West Kendall

Southwest Miami-Dade girl visited Nobel Prize ceremonies


Special to the Miami Herald

Katalina Gerasapoulou Pappa did something that only heads of states and other dignitaries usually get to do: attend the Nobel Prize ceremonies in Stockholm, Sweden.

The senior at Archimedean Upper Conservatory in Kendale Lakes was one of only five United States students who traveled to Stockholm University and participated in the Nobel Week festivities from Dec. 7 to 10. She was selected by the National Society of High School Scholars (NSHSS), a group of high-achieving students founded by Claes Nobel, grand-nephew of Nobel Prizes founder, Alfred Nobel. She received a $1,500 scholarship to cover travel expenses.

“I got to see the people who are making the radical changes in the field — how that is going to cause some books to be rewritten, how they will affect medicine and healthcare,” she said.

Katalina, 17, did some much needed shopping before the trip. She had only one long sleeve shirt, and that wasn’t going to cut it in 20-degree weather. Six tights, jeans, a couple pairs of boots, thicker socks and jackets with hoods were added to her wardrobe.

Despite the cold, Katalina plunged in. She visited the Nobel Museum, attended lectures on International Relations and Linguistics, and toured City Hall, where the Nobel Banquet is held with the Swedish royal family.

Nobel Day, Dec. 10, and the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death in 1896, marked the highlight of her trip. Her group of NSHSS students from around the world were invited to hear the Laureates of the physics, chemistry and economics prizes speak at a university lecture hall.

As a student focused on the sciences, Katalina was particularly excited to listen to the recipients of the physics and chemistry prizes. It was a surreal moment for her when Peter Higgs — one of the scientists behind the theory and discovery of the Higgs boson particle — took the stage. Using a particle accelerator in Switzerland, he and other scientists isolated the particle that helps explains why objects have mass.

“I couldn’t believe that I was seeing (this) person ... ,” she said. “He’s this little old man walking to the stage. Seeing this person and what he’s contributed the science, and the world in general — he was small, but so big.”

Between lectures, she learned more about what goes on behind the scenes, during a luncheon with members of the Nobel Prize selection committee.

“It’s inspiring because it gives you more to see what people are doing around you, and no matter what field you want to go into it also kind of gives you hope,” said Katalina, who lives in Southwest Miami-Dade.

Nobel was a chemist and businessman who invented dynamite. He left his fortune to fund prizes in the fields of physics, chemistry, literature, peace, physiology or medicine, and economics.

Katalina and her family moved to Florida from their home in Athens in 2009, when her mother joined an exchange program to teach at Greek charter schools. She now teaches math in Greek at the Conservatory. As a young girl in Greece, Katalina enjoyed watching the Nobel Prize ceremonies on television.

“In Europe ... people watch it on TV; here you watch the Oscars more,” she said. “This was the only chance to see it without winning the Nobel Prize, although I’ll try.”

Katalina may be on her way. She dreams of doing research and turning her love of the sciences into a career as an orthodontist. In 2010 she presented her research on an enzyme disorder that commonly affects people of Mediterranean descent at a symposium for junior scientists hosted by the University of Florida.

Her achievements span beyond the sciences. Determined to attend a summer program on ancient Greece at Harvard University her sophomore year, she co-authored a book, Hellas, the Country of Miracles, with her mother about Greece to help pay for the program. They sold more than 600 copies. After the program she began writing what she hopes to publish as a series called, The Ivy League Series. The one on Harvard tells of her experience to show her peers that even ambitious goals can be achieved.

Before her trip, Katalina was asked to speak at an NSHSS member event at the University of Miami, along with Claes Nobel.

“He was quite tall and impressive,” she said. But that did not give her pause for making a speech in front of him and a crowd of about 250 people.

“I put myself in hard situations,” she said. “Whatever I feel uncomfortable with, I do it, and I get better. It was nice because I got to share my experience, and tell younger people that it’s worth a try to apply to scholarships.”

Nobel said in a statement to the Herald: “I am immensely proud of her achievements. I hope the Stockholm University trip provided Katalina and the other NSHSS scholars selected to attend this special NSHSS member event with experiences that will last a lifetime.”

Katalina said she has a renewed determination to pursue science for its own sake, in the midst of college applications and the challenges of senior year.

“It has changed me a lot, I think,” she said. “Being there and seeing the people you read about is mind-blowing — their speeches, not only do they give lectures about their research, but also their experience that they started really young. They were just pursuing science because it spoke to them, because you could understand life and the world that way.”

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