Materials scientist and mother finds new path exploring sustainability, circular economy of plastics

May 2, 2022

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2022 graduates.

Fatima Hafsa knew she wanted to be a scientist from a young age. Growing up near Karachi, Pakistan, she worked hard to be considered for the  engineering program. But as a young child dreaming of her future, the materials engineer would have never imagined her journey would lead to a doctorate in sustainability, focusing on the sustainable circular economics of plastics.  Fatima Hasfa, College of Global Futures Spring 2022 Outstanding Graduate Fatima Hafsa, College of Global Futures Spring 2022 Outstanding Graduate. Download Full Image

“I absolutely loved organic chemistry. And I love the idea of polymers, specifically. But as I got into the program, I thought, I don't want to spend my life manufacturing polymers. I want to do a little bit more. How can my work impact society? How can I actively help build communities and actively help with the environment?” 

That desire led Hafsa to work with the World Wide Fund for Nature in Pakistan. She began working in project development, but was soon encouraged to examine the challenge of plastic waste in the oceans and understand how waste management worked in Pakistan. With that understanding, Hasfa became a Fulbright scholar in the material science program at Georgia Tech. 

“Interdisciplinary research is something that is not common, even when there are institutions present. It isn't common for public administration and economics people and engineering folks to come together to really solve sustainability issues.”

At the School of Sustainability in the College of Global Futures she found that collaborative environment. The interdisciplinary program allowed her to apply her skills and background in polymers to the circular economies of recycled materials. 

“My dissertation research borrows from organizational theory, economics and public administration. I don't know where in the world I would have done a dissertation like that.”

Hafsa has thrived in the community she found in the School of Sustainability with her husband, also a doctoral student in the school, and their young child. She has two journal publications and a third coming soon. Her current research examines the roles different organizations can play in implementing a circular economy and preventing plastic waste from leaking.

Some of her work is inspired by the informal recyclers in Pakistan. In the future, she hopes to work directly with small scale recyclers, who typically do most of the recycling in some countries. And there’s a lot one can learn from them about circular economy and waste as a resource. 

“One of my papers looks at scrap plastic prices. I find in some cases recyclers will pay more because they actually desire those properties," she said. "In other cases, we have to pay recyclers to recycle certain things, such as colored plastics.  We can be looking at what policies are more effective and what aren't as much.”

Here she answers some questions about her time at ASU.

Question: What are your goals after graduation?

Answer:  I really want to pursue an academic career. When I came in, I did not. My perspective has changed a lot because being in academia allows you to develop an independent research agenda, while still working with practitioners. Also, I like the idea of mentoring future scholars. I think there's just so much potential.

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

A: I would say this is something that I've been trying to practice more and haven't been able to in the last eight months. But I think you have to prioritize yourself. You have to prioritize your personal life. Because the more mentally relaxed you are, the better you're able to go in to do research. As researchers, our job involves critical thinking, and our job involves looking at issues from a fresh perspective. So if you're going to just make this your whole life about this PhD, you're actually not going to be able to do it as well. So you have to take a step back, enjoy your hobbies, have some hobbies, have some pastimes and hang out with friends. I'm glad that the School of Sustainability also encourages this.

Q: Is your research going to continue in working on lifecycle production for plastics or where do you see your research going forward?

A: Increasingly in the circular economy literature, there's a concept of sustainable circular economy, which addresses social responsibility. I've looked at the economics briefly in one of my papers, published in Public Administration Review. However, I want to study this in more detail. Where are we being socially responsible? Where's the equity, inclusion, diversity in here? Also, I will look at some specific case studies and think about how things vary in previously exploited countries. 

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

A: I would want more childcare. I mean, think about the fact that as a young mother, I have struggled so much, because our community is not built that way. It's such a struggle. Because I don't know if I can go to places. I can't go to conferences. I can't even attend events here at ASU because I have a child with me. And so if I had $40 million, I would like to be kind to mothers and parents around the world. 

Executive Director, Marketing and Communications, ASU Law


Brandon Sumner took his education 'one day at a time’

The PhD in physics student is making history at ASU

May 2, 2022

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2022 graduates.

According to the American Institute of Physics, about nine African Americans receive a PhD in physics in the U.S. each year. This year, Brandon Sumner is one of them.  Brandon Sumner walking and carrying his backpack on ASU's Tempe campus. Brandon Sumner. Screenshot from video by Jordan Currier/ASU Download Full Image

When a mentor approached Sumner and shared that he was “walking Black history,” Sumner was at a loss for words. 

Reflecting on that moment, Sumner said, “It is a great honor and it also speaks to this subject in higher education. I don't think I'm good enough to speak on that, but this is obviously a clear indication that this is moving in the right direction. I feel blessed to be able to carry that mantle with me.”

As a PhD candidate at the Arizona State University Department of Physics, Sumner focused his research on assessing the properties of subatomic particles called cascade baryons and analyzing discrepancies in the quantum chromodynamics theory, which Sumner describes as the theory of how things are held together. 

In spring 2022, he successfully defended his dissertation, titled "Study of Excited Cascade Baryons and Preliminary Cross-Sections for Ξ(1530) Using Data from the GlueX Experiment." He was also selected as the semester’s outstanding graduate student in the natural sciences. 

“Brandon is that great student who demonstrates excellence in his research work and combines this with an awareness of his community and a commitment to make things better,” said Chair of the Department of Physics Patricia Rankin. “I am looking forward to seeing where his career takes him.”

Despite his impressive achievements, Sumner’s journey to becoming a physics scholar was not easy.

“Those landmines are out there,” he said. “When you don't fit the mold, somebody's going to judge you. If you’re not this person, who looks like this, or acts a certain way, and you don’t pass the sniff test, you’ve got to be ready for those bumps. You’ve got to persevere through them,” he said.

Here, Sumner shares his ASU journey and offers advice to fellow Sun Devils. 

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

Answer: Math was my favorite subject growing up. Coming into high school, I took my first physics class and it didn’t make sense. The math was there with the physics, but it just wasn't coming together. One of the first things you go over in the beginning classical courses is constant velocity and constant acceleration motion, and eventually, with the calculus I'd come to learn and then staring at this stuff for long enough, it made sense.

You know, those train questions you always hear, if you have a train going 20 miles per hour east, how long will it take to cover a certain distance? That was my junior year of high school when I first started coming into that type of stuff. And when that finally made sense, I was like, "oh, this is the type of questions this subject is asking and trying to get the answer from." That was my “aha” moment, and that’s what made me love the subject. 

Q: What's something that you've learned during your time at ASU that surprised you or changed your perspective? 

A: I was with my mom, probably my freshman year on campus, which would have been around 2013. And I'm seeing all the students around Rural Road, you know, the entire month going up and down. And I'm like, how long are people about to be out here to party, and, you know, we've got work to get done.

And my mom responded, and she was telling me that not everybody mentally was where I was in the sense that I was goal oriented and so focused on what I'm trying to get done here. I can go party every once and a while, but the job is the job, and so, for me that’s the thing I learned was to take people where they are and accept people for who they are when you meet them. 

Q: Did you encounter any challenges? If so, how have you overcome them?

A: It's not always sunshine and rainbows. This pandemic was one of the most stressful things you could do. I'm 25, 26, about to be 27, during the pandemic. If I was to suddenly pass away due to COVID-19, fine by me, but you know, it's my two-year-old that I’m more worried about. He can't get vaccinated. He can’t get any of the mitigation techniques applied to him; he was just too young, so that was a stress.

In my second year, the professor I was working with wasn't working out, and I had just asked my partner to come move in from Texas to stay with me about eight to 10 months earlier. So the stress of feeling like I'm about to flunk out of something that I really, really want, and then I got a kid on the way and a partner that moved here that depends on me to bring home the bacon. So the stress was ramped up, and then six months later COVID hit. It was like a punch after a punch after a punch, so it was not easy, but luckily I have a great family I can lean on.

It's not giving up on yourself, I mean that's what it came down to. I had a professor, who I did undergraduate research with, that I ran into. We started conversing and he gave me another opportunity, and once I had that chance, you're not going to take that opportunity away.

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

A: Take it one day at a time. I started in WAC 101 when I got on campus. WAC 101 is remedial English, so for people that think I’m some savant of the highest order that, you know, was ordained to be the greatest, that is so far from the case. 

If I had looked back 10 years ago and said, “Hey Brandon, you're a senior in high school. You're going to go finish your PhD,” he would have been like, “No, it’s too much.” But when you take it in those small chunks, it is possible to climb that mountain.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I got a job lined up for summer to be a liaison for the physics department, to teach high-school-aged minority students through ASU’s Migratory Student Summer Academy. That'll be a fun first-time experience doing something like that that will be well out of my comfort zone.

Then, hopefully in the fall, I put in an application for an NSF fellowship, and hopefully I'll hear back from them soon. If that does work out, that’s what I'll be doing for the foreseeable future.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish in 10 years?

A: I'm a fairly simple person, so it's just having that stability. I’ve got one child and my partner already, and if it wasn't for my family, this whole shabang would have been that much harder. I was able to lean on them for resources when I was without. So it’s just having that stability of a solid career that I’m doing well in and that the home is taken care of.

Lauren Whitby

Digital Marketing Manager, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences