ASU honors student overcomes brain surgery, graduates early


November 24, 2021

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2021 graduates.

In October 2020, Arizona State University student Dafna Danesh was exercising when she began having a terrible, splitting headache like never before. So she called her dad, who happens to be a neurologist. Dafna Danesh will graduate this fall from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences with a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences with a biomedical sciences concentration. Download Full Image

“He told me I should go to urgent care,” Danesh said. “So I had a friend drive me to urgent care and they did a scan.”

What Danesh found out next was completely unexpected: she had bleeding in her brain due to the rupture of abnormal blood vessels.

“I was admitted to the hospital that day. Two or three days later, I was having brain surgery,” Danesh said. “I was in the hospital for about a week. It was all during COVID-19, so it was a very scary time to be in the hospital. I had to withdraw from a lot of my classes that semester.”

Now, over a year later, Danesh is healthy and about to graduate a semester early from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences with a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences with a biomedical sciences concentration.

“My recovery was surprisingly quick considering what my body had gone through,” she said. “The immediate side effects of the surgery like headaches, eye pressure and dizziness went away soon after, but I took my recovery a day at a time because it wasn’t necessarily a linear path to healing.”

Danesh said she has always found herself interested in human anatomy, but after her experience, her path to becoming a healthcare professional was even further solidified.

“It sounds kind of crazy to say, but it was fascinating what was happening to me because I love studying health and medicine,” she said. “I was so curious about what was happening inside my brain. It was really interesting to learn from the doctors firsthand.”

She shared more about her experiences at ASU and her post-graduation plans.

Question: Why did you choose ASU?

Answer: Whenever I went to visit ASU I was just stunned at what a beautiful campus it was. Everyone was so friendly and so welcoming to me as a highschooler visiting. I'm also a Barrett, The Honors College student, so the Barrett community was really something very special. Being able to learn from other students and being able to do some humanities as a natural sciences student was really important to me. My older sibling was also at ASU at the time, so that was helpful.

Q: Did you have an “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study biological sciences?

A: I always wanted to study medicine and health, and I know I really like helping people. In high school I was in an honors anatomy course and it was incredibly fascinating to learn how and why the body works the way it does. As I was researching majors at ASU and other schools, it was really clear that the biological sciences major would give me all the requirements for whatever higher education I wanted to do. It also gave me a really wide range of different science classes in different niche studies of biology. So I was really drawn to this major.

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

A: A few semesters ago, I took a class called medical anthropology and we had this chapter on midwives in other countries and other cultures around the world. It was just so profound to me, how all across the world there are women helping other women and it was just the most outstanding lesson to be taught. I decided then and there that I wanted to be an OB-GYN because it was just so outstanding to see women empowering women.

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

A: My freshman year I had Katherine Boyce-Jacino for my Human Event class. I had her for both semesters of Human Event and then I went on to TA for her. She taught a Barrett class about the history of museums. She just always pushed me to do my best and explore things that weren't necessarily within my major but things that interested me. I went to the Phoenix Art Museum with her to scout out a field trip for the students of the museum class and I had the most wonderful time. She was teaching me all about art history and the way museums work, the structure and the layout of them. I learned things I would've never learned just as a biological sciences major.

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

A: I'm a team lead at the Arizona Cancer Evolution Center. We study the intersection of evolution and cancer research. It's an incredibly fascinating topic. I lead a team that investigates the origins of multicellularity. I defended a thesis this semester on that topic. We use agent-based modeling to simulate the actions of individual cells and their cooperative behaviors with each other to investigate these origins of multicellularity. It's an incredible research group.

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

A: If one is feeling overwhelmed, way too many things happening or way too much to do, my favorite thing to do is just make a list and check off one thing at a time. Because that's all that one is capable of doing, just one thing at a time. And then seeing the progress made on that list is really helpful in organizing your thoughts and organizing what you need to do.

It's also important to stay connected to your friends; they provide the best support. Be sure to keep your professors updated on what's going on with you. They really do care about the health of their students. Really utilize all the help that ASU has to offer. My adviser, Serena Christianson, really helped to make sure that first of all, I was OK and my mental health was OK during this really tough time. But she also made sure that I was on track to finish. I really can't praise her enough. I don't think I would be graduating at this time without her. I even ended up graduating a semester early in large part due to her help.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: Right now I'm looking into jobs as an EMT or an ER tech. I'm going to work doing that for one or two years as I accrue the required hours I need for a physician assistant (PA) program. Hopefully I’ll go to PA school soon after that and eventually become an OB-GYN.

Emily Balli

Manager of marketing and communications, New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences