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May 4, 2022

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable Spring 2022 graduates.

Ariana Afshari plays a student of the modern Renaissance – scientist, researcher, philosopher, historian and artist.

Ariana Afshari is a scientist, philosopher and artist. This spring, she is graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences (neurobiology, physiology and behavior) and a minor in Civic and Economic Thought Leadership. Photo courtesy of Ariana Afshari.

A major in biological sciences in the School of Life Sciences focusing on neurobiology, physiology, and behavior, she also minored in civic and economic thought leadership. Then, at the height of the pandemic in August 2020, Afshari decided to push the boundaries even further and explore a whole new discipline – she started to paint.

Art opened a window to new techniques for analyzing and expressing history, science, politics and philosophy – combining one’s passions and bringing them to life in 3D.

One of his canvases now hangs on the School of Civic and Economic Leadership Coors Texts Reading Room, which became one of Afshari’s favorite places to study on campus.

“It has a quaint design with chess, antique lighting and is an intimate place to catch up with friends, enjoy the classic literature they display on their shelves or focus on your studies,” she said.

The painting, a 60-inch by 40-inch canvas wall art, is inspired by “The School of Athens” by Italian Renaissance artist Raphael. Standing in the precise mathematical architecture alongside Plato and Aristotle are other important figures including Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Cesar Chavez, Frederick Douglas and Frida Kahlo.

In light of her many accomplishments, this multi-faceted researcher and artist has been selected as this semester’s laureate. Dean’s Medal by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

This prestigious honor recognizes graduate students who have demonstrated outstanding academic excellence during their time at ASU. In addition to his artistic talents, Afshari has contributed to research in developmental neurobiology, mathematical neuro-oncology and neurosurgery.

She also served as Director of Health and Wellness for Undergraduate Student Government, where she illustrated and published an interactive children’s guide to COVID-19.

After graduation, she plans to participate in developmental neuroscience research at Stanford Medical School and teach biology with Teach for America.

We had the chance to ask Afshari a few questions about his time at ASU.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Question: When did you realize you wanted to study neuroscience?

To respond: Neuroscience itself is an incredibly versatile field of study, which makes it so rewarding for students who enjoy bouncing between disciplines in academic and research spaces. For me, my ‘aha’ moment was long-time exposure to what neurobiology looks like in practice – learning about neural firing mechanisms in the classroom, applying that biology in a lab I worked in at the Mayo Clinic to study mathematical neuro-oncology, to engage in neurosurgery with patients exhibiting the clinical phenotypes that I had, in textbooks and in the workplace, studied. That’s how I finally knew that I loved studying the brain, in all areas: in school, in research and in the clinic.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I grew up just south of ASU in the Valley, so there was always an incentive to stay close to my friends and family, and my four-year-old little sister in particular. However, I was lucky enough to receive a scholarship that covered my tuition and accommodation for the four years. I knew I would be able to gain a truly comprehensive ASU experience and pursue opportunities suited to my professional goals with this degree of financial assistance, which was the primary factor in my decision to go to ASU.

Q: What did you learn at ASU that changed your perspective?

A: I learned at ASU the importance of asking, “Can you make room for me?” or “Can I have _____ opportunity?” Arizona State University is the kind of university that offers students endless opportunities to explore internships and research experience, but what isn’t advertised is how many opportunities you can create for yourself. I’ve made a habit of standing up for myself and asking teachers and professors to make room for me or connect me with someone who can make my dream job possible. Learning the power of self-representation is what transformed my ASU experience, when I realized the ceiling wasn’t the sky.

Q: What is your life-changing lesson from a professor at ASU? Which professor taught you the most important lesson at ASU?

A: The Director of the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, Dr. Paul Carrese, mentored me throughout my college career at ASU, always advocating for my success, but one of the life lessons he shared with me still stands out. I came to him to ask how I could balance pursuing my career while pursuing personal happiness. He responded by telling me the story he used to read to his children about how a colony of mice worked hard every summer to gather enough food to survive, while one mouse wandered – collecting sun rays, colors and words. By the time the mice had to use their food supply during the cold months, it ran out and the mouse that sought out intangible experiences was able to distract them with stories to survive the winter. It taught me the importance of chasing experiences, not accolades, and finding meaning and mentorship, not money and prestige, so that I, too, have something substantial to go through. the “winters” of life.

Q: Were you able to participate in any internships or research experiences while at ASU?

A: I had the good fortune to participate in many internships and research experiences at ASU. I was fortunate enough to be part of a lab studying developmental neurobiology here at ASU during my college years and eventually became involved in a second lab studying mathematical neurosurgery at Mayo Clinic. Through these research experiences, I have been able to both contribute to multiple scientific manuscripts and present my work at local and national conferences. I also served as Director of Health and Welfare for Undergraduate Student Government and was honored as Scholar of the Spirit of Service. Additionally, I have always worked with Teach for America to help 2nd and 3rd grade classes through their IGNITE scholarship and participated in a year internship at Phoenix Children’s Hospital.

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

A: If I could offer any advice to current students, I would tell them to look for two things in all their academic endeavors: real challenge and real inspiration. They should take the time to find out which communities or fields of study inspire them and begin to create a toolkit of opportunities and experiences that best suit their interests and narrative. I think it’s a valuable skill to be careful and intentional with what you spend your time on, so that you’re not only doing them well, but taking away something valuable for your own story.

About Madeline J. Carter

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