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Meet Elizabeth Donaldson, director of ASU’s new School of Applied Sciences and Arts

School offers interdisciplinary and distinctive degrees with an applied emphasis in the sciences, humanities and social science

Portriat of ASU School of Applied Sciences and Arts Director Elizabeth Donaldson.

Professor Elizabeth Donaldson, a leader in the field of disability studies, has joined ASU's College of Integrative Sciences and Arts as inaugural director of the new School of Applied Sciences and Arts at the ASU Polytechnic campus. Donaldson began her role July 1, coming to ASU from the New York Institute of Technology. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

July 31, 2023

Professor Elizabeth J. Donaldson has joined Arizona State University’s College of Integrative Sciences and Arts as the inaugural director of the School of Applied Sciences and Arts, based at the ASU Polytechnic campus. The school is one of three new schools launched in ASU's College of Integrative Sciences and Arts on July 1.

Donaldson joins ASU from the New York Institute of Technology, where she was a professor of English and most recently served as associate dean of curriculum and student engagement in the College of Arts and Sciences. She brings many years of leadership experience in additional roles, including a year as associate dean of interdisciplinary academic initiatives and eight years as director of the medical humanities program.

Donaldson also brings an impressive record of cross-disciplinary work in humanities and sciences. At the New York Institute of Technology, she chaired the interdisciplinary studies program for eight years, co-led the reorganization of the Department of Humanities, and organized and implemented a “double helix” strategic planning process for the College of Arts and Sciences, with a combined focus on faculty development, promoting interdisciplinary research and programming that unites the humanities and sciences. 

As a professor of English and a scholar of disability studies, Donaldson’s research focuses on literature and science, medical humanities, bioethics, graphic medicine and the history of psychiatry. She is the co-editor of two collections as well as the author of numerous essays and book chapters. Donaldson’s co-edited collection “The Madwoman and the Blindman: Jane Eyre, Discourse, Disability” is considered a landmark contribution to disability studies.

She is the lead editor of the forthcoming collection “Neurofutures,” which breaks new ground in critical studies of mental disability through essays about autism, psychiatric disability and other neurodiverse topics from a wide variety of writers.

Donaldson earned a doctorate in English and a graduate certificate in women’s studies from the State University of New York at Stony Brook as well as master’s and bachelor’s degrees in English from Georgia State University.

“We are excited to welcome Professor Elizabeth Donaldson to this new role,” said College of Integrative Sciences and Arts Dean Joanna Grabski. “Elizabeth’s commitment to interdisciplinary research has been key to shaping innovative initiatives at her prior institution. We know she’ll continue that momentum as our first director of the School of Applied Sciences and Arts, growing our interdisciplinary and distinctive degree options at ASU Polytechnic campus and emboldening students with incredible career-connected learning opportunities.”  

ASU News spoke with Donaldson to find out more about her past work, some of her interests and her perspective on her new position.

Question: What excites you most about your new role and joining the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts at ASU? 

Answer: I am most excited about the mix of applied science, social science and humanities majors in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, and I’m looking forward to working with the amazing faculty and students and developing new interdisciplinary programs.

Q: If you had to give a short elevator pitch to a prospective student about why they should consider pursuing a degree from the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts School of Applied Sciences and Arts, what would you say? 

A: The College of Integrative Sciences and Arts School of Applied Sciences and Arts offers students all the benefits of the Polytechnic campus, surrounded by the natural beauty of the East Valley, along with an innovative education in applied sciences, social sciences or humanities. Here you have the time and space to really get to know your professors and your classmates, all while gaining cutting-edge training for a future career. It’s the best of both worlds.

Q: The College of Integrative Sciences and Arts emphasizes career-connected learning. Tell us about your first job; what was the most important (or memorable) lesson you learned? 

A: My very first paying job was working for my neighbor at a local flea and farmer’s market in Englishtown, New Jersey. He kept some ponies and took them there on the weekends to give kids pony rides. I learned that I could get a kid who was bigger than me on a pony whose shoulder was roughly my height by using my hip as a pivot, and I learned that a certain pony was going to bite me if I wasn’t on top of my game and holding the harness precisely under his chin all of the time. I don’t know if these are transferrable skills, but they were definitely life lessons.

Q: When or how did you realize you wanted to pursue this field in higher education? 

A: I always knew that I loved school, and I always knew that I wanted to stay in school for as long as possible when I started escaping into books in kindergarten. So here I am. My ideas about what exactly to pursue in higher education have changed over the years, but I’ve always been in the field of literary studies because I love to read and think about literature. I started out as a creative writer/poet who focused on Victorian poetry, then I switched to early American literature and environmental/science writing, and finally I found my way to disability studies, medical humanities and the history of psychiatry.

Q:  Tell us more about your book in progress on the future of neurodiversity and where you see disability studies headed? 

A: “Neurofutures” is a collection of essays about autism, psychiatric disability, non-24 sleep disorder and other neurodiversity topics from a wide variety of writers, including academics, speaking and nonspeaking autists, people diagnosed with mental illnesses and those who occupy multiple categories. The collection is positioned in part as a response to the pandemic and life after the death of George Floyd — especially the increased vulnerabilities of neurodivergent people of color.

I think disability studies is robust and has been moving toward critical disability studies: a position that is not as attached to the traditional definitions that founded the field, such as medical disability versus social disability, but is more attuned to intersectional identities. The field is being informed by the perspectives of people who are neurodivergent, queer, trans and people of color, which is a good thing. 

Q: As director of the school that’s home to the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts preveterinary medicine concentration and the Pet Ambassador Program, we have to ask about your favorites: Dogs? Cats? Another animal entirely? 

A: I like all animals. One of my favorite animals is the capybara. I love those photos of capybaras that show them hanging out with other species. The capybara abides! But as far as pets go, I have two cats: Jones and Nijinsky. Jones is a super senior (almost 19 years old) and Nijinsky is a much younger stray cat who was found in a garden in Brooklyn during the pandemic.

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