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ASU grad's childhood interest evolves into passion for conservation

Katherine Amari

Katherine Amari is graduating this fall with her bachelor’s degree in biological sciences with a concentration in conservation biology and ecology from the School of Life Sciences as well as a certificate in sustainable food systems from the College of Global Futures.

December 02, 2020

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2020 graduates.

While many children grew up watching cartoons, a young Katherine Amari was obsessing over Animal Planet, National Geographic, the Discovery Channel and finding every opportunity to share fun biology facts with her friends and family.

“I’m sure my parents thought it was a phase, but as I got older and started learning about topics like habitat destruction and climate change, it manifested into a passion for conservation,” Amari said.

This fall, Amari will graduate with her bachelor’s degree in biological sciences with a concentration in conservation biology and ecology from the School of Life Sciences as well as a certificate in Sustainable Food Systems from the College of Global Futures. She is also a recipient of Arizona State University’s Moeur Award.

Amari describes her college experience as smooth sailing, that is until April 2020 when she began experiencing strange medical symptoms. She spent the next five months visiting with different specialists trying to figure out what was wrong.

“Even after several procedures and medications, none of my doctors could figure out what was wrong. Being in and out of doctors’ offices every week and dealing with my symptoms made it difficult to get any schoolwork done,” she said. “It was a really stressful time in my life, especially with the pandemic and adjusting to virtual learning.”

In September, Amari was diagnosed with a chronic pain condition.

“At this point, I wanted to give up and accept that my symptoms would never go away, but at the encouragement of my family, I continued my search for help and eventually found a physical therapist who specialized in my condition. Since then, I have slowly gotten better and was able to persevere and finish my degree with a 4.0 GPA.”

Amari credits her support system for helping her persevere and reach her goals.

“I really just want to thank my family, friends, and professors for supporting me on this journey,” she said. “I couldn’t have done it without them.”

Amari shares more about her journey through ASU.

Question: Why did you choose ASU?

Answer: My mom is an ASU alumna and my older brother was already attending ASU when I was deciding my path for college. I knew I wanted to live at home to save money for my future, and ASU offered me an excellent scholarship, so it was an easy choice for me to make. I’m so happy I got to stay in Arizona, this state will always have my heart.

Q: You’re continuing on to get your master’s degree through The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences' 4+1 accelerated degree program, what made you decide to pursue that path?

A: It was a really last-minute decision, to be honest. It was the summer before my junior year, and my adviser mentioned that I was on track to graduate early and that I would be a good candidate for the 4+1 program, but that I needed to find a professor willing to have me work in their lab and take me on as a master’s student. After interviewing with several different professors, I decided to work in Dr. Heather Throop’s Drylands in a Changing Environment lab. Because I really enjoyed working in her lab and she was so enthusiastic about her work, I knew it was a good fit. My research will focus on how climate change, specifically increasing rainfall variability, alters the interaction between dryland soils and soil amendments. I’m really interested in how land management strategies can help mitigate the effects of climate change in drylands, especially since drylands play such an important role in our agricultural system.

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

A: When I was enrolled in an environmental ethics course I was surprised to find that, even among other scientists, opinions on how to solve conservation-related problems differed greatly. Ethics is a particularly difficult subject to navigate because people are guided by different sets of values and morals. Initially, it was frustrating that not everyone agreed with my point of view, but in hearing other’s opinions and arguments, my perspective changed a lot. It was a really eye-opening experience.

Q: How did scholarships impact your experience?

A: I worked really hard to maintain a perfect GPA in high school and to score well on my SAT so that I would qualify for the New American University President’s Award at ASU. I am so grateful that ASU awarded me this scholarship. Without it, I would have had to take out loans to pay for my tuition, which would have been unimaginably stressful. With my tuition paid for, I was able to save the money I made at work, which allowed me to consider opportunities like studying abroad.

Q: Were there any clubs or organizations that positively impacted your ASU experience?

A: I am a member of the clubs Nature at ASU and the Central Arizona Chapter of the Society for Conservation Biology. These clubs provided a great opportunity to meet like-minded, supportive people who were in the same major as me. The club members offered great advice and resources and I learned a lot from them. It was an amazing community to be a part of. This semester, I also had the opportunity to be a Nature Guides peer mentor, and I was able to meet with freshman and sophomore students in this major to provide resources and guidance. It was a really rewarding experience.

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

A: I took a really interesting field course with Dr. Matt Chew about introduced species. In every single biology course I’d taken previously, I was taught that “invasive” species are detrimental to ecosystem health and threaten biodiversity. Dr. Chew’s class changed my perspective on that. He taught me to research ideas for myself instead of taking what others say at face value, even if those others are professors or scientists. He showed me that there is always another lens to view problems through, and that the best problem solvers are those who consider every perspective.

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

A: First, don’t be too hard on yourself. College is important, but it’s OK to get a C on an exam. It’s OK to procrastinate occasionally. It’s OK to take the time to make memories and to have fun. Work hard and always do your best, but don’t ever feel like your best isn’t good enough, because it is. Second, get involved! ASU has so many opportunities for research, internships, clubs and organizations, volunteer positions, you name it. The sooner you get involved in everything ASU has to offer, the sooner you can begin building a community and setting yourself up for success.

Q: How has The College prepared you for your future goals and/or career path?

A: The College provided many opportunities for networking, resources to search for internships and jobs, a wide variety of courses so I could explore my interests, and mentors and advisers to counsel me along the way. Any time I had a concern or question, The College had the answers I needed.

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