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Childhood dream takes ASU grad to London for work in neurology

Nayeli Apablasa
November 24, 2014

If one person’s steps to a better life can be measured by new things experienced, international travel opportunities, the chance to learn from leaders in research, and having a positive impact on your field of study, then recent Arizona State University graduate Nayeli Apablasa is well on her way. She is ticking all the boxes as quickly as they appear.

As a child, Apablasa knew what she wanted to be; it was just a matter of getting there. In middle school, she picked a specialty area. At ASU, in the physics classrooms of Kong-Thon Tsen, she took her first steps toward realizing her dream.

Apablasa, who earned a bachelor of science in microbiology in May, long ago set her sights on becoming a doctor of neurology. She is now in London, working on her master’s in clinical neuroscience at the University of Roehampton, and she has been accepted to pursue her doctorate at the St. James School of Medicine on the island of Anguilla in the Caribbean.

“I always told people I wanted to be a doctor,” says Apablasa, a native Arizonan born just southwest of ASU’s Tempe campus in Chandler. “It wasn’t until I was in middle school that I found an interest in neurology. I do keep an open mind about other medical fields, but I find neurology fascinating.”

Apablasa’s journey to and through ASU was not nearly as certain as her choice of career field. Coming from an extended family that includes mother Claudia, father Reza, sister Aislyn and nine uncles and eight aunts, she is the first to earn a college degree. Unable to afford a university education, her only hope upon graduation from Phoenix Mountain Pointe High School was for scholarship support. Although she applied to each of the three state universities – ASU, University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University – she chose ASU because of the scholarship offers she received and, she says, “because of all the opportunities offered to Barrett (the ASU honors college) students, and the chance to create an honors thesis as an undergraduate. Not many schools offer that opportunity.”

She had prepared for the chance to attend ASU through her participation in the university’s Hispanic Mother-Daughter Program, an early outreach college-prep offering designed to raise the educational and career aspirations of Arizona middle and high school students. Another focus of the program is to increase the number of first-generation students who complete a bachelor’s degree.

“As a middle school student and high school student, I would attend the monthly meetings to learn valuable information that taught me about being a successful student,” says Apablasa. “During middle school I would receive information on high school, and during high school I would receive information on higher education. It was a great experience because, being a first-generation student, I didn’t have someone I could talk to or ask about continuing my education. I didn’t even know what questions to ask.

“My mom was extremely involved with the program," she says. "She attended every single meeting with me. Her being involved allowed the opportunity to learn the same information I was learning and to understand the process I would have to take in order to make my dreams a reality. It was a great experience that I got to have with my mom.”

Her entry to ASU came on the strength of the President Barack Obama Scholars Program, as well as a handful of other university scholarships promoting equal access to education for deserving Arizonans. In her sophomore year at ASU, Apablasa enrolled in a pair of courses taught by Tsen, a senior sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and a professor in the Department of Physics in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. It was in working with Tsen that her dream became reality.

“I learned so much from him,” she says. “He inspired me and instilled in me the importance of research, how to conduct meaningful projects and the importance of science collaboration.” In Tsen’s classroom, she was encouraged to take on a research project that had gone dormant, and bring it back to life. Her work on HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, was the foundation for her Barrett honors thesis.

“Nayeli is extremely diligent and bright,” says Tsen. “She was interested in my research work about inactivating HIV with ultra-short pulsed lasers. This was a great opportunity for me as a professor to assist a young, promising undergraduate to step into biomedical research.

“My philosophy of teaching an introductory course such as Physics 111 has been to motivate students by relating the physical principles and laws in physics to daily life phenomena. I hope to inspire more students to enjoy learning physics and to apply the knowledge to their career goals.”

“I had the great opportunity to work with Dr. Tsen as a thesis committee member,” Apablasa recounts. “I think the most memorable thing was being able to combine different fields of science for a project. In my case, the thesis project I conducted while at ASU combined physics and microbiology.”

Now, Apablasa is preparing to further her ASU experience by studying overseas at Roehampton.

“Right now, I’m in the beginning stages of my research,” she says. “I’m coming up with topics I’d like to further investigate. I’d like to look into post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.

“The research I did at ASU gave me insight into how a student can help further science and help future researchers with their investigations,” she adds. “It’s amazing to think that that the research I conducted at ASU can help others, and that we’re all part of a huge community that is looking for answers to satisfy our curiosity about the world around us.”

She says she still has to pinch herself for her good fortune. “When I was in high school I just wanted to attend a university that would give me a chance to achieve my dream of being a doctor. I never would have imagined that I would be in my position right now. I have become a successful student who absolutely loves learning more and more about the world.”

Meanwhile, Tsen is delighted to hear of Apablasa’s success. “When I learn that a student of mine, like Nayeli, is pursuing her career goals in part because of my support, I feel that all of my efforts and hardship pay off handsomely.

“To help a student to become a person of great contribution to our society is a joy which no words can describe.”

When asked about her success, Apablasa doesn’t hesitate to answer. “I have been able to experience new things, travel, learn from others and, most importantly, impact the field that I want to spend the rest of my life working in.

“I hope the research I perform will help further the neuroscience field and maybe the clinical field, too.”