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School of Molecular Sciences grad uses PhD in chemical education to help future scientists

Ara Austin

Ara Austin is a clinical assistant professor and coordinator of online programs for the School of Molecular Sciences at Arizona State University.

April 20, 2018

Online education and distance learning are seeing dramatic growth and play an increasingly important role at Arizona State University and in the education activities of the School of Molecular Sciences. Online education programs allow much broader access to higher education, and they help to open the door to a more diverse and equal-opportunity education system. 

In fall 2017, the School of Molecular Sciences launched the very first fully online degree program in biochemistry from an accredited institution in the U.S. SMS’ online degree program takes a big step in leveling the playing field for nontraditional students interested in pursuing a wide range of careers in science and health. Biochemistry is the only online degree program in the sciences offered at ASU that includes hands-on laboratory experience, ensuring the program's credibility and competitiveness.

This spring, the SMS online degree program team welcomed a new member, chemical education specialist Ara Austin. Although this is her first semester with SMS as clinical assistant professor and coordinator of online programs, Austin is a familiar face in the school, having completed both her BS in biochemistry with minors in communications studies and psychology and, more recently, her PhD in chemical education at ASU. 

Originally from Seoul, South Korea, Austin was just one month into her freshman year at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln when she was involved in a serious automobile accident. She had a near-death experience when her vehicle flipped three times; doctors told Austin she might never walk again, having broken her back and both her legs in the accident. Because of her extensive injuries, including memory loss, Austin took some time off from school and returned to South Korea. After her recovery, the desire for a fresh start to her academic career brought her to ASU, where she has remained ever since.   

“ASU is different because it gave me so much academic freedom," Austin said. "As an undergraduate, no one deterred me from getting two minors or pursuing research. As long as a student stays proactive about his or her goals, many people here will provide encouragement. The freedom given to me to explore different avenues and opportunities is why I ended up staying at ASU for so long.” 

Austin decided that she wanted to study chemical education early in her student career, when she spent a semester as an undergraduate teaching assistant for a general chemistry course at SMS. Initially, her goal had been to go to medical school, and she was already far along in her application process.

“It really came down to what I enjoy doing," she said. "And what I really enjoyed doing was being in the classroom, working with students, and helping them achieve their goals and discover what they’re really good at. If I become a doctor, I’m just a doctor, but if I become an educator, I have the potential to help hundreds of students become doctors or professors or researchers.” 

At that time, ASU did not have a faculty member whose research was dedicated solely to chemical education. However, Austin persuaded her organic chemistry professor and eventual doctoral adviser Ian Gould that they had similar interests in education research, and together they initiated a program aimed at understanding the social and cultural factors that contribute to student learning.

“I was less interested in cognitive thinking and more interested in who the students are, how who they are affects their outcome in STEM courses, and in the end, why students choose to stay in science specifically," Austin said. "When I first decided to do this kind of research, there was a lot of pushback, because although affect is recognized as an important emerging area in education research, such studies are very new in a so-called 'hard science' or lab science context. In my work, I sought out education and sociology experts to help with my research about self-efficacy, human capital and gender differences in organic chemistry, which made my research truly interdisciplinary.” 

As in more conventional science research, exploration of new areas can lead to researchers fielding questions about how their work is relevant.

“As scientists, we are always thinking about how we are going to progress as researchers," Austin said. "Someone has to come and be the pioneer and do this kind of interdisciplinary research for us to find new ways to help students be successful. If we only work within the already existing traditional disciplines, we are not going to change, and if we want to create change, we have to be different.” 

Austin’s research adviser Gould agrees.

“Ara has become an expert in socio-cultural contributions to student learning and success," he said. "This is an emerging area in learning sciences at the college level that looks beyond just what happens in the brain, and recognizes the critical role that social and cultural factors play in determining student outcomes, and that learning only has meaning in a social context. Ara has helped to describe some of the important sociocultural factors that contribute to learning in large organic chemistry classes and has discovered and defined a new form of capital for college-level science.”

Austin said that people are starting to recognize that chemical education issues extend beyond simple problem-solving. There is more awareness in the community as well as in scholarship on chemical education about noncognitive factors. As the School of Molecular Sciences grows in new directions, exemplified by the new online degree program, Austin feels it is more important than ever to understand the new members of the SMS student population, who they are, what their social and cultural backgrounds are, what their goals are, and how to help them achieve those goals. She stated, “When we know how and what our students do, it gives us more power as educators to guide different curriculum development and intervention strategies to help our students find success.” 

As clinical assistant professor and coordinator of online programs for SMS, Austin is focused on ensuring the success of SMS’ first cohort of fully online biochemistry students. The online degree allows students who might not have been able to complete an on-campus degree, such as those with full-time jobs or young children, access to a degree program. 

“When we look at the demographics of students we are reaching with this program, the numbers are quite interesting,” she said. “In our on-campus programs, we have always had issues in retaining students from underrepresented populations. The demographics of our online program show that we are getting these students to come to class and that they are doing well. Students in our online program are positive about the experience, saying that they love the convenience of this style of learning and that ASU Online is giving them a second chance at a university education. Based on my own experiences, I always wished that someone would have given me a break when I was having a hard time with school. I am finding a lot of fulfillment in giving my students the opportunities that I didn’t have when I was a student myself.” 

The School of Molecular Sciences recognizes that providing students with convenience, opportunity and accessibility is the future of university education. The school’s online biochemistry degree program is different from other online programs because it gives students hands-on experience through accelerated organic chemistry and biochemistry labs, completed in-person over the summer. Not only that, online students are also given unique research experience via computational chemistry, which adds to the set of tools they need to succeed in future scientific careers.

Learn more about the School of Molecular Sciences, ASU Online, or the online biochemistry degree program

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