Life sciences professor recognized for outstanding mentorship

Karen Anderson
Karen Anderson is a researcher in the Biodesign Virginia G. Piper Center for Personalized Diagnostics, professor at ASU's School of Life Sciences and a medical oncologist and associate professor of medicine at Mayo Clinic in Arizona.

Karen Anderson has found that reminding students of the big picture is key to their success.

“Sometimes we lose sight of the big picture when we're in the details,” said Anderson, who has been a professor at Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences since 2011. “Anchoring it back around to why this work really makes a difference helps students understand. I think a lot of my students' motivation comes from knowing why they’re doing what they’re doing and what the outcome can be.”

It’s this “big picture” approach to teaching and mentoring that led Anderson’s students and colleagues to nominate her for the Outstanding Faculty Mentor Award this year. 

Anderson’s work in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences focuses on understanding how the immune response can be used to detect and alter cancer development. On this topic, she has written more than 40 peer-reviewed articles, reviews, book chapters and editorials. For her contributions, she has been recognized with Phoenix Business Journal’s Health Care Heroes Award and was named one of the Most Influential Women in Arizona by Arizona Business Magazine. In addition to her role at ASU, she also serves as a medical oncologist and an associate professor of medicine at Mayo Clinic in Arizona.

Through her mentorship and dedication, Anderson inspires her students and colleagues in the lab and beyond.

"I have yet to find a scientist in the field of cancer immunology that gets as excited and passionate about research on a daily basis as Karen,” said Peaches Ulrich, a graduate assistant. “She puts effort into her students’ individual projects, reminds us of the big picture and is always thinking one step ahead. Karen has always been right there to empathize and inspire me to keep going. I am beyond grateful for her consistency, open-mindedness and work ethic.”

Meet Anderson, a recipient of the 2020 Faculty Women's Association Outstanding Faculty Mentor Award, and learn more about her approach to teaching and mentorship. 

Question: How did you feel when you found out you were selected as a recipient of the Outstanding Faculty Mentor Award?

Answer: I was really surprised, I had no idea that my team and colleagues had nominated me. I am just so deeply honored by it. It is one the proudest times of my academic life, I’m incredibly grateful. Just knowing that people I work with took the time and effort to nominate me. I’m more proud of this almost than anything else I've done.

Q: What are some of your favorite things about being a faculty mentor?

A: I'm so grateful and glad that I get to work at ASU. It's an incredible place — it's creative and energetic. My students are always teaching me and surprising me, they really create a dynamic learning environment. I have a mix of students in the laboratory including postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, undergraduate students and master’s students. For me the students are the creative force and the energy behind all that we do.

Q: Are there any challenges you’ve faced in your career and if so how have you overcome them?

A: I started my lab about 17 years ago or so, and I will say that at the time, there were so few women in the field and few women at my institution that were in senior leadership. So finding role models and understanding how to navigate through paths that are not defined was a challenge. Research is always challenging because you don't know exactly where you're going to go and you don't know where it's going to lead you. Sometimes you may end up working on an entire project that doesn't work out. But I’ve found that you have to focus on the path and let it take you where it's going to go. Focus on the process of it and keep pursuing it, let the scientific curiosity take you wherever it takes you. 

Q: What have you learned from being a faculty mentor?

A: I think one thing I have come to really understand and recognize is that people bring very different skills to scientific research and different ways in how they think. I’ve learned over the years how to recognize strengths within individual students and to think of projects and directions that will leverage those strengths. There's no question that my students always impress me, drive me and force me to think in new ways. At the end of the day, I think my greatest contribution to science will end up being in the students that I train.

Q: What advice would you give to other educators?

A: Sometimes it's a luxury to be able to explore new directions and to just be willing to be a little fearless scientifically and to go in directions that aren't as narrow as we were trained to do. Science can get very focused and very narrow. So my advice would be to be a little scientifically flexible. Make sure that somewhere in your scientific direction, you maintain a little space for pursuing different things and for taking on high-risk projects that break into new territory. I believe that’s where a lot of our best ideas come from. 

Emily Balli