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'Iconic Voices' series probes top minds in business, politics and education.
ASU professor's video series includes edited-down bites, full interviews.
May 16, 2017

F.W. de Klerk is latest subject in Thunderbird professor's popular video series

Sometimes world leaders change their minds, and when they do, they should get credit for that, according to an Arizona State University expert on global leadership.

Jeff Cunningham, a professor of practice at Thunderbird School of Global Management at ASU, has spent the past two years probing the minds of top leaders in the worlds of business, politics and education.

“My problem with life today is that we capitalize on people’s mistakes and we ignore when they reveal that they’ve had a change of heart,” said Cunningham, whose series “Iconic Voices” just added its 48th video — an interview with F.W. de Klerk, the former president of South Africa. De Klerk was a key negotiator of his country’s move away from apartheid, and he shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela.

“De Klerk recognized that apartheid was wrong and called it morally indefensible. And then he had to figure out how to change the country,” Cunningham said.

In the “Iconic Voices” interview, de Klerk describes his relationship with Mandela.

“It’s so emotional you’ll get goose bumps,” said Cunningham, who flew to Malta, where he was given only half an hour to interview de Klerk.

Jeff Cunningham (lef), professor of practice at Thunderbird School of Global Management at ASU, interviews F.W. de Klerk, former president of South Africa.

“Iconic Voices” came about by accident. When Cunningham came to ASU in 2014, he was a professor of practice with the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. With his background as the former publisher of Forbes magazine, he knew that the business model of journalism was rapidly changing, and he thought that the students should know more about that side of their industry. So he set out to establish a lecture series.

CunninghamCunningham also was a venture partner at Highland Capital; managing director at Schroder Ventures; president of venture accelerator CMGI; CEO of and (Elon Musk's first company); CEO of Michael Milken's CareerTrack; vice president at BusinessWeek and also chairman or board director of several companies including Schindler, Sapient and Data General. knew Warren Buffett, and the iconic investor was the first invited lecturer.

“He said, ‘I would love to do that, but I would love it if you came to Omaha,’ ” Cunningham said.

So Cunningham took a video crew to Omaha and recorded the interview with Buffett in his hometown.

“The next thing I knew, it was on YouTube and I was getting a thousand views a day,” Cunningham said.

“My next guest was Michael Milken, the most important financier of the 20th century, but who is best known for the fact that he spent three years in prison. I thought he would be a great, roguish character who would add insight,” he said.

The series took off. The “Iconic Voices” YouTube channel now has 3,000 subscribers and more than 350,000 views. He has interviewed Sen. John McCain, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, former CIA Director David Petraeus, ASU President Michael Crow and Barbara Barrett, a businesswoman, diplomat, pilot and major donor to ASU.

The channel includes full interviews as well as edited-down bites, such as a 42-second clip with Buffett on “Why the media gets it wrong” (“I always worry about the journalist that decides what story they’re working on and they’re just calling me for confirmatory evidence.”) and a three-minute segment of McCain discussing the 2016 presidential election (“I feel we, people like me, probably underestimated the frustration that is fed to some degree by some of the talk shows that demand purity in all of us. And it’s exacerbated a sense of frustration that America is feeling.”)

Cunningham has interviewed about 20 people for the video series and an additional 30 for his digital series of articles, including profiles and essays on topics such as why Queen Elizabeth is a model of intelligent discourse.

Cunningham’s background is in business, not journalism, but he was tossed into the deep end after he launched Directorship magazine.

“I fired my editor and found out I had to put out the next issue,” he said. “If you fire the head chef, you have the cook the food.”

While all of Iconic Voices subjects are at the top of their respective fields, de Klerk is unique in what he has faced.

“He talks about the problems of the world today: poverty, climate change and the inability to deal with diversity,” Cunningham said of de Klerk, who is founder and chairman of the Global Leadership Foundation, which works to resolve conflict through mediation.

“These are three burning issues we are not dealing with, and de Klerk dealt with them.”

Cunningham is hoping to interview more female business leaders for his series.

“I believe women are so ready to run these companies and start them, and I’m looking to find people who have plowed that ground.”

Find the entire series of videos and articles here and the YouTube channel here. The new interview with F.W. de Klerk is here.

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now


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May 17, 2017

Scientist and teacher demonstrated algae's boundless possibility while leaving an enduring legacy of research

Editor's note: Milton Sommerfeld, a professor at Arizona State University's Department of Applied Biological Sciences at the Polytechnic School, died on May 16. He was 76. Here, his life and work are remembered.

What’s so great about algae?

If you had the good fortune to meet Milton Sommerfeld, you have a hearty answer to that question.

Appropriately dubbed “The Wizard of Ooze,” Sommerfeld illuminated the world of algae with vibrant imagery, bubbling-good humor and — if you were lucky — a mouthful of algae cookie, freshly baked by his wife, Carolyn.

Sommerfeld unlocked algae’s potential, demonstrating its boundless possibility while leaving an enduring legacy of research, both at Arizona State University and well beyond its walls.

Catching the algae bug

Sommerfeld grew up in rural Texas on his family’s farm. Not only did this upbringing teach Sommerfeld the importance of hard work, resilience and integrity — virtues he continually demonstrated to his students and colleagues — it also introduced him to a specific slimy-green substance. 

One of his designated farm duties was cleaning the cattle trough, which reliably flaunted a shiny coat of algae. Despite giving it a good scrub every week, the algae always returned. He puzzled at how and why it grew so fast.

Sommerfeld's interest in algae was really piqued when a fellow colleague asked him to evaluate the pond scum in his pool — not uncommon in the Phoenix metro area where private pools are nearly a necessity. The colleague asked Sommerfeld to help him prevent the scum from reoccurring, and a four-decade career in algae — from biofuels and bioproducts to toxins and bioremediation — was born.

An influential career

Sommerfeld enjoyed an expansive ASU career sparkling with accomplishment. During 48 years as a professor, his advancement to department chair, then to associate dean and finally to co-director of the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation (AzCATI), he kept education and research firmly at the foundation of his success. 

Much of Sommerfeld's legacy lies in the inception of the Laboratory of Algae Research and Biotechnology (LARB), which later became AzCATI — a unit of ASU LightWorks, recognized as the first national test bed for outdoor algae cultivation. He was critical in developing the Algae Testbed Public Private Partnership (ATP3), now key to researchers and companies looking for third-party technology verification.

With AzCATI, Sommerfeld envisioned a place where students could gain the knowledge necessary to become tomorrow’s workforce in the expanding field of algal biotechnology, and that is precisely what it has become.


Welcome to Algae Inn

Inquisitive minds found great company in Sommerfeld, who was more than happy to entertain questions about algae. He delivered answers with such relish, even his colleagues felt like they were hearing them for the first time.

For this reason, Sommerfeld eagerly awaited ASU’s annual open house event — Night of the Open Door. He got ready by creating quizzes for kids and preparing algal product samples for other visitors.

Sommerfeld's impeccable sense of humor, replete with science jokes, made everyone’s trip to AzCATI memorable. He welcomed people from academia and industry, tirelessly giving tours to individuals and groups alike. Always using samples and examples, he made sure that everyone left with a clear understanding of why “we should all love algae.” 

Love for education

Sommerfeld's love for education dates back to his time as a high school teacher, his first job after obtaining his bachelor's degree in biology from Southwest Texas State College. He spent two years teaching before beginning his doctorate in plant biology at Washington University in St. Louis. He later returned to education and remained there for the rest of his career.

As co-director of AzCATI, Sommerfeld developed an internship program that allows select high school students from ASU Preparatory Academy to spend a few hours a week at the facility. Here, they shadow graduate students and technicians while gaining invaluable lab experience before college. The concept has since extended to undergraduate ASU students — many of whom become research technicians after graduating.

In fact, Sommerfeld recently worked with former students to build algae-related graduate courses and hoped to one day establish an algae major.

A dedicated role model

Sommerfeld was always a fan of Monday morning meetings. He made sure to arrive five minutes early — punctuality being an attribute he always impressed upon his students — and to kick off meetings with gusto. 

His passion and motivation were palpable to all who work with him, around him, and even to those who had only heard of him — forever embedded in his contribution to the center’s “I LOVE Algae” logo. 

When taking a picture, Sommerfeld was known to substitute the standard “cheese” for “algaeeee.”

That’s the snapshot that those who had the great privilege to know Sommerfeld will always remember: a brilliant scientist with a keen sense of humor and big, infectious grin that radiated his joy for doing what he loved most.


Top photo: Milton Sommerfeld in the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation (AzCATI) at ASU's Polytechnic campus in spring 2016. Photo and video by Ken Fagan/ASU Now