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ASU graduating senior exemplifies transdisciplinary research

Kate Spencer says fellow Sun Devils should stay focused as they pursue degrees.
December 5, 2016

Kate Spencer is leaving her mark on the biochemistry world — thanks to picking field through happy accident

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for fall 2016 commencement. See more graduates here.

“Transdisciplinary” means applying one field of knowledge to another. It’s a hallmark of Arizona State University. Sometimes it’s on purpose: “What if we applied economic theory to avian social behavior?”

Sometimes it’s by accident with a happy result, like the microwave and x-rays.

That would describe the experience of graduating senior Kate Spencer, a Tempe resident graduating with a major in biochemistry from the School of Molecular Sciences and a minor in anthropology from the School of Human Evolution and Social Change. Her field was chosen through happenstance (see first question in Q&A below).

Kelly Knudson, associate director of the SHESC and director of the Archaeological Chemistry Laboratory, discussed Spencer’s work in the lab applying biogeochemistry to anthropological research questions.

“Kate Spencer exemplifies ASU’s commitment to transdisciplinary research,” Knudson said. “Through her senior honor’s thesis research in the Archaeological Chemistry Laboratory, she combined both archaeology and biogeochemistry to better understand how the environment, particularly altitude, affects different isotope systems. The ACL and SHESC have a long commitment to undergraduate research, and it is so fulfilling to be able to work with amazing undergraduates like Kate.”

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: When I chose it, I couldn’t decide between biology and chemistry, so I just picked biochemistry. I realized it was its own subject, but then I just kind of stuck with it.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: I took a medical anthropology class in SHESC. It was online. We learned about how different societies and countries view medicine. We had to read a book about a family living in American who had come from Taiwan or something like that. Their daughter had seizures. Of course the American doctors know the science behind epilepsy, but (the parents) didn’t believe any of that. They thought it was her spirit leaving her body. It was really interesting to see how other people can think of things like that, especially with me wanting to be a doctor. That was definitely an eye-opener.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: In-state tuition. Am I allowed to say that? I wanted to pick something cheap because I knew I wanted to go out of state to med school later.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Stay focused. That’s something I was good at it, but I definitely see other people struggling to stay focused on their studies. Why blow it now?

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: The Secret Garden.* My parents used to teach here, so I’d sometimes come with them and watch them teach, but we’d always go there on the way out. So, I’ve been going there since I was little.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I’m planning on going to med school. I don’t know (what kind of doctor I want to be). For now, I work in the emergency department at Chandler Regional and Mercy Gilbert as a scribe, so I’ll keep working. I follow doctors around and do all the charting information, so they can focus on the patient. Next summer I’ll start applying to med school. That’s like a year-long application process. That’s the plan.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: Forty million dollars probably isn’t that much to deal with any problem. Maybe providing vaccinations to Third World countries. Often they have the drugs, but because Third World countries don’t have electricity, they can’t store them. These things have to be refrigerated, so a lot of times the vaccines go to waste because they expire in the heat before they can be used. That would be interesting to work on.

*If you don’t know where the Secret Garden is, you’re not a Devil yet. Ask around.

Top photo: Kate Spencer poses in an anthropological chemistry lab, on Nov. 30, where she completed her Barrett thesis. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now

480-727-4502

ASU delivers digital libraries to Tonga


December 6, 2016

If you’re Laura Hosman, bringing educational resources to rural areas is what you do.

This week, Hosman is traveling to Tonga, where she and her team will deliver 25 portable, solar-powered, Wi-Fi-ready digital library devices called SolarSPELL — the Solar Powered Educational Learning Library — which is helping to expand access to education and technology in remote places around the world that lack electricity and the internet. Peace Corps SolarSPELL training in Micronesia with U.S. Peace Corps volunteers. Photo: Raymond Norte

Hosman, an assistant professor at ASU with a joint appointment in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, is traveling with five undergraduate students — four engineering students from the Polytechnic School, one of the six Fulton Schools, and one film student from the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts — as well as Lorrie McAllister, an assistant university librarian at ASU Libraries.

“We’ve been preparing for this trip all semester,” said Hosman. “In addition to bringing digital libraries to Tonga, the visit is meant to conduct research, create hands-on lesson plans and take part in workshops that will focus on building libraries specific to the Pacific Island communities.”

The innovative library device is 100 percent self-reliant: generating its own solar power and Wi-Fi hot spot and using its own tiny computer, called a Raspberry Pi, that functions as a server connecting to library content via smartphone, laptop or iPad.  

Because the SolarSPELL website functions as a local digital library — providing thousands of resources in the form of videos, articles, books, lessons and instructional guides — the selection of educational content and how the technology is introduced to the community is crucial.

Hosman thus relies on the expertise and local knowledge of U.S. Peace Corps volunteers, who are stationed in the remote locations she is trying to reach. Her strong partnership with the Peace Corps has resulted in the delivery of more than 100 SolarSPELL units in Samoa, Vanuatu and Micronesia.

“The Peace Corps has served an essential role in providing access to these digital libraries, as they often understand the needs of the community and local educational environment,” said Hosman.

Peace Corps staff and volunteers in Tonga will be working with Hosman and her students to develop learning objectives around library content as well as sample instructional programming. In addition, Hosman’s partnership with ASU Libraries has also helped to curate SolarSPELL content.

This fall, ASU Libraries hosted its first SolarSPELL Hackathon to support the curation of educational content for schools in Tonga. It was an opportunity for library staff to partner with Hosman and her students to further improve the digital library experience through new content and its improved organization, as well as enhancements to the technology platform. The Hackathon also resulted in discussion of creating lesson plans for teachers to empower students to save and share their cultural and artistic expressions as well as their family heritage.

“It is wonderful to partner with ASU Libraries to help deliver high-quality and specifically curated digital educational resources to teachers and students in areas with severely limited electricity, connectivity and even textbooks,” said Hosman.

McAllister said she is looking forward to engaging with students, educators and librarians in Tonga’s capital city of Nukuʻalofa to help understand their local context and greatest opportunities and challenges.

“This trip will be a valuable lesson in the curation of digital libraries,” McAllister said. “We will be finding out what topics the students of Tonga are interested in discovering and how they see themselves using digital libraries for learning. Dr. Hosman’s work is very exciting in terms of a creative way to expose new audiences to digital library resources and empower people by using libraries as catalysts for learning.”

Hosman, McAllister and the team of ASU students will be traveling Dec. 6-18 with a brief stop in New Zealand at the University of Auckland, where they will take part in a digital storytelling workshop.

The students plan to video-journal their experiences while traveling abroad.

For more information, visit the SolarSPELL website and Facebook page.

Britt Lewis

Communications Specialist, ASU Library