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Women philanthropists support ASU undergrad research in science

ASU senior Leah Kalin
May 06, 2010

Waking up at 5:30 in the morning just to take a bus into town in order to send an e-mail is not typical for most Arizona State University seniors. However, Kelly Strickler is not your average college student.

This psychology and anthropology major spent last summer in Ecuador surveying Quichua people to learn what role their emotions play in maintaining smooth social interaction.

Strickler is one of four undergraduate students in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences whose research initiatives were funded in part by the Women & Philanthropy Access to Undergraduate Research in the Sciences Scholarship. Other recipients of this year’s scholarship are Rachel Caspar, Kim Kukurba and Leah Kalin.

Self-conscious emotions

Strickler, who also is a student in Barrett, the Honors College, traveled to a small Quichuan community in Ecuadorian Amazon in order to study people who are living in a social and physical environment that is much closer to that in which human brains evolved. The scholarship from Women & Philanthropy allowed her to travel and live in Ecuador, which she described as “one of the most challenging and rewarding times in my life.”

Strickler became interested in evolutionary anthropology research after taking classes from anthropology professor Kim Hill. She found his perspective on the relation between ecology and culture to be inspiring.

It was while taking psychology classes as a sophomore that she stumbled upon research that matched her interests in the lab of assistant professor Michelle “Lani” Shiota and decided to give research in human emotions a try.

Strickler’s research demonstrates that subtle variations in a fitness enhancing psychological mechanism can be predicted from cultural features, variations that are ultimately the result of interactions with the ecological environment in which that culture developed. The implications of her research will add to the knowledge of the influence of ecology on things that, as of yet, are not typically investigated from an evolutionary perspective.

Strickler is working with her thesis advisor to modify her findings for possible publication. She plans to continue her research after graduation in May and wants to further her education by obtaining a master’s degree in psychology from either the University of British Columbia or the University of California, Los Angeles.

Alzheimer’s mechanisms

Caspar, a junior biology major from Phoenix, focused her research on elucidating the role of mitochondria dysfunction in Alzheimer’s disease. She hopes that by discovering how and why this dysfunction occurs, future therapies can be targeted to treat or prevent Alzheimer’s disease.

As a student at Paradise Valley Community College, Caspar was inspired to conduct research in the Alzheimer’s lab of scientist Jon Valla at Barrow Neurological Institute while working with dementia patients as a Certified Nurse Assistant. After seeing the devastating effects of dementia on patients and their families, she knew she wanted to contribute to work that has potential to help.

As a child, Caspar had dreams of becoming a doctor, but as she got older, she didn’t find it to be financially feasible. She was on track to becoming a nurse because it would be a stable income and important job in health care. But, after beginning her experience in the lab and excelling in academics, she realized her original dream would be more fulfilling.

The Women & Philanthropy scholarship and opportunities available at ASU made pursuing her interest in research possible.

“ASU’s affiliations with other research organizations, such as Barrow Neurological Institute and TGen (Translational Genomics Research Institute), make ASU a great focal point for undergraduate study,” she said. “Access to programs such as the School of Life Sciences Undergraduate Research program (SOLUR), and the opportunity to apply for research scholarships have also truly enriched my undergraduate experience.”

According to Caspar, the Woman & Philanthropy scholarship allowed her more time to devote to research and join Alpha Epsilon Delta, the health preprofessional honor society at ASU. Caspar hopes to one day have a job that allows her to incorporate clinical research and public health in a medical career. She would like to specifically work with the underserved.

Human genome

Kukurba’s love for science began at an early age.

“I remember reading a local newspaper article about a Phoenix-based research institute involved in sequencing the first draft of the human genome. As I read the article, I knew I wanted to be a part of it,” said Kukurba, a junior who is majoring in biochemistry and genetics (cell and developmental biology).

She followed that dream and is now working in the research labs of Sudhir Kumar and John Chaput at the ASU Biodesign Institute. There, she is attempting to uncover the translational landscape of the human genome in order to understand how gene expression is regulated.

According to Kumar, the results of this research will be far-reaching and will significantly improve understanding of human diseases so that new methods of preventing and treating them can be developed.

Kukurba appreciates receiving the Women & Philanthropy scholarship, which has helped her devote more time to research. Further, she believes “the scholarship is evidence that there is strong financial and social support for women in the field of science.”

When not in the lab researching, Kukurba spends time giving back to the community by volunteering at hospitals. “A society cannot be successful with a mentality that every individual should only worry about themselves,” said Kukurba, who is also a student in Barrett, the Honors College.

After graduation, Kukurba plans to attend graduate school where she will begin a doctoral program in the field of translational medicine and genomics. After that, she aspires to lead translational medicine research projects that would address world problems affecting human health.

Emotional expression

For years, Kalin had an interest in medicine but began her college career majoring in design because at first, it seemed too overwhelming to contemplate attending medical school.

However, her passion for people and science changed her mind and she switched to major in psychology with an emphasis in biology. Now a senior, she chose these majors believing it is important to understand people in order to be an effective doctor.

Kalin’s concentrates her research on studying the differences in the physiological and emotional reactions between men and women. Her research focuses on how men are more likely than women to suppress their emotions and how this suppression raises their anxiety levels.

“When you hold back your emotions, it affects your physiological reactions,” she said.

Kalin relates this suppression to the statistical evidence that women tend to live longer and have fewer heart attacks than men. The goal of the research is to see if there is potential to change the way men emote in hopes their overall health will improve.

Kalin became interested in this research after working for three years in Shiota’s lab in ASU’s Department of Psychology where she was trained in assessing physiological measures of autonomic nervous system responding.

She found the psychology department to be “really encouraging to undergraduate students who want to participate in research.”

During this time Kalin organized and facilitated a bone marrow donor drive and participated in the National Science Foundation’s study of women in the sciences. She also taught basic science concepts to K-8 students through “Science is Fun,” a local educational outreach program that promotes an interest in the sciences. As part of her SciFun experience, Kalin developed a teaching presentation for high school AP chemistry students involving applications of chemistry in the human body.

“SciFun was such a huge aspect of my experience at ASU and I really enjoyed it,” she said.

Kalin is working on publishing a paper on her research and will begin medical school this fall at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

The Women & Philanthropy Access to Undergraduate Research in the Sciences Scholarship was created to encourage and support initiatives of underrepresented students in the sciences. It is created specifically for students who are majoring in chemistry and biochemistry, Earth and space exploration, kinesiology, life sciences, mathematics and statistics, physics, psychology, and speech and hearing science.

Formed in 2002 by a small group of women, Women & Philanthropy is committed to being a supporter and advocate for ASU. Each woman investor makes a minimum annual contribution of $1,000, which is designated to supporting the university’s initiatives as selected by Women & Philanthropy members through a grant process. In addition, a variety of exclusive educational and engagement opportunities are made available to this collective group of accomplished women that are focused on a variety of innovative projects and programs at ASU.

To date, the organization has invested more than $1.2 million in ASU projects and scholarships. Funding from the organization has provided 19 students in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences with research scholarships in the past four academic years.

More about ASU Foundation Women & Philanthropy is online at

Written by Danielle Legler ( for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Carol Hughes,