Double major a powerhouse of undergrad research, accolades

Madeleine Zheng graduating from ASU with degrees in biochemistry and Chinese

Photo of Madeleine Zheng

Madeleine Zheng is graduating from ASU with two bachelor's degrees and Outstanding Graduate for Research accolades from Barrett, The Honors College.


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

Madeleine Zheng is multilingual and multitalented, has worked on multiple research projects and won much recognition in her undergraduate career at Arizona State University.

Zheng, who speaks Spanish and Chinese in addition to English, will graduate ASU with two bachelor’s degrees in May, one in biochemistry and the other in Asian languages (Chinese). Barrett, The Honors College at ASU has named her a 2023 Outstanding Graduate for Research.

From Tucson, Arizona, she came to ASU as a National Merit Scholar in 2019 and followed that up with the ASU School of Molecular Sciences Women in Science Scholarship in 2020. That same year, she was named a Lincoln Undergraduate Scholar with the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics, a United Nations Millennium Fellow and a U.S. Department of Education Foreign Language Area Studies Fellow.

For three years, she worked with Amber Wutich, ASU President’s Professor and director of the Center for Global Health and NSF Action for Water Equity, on a National Science Foundation-funded effort to end water insecurity in low-income colonias in Arizona, Texas, New Mexico and California. She also worked with John Carlson at ASU's Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict in 2022.

In a letter nominating Zheng for Barrett Outstanding Graduate accolades, Wutich said, “Ms. Zheng quickly became a student leader, taking a justice-oriented and community-based approach to our research as we address water insecurity in low-income colonias on the U.S.-Mexico border.

“I rank her among the best undergraduate researchers I have ever worked with, in comparison with 2,000+ that I have taught, hundreds of students I have trained in my lab, and 100 or so who have gone on to graduate or medical school,” Wutich added.

In 2022-23, Zheng completed a National Security Education Program (NSEP) Boren Fellowship and NSEP Chinese Flagship Capstone program in Taiwan to achieve professional proficiency in Mandarin.

In 2021, she participated in a NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates program at the University of South Florida focused on urban water sustainability and co-authored four publications on water insecurity.

In addition to her academic and research work, Zheng founded a statewide nonprofit organization called CiviTutors offering remote tutoring for underprivileged students during the pandemic.

Zheng took time out from the excitement of finishing up the semester and preparing for graduation to reflect on her undergraduate experience at ASU. Here’s what she had to say.

Question: What was your "aha" moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in? 

Answer: I decided to attend ASU as a biochemistry major because I had taken AP biology and chemistry in high school and really enjoyed learning how living things worked on the biological, chemical and even molecular level. I also served as captain of our high school's Science Olympiad club and took our team to nationals three years in a row. Entering college, I found that there were many ways to apply my interests in biochemistry, but slowly found myself looking to social science and anthropology as a way of informing why people behaved and thought the way they did in the context of health.

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

A: I learned that you shouldn't be afraid to try new things, even if you don't have any relevant experience. People will be willing to take a chance on you as long as you're willing to try hard. As a biochemistry major, I made quite a few unconventional choices — double majoring in Chinese, working in an anthropology lab and even joining the ASU women's Frisbee team — but I don't regret any of them! 

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: My sister had attended ASU as a Barrett student previously, so I knew about the wealth of knowledge, faculty expertise and opportunity at ASU. Combined with the financial package ASU provided me with as an in-state National Merit Scholar, it was an offer I couldn't refuse.

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

A: My anthropology lab director and thesis director, Dr. Amber Wutich, has been such an inspiration and amazing mentor. She's taught me so much, not only about research, but also about collaborating, leading and taking every opportunity to work towards my goals. I also want to thank my wonderful professors at the School of Molecular Sciences and the incredible Chinese Flagship Program faculty who have supported me every step of the way. 

Q: What is the best piece of advice you would give to those still in school?

A: If there are any classes or electives you've always wanted to take, you should definitely explore those interests! I loved all the interdisciplinary classes and programs that I was part of at ASU.

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

A: The second floor of Hayden Library has beautiful open windows overlooking Hayden Lawn and West Hall. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I'm currently applying to medical school and MD-PhD programs in anthropology. In a future medical and research career, I'm interested in studying how environmental inequities turn into health inequities. 

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

A: A lot of my research has focused on water research and sanitation, and given $40 million I would love to tackle water and food insecurity issues associated with the climate crisis. During my time working with Dr. Wutich in the Culture, Health, and Environment Lab, I learned about the water contamination and water scarcity issues that people in underserved communities face on the U.S.-Mexico border. Even growing up in Arizona, I had always taken access to clean and safe water for granted.

I also had the chance to work on urban poverty and sanitation challenges through the National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates, where I developed a community-based rapid assessment tool to identify high-priority water needs. All of these experiences have shaped my perspective that access to clean and safe water and sanitation services is a human right, and have contributed towards my passion for increasing water and resource equity in a future career!

Barrett Honors College student Rebecca Smalley contributed to this story.

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