TOWNSHEND — When Elkanah Linder played tennis for Vermont Academy, she injured her right wrist during her senior year.
How she handled this adversity, her adviser and tennis coach Laura Frey recalls, was one of her most memorable displays of tenacity: Linder, a right-handed player, learned to play with her left hand.
“Not only did she play left-handed, but she won the championship,” Frey said.
So it came as no surprise to Frey and other local educators when Linder, who grew up in Townshend, was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship.
Frey quoted her husband, Jim Frey, who was Linder’s physics teacher, as saying “She just didn’t have quit in her. It wasn’t part of her language.”
Linder, 24, after graduating from the Doctor of Pharmacy program at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia this year, traveled to Sweden, where she is now studying a system that classifies medications based on their environmental impact. She hopes to bring a similar system to the United States.
She explained that medications excreted though human waste accumulate in the water, potentially harming aquatic life and finding their way into drinking water. The biggest offenders, she said, are steroids, which can change the gender of aquatic life and affect reproduction.
“So this is a way, I think, to mitigate those effects,” she said, especially in the face of climate change.
She said Sweden is the only country that codifies pharmaceuticals based on environmental risk and makes the information available to the public. In the United States, she hopes such a system would influence pharmaceutical companies to create more sustainable medications, such as through increased absorption.
She left for Sweden Aug. 15, arriving in Stockholm and heading to Uppsala on Aug. 16. She said her grant is for nine months, but she has yet to book her return flight. In the past, she has traveled to Israel and Italy on personal vacations.
Linder traces her interest in health care to her own medical background. She grew up with epilepsy, and had three brain surgeries by age 11.
“That was a very traumatic experience that I wouldn’t want anyone to experience for themselves, so I just really wanted to prevent that,” she said.
She saw pharmacy as a good option because of opportunities for preventative care and individualizing drug therapy. She is also interested in how climate affects health care.
“I notice that I always follow the natural disaster events every year,” she said, and saw a need for more climate change and emergency preparedness education in her curriculum. “I felt like that would be something I should know about, and would make me a better health care professional.”
She worked with her adviser at the University of the Sciences to evaluate public health and pharmacy programs for climate change and emergency preparedness education. From there, Linder focused on pharmaceutical disposal policies in the United States and other countries, including Sweden, which is how she learned of the classification system in Sweden.
“I found out about this system and it’s a way more upstream approach, preventing it from initially getting into the water,” she said.
She also noted her interest in water, and keeping clean water accessible to all.
“I really like my water in Townshend. It tastes different. I think it’s the best water,” she said. “It just caused me to think a lot about what’s in our water.”
Linder’s former teachers at the Hilltop Montessori School and Vermont Academy recall her intellect, sense of humor, and of course, her drive.
Laura Frey, of Putney, who was also Linder’s Spanish teacher at Vermont Academy, said Linder confided in her about her medical challenges as a child.
“Elkanah stands out as one of those kids who really taught us as we taught her,” Frey said. “When I say she really stared challenge in the face, and knew how to take it on, she didn’t blink. She said: OK there it is. This is gonna be hard. Let’s do it.”
Linder said she has been free of seizures since her last surgery, and does not take anti-epileptic medications.
“I’m pretty lucky,” she said.
Paul Dedell, of Williamsville, is program director for the middle school at Hilltop Montessori, where he said Linder found acceptance among her peers. There were classes held in the woods, where the changing light posed a seizure risk, and he remembers the other students going out of their way to make sure she was OK.
“It turned out to be a very powerful experience for everybody involved,” he said. “It was an opportunity for people to take care of each other.”
But he noted that her struggles were not what defined her.
“What defined her was her graciousness, her intellect, her curiosity, her humor,” he said. “I helped her write her Bat Mitzvah speech. It was just so much fun because she had such an original writing style that grew.”
Linder said she loves being outside, and plans to engage with her host country by exploring a concept called “friluftsliv,” or “open-air living,” through which Nordic countries place emphasis on time spent in nature. She will be living with a Swedish couple, and in addition to conducting research, will go on camping and hiking trips. She noted that engagement with one’s host country is a requirement of the Fulbright program.
“I do have a lot of experience being a patient, and now I also have a lot of experience working in different health care settings for my clinical rotations, and then, also, I just really love being outside,” she said. “So I have a lot of different perspectives that I think made me a good candidate for this research and this scholarship.”
Dedell recalls Linder being shy when he first met her, and said he watched her confidence grow, both through socializing and through writing, including poetry.
“We’ve had a lot of great students, but she’s one of those I remember,” he said.