Stories from the Class of 2013
Of course, every Mason graduate is a standout, but among the 7,700 students who will graduate from Mason this year are some special people who have a great story to tell. Following are snapshots of a few of Mason’s amazing, accomplished students who earn diplomas this spring.
Tran Named Senior of the Year
By Buzz McClain
It’s not unusual to apply to multiple schools for postgraduate studies, but Quoc “Ricky” Tran, this year’s George Mason University Senior of the Year, may have set a record.
“I was afraid I wouldn’t get into pharmacy school, so I applied to 19,” he says with a laugh. “And the first school I was accepted to was my dream school, Shenandoah.” That would be the Bernard J. Dunn School of Pharmacy at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia. Tran would eventually be invited to interview at all 18 other schools, which isn’t surprising given his accomplishments at George Mason over the past four years. But for Tran, overachieving isn’t anything new.
You would never know it from a conversation with the self-effacing Tran, who says he always underestimates himself, but he’s won several scholarships and awards, including the Undergraduate Research Student of the Year Award and Provost Achievement Award. Meanwhile, he’s worked as a biomedical intern/research assistant/business project manager at Inova Fairfax Hospital and presented poster and oral presentations depicting his clinical research. He also worked as an application coordinator for the Student Funding Board in the Office of Student Involvement, served as an information desk assistant for University Information, helped as a client service representative for the Office of Admissions, and is president of the Mason chapter of the Golden Key International Honour Society, which recognizes the top 15 percent of students in their classes. He currently serves as a Council of Student Members representative for Golden Key International.
But he’s most happy to talk about his involvement with the Pre-Pharmacy Society, which he helped revitalize from an inactive club into what is now the Pre-Pharmacy Honor Society. As president, he developed mentorship programs with the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Pharmacy and Shenandoah, programs he says “that have been extremely helpful, not only for me but other people who are interested in careers in pharmacy.” In fact, Tran has had the same mentor at Shenandoah for three years, giving him a significant head start in mapping out his postgraduate studies.
Tran also counts as a highlight his research with Mason professor Ancha Baranova at Inova Fairfax Hospital on non-alcoholic fatty liver disease patients. So he’s a biology major, right? Not quite: he’s an economics major.
When he first came to Mason, Tran says, “I was a biology and chemistry major because I knew I wanted to go to pharmacy school. But I also wanted to think outside the box and study things not specifically tied to pharmacy. That’s when I looked into economics and saw Mason had such a great program with two Nobel Prize winners. That’s when I really wanted to do economics.”
Tran, who has been in the United States four-and-a-half years as an international student, is often asked by other students how he manages to do everything he does on campus, as well as volunteer at a pharmacy in Falls Church, Virginia.
“To be honest, my schedule may be full, but when I came from Vietnam, I found having so many choices and opportunities very different. In Vietnam, we don’t have a chance to work in a professional setting or be involved with so many different things. When I get involved with something I just keep going and I push myself over the limits. I want to experience everything that I can.”
And what does he do for fun?
“All these extracurricular activities I think are fun, and I really enjoy doing them,” he says. “I love what I’m doing and I enjoy every minute of it.”
Research and Career Possibilities Keep Chemistry Major in the Lab Long after Graduation
By Michele McDonald
After graduating with a BS in chemistry from Mason this spring, Amanda Haymond plans on staying in the lab to begin work on her doctorate. She’s pursuing chemical reactions that could lead to a career in the pharmaceutical industry.
“Designing drugs is just a really great way to be useful,” says the Presidential Scholarship winner. Haymond is combining her love of physics, mathematical calculations, and chemical reactions.
Haymond started working in a lab during her junior year, but her first stint wasn’t a good fit. While she loved the calculations, she wasn’t interested in lasers; she wanted work with a humanitarian bent. So she knocked on a door in another department to find something new.
“I showed up at Dr. Couch’s door and said I was interested in biochemistry,” she says, asking him, “Is there something I can do?” Robin Couch, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, became Haymond’s mentor.
She started research on a project that led to her being named undergraduate student keynote speaker at the College of Science Undergraduate Research Colloquium last month. The research also sparked her interest in earning her doctoral degree.
Haymond studied Yersinia pestis, more popularly known as the causative agent of the plague. She looked at what would happen if she blocked an enzyme called MEP synthase. Without this enzyme, such diseases as the plague, anthrax, malaria, leprosy, rabbit fever, and E. coli die.
“Lots of disease-causing bacteria use this [physiological] pathway,” she says. “This research has great promise.”
She’s looking forward to guiding the direction of the chemical reactions to explore new avenues as she furthers her research. The result could be more effective drugs to battle illnesses.
That’s enough of an incentive for Haymond to continue unlocking how chemicals react to create better drugs. Her dream job is one job. Haymond sees the beauty in staying with one firm and working with the same team on one big project for her entire career.
In retrospect, she’s glad she knocked on the professor’s door and advises other students to do the same. Don’t stop looking if one area of your field doesn’t seem to be a good fit, Haymond says. “It’s trial and error. The first internship [I did] I liked but didn’t love–then I found the one that I love.”
Mason Student Gets Book Deal for Literary Humor
By Tara Laskowski
Even the best of writers have their bad days. Just ask Mason senior Paul Laudiero.
Laudiero, an English major concentrating in creative writing, just signed a deal with Chronicle Books for his book project poking fun at the imagined rough drafts of famous works.
From The Great Gatsby to the Harry Potter series, no great work of literature—or film—is exempt from bad first drafts.
“I really got the idea from my own writing,” he says. “Every writer goes through this—what you write is terrible at first. I started thinking about the great, famous writers out there and what their first drafts might look like, and that’s when the whole idea came together for me.”
In Laudiero’s project, which started out as a Tumblr page, F. Scott Fitzgerald plays around with the title of his most famous work: “The Fun Gatsby?” “The Nice Gatsby?” If we saw the first draft of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken,” it might read as Laudiero imagines: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and I have been lost for forty-five minutes.”
Laudiero also picks on Twilight, The Hunger Games, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and this year’s Academy Awards Best Picture nominees, among others.
The senior says that he started the project just for fun and wasn’t even aware that Chronicle Books was hosting a contest on Tumblr until a Tumblr employee encouraged him to enter the contest. When he won the Great Tumblr Book Search Award, he was stunned.
“Paul has brought everything he loves together—literature, writing, and comedy, to create this book, and his achievement is the model of how one’s education, vision, and vocation can pay off,” says Mason writing professor Laura Ellen Scott, a former teacher of Laudiero.
With the book, called Sh*t Rough Drafts, due out in mid-2014, Laudiero is now hard at work trying to generate the remaining ideas before he has to turn in his manuscript. He admits that in the process he himself goes through many bad rough drafts before getting a really good “sh*t rough draft” that he can use.
And there is no shortage of material out there. “The great thing about absurdity is that you can apply it to everything,” he says.
Much of Laudiero’s writing is comedic, and he hopes one day to be a scriptwriter for television. When he was a sophomore at Mason, he started the Mason Improv Association, which holds shows in the Johnson Center Bistro every month. Laudiero also performs regularly with the Washington Improv Theater.
“I’m kind of obsessed with improv,” he admits. “It’s the most pure way of generating ideas and very addictive. I think all writers should do improv at some point because it is a great mental activity that develops your creativity.”
After graduation Laudiero plans to move to New York City, where he will begin classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade, an improvisational and sketch comedy group that has had many famous comedians as members since it started in 1990.
Student Veteran Grateful for Mason’s Programs, Assistance
By Cathy Cruise
Mason senior Danett Crespo doesn’t waste time getting where she needs to be. She started waiting tables at age 14, enlisted in the Marine Corps the day after her 17th birthday, and left for boot camp only two hours after her high school graduation.
While she spent the next five years serving in Quantico, Virginia, and Okinawa, Japan, as a combat photographer, her goal was always to attend college. “When I got out of the Marines I was walking around D.C.,” she says, “and my husband asked what I want to do now. I told him I’ve always wanted to work in the Smithsonian Institution, and that’s what led me to pursue my history degree. I chose Mason because of its close affiliation with the Smithsonian.”
Crespo took full advantage of the many programs Mason provides to veterans and active duty service members, especially the Office of Military Services, which she says was “always on its game. Their counseling services are superb and helped not only with school, but with medical and pay issues, and job applications.” Crespo also became involved with groups such as the Veterans Society and Battle Buddies, noting that they “not only assist veterans into the flow of civilian life but provide a therapeutic environment among fellow servicemen and women.”
Last November, Crespo participated in an especially moving event, the Peace Paper Project, with artist Patrick Sargent, BIS ’02, BFA Art and Visual Technology’12, a veteran and recent Mason graduate. The two worked together to shred and make paper from one of Crespo’s old camouflage maternity uniforms. As they worked, she talked about the service, her family, and life.
“By the time I had torn up my uniform, I was almost in happy tears,” she says. “That one piece of clothing made me realize how much my family means to me.”
Sargent later presented Crespo with a poster made from various uniforms that showed a family silhouetted on a hill at sunset. “The whole bottom part was made of my uniform,” she recalls. “The process was enlightening, and it wouldn’t have been possible if [the Office of] Military Services hadn’t arranged the whole thing.”
Crespo will graduate this summer with her BA in history. She worked last year in Mason’s Office of Creative Services as a photo collections manager, and this month, her primary ambition was achieved when she began work as a fulfillment assistant at the Smithsonian Institution Archives.
“Without the flexibility, knowledge, and experience I gained at Mason,” says Crespo, “I would not be finishing my bachelor’s degree—the first in my family—and moving on to my dream job at age 26. I’m so thankful to have spent my time here and extremely excited to be going in the direction I am.”
Coats Has Built His College Career around Helping People and the Environment
By Frances Womble
Environmental and sustainability studies major Charles Coats says he “jumps first and fears later.” This philosophy has encouraged him to get involved with nearly a dozen extracurricular activities while studying at Mason. This fearless approach also helped him pursue higher education.
“I knew going to college was the right thing to do, but I didn’t know how it was going to happen,” Coats says. “Money was a big concern for me.”
Coats secured several scholarships and was soon on his way to Mason. However, it was a missed opportunity that really propelled him into a leadership role. Coats signed up to live on the environmentally conscious Green Floor his freshman year, but was disappointed by the outcome.
“I was the only person to sign up for it,” he says. “I ended up being put on a miscellaneous floor, and nothing really came from it.”
Seeing this as an opportunity for growth, Coats became a resident assistant (RA) his sophomore year and decided to take matters into his own hands. The result is the Sustainability and Leadership Community Engagement Floor, a community of 42 students living in Piedmont Hall.
“I had the opportunity to work in Housing and Residence Life to actually make this happen,” says Coats. “There’s a lot of risk taking in this because there’s no framework [for creating a residential community]. I had to see if the university would bite, and it did. It’s now a very strong community, which is what I wanted. I wanted to make sure it would survive and grow over time.”
Coats has served the Mason community in multiple other ways.
For the past four years, Coats has worked in the Center for Leadership and Community Engagement as a digital story editor and events specialist. In addition, he has been a site leader for Alternative Breaks, leading groups of students on spring break trips dealing with environmental and indigenous rights issues.
“The Center for Leadership and Community Engagement is really a one-stop-shop for me,” he says. “I’m able to connect both of these activities back to being an RA.”
Coats first learned about Alternative Breaks three days before his freshman spring break began. With such a short time frame, many students would have waited until the following year to participate, but not Coats. He hurried to get his paperwork in on time and was able to travel to Portland, Maine, as a freshman to work on a project that dealt with adequate housing and green building concepts.
“I think [that experience] changed my college career,” he says.
The following summer, he attended a leadership conference sponsored by Break Away, the parent organization to Alternative Breaks, at the Grand Canyon. Thanks to the connections Coats made there, Alternative Breaks held its conference, Localized Food in a Globalized World: Food Systems in the Metro Desert, at Mason the very next summer. This conference worked with eight community partners and more than 50 college students to have strong direct service around this issue.
When Uganda Help, a student-run club, dismantled, Coats wanted to pick up the reins and establish a chapter for Invisible Children, an organization that seeks to bring awareness to the abuse of children in Central Africa. Although the chapter is now only in its third year, it is ranked fifth in fund raising of Invisible Children chapters nationwide and is often in the front lines of the club’s advocacy work, given Mason’s proximity to Washington, D.C.
“We’re looked at as a model chapter,” says Coats. “We created our own constitution and intentionally made our positions nonhierarchical.”
For the past two years, Coats has also served as one of five students on the Patriot Green Fund, a student-focused entity that concentrates on sustainability efforts by funding facility improvements and faculty and student research projects. One of the first projects funded was a proposal to install beehives on the Fairfax Campus and purchase European honeybees for a beekeeping class in New Century College.
“There was some university concern about keeping bees on campus, but the course is really meaningful,” Coats says. “It had a competitive wait list. It’s such a hands-on class, and I think that resonated with a lot of people. Bees are so vital. Without pollinators, we would be in real trouble.”
During his time at Mason, Coats received a George Mason University Alumni Association Service Scholarship in 2012. At this year’s New Century College convocation, he will be awarded an Academic Achievement Award.
“I put myself through school, and I really cared about my academics and the college experience,” he says. “There’s a lot more to college than the degree, and I really wanted it to be an intentional four years.”
After exerting himself, Coats is looking forward to graduation and taking some time off but is planning on applying to graduate school in December.
ASSIP Internship Leads to Lasting Research Experience for One Undergrad
By Michele McDonald
Graduating neuroscience major Sarah Albani always knew she liked science, but it was the internships she worked on that helped her figure out which path she wanted to take in the field. She’s currently working on projects ranging from traumatic brain injury to the environmental factors that impact anxiety.
Albani started her science career at Mason in 2009 with the Aspiring Scientists Summer Internship Program (ASSIP) before her freshman year. Since then she has worked at the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study, Inova Health System, and George Washington University.
Before coming to Mason, Albani was told her love of science meant a career in medicine.
“I had the misperception that research meant being locked in a lab for hours,” she says. She soon moved past that boundary and even her own ideas of what she thought science should be.
Not so, she learned; the hands-on work in a lab made classes relevant. Internships taught her to think critically, solve problems, and understand the complexity behind the work.
“You may think you understand something—that is until you have to write an abstract, make a poster, or give a presentation,” Albani says.
Albani has worked on bench science, which takes place in a lab, and clinical research where she collects information from patients. As a result, she’s decided that she wants to pursue translational research—the type of research that brings bench science into the lives of patients. Specifically, she wants to focus on traumatic brain injuries, to help patients receive the best treatment as soon as possible. She’ll continue her research at Krasnow and Inova this summer after graduation.
“Research is never finished—you just submit another chapter,” she says.
And it’s the amalgamation of various experiences, not just studying one molecule or bacteria, that keeps Albani on the search for new ways to help people. “It’s being able to look up and see what’s around you and asking yourself, how do I contribute to the bigger picture?” she says.
Pursuing the bigger picture, Albani says, has made her journey both “exhausting and exhilarating” and one she relishes continuing.
“As we envision our future STEM workforce, Sarah is a Mason undergraduate who exemplifies reassurance that a pipeline of bright, motivated leaders exist,” says Amy VanMeter Adams, research specialist in Mason’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine and founder of ASSIP. “Throughout her undergraduate career, she has excelled academically and engaged in meaningful scientific and biomedical research experiences.”
To read more stories about Mason and the Class of 2013, check out the university’s News site.