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Entrepreneur, 15-year-old graduate paving the way for young STEM students

Alena McQuarter

Dean's Medalist Alena McQuarter is graduating with a Bachelor of Science in biological sciences with a concentration in biomedical sciences. The 15-year-old plans to begin graduate school to earn a PhD in fall 2024, studying virology and infectious disease.

December 07, 2023

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

When Alena McQuarter enrolled at Arizona State University, it didn’t take long for her to discover her true passion. This December she graduates with her undergraduate degree in biological sciences (biomedical sciences) and is one of the fall 2023 recipients of the Dean’s Medal, awarded by the School of Life Sciences in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. 

The 15-year-old graduate started her educational journey through ASU Online at 12 years old, and her time at ASU has been nothing short of ambitious and aspirational.

McQuarter’s ASU experience was shaped by her involvement with Barrett, The Honors College. 

The Barrett Online program launched in fall 2021, welcoming ASU Online students with varying interests from all backgrounds and majors whose goal is to challenge themselves academically. 

Barrett provides online students with unique opportunities and resources, including honors-only research, internship opportunities and lectures.

“Barrett Online provides a strong community of support for motivated learners, whatever their unique goals and aspirations may be,” said Alexandra Aragon, Barrett Honors College director of academic partnerships and online programs. “Dedicated staff and excellent faculty guide each student through their personalized honors journey.” 

Additional hallmarks of the Barrett Online experience include honors seminar courses, virtual events, travel and global engagement programs, and honors-only online student organizations.

McQuarter embraced and maximized her time at Barrett by joining The Forge at Barrett and the Barrett Mentoring Program.

“Barrett, The Honors College played a significant role in my college experience,” she said. “Before joining Barrett I was feeling a little lost and unsure. After joining Barrett I found my tribe — other students like me. I found a community. I found support. It was the best decision of my college career.”

Beyond Barrett, McQuarter participated in various ASU clubs, including the IDEAS Student Society and the American Medical Student Association (AMSA).

As a mental health advocate, McQuarter is dedicated to making mental health resources more accessible to college students.

As an online student, there was no lack of opportunities for McQuarter during her time at ASU. 

In 2021, McQuarter was selected as a Phoenix Mercury Believe in Women honoree,  a distinction for individuals making a difference in the community.  She was awarded a scholarship to continue her educational pursuits — a path that catalyzed meaningful relationships, mentorship and unique experiences.

As part of the Student Outbreak Response Team, led by Megan Jehn, McQuarter received hands-on training in public health while simultaneously serving her community by providing surge capacity for state, local and tribal public health partners.

“The most meaningful opportunity was being able to be mentored by so many amazing professors that truly looked out for my well-being mentally, emotionally and academically,” McQuarter said. “I am thankful for each of them that were always saying my name in rooms full of possibility.”

We spoke with McQuarter about her time at ASU Online and what the future holds after graduation.

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

Answer: My “aha” moment was my first semester at ASU. I came in as an engineering student. I attempted one class, and it was at that moment I knew what I was called to do. I immediately changed my major to biological sciences and never looked back. 

Q: Why did you choose ASU Online? 

A: I chose ASU Online because of the flexibility it afforded me to be able to take classes online, work, run my business and travel the world. 

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

A: This is a hard question to answer as I have had several professors whom I have learned so much from — Dr. Christopher Rojas, Dr. Ara Austin, Dr. Megan Jehn and Gary Cabirac, to name a few.

Q: What was your favorite or most meaningful course and why? 

A: My favorite course was HPS 340 Biology and Society with Dr. Kate MacCord. I learned so much from this course regarding ethics and biology. It was an extremely enlightening and refreshing course. 

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

A: Keep going. School or life isn’t a race to the finish line. Never compare yourself with the next person. Focus on you and your end goal, and let that be a reminder whenever you get tired to keep going. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: My plans after graduation are to travel and then begin graduate school to earn my PhD in fall 2024, studying virology and infectious disease.

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

A: Before I state this, I am not stating a political fact or argument. I will always stand on the side of right and root for the underdog regardless of who you are. We are all humans first. If someone gave me $40 million to solve one problem, I would solve several. I would rescue all the children in Gaza, I would give voice to all the Mahsa Aminis, and I would help find a solution to homelessness in the United States and lack of health care. I would make mental health resources more accessible. I know they are such broad topics, but these are things I am passionate about.

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