BioBuilder Career Conversation: Sarah Elkondakly Transcript

Natalie Kuldell (00:03):

Hi Sarah. I’m so happy that you can join for this conversation. It has been a while. It’s great to see you. Maybe we can just start by having you introduce yourself, your name, what you’re doing now – things like that.

Sarah Elkondakly (00:24):

Absolutely. I’m Sarah, I’m currently a junior at Brandeis. I am double majoring in psychology and English. That could definitely change, you never know. It’s never too late. Besides a student at the moment, I’m also working with a youth center and I’m still continuing my time at LabCentral for my internship after BioBuilder.

Natalie Kuldell (00:43):

Wow. You somehow make more hours in 24 hours than most people get, it seems like. So, tell me a little bit about Brandeis. It’s a local school here, but what was attractive to you about it? What do you feel it offers you and your interests?

Sarah Elkondakly (01:07):

Absolutely. Brandeis was kind of a needle in a haystack for me. When I was applying to schools, I remember I applied to like 20 different schools. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I just knew that I wanted to go into a STEM science type of field. But then again, I wasn’t sure about that either. I remember meeting with my guidance counselor and she kind of snuck Brandeis in there because it was close to home. I ended up applying and writing that essay kind of on accident. I tell this story and nobody believes me, but I did apply to them on accident. It was just there and I just submitted everything through. And then I ended up getting in and financial aid worked out really well. At last minute I was like, okay, this is close to home. I’ll go.

Sarah Elkondakly (01:44):

I was a little scared, I thought maybe couple months and I’m transferring out. But no, it’s great – it’s amazing. I remember starting here and, like I said, I had no idea what I wanted to do. They were super open to sharing all these different types of fields and classes and the professors are so nice and welcoming. I also love the small campus feeling. So, I feel like I see people that I see in class outside walking by me, but really just how small it was, how close it was to home and the liberty to do whatever I wanted.

Natalie Kuldell (02:17):

Yeah. It is a place that excels in so many things, you know, as you discover what you want to do, they’ve got a great program there to help you do it. So, I’m glad that you found that there, as well. So, what does a regular, typical semester look like for you in double-majoring and working and everything else?

Sarah Elkondakly (02:39):

It’s kind of odd right now because it’s kind of like the first full year for me. My freshman year got cut short with the beginning of the pandemic and then sophomore year I was still on campus, but it was all virtual. But my day-to-day is pretty jam packed. Like we were talking earlier about how Zoom meetings get an end and that’s kind of like how my goes. I have class in the morning, usually two and then I go straight from here to work. Then I come back and do more work for a different job. Then I do my homework. So really I have little minutes in between where I just kind of take a breath to myself, but I realized that I like to surround myself with that back-to-back schedule, so that I’m always communicating and being social and making connections. And that’s kind of what I opened myself up to. I was really not that person a couple of years ago, I was more like, don’t talk to me, I’m not here. And now it’s like, wait, who are you, let’s have a conversation.

Natalie Kuldell (03:33):

That’s so great to hear. People think that they are either an introvert or an extrovert and that that’s a stable, always going to be that way kind of thing. But I think that we can balance and, tap into our more extroverted pieces of our personality and our more, I need some quiet time, just let me be moments. So, it’s great to hear that you have found that balance too. I’ve always said that if you want something done, you gotta ask a busy person because they are organizing their time, just like you said, with minutes here and there to get things done or to connect to somebody or something. That’s awesome. Now, you said Brandeis is close to home. Where’s home? Where’d you go to high school? What’s home like?

Sarah Elkondakly (04:19):

I’m from Medford, MA. Nobody ever knows where that is, so I usually just say it’s where Tufts is, and then people get it immediately. So, I went to Medford High School. My high school was, I don’t really know, I’ve never had experience with other high schools, but it was a high school and it was also a vocational high school, so there’s a lot of us. It was great. I mean, I took all the classes that you’re expected to take, you know, the APs, the honors and stuff like that. I think that high school was kind of odd because I felt like I was going in one track. And then when I got to Brandeis, it was like, oh, the world is your oyster. As I like to say, like, you can do whatever you want. I don’t have to worry about learning about calculus today. I can do absolutely anything. So, but high school was great. The teachers were great. Class classes were as great as they can be, I guess. I look back on high school and I’m like, oh, that’s over.

Natalie Kuldell (05:16):

You’re not alone, I think. Some classes can be great. Absolutely. Yeah. And, you had an interest in science in high school, which is how we got connected, right?

Sarah Elkondakly (05:31):

Yes. So, going into high school, I didn’t really know exactly what I liked. Then, I think it was specifically my junior year of high school, in an anatomy and physiology class that my school offered and, you could take it, but you’d have to take another class your senior year to make up that missed time. But I took it and the teacher was phenomenal, but mostly it was the content. It was like, oh my goodness, this is how the body works, it wasn’t just cells and stuff like that, which is super interesting to me. But it was more, apply that to how your body functions on a day-to-day basis. I think from there, I was like, wait, I want to do this. I want to be learning about this full time. So then I reached out to who I knew and said, I want to have an experience, like a hands-on experience with this. Because as I’ve learned is high school classes are fun, they’re great, but what matters is what you’re doing outside, because you’re diving into more of those interests of yours and figuring out what you really like and what you don’t like.

Natalie Kuldell (06:27):

So amazing. I just was going to ask, you don’t come from a family of scientists then, right? It’s not like anatomy and physiology was dinner time conversation at your house?

Sarah Elkondakly (06:40):

Absolutely not. I’m a first generation student, so my mom is from Brazil. My dad is from Egypt. My dad did high school, but never went to college and then he moved here. And my mom did college in Brazil, but she did it for teaching. But definitely the conversation at home was not about cells the dinner table was not about how this fuels your body. It was more just, what do you want to do? And then there was also the expectation of we’re immigrants, you’re our child, you’re going to go do medicine. And I was kind of like, well, I don’t like that. They’re like, okay, then you’re going to what? So I got pushed into mock trials and writing for applying for schools and stuff like that. I was doing everything that my parents wanted me to do. I think that kind of slowed me down a little bit, but discovering my interest in science kind of helped me separate a little bit and think, oh, maybe I’ll try this later.

Natalie Kuldell (07:33):

Yeah. Well, one of your high school teachers saw a tremendous talent in you for science, because I remember speaking with your teacher about your appropriateness and whether a BioBuilder program would make sense and got one of the most glowing recommendations possible from your teacher. So, you did connect with BioBuilder. Was that your junior year? I can’t remember now.

Sarah Elkondakly (08:00):

I think it was my senior year actually, because I remember upon completing it, I was able to do internships because I was at the age where I was allowed to do it on my own.

Natalie Kuldell (08:11):

Right. So, what do you remember about BioBuilder?

Sarah Elkondakly (08:16):

Just about everything and here’s why. It’s because getting to do the internship in the same space that I was doing BioBuilder, I was in that space every day. I was doing work and I was organizing or just coming and checking the lab, but I remember I have all the lab books still that we got, and I sometimes look back on them when I have work and I think, how do I do this equation? Oh, okay. It’s here. I have like little notes and like your advice and everything. I actually spotted one of your books the other day and I was like, oh, I have that. I don’t need that anymore. I remember our project. We created some sort of pill. I don’t remember exactly what it was for, but I remember presentations. I remember a lot of it and it’s so useful, especially now when I have to apply that basic information to a project. I’m like, oh, I did this before, I can do this.

Natalie Kuldell (09:06):

Yeah. The project development piece of BioBuilder is one of the more memorable pieces that students come away with. Our online programs, students remember those projects or our in-person programs when we ran them at LabCentral, definitely students remember those projects too. So, we were running that program at LabCentral in Kendall square. And then you got a wonderful internship at LabCentral in Kendall square. Do you want to say a little bit about your summer internship there and what it’s led to?

Sarah Elkondakly (09:37):

Absolutely. I think we wrapped it up in May. BioBuilder wraps up in May. And then I graduated a couple of weeks after, and I remember I graduated on a Wednesday and then the following Monday, I started at LabCentral and it was horrifying. I’m so sorry but it was horrifying because I remember it. I walked in and there was four interns, four interns, and they were all BU students and they were all juniors and seniors. And there was one sophomore and I was just fresh out of high school. I just barely got my diploma on my wall. I walked in and they were all introducing themselves and I was really closed off. And they were talking about their project and their experience and you get to me and I’m like, uh, I just graduated does that count? It was scary at first, but they embraced me really well.

Sarah Elkondakly (10:25):

They gave me activities and products where I was doing things that I thought was super cool. I got to wear a lab coat and go into these shared lab spaces and talk to all these resident companies that were doing groundbreaking research while also learning about how it all worked. It was really scary at first, but it was so informational, it was educational. And I took that with me when I started my first semester. I liked it so much I ended up coming back this past summer, two years later. It was like, welcome back! We expected you to come back.

Natalie Kuldell (10:58):

Any early butterflies must have dispelled pretty fast because they don’t invite people back if it wasn’t a success. So congratulations for that. Yeah. It’s amazing. So, I think what you touch on that’s moments like those are scary and knowing that, you know, you belong and that you have skills that you can offer that doesn’t come intuitively to people and having experiences in school and outside of school that you can draw on to bring to professional settings, um, that’s really important for feeling like you can have a role in these science-related industries. Right. So, I think you’re a great example of that and a great role model for that. Is there any advice that you have or thoughts, any things you’ve heard that were really helpful to you to keep pushing through?

Sarah Elkondakly (12:04):

Yeah, let’s see. I’ve heard a lot and I think I’ve learned a lot. I think that one big thing that I taught myself and tried to stick to is that it’s okay to be scared. It’s okay to not feel like you don’t know everything, you’re never gonna know everything. So just take a chance, take a leap of faith. I feel like I did that going into Labentral and getting that exposure and really just communicating and connecting with other people. The hands-on experiences that really molded me into what I am today and seeking my own interests, not those of others, and what’s being pushed onto me. So, try to find things that you like to do, and don’t be scared to try new things. Um, I think that’s why I transitioned so much from biology to psychology and other aspects of my studies, because I realized this is cool from this part, but what I’ve done outside of school, I like this part better. So let me do that instead.

Natalie Kuldell (12:59):

You don’t know what you don’t know. Right. So in fact, I’ve read a paper that said something like, the amount that we don’t know is so vast as to be practically infinite. So the idea that we will ever know everything is just, it’s impossible. So you have to be okay with not knowing with taking that leap of faith and being brave. Um, I think you’re a wonderful role model for that. Yeah.

Sarah Elkondakly (13:26):

And I realized that everybody’s just as lost as I am. So, if you think that you’re lost, just look over to the next person. I remember those interns that I had the internship with. I remember we were doing projects together and I was like, well, I don’t know how to do this. They’re like, we don’t either. And I was like, oh, okay. It’s not just so, don’t worry about it.

Natalie Kuldell (13:46):

Yeah. I think learning together is exactly right. It, de-risks asking a question, right. If you just know that everybody’s in there to learn together. So, I think that’s amazing. I think you’re going to do wonderful things. What a wonderful combination of psychology and English and, you know, your continued work with LabCentral and through the youth organization that you are leading programs for. I hope there are, you know, 24 hours in the day that allow you to do everything that you want to do and still take care of yourself.