Sophie Gregrowski didn’t have much time to prepare her entry for the PBS LearningMedia’s and Stand Up To Cancer’s Emperor Science Award program, but she did have a passion for the subject.
Applicants from high schools across the country were asked to answer why scientific research is so important in finding a cure for cancer and what scientific field they would study and why.
“Right now, research is not as funded for specific cancers,” Gregrowski said in her essay. “Breast cancer has always been in the awareness light, but cancers of the colon or kidneys, lesser kinds of cancers haven’t been seen as higher up. It’s important to highlight lesser known cancers as well. And it’s something that runs in my family a lot, so it means a lot to me personally.”
Gregrowski, who just finished her sophomore year at Lawrence High School, was named among the 100 recipients of an Emperors Science Award in late May.
“It’s pretty unexpected,” Gregrowski said. “It’s a national award. When I applied, I didn’t really expect to win, so it’s pretty exciting.”
Students from 44 states applied. It’s the second year that the Emperor Science Award program has been held, and Gregrowski is the first award winner from Lawrence.
“We’re very excited for Sophie, we’re very proud of her,” said David Adam, LHS principal. “She’s a great young lady. She’s a very hard working student. I’ve known her since she was in the intermediate school. We know she’s a dedicated student, so this is a great reflection of her hard work and efforts.”
The award pairs high school students with a university-level mentoring scientist to collaborate on an important research project either virtually or in a lab with the goal of ultimately encouraging the next generation of cancer researchers. Award recipients receive a monetary stipend as well as a free Chromebook along with the research opportunity. Gregrowski is looking forward to the unique experience.
“I’ve had internships before, but none of them really have been derived from winning an award,” Gregrowski said. “It was definitely a new experience. I do a lot of this kind of thing where you apply to a really big system, but never know if you’re going to be selected or not. This is my first time ever winning such a huge award.”
Gregrowski will be paired in a virtual project with Seattle-based Dr. Deborah J. Bowen, who is in the Bioethics and Humanities Department at the University of Washington. The professor’s general research interests include “health behavior, health communication with an emphasis on underserved populations. Dr. Bowen has extensive experience in community-centered cancer prevention and screening intervention research,” according to UW’s online department listings. Gregrowski was blown away by her curriculum vitae.
Gregrowski is looking forward to collaborating with such an accomplished researcher. She was set to be briefed on the specifics of her own involvement in an introductory phone conversation in mid-June.
“I get to do actual research for the first time ever,” Gregrowski said. “Usually for science classes or science camp, usually you do research on something that’s already proven. This is the first time I get to independently branch out from the norm and kind of do my own thing. That’s pretty exciting. I also get the chance to work with someone who’s a highly esteemed professional in bioethics and very experienced in this sort of thing. I’m really excited to hear all her input and take a bunch of notes and learn more about a career in oncology.”
‘I kept a chemistry journal when I was 6. I’ve always been really curious.’
Gregrowski is interested in medicine as a career path. She has interned in a physical therapy center and also has volunteered in a hospital.
“Medicine is something I’ve always been interested in,” Gregrowski said. “Especially as an under-18 researcher, it’s really hard to get access to labs. That’s why this award is so important to students like me who don’t necessarily have the resources to conduct that research or the connections.
“Medicine is something I’ve considered long term, just medicine in general, I don’t know what sector yet,” she said, “I haven’t taken all the courses that my high school offers for that. I’ll probably go into science or research.”
Gregrowski has been in the STEM program at LHS since her freshman year, two years earlier than most students choose one of the school’s three academy programs that allows students to gain experience in a field of post-high school interest.
“Sophie was very fortunate as an underclassman to get involved right away with some of these activities,” Adam said. “Like a lot of our students, it gives them a leg up going into their junior and senior years about what courses they want to choose, but also what colleges they want to apply to because hopefully they have a better idea of their career choice after high school.”
The Emperor Science Award is another chance at gaining experience. She is looking forward to the mentorship that covers the entire summer. It will wrap up as she returns to LHS.
“I have to submit my project or answer a few questions about what I researched just before the school year begin,” Gregrowski said. “You definitely have to report back to the administrators in charge of the award and let them know that you have been doing research this summer.”
‘She asks questions of depth and she seeks any source possible to get answers to her questions.’
Summarizing her findings in writing won’t be a problem for the balanced Gregrowski. For a long time, she felt her strength was in writing and English, but she’s discovered she has long had a passion for science as well.
“I love writing essays,” Gregrowski said. “At one point I think that translated over to more technical essays and more science based essays, especially in biology for research papers. I never thought I was a science-y kid, but I was recently looking back through my old memorabilia, and I apparently kept a chemistry journal when I was, like, 6. I’ve always been really curious. Maybe it speaks to my interest in science.”
Gregowski is plenty involved in the sciences and a host of other activities at Lawrence High. She is on the debate team, and finds that useful for working on speaking skills. She plays the guitar, flute and piano. This year, she started the fall on the LHS girls’ tennis team before focusing on her academic work, but ran varsity track in the winter and spring. She was in the National History Day club, and she helped organize STEM Night. She also writes book reviews for the LHS school paper when she gets the chance. Gregrowski is most passionate about Lawrence’s Science Olympiad team, for which she was a junior officer this year and will be a senior officer next year.
Gwenn Andahazy, the Science Olympiad coach and a chemistry and environmental science teacher at LHS, said Gregrowski earned one of the high scores on the Science Olympiad entry test as an eight grader.
“It is competitive to make the team, and earlier this year she became a junior officer,” she said. “She’s one of the youngest officers we’ve had.”
Gregrowski and Princeton University-bound senior Sophie Slutzky were a strong pairing for Lawrence. Nicknamed “Sophie Squared,” the two won a regional medal in astronomy for the Science Olympiad team. Gregrowski didn’t tell many about her Emperor Science Award, but Slutzky’s congratulations on the Emperor Science Award were particularly meaningful.
“She was super proud of me and excited for me,” Gregowski said. “She has a lot of science under her belt, and she’s going to Princeton for rocket science. It’s pretty exciting to hear she was happy for me.”
It was Andahazy who alerted the team to the award, and she followed up with students to make sure that they had the information. She calls Gregrowski a go-getter, and was happy to see Gregrowski apply for the Emperor Science Award.
“What I love about Sophie is she’s so inquisitive, but in a very mature manner,” Andahazy said. “She asks questions of depth and she seeks any source possible to get answers to her questions. And she’s so bright, yet she’s humble. You wouldn’t know she’s so accomplished. She doesn’t brag about herself. She just does it because she loves it.”
Alexa Gonzalez, Gregrowski’s school counselor, calls her a self starter. “She applied, she wrote the essays, she got what she needed. It’s pretty atypical for a sophomore to be that focused and dedicated to finding enrichment opportunities outside of school so on top of being a stellar student,” she said.
Gregrowski felt privileged just to find out about the award. She’s gearing up for the opportunity of a lifetime.
“They get this amazing internship opportunity with someone who is accomplished in the field, and that’s something that’s not offered to high school students too often,” Andahazy said. “It really was too good to pass up.”
There are only two high school students nationwide who have returned for a second year with the Emperor Science Award program, the limit for award winners. Gregrowski is already eyeing that chance.
“It’s definitely something I’d want to look into,” she said. “If it’s a positive experience, of course I’d want to reapply. I don’t know what my chances would be. I’m already pretty excited about it.”
Gregrowski has already found ways to explore her interest in science, but the Emperor Science Award will provide an opportunity beyond anything she has experienced. It’s why she is so anxious to get the school year finished and get her internship started.
“A lot of the time,” Gregrowski said, “I think there’s a lot to learn outside school, too.”