Legal interest leads to passion for justice for ASU Law grad

April 24, 2023

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2023 graduates.

After working for 25 years in human resources, Heather Ashworth decided to pursue her Master of Legal Studies and focus on contract administration to enhance her career skills. She had always been interested in the law, but she didn’t realize her time at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University would help her find her passion.  A brunette woman in a grey blazer poses with her arms crossed. Heather Ashworth Download Full Image

Ashworth said learning about the mission of the Equal Justice Initiative nonprofit sparked a new interest in eventually earning her legal paraprofessional license, inspiring her to help those wrongly convicted of crimes or those without effective legal representation. 

“I came to ASU Law wanting to learn about contracts and found my passion, where I could continue to develop in my current role while working toward a credential that will allow me to help others and exact positive change,” said the Albuquerque, New Mexico, native. 

Ashworth’s son attends ASU Prep Digital, making them a family of Sun Devils. Getting her MLS degree through ASU Online only made sense for the working single mom. 

She said that her drive to keep learning and growing is inspired by her own mother. 

“When I was 14, she became a single mom, and though our entire world had been turned upside down, she did everything she could to turn it right side up again and give me the best life possible, even if that meant working two jobs,” said Ashworth. “Her drive, unwavering dedication and tenacious work ethic made me who I am today.”

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

Answer: I have considered a law degree many times throughout my life, but life somehow got in the way. Through the twists and turns of my career, I ended up in my current role at ADP, overseeing contract administration. I felt a bit like a fish out of water. While I knew our products and services and the job I was required to perform, I had trouble understanding and interpreting the legalese of the contracts. I partnered closely with our in-house counsel, but I wanted to learn more. That is when I found the MLS program.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: When I started researching MLS programs, I was thrilled to discover the program was offered at ASU. While there are many options, especially now with online programs, ASU had everything I was looking for. Not only is ASU Law one of the top schools in the country, but the program also offered the core focus I was looking for and the flexibility I needed. You can finish the program at the pace that is right for you, one class at a time, or double up and finish in a year.

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

A: Professor Larry Bridgesmith taught me to "go below the line" to understand the underlying interests rather than just focusing on positions. While it was a class on negotiation, I have found it a valuable lesson in all aspects of my life. You are far better equipped to achieve your goals with a significantly better outcome when you understand what is truly important to the person across the table, whether that is your child, a friend, an employee or a teammate.

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

A: Balancing work, family and school can be difficult, but do not take your foot off the gas! Before you know it, you will be done, and the rewards for your hard work and dedication will be worth it. Be present, be mindful and give yourself grace — you are doing an amazing thing!

Q: What about advice for those considering ASU Law?

A: Don't wait or second-guess yourself — go for it! Set yourself up for success and build a solid foundation by preparing your family (there may be more leftovers than usual), your friends (happy hours may be fewer and further between) and yourself (make a study plan and be sure to carve out time for yourself to take a break and relax!).

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I plan to continue working for ADP as a market support lead for comprehensive services, overseeing the contract administration for over 1,300 accounts. I also hope to volunteer with local organizations while working to acquire the required experiential hours to take the Arizona Legal Paraprofessional Exam. Once I am a licensed LP, I plan to work with the underserved in Arizona.

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

A: We must solve the justice gap, and education plays a key role. So I would develop a program to provide scholarships for people who wish to obtain a law degree (juris doctor or MLS with a legal paraprofessional focus). In exchange, they would commit to working in a clinic for five years, providing legal services to the underserved in Arizona. In addition, the program would offer community education like seminars in areas like eviction, custody and child support.

Q: What does graduating mean to you and your loved ones?

A: It means everything to me, and I hope to take what I have learned to drive forward and positively impact my community. For my children, I hope I have inspired them to follow their dreams and shown them that, with hard work and dedication, they can achieve their goals.

Lindsay Walker

Communications Manager, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law

ASU graduate aims to demystify AI through children's book

April 24, 2023

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2023 graduates.

How do we understand the story of artificial intelligence? Student Kacy Hatfield Kacy Hatfield Download Full Image

Kacy Hatfield is a student in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts who aims to make the story of AI accessible to all – and is doing so by writing a children’s book. Kacy is graduating this May with a degree in digital culture, and is an undergraduate researcher for the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics.

After graduation, she will pursue a master's degree and has been invited to participate in the Machine Intelligence Group at Draper Labs

She shared more about her college journey below. 

Question: Tell us a bit about your experience at ASU and how you came to study digital culture.

Answer: I actually came to ASU as a biochemistry major; I love chemistry and math, but the career path wasn't exactly what I wanted. I then explored career and creative job opportunities where I found digital culture and in just three days I was hooked and made the switch. And there is still so much of what I love in studying AI, and I get to integrate my love for chemistry and math into that. 

I actually hadn't even heard of machine learning until spring 2021, and after my professor introduced it to us, I asked her for book recommendations. From then on, I was obsessed with AI.

Q: What inspired you to pursue undergraduate research? 

A: Well, I actually did my honors thesis shortly after I learned about AI and machine learning. I decided that I wanted to pursue it, even though I really didn’t know much about the subject, and I pitched it to several professors I wanted to work with, who all were very supportive. I defended my thesis almost exactly a year after I had first learned about machine learning, and I just had such an amazing time working on my thesis that I wanted to continue doing research. 

I then found the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics, which had an undergraduate research opportunity on responsible AI. I met with Research Program Manager Erica O’Neil over Zoom, and I thought it would be the perfect continuation of my work. It’s amazing to keep doing research on this, not just to learn but to ultimately come away with more questions. 

Q: You're working on a really fascinating project, in which you’re developing a children’s book on AI. Can you share more on this project? 

A: The premise is an illustrated children’s book that tells the story of an algorithm named Pip — like the command in Python Programming Language — and Pip has to classify seashells on the beach. How Pip classifies them starts out in very simple terms, and as waves wash up on the shore, more advanced terminology is revealed. There’s also a character named Epoch — another term in Python — as well as a character that represents the human in the loop. All of them are placed very strategically to represent what would take place if a machine learning algorithm were to be integrated in this area. 

Image of a book cover for Your Pal, PipThe goal is to help people feel less scared about machine learning. I often see AI described as a black box; something that that people can't see into, and can't understand. But I think the test of a good machine learning algorithm – and a good programmer — is to translate that black box into something that is easily understood.

Part of the reason I love machine learning is because even if I dedicate my entire life to studying AI, I will never have a fully comprehensive grasp of it, because it's just always expanding and advancing so fast. I think that's key in why people feel uncertainty about machine learning, especially when the Hollywood narrative of AI is the humanoid robot that is going to take over. The thing is, these technologies are amoral, not immoral. 

My goal as a researcher is to start mitigating skepticism around the subject of machine learning through this book. And this starts with younger people, but the book is also meant to be used by people of all ages. 

Q: How has your time in the responsible AI research group related back to your work? 

A: I love being in this research group. It's actually my second semester; last semester I did a project on the risks and mitigations of AI-powered autonomous spacecraft, which is another one of my interests. It’s so awesome to be part of a group of people that have such different backgrounds and different approaches to AI. There are so many interdisciplinary perspectives and topics brought up in discussion. 

I think that in terms of responsible AI – and a lot of people may disagree with me on this – it is integral for a programmer to also be able to see the ethical implications of whatever they're employing into the world. There’s often the argument that we should wait five years before evaluating those possible impacts; when I am working on programming, I'm immediately thinking about how it may affect the real world and be used. 

Machine learning is like a mirror - it's going to reflect whatever we give it, and humans are not perfect. This is why I think the conversations on ethics have to go hand in hand with the research itself, and it's really interesting to see how it comes about on all different fronts.

Q: What comes next for you in your career and future?

A: That’s the age-old question, isn’t it? I always have a list of problems that I can research! This may be a nerdy confession, but I love doing research even in my free time. I hope to direct that energy into the pursuit of a master's degree and possibly even a PhD. I have also been invited to join the Machine Intelligence Group at Draper Labs in summer 2023 as an undergraduate engineer, which is a very exciting opportunity. 

The amazing thing about this field is it's always changing, and in some regard, I will always feel like a student. And because the study of AI is so new, I feel like taking the ethical and programming approach at the same time would be a lot easier to integrate than something that's already established. I hope to keep these skills as best practices in the future. 

There is a lot of skepticism around AI and machine learning, and often I hear people say that it’s too complicated or complex. Everybody has the capability to understand AI, and it's not as scary as it seems. Even though it's been tremendously skewed for entertainment, which makes it easier to vilify, there are so many benefits to using machine learning, and we can employ it in the right ways to augment our human experience and not hinder it.

Karina Fitzgerald

Communications program coordinator , Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics