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Class of 2009: College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

May 02, 2014

On the cusp of graduation, more than 2,500 of ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences students are poised as adaptable critical thinkers, entrepreneurs and leaders destined to shift the course of communities and nations.

The evidence that their passion can and will transform our world? It is before us in the footsteps of our 2009 graduates:

Michael McDowell, an ASU graduate with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from the School of Life Sciences, is very active in undergraduate research projects, and accepted the President’s challenge. McDowell, currently in his final year of medical school at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, has already been published 13 times and co-authored 5 textbook chapters.

In addition, he has received $600,000 in grants toward his research on pediatric cerebrovascular surgery – research he became passionate about as an undergraduate participating in the School of Life Sciences Undergraduate Research program. Once his final year is finished, McDowell will begin his residency at the University of Pittsburgh.

While McDowell was already well on his way to success before the President’s speech, he did have an experience few others did – he shook President Obama’s hand during commencement and exchanged a few words.

“It was a great experience, and I felt that I was really able to have a personal moment with him,” McDowell said. “I got to tell him that I was going to his alma mater, Columbia, and say ‘Roar, lions, roar,’ to him. He was already smiling at the time, but I think his grin got a bit bigger.”

McDowell is not the only 2009 ASU graduate to see success. Others, including biological sciences graduate Rachel Lusk, are making a difference throughout the world. Her undergraduate degree at ASU focused on biology and society.

Lusk has already graduated from medical school and is currently in the middle of her residency at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. Also impressive is the outreach work she has completed in rural locations, including the Navajo Nation and Malawi, Africa. Lusk said she always wanted to work in rural communities, and she hopes to continue doing so wherever possible after her residency is finished. In addition to hearing the President’s inspiring words, Lusk said she is grateful for all the exciting opportunities she had at ASU.

“I was so fortunate to have wonderful mentors at ASU, like Jane Maienschein, who taught me to think critically about what it means to be a good doctor,” Lusk said. “I’m not only using the basic science that I learned during my undergraduate studies, but also the skills that I learned about thinking critically and looking at the big picture when taking care of patients.”

Shaan Akhtar is also a 2009 graduate who earned a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences with a concentration in biology and society from the School of Life Sciences. For Akhtar, the most important thing about his post-graduate career has been integrating his commitment to service with his interest in science. Since age 15, he spent his summers volunteering with the Ocean Discovery Institute, an organization that uses marine science to engage urban youth in conservation activities. Experiences like those have guided his decision to attend medical school at the University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix.

Now in his third year, Akhtar has started his clinical rotations and said he finds it very exciting, but humbling.

“It’s incredible to see certain types of pathology of disease in front of me that I had previously only learned about in textbooks or lectures,” Akhtar said. “It is also very rewarding to have the chance to offer some relief and support to people who are acutely ill and in need.”

In addition to the typical duties of a medical student, Akhtar participates in research studies with the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center at Barrow Neurological Institute. Akhtar said he appreciates the education and experiences that the School of Life Sciences and ASU offered that prepared him to apply what he learned in class to a changing society.

William "Billy" Cioffi (BA, English) returned to school for his bachelor’s degree after some 30 years away. A career musician and songwriter, he says his two great loves in life “other than my wife” are music and literature. “I was thinking about going back into journalism, as I had been writing for various music mags. I just got hung up on English lit and theory. I know I'm weird.”

His 32-year music career included working as a studio musician, record producer and tour manager for such noted names as Chuck Berry – with whom he went to Japan, Russia and Europe – Bo Diddley, Ben E. King, Lesly Gore and The Turtles. “I had a great time. I loved doing it,” he said.

Since graduation in 2009, Cioffi has collaborated with ASU Department of English professor T. R. Hummer, a poet and musician, on the AmeriCamera project. The two co-wrote an album in 2010 that they describe as a blend of music, poetry, photography and video (High Minded. The AmeriCamera Project. Electric Lotus Music, 2010). AmeriCamera was also featured on the Emmy-nominated Songwriters’ Showcase series, produced by the City of Tempe and aired on KAET PBS 8. Cioffi is musical director for the series.

A teacher of guitar and songwriting at Kirks Studio for the Performing Arts in Scottsdale, Cioffi is constantly looking for ways to link his two great loves. “I always ask my students ‘what are you reading?’ You cannot write anything well – songs, novels, journalism – unless you read.” At present, Cioffi is in the studio recording songs for volume 2 of the AmeriCamera project, and is also nearly finished with his master’s degree in English at ASU. He has contributed to ASU outreach blockbuster, Night of the Open Door, and ultimately hopes to get his Ph.D. – “If I live long enough!”

On having President Obama as commencement speaker, Cioffi said: “It was an incredibly moving experience. I felt intensely proud and lucky at the same time. Obama shows us all that no dream is too big or out of reach if you try. It’s never too late to go for it.”

Below are more success stories from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences:

Erica Wrublik – BA, history

Wrublik is vice president of membership at the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, responsible for membership development and affinity programs. Her history degree opened the door to government, global awareness, community development and to the firm belief that education is “the bulwark of a good society.”

Darren Ruddell – MS, technology (ASU Polytechnic campus); PhD, geography

Ruddell is an assistant professor and director of undergraduate studies at the Spatial Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California. Ruddell teaches and develops curricula in GeoDesign and advanced online programs in Geographic Information Science and Technology. GeoDesign is a forward-thinking, interdisciplinary framework that pairs planning, design and environmental systems with geospatial technologies to explore ways to build a better world.

Chris Samila – BA, global studies (certificate: sustainability and urban systems); BA, political science (certificate: international studies).

Samila is now partnerships manager with Optimizely, a San Francisco-based global market leader in digital content optimization. This group empowers marketing professionals to rapidly test and personalize digital content (images, text, designs) to improve conversions. At ASU, Samila founded the School of Global Studies Student Association and the company GreenSummit, Inc. In 2008, the summit attracted 4,000 attendees to the Phoenix Convention Center, where President Crow gave the opening address.

Scott Bates – MA, PhD, plant biology.

Bates is now an assistant professor and curator with the Bell Museum of Natural History with the University of Minnesota. While at ASU, Bates managed the Lichen Herbarium exchange program and served as a specialist for the USDA’s Forest Inventory and Analysis Program. He pursues studies in fungal diversity and soil-borne fungal pathogens, and is part of National Science Foundation’s Advancing Digitization of Biological Collections program.

Andrew Gamalski – BS, physics; BS, math.

Gamalski’s research studies began at the age of 15. He developed an algorithm using linear programming to minimize factory inefficiency as part of the high school research program of ASU’s Southwest Center for Education and the Natural Environment. By the time he entered ASU as a freshman, he’d completed enough college coursework to be designated a junior. Called a “force of nature” by faculty, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences offered the perfect proving ground for his skills in mathematics, chemistry and physics. He received a Marshall Award, which took him to England to study for two years. He completed his PhD in Electrical Engineering at the University of Cambridge and now conducts research in nanowires with Intel Corporation.