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School of Life Sciences Dean's Medalist brings together art, science, history

ASU SOLS student Ariana Afshari awarded Deans Medal

Ariana Afshari is a scientist, philosopher and artist, and graduates this spring with her Bachelor’s of Science in biological sciences (neurobiology, physiology and behavior), and a minor in civic and economic thought leadership. Photo courtesy of Ariana Afshari.

May 04, 2022

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

Ariana Afshari epitomizes a modern renaissance student — a scientist, researcher, philosopher, historian and artist. 

A biological sciences major in the School of Life Sciences focusing on neurobiology, physiology and behavior, she also minored in civic and economic thought leadership. Then, during the height of the pandemic in August 2020, Afshari decided to push her boundaries even further and explore an entirely new discipline — she started painting

Art opened a window to new techniques to analyze and express history, science, politics and philosophy — combining her passions and bringing them to 3D life.   

One of her paintings now hangs in the School of Civic and Economic Thought Leadership Coors Texts Reading Room, which has become one of Afshari’s favorite study spots on campus. 

“It has a quaint design with chess, antique lighting, and is an intimate spot to catch up with friends, enjoy the classic literature they feature on their shelves, or focus on your studies,” she said.

The painting, a 60-by-40-inch canvas mural, is inspired by “The School of Athens” by the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael. Standing tall in the precise mathematical architecture alongside Plato and Aristotle are other prominent figures, including Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Cesar Chavez, Frederick Douglas and Frida Kahlo

In light of her many accomplishments, this multifaceted scholar and artist has been selected as this semester’s Dean’s Medalist by The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. 

This prestigious honor recognizes graduating students who have demonstrated outstanding academic excellence during their time at ASU. In addition to her artistic talents, Afshari contributed to research in developmental neurobiology, mathematical neuro-oncology, and neurosurgery. 

She also served as the director of health and wellness for the undergraduate student government, where she illustrated and published an interactive children’s guide to COVID-19. 

After graduation she plans to participate in developmental neuroscience research at Stanford Medical School and teach biology with Teach for America. 

We had the chance to ask Afshari a few questions about her time at ASU. 

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Question: What was the moment when you realized you wanted to study neuroscience? 

Answer: Neuroscience itself is an incredibly versatile field of study, which is what makes it so rewarding for students who like to bounce between disciplines in academic and research spaces. For me, my “aha” moment was through a long-time exposure to what neurobiology looks like in-practice — learning the mechanics of neuron firing in the classroom, to applying that biology in a lab I worked in at Mayo Clinic studying mathematical neuro-oncology, to scrubbing into neurosurgeries with patients with the clinical phenotypes I had, in textbooks and at the workplace, studied. This is how I ultimately knew I loved studying the brain, in every domain: at school, in research, and in the clinic.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I was raised just south of ASU in the Valley, so there was always an incentive to stay close to friends and family, and my four-year-old baby sister in particular. However, I was extremely fortunate enough to receive a scholarship that covered my tuition and housing for all four years. I knew I would be able to get a really full ASU experience and pursue opportunities tailored to my professional goals with that degree of financial aid, which was the primary contributor to my decision to go to ASU.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU that changed your perspective?

A: I learned at ASU the sheer importance of asking: “Can you make a spot for me?” or “Can I have _____ opportunity?” Arizona State University is the kind of university that has endless avenues for students to explore internships and research experience, but what’s not advertised is how many opportunities you can create for yourself. I became well-accustomed to advocating for myself and asking professors and faculty to make room for me or to put me in contact with someone who can make my dream position possible. Learning the power of self-advocacy is what made my ASU experience transformative, when I realized the ceiling was not the sky.  

Q: What is a life-changing lesson you learned from a professor while at ASU? Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: The director of the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, Dr. Paul Carrese, served as a mentor for me throughout my academic journey at ASU, who always advocated for my success, but it remains that one of the life lessons he conversationally shared with me stands out. I came to him asking how I can balance furthering my career while also seeking personal happiness. He responded by telling me the story he used to read to his children about how a colony of mice worked strenuously every summer season to gather enough food to survive, while one mouse would adventure — collecting sun rays, colors and words. By the time the mice had to use their food supply in the cold months, it ran out, and the mouse who sought intangible experiences was able to distract them with his stories to survive the winter. This taught me the importance of chasing experiences, not accolades, and finding meaning and mentorship, not money and prestige so that I, too, have something of substance to get me through the “winters” of life. 

Q: Were you able to participate in any internships or research experiences while at ASU?

A: I was lucky enough to participate in many internships and research experiences while at ASU. I got the chance to be a part of a lab studying developmental neurobiology here at ASU during the academic school years and eventually became involved in a second lab studying mathematical neurosurgery at Mayo Clinic. Through these research experiences, I was able to both contribute to multiple scientific manuscripts and present my work at local and national conferences. I also served as the director of health and wellness for the Undergraduate Student Government and was honored as a Spirit of Service Scholar. In addition, I consistently worked with Teach for America to assist 2nd and 3rd grade classrooms through their IGNITE fellowship and participated in a year-long internship at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. 

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

A: If I could offer advice to current students, I would tell them to seek two things in all their academic pursuits: real challenge and true inspiration. They should take the time to find what communities or fields of study make them feel inspired and begin building a toolbox of opportunities and experiences that make the most sense for their interests and their narrative. I think it’s a valuable skill to be prudent and intentional with what you dedicate your time to, so that you, not only do them well, but you take away something valuable for your own story. 

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