Fascination with disease leads to a career solving health challenges with data

April 25, 2019

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2019 commencement.

Growing up in Nairobi’s Kibera slums, Joan Kwamboka’s daily life was routinely interrupted by communicable disease outbreaks. Flare-ups of malaria — the disease that Kwamboka would eventually call her “favorite” — meant that she couldn’t travel to the countryside during holidays or take school trips that involved large bodies of water. joan kwamboka Joan Kwamboka Download Full Image

While many in her community reacted with fear of these periodic epidemics, Kwamboka was fascinated. “I wanted to know how these diseases operated, why they affected people differently, why certain regions were associated with particular diseases, and, most importantly, why I couldn’t travel like others,” she said.

Her interest only grew once she entered high school, and it continued after she came to ASU as an undergraduate on a full-ride MasterCard Foundation scholarship. She majored in biological sciences and started focusing on malaria. It was during an internship at the Kenya Medical Research Institute Centre for Global Health Research that she had one of the most significant "aha" moments of her career.

The researchers were using computational methods to make connections between malaria, Epstein-Barr virus and Burkitt’s lymphoma.

“It was the first time I realized that data could be used to solve mysteries surrounding diseases,” she said, and when she returned to ASU, she learned about the biomedical informatics program and decided to pursue her master’s degree at the College of Health Solutions.

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

Answer: I learned that you can and should combine different fields to solve problems, and that you should share your ideas and seek input from others. For instance, I minored in fine art history in my undergraduate program because of my interest in the visual representation of ideas. In my quest to learn and share information about diseases, I see how health practitioners use visual representation to design technology systems that can communicate complex ideas to those who have little understanding of them.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I initially chose ASU for my undergrad because of my fascination with the physical landscape and desert climate. I thought I would pursue a degree in physical geography and document the different diseases and cultures of the world. However, I came across biological sciences and the option to concentrate in genetics, cells and developmental biology which appealed to my goal of understanding and contributing to the discourse of diseases. When I looked at graduate schools and talked to professors about my interests, I knew ASU was the right choice still.

Q:  Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: My master’s adviser, Anita Murcko, taught me that being a leader and service provider is to listen, ask for constructive feedback and constantly improve based on the feedback. We have worked together for two years, introducing students to clinical informatics, and we give great importance to student feedback. The clinical informatics course was previously offered at the graduate level only, but we have refined it to a level that undergraduates can participate in because we take their feedback into consideration.

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

A: Broaden your horizons. Constantly look at the big picture and ask for help when necessary. If possible, identify a need and learn how you can contribute with your unique skill set.

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

A: During the day, I loved the third floor of Noble Library. It’s a quiet place with plenty of natural light, and the view outside is just gorgeous. In the early evening, my favorite spot was by the MU North Stage where the light changes to amazing shades, and there is always music playing in the background on weekdays. And Sparky’s Den was also a favorite. I loved that I could play a game or two in between classes with random students.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I’ll be working with data, designing informatics content for undergraduates and preparing for medical school. I want to use the informatics concepts I have learned in my program and integrate informatics with a clinical practice career.

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

A: I would fund research and projects to accelerate diagnosis for both common and rare diseases. It is complex and painful already that some people suffer more than others. Expediting their diagnoses is a worthy cause that will help patients’ care teams, save money and increase our understanding if there are multiple diseases involved.

Kelly Krause

Media and communications manager, College of Health Solutions

ASU grad’s campus composting program inspired future career in sustainability

April 25, 2019

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2019 commencement

Though she’s graduating in May with a degree in speech and hearing science, ASU senior Taylor Bakeman has been following a parallel passion in her time as a Sun Devil: sustainability. ASU spring 2019 graduate Taylor Bakeman Courtesy of Taylor Bakeman

The Chandler, Arizona, native started noticing sustainability issues on campus that she wanted to change — so she changed them. Most recently, the Vista del Sol community assistant launched Arizona State University's first-ever residential compost system in spring 2019. 

About a year ago, Bakeman, who has also been on the executive board of the ASU Young Democrats and served as an Undergraduate Student Government senator for the College of Health Solutions, was talking to residents after a meeting and lamenting that they couldn’t compost the food waste from their gathering and from their apartments.  

“To my surprise these other residents were like, ‘Yeah that would be so great. Why don’t we have that?’ And I was like, yeah why don’t we have that?” Bakeman said.

“So I decided to reach out to a few channels, like Zero Waste and Vista, and see what it would take to get this started. And ever since then I’ve been working on that, and now we started it,” Bakeman said.

The program launched in mid-March and allows Vista residents to check out one of 24 bins to collect food waste, after they’ve passed a quiz making sure they understand the rules of composting. Zero Waste services the bins and gets them to Republic Services to be composted.

Though Bakeman is graduating in a few short days, the program will carry on. She’s been involved in talks with Vista and Barrett, The Honors College, about expanding the program to other residential halls and to add more bin capacity at Vista.  

Bakeman spoke with ASU Now about what inspires her advocacy at ASU and what her plans are for after she graduates.

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

Answer: As it often happens, I’m not going into the field that I majored in. I’m going to be graduating from speech and hearing science, but I want to go into sustainability.

So I’d say that my big "aha" moments were coming to ASU and seeing the sustainable change that I could make and being more impacted by things like litter I see on the ground at ASU and wanting to make a change about that. Or seeing that there’s not an equitable distribution of water bottle refill stations and wanting more of those in areas that aren’t, say, in as heavily funded academic colleges.

So things like that and the compost program have been kind of my collective a-ha moments that have shown me that I really want to go into sustainability instead.

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

A: Myself and other students have a lot more power than we think we do. Just by seeing other people make change and by getting connected with the right people and being able to take some of these actions myself I’ve seen that we’re capable of making institutional and small-scale changes.

I felt empowered here both inside ASU and outside of ASU to make these changes and take actions on things I want to see changed in order to make sure that we’re making this world the best that we can.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I was really raised to be a Sun Devil. My dad moved here from out of state and has lived here ever since. He came to ASU, and so I grew up coming to the sporting events and driving through Tempe, and my dad would always be talking about these cool things he did at ASU and how awesome it would be to see me go to ASU.

I always had that in the back of my mind. … It really was the natural choice for me, and I really wanted to be able to carry on that legacy within my family.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: One of my most important lessons has come recently. I’ve just taken my first class this semester that is involved in design thinking. I actually have two professors, Matt Ransom and Megan Workmon, and they’ve taught me lessons in design thinking and how to serve others with the change that you want to make in a perspective that I never would have even thought of.

They’ve taught me how to step into other people’s shoes and think about how people would interact with these changes I want to make.

I’m very action oriented. I want to see change. But I often jump right into it. I’ve learned from these professors to take a step back and think about how exactly this change will pan out and how it will affect others.

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

A: Especially here at ASU, you should feel empowered to make change.

ASU especially wants to see students succeed. They want to see students make change and be inspired. So I think coming in and learning that lesson as soon as is comfortable for you, that ASU really wants that for you (is wise).

And if you take advantage of the channels that ASU opens for you you can make a world of difference.

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

A: My favorite spot on the ASU campus is by far the Secret Garden. It’s so beautiful, and it’s always nice and calm and secluded. It’s a great place to finish up that last-minute homework or just sit and relax or maybe meditate.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: For now my plans after graduation are just to travel. I’ve been applying for jobs and everything, so we’ll see what happens with that. I hope to pursue a career in sustainability. I’m not sure where that will take me yet, but I’m excited to travel and take it easy after school for a minute.

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

A: I would tackle the problem of plastic pollution. Plastic pollution is one of the biggest problems to me in sustainability. I’d love to be able to tackle it both systemically at the source but also help put programs in place that would help clean up the pollution that’s already there.

Hannah Moulton Belec

Digital marketing manager, Educational Outreach and Student Services