Justin Kiggins

(Published in 2006)

You could say Justin Kiggins (Flinn Scholars Class of 2002) suffers from the classic Flinn Scholar dilemma—difficulty choosing one interest at the cost of another.

After much deliberation, Justin, who had considered options as diverse as music performance, seminary, and engineering, began at Arizona State University pursuing a major in music therapy.

Music therapy seemed the perfect fit: It was a career that utilized both his musical talent and his desire to help others. However, Justin’s analytical side wanted to understand the “hows” and “whys” of music therapy–questions that he says the program, which was more focused on clinical training, did not answer well.

Frustrated, Justin shifted his efforts toward a discipline concerned with asking questions and seeking answers: mechanical engineering. He spent his sophomore year enjoying the challenges of physics and differential equations, envisioning his future career as a racecar engineer.

A Change of Plans

And then, unexpectedly, Justin’s path changed yet again. The catalyst was a lecture titled, “Music and the Brain,” given by Dr. Daniel Schneck, a visiting professor of bioengineering.

“Dr. Schneck presented a paradigm for how to understand music in an engineering context, and it made me realize that I could still pursue some of my interests in music through engineering, through health–through different routes than just music therapy,” says Justin, who changed his major to bioengineering soon after.

Justin began a research position in an ASU laboratory investigating kinematics– the study of the positions and speeds of body segments and joints during motion–as well as the motor control of violin playing. The experience solidified his interest in bioengineering, and provided him the opportunity to present his research at a scientific conference in Leipzig, Germany.

“It was a solid three days of just incredibly fascinating research,” says Justin of the conference. “It really made me realize how many directions I could take.”

Since then, Justin has spent a summer researching at Boston University and started a research position at Barrow Neurological Institute, part of St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix. There he works with Dr. Eric Vu, investigating how zebra finches, which learn to sing through mimicry, relearn their characteristic songs when key brain pathways are damaged. This investigation is relevant to research on strokes, which cause similar neurological damage in the human brain.

“I think that I’m learning a lot about how to do good research,” says Justin about his research position at Barrow. “Dr. Vu’s fantastic because he’s very hands on. He really wants everyone to understand everything that’s going on. For example, this morning I was doing everything from writing code for one of our programs for an experiment, to catching birds to record them singing, to performing surgery on a bird.”

Working in the laboratory is also valuable in that it lets him see the long-term effects of scientific research, says Justin.

“It’s kind of neat to know that, a couple of floors down, there are doctors performing surgery, and they’re utilizing the information that was in the research field 20 years ago,” he says.

Looking Back

The past four years of Justin’s college experience, without a doubt, have been a time of continual change and growth.

“Every year that I’ve been at ASU has been so different,” he says. “My first year was in music, my second year was in mechanical engineering, and I was working on a racecar with the Society of Automotive Engineers.”

“And my third year I can’t remember what I was doing my third year,” he adds with a laugh. “But it’s been so different each year.”

Justin says that the past four years have taught him the value of exploring the world. With his Flinn travel money, he has been able to travel to Eastern Europe, Armenia, and the jungles of Ecuador.

“Really, none of my travels have had anything to do with my degree program, and I love it,” he says. “I feel like I can talk to people about things other than what I’m interested in academically.”

Traveling, says Justin, has also brought about some important changes in his world views.

“Before I got the Flinn Scholarship, I really had no aspirations of traveling abroad whatsoever. And after I got it, I still had this view of the world as being a finite place–the more you see, then the less of the world there is to see,” he explains.

“But with all of the traveling I’ve done in college, every time I go someplace, the world just seems to get bigger and bigger. There’s so much more out there that I don’t know and don’t understand. It’s really exciting, because I know I won’t be bored the rest of my life.”

Looking Ahead

As Justin begins his fifth and final year as an undergraduate, he has much to look forward to; for one thing, he is getting married to his girlfriend of eight and a half years, Cara.

“We met through church in junior high, and our first date was in the roller skating rink in Chandler with a bunch of friends,” says Justin. “I think we held hands around the rink a couple of times.”

Justin popped the question last November while he and Cara spent a weekend in Sedona. Their wedding date is set for this December.

As for how this will change his future, Justin says, “I expect that being married will definitely affect things. I’m not going to be able to just make all of the decisions on my own like so many people heading off to grad school do.”

“But,” he adds with a laugh, “I haven’t really felt like I make all my decisions on my own for years now anyway, so I don’t feel like I’m missing anything.”

Both he and Cara, who is an anthropology major at ASU, will graduate in May. After graduation, they plan to spend their month-and-a-half honeymoon in Alaska.

Justin’s post-graduate plans are still up in the air. He and Cara are planning to apply for graduate programs that would allow them to live in the same city.

“I’m really looking forward to being a married man,” says Justin. “I am looking forward to starting the next stage of going into a graduate program.”

Most of all, he says, “I am looking forward to life. I feel like I’ve had a great head start, and I don’t think I have anything not to look forward to.”