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Major achievement

Student scientist graduates with five minors

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  • Story by Nancy Moen
  • Photo illustration by Shane Epping and Josh Nichols
  • Published: May 11, 2011
Nelson DeSouza, Nelson DeSouza and Nelson DeSouza

Physics major Nelson DeSouza has earned minors in political science, biology, chemistry, engineering and mathematics. He will be an honorary marshal at the College of Arts and Science graduation ceremony Saturday. An avid musician, DeSouza plays the ukulele, the guitar, the flute and the French horn. 

Somewhat by accident, senior Nelson DeSouza will celebrate spring commencement with the conferring of a bachelor’s degree in physics that’s loaded with minors. Rather than the usual one or two minors, DeSouza has completed five — in mathematics, biological sciences, chemistry, political science and engineering.

If your immediate question is why a student would declare five minors, his answer is, “They just sort of happened.” DeSouza’s university work spanned five years and included only two summer classes — general chemistry and organic chemistry. Although he packed his routine schedules with classes, DeSouza admits to some “slacking off” his senior year.

“The past two semesters I only took 16 credits, instead of my usual 21,” he says.

Starting as a mechanical-engineering major with an emphasis in aerospace, DeSouza changed his major to physics. He had studied astronomy since childhood, and MU’s astrophysics courses fascinated him. 

For enjoyment, DeSouza highly recommends his favorite astrophysics class, Solar System Science. Basically, it’s rocket science.

The DeSouza system

Here’s how he built the mountain of minors.

Mathematics: The math minor was never an option. “I had to have that one. It was one extra class to get the minor and easy to do, so I finished that off,” he says. (We might mention here that DeSouza’s mom, Luiza, is an MU instructor in mathematics.)

Biological sciences and chemistry: A developing passion for medicine led DeSouza to biology and chemistry classes that would help him prepare for the medical school entrance exam. He then discovered his credit hours in the subjects nearly qualified as minors, so he finished those.  

Political science: DeSouza, who is a native of Brazil and has lived in Australia, loves world travel. For his own enlightenment, he sought academically structured information about the countries he visited and hopes to visit. With those “fun” classes in political science added to his schedule, he accumulated nearly enough credits for another minor, and, again, finished it.

Engineering: While examining his credit hours in summer 2010, DeSouza realized the engineering classes from his freshman year weren’t far from a minor and decided to complete those requirements. (We might mention here that DeSouza’s dad, Guilherme, is an MU assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and an adjunct professor of computer science.)

All about timing 

Nelson DeSouza and Nelson DeSouza

DeSouza plans to attend graduate school in astrophysics before he applies to MU’s School of Medicine. A soccer fan, DeSouza officiates games for the Columbia high school leagues and Columbia Parks and Recreation. “You’re not doing a good job at refereeing unless you’re getting yelled at,” he says.

Surprisingly, DeSouza had plenty of time for friends, sports, volunteer projects and other outside interests, even while doing three years of undergraduate research with engineering associate professor Scott Kovaleski.  

“The more classes we take, the more we force ourselves to do the work, and the less we slack off,” he says.

DeSouza’s preparation for a future medical career led him to shadow doctors at their jobs and to volunteer at University Hospital, doing “whatever was needed.” He worked in the emergency room, where he would help nurses clean and reset the room for the next patient, take patients to different locations, deliver food to hungry patients and comfort pediatric patients. 

As a part-time job throughout his university years, DeSouza refereed soccer games for Missouri high school leagues and for Columbia Parks and Recreation.

For volunteer service, he was president of the Catholic Students Association and served as coordinator of the group’s alternative spring-break program. He is a grand knight of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic charitable organization.  

With an interest in arts and humanities, he studied Italian for two years (we should note here that he speaks Portuguese). He still sings in his church choir, a carry-over from youthful years of music education that began with piano and expanded to guitar, flute and French horn.

Family of achievers

DeSouza will be a master’s student in astrophysics this fall, guided by his mentoring professor, Angela Speck, and will apply to MU’s School of Medicine to study pediatric and internal medicine.

“I like the methodology that physics offers as an approach to problems, and there are new classes opening up in medicine with a physics point of view. It makes me a bit more unique than medical school applicants trained in biology,” he says.

Meanwhile, the current emphasis is on celebration and family activities. MU commencement is doubly important for the DeSouza family this spring because Nelson’s younger brother Thiago will receive a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering, which he completed in four years. “He’s the smartest of the three of us,” Nelson says.

Nelson and Thiago will volunteer this summer in medical service at hospitals and clinics in Nicaragua, where they will be trained to assist in medical procedures such as vaccinations and blood draws. Meanwhile, their youngest brother, Thomaz, a senior in computer science, will head to Microsoft in Seattle on a coveted summer internship. Thomaz expects to graduate in December, making him the third DeSouza brother to become a 2011 Mizzou alumnus.

Added to the summer activities are preparations to apply for United States citizenship, which will be a family project.

“My friends say being with my family is daunting, but we don’t think too much of it,” he says.

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Last updated: June 6, 2013