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Biology and society graduate earns PhD, heads to Stanford Law School

Alexis Abboud, PhD in biology and society

Alexis Abboud, an Arizona native, is graduating with her doctorate in biology and society from the ASU School of Life Sciences.

April 29, 2018

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

Alexis Abboud knew from a young age that she wanted to study law. What she didn’t know was that her path to law school would take her through a series of unexpected personal discoveries.

An eighth-grade science class sparked her interest in biology. Soon after, she thought becoming a geneticist or a neonatal surgeon would be exciting. But when she remembered she doesn’t do well with blood, she thought being a bioethicist would be a good career. She even studied it during her undergraduate degree at ASU but decided she did not like the lack of finality associated with ethics.

She finally turned her focus back to law and found a great blend of policy and science in the School of Life Sciences. Abboud, a native of Scottsdale, Arizona, is graduating with her doctorate in biology and society.

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

Answer: I’m not sure I had one “aha” moment. Or, really what I would call my field. I suppose it makes the most sense to call it science policy and law with a strong leaning toward history. I have always really enjoyed crafting arguments. Not in the clichéd “lawyers all like to argue everything to death at the dinner table” way, but more in the actual pieces of a rhetorical argument that need to come together for it to work — what evidence is needed, how to phrase things appropriately, laying all the stepping stones that lead to the argument’s conclusion.

Science policy brought me back to law while keeping me involved in biology and science. I suppose my realization about my career path was really a series of realizations that continued to refine my path or redirect it slightly, as I experienced things I did and did not like about what I studied. 

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

A: I’m not sure this is something I could have only learned at ASU, but I do feel like I’ve learned that not everyone is looking out for your best interests. I’ve had really great experiences with very supportive people at ASU, and I’ve had the opposite. I think I came in perhaps wanting to believe the best of everyone, and I’ve learned that that’s not always realistic. It’s a bit sad because it’s made me a lot more cautious, but I think probably better in the long run?

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: A big part of why I chose ASU was because it was in Arizona and going to school here meant I could stay close to my family. I’m very close to my sisters and my parents, and staying at ASU meant I could continue to be in their lives and they could continue to be in mine. That really kept me grounded throughout college.

I also chose ASU because it was one of the few schools that allowed me to count all my AP tests toward college credits. I came in with a full two years of credit, which seriously cut down on the time it took me to earn my undergraduate degree. As someone pursuing not one but two graduate degrees (PhD and a JD), that saved two years really made a difference for when I will finish school. 

It was also affordable. I will finish my undergraduate and PhD with no student debt. That gave me a lot more freedom in choosing where to pursue my terminating degree and will hopefully put me in a better place financially when I finish my JD.

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

A: College can feel really isolating, especially at a big school like ASU. I often found myself experiencing emotions and thoughts that I never had before, like worrying that people would think I was a fraud. I think the tendency is to think that you’re the only one going through those emotions, or worrying about those things. But you’re not. And taking the time to talk to someone else on campus — a friend, an adviser, even that random person you sit next to in genetics — can help reinforce that you’re not the only one and make things feel less huge in your own mind.

When I first started graduate school, I think one of the things that made it better was talking to other graduate students and realizing that most of us are worried that we’re not smart enough, or articulate enough, or deserving of a PhD.

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

A: I like Starbucks in the MU if I’m working on my computer and just want to be somewhere with some activity. I feel very college-y when I’m there. If I’m meeting with someone, I tend to meet at the tables outside Hayden Library. It’s a bit quieter.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I start Stanford Law School in the fall. I plan to get my JD and go into biotech intellectual property law, with the caveat that I’ve never done that before and it could be a terrible fit. But I definitely want to practice law. I’ve wanted to be a lawyer for far longer than I’ve wanted to be a PhD.

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

A: The problem that I feel most passionate about is education, especially of young girls and women. I was lucky enough to go to a series of good schools when I was younger, and being pushed academically and surrounded by other people engaged in learning shaped my life. It’s part of why I am where I am. I don’t think the U.S. spends enough money on education, especially K-6 education. I would use the money to sponsor academically rigorous schools in lower-income areas, ensuring that the students had access to great teachers and learning opportunities, but also to good meals, and before- and after-school care where needed.

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: Scot Schoenborn in the SOLS advising office was so supportive during my undergraduate and as I shifted into the graduate program. I met him at orientation when I came to sign up for classes. I had no idea what I was doing. I had come in with two years’ worth of credit and so none of the classes, documents, talks applied to me. Scot stayed with me well after everyone else left to work through what classes I should be taking and how to get everything organized. It was my first interaction with someone at ASU, and it was amazing. I really count Scot as one of my biggest supporters at ASU.

My mom and my sister (Carolina Abboud) are the two people who I rely on most in the world, and without them, my time at ASU would have gone very differently. My mom spent more hours than I can count talking to me about what I was doing in my classes, how my relationships with other people were, what I wanted to change about my life. I always knew I could talk to her about anything, good or bad, and it relieved a lot of stress. She also made sure that I never lost touch with the things that really matter to me — my family, my own mental and physical health, my long-term plans — and not get caught up in the little dramas and distractions. My sister did much the same while also keeping me laughing through even the really hard moments.

Q: Looking back, is there anything you would go back and change?

A: When I started grad school, I was pretty focused on classwork and figuring out grad school. And while I think it was important to do that for the first semester, I wish I would have broken out of my SOLS shell a bit more after that first semester. I’d like to have been more involved on campus more broadly, in things like GPSA. I really only took part in those groups in the last year, and they have been some of my best experiences at ASU. It would have been nice to be a part of them for longer. 

Q: What did ASU provide to you that you think you could not have found anywhere else?

A: ASU is a massive school. The number of people you come in to contact with, who you have to work with, is so much higher than any other college I’ve visited. I think going to ASU ensured that I will never be worried about going into a big place and making a place for myself.

I have had the opportunity to work with a lot of different people — different expertise, different personalities, different worldviews — and figure out how to manage those relationships. I’ve had to set myself apart as an individual from a very large student body. I’ve had to speak in front of crowds, teaching large classes, direct large crowds. It makes me feel a lot more confident going forward in navigating the world.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: I’ve really loved my time here at ASU. I’ve meant some amazing people, I’ve really grown as a person, and I’m sad to be leaving. After an undergrad and grad degree here, it feels almost wrong to go to another school. But I know that ASU and everyone I’ve worked with here have set me up for success going forward, and I’m so grateful for that. Forks up forever.

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