Najib El-Sayed knows what it means to adapt to change, and he’s excited to guide students through a successful transition to college
When Najib M. El-Sayed stepped into the role of director of the Integrated Life Sciences (ILS) program in the University of Maryland Honors College on August 2, 2020, he walked into uncharted territory as universities all over the world redefine “normal” during the COVID-19 pandemic. But El-Sayed is familiar with change; he knows what it means to adapt. And he is deeply committed to helping students become their best selves and succeed in their academic and personal pursuits.
Designed to help accelerated students transition to college, ILS is a rigorous, two-year academic program that includes participation in a professional research project and a student-led service-learning initiative. ILS students build a community that can support students inside and outside the classroom, long after students move beyond the program.
We spoke with El-Sayed, who is a professor of cell biology and molecular genetics with a joint appointment in the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies, about the path that brought him to UMD and his hopes for ILS students.
What drew you to take on the role of ILS director?
Multiple things. I have interacted with quite a few exceptional ILS students in my ILS honors class (BSCI 411H: Bioinformatics and Integrated Genomics) and in my own lab over the past few years. I have witnessed their achievements, ambition and commitment to personal excellence; their desires for productive careers in research, medicine, bioengineering, etcetera; and the devotion of their time and talent to service initiatives.
The three ILS students who completed their undergraduate research theses in my lab are currently at various stages of their M.D./Ph.D. or Ph.D. studies. Each one of them left a strong mark in my lab, and like all their peers in ILS, I am convinced that they will soon impact whatever field of science they choose to contribute to. And for those who choose any of the health professions, I would gladly entrust my health care to them one day.
I have also witnessed former ILS director, Dr. [Todd] Cooke, grow ILS into a vibrant living-learning program with the support and help of the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences (CMNS), through Bob Infantino, CMNS associate dean for undergraduate education. Who would not want to play an important part in keeping and growing such a successful program?
These are challenging times for college students. Do you have advice for students who may feel their whole college experience has been turned upside down?
I know we all have different levels of anxiety, and we’re all dealing with being under isolation in different ways, but one day we're going to look back and ask, ‘Did we use this time to do something productive, whether it's to improve ourselves or actually be better, more productive members of society?’
For our ILS students, there are very relevant aspects to what they should be thinking about. Police violence became an urgent public health priority in the last few months, considering that legal and political action has failed. In addition, racial disparities in COVID-19 infection and lethality rates emphasize social and racial determinants of disease and highlight inequities in work safety, housing, underlying medical conditions and access to care. ILS program components of education, research and service are all spheres that have the power for fundamental change to dismantle racism in STEM and across society. I think every ILS student should think about what they can contribute to effect change. There is always a place for us to have impact.
That idea seems to highlight the research and service components of the ILS program.
Yes, and in fact, the service-learning component is one of the many attractive aspects of ILS that actually touches close to home for me. In my family, service is not just a box we check. It's something we've been doing since my kids were six- or seven-years-old. They are now 18 and 23.
I grew up in Lebanon during a raging civil war. My wife grew up in the Philippines. We have made a comfortable life for our family, but one day we realized that our children had not been exposed to the realities and crises of the world. So, we traveled with them on service trips through the Yale Alumni Service Corps to communities in India, Ghana and Cuba. We've partnered with community members across the world to carry out projects ranging from hands-on science or public health education to bookshelf construction for a library. We’ve even helped build a whole community and computer center.
How did you end up at Maryland?
I majored in biology and environmental health sciences at the American University of Beirut. After that, I went to Tulane University for a master's in parasitology and tropical medicine. I became even more fascinated in studying how parasites evade the immune system, and I decided to pursue a Ph.D. at Yale University. The plan was still to go back home, teach and do my research. But, I met my wife. I didn’t plan for that, but we decided to make a life here, and I have never looked back.
After Yale, I went to do my postdoctoral studies at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the University of Iowa. My wife began medical school at Creighton University in Omaha and then finished at the University of Iowa. She matched for her residency at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, so we both came to Maryland, and we have really made our home here.
You’ve made some big moves in your life. Do you have advice for students adapting to the big changes in their lives as they enter college?
Yes, well, I am good at adapting to changing circumstances. That’s one thing I learned from living in war. You learn to be resilient and you find a way to be happy wherever you are. I think that’s an important lesson that helps in times of transition and upheaval. So, my first advice to students: Work on your adaptive resilience.
I realize most students are really still searching for their identity, and others still feel insecure about their abilities. I would tell them, ‘You're really talented, no matter which program you're in. So, lose that imposter syndrome. Do not worry, you will do well. You belong here and we're going to help you with that.’
And after that, the most important advice is to learn how to manage your time, because suddenly you have much more freedom with your schedule and you can be under the illusion that you have much more time on your hands. But the reality is that you really need to take control, buckle down and organize yourself, because college can and should be challenging.
Also, finding new peers and friends in this very new and fast-paced environment is a challenge. A program like ILS helps students find these peers, but students should also deprogram themselves and tear down the hyper-bonding they may have from high school to discover new things and new people.
And now, how about a little rapid-fire Q&A? What’s your favorite pizza?
Favorite campus restaurant?
Favorite UMD tradition?
Ice cream socials. I find my way to them all the time.
Cats or dogs?
Dogs, but I don’t have one now. We just babysit everybody's dogs.
Favorite family movie?
Kiki's Delivery Service
Favorite family board game?
Favorite pop song?
"I'll Be There" by Jess Glynne. It’s been stuck in my head for two weeks now!
What’s your superpower?
Well, I remember faces very well. I don’t know if that can be a superpower. Maybe my superpower is emotional intelligence. I think being able to handle relationships carefully and empathically is a power.
Biggest lesson your students have taught you?
It’s not enough to teach. We should inspire.
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About the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences
The College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences at the University of Maryland educates more than 9,000 future scientific leaders in its undergraduate and graduate programs each year. The college's 10 departments and more than a dozen interdisciplinary research centers foster scientific discovery with annual sponsored research funding exceeding $200 million.