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St. John's Preparatory School (now at MIT)

Marisa Gaetz
St. John's Preparatory School (now at MIT)

2 Under 20 - Class of 2016

By Jenny Berg

Originally published: Jan. 15, 2016

Marisa Gaetz sometimes tells people she got into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology because of pingpong.

When she was a junior at St. John's Preparatory School, she founded the school's first pingpong club. That tidbit on her college application caught the eye of her admissions interviewer, who had also formed a pingpong club at his high school.

Call it serendipity. Call it luck. Either way, Gaetz's brains, hardworking nature and ability to connect with people — in addition to her pingpong prowess — are what made her an ideal candidate to attend MIT.

"She's a typhoon of energy. When she gets her determination going on something, she's a force to be reckoned with," said Charles Miller, a physics teacher and coach at St. John's Preparatory School. "She is a unique combination of exceptionally bright, but also a people person."

Miller, who has been a teacher for 20 years and known Gaetz for six years, nominated her for Times Media's 2 Under 20 award.

Gaetz, 19, grew up in St. Joseph and graduated from St. John's Preparatory School in May 2016. She's now in her freshman year at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She said she plans to declare math as her major at the end of the school year.

Miller said in Gaetz's high school career, the most impressive thing was that so many of her accomplishments stood out and she was able to excel in so many different areas: Gaetz was the captain of her softball team that won state her junior year, and was a co-captain of the school's Knowledge Bowl team that won state her sophomore and senior years, and took second-place her junior year. She was also a regional winner for the Minnesota State High School League Triple A award for arts, athletics and academics.

"As her Knowledge Bowl coach, (I saw that) she was invaluable because she tied together all the other personalities," Miller said. "She would naturally be the center of things and get everyone working together really well."

Gaetz also participated in the school's science bowl team, Chinese club and jazz band, wrote for the student newspaper, helped coach a fifth- and sixth-grade Knowledge Bowl team, and was president of a math honor society her senior year. She founded the school's pingpong club with her friends after discovering there was an interest among students.

"I loved pingpong growing up, but we never had a table at my house," she said. "Finally I got to my junior year and I said, 'I'm going to do something about this.'"

Gaetz also volunteered at St. Cloud Hospital, tutored fellow students in writing, math and physics, and volunteered with girls at the YMCA through the National Honor Society. Participating in activities and volunteering in high school helped Gaetz learn her true passions, she said.

"I met a lot of different people, got experience tutoring and teaching," she said. "I found out teaching others and sharing knowledge with others is something that I really enjoy doing. Trying so many different things was great for figuring out I really like math and science."

Gaetz is now applying the same philosophy at MIT. She took general requirements such as biology, physics, chemistry and humanities courses during fall semester, and planned to take more rigorous courses such as a real analysis math course, an introduction to complexity theory course and a theoretical computer science course in the spring.

While Gaetz was determined to get accepted into and attend MIT, she isn't as sure what she wants to do as a career.

"I'm keeping my options open right now," she said. "The good thing about math is if I decide I don't want to do research and become a professor, it's still a good critical thinking skill and can be applied to a lot of things."

Gaetz said she plans to see what new passions she might discover as she continues taking new classes, volunteering, participating on campus and meeting professors.

Marisa Gaetz, 2016 2 Under 20 award winner. (Photo: Jason Wachter,

One of Gaetz's most eye-opening experiences this year was attending Massachusetts Correctional Institution — Norfolk with her philosophy instructor, who also teaches courses to inmates who can obtain a college degree through Boston University. Gaetz attended her professor's lecture, then discussed abstract philosophical concepts in small groups with prisoners.

"It was interesting to have input from people with completely different perspectives on life and different experiences and different obstacles," she said.

Gaetz is also researching with a professor the geometry of surfaces, which she described as studying Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometry to find how surfaces can be constructed mathematically from the plane.

That passion to go above and beyond seems to run in Gaetz's family. Her older brother, Christian, also graduated from St. John's Preparatory School. Christian graduated from the University of Minnesota and is now also attending MIT as a graduate student.

Miller said both Marisa and Christian have "a relentless curiosity" that sets them apart from other students.

"I have had lots of gifted students. I have had lots of hardworking students, but they are an amazing combination of gifted and hardworking with a relentless curiosity," Miller said of Marisa and Christian. "They would not let go of something they could not figure out, which is why they both gravitate towards math."

Gaetz also has the "unteachable talent" of being very accessible and relatable, Miller said. Because of this, Gaetz has — and will continue to — inspire girls to get involved with science, technology, engineering and math fields.

"What's very clear at this point is she'll be successful in whatever she does, and going to the school she does, she has the opportunity to put some very big questions in front of her," Miller said.

Follow Jenny Berg at and on Twitter @bergjenny.

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