#D3Week Student-Athlete Spotlight: Wellesley Swimming's Danielle Peterson '20

Danielle Peterson '20 is a a biology major and statistics minor from Livingston, N.J. (Frank Poulin).
Danielle Peterson '20 is a a biology major and statistics minor from Livingston, N.J. (Frank Poulin).

At Wellesley College the student-athletes are an important part of the community. They excel in the classroom, hold leadership positions, work internships, do research, and sing in acapella groups... among other activities. These other experiences and opportunities are an important part of the lives of Division III student-athletes. Throughout the year WellesleyBlue.com, has highlighted student-athletes for what they do outside their sport through Monthly Student-Athlete Spotlights. So far we have featured five different student-athletes: Zojajha Ayub '19Ashley Peng '19Olivia Reckley '20Kerry Wells '20, and Catherine Xie '19. As part of NCAA Division III Week, our April Student-Athlete Spotlight is junior swimmer Danielle Peterson.

Always knowing she wanted to be a collegiate swimmer, Danielle had her sights set on a school that would challenge her both in the pool and the classroom. While Peterson was aware of the competitive swim program and the amazing academics at Wellesley, it was ultimately the strong community and network of women that made her realize Wellesley College was a perfect fit. 

As a biology major and statistics minor, the Livingston, N.J. native has had the opportunity to work closely with Wellesley professors who do research in a field she hopes to continue to study through graduate school. As a student at Wellesley, Peterson has learned how to work independently and problem solve, while as an athlete she learned how to work with a team to achieve common goals, complementary skills that will enable her to be successful after college. Peterson recently took some time to speak with WellesleyBlue.com about her Wellesley College experience and why she loves being a Division III student-athlete.

What made you decide to attend Wellesley College?

I actually didn't consider applying to Wellesley before the fall of my senior year of high school. However, my grandparents live nearby to the college, so when I was visiting them for Thanksgiving break, I decided to visit the school and meet the swim team. I really liked Wellesley, but didn't commit until the spring, as I wanted to consider all my options. I ultimately selected Wellesley after getting accepted because it not only perfectly fit everything I wanted in a school (great professor to student ratio, challenging academics, competitive swim program, opportunities to do research), but because of the exceptional alums who reached out to me. Wellesley was the only school that wrote me hand written notes after I got in, and getting to meet these alums in person eventually convinced me that I wanted to join this amazing community.

Did you always know you wanted to swim at the collegiate level?

Yes, I had several things I knew I was looking for in college, and swimming was something I was adamant about continuing in college.

What made you decide to major in biological sciences and minor statistics?

I have been interested in biology since high school, and have been pretty certain that I've wanted to do something related to healthcare and research for a while, so majoring in biological sciences made sense. I absolutely love the biology department at Wellesley, especially my amazing research and major advisors. They are so caring and provide me with the mentorship that would be difficult to find at a larger institution. Although I was sure about my love for biology, I had no idea when entering college that I would ever minor in statistics. In fact, when I took calculus II during my first semester at Wellesley, I thought it was the last time I would ever have to think about math. I decided to minor in statistics the summer after my first year as a compliment to my biology major. After my summer research opportunity, I realized how important coding and quantitative thinking is to the future of biology. Because I really enjoyed those aspects of my summer, I chose to pursue them academically.

You have had opportunities to do research at NYU and MIT in the past and are currently working at Wellesley as an Undergraduate Research Assistant.  What is the research have you been doing?

In high school, I participated in a three-year research program which encourages students to find research opportunities at local institutions. I first participated in research at NYU Medical School investigating the human gut microbiome, the community of microorganisms residing in the GI tract. This topic really interested me because of the large impact of these microbes on human health, and I decided to pursue this field of research in the future. At Wellesley, I reached out to Dr. Vanja Klepac-Ceraj, who does microbiome work, and she linked me to her friend in the field, Dr. Eric Alm, a leader in the field of microbiome research and bioinformatics at MIT. I worked in their lab for the summer and joined Vanja's lab when I returned to Wellesley in the fall of my sophomore year. Since then, I have been working on a project investigating the relationship between the environment and gut microbiome, and how this may modulate cognitive development in children and infants. I am really excited about this work and so thankful to have a caring mentor like Vanja.

What do you hope to do after graduating from Wellesley? How is Wellesley helping you to achieve those goals?

My long term goal is to work in the intersection of healthcare and data analysis. After graduating from Wellesley, I plan to go to graduate school and earn either a PhD or Master's degree in bioinformatics or biostatistics. In terms of getting into a graduate program, Wellesley has provided me with mentorship I need to pursue research opportunities at an undergraduate level. At most larger institutions, undergrads are not given much autonomy in their projects and don't have the opportunity to claim independence in their projects. At Wellesley, I am treated as a mini grad-student, so I am already used to independent work and problem-solving. However, my professors also supply me with a lot of support and are always there to answer questions because I am still a young scientist!

You served as an Athlete Mentor, which we call AMPs (Athlete Mentor Program), what was your role as an AMP? What made you decide to become an AMP?  

I was an athlete mentor my sophomore year of college. As an AMP, I mentored first year athletes and provided support for them as they adjusted to life as a student-athlete. I also led discussions in the LeadBLUE leadership academy, which aims to build leadership among our student-athletes. I applied to become an AMP after my first year of college because I wanted to give back to the athletics community, which has been an integral piece of my time at Wellesley. Adjusting to college is hard, and doing it as a busy student-athlete can be even more challenging. In addition, I wanted to take a leadership opportunity to grow myself as a leader. One of the best things about Wellesley is that there are so many opportunities to lead, which is why many students go on to become excellent leaders in the future.

As a member of the swim team you have had the opportunity to go on a few training trips.  Where have you gone? What did you enjoy most about those trips and what were you able to get out of the training trip as an individual and as a member of a team?

The swim and dive team has a training trip every winter session in which we go to a warm location to train. My first year, we went to Miami, then my sophomore year we went to Orlando. This year, we went to Puerto Rico, which was one of our best trips! During a typical training trip, we will swim two two hours practices and do dry-land in between sessions. On these trips, we focus on completing difficult, mentally challenging workouts that will get us ready for the end of season championships. Because we are training so much and the practices are more difficult, training trip builds mental toughness. We also focus a lot on mindfulness during training trip so that we can build healthy habits that will last us the rest of the season. In addition, training trip is a great time for team building, because we learn how to live, cook, and motivate one another!

What do you enjoy most about being a student-athlete?

I love being a DIII student-athlete because I get the opportunity to participate in the sport that I love while also receiving an excellent education. I have been a competitive swimmer since I was eight years old, and being a college swimmer allows me to fulfill my athletic potential by competing at a high level, while simultaneously molding me into the person I wish to be after I graduate. Collegiate swimming has taught me so much, including how to work with others, the importance of being on time, and how to work smart towards my goals. It has also revealed so much about my personal and values. Lastly, swimming at Wellesley has provided me with not only with a group of friends on campus, but life-long friendships that I know will last after I graduate.

Besides swimming, what do you like most about Wellesley?

Wellesley has allowed me to meet amazing people that have pushed me to become more confident in myself and motivated to excel in whatever I pursue. Everyone at Wellesley is passionate about something, and being surrounded by this group of people encourages me to confidently pursue my own interests.


NCAA Division III Week is an annual week-long celebration of Division III student-athletes and the impact they have on Division III campuses and in their surrounding communities. This year, NCAA Division III Week begins on Monday, April 1 and continues until Sunday, April 7. For more information, visit wellesleyblue.com/x/80miv.