Life sciences graduate brings biology to an Arizona state prison

May 8, 2015

Anika Larson never knew she would spend time inside a state prison during her stellar career at Arizona State University. But teaching biology to maximum-security inmates in a prison classroom was something she just couldn’t pass up.

Leading into her senior year as a double major in biological sciences and global studies, Larson participated in a creative writing internship through the English department called the Pen Project. Maximum-security prisoners send in their creative writing through the project. ASU interns then read and critique their work. Anika Larson, CLAS Dean's medalist Download Full Image

“I was working with the Pen Project, and I realized I was passionate about it,” Larson said. “I asked the director at the time whether anyone was teaching biology in this particular program. They weren’t, but he got the biology class approved and said, ‘If you want to do it, you’ll start in September.’ I panicked, to be honest.”

But Larson jumped into the project headfirst, working with School of Life Sciences professor Tsafrir Mor and several doctoral students. Not only was the class a success, new students at ASU have signed up to continue the course after Larson graduates.

“We have a large network of grads and undergrads who help with the homework and curriculum,” added Larson. “This has been a highlight of my time at ASU.”

During the past four years, Larson looked for projects that made her not want to leave at the end of the day. She surprised herself her sophomore year, adding a second major following an internship in Southeast Asia.

“I did an internship with Green Peace in Bangkok,” Larson said. “They wanted me to develop a remediation plan for a polluted creek. I was a global studies student in the School of Politics and Global Studies. I had no idea how to do this. It really convinced me that if I wanted to study environmental law and policy, I needed to know more about biology and science. I added biology and society with the School of Life Sciences as a second major.”

Larson has had a wide variety of experiences at ASU. She participated in several humanitarian groups, providing humanitarian aid along the U.S.-Mexico border through No More Deaths, and raising awareness through Students for Humanitarian Aid on the Border. In the School of Life Sciences Undergraduate Research (SOLUR) program, Larson conducted a research project on how neuroscientists choose their study models.

“It’s been pretty simple to move back and forth between different disciplines,” Larson said. “So, to be in global studies, conducting humanitarian aid along the border, and simultaneously doing science policy-focused research with the School of Life Sciences, it’s been wonderful. SOLS and the Center for Biology and Society, the School of Politics and Global Studies and the honors thesis for Barrett, all are very flexible in what I can do for the required projects.”

Reflecting on her college career, Larson has words of advice for her “freshman-year-self” – a time she worried about being successful.

“If I could go back and talk to myself, I would grab myself by the shoulders and say, ‘There is no such thing as not being smart enough to go into biology or any other field you’re interested in. There is room for all kinds of intelligences and skills,'” she said.

After graduation, Larson will start a summer internship in occupational health. In the fall, she will begin a master’s program in public health at the University of Washington. Larson won the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean’s medal for the School of Life Sciences, Spring 2015, and will carry the school’s flag during the graduation ceremony.

Sandra Leander

Assistant Director of Media Relations, ASU Knowledge Enterprise


ASU's class of 2015 rises to the top

May 8, 2015

ASU 2015 commencement banner

Editor's Note: This is an ongoing feature that is part of our coverage of ASU's spring commencement. Check back for updates, as more student profiles will be added throughout the week of graduation. graduation cap that says: Nothing happens unless first a dream Download Full Image

This spring, approximately 12,000 undergraduate and graduate students are set to earn their degrees. 

They come from diverse backgrounds and a wide range of disciplines. They are looking to transform their communities, embrace innovation and tackle new challenges. Some of them are outstanding graduate award winners.

Here's a look at the class of 2015.


Arturo Social work student refuses to yield to adversity

Arturo Virgen-Sandoval is proud to be among the undergraduates who will have degrees conferred May 11 at ASU. But his path was not always easy. Four weeks ago he received a cancer diagnosis and doctors urged him to put everything on hold – including his studies.

Corrine Sanchez with her motherPueblo Indian doctoral project produces first cohort

Empowering the students to become leaders in their communities’ policymaking and effecting positive change is the goal of the ASU Pueblo Indian Doctoral Program, which is about to see its inaugural class graduate on May 11.

Joe and Brett MontgomeryFather, son to graduate on same day

Joe and Brett Montgomery have experienced many of the same rituals as other fathers and sons – hiking, fishing, Little League baseball – but this pair will soon get to do something others rarely do: graduate on the same day.


Abbey PellinoTransfer student's success leads to Barrett Outstanding Graduate award

Kathleen Stefanik always dreamed of earning a university degree, but she put her educational aspirations on hold to work and raise a family. Now, she has fulfilled her dream in ways she never thought possible.


Sai TummalaBasketball helps ASU student score in STEM

Performing on the basketball court helped Sai Tummala relate to the physiology classes he was taking and motivated him to excel. The honors student carried a 4.0 grade-point average and made the dean's list every semester. He graduates this May with a degree in biology.


Jaylee ConlinGeography graduate pursues challenges in school, career

While pursuing studies in both meteorology/climatology and computer science, Jaylee Conlin held two campus jobs; and after participating in a NASA-sponsored student research program, earned a prestigious award in competition against master’s and doctoral students.


Brett LarsenSTEM student is engineering a bright future

Brett Larsen found invaluable help in his school's emphasis on treating students as engineers from day one. During his time at ASU, Larsen worked at ASU’s Flexible Electronics and Display Center, at the particle collider at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, and at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque.


Chareka DanielPassion for dance, teaching energizes ASU grad

Raised in a low-income family, Chareka Daniel had no money for dance lessons so she taught herself to dance by watching the movie "Save the Last Dance." Now she's earned a master's in fine arts from ASU.


Taylor LoutsisASU design student improves conditions for refugees

An Associated Press article about the millions of displaced refugees around the globe sparked the most notable project in ASU design student Taylor Loutsis' eight-year undergraduate career: reimagining housing in the Kiziba refugee camp in Rwanda.


Amanda Molindo and motherASU grad's project takes a closer look at teen motherhood

The daughter of a teen mother from Yuma, Arizona, Amanda Mollindo produced a thesis exhibition that examines the topic of teen motherhood through a series of portraits of – and interviews with – women who had children at a young age.


Matthew RaganASU grad creates new system for interactive media design

As the only student graduating from ASU's interdisciplinary digital media and performance program this year, Matthew Ragan has explored uncharted territory at the intersection of live performance and interactive design.


Hana AlkahloutGlobal health student connects local Ethiopian women with health care

By the time Hana Alkahlout graduates from ASU with her bachelor’s in global health, she will have already positively impacted the health of her community. Alkahlout has been working with local Ethiopian immigrant women to determine their perspectives in obtaining primary health care.


Wayne StephensonDegree brings student 'a greater sense of possibilities'

A transfer student graduating with a 4.0 GPA, Wayne Stephenson will speak on behalf of his classmates at a May 9 reception in Thatcher, Arizona, honoring the second cohort of graduates from the ASU-Eastern Arizona College partnership.


Sarah MuenchOutstanding grad passionately contributes to global development

Sarah Muench hopes to make an impact on a global scale in development, through research, media or sports diplomacy. This spring she celebrates the completion of her second ASU degree and is being honored by the College of Letters and Sciences as its Outstanding Graduate Student.


Brian BurrowsLife sciences grad pursues neuroscience research, medical school

After moving from Utah to Phoenix to sell alarms door-to-door, Brian Burrows decided he was ready to make a change. At age 27, he applied to ASU to study animal physiology and behavior, as well as biochemistry.


Ashleigh GonzalesBlind STEM student helps others learn in 3-D

When Ashleigh Gonzales decided to study molecular bioscience and biotechnology, a highly visual major, some wondered if the blind woman had bitten off more than she could chew. Graduating with a master's degree, she has proved her doubters wrong.


Ryan MullerResearch opportunities shaped student's award-winning career at ASU

After four years of winning research and academic awards, Ryan Muller is graduating with his dream in sight – pursuing synthetic biology as a graduate student. Muller is finishing his time at ASU with a double major in molecular bioscience and biotechnology, and medicinal biochemistry.


Anika LarsonLife sciences graduate brings biology to an Arizona state prison

Anika Larson never knew she would spend time inside a state prison during her stellar career at Arizona State University. But teaching biology to maximum-security inmates in a prison classroom was something she just couldn’t pass up.


Abbey PellinoLiberal Arts and Sciences students honored with Dean's medals

ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences honors its 2015 Dean's medalists for going above and beyond when it comes to taking opportunities to further their education. These students take advanced courses, study abroad, participate in research – and do it exceptionally.


Stephanie WatneyASU grad's career in planning off to a running start

While working on her master's degree in urban and environmental planning program, Stephanie Watney carried out projects in both tribal and city planning, and began a position as a planner while finishing her last semester's coursework.


Cori HarttASU New College grad finds strength in 'ordinary magic'

Graduating with a 3.9 GPA and earning her bachelor’s in communication, Cori Hartt – also a student in Barrett, The Honors College – has battled through several health hardships in her life to become the graduate she is today.


Courtney CarterPublic service grads embrace a commitment to help others

Five students exemplify a commitment to public service and innovative thinking, finding solutions for the challenges in our community. They join more than 850 students graduating from the College of Public Service and Community Solutions this spring.


Omaya AhmadDoctoral grad fosters the sustainability movement

Omaya Ahmad, who is completing her doctorate in the School of Sustainability, has spent the past decade thriving in her academic career. Her dissertation research focuses on accessibility and movement as a medium of population well-being, specifically in the West Bank, Palestine.


Rachel ManakStudent proves devotion to teaching with research, engagement

Teachers College graduate Rachel Manak has proven her devotion to the teaching profession, specifically the area of teaching STEM subjects to English language learners, with an impressive portfolio of research projects and community engagement.

Lisa Robbins

editor/publisher, Media Relations and Strategic Communications