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ASU graduating senior exemplifies transdisciplinary research

Kate Spencer is leaving her mark on the biochemistry world — thanks to picking field through happy accident

portrait of ASU student in lab
December 05, 2016

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

“Transdisciplinary” means applying one field of knowledge to another. It’s a hallmark of Arizona State University. Sometimes it’s on purpose: “What if we applied economic theory to avian social behavior?”

Sometimes it’s by accident with a happy result, like the microwave and x-rays.

That would describe the experience of graduating senior Kate Spencer, a Tempe resident graduating with a major in biochemistry from the School of Molecular Sciences and a minor in anthropology from the School of Human Evolution and Social Change. Her field was chosen through happenstance (see first question in Q&A below).

Kelly Knudson, associate director of the SHESC and director of the Archaeological Chemistry Laboratory, discussed Spencer’s work in the lab applying biogeochemistry to anthropological research questions.

“Kate Spencer exemplifies ASU’s commitment to transdisciplinary research,” Knudson said. “Through her senior honor’s thesis research in the Archaeological Chemistry Laboratory, she combined both archaeology and biogeochemistry to better understand how the environment, particularly altitude, affects different isotope systems. The ACL and SHESC have a long commitment to undergraduate research, and it is so fulfilling to be able to work with amazing undergraduates like Kate.”

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

Answer: When I chose it, I couldn’t decide between biology and chemistry, so I just picked biochemistry. I realized it was its own subject, but then I just kind of stuck with it.

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 medical anthropology class in SHESC. It was online. We learned about how different societies and countries view medicine. We had to read a book about a family living in American who had come from Taiwan or something like that. Their daughter had seizures. Of course the American doctors know the science behind epilepsy, but (the parents) didn’t believe any of that. They thought it was her spirit leaving her body. It was really interesting to see how other people can think of things like that, especially with me wanting to be a doctor. That was definitely an eye-opener.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: In-state tuition. Am I allowed to say that? I wanted to pick something cheap because I knew I wanted to go out of state to med school later.

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

A: Stay focused. That’s something I was good at it, but I definitely see other people struggling to stay focused on their studies. Why blow it now?

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

A: The Secret Garden.* My parents used to teach here, so I’d sometimes come with them and watch them teach, but we’d always go there on the way out. So, I’ve been going there since I was little.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I’m planning on going to med school. I don’t know (what kind of doctor I want to be). For now, I work in the emergency department at Chandler Regional and Mercy Gilbert as a scribe, so I’ll keep working. I follow doctors around and do all the charting information, so they can focus on the patient. Next summer I’ll start applying to med school. That’s like a year-long application process. That’s the plan.

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

A: Forty million dollars probably isn’t that much to deal with any problem. Maybe providing vaccinations to Third World countries. Often they have the drugs, but because Third World countries don’t have electricity, they can’t store them. These things have to be refrigerated, so a lot of times the vaccines go to waste because they expire in the heat before they can be used. That would be interesting to work on.

*If you don’t know where the Secret Garden is, you’re not a Devil yet. Ask around.

Top photo: Kate Spencer poses in an anthropological chemistry lab, on Nov. 30, where she completed her Barrett thesis. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

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