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From the sciences to the humanities, ASU researchers' impact continues to grow.
December 12, 2016

University’s researchers are thinking across disciplinary lines to tackle the world’s complex challenges

We can all rest easier knowing what keeps Carolyn Forbes up at night.

The assistant director of ASU’s Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict stays on top of how extremists are leveraging communication tools and facets of religion to further their agendas. She worries about whether we can create visual maps of extremist discourse to help figure out if there will be an attack. And she studies new ways to keep track of how Muslim communities around the world are talking about extremism.

“ASU and the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict were perfectly positioned to address these big questions because we had the ability to bring together an interdisciplinary team of computer scientists, sociologists, historians and anthropologists,” Forbes said.

All of this is part of a series of research projects funded through the Department of Defense’s Minerva Initiative. That provided funding for ASU to create a tool called Looking Glass that aggregates information from social media platforms, organizes it and displays it as an interactive graph. 

Forbes and her colleagues aren’t alone in focusing on important, potentially world-changing research. The university has landed on the National Science Foundation’s top 10 list for research expenditures in the United States for universities without a medical school, alongside the likes of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California at Berkley. ASU also has the largest university research portfolio in the state of Arizona when medical school spending is not factored in — the first year that has been the case.

“The work that ASU’s researchers are doing is changing the world at an incredibly fast rate,” said ASU President Michael M. Crow. “From the sciences to the humanities, from NASA research and Department of Defense funding, the impact this university can make on the state, country and world will continue to increase.”

Forbes works with Hasan Davulcu, a computer scientist in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, and Mark Woodward, an associate professor of religion studies, on a research relating to the Minerva Initiative. Today ASU is ranked fifth in the U.S. for social science research, alongside Harvard University, and fifth in the U.S. for political science research expenditures, alongside Princeton University.

Learning from nature

Edward Kavazanjian is the director of the Center for Biomediated and Bioinspired Geotechnics, housed in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. The center’s researchers examine natural systems that can provide answers to complicated problems engineers face around the world.

“In 3.8 billion years of trial and error — some people call this evolution — nature has come up with pretty good solutions,” Kavazanjian said. “We want to learn from nature and employ natural and biological processes, or mimic them in a biological manner, to mitigate hazards, such as earthquakes or landslides, for environmental protection and restoration.”

Kavazanjian’s center is an NSF Engineering Research Center. The NSF’s centers are located at universities across the United States, and ASU is one of only two universities in the country with two ERCs. ASU’s other ERC is the Center for Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies, which focuses on advancing photovoltaic science, technology and education to sustainably transform electricity generation.

Nationally, ASU ranks 20th for engineering research expenditures, ahead of Duke and Cornell universities, and eighth for expenditures on electrical engineering research, alongside Johns Hopkins University and MIT.

About 2.5 billion years ago, the level of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere began to rise. Rising oxygen levels, combined with changes in the Earth’s interior and surface, created an environment friendly to the evolution of intelligent life. Ariel Anbar, a President’s Professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, is leading an interdisciplinary team of researchers who hope to find out why.

With NSF funding, Anbar and his team are working to understand why the oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere rose when it did. Answering such a complex question required assembling a team of geoscientists who focus on the mechanics and science of Earth’s interior and Earth’s surface, including Christy Till, geologist and SESE associate professor. It also required the expertise of ASU associate professor of English Mark Hannah.

“It’s important to look at language and communication broadly and the ways communication can impact a team’s research,” Hannah said. “Linguists often come into science research after the fact, after data has been collected. On this project we’ve been able to frame our research question with focused language. We’ve also been able to think about assumptions that reside in our work, and we can surface those assumptions to work around them and move forward.” 

Interdisciplinary approach

ASU is ranked fourth in the United States for expenditures related to interdisciplinary science, along with Harvard, UC-Berkeley and Johns Hopkins University.

“The ASU research enterprise’s unprecedented growth rate is a testament to the outstanding ideas put forth by our faculty in highly competitive venues and achieving success. It also reflects our commitment to supporting our world-class faculty who are engaged in solving global challenges by seamlessly working across disciplines,” said Sethuraman Panchanathan, executive vice president of Knowledge Enterprise Development and chief research and innovation officer at ASU. “Innovation and collaboration are a core value in ASU’s culture. Our goal is to continue to excel and grow as well as train future generations of researchers who approach solutions with an interdisciplinary mind-set resulting in societal impact.”

ASU’s research enterprise is growing enormously. Between 2005 and 2015 ASU was the fastest-growing research university among all institutions with research enterprises exceeding $100 million in annual research expenditures. Additionally, during the same time frame, research expenditures for all U.S. universities grew about 44 percent, whereas ASU’s total research expenditures grew 158 percent.

Also, federally funded university research grew 26 percent, whereas ASU’s federally funded research grew 102 percent.

For Forbes of Looking Glass, it all adds up to a research environment unlike any other.

“This paradigm of the New American University, of thinking across disciplinary lines about the big challenges of our time, has allowed research to be done at ASU that couldn’t be done anywhere else,” Forbes said.  


Top photo: Coor Hall on the Tempe campus. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

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'Anything is possible' with passion and a clear goal

ASU grad hopes to play a role in the emerging field of psychoneuroimmunology.
December 15, 2016

ASU psychology and pre-med major Kylie Forbes battles through chronic illness to pursue her dream of helping others

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for fall 2016 commencement. See more graduates here.

Battling a chronic illness while maintaining a 4.0 GPA is no easy feat. But every day for the past four years when Kylie Forbes crossed the bridge over University Drive, she was reminded that it was all worth it.

“I climbed it every day, even if it was out of my way,” she said. “Standing at the top and gazing out at the palm trees and mountains in the distance, I was always filled with gratitude for the opportunity to be in Arizona and to receive such an excellent education.”

Forbes graduates from ASU this month with a bachelor’s in psychology and pre-med studies. For years, she has faced hardships associated with an undisclosed autoimmune illness, but she never let that stand in the way of her dream to help others who suffer as she has.

She says her current state of health is too poor to take on medical school, but the determined dean's medalist is training at the Southwest Institute of Healing Arts and focusing on "healing and getting my body stronger."

Forbes said she plans to attend Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Tempe.

“When you’re passionate enough about something, and you have a clear goal in mind, anything is possible,” she said.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: I’ve always been fascinated by the complexities of the human mind, so initially, I naturally gravitated toward psychology. However, I decided to pursue a pre-med curriculum in addition to my bachelor’s in psychology because of personal experience with chronic illness. In the depths of my illness, I felt like there was no hope. I had two choices: Give in to the illness, or do something to try to change it.

Not only did I want to help myself, but more importantly, I wanted to prevent others from suffering as I have.

As I began learning organic chemistry, anatomy and physiology, and other pre-med subjects, I realized that the physical/biological sciences were an additional passion of mine, and a career in medicine was my calling.

Sometimes it takes a painful personal experience to inspire an exciting new endeavor.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: One interesting thing I learned in the diverse climate at ASU is that everyone is on a unique path.

I met plenty of “non-traditional” students who came back to school at an older age because they realized they weren’t happy with what they were doing with their lives. I met students who were war veterans and decided to further their education to better the lives of their families. I met students of all ages, from all over the world, from all walks of life.

It’s a beautiful thing to see all of these people coming together in the name of education and a brighter future. If you didn’t have the traditional four-year university experience straight out of high school, that’s perfectly OK. If you’re starting over completely, that’s OK, too.

Wherever you are, that’s exactly where you’re supposed to be. Don’t regret the past, just keep moving forward toward your dreams.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I moved to Arizona from New York with my heart set on a medical school located in Tempe, Arizona. With its main campus in Tempe, ASU was the perfect stepping-stone toward med school.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Three things: First, follow your heart and your intuition. Whatever subject you’re passionate about, go for it! Don’t let someone else’s idea of what you “should” do dictate the course of your life.

Second, believe in yourself. This may sound clichéd, but the truth is you are your own best advocate. Even if the deck is stacked against you, believe you can do it, and you will.

Third, don’t let any person, any condition or any circumstance hold you back. For many years I have battled a debilitating illness that made my ambitions seem like an impossible feat. Giving up has crossed my mind, but it was never a viable option. Perseverance through the greatest adversity yields the path with the greatest reward. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: Medical school! Specifically, I plan to study in the field of psychoneuroimmunology — the study of the complex mechanisms by which the brain and the body interact. I am fascinated by emerging research in the field, and I hope to play a major role in making future breakthroughs.

I aspire to bring people into balance and wellness in body and mind alike. My personal experience with chronic illness, my empathetic nature, and my love and aptitude for the sciences will help me be the best doctor I can possibly be.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: With $40 million, I’m not sure I could limit myself to tackling just one problem. That said, I would definitely use a large portion of the money to implement mindfulness programs for schoolchildren.

Mindfulness programs teach young kids crucial life skills like emotion regulation, compassion, sustained attention and focus, and positive coping mechanisms. These are skills that many kids unfortunately do not learn at home.

Long-term outcomes of mindfulness training in schools include reduced crime, reduced substance abuse, enhanced interpersonal skills, better education and better employment in adulthood.

Mindfulness training also reduces symptoms of depression and other mood disorders. By implementing mindfulness training at an early age, we can create happier, better educated, more productive, more successful, more compassionate people. In turn, we can foster a better world.

I would also use the money to help fund the Human Microbiome Project, a field of research that holds the key to unlocking the mysteries (and potential cures) of many diseases.


Top photo by Anya Magnuson/ASU Now