Sophia Sokolowski has been admitted to Wellesley College, a prestigious liberal arts college for women. She will cross-register at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She also is working on a paper she hopes to have published in a scientific journal.
By B.C. Manion
Originally published July 6
Sophia Sokolowski isn’t quite sure when her love for science was born.
Perhaps it isn’t obvious to her because she grew up in a household of science-minded parents.
Her mom, Holly Sokolowski was involved in research for the cochlear implant in the years before Sophia, now 17, was born.
And her dad, Bernd Sokolowski, is director of otolaryngology (ear, nose and throat) at the University of South Florida.
Sophia remembers going to the labs at USF when she was quite young.
“I loved looking up and seeing these giant microscopes,” she said. “You know, when you’re little, everything is so big compared to your size.
“I thought it was awesome.
“That,” she said, “would be my first introduction to science.”
Fast-forward to eighth-grade when Sophia noticed that when she switched her iPod with her friends, their iPods were always louder than hers.
That spurred an idea for a science project: She compared the hearing of her peers to that of older people.
“I found out that some of the kids who were my age were already experiencing hearing loss,” said Sophia, who will be a senior this fall at Academy at the Lakes, an independent private school in Land O’ Lakes.
Her interest in hearing loss continued and she spent countless hours last year working on a project she called, “Audio Perception: Plotting the Pathway of the BK Channel.”
The project took first place in the biochemistry division of the 2011 Pasco Regional Science and Engineering Fair and second place in the same division at the Florida State Science and Engineering Fair.
It also captured two awards — one from the U.S. Army and the other from the U.S. Air Force — at the 2011 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, with prizes totaling about $5,000 in U.S. Savings Bonds. The competition, in Los Angeles this year, drew the top 1,500 projects from around the world this year.
Ask Sophia about her project and she’ll lay it out in technical terms. But she’s also able to break it down in simpler terms for those who operate below her level of scientific sophistication.
In part, she identified and cloned proteins important in hearing loss that could have an impact in rehabilitating those who have suffered hearing loss, and in preventing hearing loss in others.
“Hearing loss is a huge phenomenon in today’s society. We have troops coming back from the war and they have hearing loss from IEDs (improvised explosive devices), artillery fire and explosives,” she said.
It may also help others who suffer hearing damage from playing their personal music devices too loud. Sophia said she felt pretty confident that her project would do well at her school’s science fair, but she wasn’t sure how it would do at larger competitions.
“I didn’t know if I was going to be able to go to state because there were some other really great projects there. I was really, really nervous. I had absolutely no idea that I was going to internationals.”
However, she said, going to the international competition was something she’d hoped to accomplish.
She wanted to go so she could mingle with kids from around the world who have brilliant ideas.
“It was amazing. It was one of the best experiences in my life,” she said.
It was great to be around so many outstanding science students, Sophia said.
“They’re so intelligent and they’re so nice. And they’re normal,” she said, noting she hit it off so well with some of the kids that they struck up friendships and they’ve stayed in touch.
She’s aware of the stereotype that many people have of science whiz kids.
“Honestly, even if we’re nerds, there’s nothing wrong with that,” Sophia said.
Sophia spent many long hours in the labs at USF, working on her research.
When she encountered terms that she just didn’t understand, she turned for help to her Academy at the Lakes science teacher, Amy Jordan.
“She always had a way to relay the knowledge to me so that I understood what I was doing,” Sophia said. “She’s absolutely wonderful. She is so sweet and she’s caring and she’s understanding.”
Laura Hill, supervisor of science for kindergarten through 12th grade in Pasco County Schools, accompanied Sophia to the international conference. This was the first time in 15 years that Pasco County brought home honors from the international competition and Sophia brought home two, Hill said.
“She’s extremely talented,” Hill said. The student’s work ethic was evident in the quality of her project and her presentation skills were impressive.
Sophia said attending another international science competition would be wonderful, but she doesn’t plan to shoot for that next year.
Instead, she’ll turn attention to a new goal: Trying to get published in a scientific journal.
Despite her accomplishments in science, it is just one of Sophia’s interests.
She’s been singing opera since she was 11 and at the moment, she’s thinking about a double major in music and medicine/health, hopefully at Stanford University.
Or, maybe she’ll pursue a degree in journalism; in which case, Northwestern University would be her first choice.
Sophia said she’s just not sure yet about what path she’ll take.
Her future, it seems, is full of possibilities.