A science of friendship

By Mathew Starner

Sara Berger (Mandan, N.D.) and Elissa Butler (Dallas, Tex.) reflect on their final days at Mac after the spending last four years as roommates. Sara’s and Elissa’s home at 258 Macalester Street is appropriately situated just across the street from Olin Rice, where each would devote hours in neuroscience or chemistry labs. The two now have promising futures in research, medicine, and friendship.The Mac Weekly: The date is September 2nd, 2006: first day of freshman orientation. When you first met, what were the first impressions?

Sara: Can we go before that? Do you remember the orange slip that told you who your roommate was? I called Elissa, and I was petrified because it said she was from Texas and I thought, “Oh, god.” I asked her how her family was like and I knew it’d be a reciprocal question, so she goes, “What about you?” I said something like, “I have a dad. And two moms. And they’re lesbians.” Then there’s this dead silence on the other end.

TMW: What were you thinking at the time?

Elissa: I don’t even remember. Just, “Huh, that’s interesting. Okay, cool, you know.” I told my best friend in high school. My friend said, “Does that mean she’s a lesbian? Are you going to be a lesbian?”

Sara: That was because I was one and I would convert her.

TMW: What brought you together in that first semester?

Elissa: We were in love and death together as our first year course and both of us were completely overwhelmed.

Sara: It was overwhelming.

Elissa: We bonded over that.

TMW: When you first came to Mac, did you already know you’d devote your college career in Olin Rice as a science major?

Elissa: I knew coming in that I wanted to do pre-med and a chemistry major. But I was also open to double majoring and thought, “Yeah, religious studies!” but realized it wasn’t exactly for me. But I ended up taking other classes in other departments and ended up as an anthropology major as well.

Sara: I definitely knew I wanted to do neuroscience forever, since I was ten. One of the reasons I was looking at Macalester was that it had an undergraduate neuroscience program. I also looked at Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and I fell in love with that freshman year, so I minored in WGSS.

TMW: Did your two fields of study help you support each other through tough times in the name of science?

Sara: We have very different work ethics. She definitely had a lot more science background than I did coming in. For her, I don’t think it stressed her out very much. I had never had hardcore science labs and didn’t know how to handle it. For that reason, I got so stressed out over bio and chemistry. So Elissa would help. At the same time I think I stressed her out because I’m someone who gets things done way ahead of when they’re due.

Elissa: I got used to it after a while. For a while it was like, “Oh my god it’s Monday, and Sara you don’t have to do this until next Monday! I haven’t even finished reading the book for it!” But we definitely got used to each other’s work ethic.

Sara: We realized it worked for each other.

Elissa: Yeah, I write papers the morning of. You have them done weeks before hand. We’re ok with that. I just never got stressed out over science things.

TMW: One time I heard Elissa say Sara Berger was the hardest working student that she had ever seen. I imagine Elissa was busy too, even if it was just the morning before. But did you guys’ free time ever overlap?

Elissa: We don’t necessarily hang out. But we always work together. Saturday mornings we’ll have our “lets go to the coffee shop and work together”.

Sara: Although it doesn’t always work.

Elissa: Sometimes we just end up distracting each other and end up getting nothing done.

Sara: I’ve always been kind of introverted, and I never hang out with people and am kind of in my own zone. But we’d always end up hanging out together. I mean, she had to come back to the room eventually.

TMW: Graduation is only a couple of weeks away. What comes next?

Elissa: I’m hanging out here this summer and doing as little as possible because I’m going to med school in the fall at the University of Minnesota. I also teach MCAT classes for Kaplan 10-20 hours a week, but the rest of the time I’m going to be reading all the good books that I haven’t had time to read. .And that I won’t have time to read in the future.

Sara: And live with someone special?

Elissa: Yeah, with my boyfriend who is going to the U for public health. We’ll see what happens from there.

Sara: A couple days after graduation I’m going down to Chicago to secure an apartment, hopefully. Cross my fingers. And I’m going to Northwestern for an interdepartmental Neuroscience program, which I’m really excited about. I get to start research in July.

TMW: What kinds of stuff will you do?

Sara: I’ll be working with Dr Apkarian. He’s a pain specialist and works with both cognitive aspects of pain and pain embodiment. We’re going to be working with gynochologists and starting something about cognitive aspects of chronic pelvic pain in women.

Elissa: We have this great life plan where I’m going to become an OB/GYN and do my residency at Northwestern while she’s there studying chronic pelvic pain in women. And I’ll have all these patients who I’ll refer to her and we can just hang out.

Sara: Then we’ll move to Africa, and I can.. do research?

TMW: After spending the last four years together, what is living apart going to be like?

Sara: Looking back at – I can’t even call them friends anymore – the people in high school, they did not know me for one, I never talked to them about things that mattered. So just knowing Elissa totally embraces everything that constitutes me is really nice. I’m also going to miss that she’s the only person who can totally distract me from anything that I’m doing.

Elissa: Having that person that you know knows everything about you and you feel completely comfortable saying anything around them.

TMW: If you could go back in time to when you first got that orange slip with the other person’s name, if you could attach a letter to that card, what would you say?

Elissa: I would say: Sara is very intense and works really hard, which is awesome, but don’t get overwhelmed by it. Also, you’re about to meet the best friend of your life. That’s cheesy. It’s so true though.

Sara: Elissa is extremely, extremely intelligent and don’t be intimidated by it. Also be prepared for definite changes in the way she interacts with you and the world. I definitely saw a transformation, specifically from freshman to sophomore year. Looking back, you’re completely different, which is awesome. And then also you’re going to be friends with this person for the rest of your life so enjoy everything along the way.