Q&A on the value of science in society

November 20, 2017

As he approached his 40th birthday, ASU chief research and innovation officer Sethuraman “Panch” PanchanathanPanchanathan is also the executive vice president of Knowledge Enterprise Development. asked himself a question: “How do I want to spend the rest of my life?”

His recent election as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science clearly illustrates the answer he came up with — advancing science for the benefit of society and empowering students to design the solutions they want to see in the world. Sethuraman Panchanathan is the founder and director of CUbiC Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan (standing) is the director for the Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing. CUbiC an interdisciplinary research center focused on cutting-edge research in human-centered multimedia computing focusing on assistive, rehabilitative and health-care applications. Here, Panchanathan works with CUbiC Associate Director Troy McDaniel. Download Full Image

Here, he shares the importance of science in everyday life, his advice for students and his thoughts about the future.

Question: Why is science important to society?

Answer: If you look at any of the grand challenge problems that we need to solve for society — from providing clean water and addressing poverty to thinking about the kind of planet that we want to leave for future generations — all these solutions necessitate a scientific approach. And by that I mean, the broadest form of science, how we understand the world around us. In other words, for me science is exceedingly important if you want to address societal problems in a constructive and an outcome-oriented way.

Q: Is advancing science and innovation in society something you set out to do, or did it evolve over your career?

A: Initially I was very curious about basic science and I wanted to equip myself with the knowledge, mind-set, thought process and the tools to be able to work in a scientific domain. Personally, I started with an undergraduate degree in physics and then went on to pursue electrical engineering, computer engineering and computer science. I have found that this journey of learning has been extremely valuable to me.

But then at some point in time you also have to ask the question, “Of all of these things that you have explored, how can it benefit humanity?” And so that question was what motivated me to build tools and technologies, devices, solutions and environments for assisting individuals with disabilities. This pivot happened at a particular time, but the thought process was probably an evolution.

Q: Can you tell me when that pivot was in your career?

A: It was when I was 39 years old, I was entering my 40th year, and I said, “What do I want to do with the rest of my life?” And that was the moment. You know when people say midlife crisis? For me it was a midlife opportunity, not a crisis.

Q: What do you see as the most pressing scientific challenge of the future? 

A: To me the grand challenge is contextualizing science and its importance to all of society. It is enabling people to see science as exceedingly important in everyday life and that it relates to them; it's not something external to them. An associated challenge, therefore, is maintaining an interest in science beyond STEM. Because if you see that science matters to you on a daily basis, that it is a tool that enables you to better humanity with, then you will want to know more.

Q: What role do you want to have in addressing those challenges?

A: First, I want to do my own scientific work to keep me inspired and continue to be curious. Next I want to enable the advancement of science, which is the current role that I have at ASU, encouraging the scientific spirit to permeate, prosper and advance. I love this role that I have, which allows me to do that. And then I would love to go out and talk about science to inspire young minds. Finally, I want to be engaged in venues like the National Science Board where you can contribute to policies that advance science. All of this is important to me.

Q: Has there been an accomplishment that you are particularly proud of, either individually or as part of your lab or an initiative at ASU?

A: The thing that I'm most proud of is being able to work with students with disabilities and see them achieve like any other student, or more in fact. My former student David Hayden, who created the Note-Taker technology, is a good illustration of this. It is most exciting when you are able to unleash the potential in people, despite whatever challenges they may face, whether it is because of family situation, physical disabilities or other kinds of impediments that they might face. And that's why being in a university like ASU is exciting.

Q: Technology is really changing the nature of work that people do and how we do work. How do the challenges that you are working on address that future of work?

A: What I have found is that we have come to a point where people feel worried or threatened by technology. With my own work at the interface of technology and humans working together in a symbiotic manner, I see that technology actually can enhance the human experience. And to me that is a very powerful thing. I therefore see the future of work is promising at the interface of the human and technology.

Q: And this gets back to communicating and demonstrating the importance of science in people’s everyday lives. When something is “other” it can be scary and fearful.

A: Correct. It's got to be part of what they see and experience and even be a part of their everyday life — understood and relatable. When this happens, then they will feel more excited to be part of this transformation.

Q: What advice would you give to today’s STEM students?

A: Keep an open mind. Engage your curiosity to know more about science. You might still decide to pursue something else, but you will not feel that science is unapproachable. What I want all students to feel is empowered and excited to pursue science or have an appreciation for the scientific spirit. In order to get to that point you have to engage. You have to experiment and you have to experience. If you stay out of it, you'll never get that spark ignited.

Q: It sounds like you're saying STEM isn't just for a particular set of students — that it's something that can be accessible to everyone. Even if STEM doesn't happen to be your career path you can still have interest or knowledge of it.

A: Yes. What people might not understand is that even if you're a lawyer or a philosopher, the fact that you have a scientific spirit will allow you to contribute to society one way or the other. A scientific mind-set, when cultivated, will manifest itself in different forms. Whether or not you are a scientist is not the point.

Q: How important is it that researchers have a transdisciplinary approach to problems?

A: It is important to have a transdisciplinary mind-set to solve grand-challenge problems. Whether transdisciplinary research is at the core of what you do or you simply have an appreciation for the transdisciplinary mind-set, you will still contribute to finding real solutions.

Q: That seems to mirror how ASU has been designed. We still have the traditional disciplines, English for example, but it's very open.

A: Correct. It's very open. You can engage with and gain a sense of appreciation for other disciplines. At ASU, you are not constrained by the barriers, but you are empowered by the opportunity.

Q: What was your reaction upon receiving news of your election as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science?

A: I am very grateful for the award. Along the way, in your career you are recognized for accomplishments. I believe that these are not just a manifestation of what you have done alone but recognition of the collective spirit that has contributed. You never do anything individually. You stand on the shoulders of so many people that have lifted you up. By this I mean mentors, colleagues, students and the environment who have made this all possible.

Kelsey Wharton

Science Writer, Knowledge Enterprise Development

ASU alumna changing the beverage game with 'Hint' water

November 20, 2017

Arizona State University alumna Kara Goldin has been taking the corporate world by storm as founder and CEO of Hint, Inc., a lifestyle consumer packaged goods company focused on pure, wholesome water.

“Hint is the leading unsweetened flavored water in the U.S.,” said Goldin, who launched the company in response to the growing number of unhealthy beverages with lots of sugar, diet sweeteners and other additives. “We’ve really helped a lot of people enjoy water and understand that even if you can’t get through plain water, you can drink a product like Hint, which helps you to get off of sweeteners.” Arizona State University alumna Kara Goldin Arizona State University alumna Kara Goldin Download Full Image

Goldin originally wanted to study finance at ASU’s W. P. Carey School of Business. However, she switched to a minor and pursued a Bachelor of Arts in communication from the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, a unit in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, in 1989.

“While I enjoyed finance, I really felt like I was less interested in the number side and more interested in potentially being able to write about finance,” Goldin said. “I initially thought that by being able to communicate about business, in terms of written form rather than numerical form, then it would be exciting.”

After graduation, she worked at different companies such as Time Warner, CNN and AOL. While working at AOL for seven years, she ran the company’s shopping and ecommerce division where she grew its shopping business from startup to more than $1 billion in revenue.

“I left school and moved to New York,” Goldin said. “I ended up taking a job at Time Warner thinking I would eventually go and write, but it never ended up happening and instead I just enjoyed my career. It headed in the path I think it was meant to take.”

Goldin is currently the founder and CEO of Hint, Inc., which she started in 2005. She realized drinks with sweeteners, both natural and artificial, were hurting the health of consumers.

“I started the company when I realized Diet Coke was really bad for me,” said Goldin. “I started slicing up fruit and throwing it in water because I realized I was just never a water drinker. I really saw there were a lot of people, like me, who just didn’t drink plain water.”

Her company took off and has received numerous accolades, including “Best Flavored Water,” “Best Enhanced Water” and “Top 25 New Products.” 

“I realized in launching this drink, if I could just launch something so simple that gets people to enjoy water again, we can change health in America,” she said. “We are really trying to help people get healthier.”

Goldin herself has received many awards and titles. She was selected to be one of eleven women for Fortune’s 2011 "Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs," and one of Ernst and Young’s "Entrepreneurial Winning Women” in 2012. In 2015, Goldin was selected as winner of the Marketers That Matter award for Brand Building Small Company. The Huffington Post also named her as one of six disruptors in business alongside Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg.

During her time at ASU, Goldin worked hard to find her own work ethic and learned how to become a sufficient self-starter. Her ability to network and jump into a large crowd without fear is a skill she is proud the university taught her.

“You have to take control of your destiny,” Goldin said. “I think there are so many opportunities for you at ASU. You have to make sure you really take advantage of those things, but you also have to be focused and organized in order to do it.”

Goldin has been impressed by how much the university has grown and finds that people who are good at connecting have been able to make it possible. She encourages current students to go out and find motivation for themselves.

“I wasn’t sitting there trying to figure out who was going to come to the school to find me,” she said. “I went out and went to them and I think if you can make yourself stand out in that way, then that’s how you’ll separate yourself from the rest and be successful.”

Ultimately, Goldin hopes to enlighten people to make the world a better place for not only themselves, but for the next generation.

“I encourage people to think differently and not just add to the status quo,” Goldin said. “Instead, figure out how to make things better. If you’re constantly thinking that way, then you’ll live a happier and healthier life. You’ll feel like you’re contributing versus feeling like you’re just doing something somebody else did.”

Rachel Bunning

Communications program coordinator, School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies