PhD grad ready to make an even bigger impact

December 6, 2021

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

A presentation nearly a decade ago on the health disparities experienced by African American women in Arizona made a strong impression on Kenja Hassan, assistant vice president of Arizona State University’s Office of Government and Community Engagement.  Kenja Hassan poses in a cream dress. She's wearing orange rimmed eye glasses Kenja Hassan is graduating with a PhD in nursing and healthcare innovation from ASU's Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation. Photo by Claudia Johnstone Download Full Image

“I was shaken to learn that nationwide, Black women experience worse health outcomes across the life span and higher rates of ailments ranging from maternal mortality to Alzheimer’s Disease. Also at that time, I saw that HIV/AIDS, a disease I thought we had conquered in the 1990s, was still a leading cause of death for Black women,” Hassan said.

After this was brought to her attention, she wanted to better understand how health disparities impact minorities in the U.S. and, just as important, what can be done about them.

It was around that same time that she found out about ASU’s Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation’s Nursing and Healthcare Innovation PhD program from a co-worker.

She decided to apply and knew exactly what she was going to focus her research on: “I chose to study HIV because the social stigma linked to the virus can complicate its treatment.”

Over the last seven years, Hassan has been working her demanding day job while pursuing her PhD, which is the equivalent of having two full-time jobs. The main reason she was able to finish her dissertation this year was because of the coronavirus-forced cancellations of events and in-person gatherings.

“I’m not convinced it would have happened without the requirement to be at home and be in one place, which gave me the time and the excuse to write the dissertation,” she said.

Her advisers and classmates also played an integral role in getting her to the finish line. Hassan said adviser David Coon “invested a lot of time in me to make sure that I was doing things the right way.”

Next up for Hassan is sharing what she has found through her research with local providers in a more expanded fashion. The goal is to get them to review what works for patients living with HIV and where they might be able to make some changes in their approach to keep more patients in care.

But first, she’ll take a beat to enjoy commencement this month. Below, Hassan reflects on her experience at ASU in general, her time as a doctoral student specifically and shares what problem she’d tackle with $40 million.

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

Answer: ASU constantly expands my perspective because the university provides open opportunities to learn something new every day. Recently, on ASU Thought Huddle, I learned how slavery’s economic benefit to the U.S. economy extends to the present day and how humanity’s evolving understanding of plagues and contagions influence our response to COVID-19. 

Thanks to the Department of English, I heard legendary primatologist Jane Goodall explain the power of storytelling. She described a visit to a national research facility during which a caged chimpanzee wiped her tears away. She then used that story to convince those researchers to end experimentation on chimpanzees.

I’ve read that scientists at ASU’s Biodesign Institute have found promising evidence that microorganisms in our gut influence mental health conditions and present new ways for treating autism. Now, I had known that food changes your mood, but this research takes it to a whole new level. The discoveries are constant — it’s up to us to be open and transformed by them.

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

A: I have had multiple faculty reinforce the most important lesson: Be thorough. My earlier degree at ASU was in religious studies. I had masterful teachers there and in Edson College. Faculty in both programs, especially my advisers Kenneth Morrison and David Coon, taught me valuable lessons about asking more questions of the information I gathered, documenting my processes carefully, writing clearly so my reader understood my findings and making sure I supported my argument. 

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

A: I advise students to avoid taking feedback personally. This is especially important for writing. If a grader gives you lots of feedback on your writing, it’s an opportunity to learn how to clarify your message. Feedback does not mean that something is wrong with your point of view. Since clear communication is important for both professional and personal life, I tell students to use college as a time to practice making mistakes and getting better.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would use the money to advocate for shifting our national approach to health care delivery from intervention to prevention, especially in the case of poor and underserved populations. I would focus on implementing delivery systems that make it easier for people of limited means to get care before small issues become large, costly crises. A viable starting point is increasing the availability of telemedicine and virtual appointments to help people without transportation or ample sick leave to make appointments they might otherwise miss.  

Honestly, I wouldn’t be able to resist helping address the global reduction in biodiversity. I would have to set some money aside to purchase land for wildlife habitat preservation. Human health and well-being are intertwined with the rest of our planet, including the animals we don’t yet know much about. Fighting for human health means little if our planet isn’t also healthy.

Amanda Goodman

Senior communications specialist, Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation


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Big ideas on display as Health Innovation Exhibition returns in person

December 6, 2021

Projects range from COVID-19 kits for homeless to devices that help prevent accidents due to drowsy driving

Every fall since 2014, first-year students in Arizona State University’s Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation have gathered at the Health Innovation Exhibition to present their solutions to real-world health challenges to faculty, staff and the community.

Every fall, that was, until last year, when the coronavirus caused the event to be moved online and for students to present their posters digitally.

“Like so many others in 2020, we had to pivot. But our ASU 101 students work really hard on these projects all semester, so it was important that we found a meaningful way to showcase their efforts and great ideas,” said Caitlyn Zang, director of student engagement at Edson College.

At the beginning of this year, it wasn’t clear whether the event would be back in person, but thanks to a lot of planning, a large outdoor space and ASU’s Community of Care precautions, the event returned. And not only was it back, but it was also the largest Health Innovation Exhibition the college has ever hosted.

“This year about 750 students participated on Friday (Dec. 3). We moved it to 850PBC, or the Wexford Building, home to ASU’s Health Entrepreneurship Accelerator Lab (HEALab), which is a sponsor of the event,” Zang said.

The students took up the entire parking lot of one of the newest buildings on the Downtown Phoenix campus to share the culmination of their semester-long projects. Topics were predetermined by the faculty in the college and then divided up between ASU 101 sections. 

Bernardine Bueno and her group, which included classmates Yasmin Contreras and Sitey Muya, focused on prenatal care. Their solution centered on increasing access to resources.

“We decided to focus our idea in rural Arizona and create a mobile clinic that would travel to rural areas and provide prenatal resources for parents-to-be, including classes and social support groups,” Bueno said.

Edson College students stand next to their poster during the Health Innovation Exhibition. The poster is a pale pink and has the words Mobile Prenatal Clinic on it

Bernardine Bueno, Yasmin Contreras and Sitey Muya stand next to their poster at the Health Innovation Exhibition.

“It was a really good experience because it was a broad topic to begin with, so we had to narrow it down and come up with a solution,” said Muya, adding, “I feel great about how it came out, and we’re happy with it.”

On the tech side, Danielle Enero and teammates Valeria Montes and Briana Lopez Martinez came up with a device to detect drowsy driving and then alert the driver and, if necessary, the police.

“People always think of car accidents resulting from drunk driving or something, but one of the major causes is sleep deprivation, and it's something people don’t realize is a big problem,” Enero said.

Their solution, the “sleepbelt,” would help curb that.

“The device attaches to the seat belt and detects if you’re falling asleep. It also tracks your pulse and can tell when it slows. There are pre-recorded conversations to talk with you if you’re falling asleep, and it also has alarms that can alert the police if you don’t wake up,” Lopez Martinez said.

In total, the first-year students put forward more than 200 ideas ranging from topics like the ones mentioned above to mindfulness, COVID-19 care kits for those who are homeless and more. 

“One of the great things about introducing innovation to students at this stage is that they’re not constrained by anything. They can really let their imaginations run in every direction, and that leads to some really good ideas that are totally outside the box. Which is exactly the point of this project,” said Rick Hall, assistant dean of health innovation and entrepreneurship. 

A new addition to the event is a cash prize element, with the winning teams each splitting the money. All students who participate have the opportunity to pursue their idea using the vast resources available in the HEALab in collaboration with the J. Orin Edson Entrepreneurship + Innovation Institute

“I’m so impressed by the thoughtfulness and thoroughness of these ideas. I mean, there really are several here that have serious potential. And the fact that they are able to do this so early on in their schooling, I can just imagine all the great things ahead of them in health care,” said Edson College Dean Judith Karshmer. 

The 2021 winners were:

First place: $1,000 cash prize 

Sleepbelt: Just Wear It” — a device to curb drowsy driving by Valeria Montes, Danielle Enero and Briana Lopez Martinez.

Second place: $500 cash prize

We Hear You” — a pager prototype to address bed alarm fatigue by Sarah Lindner, Cynthia Galvan and Marissa Hammel.

Third place: $250 cash prize 

Kits for Care” — COVID-19 care kits for the homeless by Marine Koshkaryan, Connie Escobar and Hannah Keller.

Montes, who was part of the first-place team, said she was not expecting to win the top prize. 

“I know we did the research and we did a good job, but there’s a bunch of other great ideas out there as well, so I’m surprised,” she said.

Top photo: A first-year student discusses her team's poster with Edson College Dean Judith Karshmer during the Health Innovation Exhibition on the Downtown Phoenix campus. Photo by Mitchell Tay

Amanda Goodman

Senior communications specialist , Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation