La Jollan is top graduating senior at UC Berkeley: Freja Ekman wins coveted University Medal

Freja Ekman is one of those success stories that make La Jolla High School proud. A LJHS grad, Class of 2014, Freja went to UC Berkeley and majored in chemical biology with a near-perfect GPA of 3.99. As the top graduating senior in her class, she won the school's University Medal and delivered an inspiring speech to her graduating class.

Impressive, right? But it only scratches the surface of Freja's amazing accomplishments at such a young age.

Freja was born in Erlangen, Germany, to a father from Sweden and a mother from Norway. The family moved to La Jolla right before Freja started kindergarten at La Jolla Elementary School, so she considers herself as close to a native La Jollan as you can get.

At La Jolla High, Freja developed an interest in biology and mathematics. But her greatest memories are not about classes or teachers. "I feel incredibly thankful that I had such a goofy, tight-knit group of friends in high school," she says with a smile. "They taught me how fun learning truly could be. I remember how we used to rewrite the lyrics to 'The Twelve Days of Christmas' to incorporate inside jokes and various biology puns that we learned in class, or when we put Christmas lights on our sickle-cell anemia poster to make it truly come to life. These small, everyday high-school moments truly impacted me."

Freja had a challenging internship at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla during her high-school years, where she used a genome-edited strategy know as "zinc-finger recombinase" to insert a particular gene in the genome of mammalian cells. She said she knew she was hooked on genome engineering from that point on. Her work in gene therapy has included breakthroughs in ALS and Huntington's disease. She's also worked on gene-therapy strategies to treat hemophilia.

There were other influences in Freja's life that brought her to her field of study. Namely, her oldest brother, Felix, who is now 27 years old. Felix has epilepsy, a hip disease, and high-functioning autism, which led Freja to become an advocate for neurodiversity. "I use gene engineering to target neurodegenerative disorders. But I also believe there are non-lethal genetic disorders that should be treated socially by taking away their stigma," she says.

When Freja started at Berkeley, she had a hard time adjusting. "I had become so fixated on grades and keeping up with everyone else that I forgot that these aren't what ultimately define us," she explains. It was her roommate, Masami, who helped her through it. "She forced me to focus on the positive aspects of life — to see every day for the glory that it is. She taught me about kindness and to be proud of the goofy person that I was."

Freja says she learned many other lessons during her years at Berkeley. "I've learned you should always do what you're passionate about, regardless of whether others think it might not be the best choice," she explains. "Every chemistry lecture I attend I feel as excited as I was during the last — each one filled with daring twists and turns. I've met people at Berkeley whose passion exudes from their whole being — a genuine passion that's contagious. I find myself deeply engaged in conversations about 14th-century European literature or modern juggling — both of which I never even considered as interests before I came to Berkeley."

She says she will never forget the day she learned she was a University Medalist. "The moment was definitely a mixed bag of emotions," she recalls. "It was a combination of feeling incredibly ecstatic and so honored, but also utterly terrified of having to face my lifelong fear of public speaking on a much grander stage than I could have ever imagined."

But what happened on that day of commencement was something Freja never anticipated. As she stood up in front of the crowd of tens of thousands of onlookers "that fear suddenly disappeared," she recalls. "In that moment, I knew I believed full-heartedly in what I had to say so my fears didn't matter anymore. I realized what an incredibly opportunity I had before me. To spread my message to so many people was a gift. It was truly a thrill."

Freja will continue her academic studies next year at the University of Cambridge in England. She hopes to bridge the gap between the development of novel gene therapies in academic research and their feasibility in clinical applications. She also wants to develop therapeutic platforms to treat hundreds of rare genetic diseases.

Outside of the laboratory, she has another mission. "Growing up with a brother with autism, I've witnessed firsthand the ruthless bullying that many people with disabilities experience. This is why I not only want to become a physician scientist, but an advocate for people with disabilities and rare genetic disorders. I hope to work toward a tomorrow where inclusivity is a given in our society, and where everyone understands the different and beautiful ways we all see this world."

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