Highly awarded PhD grad says ASU is the only place for her


Headshot of Melanie Newell

Melanie Newell earned a PhD in Biological Design from the Biodesign Center for Environmental Health Engineering.

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

Calling northwest Phoenix home and having grown up in the Valley, Melanie Newell said she loves Arizona too much to leave — which is how she knew she wanted to stay in-state to pursue her higher education.

Plus, the degree programs available at Arizona State University were too good to pass up.

"I wanted to pursue a business degree (during undergrad), and W. P. Carey is the best business school in the state. Once I began to consider returning to school for my MBA, I had only one option. Once a Sun Devil, always a Sun Devil!" she said.

After attending various events geared towards new students, an open house held by Biodesign Institute was the one that caught her attention.

"(Biodesign) checked all my boxes and then some," she said. The ultimate draw was the autonomy and freedom to select which courses she wanted to take from the robust catalog.

"The programs' director, Kaushal Rege, made it a point to meet with us personally to highlight the attractive transdisciplinary nature of the program," she stated. Over the years, she delved into the program wholeheartedly, relishing opportunities to study on campus, socialize and connect with mentors.

During her academic journey, Newell applied for various scholarships and grants and was awarded for her continued achievements and work ethic. In 2021, she received the ACS Travel Award funded by the National Institutes of Health NIEHS Grant to cover registration fees for the ACS fall 2021 conference. Then, she received the Graduate College Travel Award for the Cancer Congress 2021 Global Virtual Summit on Cancer and Therapy, and the ACS fall 2022 conference in Chicago, Illinois.

In April 2023, she was awarded ASU Graduate and Professional Association and Biodesign Travel Grants at the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry 2023 conference in Dublin, Ireland. Most recently, she was a recipient of the Turley Scholar Award: ARCS Foundation Phoenix Chapter Fellowship to support her graduate studies.

As a recent graduate, Newell is already moving on to the next steps in her academic career. Newwell is working toward her postdoc at the Biodesign Center for Environmental Health Engineering and the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, part of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

But, it can't be all work and no play. Before kicking off her research endeavors, Newell — being a self-presribed "outdoors junkie" — says she hopes to enjoy as many scenic hikes as possible, enjoy some biking and maybe even put a camping trip on the docket.

Here, she elaborates on her plans and advice for students.

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

Answer: I entered a PhD program because I wanted to be able to teach any class level in any institution as I progressed in the education field. However, I was surprised to learn that I found the most joy in these last few years mentoring Barrett Honors students as they progressed in their undergraduate research endeavors. My passion for teaching stems from a passion for mentoring, so I will be narrowing my job searches to positions that will allow me to continue practicing these skills.

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

A: My Principles of Human Genetics professor, Anne Stone, taught me to slow down and check assumptions I had harbored since my undergraduate days. Genetics, in particular, is a field that has been changing significantly since my last genetics course over a decade ago. Technology has substantially increased the speed and the wealth of knowledge around the genome and epigenome. As one who wants to bridge multiple fields, I must be aware of the current research on all fields I wish to combine.

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

A: As a graduate student, reaching out to professors to be an advisor, mentor or collaborator may be awkward. I realized early on, however, that they won’t know you are looking for them and you may (not know you) have a shared interest unless you reach out first.

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

A: The outside seating area between the Farmer Education Building, Payne Hall and Music buildings was my favorite for getting some sun or shade with an outlet to charge my computer.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I am currently in my first year as a residential faculty member teaching fundamental chemistry courses at Estrella Mountain Community College. I plan to continue teaching or mentoring in whatever position I pursue.

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

A: While I don’t believe money alone will solve any particular problem in the world, I do think $40 million could make a significant impact on the rising prevalence of neurodegenerative diseases in this country. Increasing funding for research into environmental factors driving epigenetic changes in patients with Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) could finally identify targets that are causal to disease. With any money left over, we could start monitoring these targets and mitigating exposure with geographically specific public health efforts.

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