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National Merit Scholar excited to learn to thrive at ASU

August 22, 2019

First-year 'green freak' from Hoover, Alabama, looking to combine her passions of engineering and sustainability

Emily Hagood knew she had found her college home as soon as she visited Arizona State University last fall.

"I don’t think I stopped smiling from the moment I set foot on campus," said the National Merit Scholar from Hoover, Alabama. "I was lucky enough to have a personal schedule set up for me through Barrett (The Honors College), so I got to attend a class within my major and meet personally with faculty from both the Fulton Schools of Engineering and the School of Sustainability."

The materials science and engineering major and self-proclaimed "green freak" had already been impressed with ASU's programs, having started her college search her sophomore year in high school, and was struck by the university's mission of inclusion. That campus visit sealed the deal.

"My mom kept commenting on how much my dimples were showing," she said. "I decided on the day of my visit that I was a Sun Devil at heart." 

We spoke with Hagood about what brought her here and where she plans to go with her studies.

ASU honors student Emily Hagood strikes a happy pose next to an Arizona state line sign on the highway

Emily Hagood says she is looking forward to exploring the opportunities offered at ASU.

Question: So you're from Alabama. What made you consider ASU?

Answer: All of the amazing opportunities. I started my college research in sophomore year, and the combination of Barrett, The Honors College, the Fulton Schools of Engineering and the School of Sustainability was completely unrivaled. Here, I get all the perks of a big school and the personal attention I would get at a small school.  

Q: What drew you to your major?

A: I attended a materials science and engineering camp at the University of Alabama at Birmingham the summer before my sophomore year and absolutely fell in love with the field. MSE can be applied to anything, and I want to pair it with sustainability — particularly with carbon sequestration or renewable energy. 

Q: What are you most excited to experience your first semester?

A: Making new friends through clubs, classes and other opportunities on campus. I am excited to learn from and alongside captivating, passionate, driven people with widely varying backgrounds and interests.

Q: What do you like to brag about to friends about ASU?

A: Other than the obvious “No. 1 in innovation” remarks, I tell all of my friends how proud I am of ASU’s charter. I am thankful and honored to attend a university that values inclusion over exclusion and collaboration over competition. My favorite way to say this? Cacti > ivy! 

Q: What talents and skills are you bringing to the ASU community?

A: My sunny personality and my talent for cheering other people on are two assets that I am excited to contribute to the ASU community.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish during your college years?

A: The ASU motto “Learn to thrive” captures my goals perfectly! I intend to live with passion and purpose, to grow lasting friendships and to create a strong foundation for an enriching career. 

Q: What’s one interesting fact about yourself that only your friends know?

A: Thanks to lots and lots and lots of discount tickets, I’ve seen 28 different Broadway shows in New York, and I’ve seen even more touring productions. My top three are currently "Hamilton," "Waitress" and "Come From Away." 

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem in our world, what would you choose?

A: I’m a total green freak, so my answer has to be global warming, although it is such a complex, intricate, massive issue to try to solve. 

Q: Predictions on the final score for this year’s Territorial Cup game?

A: We are going to win BIG! Gooooo Devils!

Photos courtesy of Emily Hagood

Penny Walker

Director , Media Relations and Strategic Communications


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How do I love ants? Let me count the ways

August 22, 2019

Biology and engineering solve ant identification headache

As any grad student can tell you, science can involve horrible jobs: combing through poo, flensing carcasses, any number of “pipette monkey” tasks.

But there is a job so terrible and numbing, so doomed to end in cursing and tears and cramped hands and trembling fingers, that all else pales before it.

Identifying thousands of ants.

Andrew Burchill is earning a doctorate in collective animal behavior with Arizona State University's Social Insect Research Group. His career in myrmecology — the study of ants — lies ahead of him, but he may have already made his mark in what he calls “the niche science of mass animal christening” by co-creating a fool-proof system to label thousands of anything: schools of fish, flocks of birds, mounds of termites.

It may result in shrines to St. Burchill of Tempe in every myrmecology lab across the land. “It’s somewhat of a niche audience,” he admits.

This is a story of how engineering combined with biology to solve a problem.

Let Burchill describe what it’s like to paint tags on anesthetized ants on a tiny foam platform under a microscope, using a single human eyelash taped to a toothpick:

“I squint and my vision narrows until everything I can see is in a small circle surrounded by darkness. I’ve lost feeling in my left leg and a tremor shakes my already-cramping hand. For the last few hours the nervous energy in my body has screamed for release, but I desperately try to wrestle my attention back to the matter at hand.”

It gets worse. Ants are some of the cleanest creatures on earth. They spend hours every day grooming themselves. Burchill would return to the lab to find tiny paint chips in the ants’ trash heap.

Back up a bit. Why paint hundreds or thousands of ants? In a colony, different ants have different jobs, work hours and expertise. However, there aren’t bosses or managers. As Burchill says, “the world’s most industrious businesses are run like hippie drum circles.” If you’re studying social insects, you want to know how it all works. Are some ants lazier than others? How often do workers switch roles? To answer questions like those, you need to be able to tell individual workers apart. That applies to any biologist studying collective animal behavior, such as wolf packs or flocks of geese.

A fan of engineering, Burchill suspected that field could help solve his problem. He turned for help to his adviser, engineer Ted Pavlic of the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering. Pavlic studies behavior and complex systems, among other subjects.

“He realized this is a classic engineering situation,” Burchill said. “There’s whole fields of engineering that have been doing this since before I was alive. He whipped up a simple formula to help with the ant situation. Once I found out about that, I thought it was amazing.”

With Pavlic’s experience in telecommunications, he realized the problem is routine in signal processing engineering.

Error correcting codes have been around for decades. They allow receivers to comprehend messages even if part is lost in transmission. Repetition is a basic form of error correction coding. Even if you miss some of the message the first time you hear it, you can fill in what you hear the second time around.

Enter check digitsThe check digit could be defined as the number that will make all nine digits (i.e., the 8 date digits and the 1 new, added digit) sum to a multiple of ten. Since 0+6+1+1+2+0+2+3 = 15, the check digit must be 5 to bring the new total to 20. When the rebels receive this new code, they can reconstruct the entire message even if any single digit has been lost. By adding up the digits in 06/1_/2023-5 (0+6+1+2+0+2+3+5 = 19), a simple check will reveal that missing digit must be 1; otherwise the message would not sum to 20.. Adding a single digit at the end of the message can verify a message or correct it. Vehicle identification numbers, bank account numbers, ISBN numbers in books, bar codes, QR numbers and the codes NASA uses to communicate with the International Space Station and the Martian rovers all use check digits.

But painting numbers on ants is not going to happen. Burchill and Pavlic gave them color-coded “names.”

“Red-blue-blue” ant had a red drop on her head and blue dots on her thorax and abdomen. They also added a check drop to the end of the abdomen, to prevent misidentification if any paint is lost or cleaned off. Each paint color is assigned a number. The final dot’s color/number is chosen to bring the sum of the numbers up to a known value. If any paint is missing, they could add up the numbers of the remaining colors and calculate what the missing dot was.

“You can do that to anything,” Burchill said. “If one tag gets lost, you can fix it.”

Burchill’s paper on the method is being published this month in the journal Animal Behavior. He said while it’s not a scientific discovery per se, it’s a solution to a problem that has plagued biologists forever.

“I think that engineering has so much to offer biology, and vice versa,” he said. “If it gets known in myrmecology at all, I would be highly excited. But I would like to give more credit to Ted than me. I see my role as making it more accessible. … Ted’s like God, and I’m more like Moses, so I don’t want to take too much credit.”

He also found another route around his problem.

“I switched to (studying) bigger ants,” he said. “Ones that are easier to paint.”

Top video: Ken Fagan/ASU Now

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now