Meet the class of 2021: Sophia Marcellus

“The professors want to see you succeed. So just know that wherever you want to go in life, you will always have support to help you get there.”

Name: Sophia Marcellus ’21
Hometown: Boston, Massachusetts
Academics: chemistry major
Pronouns: she, her, hers

For Sophia Marcellus, Mount Holyoke has been about chemistry and friendships. 

“Chemistry in itself is like a language, and I am a person who is fond of languages and it’s just a language I never want to lose,” she says. “It’s a mixture of everything — physics, mathematics,  biology. It’s the science of life so it’s very versatile.” 

Marcellus had had an inspiring chemistry teacher in high school but when she got to Mount Holyoke, she wasn’t committed to the subject. Transitioning to college-level chemistry had its challenges, but when the material got tough, she made sure to reach out for help from her professors. 

“I went to their office hours and the professors were really helpful,” she says. “I ended up doing really well in general chemistry and then I decided to just keep going. I feel like if you have someone who’s making sure that they meet you where you’re at, it makes chemistry so much easier.” 

She took a number of classes with Jonathan Ashby, Bertha Phillips Rodger Assistant Professor of Chemistry, who is also her research advisor. 

“It’s very rare to find a Black professor in a chemistry department, so I was very honored to have him guide me,” Marcellus says. “To have that representation really felt like a certification that I do belong in the chemistry department. I’m forever grateful for having Jon.”

Marcellus did an independent study with Ashby and used her Lynk internship funding to work in his lab. In 2019, she presented her research at the annual meeting of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers in St. Louis, Missouri. Ashby was the conference planning chair and he had encouraged his students to  attend. Marcellus also studied abroad at University College Cork in Ireland, an opportunity that was cut short by the pandemic. 

In addition to her intellectual community, Marcellus has built a strong community of friends, starting In her first year, when she lived in the Shirley Chisholm Living-Learning Community. This LLC is designed to support and celebrate students who are of African descent. 

“I found a really good group of people,” she says. “It was fun. I didn’t feel alone, my first year. There was always something exciting going on and it helped me transition from high school to college really well.” 

She has also held several student org leadership roles, including serving as the chair for the Students of Color Committee and as the Student of Color Outreach Fellow. 

The Hortense Parker Celebration, named after the first known student of color graduate of Mount Holyoke, and the Women of Color Trailblazer Leadership Conference are both significant annual events that require months of planning. The Students of Color Committee works closely with Latrina Denson, associate dean of students for community and inclusion, to put on these events. 

“It takes a lot of work but because the committee members are very well organized and they’re all about teamwork, it’s been a lot easier than I could have expected,” Marcellus says. 

Her team is also trying to provide spaces and programming for students who are both on campus and remote. “We’re trying to be geared towards having more open conversations, particularly for first-year students of color,” she says, noting that her efforts to support students of color during the past challenging year are among her proudest accomplishments as a college student. “I’m trying to make sure that they have a good first year before I graduate.”

She has gone through her own personal and academic journey, Marcellus says. 

“I realized that, especially for students of color, the imposter syndrome is so real,” she says. “But then, one day, you’re getting stuff done and you’re getting your grades. The professors never want to see you fail, they want to see you succeed. So just know that wherever you want to go in life, you will always have support to help you get there. There will be bad times — I definitely have that at times with organic chemistry. But you will overcome them and you will become a greater person.” 

Marcellus is proof of that: She will be attending the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign for a doctorate in chemistry.