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ASU Online alumna overcomes homelessness to excel at research

ASU online graduate Julie Roberts with her daughters Camryn, Kiersen and Leighton. Photo courtesy of Julie Roberts.

March 22, 2021

Arizona State University graduate Julie Roberts recently won first place in the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) student e-poster competition. 

One of the world’s largest scientific gatherings, the four-day AAAS annual meeting offered an incredible variety of events, many of which were available free to the public for the first time. Dozens of ASU faculty, staff and students joined other prominent guest speakers addressing a variety of topics, including presentations by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Sethuraman Panchanathan, director of the National Science Foundation; ASU President Michael Crow; and Sally C. Morton, the new executive vice president of ASU’s Knowledge Enterprise.

The meeting also included a student research poster competition, featuring original research conducted recently while enrolled in a full-time graduate or undergraduate program. Roberts won undergraduate first place in the Science and Society category for her poster “Perceptions of Evolution Among Muslim Undergraduate Biology Students in the USA.” However, her journey to this research accolade was unlike most other students.

Roberts graduated from ASU Online in December 2020 with dual degrees in biological science and psychology

She discovered her interest in psychology and neurobiology while at community college, before coming to ASU. After graduating high school, she spent a few years traveling and working in Europe before returning to Arizona to begin classes at Central Arizona College. 

She worked for several years as a psychology tutor, and as a substance abuse specialist for adults, and struggled with the sometimes-subjective interpretation of patient symptoms. She wanted to go deeper, understand more. 

“I wanted more of a scientific, concrete something,” she said. “I wanted to be able to say: this person is experiencing these symptoms; here is what their biology says about that.”

The more she learned, the more she was impressed by how much more there was to find out. She was particularly fascinated by the chemical and molecular makeup of drug treatments and how they interacted with the brain and other biological systems. A Phi Beta Kappa scholar and active in volunteer work, she was soon accepted with full scholarship to several universities, including ASU. 

But then her world collapsed. She experienced the devastating loss of a child and slipped quickly downhill. She dropped out of her classes, and struggled with alcohol and substance use, and finally the crushing weight of homelessness.

Through immense difficulty, she fought to reclaim her life. She began her recovery journey and found a way forward. She now celebrates over 10 years of sobriety, holding it as one of her greatest triumphs.

“No matter how far my education takes me, or anything else really, recovery will always be my best, my hugest accomplishment,” Roberts said. “Like, if I can do that, I think I can do just fine.” 

Now a single mother to three small daughters, all wrestling with grief, she faced a new set of challenges. She began painting — expressing her thoughts and feelings as she processed the loss of her youngest child. She started a small business as an artist, and found comfort in connecting with others who were experiencing similar circumstances. 

“As soon as my youngest was old enough for kindergarten, I sent her to school and then I enrolled in ASU,” she said. “And I'm like, we're going to finish this right, we’re going to do this.”

Picking up old interests, and exploring new ones, she enrolled in the online degree programs of biology and psychology, and started conducting research on student experiences in evolution education. 

“We primarily investigated the experiences of religious students in evolution education,” she said. “So we look at how their religiosity impacts their understanding of micro, macro and human evolution, but also their acceptance of it.”

She also examined teaching practices that impact the student experience, exploring strategies instructors might use to decrease conflict in what can be a contentious area. 

“Religion and evolution are not in conflict,” Roberts said. “In fact, they don't answer the same questions, and the bounded nature of science can't even make a verdict about religion. So, in essence, evolution is not atheistic, it is an agnostic science. And so there is compatibility between religion and evolution, you can completely support both.”

“Julie is absolutely phenomenal,” said Sara Brownell, associate professor in the School of Life Sciences, and director of the ASU Research for Inclusive STEM Education Center. “She has been working in my lab for the past two years and has the best ideas, gives really thoughtful contributions to the research, and is such a dedicated researcher. She is doing all of this while being on online student, juggling being a mom and navigating her kids’ needs. She is already a co-author on a publication that examines Christianity as a concealable stigmatized identity in biology and is a co-author on two manuscripts under review.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic brought its own wave of new challenges, the move to remote learning had a silver lining, enabling Roberts to spend plenty of time with her daughters while also participating in more seminars and conferences due to virtual streaming options that broadened access for online students. 

“I want the best future for my kids,” she said. “I want them to see that they can go and do anything they want to do, and do it well. Not just get it done, but be a leader.”

After graduating from ASU, Roberts intends to continue her education, and is attending Northwestern University to study the impact of trauma on neurological functioning.

“Winning first-place at AAAS, graduating summa cum laude, getting into Northwestern and ultimately pursuing my passions and talents has been an exercise in reinventing myself, getting over the shame of my past and finding what was there all along,” she said. 

“I hope by sharing these details, it will help someone else realize they can rise above any circumstance and be their best selves. I hope if anyone who reads my story is struggling with a substance-use disorder or knows someone who is, that they do not give up on themselves or that person. Recovery is possible. People can go on to do really amazing things. Life is so good now.”

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