Ani Khashadoorian started her fall quarter in Denmark, giving a presentation about Darth Vader’s morality to an audience of graduate students.
Khashadoorian, a fourth-year English and philosophy transfer student, spent two quarters last year writing a research paper, titled “On The Evil Soul,” that used popular villains to examine the relationship between morality and intention. She was the only undergraduate student selected by the Frontiers in the Philosophy of Literature conference to present research.
“It was very intimidating,” Khashadoorian said. “People would ask, ‘What year of your PhD are you?’ And I wouldn’t know how to respond.”
The conference was held in Odense, Denmark and featured keynote speakers and graduate students from universities across the world. The Danish Council for Independent Research, a division of the Danish Ministry of Higher Education and Science, sponsored the event.
Khashadoorian’s presentation used famous fictional villains to examine whether villains’ self-awareness of their wrongdoing makes their actions more unforgivable. She studied 10 villainous characters from mythology and popular culture, including Darth Vader, the Joker and Hannibal Lecter.
“I wondered, why is Darth Vader so popular? Why is Hannibal Lecter so endearing to some people? Why is Lady Macbeth a tragic figure?” Khashadoorian said. “There’s something about villains that intrigue us, because it’s not so hard for us to become villains ourselves.”
During her research, Khashadoorian drew from Aristotle’s and Kant’s ideas about virtue and morality, and applied them to popular villains, analyzing how their intentions shaped the consequences of their actions. Khashadoorian said she noticed most villains she studied ended up dying alone.
“Regardless of being self-aware of one’s evil intentions, the evil done to others ends up being a massive evil done to themselves,” she said. “Why is it so bad to do bad? Because you set up a life for yourself where you become isolated, desolated and abandoned.”
Khashadoorian attended Glendale Community College before transferring to UCLA. She said she loved books as a child and constantly asked questions, leading her to pursue philosophy when she transferred to UCLA.
She said her Armenian family fled Iran as religious refugees when Khashadoorian was a toddler, traveling to Amsterdam and Madrid before finally settling down in Glendale.
Khashadoorian is the first person in her family to pursue a college education. After graduating, she plans to attend graduate school for philosophy.
“My family has had to grapple over the years with the fact that I’m not going to med or law school, but they’ve always been supportive,” Khashadoorian said. “I decided … I would do the absolute best to have a career and justify the choices I made.”
Rose Khashadoorian, Ani’s mother, said Ani amassed a collection of hundreds of books as a child and wanted to visit the library three or four times a week, which fed what she called an insatiable appetite for books and learning.
“I’ve told her she’s a 70-year-old in a young person’s body,” Rose Khashadoorian said. “She always makes me think.”
Khashadoorian said one of her most memorable impressions from her trip to Denmark was witnessing the European refugee crisis and seeing Danish citizens gather clothes for displaced Syrians.
“It really made me realize how I was not that far off from being that person,” she added.
Khashadoorian said she spent two quarters last year writing the paper with the help of her faculty advisor, A.J. Julius, an associate philosophy professor, after the transfer student program director at the Bruin Research Center encouraged her to pursue undergraduate research for her philosophy studies.
“I mentioned my interest in my majors was something I was considering pursuing professionally,” Khashadoorian said. “I’d always wondered what it would be like to teach.”
Khashadoorian found out about the conference in Denmark while she was looking at humanities job-search websites.
“I’d never heard of an undergraduate student applying to a conference with a paper like this,” Khashadoorian said.
Last spring, Khashadoorian received an email that said her paper was accepted. Her mother traveled to Denmark with her to attend the conference in September.
At the conference, Khashadoorian gave a 45-minute presentation on her paper, followed by a Q&A session with the audience, which she described as the most intense feedback session of her life.
“People at the conference responded well, and my Q&A session went over time,” Khashadoorian said. “It was great hearing other people’s perspectives on my research.”
Tetra Balestri, a fourth-year philosophy student and friend of Khashadoorian’s, said she thinks Khashadoorian is an inspiration to her and other undergraduate students.
“It’s really hard to find a faculty mentor, get the work done, be able to produce an original work and go to conferences,” Balestri said. “As an undergraduate, I don’t know anyone else in our department who’s accomplished what she has.”