Expanding access and removing barriers to scientific research opportunities

Jenessa Shapiro Scholarship provides underrepresented students hands-on research experiences

January 5, 2021

The Department of Psychology at Arizona State University is working to provide students from underrepresented populations with opportunities for hands-on research experience, which can be the first step to pursuing a career in science. The ENERGIZE program connects ASU students from underrepresented populations with yearlong research positions in psychology labs.

One of the major roadblocks for students from underrepresented groups is the lack of financial support and resources. When other students are pursuing research in a lab setting, these students may need to work multiple jobs to make ends meet, like Koop Bills, a student in the department who worked two full-time restaurant jobs for seven years while pursuing a psychology degree. Jenessa Shapiro Jenessa Shapiro graduated with her doctorate in psychology from ASU in 2008. Her research focused on stereotyping, discrimination and prejudices, and on promoting women and minorities. Shapiro was known for her dedication to mentoring and supporting underrepresented students and being a champion for advancing educational opportunities. She mentored hundreds of students over her career across multiple institutions, and this scholarship was designed to continue that legacy. Download Full Image

“Part of ASU’s mission is to give educational opportunities to nontraditional students who might have to work full time or have family obligations while they pursue their education,"  said Marisol Perez, associate professor of psychology. "The Jenessa Shapiro Undergraduate Research Scholarship will allow students who have financial demands to join psychology labs and participate in research — and will ensure that the psychology department and university do not miss out on training phenomenal future scientists.”

The Jenessa Shapiro Undergraduate Research Scholarship

The scholarship was created with a gift from Noah Goldstein, who graduated with his doctorate in psychology from ASU in 2007, in honor of his wife. Jenessa Shapiro graduated with her doctorate in psychology from ASU in 2008 and then joined the psychology department at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she taught until she died of cancer in 2018. Her research focused on stereotyping, discrimination and prejudices, and on promoting women and minorities. Shapiro was known for her dedication to mentoring and supporting underrepresented students and being a champion for advancing educational opportunities. She mentored hundreds of students over her career across multiple institutions, and this scholarship was designed to continue that legacy.

“Jenessa was committed to promoting diversity, inclusion and social justice, and authentically ‘walked the talk’ through her own substantial mentoring, research and teaching efforts,” said Steven Neuberg, Foundation Professor and chair of the Department of Psychology — and Shapiro’s graduate mentor at ASU. “She would be thrilled to know that this scholarship, in her memory, is aimed at supporting the goals and values that she so cherished, and was doing so at ASU.”

The first recipients of the Jenessa Shapiro Undergraduate Research Scholarship in the ASU Department of Psychology are Bills and fellow student Valeria Gutierrez.

Contribute to the Jenessa Shapiro scholarship.

Creating a psychology research pipeline at ASU

The ENERGIZE program began when Art Glenberg, a recently retired professor of psychology, realized that in his 12 years at ASU, he could not remember a Black student going through the cognitive psychology graduate program. He set about trying to create a pipeline, or easier path to begin a career in research, for students from underrepresented populations.

As part of the program, participating psychology labs offer flexible research opportunities to help overcome barriers like caring for family or commuting to and from campus, with the goal of providing research experience to students in spite of those barriers.

Erin Lanphier, a lecturer in the psychology department, chose the program name.

“I thought ‘energize’ was the perfect word for what we are trying to do for the students and also for the contributions they will make to the labs,” she said.

One of the first students to participate in the ENERGIZE program is Rebeca Alvarado Ortega, who is currently working in the Learning and Development lab with Viridiana Benitez, assistant professor of psychology.

“Some classmates in my research methods class talked about how their parents worked in research at ASU, but I am a first-generation college student so did not have those kinds of connections,” Ortega said. “The ENERGIZE program opened the door for me, giving me access to being involved in a research lab.”

In addition to learning how to design and carry out experiments and analyze data, Ortega has been trained on how to obtain informed consent from participants and how to use eye-tracking to measure where children are looking. Benitez also teaches the students in her lab how to network with other researchers, which led Ortega to a summer job as a research assistant at Duke University.

Ortega is now thinking about attending graduate school after ASU.

When Glenberg encourages students to apply to the program, he uses his own research as an example of how people from underrepresented populations can improve and strengthen scientific research.

“I start my pitch by describing how a goal of research in my lab is to develop reading comprehension interventions that work for dual language learners, like Latino kids and their parents. I then point out that I am not Latino, and what do I know about what is going to work in a Latino household? Translational research like mine needs students and researchers with appropriate backgrounds to help design effective interventions,” Glenberg said.

Learn more about the Jenessa Shapiro Scholarship and help grow the ENERGIZE program.

ASU undergraduate’s science communication pilot program awarded inaugural JEDI grant

Bryanna Gutierrez-Coatney has won the School of Earth and Space Exploration's first Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Seed Grant

January 5, 2021

ASU undergraduate astrophysics student Bryanna Gutierrez-Coatney, of the School of Earth and Space Exploration, has been awarded the school’s inaugural Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) Seed Grant from the school’s JEDI Task Force. Gutierrez-Coatney’s award-winning proposal is an education initiative designed to build awareness of physics and earth and space topics among students in Arizona’s Title 1 schools.

“The purpose of the School of Earth and Space Exploration JEDI Seed grants is to empower the members of our community and to foster grassroots efforts to create a more inclusive environment for all,” said school Director Meenakshi Wadhwa. ASU undergraduate student Bryanna Gutierrez-Coatney was awarded the School of Earth and Space Exploration's inaugural Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Seed Grant. Download Full Image

The project, officially titled “Bridging the Gap Initiative: Connecting ASU Students with Title 1 Schools Via Virtual Visits,” will explore the benefits of short educational talks on earth and space science and physics topics given to Title 1 high school classrooms by ASU undergraduate student ambassadors. In so doing, the project will support undergraduate teaching opportunities and provide outreach to 150 students in Maricopa County Title 1 schools.

For this project, Gutierrez-Coatney is co-advised by ASU Department of Physics associate instructional professional Anna Zaniewski, and School of Earth and Space Exploration faculty Patrick Young and Steven Semken.

While in high school, Gutierrez-Coatney initially struggled with math and science courses. She often felt disengaged and not smart enough to understand the concepts. Then she discovered scientific podcasts and YouTube videos, which piqued her curiosity and presented science in a way that matched her learning style. It was through this experience that Gutierrez-Coatney learned that she, like so many students, could learn to love science if it was taught in new and innovative ways.

“My relationship with studying science inspired me to write this proposal in hopes to reach low-income students who often struggle with the traditional approach to science learning,” said Gutierrez-Coatney. “I hope that with this award we can test out the effectiveness of science communication through Zoom and remote educational tools and reach students who have different learning styles.”

Gutierrez-Coatney would also like to see this grant provide more paid STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) opportunities for students.

“Many of my friends who are undergraduates in the Physics Department and the School of Earth and Space Exploration work minimum-wage jobs at coffee shops, restaurants and retail stores,” said Gutierrez-Coatney, who has also held minimum-wage jobs like these. “Going to school full time and working a minimum-wage job that was not physics-related made me question whether I would actually make it in the field of physics.”

Her solution is to create a paid opportunity for undergraduates to become student ambassadors for their field of science. She believes positions like these will help her, as well as her peers, stay engaged and continue to learn in these areas.

“With this grant, we hope to strengthen more undergraduate students’ science identities and to expose more high school students to topics that could pique their interest in STEM fields,” she said.

For Zaniewski, working with Gutierrez-Coatney has been a joy, and she’s delighted to help students share their stories.

“Bryanna has shown incredible vision, leadership and ambition in putting together this program, and it is a great honor to mentor her,” said Zaniewski. “If this pilot program is successful, we hope to both share and expand this science outreach model.”

About the School of Earth and Space Exploration JEDI Task Force and Seed Grants 

The School of Earth and Space Exploration JEDI Task Force empowers a just, equitable, diverse and inclusive environment by facilitating and promoting individual action, dialogue, education, long-term planning and systemic change. It was formed in 2020 and is chaired by the school’s associate director for an inclusive community, Associate Professor Christy Till, and composed of members from all parts of the school’s community.

“We are excited to award this first seed grant to Bryanna and her team as part of our work to incentivize justice-equity-diversity-inclusion (JEDI) work by everyone in our community,” said Till. “This pilot project not only supports earth and space science and physics curricula in regional high schools, it also provides paid teacher training and opportunities for our undergraduate students, making it a win-win situation.”

The school’s JEDI Seed Grant was established in 2020 to support several small pilot projects that focus on improving justice, equity, diversity and inclusion in the School of Earth and Space Exploration community. Applications are due in both November and March, and ASU students, staff and faculty are eligible to apply.

To learn more about applying for a School of Earth and Space Exploration JEDI Seed Grant, visit the JEDI Task Force webpage.

This article was written by Araceli Vizcarra of the Department of Physics and Karin Valentine of the School of Earth and Space Exploration.

Why the humanities matter to sports

ASU certificate helps students to understand cultural, ethical issues that affect the industry

January 4, 2021

In October 1968, Dick Fosbury used a high school trick to win a gold medal in the Olympic high jump. To increase his speed and efficiently clear the bar, he arched his back over the bar back-of-the-head-first toward the mat, a technique that came to be known as the “Fosbury Flop” and the standard practice for elite high-jumpers. 

The technique required athletes to turn their backs to the bar, taking a counterintuitive approach to succeed as high-jumpers. Like the Fosbury Flop, the sports, cultures and ethics certificate at Arizona State University requires students to take a counterintuitive approach to sports; it challenges them to learn stories of the past and present and understand the cultural and ethical issues that inhabit the sports industry. Photo courtesy of Unsplash Download Full Image

“The certificate shows potential employers that an ASU graduate knows how to think critically about sport and society issues; can speak to social, cultural and ethical issues in sports; and will step up and share expertise in key areas that sports companies like to emphasize: diversity, equity and inclusion; social embeddedness; cultural empathy and understanding,” said Victoria Jackson, ASU sports historian and former professional athlete who helped develop the program.

One example of how sports and society issues collide is found in the World AthleticsWorld Athletics was formerly known as the International Association of Athletics Federations. The name change was approved in October 2019. sports federation. This governing body for track and field sets regulations in female sports categories that require women with elevated testosterone levels to artificially modify their bodies in order to be eligible for competition. 

The necessity for artificial modification brings into question the constructed binary of two sex categories. People can look to the humanities to understand how biological sex, gender identity and gender expression can be part of the conversation, reflecting on how similar societal expectations might impact a girl who is treated differently because she doesn’t fit the mold of societal gender norms. 

The sports, cultures and ethics certificate prepares students to understand concepts such as this and apply them in the real world as leaders, humanists and critical thinkers in the sports industry.

This new way of thinking is something that Jackson describes as “untapped potential.”

“In elite sports, we’re trained to put up our blinders and turn off our critical-thinking caps to best serve us in the mission to maximize and optimize our athletic performances. We are trained in a culture that tells us that excellence and winning come when we have a singular focus and turn off distractions,” said Jackson. 

“But this goes against our training as historians and in the humanities — only when we approach a subject by considering all its proper contexts, complications and nuances do we come closest to gaining the truest understanding of that subject.”

The humanities teach students to research multiple perspectives in order to create innovative solutions to problems that impact the human experience. Skills in writing, researching and empathizing developed in the humanities can transfer to any career path.

The “Fosbury Flop” was an innovation that changed the game for high-jumpers. Likewise, the sports, cultures and ethics certificate aims to help students change the game as advocates for diversity, inclusion and compassion and as well-rounded professionals in the sports industry.

“The more we cast wide nets and pull from adjacent and even seemingly unrelated fields, the better equipped we are to see things others might not,” said Jackson. 

“That is where true discovery and innovation happens — in these counterintuitive, unsuspected places.”

Learn more about the sports, cultures and ethics certificate, within The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Lauren Whitby

Communications Specialist, ASU Institute for Humanities Research


Champion of arts education, ASU grad student receive MLK Jr. awards

Teniqua Broughton, Simone Bayfield will be honored at ASU's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration on Jan. 21 during a private virtual online event

January 4, 2021

Two women with a passion for philanthropy have been selected as the 2021 ASU Martin Luther King Jr. Servant-Leadership awardees as a part of Arizona State University’s 36th annual MLK Jr. Celebration, for their influential work in arts education, women’s and homeless shelters, and advocacy for minority students.

Teniqua Broughton and Simone Bayfield will be honored at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration on Jan. 21 during a private virtual online event. This year’s theme is “Race may differ. Respect everyone.”
Teniqua Broughton and Simone Bayfield are the 2021 ASU Martin Luther King Jr. Servant-Leadership awardees. Teniqua Broughton (left) and Simone Bayfield will be honored at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration on Jan. 21 during a private virtual online event. Download Full Image

The awardees were selected by the ASU MLK Jr. Committee for their servant leadership: a philosophy of serving first, then leading as a way of expanding service.

Teniqua Broughton, Servant-Leadership Award

Teniqua Broughton was a student-athlete at ASU preparing to graduate when she took her first theater class.

Broughton, pursuing a degree in interdisciplinary studies in educational psychology with an emphasis in theater for youth, knew she wanted to work with children in some capacity, but it was during the theater class when she decided to intersect those two passions and turn it into a career.

“I found that I fell in love with just the energy behind what it took to remember your lines,” Broughton said. “I think very similar, being a former student-athlete, the dedication, so I was really kind of connected to that, and the emotion that I had to put into the scene, so you really are becoming the character that you were reading or representing. And so, that class was really when I knew at that point, that I wanted to still work with kids to a degree, but I knew arts and arts education was my interest."

Broughton had the opportunity to work as a counselor for Camp Broadway at ASU Gammage, a multi-day theater camp for children ages 10 to 17 to learn acting, scene study, improvisation, music theory, singing and dancing, while building self-esteem, teamwork skills and creative potential.

After her success with Camp Broadway, the perennial Sun Devil found her first full-time job at ASU Gammage as a cultural participation manager. It was at ASU Gammage where Broughton first realized the impact of her work in arts education through the Journey Home program, which she called “instrumental” to her professional journey.

Journey Home is an intensive four-week program for women incarcerated at the Maricopa County Estrella Jail. Through creative writing, expressive movement, storytelling and visual arts, the ASU Gammage program is designed to raise the awareness and consciousness of the women so they feel empowered to create a different life for themselves in the future.

Broughton said it was “dear to my heart” to “see how arts become the medium for them, that 'You know what, when I leave here, I have the opportunity to be a better mother, a better sister, cousin, wife.'”

“To see the transformation of women who are incarcerated for the choices that they have made ... that's what makes me feel excited about it,” Broughton said. “And so, when I think about it more, it's the fact that I can be a part of just changing maybe one person's life, whether it's a woman, whether it's a child, that's what makes me feel excited about it.”

At ASU Gammage, Broughton also worked with Desert Harbor Elementary School in Peoria, Arizona, to help teachers with arts integration strategies. She called her five years working with the school her “greatest gift.”

To Broughton, arts education is about the inclusivity for different types of learners to engage with material in a way that makes sense to them. 

“Arts education has given really a platform to make sure that ... there's inclusivity in the learning process, and the engagement process of bringing people and kids together,” Broughton said. “So, when I think about a child who may be struggling with just auditory learning, or just completely visual learning in a platform, this was an opportunity to use different tools and skills and ways to engage them.

"So, for me, it develops the whole child, it provides an opportunity for them to be well-rounded, and to enter into the world and experiences in a way in which you can appreciate people, things and experiences that maybe you haven't had, that would allow you to be a little bit more open-minded because the arts have provided that for you.”

As much passion as Broughton had for each of the roles she worked in previously, she wanted to have a bigger impact in her work, which she saw in herself as being “much more community-oriented than sector-oriented.”

“As I traveled on my journey to different jobs, I started to notice that I was not going to compromise my community leadership for staying within a box space,” Broughton said. “And I started to realize that that's how I could grow departments, that's how I could grow an organization. But I wanted to build something that I had, and I didn't really want to have to compromise what I was doing ... in the community because I knew it was benefiting my organization.”

Broughton founded her company, VerveSimone Consulting, in 2013, through which she supports nonprofits in the areas of arts, culture, social services and education.

“So now, almost six years plus of having worked among consulting, it's pivoted, I want to say with different skills that I can do, but I will say now, I feel like I really honed in on what I can do, which is my nonprofit, governance and management stuff,” Broughton said. “I can start an organization from the bottom up, you know, building it. And so, I've really gotten to that place where this is what I should be doing. And this is what I want to do.”

Even now, after years of service in the arts and nonprofit sectors, Broughton said she knows “my purpose is to serve others” and that being named a servant-leader made her realize “that's what I feel like I practice every single day.”

“To get this award, for me, means that I think about how I treat others,” Broughton said. “I think about what am I putting into the world that is a legacy piece? And if I walked away today, did I do a good job? Have I done a good job of being that leader today? And so that's how I look at servant-leadership.”

For Broughton, seeing the legacy of her work has been the most gratifying reward of all.

“I can think about every organization I've been at, I left something there,” Broughton said, “something is there, that's still going, that's associated with me. And that, to me, is what I wanted to do.”

Though she is proud her commitment to arts education and nonprofit work is being recognized, Broughton said, “I just think that you should travel down life doing right because it's the thing you should do.”

“I don’t look for an award,” Broughton said. “The things that I do with the programs that I do are the things that I love, the things that I get excited about, the things that makes me happy. So, to get an award for finding how to get to that place is unreal for me, and that somebody recognized that the goodness I might have put in 20 years ago is now all these pieces.”

When reflecting on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., the namesake of the servant-leader award, Broughton said that “this is the moment to continue to platform bringing people together to truly treat all people of color as humans.”

“As a Black woman, who is proud to be who she is, with a name like Teniqua, I think the things that I see happening with the constant protesting and we're not going to stand for that, means that we have said we are taking back what we know we deserve, what we know we should be at the same line as, when we know that is important to have.”

Broughton also serves as the executive director of the State of Black Arizona, a nonprofit organization that runs leadership programs and produces data on African Americans in the state, which she said is how she embodies King’s “stance for action through our activism.”

Simone Bayfield, Student Servant-Leadership Award

When Simone Bayfield, a young graduate from Johnson C. Smith University, a historically Black university in Charlotte, North Carolina, moved back to California and started a career in retail management for L’Oreal, she never could have known how soon she would be changing her plans to pursue her passion for beauty — and changing lives along the way.

Bayfield had always been interested in the beauty industry, but coming from a family where graduate degrees were the norm, she never thought that dream could be her reality.

One day, Bayfield decided to leave her job and go back to school to pursue a cosmetology license. Soon after, she founded Simone Bayfield Beauty.

It was not just a love of doing hair and makeup that inspired her to start her own beauty business, but also the realization that there was a gap in the industry of providers who knew how to serve clients with multicultural hair and skin.

“Funny enough, one of my first professional jobs was actually Los Angeles Fashion Week,” Bayfield said. “It was very interesting to me that all of the models of deeper skin tone had to bring their own makeup with them because, so oftentimes, the makeup artists that were hired for these shows didn't know how to work with their skin type, didn't know how to match it. I really was just like, OK, there needs to be education, there needs to be more advocates in this area. We need to have more representation of artists that look like the models and look like the talent and really be able to provide everyone with a service, not just certain people.”

As Bayfield’s business grew, she found herself doing wedding makeup for a Broadway star and saw her work credited in People Magazine.

Her natural instinct to serve others never changed, though, and Bayfield would routinely volunteer at women’s shelters and homeless shelters in Los Angeles. By offering her beauty services to women — many victims of domestic violence — she gave them “a new lease on life.”

“When I was in beauty school ... the school would authorize these vouchers to the local homeless shelters, so that some of their residents could come in and get free haircuts and it was practice for us, as part of our training,” Bayfield said. "You could see these people come in with their heads held down, and they didn't want to look you in the eye and they weren't really sure what to say. And then, to see them come out and kind of straighten their back and put their shoulders back and look in the mirror and kind of reignite that spark in someone's eye, I immediately knew like, OK, this is something that I can do basically for free, and it's not costing me anything and something that I know is going to make a huge impact.”

Bayfield continued her work at the shelters, helping women who were ready to transition into the workforce get “mini makeovers.”

“Again, it was like, seeing these women that ... really felt kind of worthless, and felt broken and beaten down and didn't feel worthy of love or feeling like they deserved to feel pretty, and seeing again, that kind of light just really be reignited,” Bayfield said. “And then also, realizing that it was so much more than just a haircut or so much more than just makeup. You were really giving people a new lease on life and feeling like they deserved to be happy. They deserved to be seen as more than just a statistic.”

In 2018, Bayfield decided to go back to school once more and pursue a master of business administration. At ASU, Bayfield has continued to serve others, though in a different way than with her beauty business.

“It was pretty apparent to me when I first started the program that there weren't a lot of people that looked like me,” Bayfield said. “I was the only African American student in the entire program. And while that was an amazing experience, it was also like, OK, but what about our students here? Why aren't we attracting in more talent in our own local community? You know, where's the disconnect there?”

In addition to seeing the lack of representation in her own program, a summer of protesting against police brutality toward Black Americans was the tipping point for Bayfield to do something in the ASU community.

“I think everything just really exploded in the summer after Breonna Taylor and George Floyd,” Bayfield said. “And there was kind of a little bit of outrage from me and some of my classmates that the school wasn't addressing it, and that it was taking weeks for a statement to come out. And it ... very much felt like there wasn't a support system. And I was like, OK, myself and one of my other classmates started talking, and we really felt like now is the time, people are more open to change, because of what's going on.

"This is the first time that we're really going to be able to have these open discussions. And people are kind of finally accepting and acknowledging the fact that there has been this systemic oppression in our country, and it's part of our history, and that we really need to make a change. You know, why not us? Not why us but like, why not? Anyone can do any small change and start anything and just helping one person is really going to have a trickle-down effect, right?”

Along with her peer, Daniel Valdez, Bayfield co-founded Accelerated Leadership for Underrepresented Minorities (ALUM). The student organization is “a pipeline” for students of color to move into high-power positions in the business world.

“We just really started talking about how we wanted to get this organization started,” Bayfield said. “We wanted to have a place for all of the students of color to be able to come together to support each other, to create networks, to make sure that we have the resources that we need to be successful. With diversity now being such a hot topic, we really needed to take advantage of that and make sure that we were providing opportunities that maybe we weren't getting from the school to build these pipelines with these companies that were looking specifically for hiring diversity.

"And so, we really just started working over the summer of doing some research in our own class and seeing how people felt about the issue, brought in some of the other Hispanic students and started working on creating this organization so that we could not only bring awareness to the topic, but make sure that there was a community in place for ourselves and also for any future students.”

Bayfield hopes that ALUM will move to other MBA programs across the country, saying her dream is for ASU’s organization to be a “strong model” and “that we have a strong enough community that any student feels welcome and supported when they come.”

Bayfield said being a servant leader is about being there “to serve your constituents and serve your community.”

“That's what the purpose of a leader really is, is to not be the one who's necessarily the face of an organization, or the person with the most power or the most money, but it's about who's helping make the biggest change,” Bayfield said. "So, to me that servant leadership is really a leader who stays embodied in knowing that they're there to work for the people they serve, not the other way around.”

Bayfield’s advice to those who may not see themselves as leaders is to think about “what small thing you can do to make a positive impact in the world.”

“Martin Luther King Jr. ... was bringing awareness to issues that people maybe didn't want to talk about,” Bayfield said. “And so, by continuing to bring awareness to those issues, whatever they may be ... we need to remember that most of all we're all united in the fact that we are the human race, regardless of anything else, and that we need to always be looking out for the marginalized groups and making sure that everyone's voices are heard, regardless of who they are, what they look like, or what they believe in.

"So, to me, that's the best way to honor him. You don't have to be a leader to make change. Let your voice be heard. Have an open mind. Participate in conversations that are uncomfortable. Talk to someone who's different than you are and try to see their opinion. Continue to be empathetic to other people's feelings and use that to really form your own opinion.”

Marketing Assistant, ASU Gammage

Grand Challenges Scholars Program network prepares for a more collaborative future

December 31, 2020

Among the lessons learned from 2020 is just how important it is for the global community to work together to solve the world’s biggest challenges.

Applying that lesson, the National Academy of Engineering-endorsed Grand Challenges Scholars Program network is working to shape the future of the organization in a way that prepares students to address the global challenges humanity faces today. The GCSP, formed in 2008 after the NAE identified 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st Century, has been adopted by 74 U.S. universities and 19 international schools as a way to support the development of engineering students to achieve the NAE’s goals for a better future. Grand Challenges Scholars Program Grand Challenges Scholars Program leaders at Arizona State University are working with other GCSP network members to lead the transition to a new community consortium leadership structure and expand how it prepares students to better engineer a complex world. Graphic by Rhonda Hitchcock-Mast/ASU Download Full Image

The GCSP leadership in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University is working with other longtime active GCSP network members from Bucknell University, Louisiana Tech University and the Olin College of Engineering to leverage NAE's successful leadership of the international community to transition to a new community consortium leadership structure.

During this transition, ASU will be assuming all administrative responsibilities for the day-to-day operation of GCSP. The NAE will continue to provide recognition to graduating Grand Challenges Scholars during and after the transition.

“The Fulton Schools of Engineering recognizes the impact of the GCSP program on engineering and is proud of our program and its students. We are excited about working with other schools as we transition to a community-led GCSP network,” says James Collofello, a professor and vice dean of academic and student affairs for the Fulton Schools. “We hope to leverage ASU’s and the Fulton Schools’ experience and resources in digital learning to connect GCSP students and alumni across the GCSP network in novel ways.”

Similar goals spark change

ASU has participated in GCSP since 2011 and was the fourth school to join the network after the program’s three founding schools. ASU faculty, staff, students and alumni have been highly involved in the network’s annual meetings. Amy Trowbridge, director of GCSP at ASU and a senior lecturer in the Fulton Schools, has served on the GCSP proposal review committee.

In recent years, some of ASU’s GCSP activities to engage students at the Fulton Schools and throughout the GCSP network have been supported by the Kern Family Foundation, an organization that supports education to create value and teach an entrepreneurial mindset, especially for undergraduate engineering students.

When applying for their latest Kern Family Foundation grant, Trowbridge and the ASU GCSP had ideas to expand opportunities for student and alumni networks and create a platform for faculty members to share best practices.

It was great timing for the NAE, which was considering a shift of the GCSP network leadership toward its members and expansion of GCSP’s original mission to be “a community-led endeavor to generate intended impacts in engineering education and professionalism,” as stated in an NAE memo announcing the transition.

Thor Misko, program director at the Kern Family Foundation, helped connect ASU and the NAE as the GCSP leadership at ASU had already started thinking about the future of the network. The support of the Kern grant team and other Fulton Schools staff put ASU in a great position to help pilot the transition.

“It is always great to be able to connect two like-minded partners together that see opportunities to advance their goals,” Misko says. “Their partnership naturally emerged because they share a mission of graduating engineers with an entrepreneurial mindset. We are happy to support their initial exploration and look forward to seeing how the NAE, ASU and the GCSP communities collaborate to create an even more robust and impactful program moving forward.”

Now ASU is drawing on its resources and innovative approach to expand how it can prepare students to better engineer a complex world.

Engaging the community

Each of the 93 institutional members of the GCSP community operates largely independently while still supporting students' development aligned with the GCSP goals and structure. To be named an NAE Grand Challenges Scholar upon graduation and be added to the NAE registry, undergraduates must complete a variety of competencies through curricular and extracurricular activities aligned with their institutional mission and vision.

“The GCSP network has been growing outward around the world, which is great. But I think that we need to strengthen the connections within the network for a more engaged community of passionate students, alumni and faculty,” Trowbridge says. “I see the transition team’s job as figuring out the best way to build a stronger network. A lot of people out there want to actively engage in the GCSP network, and we want to bring them together to build the future together.”

Keith Buffinton, a professor at Bucknell University who has been serving on the GCSP proposal review committee, says it’s an exciting time for the organization, which is valued as an important agent of change in improving the global quality of life. 

“We have thousands of current GCSP students and alumni who understand the interconnectedness of societal, cultural and technological issues and are intent on making a difference in the world,” Buffinton says. “We have an opportunity to build upon this great success and move forward in creating new points of engagement both for the growing range of institutions that want to establish GCSPs and for the next generation of students who will make the world a better place.” 

The faculty members who are leaders in their own schools’ GCSPs have excellent ideas that could evolve and strengthen the network as a whole, says Katie Evans, the associate dean of strategic initiatives at Louisiana Tech University College of Engineering and Science who has been serving as chair of the GCSP proposal review committee.

“Insightful ideas from our institutions’ faculty members span the spectrum of local implementations to collaborations across time zones and continents,” Evans says. “Transitioning the GCSP network to a community-led effort creates opportunities and shared responsibilities for the faculty members to create an even more robust program that provides students with empowering learning experiences for many years to come.”

Yevgeniya V. Zastavker, an Olin College of Engineering professor and the college’s inaugural GCSP director who has been serving on the GCSP proposal review committee, adds, “This is a unique moment in the evolution of the international GCSP network that allows us to reflect on where we have been, assess where we may want to go, given the current socio-political and cultural shifts in global society, and plan the network’s next steps accordingly.”

Zastavker says the network must engage in necessary questions such as, “How do we intentionally support development of the GCSP network to be even more inclusive, diverse and equitable? How do we leverage the GCSP to create equitable learning opportunities for all students across the globe? How do we bring all voices to the GCSP table to support sustainable learning structures for the future global citizenry?”

Brainstorming the future together 

During this year of change, Trowbridge and the transition team worked to foster a greater sense of community by hosting a virtual GCSP Annual Meeting in November focused on a relevant theme: staying in the present, reflecting on the past and imagining the future. 

The two-day event included talks by the GCSP’s founders and longstanding steering committee members, student and alumni success stories, student project showcases, various networking sessions for students, alumni and faculty and the first GCSP networking session for industry. Most importantly, the event included community brainstorming sessions to generate ideas and goals for the future of the GCSP network. 

“We want to take ideas from the meeting this year to find ways to build bonds and provide opportunities to really be a network and learn from each other,” Trowbridge says.

New opportunities for students, alumni, faculty

“The original Grand Challenges, and the original GCSP, were developed by relatively small groups of people who identified the challenges and created the program based on their collective wisdom and experiences,” Buffinton says. “The future of the GCSP can now be molded and guided by a much larger collection of people with an even wider range of experiences to ensure that the GCSP remains appropriately focused, inclusive and timely.”

Ideas for opportunities that originated during the annual meeting all bring value to students participating in the program, including new student networks and more engagement between the GCSP network institutions. 

“What a beautiful opportunity to create supportive structures for our students’ development and get out of their way,” Zastavker says. “We may just witness the impossible.”

Faculty members can also share best practices on how to make their program components more successful and better support their students.

GCSP alumni in particular will receive more benefits. As ambassadors to the program in their new roles as graduate students and industry professionals, alumni help others learn about the program and understand its value, Trowbridge says.

With a strong alumni network, industry relations also grow. ASU piloted an industry workshop this year to better align the skills GCSP students learn and what’s needed in industry careers. And in the future GCSP network, industry will become more involved to better understand the value Grand Challenges Scholars bring as tomorrow’s leaders.

The transition team hopes to have a new leadership structure in place during 2021 that provides more opportunities for community members to get involved at various levels — from making decisions about the program as a whole to serving on advisory committees and promoting alumni and student networks.

“The GCSP community is excited about this opportunity to lead itself,” Trowbridge says. “We’re excited to put community leadership in place and continue to grow and strengthen the network.”

Monique Clement

Communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


ASU organizations collaborate to fight for social justice

December 29, 2020

With the year coming to an end, three of Arizona State University’s groups committed to social justice met on Dec. 17 for reflection and healing after 2020's pandemic, contentious election and violence against people of color. 

After systemic racism gained fresh attention this summer following the killings of George Floyd and others, ASU President Michael Crow proposed a series of actions to promote inclusivity on campus. Zoom meeting Representatives from three faculty and staff organizations at ASU met for the "Hindsight is 2020" event on Dec. 17. Download Full Image

The Chicano/Latino Faculty and Staff Association (CLFSA), African and African American Faculty and Staff Association (AAAFSA) and Faculty Women of Color Caucus (FWOCC) are all planning to tackle this problem locally, and they said they hope to see enactment of Crow’s 25 items of support for the Black community over the next few years.

In September, the organizations met as one for the first time to discuss how they can better collaborate to promote inclusivity at the university and across the broader community. The presidents of each group said they believe coming together can help unite people of color at ASU.

“There is a need to be there for each other, to be able to process things together … but also look at ways where we can make an impact, where we can work together with university leadership to create progress and make sure that they know the needs of our communities,” CLFSA President Sandra Martinez said. 

That first meeting cemented a partnership that led to the “Hindsight is 2020” event, where 79 attendees learned about the importance of working together to create positive change at the university and to help students.

The presidents of each diversity organization shared the history of their group and plans for the future. Lisa Magaña, a professor at the School of Transborder Studies who heads the Faculty Women’s Association, also discussed turnout this election and the role of Arizona as a swing state. 

Vanessa Fonseca Chávez, an assistant English professor and president of FWOCC, said she hopes these efforts create a platform to help faculty “in this political moment” and to foster relationships among organizations. 

“Now is a conversation to really think about who are the critical constituents and key stakeholders to the types of national and even regional conversations that we are having on Black Lives Matter and police brutality,” Fonseca Chávez said.

Kenja Hassan, president and founder of AAAFSA and assistant vice president for government and community engagement at the Downtown Phoenix campus, said systemic inequities and the “visible and invisible hatred” against people of color make it vital for organizations fighting for inclusivity to band together.  

“In order for us to hold truth to these statements that our nation has written — that we believe in liberty and justice for all — it takes work,” Hassan said. “A conversation like this is so important, because in order for us to be successful as a nation, we all have to figure out where we can find common ground. … Us being able to do it at ASU is critical.”

Stanlie James, ASU’s outgoing vice provost of inclusion and community engagement, was a special guest at the meeting — her last appearance before the groups. She offered some words of wisdom about the importance of continuing to fight for social justice. 

“Our country has an opportunity to finally begin to figure out how to live up to the words in our founding documents,” James said. “We will not be returning to the way it used to be. Rather, we must begin to specifically clarify how we want it to be, and how we can contribute to enacting that vision here at ASU.” 

Martinez shared her excitement to see CLFSA member Nancy Gonzales as the next executive vice president and university provost and Maria Anguiano as the next executive vice president of ASU’s new Learning Enterprise.  

2020 marks the 50th anniversary for CLFSA, which has had a strong presence at ASU as an advocate and a voice for communities of color.

Martinez believes that despite the obstacles they faced this year, this new leadership is a positive way to end the year and celebrate the organization’s anniversary, as well as a step in the right direction for the university.

RELATED: Donate to social justice opportunities at ASU

Written by Diana Quintero, journalism student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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Natalie Diaz, in her own words

December 29, 2020

ASU poet wins national, international acclaim for latest book; here, creative writing students read from selections of her latest work

Cover image of "Postcolonial Love Poem" by Natalie Diaz courtesy Graywolf Press.

Her words are powerful. As it turns out, they’re as powerful as her jump shot.

A former professional basketball player, Arizona State University Associate Professor of English Natalie Diaz has successfully made the metaphorical leap from cager to poet. Her latest collection, “Postcolonial Love Poem,” was recently a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award. It has also delighted much of the reading public, and it continues to make appearances on year-end “best of” lists.

But the book is not just a crowd-pleaser.

“Postcolonial Love Poem” has stirred timely conversations about systemic racismIndigeneity and intimacy. The book has also made the long and short lists for several other literary prizes, including the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Forward Prize for Best Collection and the Brooklyn Public Library Literary Prize.

Diaz, who directs ASU's Center for Imagination in the Borderlands and holds the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry, teaches in ASU’s creative writing program. Her first poetry collection, “When My Brother Was an Aztec,” — winner of the American Book Award — was published in 2012. Its poems focused largely on Diaz’s family of origin, and especially on her brother's struggles with addiction.

A. Meinen, a creative writing graduate student at ASU and a mentee of Diaz's, reads “It Was the Animals.” 

“Postcolonial Love Poem” is Diaz’s second collection. It also engages with familial relationships — Diaz’s mother and brother both make appearances in the book — but it expands to include romantic love; desire itself is the focus here. Published by Graywolf Press this March, the book crossed the pond in July, being selected by the British Poetry Book Society and released in a U.K. edition by Faber and Faber.

“Postcolonial Love Poem” is an ode to survival and resilience. This sentiment is encapsulated in its title poem, where the poet enumerates her desires, transcending expectations and limitations. She desires; therefore, she exists.

ASU creative writing graduate student Erin Noehre reads “Postcolonial Love Poem.” 

Even with the COVID-19 pandemic stymying traditional publicity junkets, “Postcolonial Love Poem” quickly arrived on must-read lists, from Amazon.com to O, The Oprah Magazine.

“One of the most important poetry releases in years,” said a reviewer in The New York Times. Another, in one of several glowing reviews in The Guardian, called it “breathtaking, groundbreaking.” Most recently, Diaz’s peers, poet Tonya Foster and novelists Viet Thanh Nguyen and Jess Walter — the latter of whom wishes that more poets would write about basketball — have given shoutouts to the book.

Diaz, for her part, is unfailingly gracious when receiving such praise. She says that she feels “lucky” that "the book was celebrated across this strange pandemic year.” Even before 2020, Diaz’s path to such literary accomplishments was certainly a winding one. Although, she might say, where she has ended up — writing and teaching poetry — isn’t all that far from where she began. 

From the Southwest to the world

Born and raised in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California, Diaz is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe. After playing professional basketball for four years in Europe and Asia, she returned to the States to complete her MFA at Old Dominion University. She then spent several years working on Mohave language preservation initiatives in the Southwest.

“I think language is a lot like basketball,” Diaz told The Arizona Republic in 2018, upon winning a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, “because I think language is an energy, it’s a happening, a kind of movement.”

In 2017, Diaz began her career at ASU. As an educator, Diaz’s focus is trained on close mentorship of graduate students in Department of English’s creative writing program. Her mentorship of and advocacy for students is an extension of her considerable gifts, and she encourages her mentees to incorporate both art and activism into their everyday lives.

Diaz does the same in her own life, and in her writing. Her words themselves teach and delight, turn and discomfit. She writes with wit, beauty, vulnerability and — especially in the love poems — with reverence. In the poem “From the Desire Field,” Diaz reveals the anxiety that keeps her up at night. It feels alive, and so she makes it into something lush and green: a garden.

Maritza Estrada, the artistic development and research assistant for ASU’s Center for Imagination in the Borderlands and a graduate student in creative writing, reads “From the Desire Field.” 

From the body to the page

The poems in “Postcolonial Love Poem” range in tone from humorous to tragic, sometimes in the same stanza. They reference Greek myth, police statistics and Sherman Alexie. Diaz doesn’t shy away from difficult topics; instead, she gives them a kind of dialectic treatment. She transforms the knife in her brother’s hand into a tool for mining starlight. She sings an indie rock lyric (“Oh say say say”) in her mother’s voice. And she churns her grief at America’s imperialist abuses into a caress under her lover’s shirt.

Topically, Diaz’s poems careen from her brother’s methamphetamine addiction (Blood-Light”), to the precarious sovereignty of the Indigenous body (“Top 10 Reasons Why Indians Are Good at Basketball” and “American Arithmetic”), to the many virtues of her lover (“Ode to the Beloved’s Hips”).

ASU creative writing graduate student Julian Delacruz reads “American Arithmetic.”

Like “American Arithmetic,” many of Diaz’s poems reference and normalize her Indigenous heritage, beautifully articulating the pain and pride she feels in her cultural identification. Elsewhere, she has talked about how she navigates the divide between this and other dichotomies. “I am Native, so I am both — truth/fiction,” she told PEN America, “and also bleeding over or overflowing each.”

Nationally, efforts are underway to bring visibility to the service, sacrifice and sovereignty of Indigenous Americans – efforts like the National Native American Veterans Memorial, which was unveiled on Nov. 11 in Washington, D.C. However, Diaz acknowledges in her poetry that she must always remain vigilant — her primary goal is to be fully seen, not contextualized or defined, by others:

At the National Museum of the American Indian,
68 percent of the collection is from the U.S.
I am doing my best to not become a museum
of myself. I am doing my best to breathe in and out.

I am begging: Let me be lonely but not invisible.

— Natalie Diaz, from “American Arithmetic”

Top photo of Natalie Diaz by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Kristen LaRue-Sandler

senior marking & communications specialist , Department of English


Associate dean elected to SACNAS national board of directors

December 22, 2020

Fabio Milner, associate dean of graduate initiatives and professor in Arizona State University’s School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, was recently elected to the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) national board of directors.

SACNAS is a nonprofit organization that strives to ensure populations underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) have the support they need to obtain advanced degrees, careers and positions of leadership. Fabio Milner, associate dean of graduate initiatives and professor in ASU’s School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, will join the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) national board of directors on Jan. 1, 2021. Download Full Image

“SACNAS is a most energizing and dynamic organization,” Milner said. “It started 47 years ago when a handful of friends and acquaintances created it to support Chicanos and Native Americans in getting a chance at STEM careers. It evolved into an organization of many thousands of members devoted to creating opportunities and respect for members of underrepresented groups of any kind. To me, helping to expand this scope is a matter of social justice that I am very passionate about.”

Milner was born and raised in Argentina and has been with ASU for 12 years. In his research, he studies structured population models including demography, epidemics, ecology and tumor growth. He and his collaborators are also developing a family of epidemiological models structured by immunological variables in order to describe the multiscale problem of disease propagation at the individual level and the population level in a single model.

“Fabio’s election to the SACNAS board is an exciting and well-deserved honor,” said Patrick Kenney, dean of The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “His ongoing dedication to The College, students and diversity in his field aligns perfectly with SACNAS’ mission of fostering the success of historically marginalized groups within STEM. We are grateful to have him advocating for this important issue and know his perspective will bring about positive change.”

As a member of the board of directors, Milner will work with other board members to provide vision and strategic direction for the organization. His three-year term will begin on Jan. 1, 2021.

Emily Balli

Communications Specialist and Lead Writer, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

PhD grad uses math to explore the brain

December 21, 2020

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2020 graduates.

Vergil Haynes is graduating this month with a PhD in applied mathematics from Arizona State University. His research approaches old neuroscience questions but in new ways. Although the questions are simple in appearance, long-held assumptions about them have limited new insights for decades. Vergil Haynes wears a surface electroencephalogram (EEG) recording cap. Surface electroencephalography is a method for recording electrical activity associated with brain physiology from the scalp. Download Full Image

“Often times when you are recording activity in the brain, you don’t know precisely what influences the signals you record and this limits your ability to interpret those signals,” Haynes said. “Do they come from one type of brain cell or another? I ask, what is the origin of certain brain signals associated with individual brain cells, and whether knowledge of those origins can aid in improving data analysis techniques.”

“Another problem I’m concerned about is community standards for modeling. Many assumptions are built into very detailed simulations of brain cells. For example, cells have protein structures in their membranes. I developed a framework for figuring out whether there are common patterns for these structure in how many there are, where they are, and what they do. For both of these problems, I use a combination of simulations, machine learning, and advanced statistical techniques to also challenge assumptions about how brain cells are grouped based on recorded signals.”

“Vergil is detail oriented in his research and has an astonishing knowledge of the literature. This helps him see the big picture and understand where his work lies with respect to previous and ongoing research in the community,” said Sharon Crook, Haynes’ adviser and professor in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences.

“Vergil will stay in our group as a postdoctoral researcher for a year in order to help us advance the research that he has been contributing to. Uniquely, he has the perfect combination of skills for this work which requires both the development and execution of computational models and also machine learning to analyze large datasets,” said Crook, lead researcher of the Informatics and Computation in Open Neuroscience (ICON) Lab.

The lab contributes to large, collaborative enterprises such as the NeuroML InitiativeOpenSource Brain, and the Human Brain Project, which lead to building an interconnected infrastructure for the advancement of computing within neuroscience based on transparency and accessibility.


Vergil Haynes (third from left) with Sharon Crook (center) and other members of the ICON Lab at ASU. Photo courtesy of ICON Lab

Haynes will also continue as a post doc in the Auditory Computation and Neurophysiology Lab in the College of Health Solutions, which investigates the neural mechanisms of perceptual and cognitive functions that support auditory experience.

“I’m excited to work with the same two labs – one is very experimental oriented, and the other is very modeling oriented, and I’m at the intersection of these two,” he said.

Haynes was born and raised in Melbourne, Florida, about 30 minutes south of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. As a kid, he watched the rocket and shuttle launches from the beach. “You could actually feel the sonic boom, it would shake windows and everything,” he said. Many of his friends back home still think of him as someone who would one day be an astronaut, since that is what he was always saying.

“I think it is still a possibility,” Haynes said.

Haynes is closest to his one maternal sibling, a brother about 10 years older, born to a different father who was in the Air Force. His mother is from the Philippines and moved to the U.S. a few years after his brother was born. It was here in the states that she met Haynes’ father.

Haynes is a first-generation college student, raised primarily by his mother. His father was mostly out of the picture.

“I could probably count on two hands how many times I’ve seen him in my life,” he said. His mother had a boyfriend for most of his childhood, but they did not get along.

His brother went to juvenile detention at a young age, and was later incarcerated for marijuana-related offenses that nowadays might not involve jail time.

“Due to the lack of social mechanisms to reduce high prison recidivism rates in the U.S., and like many community re-entries, my brother was reincarcerated multiple times over his early adulthood,” Haynes said. Even after participating in a recent work-to-release program, Haynes' brother still struggles to figure out how to get his life going.

“It was like every direction I looked for a male role model, I just couldn’t find one,” Haynes said.

Vergil Haynes and family tour ASU campus

Vergil Haynes, a first generation college student, with his mother and niece on the ASU Tempe campus. Photo courtesy of Vergil Haynes.

His mother worked as a restorative technician at a rehabilitation nursing home back in Melbourne. She mostly worked with dementia patients, helping them to be able to feed themselves or walk again.

“My mom would work double time, overtime, lots of holiday hours, so usually it was just easier if I just stayed there all day. I mostly lived there as a kid. I’d sing to the elderly, take them to lunch, play chess or Uno with them,” Haynes said.

“My mother often won awards for being compassionate, generous and kind to co-workers and residents at the nursing home. This instilled in me that supporting people was one of greatest gifts you could give someone – and sometimes this took hard work and sacrifice.

“Those experiences were very formative in a lot of different ways in my life. Especially in trying to understand people. How do they think? Why do they wind up thinking a certain thing, or not be able to think at all, or remember at all?”

In school, Haynes’ teachers would tell him he was unmotivated, didn’t have goals – but also had a lot of potential. He would sometimes fall asleep in class. He often got in trouble, resulting in suspensions or Saturday school. He failed quite a few classes in high school and almost didn’t graduate. His counselor and principal agreed on a plan so he could take adult education classes after school and still be able to graduate.

“I was like, ‘Oh, I made all these choices and now I’m seeing the consequences of them,’ which is that I might not get this diploma,” Haynes said. “And then I’ll live this life like the rest of my family has been living, not even having finished high school.”

There was a lot of hopelessness around that period of time. But there was also the peer pressure of seeing a lot of his friends were set to graduate, so he wanted to. One of the most motivating things for him was how much time he was spending with other people’s families.

“My mom had moved out of the projects and into this fairly nice suburban area, and I had met some friends and started hanging out at their houses. It was like, ‘Oh wow,’ your dad works at NASA, your mom is a financial adviser, and you have this nice house. For the most part, there might be some yelling here or there, but it’s not constantly hostile here. I remember them giving me a lot of validation, as well.

He spent considerable time with academic advisers figuring out how he could pay for college. He got a Medallion Scholarship which paid for 75% of his tuition for a four-year degree. To cover the rest, he took out loans and worked a couple of jobs throughout his undergraduate years.

“I told my mom I was going to get a PhD and she was like, ‘How are you going to do that? We don’t have the money for that,” said Haynes. “All her co-workers said, ‘Let him dream and let him do his thing, and he’ll figure it out as he goes.’”

At the same time, Haynes found himself repeating old patterns, using avoidance behaviors. If a class interested him, he would do well. But if a class stressed him out, he would stop going. He was convinced the system was trying to keep him down. There were many setbacks, and he ended up failing a math class.

“I remember that was also the time in my life where my dad and I had tried to start talking with one another again, and I think I was still hesitant. I was finding out more about who is this person, and I wasn’t really liking what I was seeing, but I was trying to reach out and say this is something that I want to try to rebuild.” 

Asking his dad for help led to a huge family blowup. “It got to the point where it was like, OK, that was my last attempt.”

That situation drove him forward, in a sense, since there was less constraining him to be near family. He was ready to go forward on his own. After getting his two-year associate degree, he transferred to the University of Central Florida, one of the largest public universities in the country. He was excited about all the different kinds of classes he could take. By the end of his first year at UCF, he changed his major from pre-med/biology to mathematics.

He was taking Calculus III, Linear Algebra, Introduction to C Programming — those were the classes that convinced him to keep going. He took a logic and proof class that he thought was really fun.

“Just the process of doing homework with people, doing projects with people and how intellectually stimulating that was, and also this sense of how I contributed some sort of value to this discussion. That was when I really started defining my personal value in relationship to math,” Haynes said. “People started coming to me asking for help or wanting for me to explain certain things. I was like, okay, actually I’m good at this.”

He had a network of people who were supporting him, but also had some people who were trying to get in his way. Particularly the faculty undergraduate adviser in the mathematics department, who he met with a couple of times. Haynes wanted to major in math with a concentration in physics. The advisor briefly looked over his academic record, which was not stellar, and then dissuaded him from pursuing that route. “Maybe this isn’t something for you,” he said to Haynes.

“I remember that resonated with me for a long time.”

Haynes knew he had an interest in research, so he reached out to a professor who studied mathematics and biology, and would later become his faculty adviser.

“It was a lot of leaning into him, weekly sessions with him. He would teach me how to read math papers and how to do research. He also instilled in me a sense of beauty.

“I still remember the time I came to him with my first result. It was really simple. And it was something he had been missing for a while. I showed it to him and he had this moment where he stepped back, leaned against the table and was like, ‘Wow, that’s beautiful.’ And I was like, whoa, I had never shared that kind of moment with someone before. And I was kind of hooked.”

When Haynes applied to graduate schools, he hoped he might be offered a Teaching Assistantship. He received his only offer from Arizona State University and got a phone call from the Hispanic Research Center stating he had won the NSF Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (Bridge to Doctorate) Fellowship.

Once he got to ASU, he knew he wanted to transition into something more related to neuroscience. During his first year of grad school, he took a mathematical cell physiology class with professor Sharon Crook. The following year he reached out to her. 

“As far as the math department goes, Sharon has always been deeply supportive. I can tell her all of these personal things that I would normally not tell any sort of authority figure or someone that could sway my professional life,” Haynes said.

Haynes identifies as being poor, being Black, being biracial (half Filipino) which is a unique kind of being Black, and also being a queer male.

“Being part of the LGBTQ community, I’ve met a lot of peers and colleagues who are also part of that community, at different stages with coming out, or being out at work," Haynes said. "There are many mental-health issues that can be exacerbated while feeling closeted and isolated, and navigating that is something I’ve become familiar with.”

“I definitely found my peer group here at ASU. They are scattered across a lot of different departments. But as far as my identifiers go, most people I’ve become close to have been very open to discussing how growing up at the intersection of all these things has really shaped me, and also provided a lot of opportunities for me to create my own barriers. But the people that I’ve met here at ASU have done a lot to help me dispel some of those barriers.

“ASU is this unique ecosystem where I’m allowed to branch out in unique ways that I never would have been able to at other universities.

“Being at ASU and around all these things, like Changemaker Central, for example, where you’re trying to solve community problems through these different lenses – they really do reinforce this idea that being at the intersection of things is very valuable.

“In general, I’ve come out of ASU very optimistic about what it is that I can accomplish, and how I can connect to other people to help them with the things that they want to accomplish, or what we can accomplish together.

We asked Haynes to share a bit more about his doctoral journey as a Sun Devil.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study mathematics?

Answer: I’ve never thought math was my strong suit growing up. I was good at it, but it didn’t really interest me until my undergraduate education. I was originally a premed/biology major for the first few years of my degree. I recall being dissatisfied with lab work and the way courses were taught in biology, example after example. I eventually switched into physics as a major and picked up two books that ultimately convinced me to study mathematics for the rest of my degree. The two books were: Leonard Mlodinow’s “Euclid’s Window,” about the evolution of geometry from the Greeks to modern physicists, and Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation,” which had a central influencing figure who was a mathematician and psychologist helping humanity survive through a period of barbarism through “matrices” and human behavior. I remember those were very formative in my scientific maturation as I had never really connected deep math with helping society. 

Q: What do you like most about mathematics (and your area of concentration)?

A: As far as mathematics goes, what I like most is that my capacity to build “models” has expanded. While research has very formal models, models in general have become central to how I navigate and make sense of life. It’s become very helpful in many areas outside of math. Before I approach most anything, whether it be a project, learning, connecting with people, making decisions, I go through a model building process. I’m always asking whether a certain model and assumptions is appropriate for whatever it is I want to do. Since my concentration is in computational modeling that leverages data, I find myself thinking how I can build better models to do more with my life.

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

A: Hands down, Dr. Sharon Crook — my PhD adviser. I’ve worked with Sharon for so many years now and I’ve shared both great intellectual moments with her but also moments for humanity, humility and humor. She taught me that scientists can often get hung up in being a scientist, but with the right nudge you can get them to let loose while still enjoying talking about research. I’ve definitely have her in mind when I’ve met new colleagues from different universities. I always make sure to be the one to remind everyone that everyday fun is also integral to science. She’s also helped me stop the excessive need to show off technical knowledge through jargon. She has a very down-to-earth approach because it’s so important that people relate to you and understand you when the subject matter is so rich.

Q: What is the best piece of advice you would give to those still in school?

A: Continuously challenge your assumptions about things. School is a period for growth and figuring out even just a small fraction of life. Keep asking whether beliefs about yourself and others are actually beneficial beliefs. Ask whether your beliefs about what is expected of you, what you invest your time in, and what’s important to you are truly convincing to your best knowledge at the time or do they just feel convincing. In different words, be comfortable with feeling lost and seek it out often. Losing your notions about yourself is part of the process of transformation. I think this is especially important after everything related to the pandemic and the civil unrest we’ve all been feeling. The world is different, and we should be in response.

Vergil Haynes hosts regular "slack and relax" for students

Vergil Haynes hosted a regular "slack and relax" for ASU students, shown here teaching by far his oldest student how to slackline. Photo courtesy of Vergil Haynes

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life? (This is more related to before the pandemic.)

A: I’ve always been a fan of the grass yard in front of Old Main. I would set up my slackline, some blankets, play music and enjoy the sun at least once a week. Other students would come up and I found it a fun space to connect with people and talk about life in the midst of all the frantic rushing. It felt good to share moments like those with other students going through similar challenges.

Q: What do you like to do in your spare time for fun?

A: I’m definitely a hobbyist. If I’m feeling more relaxed, I like to read or listen to podcasts. I try to enjoy the Arizona scenery often with walks, hikes, slacklining and trail running. I’ve managed to try out a lot of outdoor activities since moving here like camping, backpacking and snowboarding. I’m passionate about fitness and like to devote time to calisthenics, tai chi, yoga and traditional strength training. I also have several projects that I try to ground my training in coding, data and technology in things related to my health and general performance.

Vergil Haynes explores the Superstition Mountains

Haynes explores the surrounding Superstition Mountains to de-stress and celebrate passing his comprehensive exams. Photo courtesy of Vergil Haynes

Q: What do you think is most misunderstood about math by the general public?

A: Math is just crunching numbers. It’s not, and some of mathematicians aren’t even good at that. Some really enjoy that, some of us find that really dull.

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

A: I have a lot of family members who have been incarcerated and unable to rebuild a life after reentering society. While I couldn’t solve something like the problem of privatized prisons and the overall corrections market, I think building an organization or cooperative that focused on reentry education, wealth building training, and personal and relational therapy for those leaving the prison system would be something I would put that money in right away.

Rhonda Olson

Manager of Marketing and Communication, School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences


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Collaboration committed to diversity in engineering

December 18, 2020

Summer program brings together multiple universities, Intel and Facebook to broaden horizons for students, faculty and industry

Arizona State University’s new summer research experience for engineering students from historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, is expanding in 2021 to include new schools and added industry sponsorship.

The Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU launched a summer research internship program, known as SURI, in 2019 to engage undergraduate students from other American universities in meaningful research with Fulton Schools faculty and facilities. During 2020, the program extended to engineering students from leading international universities, and a new track was initiated for students attending HBCUs through a consortium facilitated by Intel to help improve diversity within the technology workforce.

The pilot version of the HBCU internship program included seven engineering students from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University who participated virtually, due to COVID-19 restrictions, in eight weeks of research with Fulton Schools faculty from late May to late July 2020. Those involved report that the experience was transformative.

“Many participating students arrived with little understanding of what researchers do on a day-to-day basis, or more fundamentally what graduate school is about,” said Adolfo Escobedo, an assistant professor of industrial engineering at ASU, who worked with four students from Florida A&M University, or FAMU.

“But after the program, these students said they felt motivated to become involved in research at their home institution and to pursue graduate school,” Escobedo said. “They also appreciated learning about the experiences of professionals at Intel. Stories from people in industry help students to see that the backgrounds and the life paths of many engineers are diverse, and that they themselves can get there.” 

Lisa Smith, manager of the Scholars Program Office at Intel, says FAMU students valued their research experience at ASU and the support they received from Intel mentors. Consequently, she says FAMU looks forward to taking part with more students in 2021, and the enthusiasm has extended to other schools.

“There are five other institutions in our consortium of HBCUs, and now they are eager to participate in this new collaboration,” she said, referring to Morgan State UniversityHoward UniversityPrairie View A&M UniversityNorth Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University and Tuskegee University.

“These schools additionally want to expand the connection by involving their faculty members with the experience of exchange,” Smith said. “When students return to their home university, they can build on the benefits of their summer research at ASU if their own faculty are on the same page and can aid their growth.”

Faculty involvement highlights student support, but it extends further. Cross-institutional connections open the way for new scientific discovery and engineering innovation.

This potential is exciting for the academic researchers, but also for the technology industry businesses that interface with colleges of engineering. Consequently, Intel and now Facebook have committed significant funding in 2021 to support not only HBCU student internships at ASU but faculty collaboration among universities.

“Of course, these relationships need to develop organically based on various interests and needs. The best thing we can do is create an opportunity in which faculty can come together and see what is possible,” said Anca Castillo, associate director of outreach and student recruitment for the Fulton Schools.

“So, we’re hosting a faculty networking event that works a little like ‘speed dating’,” she said. “It’s scheduled for Feb. 13, when ASU faculty can introduce themselves to peers from the participating HBCUs, and they all can talk about their research, their areas of expertise and so forth. Afterward, these amazing people can continue to communicate and generate ideas.”

Cristine Cooper, academic relations manager at Facebook, says these connections represent exciting potential worthy of funding.

“Issues of diversity within STEM fields are top of mind right now, so we are enthusiastic about the possibilities for addressing current imbalances,” Cooper said. “The idea of these partnerships supporting students from HBCUs is outstanding. These are vital. But the impact of cross-institutional collaborations among faculty is tremendously motivating. Connecting ASU faculty with colleagues at HBCUs expands the impact of scientific talent. Future issues of dramatic significance, including policy around those issues, may be resolved through complementary sets of expertise that come together through initiatives like this one.”

The summer 2021 program will be delivered both in person and digitally. More than 50 different ASU faculty members are opening their work on almost 70 different research topics. As well, they have indicated through the program website whether student intern involvement needs to be on campus or online.

“Most faculty are offering both options, so students have choices,” Castillo said. “If we are able, we want to have students come to Arizona. But we are offering maximum flexibility because building community and sharing resources reflect the charter of ASU. How that happens is less important.”

This spirit of broad collaboration is seen as the strength of SURI and the future it represents — particularly for current undergraduates, said Shonda Bernadin, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at FAMU as well as the faculty coordinator for the school’s internships at ASU.

“The success of this program,” she said, “demonstrates the potential to positively impact the career development of minority engineering students by building strong industry and cross-institutional connections through research, mentoring, and professional development opportunities.”  

For more information about SURI in 2021, visit the Fulton Schools graduate engineering program website.

Top graphic by Rhonda Hitchcock-Mast/ASU

Gary Werner

Science writer , Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering