Biology PhD grad gains international recognition for her research in final week of school


April 29, 2018

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2018 commencement

With less than one week to go before defending her doctoral dissertation, Katelyn Cooper found herself in an unexpected position — smack dab in the middle of the international media spotlight.    Katelyn Cooper Katelyn Cooper, graduating with her PhD in biology, studies how to improve the way college biology is taught in active learning classrooms. Her research prompted intense international media attention the final week of school. Photo by School of Life Sciences VisLab Download Full Image

Cooper, a native of Scottsdale, Arizona, put together a series of research studies looking at how to improve the way college biology is taught in active learning classrooms. She and her mentor, School of Life Sciences Assistant Professor Sara Brownell, study biology education. One of those studies, focused on “perceived intelligence” and the differences between genders, published in the journal Advances in Physiology Education the week of her defense.

From the minute the story hit the press, Cooper and Brownell were bombarded with media inquiries.

“We definitely did not expect this kind of media attention!” Cooper said. “I was planning to spend the few days before my thesis defense completely focused on practicing my presentation, and I never imagined that I would instead spend those days being interviewed by local, national and international news organizations about the study.

“What I learned the most from this experience was how important it is for academics to learn how to communicate with journalists — in real time, I realized that I had to come up with alternative ways of describing my work that were not as complicated, but still accurate. I wanted to stay true to my results, but I also realized that I had to effectively communicate to non-experts if I wanted people to take something away from the study,” she added.  

Working with Brownell, the pair handled press inquiries from around the world, landing interviews for radio, television, newspapers, bloggers, podcasts and websites.

“When I started my PhD four years ago, my primary goal was to make a meaningful contribution to the field of undergraduate biology education,” Cooper said. “Receiving this amount of media attention and knowing that people around the world were reading about our research in the same week that I defended my PhD solidified that my goal had been met. It was incredibly exciting to have this work shared so broadly.”

Cooper ended that week by successfully defending her dissertation, despite the lack of time to practice her presentation, and earned her doctorate in biology.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to pursue a career in your field?

Answer: I first thought about pursuing a PhD so that I could teach college biology. However, I was growing increasingly interested in understanding issues of equity and access in higher education. I began meeting with different ASU faculty to understand more about what they do. Through these meetings, I found that I could pursue a career teaching undergraduate biology and conducting biology education research, and I knew I had found what I wanted to do. 

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

A: For a long time, I thought that all students in the same college class had the same opportunity to learn. As an academic adviser and later as a graduate student, I gained a deeper understanding of the financial barriers, systemic biases and cultural norms that prevent all students from receiving an equitable education.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU because it is home to one of the most influential leaders in the field of undergraduate biology education — Dr. Sara Brownell. When I realized that I would have the opportunity to train with Sara, I couldn’t pass it up. 

Additionally, I have the most wonderful family who lives in Arizona. I was very excited that I could receive an excellent education and still make it to weekly family dinner with my parents and grandparents. 

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

A: Find a good mentor and maximize your time with them. I was fortunate to find an outstanding mentor, my PhD adviser, who was willing to truly invest in my education. She put time into developing me as a researcher and teacher, provided me with opportunities to share my work at a national level, and pushed me to exceed my own expectations. Finding a mentor was the first step, and proving that I was worthy of her time by working hard and following her advice was just as important. 

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

A: While I love spending time in ASU’s Secret Garden because of its tranquility, my favorite memories occurred in Noble Science Library where I met some of my best friends, spent a ton of time studying, and spent even more time laughing.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I will be applying to tenure-track faculty positions in biology education while doing a post-doc in ASU’s Biology Education Research Lab and continuing to run the NSF-funded LEAP Scholars Program.   

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

A: If someone gave me $40 million, I would try to solve problems that related to inequities in undergraduate education. Specifically, I would focus on creating a more diverse and inclusive scientific community.

Q: Thinking back over your time at ASU, what challenges did you face, and how did you overcome them?

A: The biggest challenge I faced during my graduate career was working a full-time job as an academic adviser while pursuing my PhD. This meant that much of my PhD work had to be completed on nights and weekends. I learned how to be extremely efficient with my time, managed to integrate parts of my job and my research, and made sure to communicate effectively with my boss and adviser.

Q: Are there any particular people, professors, advisors or friends who really supported you on your journey — and what did they do to help?

A: My PhD adviser, Dr. Sara Brownell, is responsible for teaching me to think, write and balance many academic responsibilities, and I am incredibly indebted to her. Scot Schoenborn is the head of advising in the School of Life Sciences and was my boss while I was juggling a full-time job as an academic adviser and getting my PhD. When I told Scot I wanted to pursue my PhD and keep my job as an adviser, not only did he approve, he encouraged me. Scot remained supportive throughout my graduate career and allowed me the flexibility I needed to pursue both endeavors.

Q: What did ASU provide to you that you think you could not have found anywhere else?

A: I study equity and access in undergraduate biology education, and ASU has an incredibly diverse population of students. Our students are non-traditional in many ways; many work full-time, are raising families and commute over an hour to campus. Students come to ASU from extremely different backgrounds and hold many different identities. Getting to work at a university that is as diverse as ASU presented me with the unique opportunity to study the impact of students' identities, characteristics and backgrounds on their educational experience, which was exactly what I wanted to do.

Sandra Leander

Manager, Media Relations and Marketing, School of Life Sciences

480-965-9865

ASU literature grad embraces living ‘within the gray spaces’


April 29, 2018

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2018 commencement

Arizona State University undergraduate Dimiana “Dimi” Wassef knows where she’s going. Specifically, the English literature major knows she’ll be graduating with her bachelor’s degree this spring and that she has been accepted into graduate school at Durham University in England. Graduating ASU student Dimi Wassef / Courtesy photo "After graduation, I will be packing my bags and heading to Durham University to pursue a master’s in English literary studies at the U.K.’s number one school for English," said ASU English literature major Dimi Wassef. Download Full Image

Things weren’t always this clear-cut for Wassef. The Middletown, New Jersey, native began at a community college, studying biology. She struggled.

“I felt pressured to be someone I wasn't and pressured to pursue a path in the science field and become someone I never truly wanted to be,” Wassef said.

She switched her major to English where she says it was like “the classes were meant for me.”

“I am and always have been different. My interests have always been very particular to myself and my identity, not to many others.”

After earning her Associate of Arts degree at Estrella Mountain Community College in Avondale, Arizona, Wassef transferred to ASU where her love for literature — specifically medieval and Renaissance texts — flowered. She participated in an ASU Study Abroad program in Harlaxton, U.K., where she was able to explore both literary and natural spaces: “In this program, we read the works of English classic novelists and poets and explored the landscapes associated with those authors and their works.”

The trip also stirred a latent self-confidence in Wassef, one that had just needed awakening.

“I traveled to Scotland and Switzerland independently while I was there,” she said. “Wherever I went, I looked for nature. I wanted to be one with nature and discover more about myself through the literature and the landscapes I was experiencing.”

Wassef answered some more questions about her ASU experience where she shared her love for helping other transfer students, her passion for ending animal abuse, and a tiny bit about her dystopian science fiction novel-in-progress.

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

Answer: I always knew that I was the kind of person who so passionately lived within the gray spaces of life. Thankfully, during my second semester of my freshman year of college, I changed my major from biology to English literature after establishing that I was no longer going to pursue any path but my own. From that point forward, I began embracing myself and who I was as a person and have found myself in the perfect position to plant seeds in those gray spaces I’ve so passionately lived within my entire life. My mom is and always has been the biggest supporter of my dreams, so after many conversations together, I was encouraged and inspired to begin doing what I love most and study the subject that lights up my soul. I instantly felt like I had found my place in the world.

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

A: I acquired the understanding of how important it is to take advantage of every opportunity around you, and that the journey is your own and you deserve to give yourself the very best. I believe in the power of positive and limitless thinking, and I believe Arizona State is a faithful supporter of that.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose Arizona State University because of their phenomenal English department. I knew I wanted to stay in the state, but what really brought me to ASU was the prestige of the English department and the opportunities that the Phoenix metropolitan area had to offer. [Professor] James Blasingame in the Department of English is someone I wanted to mention specifically, as he is an incredible professor and creative mentor who I was honored to work with in my undergraduate studies. If it weren’t for him, I don’t know if my novel would be where it is today.

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

A: As a Transfer Student Ambassador at Arizona State University, I work with students on a regular basis by helping them achieve their educational goals and overcome the challenges associated with those goals. The piece of advice I most often give is to keep pushing no matter what may try to get in your way. Never give up on yourself or your dreams because you are so much more capable than you realize. Shoot for the moon! I promise you it is worth it.

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

A: Even though I was a Tempe student, my favorite spot to go was Fletcher Library at ASU West. I enjoyed the peace and quiet of the library, not to mention the comfortable booths and beautiful interior that made studying more of a luxury than a task. I would play classical music or nature soundtracks to settle in and get to work, either on schoolwork or my novel. I was able to think more clearly there, and as a writer and a student, that is something that I definitely appreciated. The Starbucks inside the library was always a wonderful addition to my studies, too.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: After graduation, I will be packing my bags and heading to Durham University to pursue a master’s in English literary studies at the U.K.’s number one school for English. I hope to continue paving my path academically and creatively as I embark on the journey of a lifetime. One day, I hope to teach medieval literature at the university level and publish fantasy novels and scholarly works.

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

A: Something that affects me on an incredibly deep level is animal abuse. I would give every last penny of that money to help put a stop to animal abuse. After removing the animals from their abusive environments and providing them with all the necessary treatment to recover, I would open up no-kill shelters all around the world that would help provide the best and most loving homes for these animals. So many sweet and loving souls live their lives in pain and turmoil. I would do anything in my power to stop that.

Kristen LaRue-Sandler

communications specialist, Department of English

480-965-7611