Science helps quench curiosity of biology and society PhD

School of Life Sciences graduate Michelle Sullivan Govani

Michelle Sullivan Govani earned her PhD in biology and society and has accepted a position as a university innovation fellow in ASU’s Office of University Initiatives. Photo by Michelle Sullivan Govani


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

Michelle Sullivan Govani has always had questions.

Though she maintains a diversity of interests, science always seems to hold the answers that make the most sense to her.

Thus, in the summer between her junior and senior year of college, she pursued an internship studying the health of coral reefs in Belize, hoping to realize her dream of becoming a wildlife biologist.

However, once she arrived, she realized that she had more questions: Why wasn’t science driving the action to protect the reef? Why were so many agencies involved? Who should lead this fight? She realized the only way to answer these questions was to go to graduate school.

“People who go to graduate school are professionally confused! What I mean is that the students in my program learn to live without simple or straightforward answers — and even to be suspicious of them,” said Sullivan Govani, who graduates from Arizona State University in December with a PhD in biology and society from the School of Life Sciences. “We’re studying complex issues that are emergent of complex, socio-ecological systems. I love studying and working in those gray areas now. I live for the constant learning and questioning of assumptions that it requires.”

Question: Why did you choose ASU?

Answer: When I was looking for graduate school options, I Googled "Biology and society graduate programs." It just so happens that the first result in my search was the ASU Center for Biology and Society. I applied to eight other programs to keep my options open, but something about ASU, the center and Arizona in general almost immediately felt like home. I was excited by the freedom to pursue interdisciplinary, collaborative projects and to take courses in many diverse schools and topics. There was clearly a culture of breaking down barriers between disciplines and departments. I think more universities are doing that now, but in 2014 that truly made ASU unique. 

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

A: I would encourage each student to take one action that helps create a sense of community for graduate students in their department. Start a writing group, ask your peers to lunch, or go to an event together. We have to work at creating a culture in which we aren’t afraid to reach out and rely on one another. Otherwise, graduate school can be isolating. 

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

A: It's not the fanciest building on campus, but I love our Graduate Student Center in Tempe. It's a historical home that now serves as the offices for our student government. I will never forget the many meetings, events and quiet moments spent there. My office had a beautiful olive tree right outside, shading the window. The temperature control is never satisfactory, but the community of students there was always supportive and inspiring. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I am a university innovation fellow in ASU’s Office of University Initiatives. Our team designs and launches exemplary initiatives to advance ASU’s charter and design aspirations. As a fellow, I serve as a researcher, analyst, project manager and relationship builder. Similar to my doctoral experience, I spend a great deal of time synthesizing information on complex and emerging topics — those topics range greatly but are all somehow tied to higher education and university research. Essentially, I spend all day, every day learning about diverse topics, and then I get to reflect on and work toward the intentional application of what I’ve learned to addressing complex issues. It’s a dream. And I’m also learning firsthand how large, R1, higher education institutions like ASU function and evolve!

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

A: The unfortunate side of my newfound comfort with complexity and uncertainty is that I doubt that many of the bigger, globally-scaled problems I'm interested in could be "solved" for $40 million. But in the spirit of the question, and in hopes that I would have the strategic mindset necessary to make that $40 million contribute in the best ways possible, I would aim that money toward addressing the deep and growing income inequalities around the United States. A child’s family income is a predictor of many social mobility factors, from success in higher education to their own likely earning potential. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how it’s related to the types of outcomes different people can expect from our health care system. I’ve had serious illnesses myself for which I've been lucky enough to have the social and financial capital necessary to access care. That’s a privilege. I don’t believe it should be. There are also implications for access to education and civic engagement. I would likely set up a foundation that places money in the hands of local leaders to empower them to build community-embedded practices and policies that drive inclusive growth and development. 

One unit of the foundation would strategically invest in advocacy groups related to preserving public lands and welcoming more diverse visitors – there will always be a special place in my heart for state and national parks. 

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

A: As I noted above, the graduate school experience can feel isolating at times, especially during the writing stages. And there were honestly a few times throughout the years when I wondered if it was the right path for me. I know I am not alone in any of this. During my time with the graduate student government, mental health and well-being were common concerns among almost every group of students I spoke with. I think more and more people recognize that it's OK to seek help, but we should never stop reminding ourselves or each other of that truth. I’m so grateful I had a supportive community around me to help me make it through and to instill a sense of belonging. They encouraged me to see a counselor, to engage in activities outside of school, and to take rest. It made all the difference.

Q: What’s something you are most proud of during your time at ASU?

A: I love helping people – to feel better, to achieve something great, to improve their community, to just feel seen and heard. I am proud of every moment I spent with student government at ASU where I had the privilege of helping others every day. I learned from my team and my peers that leadership is about empowering others to do good and feel good, and that is now my life's mission.

I am also proud of myself for surviving the last several months: completing the final stages of writing my dissertation, buying a house, starting a full-time job, welcoming my parents to AZ, and more. I am beyond grateful for the support from my family, my friends, my colleagues at work and in my degree program, as well as my professors and mentors. I’m filled with gratitude.

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