Karenna Groff needed a few moments to gather herself.
Sitting at a table at the NCAA Convention in San Antonio earlier this month, the MIT graduate student and soccer player had just been awarded the college sports governing body’s most prestigious individual honor: Woman of the Year.
“I was shocked,” said Groff, a 2018 Weston High graduate. “They had a gold envelope like it was the Golden Globes and they called my name. I was so overwhelmed, and the first thing I said was, ‘What am I going to say in the speech?’ ”
Groff was one of nine finalists for the award, which is presented annually to a graduating female student-athlete (all divisions) who has distinguished herself in athletics, academics, leadership, and community service.
Attending the ceremony was an achievement in itself, as Groff was one of 577 initial nominees, a list that was cut to 156 conference-level nominees, then to 30, and finally nine. She wasn’t expecting to actually win.
“I figured the winner already knew before the ceremony,” said Groff. “I’m just super grateful and I have a lot of people to be thankful for for making this happen. I’m very excited about it.”
A biomedical engineering major, Groff was lauded for her work in clinical research at Boston Children’s Hospital, where she focuses on the genetic basis of epilepsy with the hope of generating a new gene theory for children.
Among her other projects is WONDER, a monitoring software designed for women in low-resource areas that helps identify risk factors in early pregnancy. As a co-founder, Groff traveled to Tamil Nadu, India, where the WONDER system fostered a 50.1 percent decrease in maternal mortality during a two-year pilot study.
Groff feels it’s her responsibility to contribute to the greater good, an inspiration she shared with her best friend, Ash Baird, a former Weston soccer player who died of liver cancer in April 2018.
“I always want to give back,” said Groff. “I feel like it’s a responsibility I have as a human part of a community.”
Groff and Baird would talk about spreading kindness and helping others as students at Weston High, so when Groff was named Woman of the Year, she thought about Baird and dedicated the award to her.
“Ash has shaped me in so many ways into who I am,” said Groff. “Even though she’s not here, she still has a huge impact on my life and she’s still making the world a brighter place.”
On the soccer field, Groff finished her MIT career second on the program list in goals (50) and points (128), helping the Engineers reach four NCAA Division 3 tournaments as a two-time captain.
After finishing her master’s at MIT this spring, Groff will attend medical school with the hope of becoming a neurosurgeon.
She believes the Woman of the Year award will help her blaze a trail as a woman who pushes gender equity in medicine and sports and adds positive contributions all over the world.
“I think the award is the first recognition I’ve gotten that looks into who I am and who I want to be,” said Groff. “I think it will help me frame the direction towards what I want the next chapter in my life to look like.”