A love of chemistry took grad a long way from home


April 29, 2018

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

Victoria Hernandez, a native of Plainsboro, New Jersey, had never heard of Arizona State University, or Barrett, the Honors College, when she was in high school. In fact, her mother nearly threw out a letter (she hadn’t put her contacts in that morning) offering her a New American University Scholarship, covering the entirety of her out-of-state tuition, and the offer of flying her out to tour ASU. Victoria Hernandez Victoria Hernandez, from Plainsboro, New Jersey, is graduating with a chemistry degree from ASU's School of Molecular Sciences. Download Full Image

Hernandez, being a New Jersey native, hadn’t applied to ASU. With the scholarship in hand she visited ASU and really liked what she saw. She was accepted to all of the schools she applied to, but her parents only had enough money to pay for her to either go to ASU or her state school in New Jersey. Student loans seemed prohibitive.

ASU gave Victoria the opportunity to do something different, so she grabbed it.

“I honestly wasn’t expecting ASU to be as perfect a school as it was for me,” she explained. “I wasn’t expecting to meet faculty as invested in my success as those in the School of Molecular Sciences, and I wasn’t expecting the research experiences I had. These aspects of ASU made my homesickness less severe. They made my risk pay off.”

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

Answer: I don’t believe in “aha” moments. I think realizations, decisions and changes arise from gradual, sometimes grueling, processes. I entered ASU as a chemical engineering major because my peers and some family members made me feel like that was the field to study, despite the fact that my favorite subject in school was chemistry. My chemistry major started as a minor I added my second semester at ASU, a way for me to appease a restless part of my mind that was missing the subject I hadn’t studied since my junior year of high school.  

While the engineering program at ASU is great, chemical engineering wasn’t fulfilling me; it wasn’t answering the questions I really wanted to answer. I was back and forth on the decision to change majors. I cried a lot. I had a lot of long phone calls with my mom. I tried to avoid acting on a decision that would cause too much of a rift in my academic career, but in many ways, I feel like I made the decision subconsciously. The moment I actually changed my major, the moment I marched over to the advising office and made my decision final, happened right after a chemical engineering class that I was upset during because I just didn’t like what I was studying. But why be upset? If I didn’t like it, why was I studying it? Who was forcing me? When I seriously asked those questions, I acted and never looked back.  

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

A: Wow, there are a lot of things! There was one Barrett class I took the second semester of my third year, HON 394: What is college for? I think that class changed my perspective on a lot of things. We studied higher education in the U.S., specifically undergraduate education, and the problems and challenges that often plague college institutions. The class also explored the purpose of higher education, why we are all in college in the first place. We read a lot of books written by experts in higher education, yet in some ways I feel like we barely scratched the surface.

The best part of the class, however, had to be at the end when our class held a student panel where we discussed what we learned in the class with other Barrett students. So many people came! And what they had to say was really insightful. 

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

A: Be flexible. Be just as open to experience change as you are to resist it. You may have started college with some idea of what it would be like, what you would study and what you might do once you graduate, but don’t be afraid to deviate from those plans. And if you choose to stay on a path, that’s OK too. The point is to be open to go with whatever feels right. The worst thing you can do is stay with a place, a major, a social circle or a plan that makes you unhappy or doesn’t seem right for you. 

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

A: There used to be a bench just inside the Barrett complex. It was straight ahead, past the bike racks when you walked in through the gate by the fountains. The bench isn’t there anymore, but I still remember it vividly. I spent a lot of time on that bench, thinking and changing for better and sometimes for worse (all part of the process). The bench was calm and peaceful without being isolating.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: Well, for my immediate plans I will be attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology program as a PhD student in biology. Yes, you read that right, biology, though I will be primarily studying biochemistry and the structures of macromolecules like proteins.

A part of my “discovering my major” story that I skipped over was that my initial interest in chemistry came when I encountered chemistry topics in my high school biology class, a year before I even took a chemistry class. Since then, I think at least subconsciously biological questions have been building in me. Over the past few years, I’ve investigated biological questions from a more biochemical question in both my laboratory research and history of science research. Those experiences slowly, but surely, pulled me closer and closer to pursuing fields relating to biology. 

As for what I plan to do after graduate school? I’m not entirely sure. I enjoy the prospect of teaching; perhaps I will pursue a career as a professor. However, I’m not going to stress out about any plan. I’ll just go where the wind takes me, trying my best to do some good.

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

A: This is typically a question I try to avoid because I don’t think I’m qualified to say how $40 million is best spent. If I must answer though, and I must choose one problem (I would likely try to choose more), I would probably put it toward sustainability efforts or combating climate change. That’s a little nod to the topics I focused my research on when I was an engineering major, and I think that unlike many other problems on our planet, those affect everyone.  

Jenny Green

Clinical associate professor, School of Molecular Sciences

480-965-1430

ASU grad has heart for Chicago


April 29, 2018

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

For Lauren Pious, there’s no place quite like home. Still, as she puts it: “I have a very complex relationship with Chicago.” Graduating ASU student Lauren Pious / Courtesy photo After her ASU graduation, Lauren Pious will return to her hometown of Chicago, where she says she hopes to "get settled into publishing and nonprofit work to continue focusing on intersectionality, cultural competency and sexual violence prevention." Download Full Image

Pious wasn’t particularly keen on hanging around her Southside neighborhood after high school graduation.

“Seeing and living in violence, poverty and constant trauma that occurs at home made me see Chicago as a bad place to be from,” she said. “My neighborhood specifically hasn't and still doesn't receive the help that it needs to be a better place for the people who live there.”

She also hates the cold, so going to college as far away as possible from Midwest winters was a no-brainer. Pious spent three years in Arizona sunshine, learning about “intersectionality and social justice issues related to the black community.” Now, she’s graduating from Arizona State University a year early and is ready to return to the Windy City, where she’ll attend graduate school and where she hopes to make a difference.

As they say, home is where the heart is.

Pious’s heart is also firmly at home in poetry and language, which is — thankfully — portable. Pious hopes to use her ASU bachelor’s degree in English (literature) and her minor in Mandarin Chinese to make inroads in areas of social importance, like cultural competency training and sexual violence prevention. She’ll do this via writing, volunteering and nonprofit work.

Pious’s ASU experience gave her many tools to use in this work. In addition to her academic pursuits, she was a sexual violence prevention peer educator through the Sun Devil Support Network (SDSN). The network, administratively situated within Educational Outreach & Student Services, is a “group of students who provide ASU community members with support, information and resources related to incidents of sexual violence.” All peer educators like Pious go through 15-20 hours of training.

“I want to take what I've learned at ASU to be a resource and a change-maker for my community,” she said. “But I'm nervous because there's a lot to be done and [it] will require a lot of collaboration for it to work. I just have a lot of hopes for the place that raised me.”

We sat down with Pious to find out more about her plans for after graduation and for her beloved Chicago.

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

Answer: My “aha” moment when I realized that I wanted to study English literature was when I was a senior in high school. I took world literature, philosophy in literature, and creative writing. These classes made me fall deeper in love with using literature to address social issues through both reading and then writing my own poetry.

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

A: Something I learned while at ASU that surprised me was while working as a sexual violence prevention peer educator, learning about the continuum of violence. I’ve known from personal experience — the environment I grew up in — the ways in which violence progresses; it doesn’t always start in the physical form. However, after having an opportunity to be an educator and adviser in this area, I have learned how the subject of sexual violence prevention is being taught in formal settings, and I am glad it is being acknowledged and supported at ASU.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU, initially, because I was tired of being cold. More than that, something that I live by, is that discomfort is the only way for growth. I did study abroad, but I’ve basically lived my entire life in Chicago on the Southside, where it’s an echo chamber of shared traumas, ideals and experiences. I knew that getting out of my comfort zone on my own would be the best way for me to discover what’s important for me and my personal growth and how that would look when giving back to the community that raised me.

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

A: I’d definitely say to them that it’s OK to quit (sometimes). That was the biggest lesson that I learned while here at ASU. I’ve never liked giving up on a task, goal or priority that I chose to take part in. However, when things such as your mental, emotional and physical health are suffering from overworking yourself and stretching yourself too thin, letting go of some things in order to take care of yourself isn’t a bad thing.

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

A: My favorite spot on campus to relax and think was the closed-off sitting area on the righthand side of Piper Writers House. It’s a small, intimate and pseudo-isolated area that is surrounded by vegetation. I would go there to write and get some outside time without the pressure of social interaction. It’s very calming.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I plan on starting an online literary critique blog and discussing intersectionality and cultural competency (or lack thereof) in different forms of literature including: fiction, poetry, movies, music, etc. I will also be attending graduate school in the fall at Columbia College Chicago for the MFA in Poetry program. I hope to eventually get settled into publishing and nonprofit work to continue focusing on intersectionality, cultural competency and sexual violence prevention.

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

A: I would use that money to tackle homelessness. It may seem cliché, but as someone who has been on the cusp multiple times and faced (and still face) chronic financial issues, this is very personal to me. More than that, in the neighborhood that I grew up in on the Southside, homelessness affects every aspect of black people’s lives. Without homes, they cannot go to school (if that’s an option) and cannot get jobs. Without jobs, they cannot get (healthy) food, clothes, access to transportation, health care, etc., which leads to health problems and many other issues.

I would use that money to buy and renovate abandoned homes and vacant lots to provide homes they can be proud and unashamed of. From there, when people have help and a stable foundation, they can and want to succeed. By providing that opportunity, many lives can be a bit better.

Kristen LaRue-Sandler

senior marking & communications specialist, Department of English

480-965-7611