Adam Konkol (C '21) has the kind of resume that proves it’s possible to find a path in life where you’re passionate about the things you’re good at and good at the things you’re passionate about. It definitely inspires hope that we can all, with dedication and work, stumble on similar paths of our own—where fulfilling our academic or work responsibilities during most of the day just means we’re enjoying what we do at every moment.
Clocking in at a whopping four majors—biochemistry, biophysics, physics, and math—on top of being a Vagelos Molecular Life Sciences (MLS) Scholar, Adam is a force to be reckoned with in Penn’s science departments. Everything about him screams science, from his aversion to writing essays to his COVID–19 research to his future plans.
“I realized more and more that I was interested in understanding why things happen and being able to explain them through some kind of theories and really digging deeper,” Adam says.
Not only did Adam survive the famously competitive and difficult MLS program, but he thrived. He appreciates that the program allowed him to go all in with the physical and analytical sciences, and it's easy to see how the program prepared him to take so much on. With 24 hours in a day—just like all of us—he takes numerous science classes under four majors because they're "fun and enjoyable," conducts research in multiple disciplines, and teaches during his free time, including weekends.
Adam’s research is as varied and interesting as his majors, branching from experimental biology to theoretical biophysics. He studies networks, first researching structures of the body’s blood vessels before then working with a professor at the University of Arkansas to apply that same research to the study of river deltas. Though they seem disparate, he remarks that they look the same if you squint, a metaphor for the broad application of scientific inquiry that I found delightful. He’s almost finished with some COVID–19 research comparing travel data by county with epidemic spread, emphatically stating that “travel restrictions are worthwhile and useful.” It’s nice to have claims backed up by hard data, as that’s really the point of doing any scientific research.
As a first–generation college student, Adam has squeezed everything he could get out of his university experience, and he's incredibly proud of having done so. He’s thankful for the research opportunities he’s had, such as the Churchill Scholarship that will allow him to travel abroad for his studies. This, more than all the work he's doing or classes he’s taking, is what makes Adam such an interesting person to talk to—the fact that he has taken every opportunity to do things he genuinely and earnestly enjoys.
“When I came into college, I had no idea. I scraped my way into Penn and had no idea what was even out there to do—like how many different opportunities there were and just everything that’s available.”
What little free time Adam does have beyond MLS and his own research is still science–adjacent, as he mostly takes opportunities to teach Penn peers or high schoolers in the Philadelphia area. This is what he does for fun, running organic chemistry workshops on the weekends and serving as a teaching assistant for undergraduate and graduate level courses alike. It’s a work–life balance to be envious of, where work and life blend into each other because both brush up against each other and encompass true passions and hobbies. People often ask him what he does in his free time, only to disbelieve that teaching counts as free time for him.
“I certainly wouldn’t teach so much if I didn’t absolutely love it … I really, really like it. And so, it’s hardly work. It’s really enjoyable and fun; [the] highs and lows of working with students, when they really get it and they’re like excited, and they’re motivated, and they want to keep going, and you help them learn more.”
It’s a deep well of empathy that shines through when Adam speaks about his love for teaching, citing that he’s there to both help students and stress alongside them. It’s not a totally cheery view—teaching is difficult and takes hard work, and that is why it’s rewarding.
Adam has gone out of his way to not only work with Penn students, but to design and teach a seminar for high school students in Philadelphia, which he cites as one of his proudest accomplishments as an undergraduate. He notes that teaching high schoolers was immensely difficult, especially in how quickly he had to adjust to the teaching environment.
“Teaching things is hard, and it’s real work, and it takes time, and it’s not easy. The reward of somebody being able to figure it out and think through something themselves and come up with something new is completely worth all the effort it takes to get up that hill, for me certainly.”
Adam is someone with immense dualities—student and teacher, researcher and learner, liaison between high schoolers and college students. His advice for incoming first years is deceptively simple, and yet something we all struggle to follow.
“Any first years coming in should do the things they like and not do the things they don’t like—it’s not worth it. There’s so many things here … There’s no reason to keep doing something that you don’t enjoy. With so many opportunities, there’s no excuse to shy away from finding what clicks.
Adam's perception of free time is, he admits, warped in a way. It would be impossible for it not to be, when he’s involved in so many avenues of research, teaching, learning, and mentoring, and he has been embroiled in analytical sciences for most of four years. But at the end of the day, he says it’s been “completely worth it.” You can tell he took his undergraduate career seriously, loved it, and made the most of it. There's no better model to look for as a senior.
This fall, Adam's headed to the University of Cambridge to get his master's in physics with a grant from the Churchill Foundation, before coming back to the United States to get his Ph.D. in applied mathematics from MIT. As he continues his path into academia, where he will step into the roles of both researcher and teacher, I can’t wait to see what topics he tackles next, or what else can be made to look the same if you just take the time to squint, and look at the data a little bit closer.