ASU Charter encourages young scholar to fight for more inclusion

May 5, 2022

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

Zuzana Skvarkova’s path to graduation has been all but linear. As a transfer to Arizona State University, Skvarkova’s educational journey has been full of many twists and turns, but somewhere amidst the detours, she found herself and exactly how she intended to make her impact on society.  Zuzana Skvarkova, College of Global Futures Spring 2022 Outstanding Graduate. Zuzana Skvarkova, College of Global Futures Spring 2022 Outstanding Graduate. Download Full Image

Originally from Bratislava, Slovakia, she came to the United States with her family when she was four years old. She was raised in a suburb outside of Boston. After high school she headed for a nearby liberal arts college before she transferred to Arizona State University. It was during this time that her experiences made her question how equitable and accessible higher education was to historically excluded demographics.   

However, it wasn’t until her early 20s when she had the biggest breakthrough of her life – Skvarkova was diagnosed as autistic. Her experiences gave her a new purpose: to become a physician and a disability rights activist. 

“It reinforced that I want to go and be a physician to work in that inequity space for disability justice and disabled individuals,” Skvarkova says. ”So often, we don't even understand the inequity and health disparity gaps that we give to disabled individuals.”

Passionate about the intersection of disability justice and health policy in the field of both clinical and academic medicine, she hopes to pursue a career as a physician. Her goal is to help broaden the current medical health model to more equitably provide care for all disabled individuals, with their needs and wants at the forefront of their care. 

Finding the bachelor’s degree in innovation and society, in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society within the College of Global Futures, fits her goals well. ASU, its charter for inclusion and the program provided her with the platform that she needed to excel academically and professionally. She has been acknowledged for her service work through various awards, such as the school’s Charter Award for Excellence and the Committee for Campus Inclusion’s Catalyst Award. 

During her time at ASU, she served as  the president of ASU’s Women in STEM organization, as an instructional aide for a general biology course at the Downtown Phoenix campus and started the Pre-Medical Disabled Student Association, the nation’s first student organization dedicated to creating a community for disabled individuals applying for medical school. 

“I was able to accomplish all of these things partly because I knew how to properly advocate for myself in an educational setting, but also because I finally found a place that supported the dreams and goals I had. I fully believe that absolutely everybody can excel in education," she said. "Oftentimes, its barriers that are rooted in matters of inaccessibility that lead to students falling through the cracks, not how “intelligent” they are. That said, when an educational institution empowers a charter like ASU’s that values inclusion and emphasizes accessibility across all domains, you create an ecosystem of diverse thinkers that excel beyond what can be learned just from textbooks.” 

Here she answers some questions about her time at ASU.

Question: What are your plans after graduation?

Answer: I plan to work as a full-time research assistant for Dr. Robert Cook-Deegan for the next year and then apply to medical school. Additionally, in the year before applying to medical school, I hope to continue working on establishing my nonprofit geared toward increasing disability justice and tackling accessibility issues across education, workforce and health care that the disability community faces. Hopefully, I can also continue to engage in my advocacy work by continuing to participate in speaking engagements and finishing my first book. 

Q: Do you have a favorite spot on campus? Whether for studying, meeting friends, or just thinking about life?

A: I really like the Social Sciences Building with all the trees and the plants that they have there. It feels very serene and peaceful. 

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

A: While society often advertises a very linear path to achievement and success, very often the journey to accomplishing your goals is everything but that. My path toward graduating college was full of twists and turns, but ultimately I found myself and who I want to become in this world amongst those detours. That said, the best piece of advice I could give to anyone in school is to embrace the experiences you come across along your journey that exist outside the box; there is no “correct” way to obtain a degree. 

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

A: Well, there’s a lot of problems on the planet that need to be tackled, but if I could only choose one then I would most likely use it to continue on in my efforts to tackle disability rights issues. I would tackle disability justice and the inequities that disabled individuals face that are currently embedded in many societal structures by focusing on accessibility and reworking the way that our systems are built. That said, $40 million most likely would not be close to enough to tackle how intricate and expansive the problem of ableism is in our society. However, it would be a great starting point to build off of to enact positive and equitable solutions.

Executive Director, Marketing and Communications, ASU Law


Largest graduating class to date to be honored at Barrett Honors College spring convocation

5 students will be recognized as outstanding graduates

May 6, 2022

The spring 2022 convocation will be a special one for Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University.

The in-person ceremony, set for 2 p.m., Monday, May 9 in Desert Financial Arena on the Tempe campus, will honor 1,281 graduates, the largest graduating class in the Barrett’s history. More than 900 graduates will participate in the convocation. View from the upper concourse of Desert Financial Arena looking down at the Barrett Honors College convocation. Barrett, The Honors College at ASU will honors its largest graduating class to date with 1,281 students. Nine hundred and seventy graduates will participate in honors convocation on May 9. Download Full Image

Amid the pomp and circumstance, five students will be recognized as this year’s outstanding honors graduates. All were nominated by ASU and Barrett faculty.

Among this esteemed group are:

Outstanding Graduate: Zane Encinas  

Encinas, who will carry the college’s gonfalon into the ceremony, will receive bachelor’s degrees in philosophy, English and sustainability.

TheyEncinas uses they/them pronouns. have a strong service and volunteer record, an impressive research record, and significant leadership in both their extracurricular activities and the classroom.

The research they have completed spans a broad range of topics – human genome editing, art and the environment, border security and Indigenous land rights’ claims, trauma-informed care in juvenile corrections facilities, wildlife and urban environments, and the Green New Deal.

Their list of awards is extensive and includes Best Undergraduate Poster – Central Arizona – Phoenix Long-Term Ecological Research (CAP LTER) Poster Symposium; ASU Pitchfork Award – Emerging Student Leader; Regents’ Cup Semifinalist; and ASU Philosophy Essay Contest winner. They also have won awards in debate and speaking competitions.

Encinas has worked as an undergraduate research fellow for the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program at ASU, a research apprentice for the AZ Youth Identity Project, an intern for the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes, a research fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Games & Impact, and an honors teaching assistant.

They are the founder of Climbing Vines at ASU, an interdisciplinary, research-oriented organization that creates a communal space for students with interests in environmental humanities and sciences from across multiple disciplines to engage in collaborative discussions and research projects and engage with faculty.

“They are absolutely in the top 1% of all students I have taught in 10 years at the top honors college in the country. Zane is an exceptionally talented young individual who succeeds because they care deeply about their communities, and I look forward to following their successes in the years ahead,” said Jenny Brian, Barrett Honors Faculty Fellow and Faculty Chair.

Outstanding Leadership and Service: Stephanie Gerhart

Gerhart is receiving a bachelor’s degree in management and public service/public policy with a legal studies specialization. 

She was an ASU Tillman Scholar and active in the Tillman Leadership Through Action program, which focuses on transformative leadership, human and community conflict and development, social entrepreneurship, social justice and policy formation. She was a teaching assistant in the program.

On campus, her activities included ASU Student Government, Barrett Peer Mentoring, the Barrett College Council, the W. P. Carey Fleisher Scholars Program, ASU Changemaker, a course taught by U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and the ASU Sprit of Service Scholars program.

Off campus, she served as a page for the Arizona Senate and an intern for the Arizona Secretary of State. She also was as a policy analyst in the ASU President’s Office and as a policy intern for the Arizona House of Representatives. Gerhart plans to attend law school.

“Overall, Stephanie is genuine, energetic, decisive, determined, caring and hard-working. She has handled a heavy workload including part-time work to support her education. She loves to learn and is very collaborative. Her interest in others and in blending diverse fields of law, government, business and policy is contagious and inspirational,” said Michael Mokwa, Tillman Foundation Distinguished Professor.

“Others respect her and look to her as a role model. Stephanie is an exemplary graduating senior representing the best of Barrett and ASU achievements,” he added.

Outstanding Leadership and Service: Rohit Nandakumar

Nandakumar is receiving a bachelor’s degree in biomedical informatics.

While he began in the biomedical informatics bachelor’s degree program in 2018, Nandakumar was only a junior in high school when he reached out to biomedical informatics Associate Professor Valentin Dinu about research opportunities in his lab. He did well from the beginning and produced work that ultimately resulted in a first-author publication in PeerJ in 2020 on developing a machine learning model to identify protein-protein interaction hotspots to facilitate drug discovery.

Nandakumar presented his work at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair and he was named the Top Innovator of the Year at the Governor’s Celebration of Innovation. For his work at the Translational Genomics Research Institute as a Helios Scholar, he received a Best Poster Award at their symposium in 2019.

He was president of the Students of Biomedical Informatics, a student-run organization that included undergraduates and graduates, where he promoted biomedical informatics students to industry and academic groups.

“His self-starter approach was unlike any other student I’ve worked with, as he was determined to succeed. Rohit is one of the best undergraduate students I’ve ever worked with,” Dinu said.

Outstanding Research: Michael Esposito

Esposito is receiving a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences (genetics, cell and developmental biology).

He participated in the National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program and served as director of meeting operations in the ASU Healthcare Preparatory Club.

He also led the machine learning training of a team of two Sensor Signal & Information Processing (SenSIP) summer 2021 researchers that included a middle school teacher and a junior level biomedical engineering student.

Esposito worked on research aimed at developing testing methods for COVID-19 from cough audio signatures using a machine learning algorithm. He was the lead author on an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers conference paper on using deep learning and audio spectral features for non-invasive COVID-19 diagnosis.

He was the co-author on a patent pre-disclosure for detection of COVID-19 from coughing and breathing patterns. A provisional patent was granted in last August and a full patent with his new results will be submitted by Skysong Innovations this spring.

He worked in the Bio Electrical Systems and Technology laboratory on a rapid point-of-care device for saliva-based COVID-19 testing and produced a research report on this endeavor that was submitted in January 2022 to the NSF REU program.

He mentored a middle school teacher participating in the ASU SenSIP Research Experiences for Teachers program. He co-authored two research reports with the teacher that were submitted to NSF.

Esposito worked as undergraduate researcher in the SenSIP center labs in the new field of Quantum Information Processing. He worked on a new quantum machine learning project for audio classification, which is being funded by the NSF Industry/University Cooperative Research Centers program. He generated quantum circuit simulations of a quantum convolutional neural network and he applied it to audio signal classification for COVID-19 diagnostics. This topic was the focus of his honors thesis.

He has engaged volunteer activities including assisting in the emergency room of Banner Desert Hospital, providing free COVID tests to underserved communities, and shadowing a doctor at Mayo Clinic in the cardiac catheter lab.

“I rank him overall at the very top of all undergraduate students that I have ever interacted with in class, capstone projects and REU research,” Andreas Spanias, professor of digital signal processing and director of the SenSIP Center, said of Esposito.

Outstanding Creative Work: Maxwell Plata

Plata is receiving a bachelor’s degree in theater writing and dramaturgy.

His senior capstone project, an original play titled “To Find Them,” tells a story about gender identity and familial trauma in a ghost story inspired by the Mexican legend of "La Llorona." His play “To the Moon” was a semifinalist for a national award at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.

Plata co-created two virtual lobbies, one for the New Play Festival and one for the play “Luchadora” by Alvaro Saar Rios.

Plata’s extracurricular activities include extensive theater experience as a writer, stage manager and producer. He published in and presented at this year’s professional Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas conference. He facilitated the last two years of the Color Cabaret at ASU, a BIPOCBlack, Indigenous and people of color. student showcase that raises funds for scholarships for students of color.

He worked as a summer intern at the Arizona Science Center, served as an usher at the Herberger Theater, supported and actively contributed to Phoenix Pride, one-n-ten, the Binary Theater Company, and the Herberger Institute Summer Council. He has served as a volunteer for the Maricopa Election Department and Phoenix Food Not Bombs.

Plata plans to spend a gap year working as a substitute teacher, working in theaters around the Phoenix metropolitan area, writing and staging his own original plays, and starting a theater criticism blog shedding light on the voices of emerging theater writers in the Phoenix area. He plans to apply to master’s degree programs in creative writing and playwriting.

“It has been my pleasure to mentor Max on several theatre projects, and to come to know him as a researcher, an artist, a leader, and a co-collaborator. He brings to every project intellectual engagement and expertise paired with an incredible work ethic and lyric artistry, which makes working with him a joy,” said Karen Jean Martinson, assistant professor of dramaturgy.

Nicole Greason

Director of Marketing and Public Relations , Barrett, The Honors College