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Homegrown Brilliance

These four people are doing amazing things with their lives.
And they have one thing in common: they are all products of St. Vrain Valley Schools.

  • Written by: David Port
  • Photo by: Kerri McDermid

You can find them in just about every town or school district...

...a celebrity or quasi-celebrity whom people identify with their hometown or a school they once attended — someone they knew, or knew of, before they “made it big.” St. Vrain Valley Schools can name-drop the likes of ESPN sports reporter Ed Werder, a Longmont High alumnus; comedian Kristen Schaal from HBO’s Flight of the Conchords, who attended Skyline High School; Longmont High graduate Kimiko Hirai-Soldati, a former Olympic diver; and Vance Brand, also a Longmont High alumnus who flew four space missions for NASA, to name a few. Then there are the people you may not see on TV or hear about on the news — the many St. Vrain alumni who are using their education as a springboard to do outstanding things with their lives and in their communities. Let us meet a few who warrant celebrating, even if they have not reached celebrity status (yet).

Brian Adolf

Brian Adolf

Longmont High School
Class of 1998

The first thing Brian Adolf makes clear is that his employer, a Google spin-off known simply as X, has a policy that forbids him from discussing “the secret, early-stage projects” on which he is working. The second thing that becomes evident in talking with the engineer Adolf, 36, is how much he loves the work he cannot discuss. “I am having a lot of fun. I am part of a team that is working on ‘moonshots’ — problems that are very, very hard to solve — by thinking about things in a radically different way. The idea is to change a lot of peoples’ lives.”

One of the moonshots Adolf recently worked on at X was a self-driving automobile. Before that, the University of California, Berkeley graduate, who lives in Silicon Valley with his wife and child, applied his multi-disciplinary design engineering skills in such areas as medical device and software development.

Adolf points to the experience he gained as a student at Longs Peak Middle School and Longmont High, including independent study at St. Vrain’s Career Development Center, for putting him on that path. “The independent work exposed me to so many different areas of technology to see where they might lead. It is probably why I became an engineer… It left me with the impression that if you are ambitious and excelling in a certain area, the teachers and the administration will take the time to develop learning opportunities that allow you to follow your passion. Rather than squelching my ambitions, they supported them.”

Allison Pelzel

Allison Pelzel

Mead High School
Class of 2013

Unlike fellow aeronautically inclined St. Vrain alumnus Brand, who manned Space Shuttle and Apollo missions in the 1970s and 1980s, Allison Pelzel, 21, has no designs on actual space travel herself, and instead is content to work to help others get there. “I get motion-sick, so I prefer to stay here on Earth,” says Pelzel, who is concurrently pursuing both an engineering physics undergrad degree and a mechanical engineering Master’s degree at the Colorado School of Mines.

Pelzel, whose passion for engineering was stoked in high school by the advanced physics and math classes she took at Mead High School, says she is bent on pursuing a career in aerospace/aeronautics, preferably in Colorado, which is home to some of the leaders in the field, including Ball Aerospace and Lockheed Martin. She is well on her way, having worked at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder the past two summers doing research and building instrumentation. She is also due to help teach a junior-level physics class at Mines this fall, all with the goal of breaking into the aerospace industry as a systems and test engineer once she finishes with her studies. She credits her experience at Mead and St. Vrain Valley Schools for doing “a great job preparing me” for whatever lies ahead — or above.

Joe Laurienti

Joe Laurienti

Lyons Senior High School
Class of 2007

Even during high school, when he rebuilt a 1969 Ford Mustang virtually by himself, “I knew I was going into engineering,” says Laurienti, 26. “I always enjoyed math and engineering and getting my hands dirty.”

After stints working at two high-profile private space travel companies, Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, Laurienti, who holds an aerospace engineering degree from the University of Southern California, is indeed getting his hands dirty as founder and CEO of a Colorado-based startup called Ursa Major. Launched in 2015, the company is developing high-performance rocket engines for use in “nano” or “micro” satellites that are about the size of a toaster oven. Sometime this year, Ursa Major is due to test its first rocket, he says, a hint of mad-scientist-like enthusiasm in his voice. “There is going to be a lot of loud noises and fire — in a good way.”

Laurienti, whose father is also in the aerospace industry, credits the math and technology classes and labs at Lyons Senior High with “helping me along the engineering path.”

“We had small class sizes, and we worked a lot individually and in small groups, which I think prepared me really well for the work I am doing now.”

As for that ’69 Mustang, Laurienti still drives it today, which could bode well for Ursa Major and its rockets.

Naveen Chopra

Naveen Chopra

Niwot High School
Class of 1991

Twenty-five years removed from his youth in Niwot, having climbed to the top of the high-tech world as CEO of the cloud-based television service provider TiVo, Naveen Chopra says he is still drawing upon the skills he developed as a member of the school’s debate team. “That experience gave me early confidence in my ability to think and speak on my feet, to interact and be present in situations, and to play executive types of roles in the business community,” says Chopra, 42, who lives in Palo Alto, Calif., with his wife and three children.

After earning undergraduate and graduate degrees from Stanford University, Chopra remained in Silicon Valley, where he has worked for startups and large corporations alike. He mulled careers in finance and politics but chose computer science and engineering, fields for which he began to develop a passion as a student at Niwot High. “I had a group of friends there that really enjoyed science, math and technology,” he explains. “There was a healthy competitive culture where we all wanted to succeed and see the others succeed. And that is really what got the train moving for me.” A quarter-century later, Chopra’s train continues to gather steam.

"We all wanted to succeed and see the others succeed. And that is really what got the train moving for me.”

-Naveen Chopra

Niwot High School, Class of 1991

By the Numbers: Student Achievement

70
High-Quality Instructional Focus Programs
8,000
Potential College Credits Earned by St. Vrain High School Students in 2015-2016
256
St. Vrain GRADUATES WITH A GPA of 4.0 OR HIGHER IN 2016
2,067,900
Teacher/student contact hours in a school year


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ST. VRAINNOVATION was produced in-house by the St. Vrain Department of Communications. Funding for printing and distribution supported by:


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