The moment Ayse Elif Kesaf '14 visited the Berkshire website, an image of DNA immediately caught her attention. She then read about the School's Advanced Math/Science Research (AMSR) program. An aspiring young scientist, Kesaf couldn't help but feel a sense of intrigue and inspiration.
Born and raised in Turkey, the idea of studying abroad in high school was simply that at the time—an idea. Furthermore, if she was really going to take that leap, it would only be for a year. There was a lot to consider.
In September 2011, Kesaf traveled 5,300 miles from her home in Mersin, Turkey to Sheffield, Mass. It was nighttime when she first arrived at Berkshire, and only new international students were on campus for orientation, so the dorm was uncomfortably quiet. A moment of doubt seized her mind. "What was I thinking?" recalls Kesaf. Fortunately, after spending time with her advisor, Mrs. Bullock '86, and seeing the campus in the daylight the next morning, her feelings changed in a hurry.
A year studying abroad in the United States soon turned into three, culminating in a Berkshire diploma. When Kesaf reflects on her experience under the Mountain, she is deeply grateful. Grateful for the support of the School, the opportunity to pursue her passion for science, the lifelong friendships formed with classmates and teachers, and the foundation for future success. After Berkshire, Kesaf moved to the West Coast to begin her undergraduate work at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). She graduated in March 2019 after taking a medical mission trip to Nicaragua in spring 2018 and deciding to add a minor in Global Health. At this moment, Kesaf is continuing to do research in the Coller Lab at UCLA and taking classes through the University's Extension Program to better prepare for medical school next year. She is undecided about which school she'll attend.
Signature programs like AMSR differentiate Berkshire from other independent boarding schools. Offering our students an authentic, independent laboratory experience where they can design and execute original research, AMSR is instrumental in attracting bright young minds like Kesaf to Berkshire.
Kesaf's journey to Berkshire was more than just an experiment; it was a catalyst for moving her one giant step closer to achieving her dream. She adds that it has proven to be her "best decision."
Can you tell us about your career interests and hobbies, and why you are passionate about them? Ever since I was little, I dreamed of becoming a scientist to find cures for incurable diseases. My parents are engineers, and there are no scientists or physicians in my extended family, so I am not entirely sure how I initially became inspired. The opportunity to conduct college-level research as a high school student through Berkshire's AMSR program motivated me to come to the United States alone at the age of 16. This was something that would not have been possible for me to do in my home country of Turkey. Working in the AMSR laboratory with my mentor, Dr. April Burch, I experienced the thrill of making scientific discoveries for the first time. After Berkshire, I continued to pursue research at UCLA by joining the Coller Laboratory and studying a new treatment for melanoma.
While analyzing human melanoma specimens in the Coller Lab, I gradually realized that I longed to know patients as more than just specimen numbers. I wanted to understand their unique challenges and help them in a more personal way. This sparked my initial interest in clinical medicine. After gaining various clinical experiences in the United States and abroad, I realized that I deeply enjoy interacting with patients and ultimately decided to become a physician. Right now, I am trying to decide which medical school to attend next year. Thanks to my AMSR experience, I know that one of my goals as a physician is to conduct research that promises to enrich the lives of many.
Aside from medicine and biomedical research, I am passionate about guiding others. I have worked as a camp counselor, a health education instructor, and a mentor for disadvantaged high school students. As an international student, I also love to explore new places, try foods that I never tried before (especially desserts), and immerse myself in different cultures. In my free time, I still enjoy playing volleyball, basketball, and tennis (the three sports that I played at Berkshire), in addition to practicing yoga, hanging out with friends, going to concerts, and getting outdoors to surf, ski, and hike.
What did you take away from your experience in Berkshire's Advanced Math/Science Research program and how did it prepare you for studying those disciplines at the college level? Under the mentorship of Dr. Burch in AMSR, I isolated a novel bacteriophage that could be used to treat Legionnaires' disease, a severe form of pneumonia. Asking questions, reading scientific papers, performing experiments, troubleshooting, writing a research paper for the Intel Science Talent Search, and presenting my work to the Berkshire School community gave me firsthand insight into how scientists think and function. This remarkable experience reaffirmed my interest in becoming a scientist and I became committed to conducting research in college. Kesaf graduated from UCLA in March 2019. She is continuing her research in the Coller Lab while taking classes through the UCLA Extension Program to better prepare for medical school.
At UCLA, I declared my major in Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology and joined the Coller Laboratory, which studies cancer metabolism. Choosing a laboratory at a large research university like UCLA as an incoming freshman was not easy. Thanks to my AMSR experience, however, I knew what kind of research I wanted to do, so I was able to choose the right laboratory for myself. In the Coller Lab, I have studied a new treatment for melanoma for the past four years. The critical thinking, troubleshooting, time management, scientific writing, and public speaking skills I gained through my AMSR experience helped me adapt to the lab easily and present my work with confidence. Looking back now, I can say that working in this lab has been one of my favorite experiences during my college years, and it was all possible with the insight and skills gained through AMSR.
What are your fondest memories of Berkshire? I honestly don't know where to start. From the moment Mr. Harris picked me up from JFK Airport to take me to Berkshire for the first time, to the moment I walked with my cap and gown, there are so many fond memories. I would say, though, that some of my most memorable moments include hiking up Mount Everett with my volleyball team, chatting with my advisor Mrs. Bullock (a.k.a. my mom in the U.S.) during advisee lunch, performing with my dormmates during Dorm Wars, visiting Great Barrington with my friends on the weekends, and trick-or-treating at faculty homes during Halloween. I also cannot forget learning how to ice skate for the first time during Pro Vita, cleaning fire trucks during all-school service day, jumping in the lake on top of Mount Everett on Mountain Day, and dancing under the tent on Prize Night!
What advice you would give to today's students? Make the most of your Berkshire experience, because it is a special place full of opportunities. Don't hesitate to reach out to others—whether it is your advisor, another faculty member, or a peer—because Berkshire is filled with people who genuinely care about you. If you have a dream, chase it, because Berkshire is a place where dreams come true.