Cellular processes, social behaviors and … zombies?

ASU psychology professor combines the academic with the apocalyptic

September 21, 2020

What do cellular systems in the human body and social behaviors of people have in common with zombies? 

Cells, large groups of people and the undead all act cooperatively and engage in conflict.  Athena Aktipis, associate professor of psychology, reanimated the second Zombie Apocalypse Medicine Meeting to be broadcast online through the newly created Channel Zed. The meeting will happen Oct. 15-18 and will cover topics like how birth control, race relations, the pandemic, sex, literature and social media can all be thought of as zombification processes. Illustration by Neil Smith. Download Full Image

Moving from conflict to cooperation requires communication, especially for difficult or complex topics. Framing concepts in terms of the zombie apocalypse lets Athena Aktipis engage with other scientists, artists, journalists and the general public about ideas like how cheating happens among people and microscopic cells. 

“Using the zombie apocalypse lets us have fun while bringing to life ideas about how exploitation, manipulation and cheating are fundamental to the biological world,” said Aktipis, who was recently promoted to associate professor in Arizona State University's Department of Psychology.

Aktipis has created a suite of communication strategies framed around the zombie apocalypse. She co-hosts the Zombified podcast and started the Zombie Apocalypse Medicine Meeting, a biannual conference that spans the sciences, the arts and the scary. This year’s meeting will happen online Oct. 15–18.

“The Zombie Apocalypse Medicine Meeting lets us bring our brains together to consider what is happening in the world from a big picture perspective,” Aktipis said. “Because of the pandemic, we had to totally rethink the format of the meeting. Instead of livestreaming traditional talks, we decided the meeting should be reanimated as a television channel covering the apocalypse.”

The 2020 Zombie Apocalypse Medicine Meeting will be broadcast on Aktipis’ latest creation: a livestream television channel dedicated to communicating science called Channel Zed.

Some of Channel Zed’s offerings include Undead Live, a daily news show about science that airs Mondays at 10:30 a.m.; Late Night Brains, a show dedicated to interviewing scientists and zombie enthusiasts; and Eat, Prey, Run, a cooking show that covers survivalist cooking and the zombification of food also known as fermentation. 

Registrants for the Zombie Apocalypse Medicine Meeting will have access to special Channel Zed programming on topics like how birth control, race relations, the pandemic, sex, literature and social media can all be thought of as zombification processes. 

The meeting will also feature a new show called "The Unreal World" that is based on MTV’s "Real World." This show will follow a dance company called Black Label, led by University of Minnesota dance Professor Carl Flink. The company will travel to the ASU campus in a Winnebago, performing in hazmat suits along the way as part of a research study into how people are responding to the pandemic. 

“The goal of the Zombie Apocalypse Medicine Meeting, and using zombies in general, is to break down the barriers that prevent people from engaging with academic scholarship and with the realities of what is going on in our world,” Aktipis said. “When reality seems as apocalyptic as fiction, it becomes an applied cooperation issue, and it is important to shift the frame so we can talk to each other.”

Science writer, Psychology Department


ASU alum combines love of geology, passion to share earth science

September 21, 2020

Growing up in Cave Creek, Arizona, Chad Kwiatkowski chose to study geology because he had a desire to learn the geologic story of the mountains that he grew up exploring, located in and around metropolitan Phoenix.

“I knew ASU would be the best place to learn this," the Arizona State University alumnus said. "Additionally, I heard great things about the geology program at ASU from my community college professors. After being given a tour of the School of Earth and Space Exploration’s headquarters and seeing the Center for Meteorite Studies on the second floor, my choice was set in stone.” ASU alumnus Chad Kwiatkowski. Download Full Image

Kwiatkowski earned his Bachelor of Science in earth and space exploration (geological sciences) in 2018. He is currently a graduate student in geology at Northern Arizona University.

During his time at ASU, Kwiatkowski was a member of the ASU GeoClub, a student organization that sells minerals on campus to fund geology trips and public outreach events. He also served as the GeoClub’s outreach coordinator during his senior year.

“It was a memorable experience and I made many friends that will last a lifetime,” he said. 

Kwiatkowski was also selected as the School of Earth and Space Exploration Dean’s Medalist for 2018, having earned this award through his stellar academic record, his skills as a leader, and his drive and energy in pursuing his academic passions. 

After Kwiatkowski earns his master's degree, there are two paths he is considering. 

The first is to teach intro geology at a community college or university. “I would love teaching earth science, sharing the wonders of our world with the upcoming generations, and making it accessible and relatable to students,” he said. 

The second path he may take is working as a park ranger at a county, state or national park, where he would still be teaching and sharing geology, just in the outdoors rather than in a classroom.

Here, Kwiatkowski shares what inspired him to apply to ASU and why he credits the School of Earth and Space Exploration for finding his place in the world.  

Question: What impact or value do you believe ASU has had on your life?

Answer: At the end of high school, I had no idea what I would do with the rest of my life. Getting my geology degree at ASU not only taught me about the 4.6-billion-year history of the world, but also helped me find my place in it, specifically as a science communicator who breaks down complex geological concepts into bite-sized pieces that people of all backgrounds can enjoy. The value of figuring this out is literally priceless, and I am so glad I found my passion at a young age. 

Q: Were there faculty or students who made a particularly positive impact on you?  

A: All the professors I had at ASU, as well as many of my peers, had a profound impact on my life. A few professors had such a great impact that they forever changed my views on geology, education and life in general. One of these was Steve Semken, whose knowledge of the Southwest and place-based education approach really struck a chord with me. Another was the dynamic duo of Steve Reynolds and Julia Johnson, whose passion for teaching earth science using techniques informed by cognition research reshaped not only my views on education, but also my perception of the world. Lastly, Christy Till demonstrated the importance of enthusiasm in teaching complex topics, making every class something I looked forward to. Although all of my peers had an influence on me, Devin Keating, Joshua Gonzales, Brooke Kubby, Andres Aldana and Kelly Vote — all in my graduating class — influenced me the most. I will forever cherish the memories we made and know we will remain friends for life. 

Q: Are you involved with nonprofit or charitable organizations?

A: When living near Phoenix, I volunteered for Skate After School, a nonprofit providing skateboard instruction and positive reinforcement to over 200 students in underprivileged areas of metropolitan Phoenix. I also volunteer for Pinnacle Peak Park in Scottsdale, running the new volunteer geology training and designing digital and print resources to help enhance the geologic understanding of the area for park visitors. Lastly, I give geology presentations for various nonprofits and other organizations in my hometown of Cave Creek, such as the Desert Foothills Library, Desert Awareness Committee and the Desperados trail club.  

Q: In what ways have you been involved with ASU since graduating?

A: I have continued to work with a peer at ASU, Devin Keating, who is a  graduate student in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, using drones to monitor and assess geologic hazards. We have collaborated for a study of debris flows in a mountain range north of Phoenix resulting from an extreme 2014 monsoon storm. 

Q: How do you stay informed about what is happening at ASU?

A: I read articles from the online publication ASU Now to stay informed about the university. I also continue to use my ASU email to be informed about upcoming events.

Alumni and Special Events Coordinator, School of Earth & Space Exploration