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Young African leaders learn about successes, challenges of solving problems in America

Young African leaders find innovation during fellowship at ASU.
July 25, 2017

ASU hosts 50 Mandela Fellows in 6-week State Department program

A group of young African leaders has been visiting Arizona to learn how American institutions collaborate to solve problems — and also how sometimes they fail.

Arizona State University is among several universities that are hosting the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, an intensive six-week program of academic work and community service. This is the fourth year of the fellowship program, begun in 2014 as the main part of the Young African Leaders Initiative in the U.S. Department of State. The 50 fellows at ASU are from 28 countries in Africa and are in one of two study cohorts: civic leadership and public management.

“It’s eye-opening for them to see the continuing issues we’re dealing with in the U.S.,” according to Alberto Olivas, the academic director for the civic leadership group. Olivas is executive director of the Congressman Ed Pastor Center for Politics and Public Service in the College of Public Service and Community Solutions at ASU, which is hosting the program.

“A lot of them are surprised that we’re as frank as we are about the challenges we’re still dealing with in terms of racism. Homelessness as an issue has been very surprising for them,” he said.

“It’s good for them to see that not everything is perfect in America, but here’s what we’re working on and here’s what we’ve learned so far in confronting these issues of race and class and historical conflicts,” Olivas said.

The fellows are between the ages of 25 and 35 and are selected based on their accomplishments in their home countries. Many own their own businesses, lead nonprofit organizations or teach. While here, each scholar develops a project that he or she can implement back in the home community. They also learn practical skills, such as marketing strategies and the best way to write a grant application.

Video by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Labran Alio Maidoukia is a fire captain in charge of security at a uranium processing plant in Niger, a French-speaking country in west Africa.

“Uranium is like our bank account. So I’m in charge of the safety of our bank account,” he said.

Maidoukia was hired by the United Nations to work with other countries in Africa on developing a response plan for terrorist attacks.

“I am a fire captain, so I don’t have public management and policy skills. That’s what I’m looking for here,” he said.

The fellows are meeting with several community organizations including the Tucson Urban League, Ability 360 and Native American Connections.

“The Tucson Urban League CEO was very frank and open with them about the struggles the organization has had and her efforts to turn around the organization to be on more solid footing,” Olivas said. “It was very practical for them, and they asked a lot of questions.”

The fellows have also had fun. The group has visited the Grand Canyon, Kartchner Caverns, the Musical Instrument Museum and an adventure course in Flagstaff.

Shaakira Chohan, who is an architect in Johannesburg, South Africa, said the rope course taught her a lesson about leadership.

“I’m an active person, and I like the outdoors. I took it for granted that it was something everyone would be excited to do,” she said. “Then I saw firsthand that some people were genuinely scared. So instead of moving quickly through the course, I realized that it was a role I could play to help people use their bodies to move forward, so it became about teamwork.”

The brutal summer heat has been challenging for some of the scholars. Chohan said that as an architect, she was surprised by Phoenix.

“It’s a desert climate but yet as I walk around the city, I haven’t seen a particularly responsive design, with elements like shading. Why is there so much tarmac?” she said.

“I’m looking to learn how we increase effective community participation in our design so it doesn’t happen from the top down but is reflective of the culture.” 

Olivas said that he has had to gather a lot of local expertise in his role as academic director.

“It’s been a rediscovery of how rich this community is in expertise and talent and heart, and it’s been an opportunity to create new networks of mutual support within ASU and local institutions,” he said.

“And having the Mandela program here gives our community leaders an opportunity to have a global impact by sharing what they know.”

Top photo: Simphiwe Petunia Dube, a Mandela fellow from Swaziland, makes her way across a ropes course during a leadership training exercise at Flagstaff Extreme Adventure Course on June 26. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now

480-727-4503

 
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Massive star's dying blast caught by rapid-response telescopes

July 26, 2017

Blast of gamma rays is helping astronomers resolve long-standing questions about universe's most powerful explosions

In June 2016, an international team of 31 astronomers, led by the University of Maryland's Eleanora Troja and including Arizona State University's Nathaniel Butler, caught a massive star as it died in a titanic explosion deep in space. 

The blast of the dying star released in about 40 seconds as much energy as the sun releases over its entire lifetime, all focused into a tight beam of gamma rays aimed by chance toward Earth.

The team's findings, reported in the scientific journal Nature, provide strong evidence for one of two competing models for how gamma-ray bursters (GRBs) produce their energy. 

"These are the brightest explosions in the universe," said Butler, an associate professor in ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration. "And we were able to measure this one's development and decay almost from the initial blast."

Quick reflexes

The gamma-ray blast on June 25, 2016, was detected by two NASA satellites that monitor the sky for such events, the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope and the Swift Gamma-Ray Burst Mission.

The satellite observatories detected the burst of gamma rays, identified where in the sky it came from, and sent its celestial position within seconds to automated telescopes on the ground.

The MASTER-IRC telescope at the Teide Observatory in the Canary Islands observed it first, within a minute of the satellite notification. The telescope is part of Russia's MASTER network of robotic telescopes at the Teide Observatory. It made optical light observations while the initial phase was still active, gathering data on the amount of polarized optical light relative to the total light produced.

After the sun set over this facility eight and a half hours later, the RATIR camera in which ASU is involved began observing. RATIR stands for Reionization And Transients InfraRed camera; it is mounted on a 1.5-meter (60-inch) robotically controlled telescope located on San Pedro Mártir Peak, at Mexico's National Astronomical Observatory in Baja California. Butler is the principal investigator for the fully automated camera.


The RATIR camera, directed from ASU, is mounted on on an automatically controlled telescope at Mexico's National Astronomical Observatory. RATIR allows astronomers to follow up (within a minute or two) on rapidly changing celestial events, such as gamma-ray bursters. Photo by Nathaniel Butler/ASU

"At best, it takes a minute or two for our telescope to slew to the burst's position," Butler said. "In this case, we had to wait for it to rise over the horizon. This means the gamma-ray burst itself had ended, and we were observing what's called the afterglow. This is the fading explosion as the radiation shocks up the interstellar medium around the star that exploded.

"The RATIR camera lets us take simultaneous images in six colors, two optical and four near-infrared. Over the past five years, RATIR has imaged 155 gamma-ray bursts."

Mystery beams of energy

While gamma-ray bursters have been known for about 50 years, astronomers are still mostly in the dark about how they erupt.

"Despite a long history of observations," Butler said, "the emission mechanism driving gamma-ray bursters remains largely mysterious."

Gamma-ray bursts are detected approximately once per day and are brief, but intense, flashes of gamma radiation. They come from all different directions in the sky, and they last from tens of milliseconds to about a minute, making it hard to observe them in detail.

Astronomers believe most of these explosions are associated with supernovas. These occur when a massive star reaches the end of its normal existence and blows up in a colossal explosion. A supernova throws off some of the star's outer layers, while its core and remaining layers collapse in a few seconds into a neutron star or, in the case of highly massive stars, a black hole.

Above: The RATIR camera captured the fading afterglow (arrow) of the June 2016 gamma-ray burster in this sequence running from June 26 through Aug. 20, 2016. Images by Nathaniel Butler/ASU

Continued RATIR observations over weeks following the June 2016 outburst showed that the gamma rays were shot out in a beam about two degrees wide, or roughly four times the apparent size of the moon. It was sheer chance that Earth happened to lie within the beam.

Beaming effects, Butler said, may result from the spin of the black hole produced after the supernova explosion, as it releases material along its poles.

Magnetic focus

"We think the gamma-ray emission is due to highly energetic electrons, propelled outward like a fireball,” Butler said. Magnetic fields must also be present, he added, and theories differ as to how the fields are produced and to what extent the flow of magnetic energy outward is important.

A key diagnostic is measuring the radiation's polarization, he explained. This, astronomers think, is largely controlled by the strength of the magnetic fields that focus the radiation.

"Measuring the strength of magnetic fields by their polarization effects can tell us about the mechanisms that accelerate particles such as electrons up to very high energies and cause them to radiate at gamma-ray energies," Butler said.

In the case of the June 2016 blast, the scientists were able to measure polarization using MASTER within minutes, an unprecedented early discovery. The large amount of polarization the team observed indicates that powerful magnetic fields were confining and directing it. This lends support for the magnetic origin model for gamma-ray bursters.

Although gamma-ray bursters have many more mysteries to be unfolded, Butler said, "this is the first strong evidence that the early shocks generated by these bursts are magnetically driven."


The RATIR camera, seen here mounted on the back end of the telescope, is stabilized with struts to assure correct alignment with the telescope when the whole assembly rapidly slews to lock onto a new target. Pictured is Alex Farah, mechanical engineer at the observatory. Photo by Alan Watson/UNAM

Top photo: This image shows the most common type of gamma-ray burst, thought to occur when a massive star collapses, forms a black hole and blasts particle jets outward at nearly the speed of light. Image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Robert Burnham

Science writer , School of Earth and Space Exploration

480-458-8207