Catching up with Matt Rienzo, Class of 2007 Valedictorian
Life is constantly changing and goals and interests are always evolving and frequently need revision. Matt Rienzo, valedictorian of Huntington High School’s Class of 2007 can testify to this based upon personal experience. He’s changed his mind about a few things since entering Harvard College but now he’s perfectly comfortable with his current course.
“College is fantastic,” Mr. Rienzo said earlier this week. “When I arrived last year, I thought I was going to study chemistry and then ultimately go to medical school. Since then, I've shifted my focus toward ‘math-ier’ things, and decided to concentrate in chemistry and physics (this is not a double major, just a specialized one), with a joint concentration, similar to a double major, in math.”
At Huntington, Mr. Rienzo was named a National Merit scholarship finalist and earned an AP Scholar with Distinction Award, as well as winning Suffolk music, math and science honors. He was a semi-finalist in the National Chemistry Olympiad and was chosen to participate in the national chemistry camp in Colorado in the weeks following his graduation.
“I am currently aiming to finish my undergraduate degree by the end of my third year, and then go for a master's degree in chemistry during my senior year,” he said. “This is something that students who've taken AP classes sometimes decide to do. I'm doing it because it will allow me to narrow my focus on the sciences, and give me more time to get lab work done before I apply to graduate schools.”
Hopes to Earn Ph.D.
Mr. Rienzo graduated from Huntington with a 105.1 grade point average. At the 2007 commencement, he gave a sometimes quirky and alternately humorous, inspirational and sensitive valedictory address to classmates and a standing room only crowd of parents, friends and teachers.
“I hope to eventually earn my Ph.D. in chemistry, and then figure out some type of teaching/research occupation, if I can,” he said this past Sunday night. “I love to teach, and I've put some time into tutoring students in the quantitative sciences this past year.”
At Huntington, Mr. Rienzo was a member of the math team and the competitive marching band, where he was a clarinet section leader. He was captain of the fencing team, a member of the National Honor Society, Math Honor Society and wind ensemble and a copy editor for the school newspaper, The Dispatch.
“Because I spend so much time on problem sets and in the lab, I don't go as crazy with extra-curricular activities as some people,” Mr. Rienzo said about his time at Harvard. “However, I've continued playing clarinet, although I don't practice nearly enough, in the Bach Society orchestra and occasionally for musicals or small chamber groups, just for fun.” Interestingly, the Bach Society orchestra doesn’t just stick to Bach, he said.
Summer Job Set
This summer, Mr. Rienzo will work assisting the building manager of his Harvard dorm, Kirkland House. “So, I have free housing while I do lab work,” he said. “I am just starting research in the Jacobsen lab, which for the most part focuses on making and perfecting organic catalysts for synthetically useful reactions. Working in the lab is great fun, but also very time-intensive. To those unfamiliar with lab research, the work is often thought of as a bunch of brainy people wearing lab coats, doing a lot of pondering, and making noble advances, but in reality, there's a lot of grunt work involved, and I spend about as much time thinking about chemical principles as washing my glassware, or figuring out ways to heat reactions without making things explode. But I do get to wear a lab coat, which is pretty cool. And when I finally get data that is meaningful, all the hours pay off.”
The best thing about his time at Harvard, Mr. Rienzo said, has been “the community of interesting and talented people I get to meet every day. Sharing ideas and perspectives with so many people from various backgrounds and with interests in such diverse fields of study really changes the way you think about things. On the other hand, working on difficult problems with a group of brilliant people who share my interests is equally rewarding, and such collaborative efforts make learning difficult material both easier and more enjoyable, even when it happens at 5 a.m., as is often the case.”
Huntington Teachers Loved Him
To say Huntington’s teachers liked Mr. Rienzo is an understatement. They loved him and so did his classmates. He has discovered a similar group at Harvard. “I am lucky enough to have found a unique, close-knit group of friends, all of whom are eccentric and wonderful people,” he said. “I think that in most colleges, though, the student body is diverse enough that even people who think they're really weird, like me, can find a niche somewhere.”
During his 2007 valedictory address, Mr. Rienzo poked fun at himself at one point telling classmates, “I am certain that the last thing you all want at this moment is a long-winded, inspirational rant delivered by some fancy-pants academic. I may be doomed as the latter in your eyes, but let me at least try to make this as painless and possible.”
He said he looks back “fondly” on his years at Huntington High School. “It would be hard to list all the teachers who made a positive impact on me, but I'd like to thank Ms. [Doris] Quintilian and Ms. [Kathleen] Aufiero for first introducing me to calculus, which was undoubtedly the most exciting experience of my math career, and Ms. [Dame] Forbes, Ms. [Deborah] Beck, and Mr. [Thomas] Masone for spurring my interest in the sciences,” he said. “In spite of the often extreme time commitments they incurred, I'd also like to note the fencing team and the extended family that was the music department, as highlights of high school for me.”
At the closing of his valedictory address in June 2007, he gave his friends a bit of advice. “One day, each of us will find his or her niche, and flourish like a blooming sunflower,” Mr. Rienzo said that day. “But keep in mind that a sunflower, once it blooms, ceases to trace its daily arc across the sky. It remains motionless, beautiful, but static. So, do not squander these years of flexibility and youth. Try new things that interest you, meet new people, and keep an open mind to new opportunities that might come your way.”
At Harvard, Mr. Rienzo is splendidly following his own advice.