Nobel Prize Winner Reflects on Time At Sleepy (HOOFPRINTS EXCLUSIVE)

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In early October, science classrooms throughout the high school were abuzz with the news that Dr. Gregg Semenza, a graduate of Sleepy Hollow High School, was awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Dr. Semenza graduated from Sleepy in 1974, and went on to attend Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Johns Hopkins University, where he has built his career in cell engineering. He earned his Nobel Prize for his discoveries of how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability. This inspiring achievement makes Semenza one of the most impressive graduates in Sleepy Hollow High School history.

On a whim, I tracked down Dr. Semenza’s email address and reached out to learn more about how he was impacted by his time as a student at Sleepy. To my surprise, he somehow found the time to send back an insightful response.

The following has been lightly edited for clarity. 

What are some of your favorite or most impactful high school memories? 

“I was extremely fortunate to have Dr. Rose Nelson as my Bio and AP Bio teacher. Dr. Nelson had a Ph.D. and had postdoctoral training at the famous Woods Hole research laboratory. She didn’t just teach us the facts, but told us who made important discoveries and how they made them. She also imbued in us an appreciation for the many wonders of life on earth. She often prefaced her remarks to the class by saying, ‘Now when you receive your Nobel Prize, I want you to remember that…’ As I told her daughter Margaret today, Dr Nelson left an indelible impression that is still with me 45 years later…

Dr. Nelson encouraged me to apply for a National Science Foundation summer program at the Boyce-Thompson Institute for Plant Research, which at the time was located in Yonkers…I would take the train to Yonkers early in the morning, come back to Tarrytown in the afternoon, then catch a bus to Elmsford where I worked all night as a cook at the now defunct Howard Johnson’s restaurant. That was my first laboratory experience and even though I didn’t do very well, I knew it was what I wanted to do more of.”

What advice would you give to a Sleepy Hollow student interested in pursuing science? 

“My advice is that if you are think you may be interested in science, try to go beyond your classroom…remember that I was once where you are now!”