By Rachel Lea
As part of the 26th annual Celebration of Student Achievement (COSA) the College invited Isabel Distefano to the Mayo Concert Hall as a keynote speaker to discuss her career as a molecular lab technician and the path she took to obtain it. Distefano started her journey at the College as a student and described her return to the campus as nostalgic and emotional.
“It is unreal to be back in this capacity,” Distefano said. “It was just a great honor to be selected.”
Distefano graduated from the College in 2017 as a biology major with a minor in public health. She then spent the next six years in the Pritzker Laboratory for Molecular Systematics and Evolution at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Distefano also serves as an inaugural member of the Museum-wide Diversity, Equity, Access and Inclusion (DEAI) Council and plans to attend the Yale School of Public Health to earn a Master’s degree.
Despite her busy schedule, Distefano was excited to return to the College as a keynote speaker.
“I feel like I am still pretty early in my career,” Distefano said. “But I also think that is a good thing for students, because if you can see that I am just a couple of years out of college, it’s not as intimidating or unobtainable as to where you attend a seminar with a scientist, who does research for a living. So, I hope that where I am at in my career right now can be relatable to other students.”
After an introduction from Peter Corso, a senior political science and music double major and vice president of student government, Distefano spent the next hour discussing how to find a support system in college and how success can take many forms. She also encouraged students to explore the many options available on campus and to strive for independence and positivity in regards to finding the career path that fits them.
The last 15 minutes of the keynote session was a Q&A, giving students a chance to interact with Distefano. Biology students in particular were also invited to talk to her over cookies the next day. Topics for both sessions ranged from the advantages of taking a gap year to advice on how to accept failure.
Distefano hopes that she assured students that it was OK to take their time in regards to choosing a career and inspired them to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the College.
“There are a lot of amazing resources here, whether it is in academics, having fun or just getting to know everyone that you are around,” Distefano said. “It is easy to say it, being out of college, but just make the most of it, and make sure you have fun while you are doing it.”
Many students plan to take Distefano’s advice to heart and appreciate her giving it.
“There is always a pressure to get a job or to go graduate school right away,” explained Corso. “But [Distefano] was able to land a job, work through everything with Covid-19, and now she is going to graduate school. So, seeing that journey and how it played out, for someone I [have] similarities with, was inspiring for sure.”
Other students simply enjoyed being able to interact with such an accomplished alumna.
“It was great to see someone coming back,” said Amanda Khoury, a freshman biology major. “It shows the potential for what there is for you. There are lots of paths you can do, and it doesn’t have to be linear or expected.”
Khoury also mentioned that Distefano’s address offered a change of pace compared to the rest of the presentations seen at COSA.
“COSA presentations are very structured,” Khoury explained. “‘This is what I did; this is exact data.’ That made [Distefano’s] presentation more relatable but just as interesting in such a way that she presented herself and her life versus someone’s journey through a structured research experiment.”
Students agree that Distefano’s presence and address represented the purpose of COSA: to honor the accomplishments of students new and old, no matter the paths they take.
“Being at the keynote was special, but the whole day is really magnificent,” Corso said. “I would promote COSA to anyone who has the opportunity. You get to meet new people and experience new ideas. That’s what the [College] is about, and COSA is really a celebration of those ideas. I enjoyed it, and I think the keynote was a really good foundation for that throughout the day.”