For Cassie Robbins ‘17, giving up was never an option. Tasked with hauling wheelbarrows filled with rocks and water up the side of a mountain in Ecuador to hand mix cement, she considered the circumstances challenging but not impossible. She was there to help and nothing would prevent her from doing just that. As a volunteer for the Tandana Foundation, Robbins had travelled to South America for a service project. She worked alongside members of the Otavalo community to plant trees and create a barbed wire fence around a local weather station. She also assisted in laying the foundation for a reading gazebo for a school in Quichinche. With only the bare materials and her own hands to mix them together, Robbins made something lasting and truly impactful for the village children.
“Education has always been really important in my life. I feel very grateful for having gone to Wellington and wanted to help other children have access to school.”
It was the trip of a lifetime and one many years in the making. Her mother, longtime Wellington English teacher Chris Robbins P ‘17 ‘22, first introduced her daughter to the organization through former student and Tandana Foundation founder Anna Taft ‘97. “I was fascinated by their mission,” Cassie Robbins said. “Since first learning about it in 4th grade, I knew I wanted to go some day.”
While making plans to volunteer when she was old enough, Robbins also asked family and friends for donations in lieu of birthday and Christmas gifts each year to be able to send a child in Ecuador to school. This selfless act was born of her deep appreciation for attending a school like Wellington since kindergarten. “Education has always been really important in my life. I feel very grateful for having gone to Wellington and wanted to help other children have access to school.” When she received a call last summer from Tandana in need of a last minute replacement on a trip to Ecuador, Robbins didn’t hesitate. Living in a simple hostel high up in the mountains and unfamiliar with Spanish, there were many obstacles to overcome in spite of her best intentions to help the members of the community. Learning to communicate through language and cultural barriers to contribute to the village in a meaningful way made the trip unforgettable for both Robbins and the Ecuadorians.
“Having had a picture in my mind for so long of what I thought Ecuador would look like,” Robbins shared, “I was in for a huge surprise when I got there. The mountains were beautiful, the sky was clear, and the grass was greener than I’d ever seen. The landscape wasn’t even the best part. Even though I didn’t know one word of Spanish when I got there, I was able to communicate with the people, learn their stories and laugh with them. When we weren’t working, we were learning to cook, dancing the salsa, making bracelets, hiking to Taxopamba Falls, or just walking around the city. There were so many strange sights, different customs, and unfamiliar faces, but we were welcomed with open arms and smiles. Meeting so many friendly people was the best part of this trip. I am so glad I was able to finally visit Ecuador, and I hope I can go back again with Tandana some time soon.”
Robbins’ commitment to world travel had long been apparent to French teacher Maria Baker P ‘00 ‘08. “Cassie has done her service trip to Ecuador and is pursuing a leadership role next year. I admire that she is comfortable among adults, loves her mum and her family, has a strong work ethic, is totally reliable, and is basically a downright nice young woman.”
A thoughtful and measured person by nature, Robbins possesses a level of maturity and poise one would expect from someone much older. Perhaps that’s why she relishes her time in extra-curricular activities that allow her to work hard but also flex other areas of mental muscle. She works part-time at Jets Pizza where she enjoys the teamwork and quick dexterity required of filling hundreds of orders every hour. Relying on others and being counted on herself also drives Robbins’ ambition to compete as an athlete. She has been on the soccer, swim, and softball teams at Wellington since middle school. As pitcher for the softball team, she embraces the mental side of the game just as much as the physical and the strong connection she shares with catcher Bret Hairston ‘17 to constantly analyze and strategize. Robbins considers herself fortunate to have had the opportunity at Wellington to play three sports for so many years even though she doesn’t consider athletics to be one of her greater strengths.
Where she does feel right at home, though, is the science lab. Her already curious nature was further strengthened by a Wellington teacher who inspired Robbins to pursue a career in science. By designing an ISR (Independent Scientific Research) project around her innate passion for the field, Robbins has worked with Dr. Thomas Magliery at The Ohio State University Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry to develop and understand molecules that could be used for cancer diagnostics and therapy.
Wellington research coordinator Dr. Brandon Sullivan, who advises Robbins, has a professional connection to her work. “Cassie is working with a molecule I helped design while a researcher at OSU. It only binds to cancer cells, not healthy cells. She is trying to accomplish two things. One is to determine how to tune the molecule so it has preferred serum lifetimes in the body (before being excreted), and, secondly, determine how changing those properties affects other characteristics of the molecule.”
A critical component of her research involved Robbins visiting The Cleveland Clinic and Case Western University in October to use a highly specialized, and very rare, piece of equipment, the Multi Angle Light Scattering, or MALS, to determine molar mass. The interaction she had with experts in a professional research environment was inspiring and solidified her desire to pursue a Ph.D. in a science field. Confident in the skills she has acquired from her Wellington education, Robbins feels highly capable of facing any obstacle or challenge on the long academic road ahead of her.
“Wellington has taught me the strength of working in groups and not just memorizing facts for a test. Many of my assignments have been group-based or written as opposed to just a test. That approach to teaching has really benefited me as a writer. It’s an important skill to have. I can write a lab report or a lengthy research paper and not stress out. I know I can do it. Another great thing Wellington taught me was to question everything. I feel very comfortable and safe debating with teachers.”
For fun, Robbins doesn’t stray far from a laboratory environment. She enjoys cooking and baking with her dad and embraces the potential for experimentation because, at heart, she is a person of science and seeker of knowledge. “Rarely have I come across a student who is as much a science geek as me,” Upper School Chemistry Teacher Aaron Frim P ‘19 said. “On numerous occasions, Cassie would just stop on her way out of the classroom to share some scientific news that she found fascinating. In the ISR program, she has taken that interest and begun, what I believe, will be a successful deep dive into scientific exploration. Cassie’s unabashed sense of wonder, her strength of will, and her dogged persistence in her pursuit of understanding are all going to take her far.”
With her ability to persevere through difficult challenges and determination to make a difference in the lives of others around the world, undoubtedly, Robbins will go every bit as far as her teachers, friends, and family believe. “It is inspiring to work with Cassie as she pursues her academic and scientific passions,” Dr. Sullivan said. “Her studies may impact how pharmaceutical companies design and develop future therapies. The most exciting aspect is not what she is currently accomplishing, but where her skills and mindset will lead her in five, ten, and twenty years.”
To read more about Cassie’s work in cancer research and the Wellington Independent Science Research program, click here for the latest issue of The Jag magazine.