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3 ASU professors named senior members of National Academy of Inventors

August 15, 2019

The National Academy of Inventors (NAI) has named Terry Alford, Devens Gust and Andreas Spanias as senior members for fostering a spirit of innovation at Arizona State University while educating and mentoring the next generation of inventors.

Alford and Spanias — faculty members in the ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering — and Gust of the School of Molecular Sciences are among the 54 academic inventors named to the spring 2019 class of NAI senior members. NAI senior members are active faculty, scientists and administrators from NAI member institutions who have demonstrated remarkable innovation producing technologies that have brought, or aspire to bring, real impact on the welfare of society. Senior members have proven success in patents, licensing and commercialization.

“Terry, Andreas and Devens have demonstrated a commendable commitment to not only driving innovation at ASU, but in championing work that has the potential to improve society at local, national and global scales,” says Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan, executive vice president of Knowledge Enterprise and chief research and innovation officer at ASU. “This is a richly deserved recognition for each of them.”

Fulton Schools of Engineering Dean Kyle Squires said Alford and Spanias’ efforts as inventors and innovators have supported ASU’s designation as one of the top 10 universities worldwide granted U.S. patents.

“Terry and Andreas’ elevation to senior members in the National Academy of Inventors is a well-deserved achievement for these dedicated members of our faculty,” said Squires. “The Fulton Schools has a strong record of innovation and creativity and it's through work like theirs that we’ve moved into a leadership position not only nationally but internationally.”

Innovating integrated circuits

, Associate Director of the School for Energy of Matter, Transport and Energy at Arizona State University

Terry Alford

Alford holds 10 U.S. patents and multiple invention disclosures. An expert in silver and copper metallization and low-k dielectrics for integrated circuit technologies, Alford is most proud of his patented work to develop a process for cladded silver alloy metallization to improve adhesion and electro-migration assistance.

His greatest achievements, however, lie in the successes of the students he mentors, many of whom have gone on to have successful careers as entrepreneurs and in academia and industry.

“I use generating patent disclosures as a venue to train graduate students — a way to encourage them to be entrepreneurs, scholars, tinkerers and intellectuals,” said Alford, who serves as the associate director of the School for Energy of Matter, Transport and Energy, one of the six schools in the Fulton Schools of Engineering, where he is a highly regarded mentor and teacher of materials science and engineering. “We use the curiosity inherent in research to address societal needs. I always tell my students, the whole premise of what we do not just to learn through concepts in the classroom or fund research, but to contribute to the knowledge base.”

Advancing photosynthetic technologies

Devens Gust

Gust is a Regents Professor Emeritus in the School of Molecular Sciences and a distinguished sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability. Gust is an expert in the field of photochemistry and artificial photosynthesis who has published over 300 scientific papers and holds 17 patents. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Institute of Physics in the U.K.

His expansive research in photosynthetic pigments and light conversion processes has propelled innovation in solar energy and chemical fuels. As the past director of ASU’s Energy Frontier Research Center for Bio-Inspired Solar Fuel Production, Gust fostered development of intellectual property, mentored thousands of young investigators and impacted students at all levels by illustrating how basic chemical principles have led to important practical discoveries.

"Fundamental research projects are usually begun to explore some interesting scientific question without regard to possible practical applications," says Gust. “However, if we keep our eyes open for potentially useful discoveries, it is surprising how often they come up during the course of an investigation."

Optimizing energy with machine learning

Andreas Spanias

Spanias holds nine U.S. patents and several provisional patents. A professor in the School of Electrical, Computing and Energy Engineering, Spanias has expertise in adaptive signal processing, sensor systems and speech and audio processing. Much of the research behind Spanias’ patents is conducted in the Sensor Signal and Information Processing (SenSIP) Center, the Industry-University Cooperative Research Center (I/UCRC) he directs with support from the National Science Foundation.

The most recent work of Spanias’ team uses machine learning to detect faults, predict shading and optimize energy output in solar systems. The sensor-related patents his team is developing will elevate energy efficiency and impact sustainability efforts in a positive way.  In addition, compact machine learning algorithms his team developed will provide companies the ability to use inexpensive sensors with enhanced fidelity in myriad technologies, such as cell phone sensing, health apps and autonomous vehicle applications.  

“The elevation to senior member is a great honor for the center and the lab and the students who contributed to all the patents,” said Spanias, who is also a fellow of the IEEE. “We appreciate the support of the Fulton Schools of Engineering, Skysong Innovations, the Office of the Vice President for Research, and especially that of our industry members, including Raytheon, NXP, Intel, Sprint and the four SBIR-sized member companies. The industry network we’ve developed through our NSF I/UCRC have been integral to our ability to perform application-oriented research.”


The NAI is a member organization made up of U.S. and international universities and government and nonprofit research institutes. Its purpose is to encourage inventors to share their products, mentor and educate students, and communicate its members’ inventions for the betterment of society.

ASU is one of NAI’s nine sustaining member institutions, with nine fellows to date. ASU launched its own NAI chapter in 2017 to promote invention and recognize innovation across the university, with 65 current members. ASU currently ranks among the top 10 universities worldwide for U.S. patents issued.

“NAI member institutions support some of the most elite innovators on the horizon. With the NAI senior member award distinction, we are recognizing innovators that are rising stars in their fields,” says Paul R. Sanberg, NAI president. “This new class is joining a prolific group of academic visionaries already defining tomorrow.”

Following a nomination for NAI Senior Member class, individuals undergo a rigorous selection process by the NAI Advisory Committee, composed of elected NAI members and other professionals considered pioneers in their respective field. 

Senior members are elected biannually, and nominations are accepted on a rolling basis. Nominations are currently being accepted for the third senior member class on the NAI website

A full list of NAI senior members is available on the NAI website.

ASU Knowledge Enterprise contributed to this article. 

Lanelle Strawder

Content & PR Manager, Communications , Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


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Professor couple speaks the language of humor

August 15, 2019

Don and Alleen Nilsen live their lives, both personal and professional, with laughter

If you walk with Don and Alleen Nilsen through the well-manicured retirement community where they reside in Tempe, you might take note of the lovely birds that flit to and fro, or the pleasant bouquet of citrus aromas before they nonchalantly point out the on-site medical building where they tell you they expect to take their last breaths.

“When we pass that big building, we tell our kids, ‘That’s where we’re gonna die,’” Alleen says with a smile, then imitates their vexed response: "'Oh, Mom, don’t say that! That’s creepy!'"

Don laughs, too. “It’s the truth,” he says.

“What is, is,” Alleen adds with a shrug.

This kind of matter-of-fact attitude only serves to make the couple, both professors emeritus of English at Arizona State University — who’ve been together for more than six decades — more endearing. To hear them tell it, life is but a series of often wildly unexpected incidents, best navigated with a good sense of humor.

The subject of humor has played a dominant role in their professional lives, serving as a major focus of their academic and teaching careers. Most recently, their co-authored book, “The Language of Humor: An Introduction,” was awarded the 2019 Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor Book Award and the pair received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor.

“There are educational benefits of humor, there are psychological benefits, there are social benefits,” Don said. “For one thing, it keeps your students awake. But another thing humor does, is it has double vision. It allows you to see things from two perspectives. And that's the beauty of humor. It gives you a broader perspective that allows for invention and discovery.”

Video by Ashley Sorensen/ASU Now

Don and Alleen met in a French class at Brigham Young University in the 1950s, and she was quickly taken with him.

“I’d been out with lots of dumb boys,” she said. “I wanted a smart boy, and he was so good at French.”

She made an effort to sit next to him in class, and over the course of the semester, a friendship blossomed. Then, when the day of the final exam came, he didn’t show up. Annoyed, Alleen sought Don out on campus and chided him for his absence only to be met with amusement.

“Oh, I didn’t need to take that class,” he told her. “I was just auditing it. I already learned French in the Army.”

By that time, the die was cast and the two soon became engaged, despite Alleen’s parents’ reticence regarding Don’s humble “farm boy” background.

“But we ended up as well as anybody,” Don said.

“Oh, heavens yes,” Alleen agreed.

Over the years, the Nilsens had three children who accompanied them on their travels as they taught in various locations across the country and the world, collecting a cache of rollicking anecdotes along the way.

There was the time early in their careers, in upstate New York, when their children were very young: They got 102 inches of snow and had to carry the kids home from Sunday school when their car got snowed in. (If you ask Don, it was stuck there all winter. If you ask Alleen, it was two days — a week at the most.)

There was the time shortly after that, in the late 1960s in Afghanistan, when Don bought a beautifully crafted writing slate off a young schoolboy only to see him burst into tears at the realization of the punishment that awaited him if he didn’t have his slate with him in class. (The boy got his slate back. Don did not get his money back.)

Then there was the time at a convention for the Modern Language Association in 1973, when Don happened to meet the late Nick Salerno, an ASU professor emeritus of English, and Marvin Fisher, ASU professor emeritus of English and humanities, and discovered they knew Alleen from their time as classmates at Phoenix Union High School. As luck would have it, both Salerno and Fisher were serving on a search committee for a new professor to join ASU’s Department of English.

Don got the job, and they settled in Arizona, with Alleen joining the ASU English faculty shortly after.

A little less than a decade later, in 1981, Art Buchwald, an American writer and humorist best known for his column in The Washington Post, gave a talk at ASU that inspired the Nilsens and a handful of other ASU English professors interested in humor studies to create a conference on the subject.

Buchwald discouraged the idea.

“He said, ‘You’re going to fail because people are going to come and expect to laugh for four days, and that’s impossible,’” Don said.

Taking Buchwald’s advice to heart, the Nilsens and their colleagues structured the conference so that it was less about making people laugh through presentations that employed various styles of humor and more about dissecting the phenomenon of humor through research and discussions.

In 1982, they founded the Western Humor and Irony Membership and hosted the first humor studies conference at ASU. It was a success and continued annually for six years before universities around the U.S. and then the world began taking turns playing host. The Western Humor and Irony Membership later became the International Society for Humor Studies.

The annual conference is still going strong, taking place this summer at the University of Texas at Austin. In the 37 years since its founding, members of the society have produced more than 900 articles and book reviews, all catalogued in the society's journal, Humor.

In 2011, the Nilsens established the Don and Alleen Nilsen Humor Scholarship Award at ASU for the best humorous online presentation that teaches any aspect of language. And when they’re not disturbing their children with allusions to death, they teach classes at their retirement community, local community colleges and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at ASU.

Occasionally, the Nilsens give one-time presentations, like the one they held in July for a group of Mensa members.

Don has a joke he likes to tell at the beginning of his classes about a rabbi, a priest and an engineer, each of whom find themselves in the predicament of being about to meet their demise at the blade of a guillotine. At the moment of no return, both the rabbi and priest invoke their personal deities and the blade does not fall. The engineer is the last to place his head on the block, and while looking up at his fate, he exclaims, “Hey! I see the problem!”

Top photo: Don and Alleen Nilsen laugh as they talk about the many places they’ve worked over their careers and their passion for the global study of humor, at their Tempe home, on June 28, 2019. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now