Math triple major strives to improve health care

May 3, 2018

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

Zhihan Jennifer Zhang’s grandparents were schoolteachers who taught her math at a very young age. She has always liked math, but did not see herself majoring in math. She also liked history, reading, and English. In high school, she was on the debate team and that grew her interest in social problems. Graduating Arizona State University mathematics student Zhihan Jennifer Zhang accepts the 2018 Charles Wexler Mathematics Prize from Matt Hassett. Download Full Image

Some of her earliest memories growing up were about the recession and its generational impacts. She spent a lot of time thinking about that, and when she entered ASU, she started out as an economics major.

Like many students, Zhang changed her major several times. After economics, she felt she needed to switch to a STEM major, so she tried mechanical engineering. Not satisfied with that, she changed to business global politics. Then she thought about what would most benefit her in future employment, so she added business law with the idea of possibly attending law school.

But she missed taking math classes and started taking a few, including applied linear algebra and mathematical structures. She randomly took ACT 201, Introduction to Actuarial Science, along with financial mathematics. Over that summer she took, and passed, the FM exam — the first in a series of professional exams needed to become credentialed as an actuary. After that she added actuarial science as a major. 

Zhang likes that actuarial science combines many of her interests. “It’s definitely math based, but it also includes economics and thinking about economics theory, finance, some knowledge about insurance, and statistics,” she explained.

With all the issues happening while Zhang’s generation was growing up, such as 9/11, the recession, climate change, the Affordable Care Act, and many major social issues, she thinks people her age will be the impetus for change.

For her part, she is interested in making health care accessible and affordable.

“Health care is not just a biological thing, it is also a social thing,” said Zhang. “We are trying to make the community better for everyone.”

After graduation, she will take a job in government health care consulting at Mercer. She will work with the team that helps the New Jersey state government set Medicaid rates.

Zhang is interested in potentially working in health policy in the future.

“Health care policy affects so many people, and yet it feels so misunderstood,” she said. “How do you form good health policy? There are the policy level questions, but the there are also the implementation level questions, the issue of pharmaceutical drugs becoming increasingly more expensive, there is more medical technology being introduced, and the fact that people are living longer — all of these are factors in play. It is the kind of interdisciplinary problem that I like thinking about.”

Zhang was awarded the 2018 Charles Wexler Mathematics Prize for outstanding achievement in undergraduate mathematics in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences.

The triple major in actuarial science, business global politics and business law chatted with us about her ASU journey.

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

Answer: I've always enjoyed studying math, but I didn't have the "aha" moment until I took ACT 201. I discovered then that math could intersect with so many social sciences fields to solve real-world problems — it was really enlightening to me that something as simple as a geometric series could explain how a home loan works, for example.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: Many reasons! These include:

  • I didn't have a very clear idea of what to study even after graduating from high school, and I thought that the environment at ASU would be flexible enough to allow me to pursue many different fields of study
  • My family lives in Phoenix, and studying at ASU allows me to be closer to home
  • And, of course, the practical — studying in-state is less costly than traveling out of state

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

A: I think the greatest learning experience was learning how to get along with people I might clash with, personality-wise. This is something that I've studied in theoretical ways in communications classes, but it really manifested in working on various group projects. I learned a lot about how to get along with different types of people and how to talk to people with different interests and motivations, and I think that's a skill that I'll be able to draw upon no matter where I end up.

Q: Were there any faculty that had a strong influence in your college mathematics journey at ASU? 

A: The actuarial science faculty have obviously had a strong influence on me — Dr. Jelena Milovanovic, of course, has mentored me through my journey in the major and in job-searching, but Dr. Hassett and Dr. Zicarelli have also given me much advice and guidance. Dr. Brian, who organizes Ethics Bowl, has also had a strong influence on me because she has taught me how to think about complicated issues in new ways and how to present them to an audience.

Q: What do you think is most misunderstood about math by the general public?

A: I think that most people think about math the way that high school classes perhaps teach math: they think that the point of a math problem is to compute a solution based on some rules/norms that are well-established and immutable. Mathematics involves more than just computation — true knowledge of math demands an understanding of why a particular computation or proof reaches the conclusion it does.

Q: What is the best piece of advice you would give to those still in school?

A: Branch out — take classes/join clubs not in your major! Some of the best experiences I've had were in classes that aren't part of my major map. ASU offers so many different classes in so many subjects, and some of them can be surprisingly interesting to you. I think it's always helpful to get a well-rounded education, even if that means taking just a few classes that seem random at the time.

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

A: I like studying in Noble library or the breezeway in Wexler Hall. I also like sitting in McCord Hall. The new law school building downtown is great to study/people-watch in too!

Q: What do you like to do in your spare time for fun?

A: I like to read, though occasionally my hobby-reading invariably ends up related to something I'm studying. I read a lot of fantasy/sci-fi as well as some post-modernist philosophy, so this is not terribly surprising. I also like papercrafting (modular origami to be specific), as well as crocheting.

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

A: Education. I think a more-educated population across the globe would result in more people who are able to tackle other global challenges like political/environmental/global health issues.

Rhonda Olson

Manager of Marketing and Communication, School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences


Top ASU Law graduates share knowledge as they start postgraduate journey

May 3, 2018

Graduating from law school is a major accomplishment — especially at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, a top 10 public law school that ranks among the best in the country in high-quality job placement and bar-passage measurements.

“Law school is competitive,” said Lucy Tournas, a member of ASU Law’s 2018 graduating class. “We’re ranked against one another. That first week, I realized everyone there is a straight-A student. Everyone there is very bright.” ASU Law Class of 2018 ASU Law Class of 2018 Download Full Image

Completing the three-year odyssey and securing a Juris Doctor degree requires long nights of studying, at the library, at the café, or a quiet room at home. Students describe moments of self-doubt. There are times when the reading requirements seem overwhelming, the assignments too complex. But in the end, for ASU Law’s graduates, it’s a feeling of fulfillment, that it was all worthwhile.

Four of ASU Law’s top graduates from the Class of 2018 discuss the journey: what brought them here, what the experience was like and what their future holds. They are a reflection of the school’s diversity, coming from all corners of the country — from Massachusetts in the east to California in the west, Texas in the south, and right here in Phoenix — with varied backgrounds, goals and challenges.

John S. Armstrong Award: Tyler Carlton and Lukas Landolt

Tyler Carlton

Tyler Carlton and Lukas Landolt are the winners of the John S. Armstrong Award, which honors academic performance and contributions to ASU Law.

Carlton came to Phoenix from his hometown of Stoughton, Massachusetts, by way of Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, where he was a history major. He had considered either teaching history or going to law school, and when he got to experience mock trials as an undergrad, the thrill of the courtroom setting made the choice clear.

He expected law school to be a difficult, so he was surprised by how much he enjoyed the experience. And winning the Armstrong Award was a huge surprise.

“It is a great honor, and really the culmination of a great experience in law school,” he said. “I tried my best in law school, and I am glad it worked out well.”

Lukas Landolt

Landolt, who is from San Antonio, took an indirect route to law school. After graduating from Texas A&M in 2006, he joined the military, where a career in human intelligence took him to stations throughout the world, including South Korea and Afghanistan. He took time off upon his return to the United States, visiting more than 20 countries and all seven continents. During his travels, he took a liking to Phoenix, and on a return trip, fell in love with ASU Law’s new downtown home, the Beus Center for Law and Society.

It turned out to be the perfect fit.

“My time at ASU Law has been one of the greatest experiences of my life,” he said. “The school did not disappoint, delivering all the challenges I was expecting. Those challenges helped me to grow both mentally and emotionally. More importantly, I have met so many wonderful people, and I know the relationships I built here will carry on with me throughout my legal career.”

And he says capping his ASU Law career with the Armstrong Award is a tremendous honor.

“I am profoundly grateful to the faculty at the law school who selected me as a recipient of this award. As an award that celebrates both academic achievements and contributions to the school, and the personal commitments those entail, the Armstrong Award feels like the grand prize for accomplishing the Legal Labours of Hercules.”

The Strouse Prize: Lucy Tournas

Lucy Tournas

Lucy Tournas is the winner of the Strouse Prize, given to the graduate whose academic strengths, contributions to the Center for Law, Science and Innovation, and personal qualities most closely mirror those of beloved late faculty member Dan Strouse.

From Pasadena, California, she was considering either pursuing a doctorate or going to law school after graduating from Pepperdine as a philosophy major with a focus on bioethics. But family came first.

“My husband was starting a medical residency and we were broke, so I got a job,” she said. “I worked in business for a few years, and then we had a daughter very, very early, and she went through a lot of complications. Then we had a son. During that time it kind of regrounded me, in terms of what I wanted to do.”

Her passion was health technology, so when her husband’s medical career took the family to Arizona, she looked into ASU Law. The Center for Law, Science and Innovation was exactly what she was seeking.

“So I applied, and the rest is kind of history,” she said. “I fell in love with the program, and I couldn’t be happier with the choice that I made.”

Going to law school while raising two young children was not easy.

“I just have less time than everyone else,” she said. “There’s just no way around it. I can’t sit in a library for 10 hours. I have to go home and be Mom and go back to hitting the books once they’re in bed. So there were plenty of times where I just felt, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t keep up.’ Especially during finals when you’re already exhausted, and you feel like you’re failing at everything. But I also think that on the flip side, having children kind of gave my work meaning, and then going home, I feel like you’re kind of a more well-rounded person for that.”

That added challenge of balancing law school with family life made the Strouse Prize all the more special.

“You know, it’s particularly meaningful coming back to school, because I’m a little bit older than everyone else, and it’s been kind of a journey,” she said. “Like I said, I have two small kids and a pretty busy life. There were the late nights when I had to get a sitter so I could study, and I didn’t see my kids. This made it all worthwhile.”

The Mary M. Schroeder Public Interest Prize: Amanda Glass

Amanda Glass

Amanda Glass is the winner of the Mary M. Schroeder Public Interest Prize, which is presented to a student who has committed to practice in public-interest law upon admission to the bar.

A Phoenix native, Glass is a double Sun Devil, having completed her undergraduate work at ASU, where she majored in global studies and Spanish linguistics. She then taught special education in Los Angeles through Teach for America, where she grew frustrated over legal complexities that she said led to system failures, adversely affecting the most vulnerable students. That led her to law school.

“It became my hope that through my legal education I would be able to work with schools and families to ensure all students receive access to high-quality education that meets their needs,” she said.

She chose ASU Law because she wants to practice in Arizona, and she wanted to become familiar with the state of education and disability rights in the state.

“ASU Law also demonstrated that it values public interest experience by offering me a scholarship that will enable me to pursue the type of work I am passionate about without needing to worry about earning a salary that will allow me to repay student loans,” she said.

And she is especially honored to be receiving the Schroeder Award, which so closely aligns with her ideals.

“The award serves as an important recognition of the value of public interest law and encourages law students to remain committed to their ideals throughout and beyond law school,” she said. “It is a reminder that there are ways of using a law degree other than pursuing a career at a big firm or in corporate law, and that the law can be used to advance social justice goals.”

Embarking on their careers

Career opportunities abound for award-winning graduates from ASU Law. Some know exactly what they want to do. Others plan on exploring their possibilities.

Carlton isn’t exactly sure where his career will take him, but he is most interested in litigation.

“I go back and forth between trial litigation and appellate,” he said. “I also go back and forth between public- and private-sector work. So, as of now, I am undecided. But, I am clerking for Justice Bolick at the Arizona Supreme Court and hope to go on to do a few more years of clerking in the federal courts.”

Landolt has similar interests, focusing on civil litigation.

“After graduation, I will spend a year clerking for Justice John Lopez at the Arizona Supreme Court,” he said. “I will then join the commercial litigation practice group at Quarles & Brady LLP here in Phoenix.”

Tournas will remain at ASU, working with Professor Diana Bowman, who just won a prestigious Carnegie Fellowship to carry out a groundbreaking study on the ethical and legal issues presented by a new type of reproductive technology called mitochondrial donation, which results in “three-parent families,” as the baby contains DNA from three individuals.

“I’ll be working on mitochondrial donation research with her,” Tournas said. “And we have a gene-doping grant for the summer that will be on gene editing for sports enhancement. So it’s a lot of really cool stuff. And she’s giving me the opportunity to work on global issues, because that’s her area of expertise. I’m ecstatic and honored to be a part of it.”

Glass will continue to focus on disability law, hoping to advocate for the educational rights of children with disabilities, like the students she taught in Los Angeles. After graduation, she will be completing an Equal Justice Works fellowship with the Arizona Center for Disability Law.

“With support from my sponsor, Greenberg Traurig, LLC, and my host organization, the Arizona Center for Disability Law, I will devote the next two years to improving access to special education and mental health services for children in Arizona’s child welfare system,” she said. “After the completion of my fellowship project in 2020, I hope to continue serving children with disabilities in Arizona through nonprofit or government legal work.”

Sage advice for new law students

Who better to advise new law school students than some of the most successful members of the current graduating class?

When asked what they would say if they could go back now and give advice to themselves upon entering law school, the common theme was to worry less and enjoy themselves more.

In fact, Carlton’s message would be remarkably simple: “Chill out.”

Landolt echoed those sentiments.

“Stress less and have more fun!” he said. “I traveled quite a bit during the last year and a half of law school, but, looking back, I recognize that I missed many other opportunities to enjoy my time during my first two years because I was too worried about getting everything right. I would still work just as hard, but I would take advantage of every opportunity to enjoy life.”

Glass advises an expansive approach to get the most out of law school.

“I would advise myself to take advantage of all the practical and experiential opportunities available in law school, and not to limit myself to one narrow focus,” she said. “I tailored my law school experience to advance my goal of working in disability law, and although I was lucky enough that ultimately worked out, I would have been wiser to diversify my skill set by pursuing more varied classes and experiences.”

She also suggests getting the most out of ASU Law’s esteemed faculty, by taking advantage of professors’ office hours from day one.

“Not only does this help with understanding the content of a particular class, but it allows students to form working relationships with professors, which can lead to career advice, potential research or teaching assistant positions, and letters of recommendation. Furthermore, all of the professors I have had at ASU Law have been incredibly kind and generous with their time, and all are interested in helping students succeed.”

And no matter what an individual’s personal circumstances may be, there’s no need to be fearful upon entering law school.

“This sounds trite, but I think I’d say that it’s going to be OK,” Tournas said. “I think in the beginning, especially coming back and being a little older and with kids, I think you put so much pressure on yourself to be the best. And I think everybody does that entering law school. And I think once you find your path, it’s amazing how much opportunity there is coming out of ASU. So I think I would just tell myself to relax and make sure I’m enjoying it.”