Hannah Black ’20 came to Pomona College as an English major after swearing off STEM classes. Nearly four years later, she will soon graduate with a degree in chemistry and in the fall, she’ll start at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill.
Although commencement will be postponed due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Black’s plans to become a doctor are more set than ever: “I find myself eager but also solemn because I am reminded of how important medicine is,” she says. “Coronavirus serves as a daily reminder that medicine plays an intimate role in every single person's life. I imagine that starting medical school in the wake of a global pandemic will encourage students to have a renewed and heightened focus because the need for strong physicians has never been more universally clear.”
Growing up in the Appalachian Mountains in western North Carolina, Black took an opportunity to go to a STEM boarding school for the last two years of high school.
“I did a lot of science there, but I also got very into writing,” she says. As a junior in high school, Black won the Young Writers Contest by BookLogix publishers for her science fiction novel Nothing But Your Memories, which she published under the pseudonym H.B. Clementine.
“When I applied to college as an English major, my common app was specifically about never wanting to do science again,” says Black.
However, once at Pomona, Black kept science in her back pocket even as she explored English.
“I took Jonathan Lethem’s writing course my freshman year and I went to the Southern California Writers’ Conference. But I still took science classes because I thought that if all else fails, I’ll be a dentist and write on the side,” says Black. “I’d put up with teeth and I’d make it through.
“Pomona science felt manageable. It was rigorous, but the professors were there to help,” she says. At the end of her first year, she secured an internship at Duke, where she was able to write about medical procedures. “I spent a lot of time with doctors and I enjoyed it. The doctors seemed like storytellers—there’s a huge aspect of life and storytelling in medicine that I hadn’t seen before. I enjoyed this type of science and that’s why I ended up deciding on doing all the pre-health requirements.”
From English, Black explored economics in her sophomore year, enjoying what she calls the “the relevance of math in the real world.”
However, the summer after her sophomore year Black had signed up for another medical internship, this time doing research at the University of Southern California (USC). She published her first paper last fall as part of a team at the McMahon Lab at USC that studied the kidney and new tools that can rapidly look at every cell in the organ using coding and mathematical analysis.
This experience inspired Black to switch to a chemistry major. “I ended up wanting to do a thesis and the chemistry department was really flexible.
“I love scientific research. Research is a problem that you can endlessly throw yourself into. You don’t reach the limit; it’s not one equals one. You can work for years and not find anything. But it is fulfilling to work hard at something, and you always develop your own niche in research.”
Still, Black admits that “chemistry is a love/hate relationship. It’s hard but it instills the virtues of working hard.”
“Hannah is a wonderful member of our chemistry community, remarkable in coursework, research, and helping other students succeed. The department encourages students to think big when it comes to senior thesis, and we’re always happy to help students define a thesis topic that best matches their interests.” says O’Leary.
“I’ll always remember teaching Friday afternoon organic lab with Hannah, especially the day she learned she had been accepted to medical school. The entire lab raised a cheer and high-fived their teaching assistant. That’s the Pomona I love—students here share in each other’s successes, even in the middle of a distillation!”