Smart transportation systems need to reckon with rogues

ASU engineering lab presents 1st algorithm to safely manage autonomous vehicle traffic through intersections in real-world conditions

September 17, 2020

Traffic is a hassle. Everyday drivers endure the tedium of gridlock induced by road construction or accidents at intersections. Hence the hope for a future driven by autonomous vehicles. We anticipate intelligent transportation systems delivering smooth movement, improved safety as well as a broad range of economic and environmental benefits.

“Of course, the transition is not going to be sudden,” said Aviral Shrivastava, a professor of computer science in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University. “For an extended period of time, we will have both autonomous and human-driven cars. So, it’s essential that we develop traffic management systems to accommodate very complex interactions. This is especially true for intersections.” Autonomous vehicles need to reckon with unexpected situations. ASU’s Make Programming Simple Lab has developed the first algorithm enabling autonomous vehicles to safely navigate intersections in real-world conditions. This innovation accelerates the shift from human-driven cars to fully automated transit. Photo by Erika Gronek/ASU Download Full Image

Road network research focuses on intersections because over half of all traffic injuries or fatalities happen at intersections or near them, according to the Federal Highway Administration. As a consequence, more than 120 recent studies related to autonomous vehicles investigate how to maintain fluid transit through intersections.

Shrivastava explains that the overall process involves a computer known as an intersection manager or IM. As each car approaches an intersection, it contacts the IM to say something like, “I’m at this spot right now, moving at this speed and I want to go straight or turn left through your intersection.”

The IM then makes a reservation for this car to arrive at the intersection at a specific time, going at a specific speed and crossing by a prescribed route, all while making sure it won’t collide with any previously scheduled cars approaching the same area.

After receiving the data points of its reservation, the inbound vehicle determines an optimal trajectory for getting to the intersection and lets the IM know what it plans to do. This plan is essentially a position-versus-time graph that specifies where the car should be at any point in time.

The approaching vehicle then follows its planned trajectory to the intersection and continues through it as instructed. But what if things don’t go as planned?

Expecting the unexpected

“We have algorithms that allow cars to cross intersections efficiently and without stopping,” Shrivastava said. “But how realistic are they? If we want to implement intersection management systems in the real world, they need to be very robust against several kinds of failures.”

Imagine that an IM gives detailed instructions to an approaching car, but that car doesn’t follow the plan. Maybe it needs to take evasive action to avoid a collision before it arrives at the intersection. Or maybe it has a sensor problem that means it misreports its speed or its location.

“Independent of the reason, it just does what it does, and it’s not what is expected,” Shrivastava said. “We need a system that is robust enough to get cars safely through intersections even when faced with these uncertainties. So, that is what we have created.”

Shrivastava and his team at the Fulton Schools’ Make Programming Simple Lab have developed an algorithm to deal with situations in which any car can start accelerating or braking at any point in time relative to transiting an intersection. Their innovative research has been selected for presentation in September at the 2020 Intelligent Transportation Systems Conference of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

The work is conceptually different from previous research, which created IM algorithms that function only in ideal settings. The ASU algorithm — R2IM, which stands for robust and resilient intersection management — reflects the real world because it allows cars to do arbitrary things and still maintains the safety of all vehicles involved.

“Our approach uses a surveillance system, such as cameras mounted at an intersection, that can detect if a vehicle is not following its expected trajectory beyond a tolerance limit,” said Mohammad Khayatian, who is the lead author of the study and a doctoral student in Shrivastava’s lab at the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering, one of the six Fulton Schools 

“If that’s the case,” he said, “the intersection manager declares that vehicle as ‘rogue.’”

The IM then alerts all approaching cars about a possible emergency, and they react accordingly. Even so, safety is already guaranteed through the scheduling of crossing times for all approaching vehicles. There are enough built-in buffers that an accident becomes impossible even if a vehicle goes rogue at any point in time.

graphic depicting a scenario of two cars nearing an intersection and the safety measures taken.

The R2IM algorithm precludes collisions by operating with times and distances that enable safe intersection crossings even when autonomous vehicles behave unexpectedly. Image courtesy of MPS-LAB

The MPS Lab team has evaluated the function of the R2IM algorithm by building a 1/10 scale model intersection and injecting faults into small electric autonomous vehicles that navigate through this scene. The faults force cars to unexpectedly accelerate or decelerate on the track and thereby enable the IM to demonstrate that it will not compromise the safety of any vehicles.

“We then checked the scalability of our approach for a real intersection through computer simulation with variable traffic patterns,” Khayatian said. “In total, 500 faults were injected during 20 hours of traffic, out of which 110 faults could have caused an accident. Even so, all collisions were avoided.”

Finally, Shrivastava’s team confirmed that the algorithm enables the IM to recover the intersection’s normal operations after a rogue vehicle leaves or has been removed from the area once the emergency situation is resolved.

“I see this effort as a first step to getting intelligent intersection management systems deployed in real life,” Khayatian said. “The next round of research is focused not just on intersections. It moves toward a complete solution for autonomous driving systems, incorporating cooperative lane changing, highway merging and more.”

Transforming ideas into reality

Shrivastava says the Phoenix metro area has become an important hub of autonomous car research. There are now more than 10 companies in the region engaged in autonomous vehicle development.

“Government here is receptive to, and supportive of, this field of innovation,” he said. “Also, we have great infrastructure for this work with straight roads, new signage and lighter traffic than many other urban centers. Finally, there is the weather. It’s almost always sunny, so the technology doesn’t face challenges from rain, snow or fog. As a whole, the Phoenix area is an ideal operational domain for autonomous vehicle testing.”

More broadly, the MPS Lab conducts computer science research to transform smart energy grids and smart city systems as well as smart transportation networks from ideas into reality.

Shrivastava says these systems are large and complex, so they are difficult to program. Consequently, the focus of their work is making this programming easier. The benefits that these systems promise become possible only when the programming becomes manageable.

Gary Werner

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


Summer pilot program aims to increase diversity in engineering

August 6, 2020

If engineers are going to improve the quality of life in the communities they serve, the field must reflect the diversity of those communities.

Black students are particularly underrepresented in engineering, comprising only 4% of U.S. engineering undergraduate students in 2016. According to the National Science Foundation, the number of Black students earning doctoral degrees is rising, especially for students who earned science and engineering bachelor’s degrees from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs — a group of more than 100 higher education institutions which serve primarily Black communities. Graphic of four people interacting with objects representing different areas of science. Diversity in engineering is key to the discipline’s ability to effectively serve all aspects of a community’s needs. Intel Corporation partnered with the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University and Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee to sponsor students from a historically Black university to gain access to high-impact research and Intel mentors for an eight-week summer engineering pilot program. Graphic courtesy of Shutterstock Download Full Image

Intel Corporation’s HBCU Program aims to provide scholarships and career development opportunities to help increase the number of Black students who graduate with STEM degrees and enter technology careers. To advance a common goal of expanding the pipeline of Black graduate students in STEM, Intel is collaborating with the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University and Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, an HBCU in Tallahassee, for the ASU/FAMU Summer Engineering Program pilot.

Intel sponsored seven students from FAMU to participate in an eight-week ASU Summer Research Internship, or SURI, where they conducted research with Fulton Schools faculty members and graduate students. The students also received a combined $5,000 stipend from Intel and the Fulton Schools for the summer.

“Summer engineering research helps students envision themselves with a graduate degree in STEM in an industry or academic career,” said Heather Mattisson, Intel strategy manager for university partnerships, global diversity, inclusion and social impact. “It also provides key connections with faculty and exposes students to the rigors of a graduate school experience. Students in the program are gaining additional pathways to a graduate degree with the support of a strong partnership between our organizations.”

The pilot program was conceived last year during the annual Intel HBCU Consortium, at which Intel’s university partners and six HBCUs gather to form new collaborations and share information about Intel’s classroom technology, curriculum and research resources.

“With this partnership in place, students can participate in top research alongside brilliant ASU faculty to really develop their skills, participate in use-inspired research opportunities and gain an understanding of what graduate study might be like,” said Anca Castillo, associate director of engineering student recruitment in the Fulton Schools, who attended the consortium and was instrumental in bringing the partnership together.

The benefits of such a program are far-reaching. Several of the FAMU students say they are now considering advanced degrees after working with ASU faculty members and graduate students and making connections with Intel engineers.

The summer program helped students explore the possibilities of graduate studies at ASU or careers at Intel. But more than that, it solidified just how much both academia and industry as a whole can benefit from increasing diversity through partnerships such as this one.

Summer program increases access to high-impact research

While the COVID-19 pandemic forced SURI to move online, the program forged ahead with the students conducting research remotely.

Some students elected to partner with faculty members working in areas they were already familiar with due to their majors, while others stepped out of their comfort zones to tackle engineering topics in which they had little experience.

Lalitha Sankar, a Fulton Schools associate professor of electrical engineering, worked with FAMU students Grant Steans and Mafuor Tanji on artificial intelligence, machine learning and decision-making algorithms, particularly in ways that promote fairness and social good. As a woman of color in engineering, she has firsthand experiences with biases in engineering and mathematical sciences that will require diversity to overcome.

“As technology gets applied more and more to human decision-making, it is crucial to make sure that the technology we design is inclusive and designed without bias,” Sankar said. “This, in itself, will benefit from diversity among those designing these tools.”

Portrait of Grant Steans

Grant Steans, an electrical engineering graduate student at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University.

Grant Steans is already a graduate student studying electrical engineering at FAMU. During his last year as a computer engineering undergrad, he discovered an interest in machine learning, which sparked his decision to continue his studies and conduct research.

“I chose to work with Dr. Sankar this summer because of her theoretical knowledge of machine learning,” Steans said. “Her incorporation of linear algebra to teach things like regression, optimization and the bias/variance trade-off is something I had not experienced in such a detailed manner. She also introduced me to problems that required me to derive different forms of the linear regression algorithm to support my results.”

Steans came away from the experience with a new perspective on his passion and its applications. Before completing the eight-week program, he had already begun to engage his new machine learning skills as a data analyst at a local nonprofit organization in Tallahassee, Florida, We Are All We Need. With a goal of ending youth homelessness in Florida, Steans is using the new data science he learned to create baselines and models for trends in arrests, truancy, recidivism, poverty and other factors to present to city commissioners, mayors and police chiefs to make a difference in the community through social and emotional services and other programs.

“This experience taught me that certain skills that I hold as a researcher map to multiple industries, even though those industries aren’t heavily technical,” Steans said, adding that he shifted his plans for his thesis to align his interests in machine learning and social issues.

“When Grant told me that I had opened this door to him to bring technology to social justice, it just made my hour, day and week,” Sankar said.

Adolfo R. Escobedo, a Fulton Schools assistant professor of industrial engineering, said it is important to increase access to research experiences for underrepresented students. Escobedo himself did not conduct research until graduate school because he didn’t know the opportunities existed.

“Had I engaged in research, I believe I would have enjoyed it, which could have further helped me stay motivated in school,” Escobedo said. “Underrepresented students bring their own unique perspectives and experiences that would bring much needed change in academia and beyond.”

Escobedo worked with four FAMU students: electrical engineering majors Iyonda Lewis and Alex Ndekeng, computer science major Pierre Cireus and industrial engineering major Christina Anderson.

Cireus and Lewis worked with Escobedo on learning about “enhancing the wisdom of the crowd” in two different contexts and how diversity of crowds is important for achieving accurate outcomes. The students developed projects that use crowdsourced data to train computer programs to help budget vacations and to identify objects in images.

Ndekeng worked on understanding technologies for “Power System Planning against Rising Temperatures” and Anderson worked on “Optimization Models for Sustainable Logistics.”

Portrait of Iyonda Lewis

Iyonda Lewis, an electrical engineering undergraduate student at FAMU.

Lewis, who will be a third-year electrical engineering student at FAMU in the fall, worked closely with Yeawon Yoo, one of Escobedo’s industrial engineering doctoral students.

“I got to talk to Yeawon about the ins and outs of graduate school, and how impactful study habits and preparation are at the graduate level,” Lewis said. “She not only encouraged my questions about our topic, but also promoted my improvement and growth, as research can be utilized to contribute knowledge, develop and improve processes.”

Reading research journal papers, learning and practicing new concepts related to object detection and figuring out how to solve engineering problems alongside other students in other majors was a valuable experience for Lewis that changed her outlook about advanced degrees.

“I had a spark about grad school,” Lewis said. “This program made me much more interested than before.”

Rebecca Muenich, a Fulton Schools assistant professor of environmental engineering, worked with FAMU biomedical engineering major Daeshavon Johnson. Despite their completely different focus areas — watershed modeling in agriculture for Muenich and prosthetic development for Johnson — they found common ground in how biomedical engineering could be applied to agriculture through the study of how biodiversity relates to  biotechnology through a case study of the Atlantic Forest in Brazil.

“Having one-on-one time with a faculty member who doesn’t control your degree or grade, I think gives students an opportunity to be more open and to expand their skills,” Muenich said. “I hope it also gives them a chance to work on their own science, which I think can help build confidence.”

Faculty members say they were also honored to be a part of a program aimed at increasing access to engineering research for Black students during a time of social change.

“This was a special experience at an extraordinary time in our country’s history,” Sankar said. “I am fortunate to be a part of it in some small form.”

Diverse range of Intel engineers share their experiences

In addition to doing research and making connections with faculty members and graduate students, the FAMU participants were paired with mentors who are professional engineers and computer scientists. Many of the program mentors attended HBCUs or experienced earning advanced degrees and entering the technology industry as underrepresented minorities and first-generation college students.

“The ASU/FAMU Summer Engineering Program is designed to provide holistic support to students,” Mattisson said. “FAMU students have been paired with Intel mentors with graduate degrees who can support students during the program and share their experience in the tech industry.”

FAMU student Grant Steans worked with Intel Technology Development Engineer Collins Adetu, who participated in the pilot from Portland, Oregon, and is also a FAMU alumnus. Adetu’s mentorship was a tremendous help to Steans throughout the program.

“We were able to discuss our struggles of working remotely and my personal goals for this summer,” Steans said. “He helped guide me to the right questions I need to ask myself in terms of this program and my continuing career. He also helped me tailor this experience to understand the full benefit for my professional establishment and continued research opportunities.”

Participants also attended weekly Zoom virtual engagement sessions hosted by Intel engineers and computer scientists in addition to ASU faculty members. They discussed Intel technology and careers, and shared tips that were key to their success in earning advanced degrees and landing jobs in the tech industry.

The students were particularly inspired by the journey of Marcus Kennedy, an alum of the FAMU and Florida State University Joint College of Engineering, who is also an ASU adjunct professor and general manager of Intel's Gaming Division. Kennedy, the leadership sponsor for Intel’s FAMU partnership, earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering before getting a master’s degree in business administration and management. Hearing Kennedy speak about his journey of twists and turns, numerous failures and ultimate success inspired students to think differently about their futures.

“During his presentation, (Kennedy) shared his career path and how his decisions always led back to his greatest passion in life,” Steans said. “It taught me that as long as you can remain true to the things you enjoy in life, things will work out — no matter how many rejections and other obstacles may appear in your career path.”

The pilot program has been a positive experience during a summer of uncertainty and upheaval. Students are leaving the eight-week experience with newfound confidence and perspectives in engineering, unique insight from students in the process of earning advanced degrees and impactful mentors who will continue to meet with them even after the program has ended.

As the summer wraps up, Intel, FAMU and ASU will consider plans for the program’s future and potential for a longer-term partnership.

Monique Clement

Communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


The 'Olympics of hacking'

ASU faculty play leading role in international hacking competition, design obstacles for the world’s best teams

August 4, 2020

In the world of competitive hacking, to be the best, you need to compete against the best. One annual event organized by a team led by Arizona State University faculty brings the most proficient hackers from around the world together to sharpen their skills by solving a series of complex cybersecurity problems.

DEF CON is the premier hacking conference in the world, and one of its signature events is its capture the flag tournament that features teams of the world's top hackers. For the third year in a row, faculty with the Global Security Initiative’s Center for Cybersecurity and Digital Forensics are designing the obstacles competitors will need to overcome in order to win this "Olympics of hacking." ASU faculty and other members of the organizing team at DEF CON 27, 2019 ASU faculty and organizing team at DEF CON 27, 2019. Download Full Image

“Software is everywhere and has vulnerabilities,” said Adam Doupé, competition "hackulty" member and a leader of the Center for Cybersecurity and Digital Forensics. “Hackers can demonstrate the flaws in systems so we can ultimately make things more secure. As we rely more and more on digital technologies to work, to live and to socialize in the age of COVID-19, the security of these services is paramount.”

The skills honed at this competition can be serious business. Apple will offer up to $2,000,000 to anyone who identifies a vulnerability that allows an attacker to take over an iPhone with no interaction.

As a grassroots effort hosted by hackers for hackers, the DEF CON capture the flag competition is an important training ground and skills-building opportunity for the next generation of cybersecurity professionals.

DEF CON 28 Logo, pair of boots, capture the flag text in black, white and teal

The competition challenges hackers with a series of intricate security problems. Each challenge is like a puzzle — a Rubik's Cube or sudoku. The participants need to identify vulnerabilities in software and then figure out how to exploit them in order to move on to the next stage of the competition.

Launching on Aug. 7 and running through Aug. 9, the DEF CON capture the flag accommodates players in varying time zones — this year, it will be conducted in shifts across the three days. The game has different challenges made available to teams at set times, and the goal is to identify a vulnerability and develop an exploit. Upon accomplishing both, the team has "captured the flag" for that challenge, winning the game.

“Throughout this competition, we are training the next generation of cybersecurity experts to have an ‘adversarial mindset’ so they can identify vulnerabilities and secure systems before a malicious attack can compromise them,” said Doupé, an associate professor in the School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering, one of the six Fulton Schools of Engineering.

ASU is a national leader in competitive hacking, helping current and future cybersecurity professionals build core skills such as vulnerability detection, cryptographic analysis, reverse engineering, and program repair. In addition to leading the design of the DEF CON competition, multiple ASU student clubs — including the PwnDevils and DevilSec — compete nationally and internationally in competitive hacking.

Celebrating its 28th year, DEF CON is an annual event traditionally hosted in Las Vegas with a wide range of attendees from different institutions and communities. Due to COVID-19, the event has migrated entirely to a virtual platform — everything and everyone is online. While this pivot to an online arena presented some initial challenges, the Cybersecurity and Digital Forensics team has noticed some benefits from the shift.

DEF CON27 CTF Participants, faculty and staff from multiple institutions

DEF CON 27 capture the flag competition participants.

“The move online increases the accessibility of the competition to an enormous audience,” said Yan Shoshitaishvili, resident "hackademic" and an assistant professor in the school. “Since everything is done over video streams and online connections, it introduces unique opportunities in archiving the events of the contest to allow others to study it both during and after the conference itself.”

In previous years, the competition scoreboard would be displayed on a screen — this year's spectators will have real-time viewing of the game and the hackers participating.

“This is the world championship of capture the flag competitions and is a great way to look at different aspects of security,” said Giovanni Vigna, capture the flag competitor and professor of computer science at the University of California in Santa Barbara.

“Anticipating what the organizers had cooked up each year, finding out what the problem was, and whether I could get it solved before the end … was a challenge,” said previous DEF CON capture the flag organizer Chris Eagle, senior lecturer at Naval Postgraduate School.

Learn more about ASU's commitment to cybersecurity education.

Oliver Dean

Communications Specialist, Global Security Initiative


ASU and Zimin Foundation partner for future of urban tech

August 3, 2020

Cities generate the vibrant energy of society. However, they’re also the center of some of our most pressing sustainability issues — air and water pollution, urban heat islands, disease or security threats, and an increasing demand for resources.

Arizona State University’s four campuses are in the heart of the Phoenix metropolitan area — the fifth-largest city in the United States. The region surrounding ASU faces similar issues to many of the world’s megacities, such as extreme climate and resource limitations. Aware of these challenges, the university has a mission of being socially embedded and leveraging its place to transform society. Researchers in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and many other schools at ASU are employing an entrepreneurial mindset and applied, use-inspired research to engineer and validate solutions that serve communities. Graphic of smart city technology ideas. Sustainable, smart cities incorporate wide-reaching, interconnected technologies to improve infrastructure, transportation, resource efficiency, health, security and more. The new Zimin Institute for Smart and Sustainable Cities, in partnership with the Zimin Foundation, will help support applied research projects to drive a people-centric vision for the future of cities. Image courtesy of Shutterstock Download Full Image

Sustainable, smart-city technologies represent a unique opportunity to create solutions that advance urban areas and the well-being of their inhabitants by addressing the potentially harmful effects of the built environment.

An opportunity to work with the most innovative university on smart-city technology was the impetus for the Zimin Foundation to partner with and support ASU and the Fulton Schools on the second international Zimin Institute, focusing on future technologies that enable smart and sustainable cities.

“The selection reflects on ASU’s growing reputation as an innovation powerhouse and an agent for positive societal change and impact,” said Kyle Squires, dean of the Fulton Schools.

“With this gift, the new institute has a tremendous opportunity to energize the ASU community of scholars and innovators to lead the creation of new smart-city technology solutions, to catalyze new active collaborations with regional stakeholder public and private partners and ultimately to be a world leader in the smart and sustainable cities arena.”

Zimin Foundation provides resources to advance society through innovation

The Zimin family has historically focused its philanthropic efforts on supporting science and education in Russia. Their not-for-profit organization, the Zimin Foundation, recently extended its activities to other countries, with the first Zimin Institute established at Tel Aviv University in 2018 and now ASU in 2020.

“The Zimin Foundation and ASU share the vision of achieving high impact by supporting projects with visible real-world effects,” said Mark Shmulevich, head of Zimin Institutes at the Zimin Foundation. “ASU will be able to match the experience of their researchers and their research partners with the opportunities to quickly apply sustainability and smart-city innovations.”

The vision of the Zimin Institute for Smart and Sustainable Cities at ASU is to drive people-centric smart cities of the future — integrating advanced technologies into the physical spaces where people live, work, learn and play to enhance security, health, sustainability and resilience.

The first challenge of creating smart, sustainable cities is their wide-ranging, difficult-to-define yet appealing promise, said Gregory Raupp, director of the new Zimin Institute for Smart and Sustainable Cities at ASU and Fulton Schools Foundation Professor of chemical engineering. With so many components and stakeholders, Raupp says “the only logical and effective strategy to address the challenges is through a combination of targeted, use-inspired research leading to technological innovation and collaboration between public organizations and private enterprises.”

“A city, smart or otherwise, is an incredibly complex system of systems of systems,” Raupp said. “We must integrate and weave all of the technology solutions into a cohesive fabric that works seamlessly and effectively to make a genuinely smart city, one that increases the level of health, happiness, contentment and personal enrichment of all its citizens — a place where we would all want to live.”

The new Zimin Institute at ASU will identify transformative technologies, connect researchers for interdisciplinary collaboration, fund nascent technology solutions, leverage ASU and local innovative testbeds and initiatives, grow the smart-cities entrepreneurial ecosystem through venture funding, and engage with the community and stakeholders to ensure solutions coming out of the institute create value.

“The Zimin Institute at ASU will financially support several projects every year on a competitive basis,” Shmulevich said. “It will also allow the project teams to tap into the Zimin Foundation network of researchers, tech experts and laboratories. We believe that interdisciplinary teams of researchers often generate the best innovations. We strongly encourage such collaboration. The most successful projects will be able to tap on the Zimin Foundation support in the later stages of their innovation journey.”

In 2020, projects of interest focus on human connection, sustainable and healthy environments, public safety and well-being, and infrastructure resilience. The Zimin Institute is open to consider supporting compelling new projects that may be considered too risky for conventional funding avenues.

Raupp is pleased with the first four projects that have been selected for support by the Zimin Institute technical advisory and executive advisory boards. They address multiple facets of the future of smart cities, from sustainable building materials, the urban heat island and air quality to support for people living with Alzheimer’s disease and their caregivers. [Read more about the projects on Full Circle.]

“These projects are all tackling immensely important problems that are, unfortunately, growing in their scale and intensity,” Raupp said. “In addition, it is gratifying to see that the projects cement new, exciting collaborations with external organizations.”

The selected projects are at a diverse range of stages from visioning and ideation to technology prototypes and field testing.

“It’s a great start,” said Boris Zimin, chairman of the Zimin Foundation. “Our vision is to be able to support the most promising innovation projects that bring lab findings into the world, helping people globally. We wish the best of luck to the first winners of our grant call at ASU and will keep doing our best supporting them.”

Continuing support for applied research solutions

The Zimin Foundation leaders look forward to what will happen through these projects in the next few years. Foundation representatives will regularly interact with the project researchers and introduce them to their network, enabling the teams to learn and share best practices of translating research into real-world use.

When these four projects reach the prototyping phase or the researchers want to create spinoffs from their research, the Zimin Foundation will consider extending its support.

“We plan to hold three selection cycles and then an in-depth review of the progress of all the supported projects,” Shmulevich said.

Zimin Foundation support is not limited to engineering researchers — faculty members from across ASU can apply for Zimin Institute funding with projects at any stage of development. The institute will prioritize solutions headed toward implementation, deployment or commercialization within five years.

“The Zimin Institute at ASU provides a unique funding opportunity that’s intended to bridge gaps in translating research to commercialization, essentially to fund new, exciting ideas and solutions for which it might otherwise be difficult to secure additional funding, while establishing new, productive collaborations and partnerships,” Raupp said. “Any professor looking for a path to commercialization for their smart-cities research is welcome to apply for funding.”

Faculty members interested in applying for Cohort II funding can visit for more information, or contact Project Manager Lisa Irimata at or Zimin Institute Director Greg Raupp at for specific questions.

Monique Clement

Communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


ASU professor's research employs mobile devices to mitigate COVID-19

July 29, 2020

Efforts to combat the novel coronavirus rely on broad adoption of a few behaviors: physical distancing, frequent hand washing, wearing face masks in public and staying home when ill.

Alongside these populationwide tactics, health care authorities employ a proven method of disease control called contact tracing. Professional contact tracers interview people with confirmed infections about their recent whereabouts and the names of anyone with whom they have had close contact. hand holding a smartphone ASU Associate Professor Lalitha Sankar seeks to apply federated learning with smartphones to improve coronavirus contact tracing and even support disease prevention. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock Download Full Image

Contact tracers then inform those named about their exposure to the disease — without identifying the diagnosed patients — and guide them to obtain medical testing and practice self-isolation for two weeks to prevent further spread of the contagion.

This technique is effective, but also slow relative to the expansion of COVID-19 cases in many areas. Consequently, information technology experts are offering their support to improve the effectiveness of contact tracing.

“Artificial intelligence and machine learning can address the speed and logistical limitations of in-person contact tracing and do so in a secure and private manner,” said Lalitha Sankar, an associate professor in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University.

Sankar has been awarded a $200,000 National Science Foundation Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant to advance the utility of mobile devices for contact tracing and even for the prevention of new COVID-19 cases. She is working toward these goals with Fulton Schools faculty peers Ming ZhaoNi Trieu and Visar Berisha.

Balancing public health and personal privacy

Endorsement of the new ASU project reflects the limits of current digital technology for contact tracing — especially related to data security and individual privacy.

Apple and Google collaboratively released a software protocol in April enabling health care authorities to create mobile applications that leverage the vast number of smartphones in use to help monitor and mitigate the novel coronavirus.

Their model employs Bluetooth technology that exchanges anonymous codes, or “tokens,” among mobile devices operating in close proximity for five minutes or more. If a smartphone user with one of these applications is subsequently diagnosed with COVID-19, the app enables health care authorities to electronically inform that user’s recorded contacts of their exposure and direct them to testing and self-quarantine.

Advantages over traditional contact tracing include speed of outreach and the ability to advise relative strangers. In-person interviews can be effective for intervention among affected patients’ friends and family, but not for those exposed by chance encounters.

At the same time, Bluetooth solutions generate concerns about data security and personal privacy. Some recently developed contact tracing apps contain coding links to social media platforms or permit targeted advertising.

Addressing these concerns, the new Apple and Google protocol does not use device location services, even though GPS would offer a significant means for identifying sources of infection. The companies prohibit this function because detailed records of where and when users are traveling also represent security and privacy risks that could undermine public participation.

While smartphone users are not required to use contact tracing software, broad adoption is vital to track and control disease spread. In order for smartphones to enhance COVID-19 mitigation efforts, large numbers of users need to download the apps offered by regional health authorities. If they do not, the data sets will be too small to be beneficial.

As a consequence, Sankar and her team are researching and developing a means to apply the capabilities of both Bluetooth and location services to support contact tracing and even to promote disease prevention, all while guaranteeing data security and personal privacy.

Distributing and aggregating on-device learning

“Federated learning is the key to these outcomes,” Sankar said. “It’s a method of machine learning that allows data residing on remote devices to be analyzed locally and to remain on the device.”

A federated or distributed learning system uses a model that is sent to each participating mobile device and interacts with, or learns from, relevant personal data stored on the device.

The results of these data-and-model interactions are called parameters. In the case of the new ASU project, the parameters will reflect user mobility as well as phone sensor inputs related to personal health. Collectively, they can predict individual risk related to COVID-19 exposure.

With this model, each device will encrypt and return the parameters of what it has learned to a central server, which can help construct a detailed assessment of COVID-19 activity across the entire population of participating users. The results of on-device learning also can securely improve the performance of the entire system.

“The server aggregates those learned models and can thereby share an updated, richer model with all of the participating devices — and without sharing data from any one device,” Sankar said.

She also says that similar techniques and well-studied applications from cryptography can be used by the server to expand the range of diagnostic capabilities.

“But the challenge here,” Sankar said, “is to engineer a distributed system where devices can learn models in an energy-efficient manner.”

Consequently, she will be working to develop such a system with Zhao, an associate professor in the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering, one of the six Fulton Schools. Zhao is an expert in developing methods to efficiently share locally learned models with servers, which are key to aggregating models from various devices in an effective manner.

Sankar believes that federated learning holds tremendous potential to make mobile devices a vital resource in COVID-19 mitigation. At one level, it can support existing contact tracing efforts, enabling authorities to more quickly reach people who have recently interacted with diagnosed patients. 

“You go about your daily life and the app on your device builds graphs of your activity,” Sankar said. “The data remain on your smartphone, but the model working on your phone periodically checks with the server to determine whether you have been near anyone for a sustained period who has just tested positive for COVID-19. If you have crossed paths, you are notified but they are not identified.”

This will be possible because the activity graphs of people who test positive for the disease go to the server — anonymously — and can be used to inform others of exposure and recommend their testing and self-isolation. Consequently, server analysis of parameters aggregated from a large number of device users can foster disease prevention.

“There are locations where anyone is more likely to be exposed to COVID-19. Certainly hospitals, but also grocery stores and other places that many people frequent,” Sankar said. “So, we are all more vigilant in those settings — or we should be. But the research we are beginning could develop a means to inform us about the current exposure risks of virtually everywhere we go.”

The federated learning system behind the same mobile app that informs people whether they have been in close proximity with a recently diagnosed patient could also use data analysis to identify current viral “hotspots” in a given area. With such up-to-date information, users could make more informed choices about their movements. Imagine a smartphone display map with green, yellow and red zones of potential exposure based on recent diagnoses in those areas.

Trieu, who joins the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering as an assistant professor this fall, is an expert in aggregating data securely to learn such patterns. She will be leading the design of a GPS+Bluetooth-based token system for this new project.

Expanding the benefit of secure local data

Of course, identifying relative infection risks in our environment requires more than external data. The health conditions of users themselves are equally important, so Sankar and her peers seek to use federated learning to extend the value of secure, on-device personal data that users make available. 

“Think about a health survey,” Sankar said. “Do you have asthma or seasonal allergies? Or do you have diabetes or hypertension? All of these answers are data points that can stay on your device. But they offer a detailed assessment of your physical state, and that can be applied in conjunction with GPS tracing parameters for COVID-19 in your area to yield an effective way to help you monitor your own relative risks.”

Expanding the range of on-device data for this customized purpose is also part of the project. Sankar and her team are working with Berisha, an associate professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, one of the six Fulton Schools, drawing upon his research in the diagnostic functionality of audible voice.

“Our phones capture acoustic measures,” Sankar said. “So, for example, a user could phonate or utter sounds into their device microphone, and the data represented could signal preconditions of a respiratory ailment. In fact, phonation-based markers have already shown sound efficacy in identifying well-studied respiratory ailments. This information, in combination with your health history and the current state of infection in your surroundings, can build a powerful risk score to help guide behavior.”

These remarkable possibilities lay in the wake of a great deal of forthcoming work. Sankar says there are three priorities for this project: building rich, mobile-device-level learning models; developing the server capabilities necessary to enact federated learning from the diverse aggregated parameters; and then testing the elements of the system at a meaningful scale to correct and improve them as necessary.

Adequate scale for testing is important to the ultimate value of any applications derived from this research. So, Sankar and her team are partnering with the ASU University Technology Office, which operates a vast array of information management resources, including the ASU mobile app.

“They already run a mobile app for tens of thousands of university students, which provides us a meaningful environment in which to test a prototype when we have one,” Sankar said. “However, we have a lot to accomplish before getting to that scale of testing.”

Sankar and her peers are hopeful that the outcomes of this federated learning research project will advance mobile technology in the battle against COVID-19. Results also could bolster work in other arenas where current concerns about data security and personal privacy hinder the potential for innovative solutions.

Gary Werner

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


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ASU professor, doctoral student develop program to detect 'fake news'

July 15, 2020

Huan Liu and Kai Shu on how algorithms can help detect, defend against disinformation online

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series about the impacts of disinformation, how to guard against it and what researchers are doing to stop its spread.

It seems like magic: You read one article about exercising, and suddenly you’re bombarded with stories and advertisements promoting new running routines or the best activewear. This is not by accident — it’s by algorithm.

Machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) are becoming increasingly integrated into how we interact with technology, especially in the kind of news we see. This becomes an issue when people create and share news that isn’t true.

“There's a lot of potential for AI in this area, but there's no way you're going to be able to just make AI stop everything, partially because this is a really perfect storm of people and technology together,” said Nadya Bliss, executive director of Arizona State University’s Global Security Initiative (GSI). “There has to be an understanding of the impact on people and what makes people spread, look at and absorb disinformation.”

GSI works across disciplines to develop new approaches to security challenges. The initiative’s research effort in disinformation leverages ASU's strengths in narrative framing, journalism and computer science to tackle this pervasive problem.

ASU Professor and GSI affiliate Huan Liu and doctoral student Kai Shu are helping address disinformation by developing an algorithm to detect “fake news.” They co-edited a book with two researchers from Pennsylvania State University titled “Disinformation, Misinformation, and Fake News in Social Media,” which was published in July 2020.

Liu is a professor of computer science and engineering with the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. Shu is a final-year PhD candidate in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at ASU under the supervision of Liu. 

The pair spoke with ASU Now to discuss disinformation from a computer science perspective.

Question: Is disinformation the same as fake news?

Liu: Disinformation is an umbrella, and fake news is just one branch. There are other branches, like rumors, spam and trolls. 

Q: You’re developing an algorithm to defend against fake news. What is this algorithm and how does it work?

Liu: There is no magic; we have to learn from data to make the learning algorithm work. You have some fact-checked or agreed upon news pieces that are fake, and you have some that are fact-checked and true. We can “train” machine learning algorithms with this kind of dataset in a very simple manner. The challenge with learning with news data, however, is that topics are always changing. While we could just train a machine learning algorithm to learn from the past and then predict what's new, when topics change, new challenges are presented.  

Shu: We proposed a model called “Defend,” which can predict fake news accurately and with explanation. The idea of Defend is to create a transparent fake news detection algorithm for decision-makers, journalists and stakeholders to understand why a machine learning algorithm makes such a prediction. I am using explainable algorithms that can not only provide prediction results to indicate whether a piece of news is fake, but also provide additional explanations to the users. This is important because if we can find explanations from the dataset, then journalists can understand which part of the news is more fake than others. That’s why we started this study. 

The explanations from the datasets might include two perspectives, actual news content and user comments. In terms of the news content, fake news often includes some sentences that are fake, but others may not be fake. We want to extract the sentences that are fake to be able to fact check.

On the other hand, from user comments, we can see how people talk about news, and that can provide additional information to the false claims in the original news. Some comments, however, are not very informative. Why is that? One example is if one piece of fake news is claiming that the president is giving citizenship to some Iranians but this is a false claim, and we find a user comment talking about some additional evidence, such as, “The president does not have the power to give citizenship,” then this can help explain why this news is fake. Basically, we define and extract explanations from two perspectives — news sentences and user comments. 

Q: What is FakeNewsNet?

Shu: FakeNewsNet is the data repository of fake news that we are trying to build. Most existing datasets have very limited information. In this data repository, we are trying to provide different dimensions of information so that the researchers and practitioners can benefit from our dataset for their own study on this topic. The dataset contains three types of information: news content; social context, which indicates the user's engagement regarding these news pieces; and information indicating the location or time that a news piece is spread on social media. So we have various dimensions of information included in this data repository. 

We start by collecting news content from fact-checking websites, so we do not decide ourselves whether this piece of news is fake or not. We're just collecting these datasets from fact-checking websites. They have journalists and experts who carefully read each piece of news and will assign a label, which indicates if it is fake or not. We collect that information. 

Q: Is your algorithm designed for a specific social media platform?

Shu: The way we utilize the data does not have to be from specific platforms. We started with Twitter to develop the model. On this platform, we can leverage user comments and replies. We can apply our model in different platforms, but for now our data is coming from Twitter. 

Q: What makes Defend different from other fake news detection software?

Shu: The uniqueness of our tool is that we are looking at different dimensions or different perspectives of social media information. For example, we are looking at user profiles and user comments. We're looking at the propagation networks of how this news piece is spreading on social media. And also, we're the first to look at how we can detect fake news at the earliest stage, using only news content without any user engagement. So we are studying these different challenging scenarios very early, ahead of other people. We are not only trying to detect fake news, we are looking beyond detecting in that we want to provide explanations; we want to detect at the earliest stage. We are also studying how we can adapt our traditional models into different domains. For example, in the COVID-19 scenarios, there is a lot of misleading information and fake news, mostly about the public health domain. Existing models might only look at the political domain. So how can we create a powerful prediction model that can generalize across different domains, across different topics? 

Q: You have a book coming out in July, “Disinformation, Misinformation, and Fake News in Social Media.” Why do you think it was important to publish this book? 

Liu: Many experts contributed to this book. It's not just our work. We noticed a lot of people are working on this important topic, and we thought that it would be good to have a convenient point for researchers from different disciplines to share and get access to what's going on in this domain. And also, we try to put these three related concepts together. So it will help advance the field and also it will help practitioners to know what's going on, to take advantage of the state-of-the-art research findings.

Q: Why do I see what I do on my social media pages?

Liu: Online platforms like Google, Facebook or Twitter will try to feed you something you like. And that's part of how machine learning works. They learn what you like because they cannot give you everything. The goal for them is to get you to stay on their website as long as possible. They also want to serve you information, so they have to make a trade-off and then they will select the things you like.

Of course, they can also send things you don't like. Sometimes you see the ads, right? But they still try to relate their ads to your readings. So that’s why everyone sees different things. It’s not just you or computer scientists; algorithms affect everyone. Even Kai’s and my feeds will look different. You see what you see on social media because everyone has a profile and the articles you read help them to build your extended profile.

Nobody would like to see something we dislike. So that's how they get you addicted to their sites — if they do the trade-off well — so you don't get fed up. Gradually, without your notice, you will be in a world of your own, or a filter bubble. 

Q: What advice would you have for media consumers?

Liu: Don't be too lazy. You should be open-minded and look at other sources, not just the sources presented to you. But human beings are lazy. So, without our own notice, we just get into this filter bubble comfortably or happily. That's a mistake that will make you more and more narrow-minded. That's why our fake news detection or disinformation detection algorithms could help. If we just simply tell people, “Hey, this is disputed,” then if they are open-minded, they will probably say, “OK, let me look at it.” It's a very complicated issue. A computer scientist cannot solve this problem of disinformation mitigation alone. We can help social scientists to try to mitigate this effect. 

Shu: I talk with journalists a lot. Learning from them, there are some very simple heuristics that the public could use to avoid some fake news pieces, but not all. For example, if you look at the URLs of the website, there are malicious signals of the website you should be careful about. Or if the headlines are very catchy or very sensational, you have to be careful. So there are different rules that journalists state you can use to educate the general public to not fall into fake news.

Liu: We should be more diligent when we consume information online and be careful of the fact that not all information is genuine, and also be aware that we can be easily fooled.

This research received funding in part from the National Science Foundation.

The Global Security Initiative is partially supported by Arizona’s Technology and Research Initiative Fund. TRIF investment has enabled thousands of scientific discoveries, over 800 patents, 280 new startup companies and hands-on training for approximately 33,000 students across Arizona’s universities. Publicly supported through voter approval, TRIF is an essential resource for growing Arizona’s economy and providing opportunities for Arizona residents to work, learn and thrive.

Written by Madison Arnold

Top illustration by Meryl Pritchett

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ASU research and innovation leader Sethuraman Panchanathan confirmed as NSF director

U.S. Senate unanimously confirms Panchanathan as NSF director.
June 23, 2020

Champion of transdisciplinary research will have opportunity to advance research on national scale with new post

Arizona State University Executive Vice President and Chief Research and Innovation Officer Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan has been named the 15th director of the National Science Foundation, unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate on June 18 after his December 2019 nomination by President Donald J. Trump.

During his six-year appointment, Panchanathan will be responsible for overseeing NSF staff and management, program creation and administration, merit review, planning, budget and day-to-day operations. He also will direct the federal agency’s mission, including support for all fields of fundamental science and engineering, keeping the U.S. at the leading edge of discovery. 

“Right now, the world faces significant scientific challenges — most obviously a pandemic,” Panchanathan said. “But in addition to providing creative solutions to address current problems, our eyes are on the future, leveraging partnerships at every level and encouraging diversity that breeds new ideas for a robust pipeline of young scientists. It is only through that expansive perspective on the scientific and engineering enterprise that we can recognize the brightest ideas and nurture them into tomorrow's world-class technological innovations.”

ASU President Michael M. Crow praised Panchanathan's confirmation.

“We are thrilled for Dr. Panchanathan on this tremendous achievement,” Crow said. “The NSF is the largest, most elite science agency in the world, and this is a fantastic opportunity for Dr. Panchanathan to advance research on a major, national scale.”

Panchanathan identified three pillars of his vision for NSF:

  • Advancing research into the future.
  • Ensuring inclusivity.
  • Continuing global leadership in science and engineering.

He has a history of doing exactly those things. His current position, which he has held for the past nine years at Arizona State University, has allowed him to lead the Knowledge Enterprise, which has advanced research, innovation, strategic partnerships, entrepreneurship, and global and economic development. During his time with Knowledge Enterprise, ASU has been named the most innovative university in the nation by U.S. News and World Report for five straight years, beginning in 2015.

“World-class science requires talented scientists and engineers drawn from every corner of our nation — from remote rural areas to the largest urban centers. The best science is shaped by a wide range of perspectives,” said Panchanathan, who is a also professor of computer science and engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU, the nation’s largest and most comprehensive engineering program. “I want people to get excited by science and have the opportunity to be part of the scientific enterprise. It is our responsibility to inspire talent and find ways to catalyze innovation across our country. NSF has a proven record in this area.”

For more than two decades at ASU, Panchanathan has focused on developing people-centric technologies and fostering innovative research and initiatives to change society for the better. He was a founding director of ASU’s School of Computing and Informatics, which went on to become the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering, one of the six Fulton Schools.

Panchanathan is the Foundation Chair in Computing and Informatics at the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering. He also founded the Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing, where he researches human-centered computing to improve quality of life through artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques.

Beyond engineering and computing sciences, Panchanathan also champions transdisciplinary research through efforts to conceptualize and implement initiatives across disciplines, including the biological sciences, social sciences, physical sciences, humanities and public policy.

"Panch has led ASU to new heights of achievement in our quest to be known both for our excellence and accessibility," said Mark Searle, executive vice president and university provost. "Through his leadership, he has enabled ASU to achieve incredible advances in research and scholarship, to expand our entrepreneurship and innovation efforts and expand our global partnerships and engagements. It has been a great pleasure to collaborate with Panch in all ways, and he has been a great partner in our efforts to advance ASU. Now he will bring his leadership talents to public service at the national level, and all of science will be better for his efforts." 

For the past five years, Panchanathan has been a member of the National Science Board, the oversight body of the NSF whose members are appointed by the president. During this time, he helped formulate the NSF’s strategic plan for the organization’s $8.3 billion annual budget to ensure the nation’s bright future in science and technology. The organization funds nearly 25% of all federally supported university research.

Former NSF Director France Córdova said in a statement that Panchanathan has been a “bold, energizing presence” on the National Science Board.

“This position requires the ability to connect with all stakeholders in the U.S. science and engineering community, walking the fine line between serving and leading,” Córdova said in the NSF’s statement on Panchanathan’s nomination. “Panch has the character and knowledge that make him an ideal fit for the job.”

At ASU, Panchanathan has led Knowledge Enterprise as the organization’s executive vice president. Under his leadership, the university’s research enterprise has grown nearly four times in size, with more than $640 million in research expenditures. In 2019, ASU was ranked seventh nationally in total research expenditures for universities without a medical school, and it is ranked among the top universities in the world for patents.

Panchanathan has aligned the university’s research and partnership initiatives to nationally important issues, including renewable energy, sustainability and personalized health. These activities have drawn top talent and extensive resources to ASU to conduct research that makes positive changes locally, nationally and globally.

“Panch’s confirmation as director of the National Science Foundation is a powerful validation of his success in advancing ASU’s research and innovation enterprise,” said Kyle Squires, dean of the Fulton Schools. “His clear vision, passion and ideas have been instrumental in helping drive excellence across the entire research community at ASU. The strategic partnerships developed and thoughtful positioning of our research bodes well for our future growth, and the approaches cultivated here will be important on a national level as well.”

Panchanathan’s efforts at ASU to foster research and entrepreneurship innovation have also gained the attention of Arizona government leaders through the contributions his work has made to boosting the state’s economy. He was appointed the governor’s senior adviser for science and technology in 2018 and served on the Arizona Secretary of State Technology, Transparency and Commerce Council.

With his long record of leading research enterprises, Panchanathan was recently invited to testify before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Science, Oceans, Fisheries, and Weather about ways the U.S. can stay competitive in the global research field. Panchanathan’s plan included bolstering research, student, partnership and economic development ecosystems in addition to welcoming talent from around the world.

“It's not just a science problem, or an engineering problem, or a behavior problem, or a social problem, or a cultural problem, or a policy problem; it is all of the above and more,” said Panchanathan, pointing out the importance of global cooperation. 

Panchanathan is the second American of Indian origin to be appointed NSF director and is an example of how international talent helps to put U.S. research at the top of the global science landscape.

Over the course of his influential career, Panchanathan has been elected a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Canadian Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and the Society of Optical Engineering. He has served as editor-in-chief of the IEEE Multimedia Magazine and is also an editor or associate editor of several international journals and transactions.

Panchanathan has published more than 485 papers in conference and refereed journals and has been a chair, a program committee member, an organizer of special sessions and an invited speaker and panel member in many professional conferences and university and industry symposiums.

The new NSF director credits much of his success to empowering others to achieve their greatest potential, including the more than 150 graduate students, postdoctoral research assistants, research engineers and research scientists he has mentored throughout his career, many of whom now occupy leading positions in academia and industry.

Panchanathan will be taking an extended leave of absence from ASU as he serves this six-year appointment. ASU’s Knowledge Enterprise Chief Science and Technology Officer Neal Woodbury will assume the bulk of Panchanathan’s oversight and engagement activities, effective immediately. As interim executive vice president, Woodbury will continue to advance ASU’s research, economic development, international development and corporate engagement and strategic partnership agendas, as well as oversee activities related to Knowledge Enterprise operations, institutes and initiatives. In addition to this new role, Woodbury will remain a faculty member at the School of Molecular Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, a senior sustainability scientist with the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and a faculty member of the Biodesign Center for Innovations in Medicine and the Global Security Initiative. He will also serve as CEO of Science Foundation of Arizona.

Top photo: Arizona State University Executive Vice President and Chief Research and Innovation Officer Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan has been named the 15th director of the National Science Foundation.

Monique Clement

Communications specialist , Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


ASU students enable peers worldwide to navigate internship uncertainty

May 28, 2020

What started as a fun project for three Arizona State University computer science majors has become a lifeline for university students worldwide looking for summer internships during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Second-year student Ananay Arora and graduating students Kaan Aksoy and Devyash Lodha from the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU decided to put their skills to work with, inspired by other event cancellation websites. An intern works at a computer in an office. Many in-person internships are being canceled or moved online as the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic upheaval cause companies to change their programs. To help students learn the status of their internships or find open internship positions, three computer science students in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University built an internship tracking website, Photo by Marco-Alexis Chaira/ASU Download Full Image

Internships, especially for software engineers like Aksoy, Arora and Lodha, are critical to building a variety of skills and connections for future full-time jobs. The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic upheaval have resulted in many companies canceling their internship programs. This meant students who had been searching and interviewing for months were left without this crucial step in their career trajectories. In April, Glassdoor reported half of its posted internship opportunities had closed. The job review and recruiting website is one of the dozens of companies listed on

While Aksoy, Arora and Lodha all had their internships and jobs secured, they knew many students who weren’t as fortunate.

“A lot of these companies are so selective in the first place,” Aksoy said. “These aren't students who are stumbling into an internship; they’ve worked very hard preparing and now they’re leaving empty-handed.”

The three friends saw how other websites were displaying internship data, but thought they could do a better job — something more visually interesting with a dash of levity by incorporating emoji.

Other websites also made it hard to add internship status updates. Aksoy says he thinks their site rises above the rest because of the ease of making contributions and the accuracy of submitted information.

Misinformation is rife across the internet. So, it was important for them not to display rumors, but actual, verified information from recruiters and contributors with official company email accounts. They also want to be transparent by showing the source of information about each company’s internships, whether it’s a crowdsourced submission or came directly from a recruiter.

Launched at the end of March, has expanded from information about a handful of software engineering internships to opportunities in many fields across more than 60 countries. Their website traffic has grown from a couple thousand views to more than 50,000 views in less than two months.

The rise in popularity happened by word of mouth — first on their social media and Reddit accounts, and then organically and from mentions by Bloomberg business news, and more. Now, the founders often see their site spontaneously mentioned in group chats.

“The way it spins and comes back, that’s the best part,” Arora said. “It has really become a worldwide utility for students.”

The website isn’t popular only among students looking for internships. University career centers across the country are listing it as a resource, and big companies are even taking notice.

“(Website infrastructure and security company) Cloudflare saw our website and internship statuses and doubled their internship opportunities,” Arora said.

Because the website team believes a canceled internship can hurt the reputation of a company among potential future candidates, bringing attention to businesses that are canceling internships holds them accountable. Lodha says some companies have even revived canceled internships to be held remotely, possibly in response to the website putting their companies in the spotlight.

Even when some internship opportunities move online, there are still disadvantages. Remote interns are missing out on close connections with other students and industry professionals, and the experience of working in an office environment that provides opportunities to build soft skills.

“We want to preserve this information for after the pandemic, so it’s always embedded in people’s minds,” Arora said.

Aksoy, Arora and Lodha aren’t done developing Though they’d like to keep it simple, they’re adding a more robust hiring side of the website, collaborating with recruiting companies to expand their reach, finding ways to add social and commenting features, and building up their back-end resources to be able to handle all the new data.

As the website expands, it’s also becoming a snapshot of the state of companies and internships in areas hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. The team added a map feature with locations of company headquarters and their internship program statuses, which can be compared to hotspot maps of COVID-19 case counts.

“We’re seeing a correlation between coronavirus cases in an area with the number of cancellations and remote internships, for example in the San Francisco Bay Area and in New York City,” Aksoy said.

The treasure trove of data they’ve collected has also caught the attention of researchers who want to study the current situation.

Arora and his team members say they believe the lack of opportunities for students this summer will have far-reaching effects for new graduates beyond 2020. When this year’s juniors graduate in 2021, they might be lacking experience on their resumes that would make them competitive candidates for prestigious jobs.

However, the trio believes will have a life beyond the pandemic as a resource to find internship opportunities.

Aksoy and Lodha know from firsthand experience the importance of internships, and the two graduating students owe the start of their careers to internship opportunities.

Lodha will start a full-time position with American Express after he graduates in August. It’s a return offer resulting from an internship he had last year — one of three he’s had as a college student.

Aksoy had six internships before he graduated in May, starting in high school. He will begin a full-time position with the highly selective investment management company Two Sigma in New York City, likely in the fall if the COVID-19 situation in the city improves.

“I wouldn’t have received an interview with the company if I hadn’t done the internships I had,” Aksoy said. “My experience reiterates the importance of doing internships.”

Arora believes he’s one of the fortunate ones to have secured an internship with Apple that will continue online, though he’s disappointed to be missing the opportunity to be working at Apple Park in Cupertino, California.

“This is my first internship in the U.S. and it’s a big one for me,” Arora says. “It’s a door-opener for future employment options.”

The team members are proud of what they’ve accomplished in a few short months.

“The fact that we might be helping a cause is surprising because we thought it would just be a fun website,” Arora said. “We’re very happy we were able to create this resource to provide any sort of support that we can.”

Monique Clement

Communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


American Astronomical Society awards ASU students Chambliss medals

May 27, 2020

Three ASU graduate students — Santosh Harish, Rashmeet Kaur Nayyar and Mansi Padave — have been awarded prestigious 2020 Chambliss Astronomy Achievement Student Awards by the American Astronomical Society (AAS).

Chambliss medals recognize exemplary research by students who present at one of the poster sessions at the meetings of the AAS. Only six awards were granted nationwide to graduate students. American Astronomical Society Chambliss medal The Chambliss medal is awarded annually by the American Astronomical Society. Download Full Image

 Each awardee is honored with a Chambliss medal, which is named after Carlson R. Chambliss of Kutztown University, who donated the funds to support the prize.

Santosh Harish 

Harish is an astrophysics doctoral student in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, whose research is primarily focused on galaxy formation and evolution using emission-line galaxies. He plans to continue exploring such galaxies to better understand the dynamics of galaxy evolution, using multiwavelength studies. 

“It is an honor and privilege to be the recipient of the Chambliss Astronomy Achievement Award,” said Harish.

“This recognition instills great confidence and encourages aspiring astronomers like myself to reach greater heights in our research.”

Santosh Harish

Harish’s mentors are ASU adjunct professors James Rhoads and Sangeeta Malhotra, who also work at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Facility. 

“Santosh is a fantastic scientist with great attention to detail,” said School of Earth and Space Exploration astronomer Sanchayeeta Borthakur. “I am truly excited to see him grow and shine.”

Rashmeet Kaur Nayyar

Nayyar is a computer science doctoral student at ASU’s School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering. She is also a member of the Autonomous Agents and Intelligent Robots (AAIR) research group.

Her research focuses on key artificial intelligence principles to help build efficient systems that can reason, plan and act under uncertainty. In collaboration with co-adviser professors Sanchayeeta Borthakur and Siddharth Srivastava, she studies probabilistic approaches to automate physics-based detection and identification of intergalactic clouds.

Rashmeet Kaur Nayyar

“My experience at the American Astronomical Society meeting has opened my eyes to the immense potential of interdisciplinary collaborative research,” said Nayyar.

“I believe in, and remind myself every day, that satisfaction in research comes with a struggle for discovery. I hope my work now, and in the near future, will help in advancing our understanding of the universe and its evolution."

Nayyar’s achievement is particularly exciting because she won this award as a computer science student and presented her AI research on using first-order probabilistic logic for reliably inferring properties of intergalactic space far beyond our own galaxy.

“Not only did she succeed in explaining her work to an entirely different academic community, but she did it so well that she won an award for it! She's helping build bridges across research communities in true ASU style,” said Srivastava.

Mansi Padave

Padave is an astrophysics doctoral student in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. Her current research is an investigation of the connections between stars and interstellar gas in the outskirts of galaxies, which helps us understand galaxy growth and evolution. 

Mansi Padave

“I am honored to receive this award and grateful for being recognized,” said Padave. “Winning this award is a big boost for my career. I feel like I have taken the first step on the long staircase of success but there is always more to learn, experience and achieve. It also makes me believe a little bit more in myself and it motivates me to work harder to successfully complete my PhD and pursue a career in research.”

She is currently working with School of Earth and Space Exploration professors Sanchayeeta Borthakur and Rolf Jansen.

“Padave is an extremely motivated and budding scientist, who is forging her own path,” said Borthakur. “Her work uses state-of-the-art observational facilities available to our graduate students through the Arizona telescope system.”

Karin Valentine

Media Relations & Marketing manager, School of Earth and Space Exploration


ASU honors graduate wants to use data and education to empower communities

May 12, 2020

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2020 graduates.

Pratik Nyaupane sees a nexus among soccer, spirituality and business, with fan fervor and the complexity of worker’s rights coming into play. Pratik Nyaupane Photo courtesy of Pratik Nyaupane Download Full Image

This week, Nyaupane received a bachelor’s degree in informatics from the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering at the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, a minor in political science, and with honors from Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University.

He entered ASU as a New American University Scholar and was on the Dean’s List every semester since his sophomore year. He graduated summa cum laude and was named the Outstanding Graduate in his degree program.

Nyaupane focused on soccer pilgrims and migrant workers’ rights in undergraduate sports-related research projects.

“One of my most exciting moments (at ASU) was when I took a Global Intensive Experience program and we studied sports, politics and culture in Catalonia,” he said.

In Spain, Nyaupane worked with his professor, Jeff Kassing, on researching the behavior of so-called soccer pilgrims from the United States who travel internationally to matches, immersing themselves in the sport in a way that is akin to spiritual believers participating in a ritual.

Nyaupane and Kassing co-authored an article titled “I Just Couldn’t Believe I Was There: An Exploration of Soccer Pilgrimage” in the International Journal of Sport Communication.

The article pointed out that the pilgrims “socially constructed the social atmosphere, the sacred nature and the authenticating capacity of soccer pilgrimages.”

While soccer pilgrims are the very visible face of soccer fandom, migrant workers are the hidden face of struggle associated the sport.

Nyaupane got to see this side of soccer when he conducted his honors thesis research on human rights abuses of migrant workers in Qatar in preparation of 2022 FIFA World Cup. He studied the exploitation of Nepalese migrants, who, along with workers from Bangladesh and India, are refurbishing the Khalifa Stadium and surrounding sports facilities. These workers are subjected to unsafe working conditions, forced labor and substandard housing.

We caught up with Nyaupane to get his thoughts about his undergraduate experience at ASU and his future plans.    

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: My passion lies in advocating for social justice and equality in marginalized communities, and I wanted to be able to do that with an informatics degree. When I met Dr. Kirk Jalbert, he introduced me to the world of civic informatics and using technical knowledge as a tool for justice. I work as a research fellow at the Civic Science for Environmental Futures Collaborative, headed by Dr. Jalbert, where we study environmental justice movements and how technology and data empower communities to mobilize and organize in order to protect the environment.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: I didn’t really know what to expect coming into ASU. Many students start off their undergraduate degrees knowing they want to be a doctor or lawyer or work for some dream company. I have been fortunate enough to be a part of several research projects, including conducting my own research as a Barrett honors student. I also completed my thesis on the ongoing human rights crisis affecting migrant workers in Qatar in preparation of 2022 FIFA World Cup. Through Barrett funding and resources, I went to Nepal to conduct field work and talk to migrant workers and government officials to collect data for my study. My research experiences at ASU really opened my eyes to the world of research and how important it is to ask difficult questions and then to work to solve them in hopes of finding answers and sharing your discoveries.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I grew up in the Valley and regularly attended ASU football games with my family. My father is an ASU professor, and my mom is an ASU alum. I always knew that I wanted to be a Sun Devil, and I’m so glad I did!

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: I am so glad that I got to work with many smart and scholarly faculty members as an undergraduate student. I can’t name a single professor because all of the professors I did research with have taught me so much and I appreciate their lessons in research, hard work and dedication to contributing knowledge to society. Dr. Kirk Jalbert, Dr. Jeffrey Kassing, Dr. David Siroky, Dr. Pauline Cheong, Dr. Uttaran Dutta and Dr. Gyan Nyaupane have all had a significant impact on me and my passion for research.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Take classes in areas outside of your discipline. If you are a science major, take a policy course. If you are a business major, take an art class. If you are a political science major, take a computer science class. It is so important that we share knowledge and learn from each other. ASU offers thousands of interesting and fun courses, so take advantage of them!

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: One of the coolest places to be is near the Memorial Union. There are always so many interesting and amazing clubs and organizations that table in that area. I was a part of NextGen America at ASU and Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA) just because I went up to the tables and asked about them. It is a great way to get involved and meet people with similar interests.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: After graduation I will be pursuing grad school. Specifically, I hope to be doing research and studying technology and social impact. I plan to enroll in a graduate program in the near future, and I am very excited to continue learning and growing as an individual!

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I believe education is the single most important resource that we can invest in for our communities. Unfortunately, many marginalized communities have been intentionally stripped of funding and resources to inhibit their liberation. Technology is such a powerful tool, and we must use it to empower communities rather than perpetuate the digital divide and the big data divide. I would invest in interdisciplinary education to empower and connect people all around the world.

Nicole Greason

Public relations and publicity manager , Barrett, The Honors College