First-gen student leverages science, humanities background in pursuit of PhD

July 24, 2020

Amalie Strange graduated this May with bachelor’s degrees in biological sciences and Spanish from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, but she’s not ready to say goodbye to the world of academia quite yet. This fall, Strange will continue her studies in pursuit of her PhD in animal behavior.

“I could be spending anywhere from nine to 11 years here. It's great to go to different places and meet new people. But I think when you really put down roots somewhere, like I will be doing, you really get to know a lot more about people and you get to make these super-deep connections,” Strange said. Amalie Strange Amalie Strange graduated in May 2020 with dual bachelor's degrees in biological sciences and Spanish from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Strange will return to ASU this fall as a PhD student. Download Full Image

Strange has been building connections at Arizona State University since before she was even a student. After completing a research essay in high school, she realized she was interested in researching honey bees. Soon after, she discovered ASU’s bee lab and reached out to learn more from one of the postdocs in Professor Gro Amdam’s lab.

“It was just such an incredible experience that when I got to ASU, I dove into the lab’s research papers and tried to understand what the heck they were talking about. As a freshman biology student those papers were kind of dense,” she said. “By the end of that year, I finally felt confident enough and settled into ASU so I reached out to the principal investigator of the lab.”

Strange and the PI discussed the lab’s papers, and by the end of the meeting Strange had been invited to join the lab’s next meeting.

“I was like, ‘Wait, that's it? I’m in?’ It was so awesome; I felt really proud of myself, especially since I'm a first-generation college student,” she said. “Never having that guidance and doing it by myself and succeeding in it was a really awesome feeling.”

Strange has a passion and drive for science. She is motivated by the process of discovery, research and sharing new information. When she tells people that she majored both in the sciences and humanities, she said she often receives weird looks and questions about how the two subjects relate.

“Through the study of literature you learn so much about other people and other cultures and you really get that connectedness,” she explained. “You learn about so many different perspectives and it has made me sensitive to the plight of other people.”

Strange found that while at different ends of the spectrum, the two degree paths have benefited each other, especially as it pertains to communicating her ideas to others.

Amalie Strange presents research

Amalie Strange presents her research at BioSci Southwest 2019.

“The tools that I've used to write an essay about literature have ended up helping me when I write about science to make it more exciting, interesting and have more personality. Then the analysis that I've learned through science writing has also helped me write about literature and really get to the central core of what a text is about,” she said. “So they've actually ended up helping each other a lot more than I ever expected.”

Strange shared more about her time at ASU.

Question: Why was ASU the right choice for you?

Answer: I'm an in-state student. I'm from Phoenix and by nature of being a low-income, first-generation student, it was always going to be an in-state university for me. I couldn't imagine going somewhere super far away and losing the support of my family or not having as easy access to it. I'm super close to my mom, a single mother, so it was just really nice to be in state and have all my support right here. And I was able to get really awesome scholarships so I ended up not having to take out super-huge student loans.

Q: What scholarships did you receive and how did they impact your time at ASU?

A: I received the president's merit award. I received the Lattie Coor scholarship through Barrett, The Honors College at ASU and that was really cool because only one incoming first-generation student in the honors college receives that every four years and it involved a mentorship with Lattie Coor. It was really awesome getting to know him, he helped me out when I was applying to fellowships for the PhD program and he's just been another awesome support system for me. I received the dean scholar, the president scholarship. I received a few for a study abroad as well, including the ASU Planning Scholarship for first-generation students and the Dorothy Govekar Endowed Scholarship for students in the School of International Letters and Cultures. I don't think I would have been able to make it to this point if I didn't have those scholarships.

Q: Can you share about your study abroad experience?

A: It was the first time I've ever traveled outside of the country and independently. I went to Spain over the summer to León and Barcelona to study Spanish literature and it was just absolutely life-changing. I came back with so much confidence and independence. I got to meet so many different people and really practice my Spanish skills. I never thought that I would be able to take a trip like that, but I was able to get that support from scholarships and build relationships — not only with the students that I was on the trip with, but the people that I met over in Spain including my host family.

Q: Was there anything that surprised you about your undergraduate research experience?

A: I was actually surprised by how easy it was. I had the misconception that the only way to get into a research position was when professors post that they're looking for someone and then you have to know people but no, it was really easy just to reach out to the professor and be like, “Hey, you know, I've read your papers. They're really interesting. I want to do something.” I worked as a community assistant in the dorms in Barrett and that's something that I was able to pass on to my residents too, was that it is just that easy to reach out to professors and take that next step and really have that agency that you need to go and do what you want.

Q: What is something about your PhD program that you’re excited for?

A: I'm excited to get out there and really collaborate with people. I think one of the things that I really want to practice as a PhD student is connecting with other people at other labs, practicing collaboration and working with others. I definitely have to say that my humanities background has helped prepare me for that with collaboration and everything. I'm really excited to start to use that in a professional way.

Kirsten Kraklio

Content Strategist and Writer, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences


image title

Turning data into decisions in a pandemic

July 24, 2020

College of Health Solutions hosts public health talk on how researchers are translating data to help inform public health decisions

Mere hours ahead of Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s press conference on Thursday, July 23, in which he discussed the hotly contested issue of whether to delay the reopening of schools this fall, Arizona State University’s College of Health Solutions hosted their latest public health talk, “Data to decisions: Using information to take action during COVID-19.”

It couldn’t have been more timely, given Ducey’s announcement that the decision of whether or not to reopen schools would be left up to individual school districts, but suggested they make their decision based on a set of benchmarks informed by the most current data we have on the virus, to be decided upon by public health officials by Aug. 7.

While not everyone was satisfied with that decree, it does underscore the importance of data in making decisions that affect public health.

Evidence-based research and data have “always been a cornerstone of public health,” said Will Humble, executive director for the Arizona Public Health Association. Humble has 30 years’ experience in public health, including more than two decades at the Arizona Department of Health Services. He participated in Thursday’s public health talk via Zoom, along with Timothy Lant, director of program development at ASU’s Biodesign Institute who is leading the COVID-19 modeling task force at the university, and Scott Leischow, College of Health Solutions professor and director of clinical and translational science who moderated the talk.

“Whatever your role is in public health, it’s super important to have academic partners, because they’re the folks that have the ability to dive into the data and do the analyses you need to better inform your decisions,” Humble added. “It’s such a critical component. … There’s no substitute for that kind of expert analysis.”

In addition to providing predictive modeling for policy and decisionmakers, researchers at ASU developed the state’s first saliva-based diagnostic test and soon after partnered with the Arizona Department of Health Services to launch testing sites to provide the saliva diagnostic testing free of charge for underserved communities around the state.

Lant began his presentation by delving straight into the data, referencing a slide showing the number of cases reported that day (2,335). While April and May saw a long, somewhat confusing period of plateaued growth in which the disease wasn’t able to get a foothold, Lant said, shortly after businesses began reopening and social distancing measures were pulled back in mid-May, the data began to show an exponential increase in cases that lasted through July.

The increase in cases wasn’t immediate, though, and Humble — who appointed himself the “color commentary” to Lant’s “play-by-play” — explained that’s because there is always a delay in the numbers that data shows.

“You can look at the data between May 15 and June 1 and it still looked OK, because there was a delay; it’s not real time,” Humble said. “So what we saw really was metrics that looked OK up until, I would say, May 26. (After that), it looked like a check mark. The data goes right back. By early June, it was really quite clear for anyone paying attention to the data posted on the Biodesign website … that we were headed for exponential growth, just as the model predicted."

Other, more positive, things the data showed was an increase in mask wearing, Lant said. Not only that, the number of reported cases reflected the significant impact of mask wearing, decreasing after it was mandated in businesses.  

That’s the power of using data to make decisions, Humble said.

“That’s the real value of predictive modeling … the opportunity to translate that information into active knowledge so people who make the decision about policy can see what the most talented people in the state think it would look like in two months if you made those decisions.”

In response to a question from the audience about their thoughts on when schools should reopen, both Lant and Humble agreed it should be a condition-based decision, rather than attempting to set a date. Specifically, Humble pointed to two metrics he’d like to see on the decline: hospitalization rates and the seven-day moving average of positive cases. For the latter metric, Arizona is currently at about 23%, which he would like to see at about 5% before schools reopen.

There are reasons why it’s important for children to be back in school, though, Lant argued. “And if schools can create a safe environment, we should do that.”

However, he added, “If we reopen schools and there are cases that emerge with students or teachers who then go home, and maybe they’re living in multigenerational families or maybe they have parents who don’t believe all the social distancing measures are required. … (In that case), we could have an outright mess … with superspreading events. So I think we need to very carefully think through not just how to reopen but how to stay safe when we do.”

Lant is personally deeply engaged in ASU’s efforts to reopen this fall, reporting that the university’s plan is comprehensive, including not just predictive modeling but also measures for testing and contact tracing.

“We’re really thinking about the whole student experience, and faculty and staff, too,” Lant said. “Mill Avenue is not going to be the same this year as it was last year. Going to a football game is not going to be the same this year as it was last year. That’s the reality and we’re going to have to confront that."