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

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. Portrait shot of ASU SOLS graduate Sarah Weiss. Biological sciences graduate Sarah Weiss has spent her time at ASU pursuing research, art and science. Download Full Image

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.

Dominique Perkins

Manager of marketing and communications, School of Life Sciences


Arizona native, first-generation college student graduates from ASU with 4 degrees

May 10, 2023

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

Vanessa Aguiar knows firsthand what it means to represent family and be a catalyst for change. Vanessa Aguiar poses in an outdoor setting wearing her graduation gown, cap and stole. Vanessa Aguiar is graduating this spring with degrees in French, global studies, philosophy and political science. Photo by Andrea Chavez Download Full Image

Attending and completing college as a first-generation student poses significant challenges and is an enormous accomplishment for any student. But Aguiar went above and beyond, earning degrees in French, global studies, philosophy and political science.

Aguiar was born to immigrant farmworkers in the border town of San Luis, Arizona, south of Yuma. Learning the value of hard work through her parents’ dedication and the values they instilled in her, she wanted to be a beacon of hope for her family and many others.

When she began her first year at Arizona State University to pursue a global studies degree, she developed interests in political science and philosophy.

She turned to her academic advisor to see if it was feasible to add additional majors.

“My advisor was very supportive of adding the two majors,” she said. “Then, sophomore year, I took a French class and was strongly interested in adding that subject. That’s how I ended up with four majors.”

The learning didn’t stop there. Despite her sophomore year being affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, Aguiar took part in virtual internships with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to growing the next generation of Latino leaders.

Aguiar also spent most of her four years in several leadership and professional roles at the university, mainly as a financial aid representative, a policy analyst for ASU Knowledge Enterprise and a counselor in the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP).

But one of the most profound accomplishments on her long list of achievements was her time as a UCLA Law Fellow the summer before her junior year. Aiming to be a lawyer one day, Aguiar was one of two out-of-state fellows in the program. They welcomed her into the program and gave her an insight into law school.

Here, she speaks about her time at ASU.

Question: How did you manage a challenging course load?

Answer: It was tough. A lot was going on during the early years of college, with some personal issues and navigating the pandemic. I think I was trying to pile a lot on to forget about it and quickly figured out it wasn’t healthy. I needed to step back and focus only on what I loved to do.

Q: What does it mean for you to be a first-generation college student and represent your family in that way?

A: It might feel funny, but I’m part of ending a cycle. Knowing firsthand what it takes to accomplish and figure everything out on your own is a special thing. It is remarkable to be able to dedicate each one of my degrees to each member of my family because we are a family of four.

Q: What is something you learned while at ASU?

A: It’s not wrong to know yourself and your limits and when it is enough and that too much is too much. I learned not to be afraid to quit or pause things when life gets too crazy.

Q: Why did you decide to attend ASU?

A: It was the wisest decision financially, but when I visited the three state universities, ASU felt the most comforting, and my heart belonged there. But also the representation of diversity, sharing my stories with others like me and hearing advice from others to balance it out.

Q: What advice would you give an incoming first-year student?

A: Two things: Do not be afraid to know yourself and be your authentic self. Second, do not compare yourself to others. Whatever a person is doing is already enough.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I’m moving to Washington, D.C., to work with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute this summer. I will be a fellow with them for the first few months and work on Capitol Hill. I have the option to transfer to a federal agency.

Q: How do you think all these fields of study mesh together?

A: They have been merging this whole time. In my law school classes, I learned many laws were started in France; some of the most famous philosophers are French. At least, I think these studies opened my perspective to different ways of thinking.

Q: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

A: I want to be an intellectual property law attorney in the entertainment or fashion industry. One day I hope to merge them because I am interested in politics as well.

Stephen Perez

Marketing and Communications Coordinator, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences