'Poetry takes risks': A daring ASU writer earns her degree


April 29, 2018

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

Hailing from Springfield, Virginia, Arizona State University student Susan Nguyen has called the desert her home for the past three years. She is earning her Master of Fine Arts in creative writing (poetry) here, where she served as the poetry editor for literary journal Hayden’s Ferry Review and received several fellowships from the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing. These fellowships gave her the opportunity to teach introductory creative writing at the National University of Singapore and to begin on oral-history project centered on the Vietnamese diaspora. Graduating ASU student Susan Nguyen / Courtesy photo Graduating ASU student Susan Nguyen was featured by PBS NewsHour as one of “three women poets to watch in 2018.” As she told NewsHour, she “writes poetry that ‘carves out space’ for her body and identity as an Asian-American woman” and that “her work doesn’t deal with pleasant or pretty themes.” Download Full Image

Earlier this year, Nguyen's daring and bodily approach to language drew attention from PBS NewsHour, which called her one of "three women poets to watch in 2018."

Nguyen has begun to live out her belief that creative writing is life-affirming.“Storytelling is one way in which connections are born,” she said, and one way that “our personhood is recognized.” The importance of being recognized, of being seen and valued, is at the center of Nguyen’s writing. As she told NewsHour, she “writes poetry that ‘carves out space’ for her body and identity as an Asian-American woman” and that “her work doesn’t deal with pleasant or pretty themes.”

Nguyen received the Aleida Rodriguez Memorial Award from the Department of English for her poem “The First Language,” which was published in early February by the journal The Shallow Ends. In these lines from the poem, Nguyen unearths from the center of herself an image of a father figure, which is perhaps a memory, perhaps a wish:

He taught her that their first language was named after tadpoles, the way they moved through water: a / knife dissecting the stratosphere, a voice cutting quiet.

The poem encapsulates Nguyen’s way of approaching language: that is, to reconnect it to the physical world and to the voice.

Nguyen answered a few more questions about her writing and her future.

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

Answer: I grew up wanting to be a writer because I was such a bookworm. I came to love language and wanted to have the same power as the authors I read to transport readers, to educate and illuminate and delight. At first, I thought I was going to be a novelist because that’s pretty much all I was reading.  Leaving high school, I actually thought I hated poetry. When I took an introduction to creative writing course during my freshman year of college, I was surprised to find that poetry was what I was drawn to as a writer and I excelled at it more so than fiction or nonfiction.

Even though poetry was, and still is, challenging, I find it to be language at its strongest, at its utmost capacity. A lot of my research and writing is about the body. The body as it is othered, gendered, racialized, sexualized. The body living in diaspora and learning its own history and trauma. It’s not an easy task to interrogate these intersections of the body, which is why poetry is one of the most conducive media for me to explore what it means to exist in my body.

Poetry takes risks, and I want to live in that space where language can ignore margins, challenge blank space, and surpass the safe and familiar.

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

A: Learning a language is a physical act. Speaking is a physical act. Both are rooted in the body and both are difficult. I have taken Vietnamese language courses at ASU all three years that I have been here, and in writing about my experience with language and my body, I have been trying to uncover new ways to describe this process: new ways to convey how language can remain trapped in your throat, how much effort your body must expend each day to say anything, everything.

That not every piece of writing or art is meant for every reader or viewer. When I entered the program, I think I assumed artists strove to create “universal” works. I don’t think that anymore. My writing is meant for those willing to engage with it.

To be less “apologetic” about my work in terms of content, code-switching, narrative structure and form. I don’t think my work is particularly obscure, but I feel more confident now in letting my readers do some of the hard work of listening and understanding.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I was excited about the faculty I would get to work with and the opportunities that the MFA program and the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing offered.

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

A: Don’t be afraid to follow your passions and see where they lead you. Take classes outside of your major if that’s what interests you. The classes that I have taken outside of the MFA program, such as Vietnamese language courses and Asian Pacific American literature courses, have been integral to both my personal and research interests and have added a lot to my writing.

Also, nurture your relationships. Support others and find ways of receiving support. Once you graduate, continue cultivating those networks of support. I find this especially important in the literary community — leaving a graduate program where I am immersed in creating and talking about art has been life-changing, and it’s important to me to still have people I trust to turn to once I’m outside of academia.

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

A: The gardens around the Virginia G. Piper Center.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I’m still waiting to hear back from a fellowship or two … fingers crossed!

In the meanwhile, and regardless of the outcome, I will keep writing. I will keep making and exploring different forms of art (during the past few years, I have been especially interested in zine-making). I will keep participating and contributing to the literary community and the other communities I am a part of.

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

A: Making education more accessible, especially in low-income communities, so that individuals are in better positions to break out of the poverty cycle. I don’t think we can approach “solving” poverty without first tackling our education system, which also means valuing our educators and the work they do.

Kristen LaRue-Sandler

communications specialist, Department of English

480-965-7611

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