Meet Commonwealth Students: Sophia ’24, From Ukraine to China to the Pleistocene Era

You will never guess what’s on Sophia’s agenda for a given day.

She might be teaching Ukrainian students English literature, settling into genomics research, writing a novel in German, researching the possible musculature of the extinct mesohippus for her next sculpture, puzzling through a theoretical calculus problem set, or creating films depicting everything from tenets of Chinese philosophy to J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit—with characters, sets, and sound effects she crafted herself, of course. Between her Commonwealth classwork and myriad extracurriculars, it’s hard to say what she’ll tackle next, just as it’s hard to pin down her “hometown,” Sophia says. She lived in Los Angeles for most of her childhood, then Maine over the pandemic, but she also identifies as German, she is fully bilingual, and her family has strong ties to the country. Keep reading to get to know this Commonwealth junior, now settled in Boston, a bit better. 

Getting to Know You

What is bringing you joy right now?

Many things. I love learning, and I'm engaging in a variety of projects in art, linguistics, and genetics. So I think the mixture makes me happy.

What is your favorite book (or a book you’ve re-read)? 

One of my favorite books is one that has accompanied me from a young age: Die unendliche Geschichte [or The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende]. It's all about how creativity works in the human mind and how what you think you want and what you actually want are sometimes different.

What was/is your favorite class (at Commonwealth or elsewhere)? 

Wow, that is a very difficult question. I like many different subjects—for example, calculus and sciences—but if I really, really had to pick one class, I’d have to say Latin 5 with Mr. Conolly

Pen or pencil?

Fountain pen. 

Coffee or tea? 


Spring, summer, winter, or fall? 

Winter in Maine.

Life as a Commonwealth Student (and Beyond)

In the spring of 2022, you started a teaching initiative called Druzhba for students in Ukraine. What led you to establish this organization, and what did the work entail?

I started off thinking about how I could help peers in Ukraine when the war there started. My mom is a Slavist linguist; she knows Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, etc., and has done research there. I’ve learned a lot about Eastern Europe from her throughout my life. I thought I could really help students, not only through English tutoring but also by offering cultural contact—the personal friendships that arise out of a whole summer of learning together. We found a school in Ukraine to partner with by first reaching out to a Ukrainian-Catholic church in Boston, where an alumnus of that high school connected us with the director. The rest is history!

In summer I taught every weekday: Mondays were English literature, Tuesdays were math and English, Wednesdays were grammar, Thursdays were conversation lesson number one, and Friday were conversation lesson number two, where we would either make some presentation about a topic or just talk freely. I also learned a lot about their culture and history. (During the school year, I teach them on Saturdays.) Other Commonwealth students also tutored over the summer; for example, Moe (’23) taught grammar on Wednesdays, and Rihanna (’24) led conversation lessons on Thursdays. During English literature lessons in the summer, I read Pride and Prejudice with them, some New York Times articles, and a bit of Harry Potter; we chose to read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol over the holidays.

This school in Ukraine is known for its high English proficiency; before the war, they had native speakers as English teachers. But then, when the war started, those teachers returned to their homelands. And so that was one of the reasons why I thought the school would be really good to work with. Thinking back to the start of the summer until now, they have learned even more English, and I'm very proud of them. They’re very good students. 

Unfortunately the war is still quite present in their part of Ukraine, and we often have problems with power outages and air raids that are now widespread in all of Ukraine. The students told me it's really helpful for them to have a friend in America to talk to and share stories with—someone who cares about what is happening in that region. It’s a very valuable experience for me, and I'm really happy that it's helping them. I hope we can work towards a real school partnership, and in 2023 I will offer a club at Commonwealth where students interested in participating in Druzhba can meet.

How else do you spend your time outside of Commonwealth?

There would be many things I could mention, but two important ways I spent my time last year were my summer internships: the first was with Genomes2People, a collaborative research program between Brigham and Women's Hospital, Broad Institute, and Harvard Medical School that conducts empirical research about translating genomics into health. The goal is to start with a person’s genetic makeup to prescribe prophylactic treatment or early onset care, instead of running behind the symptoms when a disease has already taken hold and is harder to treat.

One of several projects I worked on at G2P related to sequencing the genomes of newborns. There were many meetings with project leaders, and there was also independent work; for example, I researched the medications for heritable rare diseases in pediatric patients—a lot of polygenic disorders—as well as the approved medications and those that were currently in trial. I'm very interested in genetics and biology, in general, and G2P spoke specifically to my interest in preventative medicine. Knowing people with heritable medical conditions, I often wonder if anything could have been done for them at an earlier stage. I was so excited to be working with this wonderful team of scientists.

I also got to use my artistic experience with film editing to make a video of all of the G2P trainees introducing themselves.

One of Sophia's recreations, the extinct giant moa bird from New Zealand

Tell us more about video editing! How do you find time for art amongst your other activities? What does creativity look and sound like for you?

Video editing actually has really taken off for me since I started my Hobbit art a few years ago. For example, for my first project, I recreated the scene in which Gandalf and Bilbo meet each other. I made a set and the props and the characters; then I filmed it in stop motion and put it together in Final Cut Pro. This software is really useful because it also has high-quality sound editing tools, and I voiced both of those characters and played the music. I wasn't making it for commercial purposes; it’s just something I’m excited to share. [And it was featured in the fall 2022 issue of Young Mensan Magazine!] The point was to bring Middle Earth to life, though the video editing was very useful in my G2P internship. The longest artistic project I've ever done is a sculpture of a Tolkien dwarf named Thorin Oakenshield; it took seven months from start to finish.

On the matter of non-Hobbit art, I love making animal sculptures. It's not only very fun but also educational, because in order to make an accurate sculpture, you need to study quite a lot about the internal anatomy and what the animal looks like so that you know where the muscles are and how they move. You need to capture the feeling of the animal so it comes out right. I'm very interested in New Zealand's animals. I mean, it is the “Middle Earth” of our world, but I also just find New Zealand interesting as a country. It has fascinating ecosystems. 

One other kind of art I make is reconstructing extinct animals, like the mesohippus, an ancient horse relative from the Oligocene epoch; the archaeotherium, an ancient pig relative also from the Oligocene epoch; New Zealand’s giant moa; and the pikaia from the Cambrian period, one of the oldest known vertebrates. Since these animals are extinct, you have to do a lot of imagining in order to know how to make them properly. It's fun to come up with the pattern of the fur or scales or what have you.

I always find time for art because it really is like medicine for my mind. While it's difficult in the sense that you have to concentrate on what you're doing and sculpt correctly, it's also very calming and relaxing. 

How has your work outside Commonwealth colored the way you look at the world and how you plan for your future? 

These projects have opened doors and a wide range of possibilities for me. Through my internships I now have a clearer idea of what it's like to work in these fields. I am seriously thinking about genetics, but I am also considering other career paths. That's a good thing about being young; you still have a lot of time to make up your mind.

This year I audited a Harvard University lecture series on classical Chinese ethical and political theory, and had frequent discussions with the professor. I also went to a reading group for classical Chinese texts at Harvard as well. Each student taking this course was to make a final project for the end of the semester, and the lecture series inspired my most recent film, 空纸之梦, or The Dream of White Paper. In it, I explore two of the most influential Chinese philosophies, Confucianism and Mohism, through the spiritual journey of an uneducated young man in the Han Dynasty. I crafted the following plot, in order to illustrate the ethical dilemmas posed by these two schools of thought: in a dream, the young man enters into himself, encounters his personified Heart and two of China’s most famous philosophers, 孟子 MengZi and 墨子 MoZi, thereby exploring what it means to live a truly ethical life and realize one’s spiritual potential. I drew each of the frames by hand on Photoshop, including facial expressions and lip-syncing; wrote and read my script in Chinese (altering my voice digitally for most of the characters); chose music carefully to fit the mood of the scenes; and edited the film on Final Cut Pro. 

I think Chinese philosophy is, in many ways, a key to how to act in the real world. For example, a big question in Daoism is which type of action is most effective in which situation, and sometimes the better choice is to do nothing—action through inaction. And one of the main goals of Confucianism is self-cultivation, that people should cultivate their persons to become better humans to benefit themselves and the world. I wish everyone would learn this in school. Thinking about these Chinese philosophical ideas really does transform how you look at life. 

What was your first impression of Commonwealth, and how has it mapped to your experience? 

When I came in to shadow a current student, I thought the building had a Hogwarts-ish feeling about it, especially the Head of School’s office, which looks a bit like Dumbledore's study. I think that feeling is quite accurate, having now spent two going on three years here. I was told early on that chance conversations about topics from Greek philosophy to mathematical proofs with peers in corridors and in the lunch queue are among the most fun parts of the school day. I agree wholeheartedly with that, and lunch discussions are a highlight of my school day.

Commonwealth is full of curiosity and academic possibility. You can take high-level classes and explore subjects in great detail. My teachers support my thinking analytically and wanting to get to the bottom of questions. And when you leave the classroom, you take all of your knowledge with you and then can apply it to different situations in the outside world. I am officially the Commonwealth student who took classes remotely for the longest time, due to the pandemic. My advisor, Mr. Letarte, predicted that I would enjoy Commonwealth in person even more than online, which at the time I could hardly imagine. He was right, though—and I am grateful that I have finally fully arrived at Commonwealth in my junior year!

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