seem to come up in nearly every conversation. When visiting campus as a prospective student, my mother and I ran into Professor Menkiti, who was delighted to see my mother, whom he remembered well. On the spot, he made me promise to take a philosophy class before I graduated. I agreed.

In my junior year, I noticed that Professor Menkiti was teaching a course on Africana Philosophy, and immediately signed up. After the first lecture, Professor Menkiti called me up to his desk and asked if he knew me. I reminded him of my mother and how we had met a few years ago. He gave a deep laugh and asked to shake my hand. From that day on, we always talked for a few minutes after classes, and I would occasionally stop by his office to discuss my papers or a question I had about the lecture.

A few weeks later, my mother came to town to visit. She said that we should stop by Professor Menkiti’s poetry shop in Cambridge called Grolier Poetry Shop. There, we ran into Professor Menkiti, who read aloud from one of his books, shoving copies into our hands, which he had signed with personalized dedications. He then invited us for a pint at the pub next door!

What advice would you give to a prospective Wellesely student?

Visit if you can! Wellesley is a very special place, and is a perfect fit for some people. Definitely talk to as many people as you can before you make your decision.

What's something people can't tell by looking at you?

In my family, I am a fourth-generation attendee of all-women’s colleges.