Outstanding Early Career Award: For Alixandra Nozzolillo (‘04), it’s all about family

Alix sailing Boston Harbor.

Alix sailing Boston Harbor.

From her time as a Husky to her current work as the Associate Director of Player Relations for The Football Players Health Study at Harvard University, UW Comm alumna Alixandra A. (née Knapp) Nozzolillo (B.A., 2004) sees the meaning of family everywhere.

Nozzolillo’s career interests and passion to make a difference formed early, tracing back to when her mother, Jean Swenson (B.A., 1978), a fellow UW Comm alumna and noted automotive journalist, was diagnosed with breast cancer. “When I was in middle and high school, my mom had breast cancer,” Nozzolillo said. “She’s a cancer survivor. Going through that with her led me to science, and gave me insight into the importance of good health.”

These early experiences shaped Nozzolillo’s life and career and are part of the reason she was chosen as the 2016 recipient of the Outstanding Early Career Award, which was developed to honor and support a recent graduate (within approximately 10 years) who has shown both impressive career accomplishments and a commitment to the public good.

In her first quarter at the UW, Nozzolillo participated in a Freshman Interest Group (FIG) that paired chemistry, calculus and a mass communications course taught by David Domke, now the chair of the Department of Communication. “I wasn’t really interested in politics-related communication, but he was so engaging with his delivery, and made the course captivating,” she said. “I was so fascinated by it that I wanted to continue with the department.”

Nozzolillo ultimately graduated from the UW with a degree in Communication and a minor in Chemistry. After graduation, she moved on to a Master’s degree in Molecular and Cellular Biology from Boston College, logging hours in various labs along the way, including one at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. All of her bench research focused on cancer.

Alix-and-Jean-2008

Alix and her mother, Jean (’78), in 2008.

At times, Nozzolillo’s passion for communication and science was difficult to intertwine, she said. “I loved working in the lab, but late nights and early mornings being alone and working with cells in dishes… I really felt a missing component of human interaction,” she said. “I love lab work because the Type A in me enjoys pipetting, protocols, and keeping a detailed book of procedures. But I missed that other component.”

This desire to make a difference in interpersonal contexts led Nozzolillo into initially volunteering at a women’s shelter and feeding Boston’s homeless while in graduate school. In an effort to weave together science and communication she entered into clinical research, working in public health policy for children with special healthcare needs, and ultimately the Football Players Health Study at Harvard University.

The Football Players Health Study aims to understand the causes of physical and mental health conditions of former NFL players with the goal of improving their quality of life. The study doesn’t just focus on concussions, a key area of concern among researchers, but on many of the “whole body, whole life” issues important to the players themselves, including general health and wellness, pain and mobility, as well as heart health.

“I was brought on board initially to manage traditional clinical research aspects and we realized very soon that there is a culture players’ have and that’s very important – we respect them and work to earn their trust,” she said. “We work closely with former NFL players – it’s a partnership.”

Alix and UW Comm Distinguished Alumna Christine Gregoire ('69) at the 2004 Department of Communication graduation celebration.

Alix and UW Comm Distinguished Alumna Christine Gregoire (’69) at the 2004 Department of Communication graduation celebration.

In this role, Nozzolillo has drawn heavily on the lessons she learned at UW Comm, especially in the classes of emeritus professor Gerry Philipsen whose research has focused, for more than four decades, on culturally distinctive codes of communicative conduct. “He was my inspiration,” she said. “I have such a greater appreciation for all the work he did, and the stories of his time in Chicago. Now that I’m working with former players, I understand it so much better. All the classes I took from him, particularly around speech codes, have proven to be invaluable.”

While Nozzolillo works to understand former NFL players’ culturally distinctive codes, the mother of two fully relates to the importance they give to their families. Drawing from her own past experiences with family illness, she relates to former players in finding a common denominator with health and family.

“In football, they were conditioned to not say anything about their pain,” she said. “They wanted to play the game to help their team, and now at home they want to help their families despite any chronic pain — they’re family men — so being able to help on that level is really what drives me every day to improve their quality of life.”

In her off-hours, Nozzolillo continues to put family first, spending time her husband and caring for their seven-month-old son and three-year-old daughter.

“Being a wife and a mom, to me, is very special,” she said. “It’s the most important job of all.”

Written by Eleanor Cummins