All-NESCAC Scientist Excels in Every Field
Issue   |   Fri, 05/22/2015 - 11:17
Photo courtesy of Donna Leet '15

A biology and French double major, a Goldwater Scholar, a Rhodes Scholar finalist and a member of the Amherst softball team — these are just a few of the ways to identify the multitalented Donna Leet. I have been fortunate enough to have called her my teammate for the past two years, but never once did I hear Leet brag about these many accomplishments. Her humble, approachable manner combined with her quirky personality and incredible work ethic makes her an integral part of the Amherst community. While the always-modest Leet would likely be reluctant to tell her story, I’m excited to tell it for her here.

A Coincidental Path to Amherst

Leet hails from Seattle, where she attended Lakeside School, a private high school in the city. She was aware of the elite NESCAC schools throughout her college search and recognized that she wanted to use the transition to college as a chance to branch out.

“I knew I was ready to be somewhere different,” Leet said. “I knew I wanted to go to a small school. I learn well in small classes and really wanted to get to know my professors.”

During her visit to Amherst, Leet serendipitously met the biology professor who would later become her thesis adviser, Caroline Goute. Goute happened to be working with a Lakeside alum at the time.

“I saw this girl doing undergraduate research, which is something I wanted in my college experience,” Leet said. “I got a really good vibe on my visit,” Leet said.

What a Find

Although she grew up playing softball, starting off in a tee ball league at the age of five, Leet was not recruited to Amherst in the traditional way.

“I stuck with a lot of sports when I was little, until it was no longer really reasonable to play that many sports,” she said with a laugh. A well-rounded athlete, she competed in both club soccer and softball before eventually deciding to focus on just the latter. She knew that she wanted to play softball at the higher level but didn’t make it her first priority in choosing a college, deciding only to submit an athletic supplement along with her Amherst application.

Luckily, the softball coach at the time, Whitney Mollica Goldstein, gave Leet a call letting her know the team still needed players. It would be a find that helped to contribute to an astounding 97 wins over the course of Leet’s four years, including an appearance in the NCAA championship tournament when she was a first-year.

“I love it because it’s a team sport but also has individual aspects,” Leet said. “It’s incredibly mentally challenging, probably one of the most mentally challenging sports. It’s trained me to deal with failure in that way.”

It seems as though Leet has handled all of the challenges well though, accumulating numerous athletic honors throughout her career. She is a four-time All-NESCAC recipient and three-time NFCA All Region honoree. Additionally, she boasts a .401 career batting average, leaving her near the top of Amherst’s all-time record books.

Current head softball coach Jessica Johnson spoke to Leet’s capabilities both on and off the diamond.

“Donna is the quintessential Amherst student-athlete, in application of her academic, athletic and leadership prowess,” Johnson said. “She took just about everything on that she could possibly take on here at Amherst and was nothing less than first-rate in all endeavors.”

Leet becomes sentimental when speaking about her softball career.

“I don’t know what I would’ve done without having it in my life,” she said. “I’m going to miss it so much.”

Wiggling Her Way to a Bio Thesis

Upon arriving at Amherst, Leet knew that she wanted to major in the sciences, entering Amherst on the pre-med track. After taking Biology 191, she decided to become a biology major.

Leet decided to write a senior honors thesis in biology after spending two summers researching at Amherst and finding that she had not gotten as far as she would have liked in her various projects.

“Three months of summer is just not enough time to really finish a project or go into depth,” she said. “The idea of a thesis was exciting because I would have that time to go in depth and spend time with a topic that was interesting to me. I was excited to be able to say that I had done something novel.”

Working in Goute’s lab, Leet focused on a microscopic worm called C. elegans and the various ways that the worm’s cells communicate with each other.
Goute, her thesis adviser, praised Leet’s enthusiasm.

“Donna has an incredible ‘can-do’ attitude,” Goute said. “Donna is like an enzyme that lowers an activation barrier; she never seems to hesitate or cower at the thought of a new challenge or the thought of repeating a tedious experiment.”

Goute was also quick to praise Leet’s work ethic.

“I think Donna must have Hermione Granger’s time turner,” she added. “That’s the only way I can imagine that she accomplished everything she did this year, and still remain so cheerful!”

Leet said the thesis process “was definitely a struggle” but still recommends it to those interested.

“I think it was worth it,” she said. “I would recommend doing it if you find something you’re interested in and you have the passion. I found it incredibly rewarding.”

A Major Found Abroad

While studying biology, Leet also took courses in the French department, hoping to improve in the language that she had started studying in high school.
“I was keeping French up because I felt like such a beginner and I wanted to see how much I could learn,” she said.

After a semester abroad in Paris during the fall of her junior year, Leet realized she was almost finished with the French major and took the opportunity to pursue another passion and declare the major.

She describes her time abroad as one of her best decisions at Amherst.

“It was a semester completely different from any other semester I’d had at Amherst,” she said. “I’m proud that I did go abroad, because I was scared to do it and even apply. I got comfortable with where I was here, so I’m glad I pushed myself and had that wonderful experience.”

Professor Paul Rockwell, chair of the French department, said he has been impressed by Leet ever since her first year at Amherst.

“It took me a while to find out how talented she was, because when she was a first-year, it took her about three weeks to say something in class,” he said. “This generally quiet student, however, impressed all of her professors by writing truly outstanding papers. Too bad she likes the idea of medicine so much! If she ever changes her mind, there will be a place for her in the world of French studies.”

So What’s Next?
Leet said her passion for medicine has been confirmed after volunteering at Cooley Dickinson hospital throughout her senior year. She’ll continue on in the field and is in the process of applying to medical schools. In the meantime, she will spend the summer working at New York Eye and Ear Infirmary at Mt. Sinai.

“I’ll be working to streamline processes at the hospital, specifically ambulatory care,” she said. “It will include all aspects of ambulatory care. From checking in to post ops to discharge, I’ll be working towards improving each step in that process and making each step valuable for the patient.”

With that experience, she’ll be an even more well-rounded candidate for medical school.

“I think it will prepare me well for med school as I’ll have a more complete understanding of the health care system in general,” she said. “I haven’t really done any work like this previously, it will be nice to work in the public health sphere.”

Wherever her pursuits take her, Leet plans to take some of what she’s learned at Amherst with her.

“I think I really found my voice here,” she said. “I was always shy and hesitant to speak up in classes but I realized the importance of it here. I’ve gotten more comfortable expressing myself. It will take more work but I’m excited to continue to grow.”

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