Kara Leyden is a self-proclaimed nerd whose love for baking had those close to her thinking she’d pursue a life in the culinary world. This week, however, she graduates from Union College with an interdepartmental degree in both biology and sociology as her class’ valedictorian.
“I’m just surrounded by so many people who are so intelligent and amazing, amazing professors who are so supportive,” Leyden said. “I don’t want to say it was easy. It wasn’t. They made it possible.”
Despite what Rensselaer students may say, Union College is listed among the most highly sought after schools in the country. Its 2018 enrollment class received more than 6,700 applicants, but less than 39 percent were accepted. The Phi Beta Kappa member said the students she encountered during her studies inspired her to achieve in the classroom and have fun while outside of it. Nerd or not — she’s also a Beta Gamma Sigma (Business Honor Society) and Alpha Kappa Delta (Sociology Honor Society) — Leyden said she appreciated the healthy balance of work and play during her time wearing Union garnet.
“I get very excited about certain things even my immediate family don’t get,” Leyden said after proudly confessing her nerd status, one in which she can’t avoid after graduating with a perfect 4.0 grade point average. “I’m the only one interested in pursuing a career in medicine. [But] I have other things I enjoy doing. It’s not all academics.”
2020 has posed a challenge to graduating seniors, many of whom unknowingly said goodbye to friends and teachers as coronavirus-related shutdowns were initiated three months ago. Classes continued through Zoom meetings and emails, but the social aspect of college life was taken away.
“It’s been pretty heartbreaking,” Leyden said from her home in Glenmont, sharing a vivid memory of when she and her classmates learned they had to leave campus. “It was a Thursday afternoon at school. It was noon. I was standing, waiting to get coffee, and it was all of a sudden an exodus.” The student body received an email announcing the cancelation of classes that day, and within a week learned they had to move out and expect to take final exams online. “It was a whirlwind.”
The coronavirus that grabbed headlines and changed everyone’s lives this year also played a separate role in Leyden’s developing career. Before she starts medical school at Albany Medical College in August, she’ll spend this summer in a laboratory as a researcher for biotech start-up FluroTest L.L.C. designing a rapid test to detect COVID-19.
The opportunity presented itself about a month ago through a friend involved with the start-up. The design is anticipated to develop a test that will detect both the presence of the virus or the antibody the body creates after fighting the infection.
As hospitalization numbers and the CDC began suggesting shutdowns to prevent social gatherings, there was an issue over the quality of tests. As the pandemic stretched from March to April, states were still reporting the lack of availability of tests. Quality tests continue to be a focal point in the discussion to combat the spread of the virus.
“It’s very exciting,” she said. “I hope it works.”
As she sets out on her path in medicine, Leyden said she hasn’t settled on a specialty just yet. She wants to concentrate on exposing herself to different specialties before honing in on one and allowing for that to cook and settle.
Prior to devoting her time to science, Leyden spent time in the kitchen. Her passion involved baking cupcakes. As a high school senior attending the Academy of the Holy Names, she managed her own business. The experience helped develop the topic of her admissions essay for college.
“I love cooking and baking,” she said. “It has been a passion of mine since I can remember.”
The relationship between baking and science may not be straightforward, but those who have tried their hand at baking can appreciate the need for attention and detail required for both fields. Botch the measurements on a recipe and you may be surprised by the taste. Leyden, who focused her prize-winning sociology thesis on the psychological effects of bariatric surgery, said there’s still wriggle room in the kitchen to play around.
“In my mind, there’s less rigidity than people think,” she said. “My favorite part about cupcakes is being creative. Especially with decorating and flavor combinations and stuff like that. … There’s endless possibilities.”