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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

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ASU sending 20 students abroad on prestigious Gilman scholarships

A record 20 Sun Devils win prestigious Gilman scholarships to study abroad.
May 19, 2017

Program funds international travel for first-generation, other underrepresented groups

Editor's note: This story originally reported 19 ASU students had won Gilman scholarships; one additional student was awarded a scholarship after this story was published.

Derek Miltimore will work with drones to excavate an archeological site in Macedonia this summer, while Cassie Roose will learn Arabic in Morocco as a way to help refugees.

They are two of the 20 Sun Devils who won a prestigious GilmanThe Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship is named for the late congressman from New York, who served in the House of Representatives from 1983 to 2003 and chaired the House Foreign Relations Committee. The program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. scholarship to study abroad this summer — the most ever for Arizona State University. The nationwide Gilman scholarship funds international travel for young people who might not otherwise consider studying abroad — such as first-generation college students, those with disabilities and underrepresented ethnic and demographic groups. The program also sends scholars to more destinations outside Western Europe — the most popular study-abroad locale — than any other.

ASU’s Gilman scholars include a veteran and an online student, and the destinations include Africa, Asia and South America. The majority of these students are participating in programs coordinated through ASU's Study Abroad Office.

Brian Goehner is a program manager in ASU’s national scholarship office and specializes in working with students who apply for the Gilman. 

“This scholarship is attainable, and these are students who probably didn’t think they could ever go abroad,” Goehner said.

“A first-generation college student doesn’t have a role model in their family to help them navigate the university, much less study abroad. If they can get this opportunity, it changes them in terms of impact.”

Goehner said that some applicantsGilman applicants must be eligible to receive federally funded Pell Grants, which are awarded to students from low-income families. he has worked with have never traveled outside of Arizona.

“This is a chance for them to experience another culture and get skills like adaptability and thinking on their feet,” he said.

The Gilman program favors students from states that have lower rates of participation for study abroad, and that would include Arizona, where less than 0.65 percent of students enrolled in higher education studied abroad in 2015 compared with the national average of 1.5 percent. Besides ASU’s 20 Gilman scholars for this summer, there were 28 other Arizona-based winners, including students at the University of Arizona, Northern Arizona University and Mesa, Glendale, GateWay and South Mountain community colleges. Last summer, ASU sent 16 Gilman winners abroad.

In total, there are about 1,200 Gilman scholars from 354 American colleges and universities traveling this summer. The program reported that in 2016, 87 percent were the first in their family to study abroad, and that 71 percent of Gilmans studied outside Western Europe, compared with 47 percent of all participants in study abroad.

Cassie Roose will study Arabic in Morocco this summer. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

While the study-abroad programs must be academic, several ASU students also see them as a way to serve.

Roose, who is from Mesa, will be traveling to Morocco, where she will study Arabic. In the fall, she’ll leave on a Fulbright scholarship to teach English at Ghent University in Belgium.

“The purpose of applying for the Gilman was to gain language proficiency to carry out my Fulbright grant, where I want to implement a program to aid Syrian children who are in refugee centers,” said Roose, who in May received her degree in biological science and wants to be a neurosurgeon and possibly work for Doctors Without Borders.

Jasmine Finnell is an ASU Online senior majoring in global health and is traveling to India.

“I chose a program where I’m actually going to be doing AIDS prevention work,” she said.

“We’ll be teaching kids and people in the village about how to prevent HIV. I wanted something really impactful,” said Finnell, who is a nanny and started working weekends with a second family to save up for her trip before she found out she received the scholarship.

Brenton Berge, a veteran, will study Chinese in Taiwan this summer.

Brenton Berge, 26, is a veteran, having served six years in the Marine Corps with postings in Copenhagen, Shanghai and Istanbul.

“Despite loving the United States, I’ve always wanted to get out and see more of the world, but I think my military service definitely enlightened me on the daunting experience of travelling to countries with completely different cultures,” said Berge, who is a junior majoring in electrical engineering and minoring in physics and Chinese. He’ll be studying at National Taiwan University’s International Chinese Language Program in Taipei.

The Gilman program provides grants of up to $5,000.

Derek Miltimore will excavate an archeological site in Macedonia this summer.

Miltimore said that without the funding, he might have been able to pay for his program in Macedonia, “but I would have starved once I got there.”

"I could have paid for the ticket, but I would have shown up empty-handed for everything else,” he said.

Miltimore, an anthropology senior from Gilbert, will be working on the archeological excavation of a Roman palace, surveying the site using drone and laser technology and specializing in photogrammetry model-making.

Callan Gillette, a junior mechanical engineering major at ASU, took a big chance on his plans to study abroad. He was accepted into a program based at the University of Ghana, and the withdrawal date was before he found out whether he won a Gilman scholarship.

“If I hadn't gotten it, I would have had to take out a student loan to pay for the trip, so I'm incredibly grateful,” said Gillette, who’s from Chandler. He intentionally picked a program outside his major, so he is taking courses in politics, history and culture, after which he’ll intern at an engineering firm that focuses on agriculture in Africa.

“So I will have three weeks learning about Ghana and developing cross-cultural skills and then four weeks implementing those skills in a professional environment,” Gillette said.

Kyle Mox, director of the Lorraine W. Frank Office of National Scholarships Advisement at ASU, said that while some of the very elite scholarships, such as the Rhodes and Marshall, have very low acceptance rates, about a third of applicants to Gilman win the award.

“This is one of those programs that has ASU written all over it because it’s about inclusion and global engagement — things ASU is really known for,” Mox said.

The Office of National Scholarships Advisement is housed in Barrett, the Honors College, although only eight of the 20 Gilman winners are in Barrett, and Goehner encourages all eligible students to apply.

Goehner said the office has stepped up its outreach and has been collaborating with ASU’s Study Abroad Office to get more applications. Unfortunately, only about a third of students who start the application process actually finish it.

“That’s a statistic we’re dying to change, so we’re targeting those students,” he said. “If we could get more of them to finish, I’m convinced that ASU would have more than (20) Gilmans.”

The Gilman doesn’t require letters of recommendation or interviews, but success depends heavily on the written statement of purpose. So ASU’s Office of National Scholarships Advisement started writing workshops for applicants, said Goehner, who served as a judge last year.

“I saw what Gilman is looking for, and that was a game-changer,” he said.

Besides Berge, Finnell, Gillette, Miltimore and Roose, the other ASU students who won Gilman scholarships, their majors and destinations are: Khushbu Ahir, global health, Guatemala; Glenn Bascon, molecular bioscience, Tanzania; Michael Corder, biology, Peru; Esteisy Gutierrez, community health, Peru; Kelsie Hammitt, health sciences, Tanzania; Joshua Hsu, biomedical engineering, Singapore; Breanna Jeter, global health, India; Nahti Keo, chemical engineering, Taiwan; Sophia Le, biochemistry, Nicaragua; Mulki Mehari, global health, Guatemala; Peter Ole-Sabay, global health, Tanzania; Thu-Phuong Nguyen, biochemistry, South Korea; Dominique Reichenbach, global studies, China; Tyler Robbins, global health, Guatemala; Hector Trujillo, biological sciences and global health, India.

Early applications for summer 2018 Gilman scholarships open in mid-August; find more information here. For students at a four-year institution like ASU, students must be either enrolled in or applying to a program at least four weeks long in a single country. The Study Abroad Office offers numerous programs throughout the year to meet with Gilman's eligibility criteria; visit the Study Abroad Office website to apply.

In addition, if students are not awarded the Gilman scholarship, they can still apply for funding through the Study Abroad Office. Similarly to the Gilman, the Study Abroad Travel Grant and the Diversity Scholarships are to encourage participation from students who may not have otherwise considered studying abroad.

Visit ASU’s Lorraine W. Frank Office of National Scholarships Advisement at ASU here

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now