Most individuals are interested in one area of study, try to master one skill, and – if they are lucky – strive to succeed in one career track. That is not the case with Ariana Afshari, an outstanding neurobiology researcher, a talented artist and a thoughtful thinker interested in philosophy, morality and ethics.
The spring 2022 Dean’s Medalist for the School of Life Sciences earned a biological sciences major and a minor in civic and economic thought and leadership from the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership — and interweaving science and the humanities was a planned decision.
“I knew I would have an emphasis in STEM, and I looked for a complementary component that would make me a holistic learner in the future,” Afshari said.
Afshari is a rare student.
“She is deeply interested in the natural sciences, but she is also interested in politics, the arts and the humanities,” said Professor of Practice Peter McNamara. “It was this latter group of interests that brought her to SCETLSchool of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership.”
This summer, Afshari begins an impressive mission: to simultaneously do research in developmental neuroscience at Stanford Medical School and teach biology in the Bay Area through Teach for America at a school serving an underrepresented community, where 98% of students are Hispanic. After that, she will apply to medical school.
“My goal is to serve communities that look like me, that come from a background like me,” she said.
“I grew up in a low-income Hispanic household. There is a lot that you can learn from serving those communities, but certain topics are difficult to teach. One thing is to learn about it; the other thing is to live it. And I believe that there are indescribable factors that equip me to serve these communities I come from. Hopefully, I can be in a community that resonates with my background growing up.”
Bridging science and humanities
Afshari's plans to earn a multidisciplinary college education began in the spring of her first year at ASU, when she applied for the course Shakespeare's Leadership Lessons. The course, which is taught in Prescott, Arizona, solidified her interest in the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership as a complementary part of her career.
“I was wary about a full immersion into Shakespeare, of reading the texts from beginning to end, acting them out, and not only to get the meaning of what the characters are saying but also grappling with what they are saying. But I walked in, and everyone was in the same boat and wanting to learn. We all walked away with something really valuable,” she said.
“I loved the experience. Learning in the pines, where you are vulnerable, where you get a raw experience of learning, is a lot different from learning in a traditional setting."
Afshari then joined the cohort of students who traveled to New Delhi for the Global Intensive Experience: SCETL Leadership and Service in India, where they studied and discussed the history, culture and politics of India, and reflected on global leadership and citizenship.
But when the pandemic hit, it became evident that the scientific community and parts of the American civil society (and other societies around the world) were at odds, particularly on matters related to public health policies versus individual liberties.
You can teach someone to be a good doctor, but you can’t teach a doctor to have empathy. The education offered at SCETL teaches you what other disciplines can’t teach you: how to be human aligned with your values.
– Ariana Afshari
As the global crisis unfolded, Afshari noticed an urgent need for cross-disciplinary conversations between health professionals, policymakers, professionals working tirelessly on the frontlines, professors, etc.
“I realized that we must develop interdisciplinary understanding and support about how each of these disciplines interacts with one another. That’s when it came to light what I was looking for at SCETL. I was trying to find something at the cusp of philosophy that I could bring to science,” she said.
This pivoting starts with each individual, she said.
“I see the interaction between disciplines as not even complementary, but necessary. It makes you better all around. It’s great to be specialized, but it’s even more important to be aware and prudent about how your discipline affects others.”
Afshari's School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership courses allowed her to exercise an important habit: questioning. The Socratic method utilized by School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership professors encourages students to participate in discussions and question what they are taught, which is something Afshari believes enables students to be more successful in their fields.
“I’m better in my STEM classes because of SCETL, but I’m also better in my SCETL classes because of my STEM major,” she said, adding that she had not “seen an education like this before. (In STEM classes), you’re never going to go to any of your classes and ask what this means. No one is going to ask why. In SCETL, that is the purpose."
“SCETL allowed me to fulfill the mission that I was looking for and that I wasn’t getting at a single track at ASU,” she said. “In the broader discourse of the nation, you see everyone trying to prove they are right and prove authority. At SCETL, instead, the faculty brings (the discussion) back to questions of ‘What is authority?’ ‘Where do individual liberties come from?’ ‘Who actually has a say in policymaking, and whose authority matters?’ The pandemic brought to life issues that SCETL can contribute to, and the school created several conversations about science and its role.”
The school’s emphasis on civil discourse, political thought and civic education was complementary to Afshari's dedication to serving her community.
“SCETL equipped me to be open-minded to discourse and to face future challenges when talking about important science topics. I can contribute to those conversations in a more fruitful way than many people would without this perspective,” she said.
“Getting an education in STEM has been extremely valuable because I want to build a career in science; it’s what I love to learn. But, at times, it can be really transactional. There isn’t a lot of human connection and conversation,” she said. “SCETL has an effective, evidence-based approach to teaching humanities in classrooms with fewer than 30 students, and professors who are your mentors, who are dedicated to guiding you, and topics such as morality, ethics, etc. SCETL teaches you humanities. You can teach someone to be a good doctor, but you can’t teach a doctor to have empathy. The education offered at SCETL teaches you what other disciplines can’t teach you: how to be human aligned with your values.”
SCETL allowed me to fulfill the mission that I was looking for and that I wasn’t getting at a single track at ASU.
– Ariana Afshari
In this process, Afshari was grateful for the strong relationships she developed with her mentors at the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership.
“I’ve had classes at STEM where the syllabi say, ‘Do not ask me for recommendation letters.’ It’s disheartening as a student because the integrity you show in class is great, but you don’t get to develop a relationship," she said. "On the other hand, at SCETL, every professor makes it clear to you that they are there to support you, to love you, to see you do your best, and I’ve had the honor of meeting so many wonderful professors at SCETL. I credit a lot of my success to them.”
Her scientific skills were in fact an addition to SCETL’s learning environment.
“Ariana’s ability to think deeply about both the scientific process and the elements of politics, religious faith and institutions, and social forces revealed to all of us her exceptional talent and rare combination of intellectual and aesthetic gifts,” said Assistant Professor Karen Taliaferro. “She is thoughtful, creative, responsible, articulate and curious, able to read widely and deeply and write beautifully.”
Painting encapsulates cross-sectionality between leading disciplines
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Afshari threw herself into a new challenge. She painted a 60-by-40-inch mural for the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership inspired by Raphael’s “The School of Athens.” Ariana's painting displays icons of several disciplines, including Plato, Aristotle, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Cesar Chavez, Frederick Douglas and Frida Kahlo.
The painting is on display at the school's library common room, on the sixth floor of Coor Hall on ASU's Tempe campus. The room is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.
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