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B.L. Turner II reminds us why the future of Phoenix is going to be hotter.
The real reason the ancient Mayans disappeared.
February 2, 2016

Turner named Regents' Professor for work on climate change and environmental study

B.L. Turner II looks the part of a college professor.

His gray blazer, light blue button-down shirt and neatly manicured mustache and beard combine with his affable manner and slight Texas drawl to put one immediately at ease.

But once he starts talking about his research and the serious nature of its impacts, all that comfort can go out the window.

It doesn’t take long to figure out why Turner (pictured above) is a pioneer in the field of sustainability science or why ASU has recently named him a Regents’ Professor, the highest faculty honor at Arizona State University. His work has changed the way communities and countries are thinking about the environment and climate change.

Turner, the Gilbert F. White Professor of Environment and Society in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban PlanningThe School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. and who was instrumental in founding ASU’s interdisciplinary School of Sustainability, was one of the first researchers to use data to better understand how humans affect the landscape and the implications for the environment.

ASU Now spoke to Turner about his recent designation, his groundbreaking work and how human behavior can have devastating impacts if not corrected.

Question: Congratulations on being named Regents’ Professor. What does the honor mean to you?

Answer: Well, I’m honored, quite bluntly. I think all of us do our research because we enjoy the research. When others recognize the quality of it and give nods to you, it’s always deeply appreciated. After all, you don’t enter academia because you’re going to make a lot of money. You’re looking for your own self-interests, truly. I’m very satisfied with what I do and I love what I do. So if you can do what you love doing, people will recognize that what you did is very valuable to you. I enjoy and deeply appreciate the recognition comes along with being a Regents’ Professor.

Q: Your research focuses on how humans affect the landscape, including how the behavior of people in ancient Maya contributed to the collapse of their society. How did that happen?

A: When I entered that question there was an assumption that the Maya had very high populations, very large cities, but the most primitive form of cultivation that you could imagine. This was just not theoretically possible. So we went out to demonstrate that there must have been much more sophisticated forms of feeding themselves. We were able to identify a whole range of activities both through the paleo fossil record but also through the relics on the landscape. Things that the classical archeologist had walked over and had not paid any attention to, we did. We found all sorts of different ways they manipulated their environment and defeated themselves. In the process of doing that we discovered that they transformed so much of their landscape that it had probably had a feedback relationship with climatic desiccation and so their land got drier and drier and drier. That dryness was amplified by the activities they were doing on the land.

Q: One gets the idea that their civilization collapsed or crashed, but you seem to hint at something else.

A: That’s very interesting because there’s no evidence of mass death or collapse; they just depopulated. They got up and moved. The Maya didn’t move just because of the environment — they moved because they decided the costs of combating this environmental change that they produced was too costly. It was better just to go someplace else. So the really interesting question is, “Why didn’t they come back?” Once the desiccation went away and the forest came back within 150 years, the soils would have been good again within 200 to 300 years, and yet no one ever came back. That’s a question very few people have asked. … Why didn’t they come back?

Q: You’ve also spent years researching tropical deforestation. What are the worldwide implications if tropical forests go away?

A: Big. There’s several reasons why tropical deforestation is so critical and worth saving. It’s the most diverse habitat in the world. Most people don’t realize tropical forests are the “lungs of the world.” Those forests suck up an enormous amount of carbon. Not just in the canopy of the trees but in the below-ground biomass, the root systems. If you cut it all down, you release that carbon into the atmosphere but more importantly you no longer have them sucking up the carbon. The combination of that and the biodiversity of the tropic forest make them very special to the world.

Q: You’ve recently focused your research from rural to urban areas with a specific focus on Phoenix. Where does Phoenix stand today in terms of potential problems, and what could be in store if our house isn’t in order?

A: There are some elements in which Phoenix and Arizona are ahead of the curve. One of those is water. As much as we’re paying attention to water, we have taken the appropriate steps. We’re way ahead of California and other states in terms of storage and limited quantities of water. There’s also increasing attention to Phoenix’s urban heat islands, which probably will grow in significance because of climate change. I don’t mean us inducing it here. I mean because of climate change and all projections predict Phoenix will be much warmer here. That means it’s only going to get much warmer here — and that’s going to lead to health problems as well as a series of issues regarding water use. If you look at the longtime projections here, there’s a point where we’ll possibly be reaching mega-droughts. Not the kind of droughts we’ve been experiencing, but a hundred years of substantially lower rainfall. That said, we’re addressing the water problem relatively well but we’ve also got this heat problem that’s interconnected with the water problem and perhaps we haven’t addressed that one quite right yet. … There’s not a lot of empirical work that asks, “What proportion of the Phoenix area can be covered by trees that would help reduce the urban heat island but not at the same time demand so much water?” There are trade-offs. You’re cooling but you’re impacting the amount of water that we have access to. So we’re beginning to grapple with those questions and trying to find out those answers.

Q: Recently the U.S. Senate took two votes and overwhelmingly agreed that “climate change is real and exists” but failed to agree in another vote the root cause. If you were in front of them, what would you have said?

A: If I wanted to be political, I’d say they’re wrong on the second vote. I’d ask, “How can you deny the signs?” So the reality is that a final recognition that climate change is real. It’s not anthropogenic in its origins, it’s a political vote. It’s not based on any science. I’d say 99 percent of the science community absolutely agrees that climate change is not only real — and by the way it’s even higher if you go by the climate scientists — but that the anthropogenic part of that is absolutely huge. To deny that is dumbfounding.

Top photo: B.L. Turner II, by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Reporter , ASU Now


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ASU's social entrepreneurial teams hope to heal the world with business.
ASU students combat dirty water, sex trafficking and suicide prevention.
February 3, 2016

3 ASU entrepreneurial teams vie for first Pakis Social Challenge prize

Trying to solve the many problems of the world can seem overwhelming, but three Arizona State University teams are showing that social progress and business can go hand in hand.

The three ASU groups are pursuing social entrepreneurship, which uses a business model to improve lives. Success requires a firm familiarity with complex, often intractable problems, and the ability to make enough money for the enterprise to be sustainable.

One of the teams, the All Walks Project, won the $20,000 grand prize in the Pakis Social Challenge entrepreneurship contest on Feb. 4, but in a surprise move, the judges awarded money to the other two teams as well. Humanity X and 33 Buckets both received $10,000. The Pakis Family Foundation, which funded the prize, essentially doubled the money it intended to invest in the ASU teams. All three teams also will receive mentoring and acceptance into the Seed SpotSeed Spot is a Phoenix-based incubator that provides space and assistance to entrepreneurs. business incubator.

Each team had already won $7,500 as a finalist, and their members include young people who are passionate about finding innovative ways to tackle crises that affect thousands of people.

Here is a look at the three finalist teams for the Pakis Social Challenge:

The 33 Buckets team, from left: Mark Huerta, Swaroon Sridhar, Paul Strong and Vid Micevic.

33 Buckets

The team: Paul Strong, who has his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering and works at Honeywell; Mark Huerta, who has his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biomedical engineering and works at Arizona Engineering Technologies; Vid Micevic, an undergraduate sustainable engineering major, and Swaroon Sridhar, an undergraduate biomedical engineering major.

The concept: The team installs water-filtration devices in developing countries and trains the communities to maintain the equipment and sell the clean water.

Why it’s unique: The filtration device, which fits inside a small shed, is modular, and parts can be easily replaced. The clean water produced becomes a small business, which provides incentive for the community to maintain the device. A major component is education for the community about the importance of clean water. “They need to know the reason we’re doing it or they won’t embrace it,” Huerta said.

The business model: The team levies a small tax to pay for the upfront costs of installing the equipment plus maintenance and salaries for the local people in charge of distribution, and government organizations devoted to clean-water initiatives pay the costs of the team.

“We work with the leadership of the community to come up with a fair financial model that will ensure the sustainability of the filtration system,” Huerta said. “In Peru, a family typically pays $12 a month to buy clean water. When you’re only making $50 a month, that’s a substantial amount. So most of the people don’t buy clean water. The tax will be anywhere from $2 or $3 per family per month.”

Background: The project was launched in 2010 as part of the Engineering Projects in Community Service Program, or EPICS, in ASU's Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. Strong and four other students worked with mentor Enamul HoqueHoque is an ASU alumna who endowed the E.M. Hoque Geotechnical Engineering Laboratory at the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment at ASU., who is from in Bangladesh. Hoque’s brother is principal of a girls’ school there, and the ASU students decided to install a filtration device at the school because they knew the water in Bangladesh was tainted by naturally occurring arsenic.

However, in 2012, when the team got to the school and tested the water, they found that it contained no arsenic, although it did contain bacteria. “We had to start over,” Strong said. “We changed a lot of what we were about. We went away from the design side and more toward the sustainability side of the project.” 

The team knew that frequently, outsiders will come in and build water filters in poor villages and then leave. Soon, the devices break and become useless because there is no incentive for the community to maintain them. So they created a profit model. The team crowdfunded $10,000 and returned to the girls’ school in December 2014 to install the water filter and train the local people. The students take the clean water home in containers, and the school sells water to local vendors and tea shop owners, making money it can then spend on education and to maintain the filter.

Now the team is working on two new projects; in the Dominican Republic, where village children have to crawl into a cave with buckets to fetch water, and in a village in Peru, where the water contains harmful bacteria.

Why it’s important: Contaminated water can transmit diseases such diarrhea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid and polio and is estimated to cause 502,000 diarrheal deathsAccording to the World Health Organization. worldwide each year, most of them children under age 5. “Education is not only the way to get people to understand (what we do), it’s also the way to get people to escape poverty. And that’s our overarching goal,” Sridhar said.


The All Walks Project team members, from left: Erin Schulte, Jasmine Anglen, Brittney McCormick, Brittany Ater and Jessica Hocken.

The All Walks Project

The team: All the members are ASU undergraduates. The co-founders and their majors are: Jasmine Anglen, finance and management; Erin Schulte, global studies, and Jessica Hocken, accountancy. Brittney McCormick, director of strategic outreach, is a biology major, and Brittany Ater, director of customer relationships, is a psychology major.

The concept: The All Walks Project created a training curriculum for volunteers to provide life skills to survivors of sex trafficking. The goal is for the victims to rehabilitate their lives and avoid being drawn back into a life of abuse. All Walks also created a kit for colleges to launch their own All Walk Project chapters to increase awareness.

Why it’s unique: Attention has increased on sex trafficking and the idea of treating the girls and women who are trafficked as victims who are coerced into sex acts and not as criminals. However, little has been done for the survivors once they are in shelters, and the relapse rate is high. The All Walks Project addresses that aspect of recovery. “Our goal is to provide very trauma-informed, specialized care,” Anglen said.

The business model: Most survivors of sex trafficking live in domestic-violence shelters after they are extracted. Providing the All Walks courses to survivors will make the shelters eligible for grants. All Walks will then take a fee from the shelters that receive grants.

Background: A few years ago, Anglen was very moved after hearing a woman speak about being a survivor of sex trafficking. A finance major, Anglen had been working toward a career as an investment banker when she visited Wall Street with other students. She realized that investment banking was not for her and decided to launch an entrepreneurship project to solve the crisis that was keeping her awake at night.

The plan won the Social Venture Partners Rapid Pitch Competition with All Walks and, a few months later, Anglen attended the Clinton Global Initiative University.

“Within a couple of months I was in over my head, and that’s when I found my co-founders,” Anglen said.

Anglen, Schulte and Hocken then delved into the research and developed a business plan, which was accepted by the Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative, which provides funding, mentorship, space to work and technical support. Soon, the team was collaborating with the McCain Institute on several events, including Sex Trafficking Awareness Week in January.

The project now has a financial literacy course for survivors and is working on a GED course. “In other parts of the business, we adhere to try, fail and try again, but in our curriculum, it’s as expert-based as possible so it’s effective from the get-go,” Anglen said.

The women are especially proud that All Walks chapters will be started at Grand Canyon University, the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University this year.

The horrific subject matter sometimes makes the work difficult, but Anglen said the team members take comfort in the importance of their mission. “It’s difficult because people don’t want to talk about this,” she said. “I’ve been told in fast-pitch competitions that I need to not dwell on how dark and terrifying it is. I’ve had people tell me it’s never going to change.

“I don’t believe that.”

Why it’s important: There are no official statistics, but the Polaris Project estimates that 100,000 children are victimized in the sex trade each year. Most are first trafficked between ages 12 and 14, sometimes by a male who pretends to be a “boyfriend.” “A lot of survivors don’t understand that they have been trafficked,” Anglen said. “They’ve been treated as a criminals. There’s no such thing as a child prostitute.”


The Humanity X team members, from left: Kacie McCollum, Bin Hong Lee, Jordan Bates, Ram Polur and Pat Pataranutaporn.

Humanity X

The team: Jordan Bates, a doctoral student in applied mathematics for the life and social sciences at ASU, is president and CEO; Pat Pataranutaporn, an undergraduate biological sciences major, is director of creative strategy and innovation design; Kacie McCollum, who is on the faculty at the University of Phoenix, is director of operations; Ram Polur works full time as director of clinical informatics; and Bin Hong Lee, an undergraduate software engineering major, is director of product development and outreach.

The concept: The Humanity X team has created ArkHumanity, software that scans Twitter and can detect tweets posted by people who might be suicidal. The tool picks up specific keywords that are used by people who are in crisis. ArkHumanity has an algorithm that uses context to skip false positive tweets, such as “I’ll kill myself if the Cardinals don’t win,” from authentic sentiments.

Why it’s unique: Most interventions rely on people in crisis calling a hotline number or otherwise reaching out. This model will allow behavioral-health providers to be proactive in finding people who might be contemplating suicide by spotting their warning language in real time.

The business model: ArkHumanity, when perfected, can be sold as a service to professional behavioral-health providers such as hospitals or crisis centers.

Background: The team came together through serendipity, meeting at the Hacks4Humanities Hackathon in fall 2014. Bates had been a “Data Science for Social Good” Fellow at the University of Chicago in 2013 and became familiar with the city health department’s application that tracked cases of food poisoning by finding key words on Twitter. Both Bates and McCollum had lost friends to suicide and knew that crisis intervention was an area that could benefit from that type of emerging technology.

The team won the Hackathon with their ArkHumanity prototype. At Changemaker Central on the ASU Tempe campus, they found space to meet as well as inspiration. In spring 2015, the team won the Changemaker Challenge contest, which came with $10,000 in funding.

Humanity X used the money for technology development and consultation with experts in the field, including the Phoenix-based Teen Lifeline. If the team wins the Pakis competition, the money will go toward efficacy testing and further development.

The team is also working on other projects, including one that uses virtual-reality experiences to promote social justice.

“If we can match humanity with emerging technologies, we can create something meaningful,” Pataranutaporn said.

Why it’s important: Suicide is the 10th leading cause of deathStatistics are from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. in the United States. In Arizona, almost three times as many people die by suicide than by homicide and it’s the second leading cause of death for ages 15 to 34.



Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now