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

5 students will be recognized as outstanding graduates


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.

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May 06, 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.

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.

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