Grad course looks at Katrina through environmental justice lens

August 27, 2010

Monica Casper’s graduate course, “Environmental Justice, Body Politics and Human Rights,” is taking her students by storm, literally and figuratively. The professor of social and behavioral sciences in Arizona State University’s" target="_blank">New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences and her 13 graduate students are exploring Hurricane Katrina and the environmental justice issues that remain five years after the costliest and one of the deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history wreaked havoc on New Orleans and its Gulf Coast surroundings.

Casper, who is the director of the New College" target="_blank">Division of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies, says her course will take a special approach that expands the environmental justice perspective. Download Full Image

“The EJ (environmental justice) movement and literature about it have expanded over the years,” she says. “This course offers a unique perspective by examining environmental justice struggles, such as those that have occurred in NOLA (New Orleans, LA), through the conceptual lenses of body politics and human rights. That is, the course begins with the assumption that all EJ struggles are intimately connected to the ways in which human bodies – especially racialized, gendered and classed bodies – are shaped, regulated, distorted and damaged by social structures and practices.”

Body politics and environmental justice are among Caper’s areas of expertise, and she has taught courses in each at Vanderbilt University and the University of California at Santa Cruz. While at Vanderbilt she was the director of the women’s and gender studies program from 2004-08. As an associate professor at the university, she participated in its Hurricane Katrina Working Group, which studied the impact of the storm on the communities it hit.

“In my view, any course on EJ needs to focus on New Orleans for a number of reasons,” says Casper, who has taught at ASU’s West campus since 2008. “First, NOLA has long been ‘EJ Central,’ with some of the major figures in the EJ movement based there. Also, the city has a unique set of factors that make it particularly susceptible to catastrophe: urban poverty, an eroding shoreline, ‘natural’ phenomena such as hurricanes, institutional and governmental racism, and a legacy of corruption.

“Any ‘natural’ disasters are part and parcel social disasters, too.  Hurricane Katrina was the most visible indicator of this, and recently we’ve had the BP oil spill to add to the mix.”

Casper’s class, which has attracted students from" target="_blank">ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, the justice studies program in the" target="_blank">School of Social Transformation, and New College’s master’s programs in" target="_blank">interdisciplinary studies and" target="_blank">social justice and human rights, will study the history of the EJ movement, major theories and ideas, principle players, zones of contention such as New Orleans, controversial issues from fenceline communities to chemical weapons and hazardous dumping, and transnational and global issues.

A two-week window during the semester coursework will focus on Katrina and include a viewing of Spike Lee’s 2005 documentary, “When the Levees Broke.” Casper is hopeful she can raise the funds necessary to send her students to New Orleans in November when she travels to the Crescent City for the annual American Anthropological Association conference.

“While the course will cover a broad range of material, being ‘in the field’ in New Orleans will provide a hands-on, direct experience and greater knowledge about one of these zones of contention,” she says. “We can explore what might have been done differently at the time, and we can learn from EJ scholars ‘on the ground’ what they are doing now, and how this can help make sense of other disasters, such as Pakistan’s flooding.”

Among the struggles faced by the impacted Gulf Coast population as a result of Hurricane Katrina, Casper points to five she will discuss with her students: the chemical contamination and toxicity of floodwaters, as a result of New Orleans’ large number of hazardous material sites, and the impact on human health; because African American communities remained flooded longer than white communities, they were put at greater risk; the interruption of public transit systems, which are predominantly used by lower income residents, African American residents, and working poor; FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) mismanagement and poor leadership disproportionately affected low-income residents and communities of color who most needed emergency services; and the recovery/rebuilding efforts have been unequally distributed, reflecting the same structural hierarchies present before the hurricane – as an example, economic development focused on tourism rather than housing for the poor.

“While we’d like to think Katrina’s legacy is long past, this is simply not true,” says Casper. “The ‘recovery’ project is still ongoing, and has now been hampered by the BP disaster. Spike Lee has a new documentary out that was originally to focus on the recovery, but instead shows what hasn’t been fixed over the five years since the disaster.

“The lesson I want to impart is that water and debris can be cleaned up, and oil well holes eventually plugged, but racism, poverty, structural inequality, indifference and corruption are endemic and ongoing. If we can’t fix these ‘social’ things, then we still have the same problems.”

The students’ study of Hurricane Katrina is a perfect fit within the course goals and objectives, says Casper.

“We want the students to come out of this course and be able to understand and describe specific issues and topics related to environmental justice, and Katrina offers many examples,” she notes.

“Look at the lessons provided by Katrina. There was a lack of government initiative to provide basic services, and a complete breakdown in communication in that FEMA wasn’t talking with local government who wasn’t talking with storekeepers and food providers and responders. The most vulnerable people couldn’t get shelter, food, water and even toilet paper in the early days of the disaster. For anyone who cares about social justice or basic human needs, this sort of non-response and indifference was just unacceptable.”

Steve Des Georges

ASU scientists among first to sequence ant genomes

August 28, 2010

Two Arizona State University scientists are among those taking an audacious approach to studying the role of epigenetics in aging and behavior – using the genome of ants.

Jürgen Liebig, an assistant professor in the School of Life Sciences, and Navdeep Mutti, a postdoctoral fellow in Liebig’s group, joined with scientists from institutions in New York, Pennsylvania, China, and Denmark to sequence and publish the genomes of two socially divergent ant species Camponotus floridanus and Harpegnathos saltator. Insights gleaned from these ants’ genetic blueprints are already yielding tantalizing clues to the extraordinary social behavior. Close-up shots of the carpenter ant (left) and jumping ant (right). Download Full Image

The sequencing of the ant genomes is a result of a ground-breaking collaborative research project led by Danny Reinberg, a professor of biochemistry at New York University’s Langone Medical Center and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator. The analysis of the genomes has been published in the August 27 issue of the journal Science.         

“With the genome sequences and gene expression analyses of our two ant species, we show the potential of ants as a new system to study the epigenetic foundations of aging and developmental, reproductive and behavioral plasticity,” says Liebig, who is also a researcher in the Center for Social Dynamics and Complexity in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at ASU.

One of the ant species is known as Jerdon's jumping ant, and the other, the Florida carpenter ant, is a destructive pest in the Southeastern United States.  Their complex social behavior, and the ease of maintaining them in a laboratory, make them ideal species to study epigenetics, how genes are turned on or off in response to changing conditions rather than through alterations to actual sequences of DNA. Epigenetics determine which genes are expressed in cells and how modifications to gene expression can be passed on to future cell generations.   


“Ants are extremely social creatures and their ability to survive depends on their community in a very similar way to humans,” says Reinberg, who is also a member of the NYU Cancer Institute. “Whether they are workers, soldiers or queens, ants seem to be a perfect fit to study whether epigenetics influences behavior and aging.”

The ant genome project began in 2008 when Reinberg, Liebig and Shelley Berger of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine won an award from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to study the epigenetic differences between ant species and to tie them to processes in other animals, including humans. Liebig says. “This project created the opportunity for us to blend our skills to develop a new approach and model system.”

The genome sequencing was performed in collaboration with the Beijing Genomic Institute in Shenzhen, China.

“In studying the genomes of these two ants, we were fascinated by the different behaviors and different roles that the worker ants develop,” says Reinberg. “Since every ant in the colony starts with the same genetic information, the different neuronal connections that specify the behavior appropriate for each social rank, must be controlled by epigenetic mechanisms. The findings could potentially help us learn more about the effect of epigenetics on brain function in humans.”

Comparing the two ant species, the scientists found that approximately 20 percent of their genes are unique, while some 33 percent are shared with humans. Researchers also established that the carpenter ant genome has about 240 million bases and the jumping ant has approximately 330 million bases, about one-tenth of the human genome. Bases are the building blocks of DNA. The scientists also determined that the carpenter ant has 17,064 genes and the jumping ant has 18,564, compared to about 23,000 in humans.     

The jumping ant, or H. saltator, lives in small colonies and when the queen dies, fighting erupts among workers, until a few prevail and become replacement queens. These new queens, or gamergates, actually live longer than their worker siblings. In fact, the authors of the Science study found an over-expression of proteins linked to longevity, including the enzyme telomerase, in these replacement queens. Interestingly, replacement queens also contained an abundance of small RNAs, short stretches of genetic material that fine tune gene expression in many organisms, including humans.

The carpenter ants, or C. floridanus, have a far more sophisticated caste system and social organization. Only the queen lays fertilized eggs and when she dies, so does the colony. Non-reproductive ants belong to two separate castes, major and minor workers. Major workers protect the colony, while minor workers forage for food. Even though these two types of worker ants begin life remarkably similar, epigenetics sculpt their brains and behaviors in different ways leading to their specialized tasks. Comparing major and minor workers, the researchers discovered large differences in the expression of genes that function in the brain, a small but important step toward understanding how genes influence behavior in ants.

“After the honey bee, ants are the second family of social insects to have their genome sequenced,” says Roberto Bonasio, lead author of the study. “The next challenge is to start manipulating the genome of ants so that we can learn the function of specific genes related to aging and behavior.”

“The study of social insects has the potential to transform understanding about longevity, neurobiology, sociobiology and specializations that extend beyond the organism to the superorganism,” notes Liebig. “Each model system that scientists develop, be that of the round worm, Caenorhabditis elegans; the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster; transgenic mice or social insects, enhances our knowledge about basic molecular functions and mechanisms and will ultimately take us one step closer to more fully understanding human biology and disease.”

Margaret Coulombe

Director, Executive Communications, Office of the University Provost