Life sciences graduate brings biology to an Arizona state prison

Anika Larson, CLAS Dean's medalist

Anika Larson never knew she would spend time inside a state prison during her stellar career at Arizona State University. But teaching biology to maximum-security inmates in a prison classroom was something she just couldn’t pass up.

Leading into her senior year as a double major in biological sciences and global studies, Larson participated in a creative writing internship through the English department called the Pen Project. Maximum-security prisoners send in their creative writing through the project. ASU interns then read and critique their work.

“I was working with the Pen Project, and I realized I was passionate about it,” Larson said. “I asked the director at the time whether anyone was teaching biology in this particular program. They weren’t, but he got the biology class approved and said, ‘If you want to do it, you’ll start in September.’ I panicked, to be honest.”

But Larson jumped into the project headfirst, working with School of Life Sciences professor Tsafrir Mor and several doctoral students. Not only was the class a success, new students at ASU have signed up to continue the course after Larson graduates.

“We have a large network of grads and undergrads who help with the homework and curriculum,” added Larson. “This has been a highlight of my time at ASU.”

During the past four years, Larson looked for projects that made her not want to leave at the end of the day. She surprised herself her sophomore year, adding a second major following an internship in Southeast Asia.

“I did an internship with Green Peace in Bangkok,” Larson said. “They wanted me to develop a remediation plan for a polluted creek. I was a global studies student in the School of Politics and Global Studies. I had no idea how to do this. It really convinced me that if I wanted to study environmental law and policy, I needed to know more about biology and science. I added biology and society with the School of Life Sciences as a second major.”

Larson has had a wide variety of experiences at ASU. She participated in several humanitarian groups, providing humanitarian aid along the U.S.-Mexico border through No More Deaths, and raising awareness through Students for Humanitarian Aid on the Border. In the School of Life Sciences Undergraduate Research (SOLUR) program, Larson conducted a research project on how neuroscientists choose their study models.

“It’s been pretty simple to move back and forth between different disciplines,” Larson said. “So, to be in global studies, conducting humanitarian aid along the border, and simultaneously doing science policy-focused research with the School of Life Sciences, it’s been wonderful. SOLS and the Center for Biology and Society, the School of Politics and Global Studies and the honors thesis for Barrett, all are very flexible in what I can do for the required projects.”

Reflecting on her college career, Larson has words of advice for her “freshman-year-self” – a time she worried about being successful.

“If I could go back and talk to myself, I would grab myself by the shoulders and say, ‘There is no such thing as not being smart enough to go into biology or any other field you’re interested in. There is room for all kinds of intelligences and skills,'” she said.

After graduation, Larson will start a summer internship in occupational health. In the fall, she will begin a master’s program in public health at the University of Washington. Larson won the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean’s medal for the School of Life Sciences, Spring 2015, and will carry the school’s flag during the graduation ceremony.