- Feature Stories
- News Flash
- The Fence
- Beyond the Cut
- Inspire Innovation
A bright-orange October sun slowly drifts behind the lighthouse toward the Atlantic Ocean’s dark-blue horizon. Three young women, fresh-faced and satisfied from a day exploring the Irish coastal town of Howth, sit on a wooden dock at the water’s edge. A half-filled bottle of Rioja and a basket of pita and hummus are within arm’s reach of each of them. The women marvel at the beauty of their surroundings: greenish-brown cliffs plummeting into a reflective sea, evergreens stretching to the heavens, icy air pricking their faces.
The Carnegie Mellon classmates are far from Pittsburgh because they are participating in the university’s study-abroad program—Judith Savitskaya chose to go to Madrid, Spain; Jessica Sochol selected Florence, Italy; and Nicolle Nacey picked London, England. Having agreed to take a brief respite from their semester’s studies, the three seniors decided to rendezvous in Ireland and explore a new place together. Judging by the beauty that surrounds them, it wasn’t a bad choice.
Savitskaya, a computational biology major and Science and Humanities Scholar, looks out reflectively at the water and takes another sip of red wine from her glass. Her two friends know her well enough to sense that the silence won’t last. It never has before, both inside and outside an academic setting. Sochol, for example, could recall the times that Savitskaya, as a teaching assistant, tutored her for her chemistry class; she had a way of demonstrably taking complex science topics and making them easier to understand. Nacey, on the other hand, once drove with her from Washington, D.C., to New York City, and there was barely a moment of silence for 250 miles—she and Savitskaya talked about their lives, different podcasts they found fascinating, science, music, philosophy, travel, pretty much any topic.
Sure enough, the silence by the ocean is broken by Savitskaya when she asks, “What do you want after your senior year; I mean, what do you really want to do with your life?”
It’s not a foreign question to college seniors; it often comes from parents, guidance counselors, and professors. It’s the kind of question for which students typically have a stock answer cued up. But that’s not the case when the question comes from a good friend. Savitskaya won’t settle for anything less than a sincere answer from her friends and from herself.
The foundation of Savitskaya’s answer can be traced back to her high school, the Bergen County Academies in Hackensack, N.J., a magnet public school that has been recognized by U.S. News & World Report as one of the best high schools in the United States. According to 2011 Newsweek statistics, the academies’ students registered an average SAT score of 2100, the second highest of any U.S. high school. It was within that environment of overachievers that Savitskaya overachieved. One of her science teachers, Bob Pergolizzi, would open one of the school’s research labs for her on Saturday mornings. While typical 17-year-olds might be sleeping in or playing video games, she’d spend hours in the lab studying the biochemistry of short interference RNA, a class of molecules that play a variety of roles in biology.
Pergolizzi once joked with her that she would have lived in the lab had he given her the keys to the place. It’s no wonder that when she received the Student of the Month Award from the governor back in 2007, she had Pergolizzi accompany her to the ceremony.
When it came time to choose a college, Savitskaya knew she wanted to attend an institution that could provide her with a strong bio department. “I knew I wanted to do research,” she says.
Two universities in particular intrigued her: Cornell and Carnegie Mellon. Tough decision. She looked at the programs more closely, and here’s what she found:(Continued …)