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Real-world research

May 5, 2023

Meet three graduating seniors who have taken what they’ve learned and applied it to solving problems

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the summer 2023 issue of ASU Thrive magazine.

Some students say they chose ASU so they could work on real-world research with faculty who are top in their fields. Whether in engineering, sustainability, pre-med, veterinary science, physics, space or any number of fields, university students can get involved in solving problems early.

Here, three graduating seniors discuss their projects, from artificial intelligence in K–12 to more sustainable cement to a new circuit that uses less energy and computes faster, and why they matter and how these opportunities set them up for success on their next journeys. 

Susanna Westersund, making concrete more sustainable

Graduating civil, environmental and sustainable engineering student Susanna Westersund worked on a project aimed to make concrete more sustainable while also reducing plastic pollution.

As Westersund points out, the environment faces the overaccumulation of plastics. Additionally, “concrete production is one of the leading causes of carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere, so replacing some of the cement with plastic particles is better for the environment,” she says.

Westersund’s project as part of the Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative built on the work already done to alter and treat polyethylene plastic to add to cement mixtures. 

“I chose this project because I am interested in the sustainable materials that can be used in civil engineering,” Westersund says. “The biggest thing I have noticed since being in this program is that I now see applications of things I am learning in my classes.”

In addition, the project helped her gain experience collaborating with other team members in labs. “When I go into job interviews, I have the ability to talk about my project and how I have applied myself outside of class,” Westersund says.

Working with her faculty mentor, Christian Hoover, an assistant professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, proved invaluable, she says. In 2022, Hoover won the National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Program Award, which comes with $600,000 in funding to pursue research. Westersund says she gained confidence in herself and her abilities as an engineer while conducting research under Hoover.

“One of the best pieces of advice I have gotten from my mentor Professor Hoover is to trust in my abilities,” Westersund says.

She encourages students to engage with research opportunities at ASU. “I have met many different faculty members and students who have given me connections, and I have learned about other projects, as well,” she says.

Jose Gonzalez-Garduno, researching ways for AI to benefit K–12 education

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Jose Gonzalez-Garduno focused on researching ways for AI to benefit K–12 education.

Over the course of the fall 2022 semester, Jose Gonzalez-Garduno, a graduating senior in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering computer science program, developed a project to explore how AI technologies in K–12 classrooms can benefit both students and educators.

“AI isn’t just changing how STEM courses are being taught in school — it’s changing the whole education sector and how it operates,” Gonzalez-Garduno says.

He and other students accepted into one of ASU’s research opportunities, the Lincoln Center research program, shape their projects through close consultation with Erica O’Neil, center research program manager whose guidance Gonzalez-Garduno called “inspiring.”

Gonzalez-Garduno’s path started back when he began at community college in order to gather credits before transferring to ASU in fall 2019, where he became a student in Barrett, The Honors College. While maintaining high grades and carrying out real-world research, he also worked full time for five years in order to help support himself and his family. 

A focus of his research so far has been how to use AI applications in K–12 classrooms so that technologies act like an interactive tool that enhances human capacities, Gonzalez-Garduno says. 

“Research in intelligent tutoring systems investigates things like gamification, such as completing challenges to earn prizes or achievements. These different types of motivations can further students’ development and ultimately have a positive impact,” Gonzalez-Garduno explains. “Unfortunately, it starts becoming a problem in regard to how privacy is handled.

“My current research is looking at these two components, and whether the positives outweigh negatives, and how these improvements can help further the education field and how students benefit from it.”

What’s next? 

He plans to go on to a master’s program in computer science, and hopefully also to earn his PhD. 

“It’s going to be a whole new journey for me as a first-generation college student,” Gonzalez-Garduno says. “I’m also looking forward to getting a job as a software developer and seeing the difference that I can make within these tech companies by seeing how we can create new technologies that positively impact society.” 

Sritharini Radhakrishnan, testing a circuit component that retains memory without power

Woman working in engineering lab

Sritharini Radhakrishnan tested a circuit component that retains memory without power.

Graduating electrical engineering senior Sritharini Radhakrishnan has been working to improve neuromorphic computing, which tries to mimic the brain’s use of neurons and synapses. Conversely, traditional computing, sometimes called von Neumann computing, uses separate CPUs and memory units. Brain-inspired computing more closely mimics the structure of the human brain, in which memory and “processing” are combined. This structure can drive advances in machine learning and AI by building more energy-efficient, scalable and adaptive computer systems, Radhakrishnan says.

Her work tested a certain type of memristor, a new type of electric circuit component that retains memory even without power. It is part of ongoing research that seeks to find out if hexagonal boron nitride, a layered 2D material, proves promising for implementing brain-inspired circuits.

“Everyone in the field aims to advance neuromorphic computing to the point that any device using the current von Neumann computing architecture can be replaced with a neuromorphic one. To achieve such a goal, it is vital to show that the neuromorphic computing scheme is competitive with the von Neumann one by demonstrating that neuromorphic circuits can carry out complex operations faster and with greater efficiency,” Radhakrishnan says.

By investigating the performance of hexagonal boron nitride for memristor devices, Radhakrishnan hopes to make this next-generation computing architecture a reality for data-hungry applications that current systems struggle to do efficiently.

Radhakrishnan says she is excited to have worked on a “truly cutting-edge” field that will impact the computing systems humanity needs to solve complex problems. 

“By working on this research as an undergrad, I was able to get a head start in gaining technical know-how and experience to significantly contribute to any engineering research in my career,” she says. 

Get involved as a student

• Find out about numerous research opportunities for students at

• Learn more about the Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative at

• Check out opportunities at Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics at

Story by Monique Clement, ’09 BA, and Karina Fitzgerald, ’18 BA, ’20 MA. Photos by Erika Gronek, ’97 BA, ’03 BA.

Top photo: Susanna Westersund makes concrete more sustainable.

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Cool places to work

May 5, 2023

Alumni share how they landed their dream jobs and provide career tips

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the summer 2023 issue of ASU Thrive magazine.

What makes a job great? It’s not the money or the prestige — though they don’t hurt. 

It’s about a job fitting for your passions and personality. About being able to do more work you love than work you don’t. 

These alums have positions that make people sit up and take notice. But more impressive than their roles is how well-suited they are to them. From a solar engineer to a NASA leader, these alumni explain how they reached their dream jobs — and share advice for your journey. 

When you’re constantly pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, there are no boring days at the office

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Laurie Leshin has had a strong career in science, including serving as president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute and as an advisor to President George W. Bush on space policy. Photo by Bob Paz courtesy of NASA/JPL

Laurie Leshin, ’87 BS in chemistry, is director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the world’s leading center for robotic space exploration. Its motto: “Dare mighty things together.” 

“It’s pretty much hair on fire every single day,” Leshin says. “It’s sort of the highest highs and the lowest lows.” 

For instance, last December, the Mars lander InSight wasn’t able to charge its battery because of dust on its solar arrays and went silent. (NASA sent out a heart-wrenching tweet of its last image.) And on the same day, the Perseverance Mars rover deposited its first sample tube on the planet’s surface for when humanity can muster a round-trip mission to the planet. 

Leshin is the first woman to lead JPL, which has some 6,000 staffers and a 168-acre campus in Pasadena. It’s the latest step in her groundbreaking career in science, academia and government. 

She has served as president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute and dean at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, advised President George W. Bush on space policy, and serves on the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum advisory board. 

“I had always been interested in space,” says Leshin, who was a chemistry major at ASU. 

Sophomore year at ASU, Leshin spotted a flyer for a summer internship at NASA in Houston. Knowing that most positions were aimed at college seniors, she reached out to Susan Wyckoff, one of the few female full professors in the physical sciences at that time. 

“I cold-called her, basically, and she helped me,” Leshin says. 

Working at NASA was a “lightning bolt,” Leshin says. She returned to ASU to graduate, received her PhD from Caltech for graduate school, then came back to ASU to teach before continuing on to NASA and other posts.   

A responsibility she takes seriously: being the first woman in many of her positions. 

“I feel like I’m holding the space for the people who come after me, to make sure that other people can see themselves in leadership roles,” Leshin says. “I just think it’s incredibly important.” 

Antony Aguilar does something new every day — new for him and new for the world

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Antony Aguilar, ’16 BS, ’22 PhD in electrical engineering, is a research and development engineer at Solestial. Photo by Jeff Newton

He is head of tooling and design at Solestial, a startup that aims to make durable, cost-effective solar cells for use in space. Because the technology is so novel, the machinery for making it doesn’t exist.  

On a given day, Aguilar, ’16 BS in electrical engineering and ’22 PhD in electrical engineering, and his team might be designing a tool in CAD, sourcing standard parts, making their parts or assembling machinery. They’ll be in laser processing rooms or conference rooms or donning booties and gowns to enter a clean room. Rarely is he sitting in his cubicle. 

When there is a problem to solve, the team starts from scratch, Aguilar says. 

“What we do is what I got into engineering for,” he says. “Designing something from the ground up, testing it, reprogramming or building certain aspects or redesigning the tool as a whole.” 

Aguilar got there through a combination of persistence and luck. 

He moved around a lot for his undergraduate studies, taking electrical engineering classes at Scottsdale Community College, Mesa Community College, and Chandler-Gilbert Community College before landing at ASU. 

A friend he met at Mesa had an internship at what was then ASU’s Solar Power Lab at MacroTechnology Works. Intrigued, Aguilar applied for a summer position and was accepted. He loved the work and continued there as an undergraduate. 

“The longer I worked in the Solar Power Lab, the more and more it appealed to me,” he says. 

He met Stan Herasimenka, ’13 PhD, at MTW. Herasimenka became a mentor and collaborator and went on to found Solestial.  

Aguilar tries to end each day by designing something. 

“I feel like that’s the ideal,” he says. “I want to be an engineer because I want to build.” 

On his best days at work, Mario Liddell feels like a musician who has a chance to perform in front  of a big crowd

Man sitting on bench outside Bank of America office

Mario Liddell sits outside his Bank of America office. Photo by Ghassan Albalushi/ASU

“It’s that chance to show off the hard work that you’ve done,” Liddell says. “To share the insights you’ve gathered.” 

Liddell, ’17 BS in business data analytics and ’22 MS in business analytics, is the bassist for ’90s tribute band Vanilla Spice. But the work he’s referring to is different: his job as a vice president in Bank of America’s customer experience organization. His team focuses on finding ways to improve customers’ digital experiences with the company — through an app, a website, a social media platform or other channels. In that role, he gets to apply his passion for data, researching and finding solutions. It requires a balance of technical knowledge and emotional intelligence. 

A typical project involves meeting with business leaders to understand their questions and needs, then finding the data to examine the problem, then cleaning it up and building models for a solution. Finally, he and his team package it into a presentation. 

“You can’t speak technical language in a business meeting. You have to listen for what the hidden context is, the question behind the question,” Liddell says.  

Liddell earned his degrees at ASU while working full time and says he often refers back to his class notes and files. In his work, it’s not technical ability that matters most; it’s flexibility and a good attitude, he says. 

4 pieces of insider advice: Seek out multiple mentors; Don’t fear change; Put yourself out there; Take risks while the stakes are low.

Go to for videos, tips and networking opportunities.

Story by Sara Clemence, a reporter and writer and former travel editor for The Wall Street Journal, news director for Travel + Leisure and deputy business editor for the New York Post.