ASU applied behavior analysis program is booming


May 10, 2018

Though it began only three years ago, the Master of Science in applied behavior analysis (MS ABA) program in the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University is thriving.

The MS ABA program was founded in partnership with local behavior analysis professionals and uses an innovative curriculum that extends beyond the boundaries of ASU’s campus. ASU Department of Psychology MSABA Program Members of the master’s of science in applied behavior analysis (MS ABA) program in the Department of Psychology. Download Full Image

“We are recognized by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board as a Verified Course Sequence, and practicum hours are embedded into our curriculum,” said Adam Hahs, program director and clinical assistant professor of psychology. “Our program produces behavior analysts who are ready to enter the field and make an immediate impact.”

So far, the MS ABA program’s passing rate for the behavior analysis certification exam exceeds the national average by almost 25 percent. The placement rate for graduates of the program is 100 percent. In the recent graduating class, three students were accepted to doctoral programs in behavior analysis or related fields, and the remaining 15 students acquired jobs in behavior analysis in and out of Arizona.

The program’s success is supported by many community-based partners throughout the state. The partners provide opportunities for in-the-field training for the students.

In a few weeks, current MS ABA students will present their research at the annual meeting of the Association of Behavior Analysis International in San Diego. The students submitted a summary of their study and were chosen to participate in a symposium or present a poster.

“I will be presenting my research project about data-based decision-making in a symposium at the ABAI conference,” said Liz Singer, a second-year MS ABA student who plans to pursue her doctoral degree after graduating from the program. “In my field, working with children with developmental disabilities, data-based decision-making means using the learner’s data on a daily basis to make important program decisions that foster the most conducive learning environment for the child.”

Singer worked with MS ABA faculty member Don Stenhoff on her project. Another research project of Singer’s, which looked at staff involvement with students during recess at a special education school, will be presented by a first-year MS ABA student at the ABAI conference.

In addition to the successes of the MS ABA students, the program faculty are also garnering attention.

Stenhoff appointed to state committee

Stenhoff, clinical assistant professor of psychology, was appointed by the governor to a four-year term on the Arizona Committee of Behavior Analysts. The committee reports to the Arizona Board of Psychologist Examiners, which oversees the licenses that allow psychologists and behavior analysts to practice in the state.

The process began over a year ago when Stenhoff was nominated by the Arizona Association for Behavior Analysis to be considered as a potential committee member and was appointed by the governor. He will serve a four-year term in the position.

“My role on the Committee of Behavior Analysts is an honor and also benefits the MS ABA program at ASU,” Stenhoff said. “Part of our curriculum focuses on ethical considerations, including licensing in the state. My relationship with the committee indirectly provides students with access to licensing and ethical issues they might face.”

Hahs elected president of Arizona Association for Behavior Analysis

Hahs was recently elected president of the Arizona Association for Behavior Analysis for a one-year term. The association has one of the highest membership rates in the country, as 80 percent of certified and licensed behavior analysts in the state are members. Hahs said one way the association benefits the MS ABA students is by inviting experts in behavior analysis and related fields to speak to its members concerning topics relevant to the practice of behavior analysis in Arizona.

Science writer, Psychology Department

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Interdisciplinary research team breaks new ground with calcium


May 10, 2018

Pam Marshall, associate professor of genetics and cell biology, was part of an interdisciplinary team of researchers from Arizona State University and Columbus State University to publish new findings on calcium homeostasis in the April issue of Mathematical Biosciences.

The article, titled "Bifurcations and limit cycles in cytosolic yeast calcium," details the research into this fundamental cellular process in yeast, and the mathematical models used to describe the cellular response observed during the research process. Download Full Image

ASU's New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences spoke to Marshall for a deeper dive into what the research was and how it'll make an impact moving forward.

Question: What is important about calcium homeostasis? How does it impact our bodies and health?

Answer: Yeast is a well-known microorganism that lives in the immediate human environment, is part of our food preparation, bread and beer, but has also been for long time a model system where fundamental questions of biology can be studied. Yeast colonies are composed by a large number of individual yeast cells and can be naturally found in soil, plants and as animal and human parasites.

These colonies are able to survive and thrive in a wide variety of environments, some of them quite extreme, such as in very salty surroundings. The mechanisms by which these organisms are able to maintain acceptable internal conditions against external changes, homeostasis, is of course of great interest. The complex structure of these mechanisms can be more easily studied in yeast and other simple organisms, but the results are often applicable to human health. The inner workings of cardiac cells have much in common with the ways in which yeast controls its internal environment. We seek a deeper understanding of yeast’s calcium homeostasis as a way to unlock knowledge about our own bodies and as a way to create new industrial processes where yeast and similar organisms play a role.

Q: What were your findings? Why are they important?

A: Our research has as a key goal to understand the dynamic features of calcium homeostasis. After a disturbance in their environment, such as a steep increase in the surrounding calcium concentration, an organism will eventually adapt to it, but the process is not immediate. Furthermore, sometimes the organisms can respond not in a single way and might eventually reach one of many different stable states; that is, their response might exhibit a bifurcation. Under other specific conditions the response might show oscillations, switching back and forth between different conditions and not settling in one of them. To observe and predict the presence of bifurcations and oscillations is always a striking result and an important and direct way to verify our understanding of a system. Knowing when these features appear also opens the possibility of creating control mechanisms: in medical applications we would like to find ways to ensure that we reach a desired final target state.

What this particular work has achieved is the integration of three different methods of research towards the goal of understanding calcium homeostasis.

1. Experimental work where the calcium intake of a group of yeast cells is measured.

2. Mathematical modeling that, using known properties of the yeast predicts the possible presence of bifurcations and oscillations.

3. Physical modeling that bridges the single-cell level predictions of the mathematical models with the averages for whole populations observed in the experiments.

The mathematical model we used does in fact predict the presence of the special features of bifurcations and oscillations in the yeast response. Our physical modeling indicated that the bifurcations would be observable as strong changes in the average response of the yeast against exposures to ever larger calcium concentrations in the environment. Finally, we confirmed that such changes were observed in the actual experiments.

Q: How will your findings impact future research?

A: One of the most important aspects of this work is the avenues it opens for future investigations. We are currently exploring many avenues of research based on these first results. We are exploring new experimental methods that would better reveal the details of the approach to equilibrium. We are looking at refinements of the mathematical models that would better capture the nature of the processes.

Q: Tell us more about the interdisciplinary nature of the research.

A: An exciting aspect of this project was that it required the collaboration of three members of the faculty of School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences. I am a biologist with expertise in yeast who, along with a group of my students carried out the experiments at the core of the project. Haiyan Wang is a mathematician who along with an external collaborator, Guihong Fan, now at Columbus State University in Alabama, carried out the mathematical analysis of the model and established the presence, within the model, of both bifurcations and oscillations. Francisco J. Solis, a physicist, integrated the mathematical and the biological work and analyzed the experimental results in light of the mathematical findings.

View the full research article.