Kassandra Kellenberger

Biology grad changes career choice after taking ‘filler’ class

By

Sandra Leander

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2019 commencement.

When transfer student Kassandra Kellenberger signed up for a science course to fill one of her future degree requirements, she thought she would just check it off her list.

Instead, she learned there are many types of careers in a laboratory that weren't in the medical field but would allow her to pursue her passion for cellular research. She was so excited, she changed her major to biological sciences and stepped up her game by committing to learning and excelling in school. 

“I’m so proud at how I turned around my scholastic career since I’ve been at ASU. I previously spent some time lost and changing majors, not caring about classes or my future. Since I’ve been at ASU, my eyes have been opened to all the different things I can do, and it’s inspired me to do something that I’m truly passionate about,” said Kellenberger.

“I went from being a subpar student, barely passing, to being a student who will be graduating with an honors cord, lab experience and beautifully written research papers that show exactly what I’m capable of in the scientific field,” she added.

Kellenberger completes her undergraduate studies this spring with a Bachelor of Science in biological sciences — specifically, genetics, cell and developmental biology. She plans on pursuing a career working in a laboratory that studies autoimmune diseases.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to pursue a career in your field?

Answer: When I transferred to ASU from Phoenix College, I had intentions of applying to the Medical Lab Science program because I knew I loved being in a lab environment and I have a special talent for understanding cells. I needed some filler classes for my semester while I was applying to the program and decided to take a class at West campus called "Genes, Evolution, and Development." This class opened my eyes to the endless possibilities for a career in a laboratory. I didn’t have to limit myself to medical, and as my knowledge about developmental biology and genetics grew, I found myself getting excited about writing research papers and talking about topics we discussed in class. 

This was the moment I went, "Huh. Maybe I should be trying to pursue a career in research." I changed my major the next day and I have been thriving in my classes and lab job ever since. I’ve become more passionate about school, taking advantage of the many opportunities provided about ASU and I am more motivated than I have ever been to succeed.   

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: Since I’ve been at ASU, I was surprised to find how many professors brought so much passion to the classroom. Entering the professional world has always been a scary thought, mostly because I always imagined that you just go get a job and work to pay bills. Seeing so many different professors passionate about the things they get to teach, as well as the things they get to research, changed my perspective about finding the right career. It showed me that I don’t have to just find some job, I can work in a field where I get excited about the work I do, and having a job isn’t a burden, but something exciting when you get to do what you love.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I’ve lived in the greater Phoenix area since I was pretty young and I grew up with the understanding that ASU is one of the best places to go for an education in science. ASU is always holding events open to the public to engage the youth of the community and give a taste of the opportunities they provide here. This showed me that I can get an amazing science education as well as opportunities to make connections with prestigious scientists in my field without having to move away from my home and my family.

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

A: I’ve had so many amazing professors that have provided me with the tools I need to succeed at ASU, but there was one professor that made the most lasting impact on me and encouraged me to pursue a career in research. Professor Jennifer Hackney-Price taught my "Genes, Evolution, and Development" course and I always looked forward to attending her class because of the passion and excitement that she brought to the room every single day. She would be bouncing with joy when she got the opportunity to tie in her own research to the topic of the lecture and it was inspiring to be a part of that.    

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

A: Always take time for yourself. We’re all so busy studying for exams, doing projects, writing papers on a constant basis, and if I never gave myself a break then I’m sure I would have burnt out long ago. Also, don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s okay to get a C in that one class you really struggled in. Employers don’t care about your grades at the end of the day, they care about what you can bring to their company as an educated and prepared individual.  

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: West campus is my absolute favorite place. It’s beautiful and quiet, but my major is on Tempe campus, so I spend most of my time there. It’s hard to find some peace and quiet in Tempe, but I’ve found that the lawn in front of old main, and a few of the hidden tables in the courtyards nearby, provide some beautiful scenery and a lot less foot traffic.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: After graduation, I want to be working in a laboratory that studies autoimmune diseases. There are so many people out there suffering from autoimmune diseases in silence. Everyday life is hard to get through, treatments are expensive, and there’s not much that can be done to restore the degenerative effects of these diseases.

It is a mission of mine to find a way to target the immune system in such a way that the progression of degeneration is halted. However, I understand the realities of life, a career in research and the job market. So, for now, I would love to take any opportunity to be doing work in a laboratory that would allow me to prepare for pursuing my master’s (degree) and eventually my PhD. 

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

A: One of the biggest challenges that our planet is facing is the rapidly increasing atmospheric CO2 concentration. Unfortunately, we’re seeing a significant decrease in our photosynthetic friends — plants—which process this CO2 and release oxygen gas as a waste product. With $40 million, I would find a way to genetically engineer plants that have the ability to withstand the environmental pressures that are inhibiting healthy plant growth as well as increase the CO2 synthesis capacity of plants. This would increase the range of temperatures that plants could survive in, increase the biomass of photosynthetic organisms and contribute to putting more oxygen back into the atmosphere. 

Q: Describe some challenges or hurdles you faced while earning your degree, and what you did or what took place to overcome them.

A: My last semester at ASU has presented me with some of the biggest challenges I’ve encountered yet. I discovered that I had 17 upper division credits to finish, and a physics class to take, with only 1 semester left of funding to do it in. The lab I had been working in for the last year-and-a-half jumped hurdles to ensure I could earn internship credits for my time there due to the passion and initiative I was always willing to show in the lab. My adviser worked with me on class options to make sure I could fit everything I needed into my schedule and showed me ways to take a few stresses off my plate while still satisfying my remaining credits. There were so many people that cared so much about my success and helping me get through this situation that it helped me overcome the roadblock.  

Q: Are there any particular people who really supported you on your journey? And, what did they do to help?

A: I have an absolutely incredible support system in my family, friends and even my coworkers. My parents have always been there to remind me that no matter how stressed out I get, I’m doing incredible things and they’re proud of me even if I don’t bring home an A in every single class. My husband is truly my rock, not only does he lift my spirits when I need it the most, but he’s really done so much to help me so that I can focus on my education.

The people I work with are so kind, and some of the most down-to-earth people I know. They’re always willing to take on tasks that I have trouble getting to because I’m overwhelmed with schoolwork, and my supervisors are always there for a shoulder to cry on or even providing advice on how to handle different challenges.

Q: Looking back, is there anything you would go back and change?

A: Personally, I don’t believe in looking back at what I could have changed. I feel that the path I’m on may have never happened if I hadn’t had some of the challenges or experiences that I did. The hardest challenges I’ve ever overcome have made me a better person and taught me how to navigate difficult situations for the future. It makes me proud to look back at the challenges I overcame because it’s a reminder that I can do absolutely anything I set my mind to and that in the end, you’ll only ever grow as a person for overcoming them.

Q: What did ASU provide to you that you think you could not have found anywhere else?

A: One of the coolest opportunities I’ve had at ASU was the chance to attend a lecture by Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist who contributed to the discovery of the CRISPR cas-9 system, and to meet her after the lecture. ASU is always putting on events like this, events that help aspiring scientists have conversations with great researchers and learn more about what is happening in our field. I feel like this is one of the things that sets ASU apart from other institutions.