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New ASU Regents Professor looks at the building blocks of life.
February 1, 2016

World expert on proteins — one of newest crop of Regents' Professors — was drawn across the globe to ASU's "interdisciplinary science and out-of-the-box thinking"

When Petra Fromme was called into Arizona State University President Michael Crow’s office last year, the caller wouldn’t tell her assistant what the impromptu meeting was about.

“No, I don’t think I’m in trouble,” Fromme told her assistant.

Far from it: Fromme was being named a Regents’ Professor, the highest faculty honor. It’s a group of top tenured faculty who have made significant contributions to their field. With the most recent group — who will be inducted at a ceremony this Thursday in Tempe — ASU has a total of 83.

“They really surprised us,” said Fromme, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry in the School of Molecular SciencesThe School of Molecular Sciences is a unit of ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.. “None of us had any idea what it was about. ... I don’t know about the other two, but I was totally surprised. I was really happy about it, actually.”

Fromme, a world expert on proteins, has been a pioneer in using new technology to research their molecular structure. As director of the new Center for Applied Structural Discovery at the Biodesign Institute, she leads 12 faculty and their students from different disciplines studying the structure and dynamics of proteins, potentially leading to improved manmade technologies.

“Petra uses the state of the art in X-ray laser technology to explore the structural and dynamical features of biological molecules to understand how they work,” said Dan Buttry, professor and director of the School of Molecular Sciences. “The results will impact fields as diverse as solar energy and human health.”

Fromme’s discoveries and innovative research methods, which incorporate physics and engineering, will potentially lead to new drugs to fight deadly diseases and new methods of creating clean energy.

She feels her appointment as Regents’ Professor will boost the center’s profile.

“I think it will increase the visibility of the center and attract students who would otherwise do their Ph.D. at Harvard or Yale,” she said.

In 2002, when she came to ASU, Fromme had two counter-offers from Germany. One was for the chair of the biophysics department at a prestigious Berlin university and an identical job at a medical school in Münster.

“I turned them both down at this time to come as a normal full professor to ASU,” Fromme said. “All of my colleagues in Germany — most of them, anyway — they said, ‘You do what?? You turn down the offer to become chair of the biophysics department at Humboldt-Universität in Berlin to go to where? Arizona State University in the middle of the desert?’”

The Münster medical school called Fromme a year and a half after she had been at ASU. They had kept the job open for her.

“They hoped I would not like it here and come back and take the position,” she said. “They were very disappointed when I said no, I like it here and I want to stay here.”

ASU’s collegial atmosphere lured Fromme.

“I saw how nicely the people here worked together,” she said. “This actually attracted me to ASU. They had all these independent groups coming from very different backgrounds but working on big things together. This was even before Biodesign was founded. ASU was really great about interdisciplinary science and out-of-the-box thinking.

“In Germany every professor is king in his own ivory tower. They have much bigger groups than they have here, so they have their own empire. They normally collaborate with their colleagues all over the world but not with their colleagues next door, because this is their worst enemy, because they compete for resources. There is never this ‘we’ feeling. … Here the department practically stands in complete unity.”

Her wish list for her future at ASU includes the proposed Biodesign C building, with a compact free electron laser in the basement to peer at molecules.

“We are trying to determine the structure and the function of the building blocks of life,” Fromme said.

If scientists know how molecular structures function at the microscopic level, they can change, tweak or design new functions that could possibly lead to new drugs that work with proteins within the cells to fight cancer and infectious disease.

Part of Fromme’s research involves how plants can adapt to all types of environments, from deserts and hot springs to volcanic lakes and oceans, and how they all conduct photosynthesis in those different environments.

“The big goal is to unravel how plants with visible light split water into oxygen protons and electrons, thereby driving photosynthesis,” Fromme said. “If we could make a system which would be as good as a natural system, but as stable as a man-made system, that would be marvelous.”

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now


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Boss' trust can lead to burnout in employees

It's great that your boss trusts you, right? Not necessarily, ASU study finds.
Earn the trust of your boss, get more work? Sometimes, yeah.
February 1, 2016

ASU research shows that fear of failure can stress good workers

You’re a reliable employee, and your boss has faith in your ability to do a good job.

Great, right?

Not necessarily.

New research by an Arizona State University professor found that gaining the trust of your supervisor can be a double-edged sword, prompting good feelings but potentially leading to burnout.

Michael Baer, an assistant professor of management in the W. P. Carey School of Business, found that trusted employees not only can end up with more work, but they also become stressed by the higher expectations and the threat of failure. His study, of 200 bus drivers in London, was published in the December 2015 Academy of Management JournalBaer’s co-authors were Rashpal Dhensa-Kahlon, Aston University; Jason Colquitt and Jessica Rodell, University of Georgia; Ryan Outlaw, Indiana University, and David Long, College of William and Mary. The article is titled “Uneasy Lies the Head that Bears the Trust: The Effects of Feeling Trusted on Emotional Exhaustion.” (Photo by Cathy Chlarson/W. P. Carey School of Business).

Trustworthy employees lead to higher job performance for supervisors, Baer said, because bosses can focus on their jobs and give those workers more tasks.

But that trusting relationship doesn’t lead to higher performance in the employees.

So why doesn’t it?

Baer gave an example of a boss giving a trusted worker an important new project.

“At the time, you feel pride. ‘I must have done something right.’ But five minutes later, you realize, ‘I have a lot of work to do.’ And, ‘I’m on the hook.’ "

Baer said it comes down to the “conversation of resources” business theory. Resources such as free time, feeling valued and good pay make workers feel good. Loss of resources, such as a heavy workload cutting into free time, makes workers feel bad.

But beyond that, having resources threatened — such as worry about reputation — is draining because employees have to put effort into conserving them.

“The higher up the ladder you are, the more you worry about falling,” Baer said.

And burnout is bad because it leads to lower job performance, he said.

Bosses can keep this in mind.

“Every employee has a mixed workload, including mundane things that can be off-loaded. Maybe supervisors can’t decrease the workload, but they can change the mix,” Baer said.

“They can also reassure the worker: ‘I know I’m asking you to do something that is a little risky, but I’m here to help.’ "

And the employee?

“If you’re a trusted employee, you likely already have a good relationship with your boss. If you say, ‘I need assistance’ or ‘Can we change my work mix?’ they’re likely to say, 'Yes,' because they trust you have the best intentions.”

Baer will examine that in his next study: “If you do ask for help, could it lower the trust level?”

London bus drivers were ideal subjects because research has found that their jobs are very stressful.

“Management research often focuses on office workers, white-collar workers, mid-level managers, who have an opportunity to off-load work. Bus drivers are on their own. They don’t have co-worker support, and they have to keep a schedule while also providing good service,” he said.

“It’s a good environment to examine how adding a little more on top of their job affects those employees.

“And we also wanted to look at blue-collar worker experience, which is generally ignored by research.”

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now