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New faculty broadening range of expertise and experience at ASU

October 9, 2018

School for the Future of Innovation in Society welcomes 4 new faculty members with varied backgrounds

The School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University welcomes four new faculty members this semester whose varied backgrounds will expand the expertise, research interests and academic offerings of the school. Get to know the newest members of the team.

Timiebi Aganaba-Jeanty portrait

Timiebi Aganaba-Jeanty

Assistant professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society with a courtesy appointment at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law

Timiebi Aganaba-Jeanty is an expert on all things space law. When she was 15, her father took her to the NASA Space Center in Houston — where she decided she wasn’t a space geek at all. In fact, she found all that space stuff rather boring. But that all changed when she went to Nigeria for law school. After finishing their degrees, graduates must complete one year of service for the country at an organization that is randomly assigned, and by chance, Aganaba-Jeanty was posted at the Nigerian Space Agency.

“It was exciting because I got to be a part of Nigeria’s nearly brand new Department of Space Law,” she said. “While working there, I realized that this was a really cool topic, and I’d like to do further study on this.”

Aganaba-Jeanty’s research explores participation mechanisms for global space governance and environmental governance. Her goal is to find ways to account for different perspectives and the participation of diverse actors in decision making. “(Theoretically), there’s no sovereignty in space. If there’s no sovereignty in space, no one is more important than anyone else. But, clearly, there is a power dynamic because you have the NASAs of the world who can spend $20 billion a year, but the Nigerian Space Agency is working with a budget of less than $100 million,” she said. “I look at this in the context of space by looking at how non-classic actors can participate in space exploration, and particularly, what does it mean to be an aspirant space actor? How are such actors integrated into the space exploration endeavor?”

Before coming to School for the Future of Innovation in Society, Aganaba-Jeanty worked for the Canadian Space Agency while she was a PhD candidate at the Institute of Air and Space Law at McGill University. She also served as executive director for World Space Week, associate chair of the Space Policy, Law and Economics Department at the International Space University in Cork, Ireland, and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation. In 2017, she was the recipient of a Space Leaders Award by the International Astronautical Federation and her doctoral research received the George and Ann Robinson Award for advanced research capabilities.

When asked what impact she wanted to have on the world, she said, “I think that there is so much out there ... to make us feel like we can’t do things, that we shouldn’t put ourselves out there. We’re so scared of the ramifications of putting our hands up and having an opinion,” she said. “But you should act the way you want to be, not necessarily the way you feel that you are. The biggest thing that I want to do is really show people what’s possible.”

Kirk Jalbert portrait

Kirk Jalbert

Assistant professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society with a joint appointment in the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering 

“You can’t understand complicated issues from a one-dimensional view,” said Kirk Jalbert, who likens himself to a utility player on a baseball team: trained in a variety of disciplines and acting as a “boundary bridger” between different areas of research.

“The majority of the projects that I’ve worked on in the last five years have been because the phone rings, and somebody says, ‘Hey, I’ve got this really interesting problem, what do you think about it?’ And then I say, 'Well, I don’t know, let me look into it!'” he said. “People don’t generally go looking for help unless they haven’t been able to find answers elsewhere, and that to me signals that there’s a really interesting place for research.”

Jalbert attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute where he got his PhD in science and technology studies. It was there that he first became interested in citizen science and the maker movement. Specifically, he wanted to learn more about what it meant that people were making new technologies in an attempt to improve the way that these things worked.

“I realized that the maker movement is critiquing the standard ways in which we build technology,” he said. “And this interest led me into becoming part of a study on citizen science, water monitoring and hydraulic fracking.”

After that, Jalbert worked in the nonprofit sector with FracTracker Alliance. There, he helped with facilitating data gathering and transparency projects in partnership with concerned citizen groups, making sense of their relationships with the energy industry — particularly in the context of debates about the impacts of shale gas extraction and proposed pipeline projects.

However, Jalbert says he always knew he would find his way back into academia.

“I knew I wanted to go back into an academic community, it just needed to be the right one,” he said. “Some of my colleagues were in institutions that didn’t value applied interventionary research, working with community partners, or felt that they shouldn’t work on things that were potentially sensitive subjects, so I had to find a place that would let me do all of those things.”

He says he found that place here at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society. Now, he is excited to be able to use the wealth of resources, skill sets and collaborative efforts that ASU offers to help solve problems within the communities he works with.

Katina Michael portrait

Katina Michael

Professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering 

Katina Michael discovered something important when she started walking.

“Everything happens in a flash, life happens in a flash. If we don’t stop this quick way of living, then we’re on this treadmill of constant flashes,” she said. “But if you stop and just walk — without headphones, without your cell phone — you hear people and see people. The risk of looking up and engaging with the world means that you might have to face the problem.”

This idea of foregoing our comforts and our technologies in favor of slowing down and reflecting on life is the cornerstone of Michael’s work: “We’re giving over control, to some degree, to the technology. And in doing so, we’re not developing the self. Technology can sometimes be used as an excuse to ignore the inward process of human development.”

She researches predominantly in the area of emerging technologies and has secondary interests in technologies used for national security and their corresponding social implications. Like many of her colleagues at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, Michael realizes the importance of examining the risks and potential consequences of emerging technology and science.

She has held visiting academic appointments at Nanjing University in China and the University of Southampton in the U.K. and has taught at the Singapore Institute of Management, as well as overseeing University of Wollongong in Australia engineering and information science courses in eight campuses in five countries. In 2017, Michael was awarded the Brian M. O’Connell Distinguished Service Award from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Society for the Social Implications of Technology. She is the founding editor-in-chief of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Transactions on Technology and Society, which will be launched in 2020.

Before finding her way to the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, Michael served as associate dean international at the University of Wollongong, where she was employed in the faculty of engineering and information sciences.

As for why she decided to pack up and move to the States to join the faculty at SFIS, she said: “I think I was always meant to be here. I grew up in Tempe, New South Wales,” she laughed. “But aside from that, it was the people here. And I’d been in Wollongong working at the same campus for 17 years, so for me to leave, it had to be something really special.” 

Christy Spackman portrait

Christy Spackman

Assistant professor, jointly appointed between the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, and the Arts, Media, and Engineering Departments 

A dish from a world-renowned, three-Michelin-star restaurant and a bowl of Kraft mac and cheese have a lot more in common than one might think. So Christy Spackman wants to know: Why do people spend hundreds of dollars at high-end restaurants to eat weird, elaborate dishes like parmesan marshmallows or melon caviar, but turn their nose up at mass-produced cheese pasta product, which uses similar techniques of molecular gastronomy to create?

“I think about the ways that the body’s smell or taste functions in the world, how technology and science are always shaping those information streams and what that means for our relationships with each other and with the environment,” she said. “We’ve had this huge increase in the scientific ability to identify and subsequently mask flavors and odors. How has that shifted our relationship with the environment if we’re no longer aware of the tastes and odors of our food? I’m really interested in these forms of sensory ignorance vs sensory knowledge and how that acts on our lives.”

Before finding her place here at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, Spackman got her PhD in food studies from the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, and has worked with companies such as Kraft Foods, Fine & Raw Chocolate Factory, University of Chicago Medical Center and Eau de Paris on product development, nutrition and health research and marketing and communication as well as offering consulting advice to food startups. She also attended culinary school, where she discovered her deep love for food science.

When asked why she chose to teach and conduct her research here at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, she cited the interdisciplinary nature of the program. As someone who considers her background to be rather “convoluted”, Spackman says it was refreshing to find a place where her history and interests are celebrated.

“Someone here at ASU had told me, ‘Coming here is like having someone strap a rocket booster to your back. You can do anything … the problem is they forgot to give you the stop button,’” she laughed. 

Written by Madelyn Nelsen

Top photo: New faculty members (from left) Katina Michael, Kirk Jalbert, Timiebi Aganaba-Jeanty and Christy Spackman.

Ants invented agriculture long before humans started watching 'ant farms'

Research discovers a 50 million-year history of fungus cultivation and antibiotic pest management


October 9, 2018

About 50 years ago, the first ant farms took off in popular culture, turning children into backyard scientists.

Turns out, a child’s natural curiosity would prove right: We could learn a thing or two about the world from studying ants. A fungus-farming ant is covered in white symbiotic bacteria, which the ant relies on to produce antibiotics to protect its garden from a parasitic fungus. Photo by Alex Wild Download Full Image

Now, a team of scientists has shown that the invention of agriculture — by ants — happened some 50 million years ago. "Ant farmers" used the world’s first pest-control management in the form of antibiotics.

“Less than a century ago, humans learned to employ antibiotics for medicinal purposes, whereas ants have been using antibiotic secretions from bacteria to manage their fungus gardens for millions of years,” said Christian Rabeling, an assistant professor in the School of Life Sciences within Arizona State University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.  

The study appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and was a result of a collaboration between ASU, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Smithsonian Institution, Harvard Medical School and the University of Sao Paulo.

Ants go marching two by two

The story begins in the New World, where 60 million years ago, a new group of ants, the fungus-growing or attine ants, emerged from the tropical rainforests of South America.

Attine ants love mushrooms, making them their sole crop to cultivate and care for. But like humans, ant farmers faced the threat of pests in the form of fungal parasites that could wipe out their harvests.

So, not long afterwards, the ants began marching in step with a symbiotic bacterium, called actinobacteria, that grows in clumps of stringy white patches on the ants’ exoskeletons in special, deep pockets. These pockets, known as crypts, could provide a home for the actinobacteria while the ants could use their antibiotics to spread on and protect their rich mushroom crops.

“The interdependence between ants, fungi and bacteria seems to be very strong, and in this study, we show that the ants repeatedly evolved special pockets on their bodies, so-called integumental crypts, that allow for keeping and feeding these antibiotic-producing microbes,” Rabeling said. “Considering that providing these crypts and nourishment to the bacteria is costly to the ants, we think that the benefit the bacterial antibiotics provide for the ant-fungus mutualism must be significant.”

Today, actinobacteria are the leading source of antibiotics in medicine, but 50 million years ago, ants figured out that by letting bacteria live on their bodies, they could protect their crops.

A beautiful friendship

Using new DNA data from a special ASU and Smithsonian collection of 69 ant species, the scientists traced back in time and found that the relationship was so important, it evolved three separate times in fungus-farming attine ant species.

“The crypts present on the ant's integument appear to be the key evolutionary innovation that allowed ants to acquire and host antibiotic-producing bacteria,” said postdoctoral researcher Jeffrey Sosa-Calvo, who helped reconstruct the ants’ evolutionary tree from field collections in far-flung Central and South American locations. “These bacteria have helped the ants to maintain their mutualistic association with their fungal cultivar for millions of years.”

Ant species who aren’t farmers lack these structures.

“This work provides fascinating insights into an animal using bacteria to provide antibiotics over a long period of time,” said Cameron Currie, a UW-Madison professor of bacteriology who has researched the dynamics of farming ants for decades.

Further evidence for the ancient origin of the ant-bacteria relationship came from a handful of fungus-farming ants fortuitously frozen in amber from what is now the Dominican Republic. Through the hardened tree sap, the researchers could spot the telltale signs of bacteria clinging to the ants’ bodies. With the amber dated to between 15 million and 20 million years old, the research team could validate their genomic data and show that the ant-bacteria symbiosis was at least as old as the amber samples.

But the crypts were not ubiquitous. Some species have lost any obvious structures for supporting bacteria. The researchers showed that ants that have done away with crypts have also lost any trace of symbiotic actinobacteria.

Putting the 'ant' into antibiotics

Some 10,000 years ago, humans first mimicked the ants’ farming lifestyle. Later, in the 20th century, people turned to actinobacteria for most clinical antibiotics. That the ants have, for millions of years, used similar antibiotics to protect their fungal gardens from pests suggests that we still might learn from their success.

Perhaps the ants may know best how to use their precious antibiotics to prevent the rise of antibiotic resistance — which has never occurred in ant colonies.

“I strongly believe there are mechanisms here that reduce the emergence of antibiotic resistance,” Currie said.

“I am always amazed by the complex symbioses that ants form with other organisms,” Rabeling said.  “It will be exciting to study the interactions of fungus-growing ants with the highly diverse array of microbes in greater detail.”

Discovering what those mechanisms are might just help us extend the useful life of our own antibiotics.

This study was funded by the National Institutes of Health (grants U19 TW009872-05, U19 AI109673, and DMR-1720415), the National Science Foundation (grants DEB 1456964 and 1654829), and the Sao Paulo Research Foundation-FAPESP (grant 2013/50954-0).

Joe Caspermeyer

Manager (natural sciences), Media Relations & Strategic Communications

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