ASU alumna pursues science passion to earn astrobiology, biogeosciences degree

May 4, 2022

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

Adrianna Matthews, a 2017 W. P. Carey School of Business graduate, is graduating from the School of Earth and Space Exploration with a Bachelor of Science degree in earth and space exploration (astrobiology and biogeosciences).  Portrait of ASU grad Adrianna Matthews. School of Earth and Space Exploration 2022 grad Adrianna Matthews. Download Full Image

As a little girl, Matthews used to stare at the stars at night and often found herself thinking about the hard-to-answer questions, such as “Why are we here?” and “Are we alone?” She would think about potential life on other planets, and come up with creative ways for their survival, losing sleep along the way. 

“I have always known that I wanted to study something in the space sciences, but when I was a young girl, I didn’t feel as though I had the intelligence necessary for such a field,” Matthews said. “I also never saw any women who were scientists, and that concerned me, as I thought the field might not be as welcoming to women, so I chose a different path.”

After graduating from business school and receiving straight A’s her last semester, she thought maybe she could try to dip her feet into science by taking a few classes at the community college. Matthews told herself if she could pass chemistry and trigonometry (two classes that stumped her before) then she would continue. After flourishing in both, she continued to pursue her passion, founded a club at Chandler Gilbert Community College, and made it back to ASU to study astrobiology and biogeosciences.

At ASU, she took an astrobiology class, which expanded her breadth of knowledge in astrobiology in many ways. She learned there are many different ideas about the concept of alien life, and there are different avenues for tackling the question “Are we alone?” This class helped Matthews realize that she could study geology, biology, chemistry, physics or other fields and still be an astrobiologist. 

“I was surprised with how well I fit in with the rest of my classmates, thinking about these topics,” Matthews said. “When I was younger, I often felt alone in my thoughts of the universe, but here I was surrounded by students who thought about the same topics, and I learned so much from them as well as the instructor.”

Matthews credits School of Earth and Space Exploration Assistant Professor Elizabeth Trembath-Reichert with teaching her that different backgrounds can enhance your position as a scientist, and helped her to embrace her love of science through research.

"Adrianna has a willingness to form collaborations and explore new fields, along with impressive time management skills, that have made her a pleasure to work with,” said Trembath-Reichert. “The MOD lab wishes her the best and looks forward to seeing her future scientific endeavors in graduate school and beyond. Long live polygonal plots!"

After graduation, Matthews will be heading to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville to pursue her PhD in microbiology. 

She answered some questions about her time here at ASU. 

Question: Why did you choose ASU?  

Answer: I chose ASU for the inclusivity of the program at the School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE). Before I had even decided to take any courses at the community college level, I had contacted an astrobiology professor at ASU. Her willingness to speak with a potential student who was not in the sciences quite yet and who did not have a science background spoke volumes to me. She answered all my questions, gave me advice, and we stayed in contact for a few years before I joined ASU, and I am now involved in her lab! But this is not the only reason why I knew ASU was for me. When I looked into the astrobiology and biogeosciences program at SESE, I knew instantly that I wanted to pursue the degree, but I wanted to know more about the program from a student’s perspective before I committed. So I attended an open panel at SESE, which was more for engineers than scientists, and at the end, I spoke with a good number of current undergraduate and graduate students to gain their thoughts on the program. Everyone had positive perspectives but they all shared one common thought, that SESE was the most inclusive school they had ever attended, and although science is competitive, the students try to help each other succeed and the professors only want success for their students. This resonated with me and inevitably is the main reason why I chose ASU.

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

A: It is really difficult to choose one professor who taught me an important lesson at ASU. I have had so many mentors these past few years, and they have all contributed to my success in STEM. Dr. Tom Sharp taught me to take chances despite the possibility of failure and to use failure as an avenue for learning to pave the path for success. Dr. Sara Walker taught me the importance of believing in myself and recognizing that to struggle with scientific concepts is normal, it is OK to be overwhelmed, persistence is key and to always find the fun in what you do. All of my professors at ASU taught me that science is collaborative, and to make the best discoveries, we should help each other succeed along the way. There are so many wonderful lessons I have learned while at ASU from so many fantastic people that I just can’t pinpoint one professor.

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

A: To those still in school, the best advice I have for you is to believe in yourself and to allow yourself some time to be human. Don’t treat yourself like a robot and work 24 hours a day. Science can be a difficult field. It can feel overwhelming and exhausting. If you’re anything like me, you might feel like you have no time for anything else in your life. But if you allow yourself space to breathe, time to relax and just some space — from space — then you will likely find yourself more productive when you return to your studies, research, job, etc. While taking classes, I have maintained a business, a second job, a club, scholarships, research in four different labs and a position as a NASA Space Grant Intern. For me, the key to managing such a large workload was good time management skills and allowing myself to take small breaks throughout the day so that I would not become overwhelmed with work. I also practiced taking notes for my job, research projects and classes so that I would not forget important details when I returned to work on each project. Also, give yourself some credit. When things get overwhelming, stop to think about where you are and the obstacles you have overcome and pat yourself on the back (literally), because you are doing a fantastic job. You can do this!

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: My favorite spot on campus for studying or just clearing my head would have to be any patch of grass with a tree for shade. Being outside with nature can contribute peace to your life, and it helped me to clear my mind long enough to find new ways to tackle problems. In the summer, when it gets too hot outside to lounge comfortably under a tree, I would find myself in ISTB4, sitting in comfortable chairs where it’s generally quiet enough to work. Being in the building helped me to focus, as it took away many distractions from the outside world (or even just distractions inside my home).   

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I will hopefully continue to contribute to the astrobiology field during my time as a graduate student and will continue working on a few projects at ASU from afar.

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

A: I have two passions in life, which are space studies and animal welfare. If someone gave me $40 million, the very first problem I would try to solve would be the rising temperatures and acidity of the ocean, as well as oceanic cleanup. When we think of the ocean, we generally focus on the sea creatures whose lives are negatively affected by these changes. But we don’t always think about the other animals who are also suffering and will suffer in the future, including humans. We are all connected to the ocean in one way or another. The birds that feed on the crustaceans, the foxes that feed on the birds, and the wolves that feed on the foxes. The humans who overfish not only the fish in the ocean, but the lobsters, shrimp and other sea creatures whose numbers are steadily dwindling are also part of this ecosystem. The effects of the ocean are felt across deserts, forests and other areas of the world, either directly or indirectly, and if we do nothing to change this, the whole world will suffer as a result, as it is already. I fear we are embarking down a path we will soon be unable to reverse, holding disastrous consequences for our future, and the time to act is now.

Media Relations and Marketing Manager, School of Earth and Space Exploration


Music composition graduate finds her own unique voice with sonic ecosystem compositions

May 4, 2022

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

Laura Brackney, Doctor of Musical Arts in music composition, views composing as a form of sonic gardening, cultivating each work’s interrelationships and sounds as ecosystemic material. Laura Brackney’s work has been commissioned by Mayo Clinic’s Dolores Jean Lavins Center for Humanities in Medicine, the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, the Bullock Texas State History Museum, the Blanton Museum of Art, the 78th anniversary of the UT Kniker Carillon, the New Media Art and Sound Summit, the Portland Youth Philharmonic and Collide Arts, among others. Download Full Image

Brackney is currently serving as the composer-in-residence for the ASU Wind Ensemble and recently completed a commission for solo carillon for Mayo Clinic’s Dolores Jean Lavins Center for Humanities in Medicine. The commission was requested by the clinic’s official carillonneur, Austin Ferguson, who also commissioned Brackney’s first work after earning her undergraduate degree.

 “I am grateful to be the composer-in-residence with the ASU Wind Ensemble this year,” said Brackney. “It was a great experience to work with the musicians, doctoral conductor Kristen Zelenak and Dr. Jason Caslor to write a piece about a river I love.” 

“Cloudlands,” the 2022 composition in the "Music for Mayo" Carillon Music Series, will be available in early August free of charge to carillonneurs around the world. Brackney describes the piece in the center’s news release as “inspired by the process of loss and acceptance. The music works to reconcile the differences between a persistent ostinato and freer, wave-like gestures. Competing materials drift against each other, merge and condense before ultimately dissipating peacefully. The amorphous harmonic language represents clouds of bells which collide and blur into each other. Cloudlands: a place of dreams, of ‘impractical speculation,’ of unreal skies.”

In addition to traditional concert music, she has created music for theater, film, fixed media and bicycle installations.

While at ASU, Brackney delved into electronic music and explored new compositional techniques. She has written several stunning works that extend the usual timbral possibilities of instruments and has collaborated extensively with the Wind Ensemble to develop her art.

“Laura has so many positive attributes, it’s difficult and would be unfair to just list one,” said Fernanda Navarro, assistant professor of composition in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre. “Laura has been very supportive of the community; she is also curious, multifaceted, creative and industrious.”

Brackney’s work has been commissioned by the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, the Bullock Texas State History Museum, the Blanton Museum of Art, the 78th anniversary of the UT Kniker Carillon, the New Media Art and Sound Summit, the Portland Youth Philharmonic and Collide Arts, among others.

Her work has been premiered at the Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium and the Look and Listen Festival by Grit Collaborative + Oh My Ears and performed by groups such as the AURORA trio, Gamelan Lipi Awan and Quince Ensemble. In 2020, her string quartet Desertification won first prize in the ASU Mykytyn Distinguished Composition Award.

Brackney received a Special Talent Award and Teaching Assistantship, which she said allowed her to pursue her doctoral degree.

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

Answer: I remember seeing a friend who was taking composition lessons have a lot of fun writing, and I decided I wanted to try it too. I don’t think there was a specific “moment,” but it’s something I decide to do every day. 

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

A: I don’t think there was just one thing specifically, but I am really glad that I got to meet so many wonderful people. I have learned a lot from my teachers, friends and other students.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: For the diversity in styles and perspectives of the composition department.

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

A: There are so many wonderful professors, but I would really like to acknowledge my committee chair, Dr. Fernanda Navarro, for being an amazing mentor. 

Q: What is the best piece of advice you would give to those still in school?

A: Find other students to collaborate with, try to get enough sleep, prioritize your mental health, and try to take breaks and have fun.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: I share an office with Alicia Castillo, and I feel really lucky to have a space to focus on my work. It is also nice to be able to step outside and warm up in the courtyard and say hello to people.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I hope to maintain my creative practice, have some impact on society and the community around me and to keep teaching.

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

A: I have been researching the rhizosphere a lot lately for my dissertation project, so my answer is that I would like to shift away from conventional, industrial agriculture toward regenerative agriculture. We could move toward a sustainable system that builds healthy soil — carbon sequestration via plants and healthy soil has great potential to reduce our carbon footprint — and pays farmworkers.

Lynne MacDonald

communications specialist, School of Music, Dance and Theatre