Biology grad changes career choice after taking ‘filler’ class

April 30, 2019

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

When transfer student Kassandra Kellenberger signed up for a science course to fill one of her future degree requirements, she thought she would just check it off her list. Kassandra Kellenberger Kassandra Kellenberger graduates this spring with a Bachelor of Science in biological sciences. Photo courtesy Kassandra Kellenberger Download Full Image

Instead, she learned there are many types of careers in a laboratory that weren't in the medical field but would allow her to pursue her passion for cellular research. She was so excited, she changed her major to biological sciences and stepped up her game by committing to learning and excelling in school. 

“I’m so proud at how I turned around my scholastic career since I’ve been at ASU. I previously spent some time lost and changing majors, not caring about classes or my future. Since I’ve been at ASU, my eyes have been opened to all the different things I can do, and it’s inspired me to do something that I’m truly passionate about,” said Kellenberger.

“I went from being a subpar student, barely passing, to being a student who will be graduating with an honors cord, lab experience and beautifully written research papers that show exactly what I’m capable of in the scientific field,” she added.

Kellenberger completes her undergraduate studies this spring with a Bachelor of Science in biological sciences — specifically, genetics, cell and developmental biology. She plans on pursuing a career working in a laboratory that studies autoimmune diseases.

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

Answer: When I transferred to ASU from Phoenix College, I had intentions of applying to the Medical Lab Science program because I knew I loved being in a lab environment and I have a special talent for understanding cells. I needed some filler classes for my semester while I was applying to the program and decided to take a class at West campus called "Genes, Evolution, and Development." This class opened my eyes to the endless possibilities for a career in a laboratory. I didn’t have to limit myself to medical, and as my knowledge about developmental biology and genetics grew, I found myself getting excited about writing research papers and talking about topics we discussed in class. 

This was the moment I went, "Huh. Maybe I should be trying to pursue a career in research." I changed my major the next day and I have been thriving in my classes and lab job ever since. I’ve become more passionate about school, taking advantage of the many opportunities provided about ASU and I am more motivated than I have ever been to succeed.   

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

A: Since I’ve been at ASU, I was surprised to find how many professors brought so much passion to the classroom. Entering the professional world has always been a scary thought, mostly because I always imagined that you just go get a job and work to pay bills. Seeing so many different professors passionate about the things they get to teach, as well as the things they get to research, changed my perspective about finding the right career. It showed me that I don’t have to just find some job, I can work in a field where I get excited about the work I do, and having a job isn’t a burden, but something exciting when you get to do what you love.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I’ve lived in the greater Phoenix area since I was pretty young and I grew up with the understanding that ASU is one of the best places to go for an education in science. ASU is always holding events open to the public to engage the youth of the community and give a taste of the opportunities they provide here. This showed me that I can get an amazing science education as well as opportunities to make connections with prestigious scientists in my field without having to move away from my home and my family.

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

A: I’ve had so many amazing professors that have provided me with the tools I need to succeed at ASU, but there was one professor that made the most lasting impact on me and encouraged me to pursue a career in research. Professor Jennifer Hackney-Price taught my "Genes, Evolution, and Development" course and I always looked forward to attending her class because of the passion and excitement that she brought to the room every single day. She would be bouncing with joy when she got the opportunity to tie in her own research to the topic of the lecture and it was inspiring to be a part of that.    

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

A: Always take time for yourself. We’re all so busy studying for exams, doing projects, writing papers on a constant basis, and if I never gave myself a break then I’m sure I would have burnt out long ago. Also, don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s okay to get a C in that one class you really struggled in. Employers don’t care about your grades at the end of the day, they care about what you can bring to their company as an educated and prepared individual.  

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

A: West campus is my absolute favorite place. It’s beautiful and quiet, but my major is on Tempe campus, so I spend most of my time there. It’s hard to find some peace and quiet in Tempe, but I’ve found that the lawn in front of old main, and a few of the hidden tables in the courtyards nearby, provide some beautiful scenery and a lot less foot traffic.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: After graduation, I want to be working in a laboratory that studies autoimmune diseases. There are so many people out there suffering from autoimmune diseases in silence. Everyday life is hard to get through, treatments are expensive, and there’s not much that can be done to restore the degenerative effects of these diseases.

It is a mission of mine to find a way to target the immune system in such a way that the progression of degeneration is halted. However, I understand the realities of life, a career in research and the job market. So, for now, I would love to take any opportunity to be doing work in a laboratory that would allow me to prepare for pursuing my master’s (degree) and eventually my PhD. 

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

A: One of the biggest challenges that our planet is facing is the rapidly increasing atmospheric CO2 concentration. Unfortunately, we’re seeing a significant decrease in our photosynthetic friends — plants—which process this CO2 and release oxygen gas as a waste product. With $40 million, I would find a way to genetically engineer plants that have the ability to withstand the environmental pressures that are inhibiting healthy plant growth as well as increase the CO2 synthesis capacity of plants. This would increase the range of temperatures that plants could survive in, increase the biomass of photosynthetic organisms and contribute to putting more oxygen back into the atmosphere. 

Q: Describe some challenges or hurdles you faced while earning your degree, and what you did or what took place to overcome them.

A: My last semester at ASU has presented me with some of the biggest challenges I’ve encountered yet. I discovered that I had 17 upper division credits to finish, and a physics class to take, with only 1 semester left of funding to do it in. The lab I had been working in for the last year-and-a-half jumped hurdles to ensure I could earn internship credits for my time there due to the passion and initiative I was always willing to show in the lab. My adviser worked with me on class options to make sure I could fit everything I needed into my schedule and showed me ways to take a few stresses off my plate while still satisfying my remaining credits. There were so many people that cared so much about my success and helping me get through this situation that it helped me overcome the roadblock.  

Q: Are there any particular people who really supported you on your journey? And, what did they do to help?

A: I have an absolutely incredible support system in my family, friends and even my coworkers. My parents have always been there to remind me that no matter how stressed out I get, I’m doing incredible things and they’re proud of me even if I don’t bring home an A in every single class. My husband is truly my rock, not only does he lift my spirits when I need it the most, but he’s really done so much to help me so that I can focus on my education.

The people I work with are so kind, and some of the most down-to-earth people I know. They’re always willing to take on tasks that I have trouble getting to because I’m overwhelmed with schoolwork, and my supervisors are always there for a shoulder to cry on or even providing advice on how to handle different challenges.

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

A: Personally, I don’t believe in looking back at what I could have changed. I feel that the path I’m on may have never happened if I hadn’t had some of the challenges or experiences that I did. The hardest challenges I’ve ever overcome have made me a better person and taught me how to navigate difficult situations for the future. It makes me proud to look back at the challenges I overcame because it’s a reminder that I can do absolutely anything I set my mind to and that in the end, you’ll only ever grow as a person for overcoming them.

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

A: One of the coolest opportunities I’ve had at ASU was the chance to attend a lecture by Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist who contributed to the discovery of the CRISPR cas-9 system, and to meet her after the lecture. ASU is always putting on events like this, events that help aspiring scientists have conversations with great researchers and learn more about what is happening in our field. I feel like this is one of the things that sets ASU apart from other institutions.  

Sandra Leander

Assistant Director of Media Relations, ASU Knowledge Enterprise


Prototyping: A path to creating positive human experience

April 30, 2019

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

Bachelor of Arts in innovation in society graduate Jaideen Cobb is using her education on futures thinking, her flair for design and, most importantly, her inherent desire to catalyze positive change in prototyping technology with the human experience in mind. Jaideen Cobb portrait Jaideen Cobb. Download Full Image

Taking advantage of the wealth of resources at the Fabrication Lab at the Herberger Institute's School of Arts, Media and Engineering, Cobb has invested countless hours into developing prototypes that have the potential to significantly impact interpersonal communication and human interactions for some individuals.

Perhaps her most significant project is a therapy robot that allows an individual to communicate, via touch, the location and intensity of pain they are experiencing. It could be used with nonverbal individuals or those who have experienced trauma and have a difficult time talking about it with others.

“Say you’re a medical professional, and you want to ask this person a question about where they feel most heavy in their physical body, or in their spirit or mind,” Cobb explained. “It can be hard to diagnose someone who feels uncomfortable verbalizing how they feel. With this device I’m developing, the patient would be able to do something like press the robot’s head to indicate that their mental health isn’t OK.”

Cobb described how an LED light would indicate the magnitude of a sensation by its brightness when a person applies pressure to the robot’s form. A dim light would indicate weak sensation, and brighter lights would reflect more intense feelings.

She is also working with a team of two other students in her program to develop a smart garden system that would make fresh fruits and vegetables more available to underserved populations, such as those in food deserts. The countertop-sized garden allows precision control of plant environments, making indoor gardens viable for people without access to outdoor resources.

On top of all of this, Cobb found time to start a nonprofit organization called The Involvement Project, which she describes as “a mental health movement that inspires the next generation of thought leaders.” She hopes to scale up the organization in the near future.

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

Answer: Originally I had an interest in writing, so I started out pursuing that. During that time, I had an internship where my “beat” was covering stories on local businesses. Some of these were small engineering businesses and local startups that were popping up throughout the Valley. I got really inspired by the conversations I was having in these interviews and thinking, “Holy cow, these people are doing great things that they believe can change the world.” And I remember thinking that was something I really wanted to do, so I started reconsidering my journey. I have always been interested in design, but I wanted it to have a social element. I was looking for something that would allow me the flexibility to get a handle on a variety of different concepts. On the ASU website there’s this little tab that said "cool majors," and I remember clicking on it and reading about the future of innovation in society degree. I was drawn to the theme of "the future is for everyone" because it aligned so closely to my personal values and the things I wanted to do in life. It was talking about all of the potential careers in policy, education, etc. And I knew that I wanted to dip my toe into some of that. I’m definitely an innovator. I want to reconstruct the way that we look at our social systems and technological systems and cross-examine them, so it appealed to me.

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

A: I really embraced the idea that anybody can create a future after coming to ASU. A lot of famous innovators have said things along those lines, but I didn’t fully realize what it meant to me personally until entering this program and after learning from my peers and professors. I began to feel inspired and equipped with the kind of knowledge I needed to take all of these skills and use them to make a difference. Before this, I thought I had ambition, I thought I had passion, and I thought I had talent, but I didn’t really know how far that would take me. After being surrounded by people who believed in me, I realized I do have what it takes to be the one to really make things happen, to push a vision forward that can benefit a lot of people.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: Ever since I was in high school, I kind of always knew I was destined to be a Sun Devil. My sister went to the U of A for some time, and because she is older and one step ahead of me, my parents would always say, "Oh you’ll go to the U of A with your sister." But I always knew that I wanted to go to ASU. There was just something that felt good about being on campus here. I went on one of those tours in high school and looking around, everyone seemed so happy, and everything just felt right. I just knew.

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

A: Professor Gregg Zachary. When I was in his class, I was doing the readings, I was nodding my head in class, I was engaging when I could, but there were times when he would call me out in class and ask me if I had something to say. And I remember always having something to say, but sometimes I wouldn’t want to verbalize it because I felt so nervous. I remember one day I met with him in his office hours to discuss some of the content from class because I found it interesting. While I was there, he told me he needed to hear my voice more in class. That was a really powerful lesson for me because I’m not used to someone asking me to speak my mind, and especially not someone assuming that I have something to say and working to draw it out of me. Ever since he asked me to speak up, I haven’t been quiet because I was able to find my voice. Having someone tell you that they know you have something to say, not only in the classroom but to the world, meant a lot.

Another person that comes to mind is Professor Lauren Withycombe-Keeler. One thing that she really inspired me with was the idea of resilience. When I was working with her as a research fellow two semesters ago, I was able to learn that when you want to see things happen, no matter what goes wrong, just stick with it, be resilient and persevere, and you’ll see results.

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

A: Give it your all. You’re going to be tired, you’re going to doubt whether or not you’ll make it through the week. Balancing being a student with having a life, working, getting an internship — it’s hard. But give it everything you’ve got regardless. Read every single thing your professors give you because the content that they share will empower you to make better decisions moving forward in your life. I was able to really grow as a person because of the tools they’ve given me, and if I could turn back time I wish I could have given even 120% or 130%! Whatever it is, give it 100% because it goes by so fast. When you’re first beginning something, it seems like an eternity. But when you’re ending it, it seems like only a day.

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

A: There’s a secret garden on campus where I spent a ton of time. It’s crucial to take care of yourself and your mental health, and part of that is setting aside time to unwind. That spot was a great place to just sit and relax for me when I just needed to unplug and tuck my laptop away, maybe listen to some music out loud and just kind of look around.

That and the Fabrication Lab. One thing that I really like to do that gives me a lot of peace, is physical prototyping. There’s just something about putting something together with your hands.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: A goal of mine is to become an expert in my field. I always knew that it wouldn’t be enough for me to work and be decent at what I do, because there’s always more research to be done and more things to discover. So my next step is to go to grad school in spring 2020 and study human-centered design so I can continue to explore different design practices in an interdisciplinary way to develop products and services that are going to be better for the world.

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

A: Recently I started a small nonprofit called The Involvement Project with the goal of destigmatizing mental health issues. The Involvement Project is a modern mental health movement that engages youth and young people ages 15–30 around mental health challenges and stigmas with digital art and community gatherings, with a central mission to provide resources for mental health education, advocacy, prevention, self-love and awareness. I’d like to expand it to a global scale and be able to turn it into an international campaign. Or I’d build a lab where community members can come and learn how to build and fabricate robust technology so that they can have a hand in designing the future.

By Madelyn Nelson