Teenage ASU graduate comes full circle

May 2, 2022

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

Samantha “Sammie” Harker does some things really well, like memorizing numbers.

ASU graduate English major Samantha “Sammie” Harker is finishing her degree at 18 and has been accepted into a doctoral program in neuroscience.
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The Anaheim, Calif., resident memorized 1,294 digits of pi when she was 15. And then she gave a TEDx talk about it. Harker described 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 being on the autism spectrum, Harker revealed in the blog post that being “different” has 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 called a nerd or a genius like I was in high school,” she said, “I’m seen more as an equal/prodigy and there’s not so much focus on my quirks, but on a broader sense of inclusion.”

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

But that’s not all. She is also completing a Bachelor of Arts in Medical Humanities from St. Louis University of Health Sciences and Pharmacy. She recently won first place at UHSP’s 13th Annual Student Research Symposium Poster Session for her presentation highlighting the pharmacological characterizations of opioid compounds. The goal of the research is to create safer non-opioid analgesics for pain relief.

Achievements like these are possible through neurodiversity, Harker believes. She is a believer in the “growth mindset” and making room in society for many different viewpoints. A great way to illustrate the complexity of human belonging, and non-belonging, is in the mathematical constant pi. Harker is a big fan of it. “A pi enthusiast,” she thought to herself.

“Pi is not just a representation of math and physics,” she said in her TEDx talk. “It’s a representation of our society.”

Pi is a so-called “irrational number” because it cannot be expressed exactly as a ratio or even completely in a million numbers. But since pi governs the properties of circles, without it “we’d be living in something akin to an actual Minecraft”. How can he be “irrational” then? How can pi not “belong”?

Harker compared the acceptance of other viewpoints, where there are an infinite number of unique and incongruous variations, to his appreciation of pi: “We think of our world as parts that make up a whole, when in reality the differences between the parts are significant.”

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

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

To respond: My “aha” moment when I realized I wanted to study English was after my first semester at the University of Health Sciences and Pharmacy. I love STEM, but I also wanted to keep writing! ASU has provided me with the education and resources to pursue both degree programs simultaneously and combine my passion for writing and STEM!

Q: What did you learn at ASU — in class or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: Something I learned at ASU that changed my perspective was through online discussion forum 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 have met online are from all over the world! Reading presentations from other students has helped me learn to appreciate everyone’s journey through education and how different and unique each person’s journey is. I think it helped me find a lot of good 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), inclusive online community, resources available to students, emphasis on research, size and campus location, faculty and student support, and integration programs!

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

A: The teacher who taught me the most important lesson at ASU was (English instructor) Laura Cruser. I had taken his course in popular literature—Stephen King last fall. She was incredibly supportive and helped me learn how to curate my own creative story. She’s one of my inspirations for writing, and she inspired me to work on publishing a book. I met Professor Cruser after I finished my course, and she gave me important tips on writing novels and encouraged me to write a little each day and hold myself accountable to achieve my goals. Thank you, Professor Cruser!

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

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

Q: Where was your favorite place for the power study?

A: My favorite place for the power study is definitely Starbucks! I love Strawberry Acai Refreshers, and the atmosphere at 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, attend the Sharon Disney Lund Medical Intelligence and Innovation Institute (MI3) summer internship at CHOC Hospital, as well as begin my PhD in Neuroscience at ASU in the fall!

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

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

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