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ASU Dean’s Medalist and National Merit Scholar pursues passion for information and genetics

Portrait shot of ASU SOLS graduate Sarah Weiss.

Biological sciences graduate Sarah Weiss has spent her time at ASU pursuing research, art and science.

May 10, 2023

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

Arizona State University biological sciences graduate Sarah Weiss has been selected as The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences' spring 2023 Dean’s Medalist for the School of Life Sciences.

The Dean’s Medal recognizes outstanding students who have demonstrated a steadfast commitment to academic excellence during their time at ASU. 

Weiss is graduating with her bachelor’s degree in biological sciences with a concentration in genetics, cell and developmental biology. She is also a National Merit Scholar and a member of Barrett, the Honors College, and she minored in studio art through the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts

Weiss is from Phoenix. During her time at ASU, she was active in the School of Life Sciences Undergraduate Research program, presenting her research at the annual meeting of the American Society of Microbiology, among other conferences and symposiums. 

She was a member of Assistant Professor Susanne Pfeifer’s lab, where she characterized rates and patterns of recombination across the primate clade. 

She also completed an internship as a Helios Scholar at TGen, where she sequenced and analyzed genomes to investigate telomere dysfunction in gliomagenesis. 

As an artist, Weiss had her work featured in a metal sculpture show at the Mirabella Art Show and led a group of six in a welding class that created a 13-foot-tall art installation titled “Hope in the Face of Climate Change” for ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination.

We had the opportunity to talk with Weiss and ask her about her time at ASU and her determination to pursue a career that would help others.

Question: Could you tell me a little bit about your journey before you came to ASU? What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in? 

Answer: I actually applied to ASU as an aerospace engineering major, mostly because I was a Star Trek fan and thought planes and space were cool. However, the summer before my freshman year, a combination of family health struggles and volunteering at a local hospital put things into a different light. I realized I didn’t want to spend my days calculating the optimal shapes for empty, lifeless pieces of aluminum. I wanted to help living, breathing people. And if the '60s were the Space Age, I personally believe we're in the height of an information age — hence why I chose biology with a genetics concentration. I have loved everything about my major since; every single class has been enjoyable and taught me so much (my favorite class was immunology). If I had time, I would have added a computational life sciences certificate, but since I was already in a bioinformatics lab, I ended up choosing to minor in studio art.

Q: Were there any particular research experiences you participated in during your time at ASU that strongly impacted your academic journey?

A: My sophomore year, which had been the year I planned on becoming involved in research, I was at home due to the pandemic. So, I joined a course-based undergraduate research experience called SEA-PHAGES, taught by Susanne Pfeifer. It was entirely remote at the time, but it was still an extremely fun and educational class. Afterward, I ended up in Dr. Pfeifer's lab, which has easily been my favorite and most rewarding experience at ASU. My favorite parts have been the project I worked on for my honors thesis and being a TA for the SEA-PHAGES course. For anyone questioning whether they should become involved in dry lab research, I would recommend it a million times over.

Last summer, I was also fortunate enough to be a Helios Scholar at TGen, where I worked in Dr. (Floris) Barthel's lab on a project investigating telomere dysfunction in gliomagenesis. The project the lab had planned for us to work on actually involved both wet and dry lab work. Being a part of the entire process of taking samples from cell culture to whole genome sequence data and analysis was so much fun, and extremely educational. I'm beyond grateful for the experiences and welcoming environments in both of the labs I have been a part of. I have had nothing but good experiences, and I've learned so much.

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

A: I had always expected that I would easily find a friend group in college. However, the workload of my freshman and sophomore years, alongside a global pandemic, derailed those expectations rapidly. I think college can be a far lonelier time than the movies, or even social media, depict it to be. I have since talked to many people who share that sentiment, so I really do think it's a common experience that many college students have.

Over time, I have found friends — mostly through forced proximity in my research lab, and through shared interests. As someone who has always considered myself content with being alone, I've realized I'm much happier when I get to see great people all the time.

I have come to believe our own human experience is shaped by the connections we make with others. An average experience can be made amazing when one is surrounded with good people. I have also learned it's completely normal to have a hard time making friends.

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

A: One quote my mom says that has stuck with me through the years is, sometimes she feels like she's running around in a blizzard, trying to catch all the snow with nothing but a mug. Sometimes, life can feel overwhelming like that. So choose the snowflakes you catch wisely, and try not to dwell too much on the ones you can't.

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

A: Freshman year, my favorite spot to study was a room called Mordor in the basement of Armstrong. I think it's been closed since, but there might be plans to reopen it.

In the fall, I have always liked sitting at a table at a courtyard next to the Student Services Building by the trees that turn orange. It's shady, peaceful and hardly anyone ever sits there.

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