Sports medicine, brain science form perfect career for ASU graduate


Andrew Monaghan

Andrew Monaghan, who hails from Northern Ireland, will graduate with a PhD in exercise and nutritional sciences, in addition to a diploma notation and Master's Distinguished Medallion for graduating with a cumulative 4.0 GPA.

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

Pursuing higher education can be one of the most unpredictable yet rewarding paths that one can take. For some, discovering what they want to do is a process, and for others, their interests are clear from the start. For spring graduate Andrew Monaghan, his experience was the latter; an interest in sports, exercise and kinesiology was always at the center of his life.

Hailing from Rathfriland in Northern Ireland, Monaghan felt it was the right choice to relocate to the United States.

“I have a passion for sports and enjoy various athletic activities. Running is a personal favorite of mine, and I've completed three marathons to date, with my best finish being fourth place at the San Francisco Marathon. In addition to running, I enjoy playing football (or soccer, as it's known in some parts of the world) with a group of Irish ex-pats here in the Valley. A fun fact is that I am an identical twin — my twin brother is also completing his PhD in a very similar topic at Auburn University,” he said.

Backed by a full-ride athletic scholarship, the track star attended Mississippi State University where he competed while concurrently pursuing a degree. In 2016, he graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Science in kinesiology, with a focus on clinical exercise physiology.

Monaghan continued his education at Colorado State University, where he served as a graduate teaching and research assistantship while completing a master's degree in health and exercise science. He worked closely with Brett Fling in the Sensorimotor Neuroimaging Lab. This is when his career trajectory started to take shape.

“I owe my 'aha' moment to Dr. Brett Fling, whom I worked with at Colorado State. One initial research project involved studying how the left and right hemispheres of the brain interacted with each other, utilizing a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation; this involved administering an electromagnetic pulse to the scalp and observing the resulting response,” he explained.

Motivated and inspired by what he learned, Monaghan knew it was his calling to work in neurorehabilitation research.

“I was captivated by this experience and knew then that I wanted to delve deeper into the mechanisms behind how our brain governs our ability to walk and maintain balance,” he said.

Bolstered by his experience as an athlete and qualifications for kinesiology and sports medicine, the decision to pursue this career path felt like the right fit — and Arizona State University the ideal place to establish roots.

“I moved to Arizona to work with Dr. Daniel Peterson at ASU, where I have been since 2019,” Monaghan said.

Supported by the programs and opportunities from the Graduate and Professional Student Association (GPSA), the Graduate College and the College of Health Solutions, Monoghan feels ready to tackle the next chapter.

Monaghan will graduate with a PhD in exercise and nutritional sciences, in addition to a diploma notation and Master's Distinguished Medallion for graduating with a cumulative 4.0 GPA. We asked a few questions about his experience at ASU and future plans.

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

Answer: My experience working with individuals affected by neurodegenerative conditions such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's disease has instilled in me a deep appreciation for the significance of mobility and the intricacy of neural regulation concerning walking and balance. Mobility is a fundamental component of independence, and when this ability is compromised, it can take a severe toll on an individual's quality of life. My involvement in neurorehabilitation research focused on enhancing walking and balance among these populations has been incredibly fulfilling and rewarding.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I selected ASU primarily due to the exceptional research conducted here. In particular, I was drawn to the work of Peterson, who focuses on researching balance in individuals with Parkinson's disease. When I discovered Dr. Peterson was seeking a PhD student, I jumped at the chance to work with him.

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

A: It's difficult to pinpoint a sole, crucial lesson I've learned from my mentor, Peterson, as there have been so many valuable insights. However, if I had to choose one, it would be the importance of maintaining a curious mindset, which is essential in research.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you would give to students?

A: Take advantage of the extensive expertise offered by the incredibly talented and diverse faculty at ASU! We have world-renowned experts in various fields here in the Valley, and if you are keen to learn about their research, don't hesitate to reach out to them, even if you feel like an imposter. In most cases, these faculty members are delighted and more than willing to lend a hand.

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

A: One of my favorite spots on campus is Hayden Library. When I was taking classes, I would often spend hours in the courtyard outside the library, working on projects and assignments. If I needed to concentrate better, I would locate an individual study room and get right to it. I also enjoy coffee shops, so I spent time at the Memorial Union, sipping coffee and chatting with friends.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: After graduating in May, I am excited to embark on a new journey as a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. My research will focus on how the brain controls balance in Parkinson's disease. Ultimately, my long-term goal is to become a professor and lead my research lab. I am passionate about contributing to neurorehabilitation and equally enthusiastic about mentoring students. I aim to inspire and develop world-class scientists who can significantly impact the field.

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

A: Although I may be biased due to my research interests, I would allocate these funds towards efforts to identify the root cause of Parkinson's disease, with the ultimate goal of preventing it altogether.

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