ASU student earns her dream degree

December 10, 2021

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

A recurring dream during childhood led first-generation student Shawn Sonies to where she is today: graduating magna cum laude this fall from Arizona State University with a BA in English (literature) and a certificate in environmental humanities. Courtesy photo of graduating ASU student Shawn Sonies Download Full Image

In Sonies’ dream, she seemed to glimpse her future life as a writer.

“I was seated at a simple desk in a peaceful room with white, billowy curtains and a window that provided me a view of an ocean,” she said. “With pen in hand, I was writing a story, perhaps my own.”

This wasn’t Sonies’ first attempt at college. A mother and grandmother, Sonies completes her degree as a re-start of her higher education journey, which she began in her native Louisiana many years ago. This time around, Sonies made strategic choices, including making use of available resources, like MyPath2ASU, to join ASU as a transfer student in 2018. She also joined Sigma Tau Delta, an English honor society, and decided to enroll in environmental humanities courses, that combined her interests in writing and sustainability, to add value to her English degree.

“My desire to learn more about food insecurity, food deserts, socio-economic inequities, environmental issues and the future of sustainable communities was the catalyst that ultimately led to the decision that the certificate program would be an excellent complement to my degree program,” she said.

Sonies said that after graduation she would like to start her own podcast and try her hand at freelance photojournalism: “I intend to be creative about my future income-generating opportunities.”

We caught up with Sonies to find out a bit more about what it was like to transfer to ASU and how she might use her writing skills for good in the world.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study in your field?

Answer: I was an avid reader by the age of four — thanks to my mother and maternal grandmother — and excelled at English composition, and creative and speech writing, as a child and teenager. Book collecting and writing have always been passions of mine. However, I did not decide that a degree in English was the direction I wanted to go in until moving to Arizona in 2012 and making the decision to return to school in the fall of 2016.

As a first-generation, non-traditional student, I enrolled at Phoenix Community College (PCC) and entered the ASU Pathways Program (MAPP). My lifelong love of different types of literature and passion for writing were the deciding factors for selecting English as my major but the decision to pursue a certificate in environmental humanities wasn't made until my junior year at ASU. I was intrigued by ASU's environmental humanities program and had some prior knowledge of the existence of food deserts and community gardens in Maricopa County from my time at PCC.

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

A: It is difficult to select only one learning experience during my time at ASU that surprised or changed my perspective. The professors that I have met at ASU are amazing, gifted educators, and each one that I had the pleasure of studying under created a curriculum that held my attention and raised my awareness about real-world issues and challenges. I was consistently inspired and challenged to think "outside the box." I must say that I was also very impressed by ASU's dedication and focus, where diversity, inclusivity, sustainability and innovation are concerned.

Now that I reflect back, I think that ASU changed my perspective on what an excellent public university can offer to its students. What ASU offers is a world-class education and limitless opportunities that one might otherwise think can only be found at private universities and Ivy League schools. If you take the time to read the curriculum vitae of your professors, you will be amazed at how many degrees were earned at prestigious universities located within the United States and around the world. They chose to bring their gifted minds, research and vast knowledge within their respective fields to ASU. For me, that spoke volumes.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU because I wanted to pursue a degree program at a top-rated public university. I was greatly impressed with everything that I read about ASU's accomplishments and plans for the future. President Michael Crow, through his tenacity, business acumen, interest in advanced technological developments and determination to elevate ASU to the impressive status that we see today, made ASU all the more desirable to me. ASU is the perfect model of institutions of higher learning leaning into the future and producing students who are well-educated, career-ready graduates and conscientious global citizens. I knew that I wanted to become a part of ASU's culture.

At first, it was a bit of a challenge for me to gain admission, due to my past academic mistakes stemming from life-altering events that took place when I was younger and without any support system, whatsoever. I believed that I was capable of more than I had previously achieved and deserving of a second chance. Naturally, being the tenacious person that I am, I was determined that ASU would accept me as a student. I accomplished this by enrolling at Phoenix Community College, becoming an honors student and member of Phi Theta Kappa, then transferring to ASU through the MAPP program within three semesters with a cumulative 3.917, while also working months-long temp assignments at (law firm) Jennings, Strouss & Salmon, PLC during the week.

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

A: I think that perhaps it was my History 325: Immigration & Ethnicity professor, (College of Integrative Sciences and Arts Lecturer Senior) Pamela Stewart. She taught me that there are different paths to achieving one's academic goals and that even a mature, non-traditional student has the opportunity to raise awareness about important topics through modern forms of media, such as podcasting. She taught me that I still had a voice and could find acceptance in a younger generation's milieu.

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

A: Never give up! There may be times when you feel that you just can't make it through another class or semester but know that ASU has an amazing support system and faculty really does care about you, as a person, and your success, as a student. Stay the course and you will never regret making that choice. You are a student at one of the greatest public universities in this country and ASU is the launching pad for your future success.

Q: What was your favorite spot for power studying?

A: My favorite spots for power studying were the rotunda area at Armstrong Hall, Hayden Library and the North Design Building, where Charlie's Café is located. I always brought earbuds or my AirPods with me so that I could listen to my music playlists unless I had a project partner working with me.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: My plans are not yet solidified but seeking employment is at the top of my list of priorities. Remote work is a strong consideration, especially if it can be done from a laptop. My husband and I are contemplating relocating to Portugal at the end of next year, where I could use my Portuguese language skills and possibly teach English, but if I am fortunate enough to find the right employment fit here, we will remain in Arizona. Ultimately, I would love to write professionally. I have many interests and love to research different topics.

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

A: First, I would like to point out that $40 million dollars would be insufficient to solve most problems that impact our planet and its inhabitants; but $40 million could be viewed as seed money and an excellent start for feasible, viable and sustainable projects that have the potential to problem solve on a grand scale. There are a plethora of issues that need to be addressed on our planet, but I think that I would focus on the creation of sustainable communities for the socioeconomically disadvantaged who struggle with food insecurity and malnutrition due to food deserts, and try to find viable solutions for countries where famine is the cause of severe malnutrition, disease and high death rates. This is what I would consider a "wicked problem" of grand proportions because there are many contributing factors and no simple solutions.

Lack of adequate nutrition affects the human body in many ways, negatively impacting cognitive abilities, immune systems, physical development and strength, hormonal and chemical balances, mental focus, attention spans, etc. Hunger and food insecurity even has a psychological impact on humans. Severe malnutrition is life threatening and a cause of death around the world. Children are hardest hit by a lack of adequate nutrition, and it is currently estimated by Feeding America that one in eight adults and one in six children may currently be experiencing food insecurity this year, just in the United States. We are a wealthy nation, according to our GDP, yet food insecurity and food deserts are persistent national problems for our children, families and communities, so try to imagine what citizens of impoverished countries experience.

I am a proponent of community engagement, education and management with additional support where and when needed, ecologically sustainable communities, drought-tolerant food plants, water conservation, companion planting, seed programs, organic vertical planters, edible landscaping and organic, ecologically sustainable school and community gardens, agricultural co-ops, small community farms and urban grow warehouses.

Kristen LaRue-Sandler

Manager, marketing + communications, Department of English


ASU professor will synthesize new materials with NSF CAREER award

Christina Birkel and her group are diligently working to create new materials that can be used for renewable energy, catalysts and permanent magnets

December 10, 2021

Assistant Professor Christina Birkel, an inorganic chemist from Arizona State University’s School of Molecular Sciences, has recently earned a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation.

Birkel and her group are diligently working to create new materials that can be used for renewable energy, catalysts and permanent magnets. Christina Birkel Christina Birkel is an inorganic chemist and an assistant professor in the School of Molecular Sciences at ASU. Photo by Mary Zhu/ASU Download Full Image

“I am very excited that our group has been selected for this award, and I am grateful to all team members who played an essential part in making this happen and to the National Science Foundation for funding our future projects around MAX phases and MXenes,” Birkel said.

Professor Tijana Rajh, director of the School of Molecular Sciences, which is part of The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said, “Christina Birkel and her group are doing extremely innovative molecular science, developing new solid-state materials. Our younger faculty members in the School of Molecular Sciences have an extraordinary record of achievement, and Professor Birkel is an exemplar in this regard.”

The prestigious CAREER program supports the early career development activities of teacher-scholars who most effectively integrate research and education within the mission of their organization. It provides five-year research grants to each recipient.

Making new materials

In this age of machine learning and data-driven research, a plethora of possible materials are being investigated, but synthesizing them in the lab, especially in the solid state, is often anything but straightforward.

Making new types of materials is at the heart of this award. Materials are all around us and are the driving force for new and innovative solid-state technologies centered on batteries, sensors and magnets.

The discovery of new and better materials, together with understanding their characteristics, such as their structure and properties, and how these factors can be tuned during their preparation are of utmost importance.

In this project, the Birkel group will focus on solid compounds that contain different metals and either carbon, nitrogen or both, called carbides, nitrides or carbonitrides, respectively. They offer a huge playground for the discovery of new types of materials with useful properties since they can (i) mix and match different elements, and (ii) produce them in different shapes.

Birkel started out years ago working on oxides and metallic chalcogenides, and recently her group has been very active in the field of carbides (so-called MAX phases). Solid-state microwave heating (using domestic and industrial ovens) is an excellent technique to focus on to synthesize carbides. Beautifully layered crystal structures are produced.

The Birkel group performs a lot of electron microscopy, X-ray diffraction and structural analysis on these materials. They are very special in that these materials can be exfoliated, that is, one layer of “A” elements in the structure (usually aluminum) can be etched out very selectively and you can end up with 2D materials (so-called MXenes). 2D materials are macroscopic in two dimensions and nanoscopic in the third. These materials have many potential applications.

Birkel is pushing their MAX phase research to make entirely new chemical compositions and shapes — for example, wires, spheres and hollow spheres. These compounds will have unique mechanical behaviors, such as self-healing at higher temperatures, as well as behaving in an interesting way magnetically.

Having hollow spheres, films and wires available paves the way for new uses of these materials. One can, for example, envision a way to integrate the wires into fabrics and produce wearable electronics that monitor sweat levels or produce energy on the go.  

Birkel group

The Birkel group in the School of Molecular Sciences: (from left) Jan Paul Siebert, Andreas Reitz, Christina Birkel, Rose Snyder, Jordan Sinclair, John Jamboretz and Andrew Wasserbeck. Photo by Lauren Tackett/ASU

Furthermore, the team can break these layered solids down into atomically thin sheets, which are thinner than one-billionth of a meter. Reaching this size regime enables special physical phenomena that are not accessible in the larger structures. Different reactions can be catalyzed on their surfaces; for example, the production of hydrogen gas from water, which has big implications for renewable and cleaner energy production.

Where the 2D materials are concerned, it’s important to discover how the surface chemistry evolves during the exfoliation process. How can they manipulate the surface chemistry, and ultimately how does that influence the catalytic properties?

Future results from Birkel’s group are awaited, as they are utilizing powerful and innovative techniques for the production of many inorganic compounds despite the fact that there are many complications to solve along the way.

Jenny Green

Clinical associate professor, School of Molecular Sciences