18-year-old pursues graduate degree, helps with humanitarian causes

Lauren McBurnett sits at the chair of the lab she works in. On average, McBurnett spends about 4-10 hours a week in the lab, which runs tests on algae and includes professors and students in the work environment. (Photo by Dominic Valente)
Lauren McBurnett has experienced a lot for an 18-year-old. She graduated in December and is on the fast track to become one of the youngest ASU students to ever hold a doctorate in sustainable, environmental and civil engineering.

Over the three-day weekend, McBurnett traveled to Juarez, Mexico, with her family to combine two of her greatest passions: civil engineering and aiding communities. McBurnett went as part of the short mission trips to Mexico and Guatemala hosted by nonprofit organization Casas por Cristo.

This was McBurnett’s second time building houses in Mexico.

“Build a house in two days; that’s the plan,” she said.

Thirty people from the Valley gathered Friday to travel to Juarez and work on houses.

“(There's) a whole lot of work,” she said. “I’m looking at a sore week next week.”

McBurnett, who belongs to other humanitarian groups, such as Engineers without Borders, has always been interested in using her knowledge to help people.

“I wanted to be able to enhance the world around me,” she said. “I’ve always been interested in service-based humanitarian groups.”

In 2012, she traveled with other members of the Arizona chapter of Engineers without Borders to Bondo, Kenya, to help build a rainwater sink. The project began two years before.

The people in Bondo had a dire need for water, McBurnett said.

“They were spending hours and hours every day walking to whatever water source they could find, regardless of the quality,” she said.

To help with this need, McBurnett and her teammates developed a tank in the ground to collect and store rainwater.

The tank was successful, McBurnett said.

“Kenya was an incredible experience,” she said. “It was life-changing, to say the least.”

Civil engineering senior Tania Ibarra was part of the team that traveled to Kenya. She said the trip helped her become close friends with McBurnett.

“We became really close while we were over there,” she said. “For the first two weeks, we were the only girls there.”

McBurnett is accountable and very hard-working, Ibarra said.

“(Lauren) is awesome," she said. "Her maturity level is really high for her age. She’s a great leader.”

McBurnett’s father, who is an engineer and UA alumnus, joined the team in Kenya.

“He went to UA, but I am still calling him a Sun Devil, because he had to join our chapter of Engineers without Borders,” she said.

McBurnett has a very close relationship with her parents and three siblings. As a child, she was home-schooled at times.

“I started out with some home school, some public school and some charter school,” she said. “By the time I was 13, my mom decided to send me out to Chandler-Gilbert Community College, where I finished up my high school and my first half of undergraduate degree.”

She transferred to ASU to complete her undergraduate degree in August 2010.

All of her siblings were home-schooled as well, and only her youngest brother chose to attend a traditional high school.

Around 22,500 students are home-schooled in Arizona, according to a September 2011 article in The Arizona Republic.

“I feel like I was able to get a better experience,” she said. “Big groups are formed within the (home school) community.”

The flexibility of her schedule while she was home-schooled allowed McBurnett to pursue her other passion: dance. She has danced at a studio for more than five years.

“It’s definitely my joy,” she said. “I can dance for a couple of hours, relax and go to bed happy.”

McBurnett never encountered obstacles because of her age while in college.

“I’ve always looked older, so I didn’t feel like I had a very different experience than other students,” she said. “Nobody pointed me out as that young kid.”

Being so young was not a missed opportunity, McBurnett said.

“I wound up investing my time in different organizations,” she said. “My time was well spent.”

McBurnett said graduate school has been a lot of work thus far, but she is excited for the new challenges.

If she follows the course, she will be 22 by the time she graduates.

McBurnett works in the laboratory of her dissertation adviser, Morteza Abbaszadegan, who encouraged McBurnett to apply for the degree after she took his course on environmental microbiology.

“Lauren became very interested in microbial quality of drinking water and the environment,” he said. “I advised her to pursue the graduate program.”

The program has a 10 percent acceptance rate, Abbaszadegan said. He has been working in the program at ASU for more than 13 years.

“I believe Lauren’s the youngest Ph.D. student I’ve ever had,” he said. “Lauren’s probably the youngest in the whole program.”

McBurnett’s experiences in Kenya and Mexico will help her better understand the area she is passionate about, Abbaszadegan said.

“She is really determined, very enthusiastic and she’d really like to educate herself to continue helping communities,” he said.

McBurnett, who has a part-time job as a tutor at Chandler-Gilbert Community College, would like to become a college professor after she graduates. The summers off would give her time to travel the world and help people, she said.

“My ideal job would be to help promote the students’ dreams,” she said.


Reach the reporter at dpbaltaz@asu.edu or follow her on Twitter @dpalomabp

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