2011 SJGS grad Caleb Geissler is involved in research improving biofuel production from algae at Purdue University. (Photo credit: Chrislyn Particka)

Each year, out of approximately 1.6 million entrants, only 7,500 students receive National Merit Scholarship awards. Winners are chosen from a Finalist group based on their abilities, skills, and accomplishments, including academic record, test scores, written recommendations, activities and leadership, and a personal essay.

The year 2015 was a special one, as not one but two Saint Joseph Grade School alumni – Sofia Carozza and Caleb Geissler – received the prestigious National Merit Scholarship. SJGS caught up with Sofia and Caleb to find out where they are now, what they have been doing, and where they are headed.

SJGS: Sofia and Caleb, tell us about what you are doing now. What college program are you in? Why did you choose that program?

Sofia: I am a senior at the University of Notre Dame, as a double major in neuroscience and theology with a minor in politics, philosophy, and economics (PPE). I chose to come to Notre Dame because I desired a whole education – not just academic, but personal and spiritual as well – and I couldn’t be happier! I’ve found close mentors and friends, and I’ve had the chance to study and deepen my Catholic faith while living in community with phenomenal people.

Caleb: I’ve wanted to study chemical engineering ever since high school, as chemistry and mathematics have always been my favorite subjects. So here I am at Purdue, studying chemical engineering with a concentration in energy and the environment.

SJGS: Can you tell us about some highlights from the last several years…perhaps any research, work, or activities are you involved in?

Sofia: I’m a Hesburgh-Yusko Scholar, a comprehensive leadership program at ND that provides college tuition, mentorship, and funding for summer experiences. One year, I went backpacking in the Blue Ridge Mountains and in Italy. The next, I received a fellowship to spend the summer in Bolivia and Paraguay working with kids suffering from developmental disorders. In 2017, I conducted independent research at the National Institutes of Health in a neuroscience lab (dissecting mouse brains!). In 2018, I worked for a non-profit in Montana dedicated to improving the lives of children who have suffered trauma, and spent part of the summer studying theology in Jerusalem.

On campus, I’ve participated in a number of research projects at the Institute for Advanced Study, from theoretical physics to 18th century philosophy and modern theology. I also work in a Development and Psychopathology lab, studying maternal-child interactions. In my free time, I’m a member of the Women’s Boxing Team, a peer mentor, and a concert harpist. Finally, I have founded a group that advocates for labor justice, as well as an exercise program at the Juvenile Justice Center (a detention facility in downtown South Bend).

Caleb: For the past two years, I have been performing research on improving biofuel production from algae. I am in the process of authoring a paper to publish the results and in June I presented my research at the IEEE Power Modulator and High Voltage Conference in Jackson, Wyoming.

I am also a part of many extracurricular activities, from “Engineers for a Sustainable World” to the “Purdue Tea Appreciation Club” to the “Purdue Society of Arts and Letters.” Last spring break I went on a Harry Potter study abroad with other members of the Honors College to England and Scotland, and even saw Daniel Radcliffe in a play!

SJGS: Where do you see yourself in five or 10 years?

2011 SJGS alumna Sofia Carozza is a Hesburgh-Yusko Scholar at the University of Notre Dame.

Sophia: In ten years, I will hopefully have completed my Ph.D. in Neuroscience. I plan to study the neurobiological effects of childhood trauma – in other words, how traumatic experiences change kids’ brains and affect their ability to learn and grow. I hope to get a position as a university professor, so I can help college students discover a passion for neuroscience, and use my own research for social change in my community.

Caleb: I intend on going to graduate school to pursue a Ph.D. in chemical engineering, so I can teach and continue to research.

SJGS: How do you feel your time at SJGS prepared you for the future, or what was your most valuable experience at SJGS?

Sophia: Many phenomenal SJGS teachers, staff, and parents invested in my personal development over the years, and helped shape me into the woman I have become. I am grateful to come from such a close-knit, supportive community that takes responsibility for the faith and wellbeing of its children. These mentors taught me to be a conscientious student and responsible member of my community, but even more importantly they showed me what it means to authentically live the joy and radical love of Christian life.

Caleb: Saint Joseph Grade School was excellent academic preparation, especially in writing. Many of my fellow engineering students struggle to write effectively and don’t think it’s worth the time to get better, but it is a necessary skill for any profession. In terms of friends, I still keep in touch with some of my friends I made in grade school, which is great!

SJGS: What advice would you offer current 8th graders as they move on from SJGS?

Sophia: Don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions, take risks, and make mistakes. Embrace what makes you different! Seek after something greater than the success or popularity valued by the world, because it won’t make you happy. And take advantage of living with your parents because when you leave for college you’ll miss them.

Caleb: I guess I’d say that you can never start pursuing your dream too early. If you know what you want to do in the future, start getting involved with anything you can to help prepare yourself to achieve that goal.

SJGS: Thanks for your time and thoughtful responses, Sophia and Caleb. Best of luck in your future endeavors!