‘Winning the game’: ASU language grad confronts challenges with creativity

April 25, 2019

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

Mary “Katie” Kennedy is a model of undergraduate achievement. The Arizona State University student is finishing two Bachelor of Arts degrees this spring, in English (linguistics) and Asian languages (Chinese), and will begin a master’s degree program in linguistics and applied linguistics at ASU this fall. Graduating ASU student Katie Kennedy / Courtesy photo Katie Kennedy found a unique way of working through challenges: "In video games, the game only gets harder when you defeat each level," she said. "So if my life was getting harder, it was because I was winning the game so far, leveling up and gaining new skills and strengths with each success." Download Full Image

Kennedy’s career prospects are good since, according to LinkedIn research, employers are increasingly seeking workers like her. Companies want employees who demonstrate intellectual flexibility and the ability to think creatively. These are precisely the skills most often taught and cultivated in the humanities.

To illustrate: Kennedy has succeeded in applying research and knowledge learned in one concentration to another. She completed an incredibly specialized Barrett, The Honors College thesis on Chinese linguistics and presented her findings, “To or Be or Not to Be: The Role of Syntactical Movement in Distinguishing Chinese Prepositions and Verbs,” in a poster session on April 19.

Kennedy is quick to attribute her success to mentorship by several people: foremost, her mother. Another transformational adviser was Regents’ Professor of English in linguistics and applied linguistics Elly van Gelderen.

The feeling is mutual; van Gelderen said that Kennedy is “an amazing undergraduate” and that her honors thesis offered an excellent analysis of its subject, helping “bring deeper insight to the faculty of language.

“Katie combines an enthusiasm for the Chinese language and the complexities of its many function words with a genuine understanding of how to approach (Chinese) word order in a formal way,” van Gelderen said.

We chatted with Kennedy to find out more about her interests, her career plans, and her unique take on facing challenges (hint: it involves video games).

Katie Kennedy explains her linguistics thesis to a poster session visitor. / Photo by Elly van Gelderen

Katie Kennedy explains her undergraduate honors thesis to a poster session visitor in April. Photo by Elly van Gelderen

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

Answer: When I first started touring colleges, I was terrified because I didn't have a clue what to study because I had no idea what I wanted to do after graduation. It was my mom who then asked me one of the most important questions I've ever gotten: What do I like? Not what do I want to do, but what do I like. While the question "What do you want to do as a job" drew a big fat blank, answering "What do I like" was easier than breathing: I loved my English classes, particularly our sentence diagramming unit; I loved my Chinese classes, particularly seeing how Chinese and English were similar and how they were different. And Mom then provided me my aha moment. She told me there was actually a field of study for those interests: linguistics. If I hadn't had this conversation, I would have never known that I could dedicate my studies to understanding how languages were built, how sentences were constructed and why languages shared some features but differed in others. Without my mom and without that conversation, I wouldn't be here, about to graduate in linguistics and Chinese.

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

A: At some point in each semester of college, I've found myself thinking, "This is the hardest semester I've ever had." Whether it was classes, jobs, applications, responsibilities or usually a combination of all four, there always came a point where I had the realization that I'd never had more challenges than I did at that point. And it wasn't until sometime in my junior year that the bi-annual realization was followed by an epiphany: My life was like those video games my brother loved to play. In video games, the game only gets harder when you defeat each level, so if my life was getting harder, it was because I was winning the game so far, leveling up and gaining new skills and strengths with each success. There are still times when I feel that things had never been harder and times when I doubt that I'll be able to finish what I started, but I've had these fears before, and I am who I am now because I was stronger than I ever gave myself credit for.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: Barrett was a big draw for me. When I was first deciding on universities, the idea of attending a school of 80,000 students was incredibly intimidating; but with Barrett added to the mix, the size of ASU became a benefit. Barrett allowed me to have all the benefits, advantages and adventures of a big college while providing me a smaller, more close-knit college I could come back to at the end of the day. Because of the sheer size of ASU, I've found such a huge variety of opportunities, friends and faculty, but I've also had the cozy comfort of Barrett serving as my home base that I can come back to when a campus of thousands of students becomes a bit overwhelming.

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

A: Elly van Gelderen has been one of the most influential teachers I've ever had. Her assignments have encouraged an independence and initiative beyond the classroom; in my first class with her, I had to research the typology of Welsh and teach myself the syntactic structure of this language I knew nothing about. I practically had a conspiracy-board built trying to compile the syntax from about 13 different sources. Her encouragement, enthusiasm and advice always helped spur me on when I got stuck. She taught me that challenges are opportunities, not problems, and that when you truly love a subject, difficulties aren't something to be dreaded because they provide new perspectives and insights. I loved syntax before my classes with Elly, but she helped me grow that love into a passion and has been an invaluable mentor to me throughout my linguistic course.

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

A: Be kind to yourself and don't be afraid of changing. You'll face a lot of challenges in school, both academic and beyond, and the last thing you need, but likely the first thing you'll do, is become your own worst enemy. You've accomplished so much already to get where you are, and there will be a point in time when you hit a wall you just can't seem to scale. At that point, don't be afraid to change course even just a little; plans change, and that's not always a bad thing. Sometimes, it's worse trying to ram yourself through a brick wall because you said you'd take this path; sometimes, it's better to find a new way, even if it means creating an entirely new path yourself.

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

A: On a nice day, the garden to the side of the Virginia G. Piper Writers' House is the best place to sit down and read a good book, especially in spring when the flowers start to bloom.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: After graduation, I will be returning to ASU in the fall to continue my studies with an MA in linguistics. My Barrett thesis used linguistics and syntax to distinguish and identify the matter of prepositions in Chinese, and I look forward to continuing my studies in linguistics and studying the syntax of Chinese.

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

A: I feel climate change is one of the greatest problems our generation and future generation is facing. If I had $40 million, I would put it towards research into renewable energy sources; if the cost can be lowered and the efficiency raised, I think we will better be able to implement renewable energies throughout the country.

Kristen LaRue-Sandler

Manager, marketing + communications, Department of English


image title

The future of health to have new home

April 25, 2019

ASU and Mayo Clinic partnership yields new collaborative facility for students, entrepreneurs and biomedical professionals

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. Read more top stories from 2019.

A giant, grinning inflatable Sparky marked the spot Thursday morning on a soon-to-be-bustling-with-construction dirt lot where Arizona State University and Mayo Clinic broke ground on the new Health Futures Center, a 150,000-square-foot building that will feature a MedTech Accelerator, biomedical engineering and informatics research labs, nursing programs and an innovative education zone.

Several present at the event remarked that the move was a long time coming in the university and Mayo Clinic’s 16-plus-year relationship.

ASU President Michael Crow addressed a crowd that included city officials and university leadership, saying the new facility, just steps away from Mayo Clinic’s north Phoenix campus, is like “a 150,000-square-foot flag” announcing the institutions’ shared vision to accomplish three things:

• Reinforce the notion that a university is an institution capable of assembling expertise and knowledge-creation assets in many places where they can make the greatest impact.

• Further foster a relationship between ASU and Mayo Clinic that leads to better solutions, outcomes and learning environments through intensified research, clinical expansion and development of innovative clinical approaches to medicine and health care.

• Serve as a catalyst for a concentration of new-age thinkers and new types of institutions thinking about health futures. 

“We think that the two of us together can be the corpus or the center or the anchor of what could evolve to be something that hasn't yet developed in this country and hasn't yet developed anywhere in the world, and that is the broadest focused health futures place,” Crow said.

ASU and Mayo Clinic formalized their relationship in 2016 with the announcement of the Mayo Clinic and Arizona State University Alliance for Health Care. Over the years, the nation’s most innovative university and the world leader in patient care and research have partnered on programs that range from nursing to medical imaging to regenerative and rehabilitative medicine to wearable biosensors.

"This will be a hub of life science innovation that will not only benefit ASU students and researchers but truly the patients of the future."
—President and CEO of Mayo Clinic Gianrico Farrugia

They have also worked together on dual degree programs, a nursing education program, research projects, more than 80 joint faculty appointments and numerous joint intellectual property disclosures.

The new facility, scheduled to open in late 2020, will be owned and operated by the university and will connect to Mayo Clinic via a desert pathway. It is the first of several buildings planned to dot the surrounding landscape in the coming years and represents a cooperative effort not only of Mayo Clinic and ASU, but of the city of Phoenix and state of Arizona, as well. 

ASU leases the property from the Arizona State Land Trust; the city of Phoenix will provide funding for infrastructure improvements and ASU will construct the building, which is budgeted at $80 million. The debt service for the building will be funded primarily from the research infrastructure fund established in 2017 by Gov. Doug Ducey and the state Legislature.

Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, who served on the City Council when the ASU-Mayo Clinic alliance was first approved, expressed her belief Thursday that the partnership is an economic engine for the city. She noted that Phoenix expects to see $3.5 billion in capital investment over the next two years — compared with Houston, another large Southwestern city, which expects to see only $1.5 billion — and an additional 4.4 million square feet of advanced facilities, creating more than 7,000 jobs. 

“We do feel like, at the city of Phoenix, part of our role is to make sure there's the space and financial support for the great things that ASU, Mayo and others are doing,” Gallego said.  

“We were proud financial partners when Mayo moved forward with proton beam therapy, and we enjoyed working with Dr. Crow and others to grow campuses throughout the city of Phoenix. … When we have that type of leadership, our No. 1 ranked hospital and our No. 1 ranked university for innovation working together, anything can happen in the city of Phoenix.”

One example of the type of innovative collaborations happening through the Mayo-ASU alliance is the recently launched MedTech Accelerator, a program that provides medical device and health care IT early-stage companies with personalized business development plans. Once construction of the new building is complete, it will be housed on the second floor, helping entrepreneurs accelerate to market and investment opportunities.

President and CEO of Mayo Clinic Gianrico Farrugia also shared remarks with the crowd on Thursday. He assured them that the health care industry is in a state of disruption and transformation, and that those in the field must begin to think differently if they are to better serve the health of the community, calling ASU an “ideal partner” in that endeavor.

“Mayo Clinic and ASU share a vision,” Farrugia said. “It's a vision to create a collaborative environment of expertise right here in the Valley. And this place will be a destination for students, for entrepreneurs, for biomedical professionals. They will come to us from everywhere in the region and, indeed, from around the world. This will be a hub of life science innovation that will not only benefit ASU students and researchers but truly the patients of the future.”

Top photo: Shovels feature the ASU pitchfork logo at the ceremonial groundbreaking of the 150,000-square-foot first building of the ASU Health Futures Center, adjacent to the Mayo Clinic in north Phoenix, on Thursday. The collaborative center will provide educational and research facilities, biomedical engineering and informatics research labs and opportunities for partnerships with private industry. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Emma Greguska

Editor , ASU News

(480) 965-9657