When Dr. Mary Sanfelippo, HA ’62, was a student at Holy Angels Academy, she decided to study vitamin deficiencies in mice for a science fair. While she thought the study was simple, it came with a twist.
Sanfelippo had three groups of mice: one group which was fed regular food, one which was fed food that did not contain vitamin B, and one which was fed food that did not contain vitamin C. She predicted that the group that did not eat vitamin C would develop scurvy.
“One of the mice that were the normals (from the group that were fed regular food) got out of the containers and this caused a great deal of scare throughout the school,” she said.
She and the others searching soon found the mouse under one of the seats of the auditorium, “and everything was okay,” Sanfelippo recalled with a laugh.
DO WHAT YOU LOVE
A second-generation Holy Angels graduate, Sanfelippo went on to attend Marquette University, majoring in biology and pre-med with a minor in history and philosophy. After attending medical school at the Medical College of Wisconsin, she decided to “spread her wings” and move to San Diego “to get away from the cold.” She finished her residency and nephrology fellowship at the University of California San Diego where she focused on the study of kidneys. She then became a research scholar at Stanford University, and went back to UCSD to teach as an assistant clinical professor. After realizing she missed taking care of patients, she opened a practice of her own and retired in 2013 after 31 years in the practice.
“If you do what you love, it’s not work,” she said. “I fell in love with the specialty of nephrology. It’s complicated and essential, no matter what the situation is.”
INTRODUCTIONS THAT LAST A LIFETIME
Sanfelippo comes from a family who is well versed in the medical field and many of the components that are now referred to as STEM. She was exposed to the area of study from a young age, with a father who was a doctor and a mother who was a nurse. But because not everyone grew up in an environment like hers, she notes the importance of introducing young women to STEM.
“The interest in STEM begins with exposure,” she said. “It begins with giving students the opportunity to appreciate the different areas of STEM like engineering, biological sciences, and so on. This exposure will hopefully peek their interests and will instill a passion for a lifelong learning experience. Not everybody is from a family where science was a part of the dinner table conversations.”
DSHA + STEM = OPPORTUNITY
DSHA has worked hard and continues to encourage exposure of STEM opportunities to students, so much so that the interest of students in STEM has outgrown the building’s facilities. Students can engage in more than a dozen advanced STEM classes, take advantage of STEM co-curriculars like robotics or Students Modeling a Research Topic (SMART) team, which allows students to practice being a research scientist with guidance of professionals from the Medical College of Wisconsin. Fairly new to STEM opportunities at DSHA is the STEM Scholars program, designed for highly motivated and highly engaged students who show a dedicated academic and career interest in STEM, with hands-on research, projects, and learning beyond the classroom.
DSHA hopes to build a new state-of-the-art lab to match the interest of students in STEM in the coming years. With Sanfelippo and her husband’s generous gift to DSHA, the school is closer to doing so.
“There’s much interest in STEM and that’s really exciting,” Sanfelippo said. “I see STEM as an expanding area, and DSHA needs the money and funding to continue to expose students to an education in the STEM disciplines,” she said. “If they are exposed to disciplines and it awakens in them an interest that will last a lifetime, that is a very good result.”
A FIRM FOUNDATION
Ten years ago, Sanfelippo, who has stayed in California, came back to Milwaukee and DSHA for her 50th class reunion. She saw cases of athletic and academic awards, experienced Mass, and saw the intentionality and importance of what DSHA pursues today. She then heard Former President Ellen Bartel (1998-2018) speak about Catholic education for girls, and the leadership opportunities girls receive at DSHA. Sanfelippo was impressed and wanted to be a part of that.
“There is an enormous amount of potential for the formation of strong, Catholic, educated, and devoted women,” she said. “DSHA appears to be right in the flow of that. I encourage supporting them.”
While she was involved in a variety of activities at Holy Angels—from theatre to student council—she noted that her Catholic education emphasized “relying on God’s grace and His leadership in our lives.”
When sharing her hopes for current and future Dashers she says, “You need a firm foundation of the Catholic faith and see it in action in the people you work with as well as the people who are teaching you. It will give you the strength you need later in life.”
THE STRENGTH OF GOD AND WOMEN
That strength is something that Sanfelippo has relied on working in a male-dominated field, often with patients who are dealing with a chronic disease. Along with God’s strength, Sanfelippo has used her strength as a woman to provide gentleness to her patients.
“STEM is and will be a critical part of our future as a society going forward,” she said. “Intelligent, well-educated Catholic women should be among those who lead the way.”
But no matter what discipline women decide to study, Sanfelippo notes that lifelong learning, faith, love, and strength applies to everything. She’s an example of using those components of her life to enrich it.
“We bring the totality of our life experiences to the bedside of our patients, or to an engineering project or to architecture or to whatever discipline we choose. Our lives are not made up of one dimension; we are multidimensional.”
To join Sanfelippo in giving to STEM at DSHA, contact Senior Director of Development Matt Johnson