Nontraditional grad finds her passion in biochemistry


Michele Costantino

Michele Costantino is a nontraditional student who is about to graduate from ASU’s School of Molecular Sciences (SMS) with a PhD in biochemistry.

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Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2024 graduates.

After working as a graphic designer in the corporate world for seven years, Michele Costantino went back to school for a degree in biochemistry, followed by her PhD, demonstrating considerable grit and motivation.

Costantino is a nontraditional student who is about to graduate from ASU’s School of Molecular Sciences with a PhD in biochemistry.

School of Molecular Sciences Professor Giovanna Ghirlanda, Costantino’s doctoral advisor, says that, “Michele stands out among other students for her ability to intuit broader impacts of her research and communicate them clearly. Her role in organizing and providing content for our collective website (Proteocell) is an example of her leadership abilities."

Ghirlanda also says that Costantino is an outstanding mentor for undergraduates and high school students in the lab. One of her previous mentees, Saul Favila, thrived in lab, and is now a medical school student. Another mentee, Zach Dean, is a disabled army veteran now earning a degree in education and chemistry, with the goal of teaching high school chemistry.

Costantino worked hard to support Dean's experience in the lab, despite his traumatic brain injury and he excelled; he will be coauthor on a paper being put together by Costantino.

Costantino’s project focused on membraneless organelles, subcellular structures that are formed by liquid-liquid phase separation (LLPS) and resemble liquid droplets suspended within the cellular medium. The hypothesis for her project was that LLPS can be exploited to generate designed membraneless organelles capable of performing complex functions. In the context of generating artificial cells, membraneless organelles could provide a technically simple, attractive alternative to protein capsules and liposomes.

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

Answer: After working in the corporate world for seven years, I was burnt out. Taking a step back, I moved into a position of adjunct faculty. I discovered that I loved teaching, especially at the undergraduate level. At the same time, I was questioning more than just my workplace. After much soul searching and at least five career aptitude tests, I decided to return to my first love, STEM.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I applied to ASU because of the Biodesign Institute. The diverse faculty and the extensive facilities provided opportunities that most schools could not match.

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

A: I took a class with professor Dmitry Matyushov, a theoretical biophysicist. He taught physical principles in relation to biological systems. It forced me to think of my research in new ways. I asked Professor Matyushov to serve on my committee where he spent five years pushing me out of my comfort zone. I am grateful to him for making me challenge the standard views of biochemistry.

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

A: To the undergraduates, go to office hours! Even if you don’t have questions, you need to talk to your professors and TAs. Networking will be very important to your career and it starts in the classroom. To the graduate students, organize your references and take better notes! You’re going to need them when you write your dissertation.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life? (For online students: What was your favorite spot for power studying?)

A: I really like the student pavilion; it's quiet and modern. But if we go off campus, as a foodie, I love eating brunch at Snooze Eatery and doing happy hour at Fate Brewery.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I’ve accepted a position as a visiting professor of biochemistry at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. I will be teaching not only biochemistry, but I will be designing a brand new course to educate undergraduates on the cutting edge field of disordered proteins.

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

A: Trying to reduce corruption in politics. So much progress is limited by the greed and incompetence in our political system. We have the power to do so many great things if only we could remove those who spend their energy hindering useful governance.

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