Teenage ASU grad comes full circle

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

Samantha “Sammie” Harker does some things really, really well — like, for instance, memorize numbers.

The Anaheim, California, resident memorized 1,294 digits of pi when she was 15. And then she gave a TEDx talk about it. Harker outlined what led to this feat in a blog post for the Organization for Autism Research titled “Autism Is My Not So Secret Superpower.”

Describing herself as on the autism spectrum, Harker revealed in the blog post that being “different” caused her to experience abuse and bullying. Finishing high school early and being admitted to college at the age of 14 was a relief. “Instead of being labeled as a nerd or genius like I was in high school,” she said, “I’m seen as more of an equal/prodigy and there isn’t as much focus on my quirks, but a larger sense of inclusion.”

Harker, a Starbucks partner, is graduating from Arizona State University this spring at the age of 18, earning an online Bachelor of Arts in English through the Starbucks College Achievement Program and ASU Online.

But that’s not all. She’s also completing a Bachelor of Arts in medical humanities from the University of Health Sciences and Pharmacy in St. Louis. She recently took first place in UHSP’s 13th annual Student Research Symposium poster session for her presentation highlighting pharmacological characterizations of opioid compounds. The research goal is to create safer, nonopioid analgesics for pain relief.

Accomplishments like these are possible because of neurodiversity, Harker believes. She is an advocate of the “growth mindset” and of making room in society for many different views. A lovely way to illustrate the complexity of human belonging, and nonbelonging, is found in the mathematical constant of pi. Harker is a huge fan of it. “A pi enthusiast,” she calls herself.

“Pi isn’t just a representation of mathematics and physics,” she said in her TEDx talk. “It is a representation of our society.”

Pi is a so-called “irrational number” because it can’t be expressed exactly as a ratio or even completely in a million numbers. But since pi governs the properties of circles, without it “we would live in something along the lines of a real-life Minecraft.” How can it be “irrational” then? How can pi not “belong”?

Harker likened acceptance of other views, where there are infinite numbers of unique and incongruent variations, to her appreciation for pi: “We envision our world as parts making up a whole, when in reality, the gaps between pieces are significant.”

On the strength of her undergraduate work, Harker has already been accepted into ASU’s neuroscience program, where she’ll begin work on a doctorate this fall. We asked her to share with us how she sees her degree in the humanities fitting in with her future as a scientist.

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

Answer: My "aha" moment where I realized I wanted to study English was after my first semester at the University of Health Sciences and Pharmacy. I absolutely love STEM, but I wanted to continue writing as well! ASU provided me with the education and resources to continue both courses of study simultaneously and combine my passion for both writing and STEM!

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

A: Something I learned while at ASU that changed my perspective was through online discussion board interactions. I remember reading about some of my peers and thinking about how some of us are so similar and so different. Some students I met online are from across the world! Reading other students’ introductions helped me learn how to appreciate everyone's journey in education and how everyone's path is different and unique. I think this helped me find a lot of great friends at ASU and learn to enjoy my learning experience even more.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose to attend ASU because of the SCAP (Starbucks College Achievement Program), the inclusive online community, the resources available to students, the emphasis on research, the size and location of the campus, the supportive professors and students, as well as the integrative programs!

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

A: The professor that taught me the most important lesson while at ASU was (Instructor in English) Laura Cruser. I had taken her course in Popular Literature — Stephen King last fall. She was incredibly supportive, and helped me learn how to curate my own creative story. She is one of my inspirations for writing, and she has inspired me to work towards publishing a book. I met with Professor Cruser after my course had ended, and she gave me important tips on novel writing and encouraged me to write a little every day and hold myself accountable to reach my goals. Thank you, Professor Cruser!

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

A: The best advice I can give to students still in school is to plan out your week and get your assignments done as early as possible. If you can do a little every day, you can balance your load of classes and reduce stress that may occur at the end of the week.

Q: What was your favorite spot for power studying?

A: My favorite spot for power studying is definitely Starbucks! I love Strawberry Acai Refreshers, and the atmosphere of Starbucks is perfect for studying and grabbing a quick snack.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: After graduation, I plan to continue working at Starbucks, participate in the Sharon Disney Lund Medical Intelligence and Innovation Institute (MI3) summer internship at CHOC Hospital, as well as start my PhD in neuroscience at ASU in the fall!

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

A: I would tackle climate change. There are so many problems that climate change creates, and $40 million would help create more sustainable practices that can reduce some of the problems our planet has been facing.

Kristen LaRue-Sandler
kristen.larue@asu.edu

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