5 questions with Sofia Carozza
Sofia Carozza is an incoming Marshall Scholar at the University of Cambridge, where she will pursue graduate studies in neuroscience. Through her research on child brain development, she will explore the causes and mechanisms of resilience after childhood trauma. Sofia is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, where she studied neuroscience and theology as a Hesburgh-Yusko Scholar and was the valedictorian of the class of 2019.
Joe Waters (Co-Founder + CEO, Capita): In your valedictory address at Notre Dame, you said:
“We are physical, spiritual, moral, and social beings. So our worth cannot be measured by our productivity, nor our dignity by the quality of our resume.”
This strikes me as a serious challenge to the prevailing view among university students and especially to the parents eager to see their children get a well-paying job after college. How have you maintained a sense of your own dignity and worth as a spiritual, moral, and social being despite both the pressures to succeed and an ambient culture that only seems to reward productivity, efficiency, and economic success?
SC: One of the most infuriating lies our culture tells, especially in elite educational circles, is that a person’s worth flows from her productivity and that her highest end is success. What a tragic flattening of human life! If we adhere to this standard, our heart cries out against the violence; we are plagued by emptiness and restless dissatisfaction.
It takes work to cultivate a different sense of one’s dignity. In my life, this work involves both passive detachment from worldly success, and an active embrace of alternative values. It’s a challenge, but it has made me more joyful, hopeful, creative and loving. It’s made me more myself.
What does this work look like on a practical level? Every day, I spend time in silence. I reject the cult of busyness, and say “no” to unsustainable and excessive work. I prioritize prayer, friends and family, recreation and rest. I evaluate my decisions and desires in light of my deepest convictions, rather than using my peers as an automatic point of reference. Of course, in order to be faithful to this work, I need the accompaniment of those who remind me of the true meaning of my life. With their help, I am certain that the true source of my dignity is elsewhere.
JW: You are off to Cambridge this fall to become a neuroscientist. What’s the biggest question about the brain that you want answered by your studies?
SC: Neuroscience informs the answers to urgent and important human questions. I’m most interested in the interdisciplinary field of child development, and I’m excited to study the neurobiology of trauma and resilience. What does it mean to have a healthy brain and a healthy mind? When a child suffers abuse or neglect, what happens on a neurobiological level? What can we do in the home, the classroom, and in society to help these children build resilience and recover their full flourishing?
JW: In your address you also spoke powerfully about a desire that you and your fellow graduates be protagonists of justice and mercy. This word protagonist is different from the words you often hear related to justice today. It’s not rooted in resistance, but somehow seems more constructive, less oppositional. As you look to your future, and to the cultural and political trend-lines, how do you see being a protagonist of justice and mercy?
SC: I’m glad you picked up on the word “protagonist.” It points out two essential characteristics of someone who is truly alive, truly living a full human life. First: the person is free. The protagonist is not a mere bystander observing the unfolding of history. She is free to act, free to change things, free to contribute to the building of a more beautiful world. Second: the human person is responsible! This is where my generation often falls short. Each of us, in the impact with reality, is faced with injustice, ugliness, violence. To be a protagonist is to shoulder the burden, the responsibility, of bringing justice, beauty, and peace into those places.
Personally, I believe I am called to be a protagonist of justice and mercy for children who have suffered trauma. In my research and advocacy, I aim to heal the effects of violence, hatred, and injustice in the lives of local children. Of course, the work of a true protagonist has to begin in her own heart. I must be the protagonist of my life, if I am to be a protagonist in my community. I must seize hold of my own destiny, if I am to change the world according to that destiny.
JW: What are you interested in that most people aren’t and should be?
SC: The first three years. During this stage of a child’s life, as her brain is developing at lightning speed, the foundation is laid for her social, emotional, and physical characteristics. For this reason, a child’s early life environment and experience can have hugely disproportionate impacts on the rest of her lifetime. Politicians, educators, healthcare providers, and parents would be wise to learn more about the science of early childhood development. The flourishing of our society depends on it.
JW: What’s a project you’ve dreamed about, but haven’t started yet?
SC: This is a tough one, because the list is long! Lately, I’ve been dreaming about writing a book for new moms-to-be. During pregnancy and postpartum, incredible changes are taking place in the bodies and brains of both mom and baby. I’d love to translate the neuroscience of these changes into a helpful guide for parents. In my experience, learning more about brain science always fosters compassion, patience, and awe at the mystery of human life.