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Neurobiology student re-creates famous mural during pandemic

Plato and Aristotle surrounded by philosophers, detail from School of Athens, fresco by Raphael, 1508–11; in the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican. Image: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, New York. Source:

May 13, 2021

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in August 2020, when Arizona State University's Tempe campus was at a standstill and students and faculty were preparing for another semester of virtual learning, Ariana Afshari started to paint.

A neurobiology major pursuing a minor in civic and economic thought and leadership, Afshari was looking for an opportunity to show that she was well-versed in more than STEM, philosophy, politics and economics — she is also an artist.

“It makes sense to explore different avenues like art in the same way we would study ancient works,” Afshari said. “In a lot of ways, I don’t think students think they work in tandem but they do. This project has really made it possible for me to demonstrate to other students that art can also work in the same way to analyze history, politics and philosophy.”

When the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership developed their Coor Texts Reading Room, Afshari approached the school’s director, Paul Carrese, to ask if she could paint something for it. That something is a 60-by-40-inch canvas mural inspired by "The School of Athens" by the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael.

“Arianna's work is a great example of SCETL students integrating their learning with their everyday lives, and integrating different disciplines," Carrese said. "The Coor Texts Reading Room is a space for our students and faculty to study, read and talk about their classes, as well as the wider world. Arianna is a scientist inspired by her SCETL studies to think philosophically across the span of human inquiry. We're so thankful she has contributed this splendid statement about SCETL and higher learning."

“With history, you have the benefit of knowing so much about the context, so many details, facts and figures, but you cannot really imagine what it might look like when you were there. Art has this profound way of making it more multidimensional and that’s the beauty of it,” Afshari said.

Over the past 10 months, Afshari has re-created Raphael’s masterpiece but with a SCETL twist: In addition to Plato and Aristotle, Afshari added Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Cesar Chavez, Frederick Douglass, Frida Kahlo and other prominent historical figures.

The mural now hangs in the Coor Texts Reading Room, which is open to all Arizona State University students and faculty. Many items in the Reading Room are available through generous long-term loans made by the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership faculty members. You can view the catalog here.

In addition to working on the mural throughout the year, Afshari also worked part time as a pharmacy technician, served on the Undergraduate Student Government as the director of health and wellness, was an Eichler Scholar through the Dartmouth Health Care Foundations, an IGNITE Fellow for Teach For America and a WINURE Neuroscience Research Scholar for the School of Life Sciences.

“This has served as a break for me,” Afshari said. “It was a nice opportunity to explore my passions and find something good in something really bad … I am proud of myself and I’m really excited for everyone to see it and admire it, and hopefully derive something cool out of it that I didn’t even intend.”

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