ASU unveils new School of Letters and Sciences

September 6, 2007

ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus has a new school on the block.

The School of Letters and Sciences offers a core of liberal arts classes and a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies. The new school provides instruction in humanities, social sciences and natural sciences for Downtown Phoenix campus students. Download Full Image

“We are invested in the development of integrated coursework for students in the College of Nursing & Healthcare Innovation, the College of Public Programs, and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication,” says Frederick C. Corey, School of Letters and Sciences director. “The school will continue to advance interdisciplinary inquiry and offer the Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies (BIS) degree.”

With the school’s location in the center of the city, opportunities are unparalleled for community partnerships that enhance student engagement. There also are opportunities for bridge programs, curriculum formation and academic enrichment that are relevant to the area.
“Community partnerships that are underway include ‘Science Outreach’ with Phoenix Union High School District and ‘Spanish in the Public Sector’ with the City of Phoenix,” Corey says.

Potential partnerships include collaborations with downtown museums, school districts and other organizations.

“Downtown Phoenix is experiencing a renaissance, and the School of Letters and Sciences is positioned well to leverage its locale and become a full participant in the rebirth of downtown Phoenix,” Corey says.

Among the school’s goals for faculty and staff are to help students graduate in four years by tracking classes needed for their degree; collaborating between academic advising and teaching; tutoring and mentoring; and creating instructional communities that bring students, faculty, advisers and tutors together.

Letters and Sciences faculty and staff also will form strategic partnerships within ASU, with community organizations and with national associations to create sustainable and substantive academic programs on the ASU Downtown Phoenix campus. The School of Letters and Sciences partners with the School of Computing and Informatics, Morrison School of Management and Agribusiness, College of Teacher Education and Leadership, and Barrett, the Honors College.

“Through these partnerships, students are given opportunities to participate in academic success initiatives, studies in business administration, Teach for America and access to intellectually and socially vibrant learning environments,” Corey says.

Faculty members will incorporate interdisciplinary endeavors in their pursuits by working with others representing a varied academic spectrum from chemistry to microbiology and from Spanish to English composition. Future plans call for the addition of communication, psychology and other high-demand majors to the school.

“As a relatively small school, the crossing of intellectual boundaries and borders is not difficult to accomplish, and the results benefit students as well as faculty,” Corey says. “Social, cultural, scientific and global problems are not often discipline specific, and through interdisciplinary inquiry, faculty and students are able to make intellectual connections between and among ideas and address complex issues from multiple perspectives.”

Located on the third floor of University Center on the ASU Downtown Phoenix campus, the School of Letters and Sciences employs 30 full-time faculty, 10 staff members and seven academic advisers during fiscal year 2008. The school hires between 15 and 20 faculty associates each semester to cover classes as needed, Corey says.

The Aye-ayes have it

September 9, 2007

A quest to gain a more complete picture of color vision evolution has led to an up-close, genetic encounter with one of the world’s most rare and bizarre-looking primates.

Biodesign Institute researcher Brian Verrelli and his ASU team have performed the first sweeping study of color vision in the aye-aye (pronounced “eye-eye”), a bushy-tailed, Madagascar native primate with a unique combination of physical features including extremely large eyes and ears, and elongated fingers for reaching hard to access insects and other foods. Download Full Image

Verrelli, lead author George Perry, and collaborator Robert Martin’s results, published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution, have led to some surprising conclusions on how this nocturnal primate may have retained color vision function.

Verrelli’s group focuses on color vision to better understand genetic variation between human and other primate populations and the truly big evolutionary questions as to what makes us human.

“At least within humans and some other primates, we know that there are three different genes responsible for color vision,” Verrelli says.

The genes, called opsins, come in three forms that shape our color vision palette, one for blue, another for green, and a third for red.

“What makes that very interesting is that the green and red are found on the X chromosome [sex chromosome], and it is the manipulation of those two genes alone which is related to color blindness for 8 percent to 10 percent of the male population,” Verrelli says.

A 2004 study in the American Journal of Human Genetics by Verrelli and collaborator Sarah Tishkoff of the University of Maryland suggests that natural genetic selection has provided women with a frequent ability to better discriminate between colors than men.

“These three genes may explain all the variation that we might see across human populations in color vision,” Verrelli says. “But how did our range of color vision variation come to be in the first place?”

To help trace back the evolution of color vision, Verrelli’s collaborator Perry turned to the endangered aye-aye, a primate representative of lemurs. These primates split from other groups including humans, apes, and monkeys more than 60 million years ago and are thought to be, in some ways, representative of the early primates that lived at that time.

“We chose the aye-aye specifically because it has a very interesting behavior in that it is fully nocturnal, and so, it raises an obvious and straightforward question: If you are an animal that lives at night, do you need color vision?”

In a simple case of ‘use it or lose it,’ the prevailing theory suggested that nocturnal primates cannot use color vision to see, and so the genes that they have for color vision accumulated mutations and degraded over evolutionary time.

From a practical standpoint, studying color vision in the aye-aye proved to be a daunting endeavor. Since the aye-aye is an endangered species, obtaining DNA samples in the wild was not possible. The group turned to a few rare international research institutions and colleagues that have aye-ayes to obtain DNA samples for their study.

They obtained samples from eight aye-ayes for their study. It took a year and a half to analyze the samples, since Perry and Verrelli had to invent the methodology to perform the first wide-range genetic analysis on the aye-aye.

"From a conservation, population and functional viewpoint, it was the first study of its kind,” Verrelli says.

The results his team found were so startling that they had to recheck them twice.

“When examining these genes in the aye-aye, we realized that they are not degrading,” Verrelli says. “In fact, for the green opsin gene, we did not find a single mutation in it. The opsin genes look to be absolutely fully functional, which is completely counter to how we had believed color vision evolved in nocturnal mammals.”

The authors plan to collaborate with others to perform behavioral studies to see if aye-ayes can respond to colors and further molecular studies to identify the exact color absorption by the opsin proteins to see how this may differ from other primates that are not nocturnal.

The study has not only proved important to understanding color vision evolution, but also has shown the value of examining the dazzling diversity of life, especially in endangered species.

“We not only need to focus on organisms that are related to us and are common, but also organisms that are uncommon and endangered, for there may be behaviors and physical features that, once they are lost, we may never understand,” he says.

To access the Molecular Biology and Evolution article online, visit the Web page">">http://mbe.oxf.... To access the 2004 American Journal of Human Genetics publication, visit the Web page

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Joe Caspermeyer

Managing editor, Biodesign Institute