ASU graduate finds great success with new study habits


December 13, 2016

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

Some students may expect to coast through college with ease, just like they did in high school. At least, that’s what Darin Ellison said he thought during the summer before his freshman year. School of Life Sciences graduate Darin Ellison. Download Full Image

“At first, I didn’t take my classes serious and thought my study habits from high school would get me the excellent grades I got back then,” Ellison, a soon-to-be graduate from the School of Life Sciences Microbiology undergraduate program, said. “I could not have been more wrong.”

Ellison said he had to quickly decide what kind of student he wanted to be. As a result, he stopped skipping assignments and counting on extra credit to get good grades. It meant spending less time with friends and working harder on his classes, but he said it was an investment in his ambitions. To balance all that work with more social activities, Ellison joined clubs that would let him make friends and advance his goals, such as the American Medical Student Association at Tempe and the Sun Devil Ski Club.

Undergraduate research was also a revelation for Ellison. He said he never gave any thought to the subject until he started looking toward his next step following graduation. When he realized most graduate programs place a major emphasis on research, he immediately combed the School of Life Sciences website for open research positions. He couldn’t find one and began to question whether he was making the right choices.

However, when School of Life Sciences assistant professor Heather Bean arrived on campus, a new opportunity arose. Since Bean was just starting her lab, Ellison seized the chance to get in on the ground floor. His tenacity paid off. Ellison learned to present his research in front of others and to use his critical thinking skills. All of that, he said, might not have happened if he hadn’t come to ASU.

Name: Darrin Ellison
Major, school/college: Microbiology; School of Life Sciences
Hometown: Victorville, CA

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

Answer: My “aha” moment came during my junior year of high school. My family and I were discussing possible colleges to apply to and what programs might fit my interest. At that time, I was obsessed with crime-solving TV shows, such as Law and Order, CSI: Miami and Bones. This obsession directed me toward a field that focused on examining the “little things,” because those tended to hold more information than evidence seen with the naked eye. Thus, the closest field I could find that possessed this trait was microbiology. So far, it has been everything I thought it would be and much more.

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 course on HIV/AIDS (MIC 314) taught by Damien Salamone, and I was shocked at how prevalent, stigmatized and life-altering a disease like AIDS can be for the individual diagnosed with it, as well as, the perception of them by their family or friends. I now have a better understanding of why people have a strong fear toward those with the disease, as well as why the disease has not been cured despite combined efforts within the U.S. and abroad. Overall, it made me realize that people with AIDS are more scared of “us” than we should fear them, because at least we have a relatively healthy immune system.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU because I absolutely love the location and I went to grade school in Phoenix. We are six hours from the sunny beaches of San Diego, California, two-and-a-half hours from the snow-capped mountains in northern Arizona and we have campuses in all the major areas within the Valley. Furthermore, all the amenities offered by ASU (research, jobs, lifestyle, entertainment, etc.) are up to par or in most cases even better than the competition.

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

A: No matter what, keep moving forward. I initially thought four years would take forever, but it felt like it went by faster than the four years of high school. The best thing to do is get involved, because that will make the time fly-by. College will test your ability to manage all your time and manage your emotional state, as well as your ability to be creative with all the resources ASU has to offer. Through all the experiences, good or bad, ASU has provided me with the ability to become a more compassionate, diverse and critical-thinking individual.

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

A: The Life Science E building because it is one of the tallest buildings found on the Tempe campus, so taking the elevator up to the fifth or sixth floor after having a rough day, really helped to ease my mind and get me refocused on what’s most important in my life (family, friends, my dog, and my goals).

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: After graduation, I plan to continue my research with professor Heather Bean, apply to graduate schools (medical or master’s) and enjoy all the outdoor activities Arizona has to offer with family and friends, especially skiing and camping.

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

A: I am a bit biased because the research I do involves the study of chronic lung infections, thus I would choose to allocate that money towards developing a new breath-based diagnostic tool that can detect lung infections from cystic fibrosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, tuberculosis and other aerosolized diseases.

Jason Krell

Communication and events coordinator, Center for Evolution and Medicine

480-727-1233

Father of 3 discovers smooth sailing in the chaos

ASU life sciences grad learns to deal with the unexpected


December 13, 2016

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

Justin Wolter started his doctoral program with one child at home. Even though it was challenging to split his attention between home and school, he welcomed two more children into his family during the following four years. School of Life Sciences graduate Justin Wolter Download Full Image

“Initially it was hard to strike a balance, and each half of my focus often made maintaining the other more difficult,” Wolter said. “But over the years, I think raising a family while trying to do research gave me an amazing ability to take my mind off the stresses of the lab.”

Learning how to stop thinking about work when he was at home had other benefits, too. Wolter said it left him feeling refreshed each day he arrived on campus. He said his demanding schedule also taught him how to make the most out of every second at school. Since his wife worked full-time to support their family while Wolter finished his program, every second mattered.

Others pitched in, too. Wolter said his faculty mentor, School of Life Sciences assistant professor Marco Mangone, offered support by giving him the freedom to work on his own time. ASU’s childcare subsidy program and Wolter’s Maher Alumni Scholarship also helped ease his family’s financial burden.

In the end, Wolter said he was most successful when he applied lessons from one part of his life to the other. Whether taking care of his family or working toward his degree, he learned to deal with the unexpected. And, once he realized how to do that, he said his life was ‘smooth sailing’ even at its most chaotic.

Name: Justin Wolter
Major, school/college: Molecular and Cellular Biology, PhD, School of Life Sciences, CLAS
Hometown: Hinesburg, Vermont

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

Answer: I joined ASU as a graduate student after realizing that my bachelor’s degree in psychology was not where I wanted spend the rest of my career. I knew that I liked biology, but beyond that I was clueless. During my first two semesters I took a variety of classes (physiology, ecology, soils, genetics, etc.) hoping to find something that called to me.

One of these classes, Developmental Evolution, was taught by professor Manfred Laubichler. On the first day of class Dr. Laubichler, in his hearty Austrian accent, announced, “Welcome to the revolution!” Over the next few minutes he introduced an emerging philosophy in biology, explaining that understanding organismal development holds the key to understanding the evolution of complex life. It took all of five minutes of that first class for me to decide what I wanted to spend my life researching.

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

A: Definitely the most surprising thing I learned in the classroom at ASU involves how species evolve over time. The common understanding of evolution is that a species encounters a problem, some individuals in the population deal with that problem better and they produce more offspring. This suggests that natural selection acts on the organism at the time of dealing with the problem. What blew my mind was that the differences in individual organisms come long before the challenge, usually during early development in the embryo. So, natural selection acts on development, not on the final adult form. It is the random evolutionary changes during embryonic development that are selected for, and ultimately are responsible for so many of the traits that we find helpful. But the flip side is that many of the developmental processes that make us so successful as a species frequently misbehave, leading to disease. Wow.   

I feel the biggest shift in perspective I gained was in separating assumptions and opinions from fact. So many people (myself included) base their opinions on assumptions that turn out to be only partially true.  Throughout my graduate career I feel I learned the value of questioning everything, and that truly understanding why is the most important question. Initially it is daunting to come up with research topics, but as long as you keep asking why, interesting paths will always be there.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: To be honest, I chose ASU because it was probably one of the only schools that would have accepted me. I did not have a degree in biology. I had no previous lab experience and a mediocre record from my undergrad. But regardless of what I looked like in paper, ASU gave me an opportunity. The only limitations I came across were of my own making, and I was able to learn from my mistakes and make the most of the shot I got. If you show up with nothing but passion and drive, the opportunities at ASU are exceptional, and that makes ASU a special place.

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

A: Do everything, all the time. You never know what is going to pay off, and for me the things that gave the most return were almost always questionable uses of time. In the lab, this means performing preliminary experiments covering many directions, even those where the assumed result is completely obvious or a one-in-a-million chance of succeeding.

Out of the lab, this means keep all your doors open and continuously open new ones. You never know when an interaction you have with someone will lead to an unexpected conversation, or even collaboration. ASU provides grad students with plenty of resources to travel off campus, and I applied to every travel funding source available (and SOLS is so supportive that I got almost everyone I applied for). After all, in science and life, jobs are earned equally from what you do and who you know.

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

A: The Mangone Lab in the Biodesign Institute was my favorite place on campus (as if I had time to be anywhere else!)

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I just started a post-doc position at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where I will be researching autism genetics and neurodevelopment in the Zylka lab. I ultimately hope start my own lab focused on genetic regulation during neurodevelopment.

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

A: I feel that climate change is the biggest problem of our time. The scale of the problem extends into all areas of human existence, and I feel that nearly every discipline at ASU has some ability to contribute to a solution. Despite the scale, the task is not impossible. But sadly, the biggest hurdle is not technical or scientific, but societal. We cannot even agree that it is a problem, let alone how to fix it, and without a common starting point there is no chance to correct our actions. I feel this disagreement is largely due to scientific illiteracy. Unfortunately, in the majority of cases it is difficult, bordering on impossible, to change entrenched beliefs. So, I would focus on teaching the next generation a passion and amazement of the natural world, hopefully leading to an appreciation of the magnitude of our problems. I feel that re-energizing scientific education in early childhood is the only way we can overcome the denial that impedes progress on this most serious of issues.

Jason Krell

Communication and events coordinator, Center for Evolution and Medicine

480-727-1233