James Elser joins ranks of elite faculty

October 21, 2009

Editor’s Note: This profile is one in a series that highlights Arizona State University’s 2008 and 2009 Regents’ Professors. The Regents’ Professor honor is the most prestigious faculty award at the university. Click here to view the complete list of awardees.

In another lifetime, ASU Regents’ Professor James Elser might have pursued his childhood passion for a life devoted to faith, as a priest, taking confessions rather than conducting experiments. However, his early desire to discover answers to deep questions took him into a career in science instead. Download Full Image

As a professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University, Elser has taken fields of study in new directions, both physically and experimentally. In the pursuit of the yet-to-be-known about the evolution, the flow of energy and materials in ecosystems and the impact of human activity in nature, Elser has traveled from the frozen stretches of Antarctica and the alpine lakes of Norway and Colorado to the Mongolian grasslands of China and the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park and Cuatro Cienegas, Mexico.

A scholar and adventurer, Elser examines the balance of the elements carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus in organisms and ecosystems and tries to understand their potential role in ecological and evolutionary dynamics. This focus emerges from Elser’s pioneering world view, known as the theory of “biological stoichiometry.”

“We started our studies examining plankton, nutrient cycling, food quality and element ratios in different zooplankton species,” Elser says. “We came to the realization that some of the fundamental understanding about plankton could be applied to all living things, from fruit flies to tumors.”

In addition to co-writing a book considered a “milestone in ecology” (“Ecological Stoichiometry: the Biology of Elements from Molecules to the Biosphere”) with Robert W. Sterner, his colleague at the University of Minnesota, Elser has penned or co-written more than 150 research publications on topics as wide ranging as ecosystem nutrient limitation, trophic dynamics, biogeochemical cycling, life history evolution, proteomics, cancer and infection. His highly cited work has appeared in venues as diverse as Science, Nature, Nature Reviews Microbiology, Ecology, Limnology and Oceanography, American Naturalist, Genome, Ecology Letters, Ecosystems, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Even more importantly, Elser has communicated his joy of discovery and creative approach to science to others.

As an ASU life sciences professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Science since 1990, Elser has taught more than 12,000 students and directly mentored 33 undergraduates, 10 graduate students, and 11 others in his laboratory. His “Biology 100” course is legendary for “weird days.”

“Weird” was the watchword for Fridays, when Elser would come to class armed with claims from pop culture and pseudo science, such as “Nostradamus predicted the attack on 9/11” or “Therapeutic touch can cure cancer.” He would deconstruct the claims, using the scientific method and look for real evidence behind the “weird.”

Elser melds an inquiry-based and question-driven approach that taps into students’ natural curiosity and desire to answer questions. His teaching style promotes life skills that extend beyond biology, as he challenges students to discover how scientific reasoning can apply in their daily lives and help them make sense of an increasingly complex world where science has major ramifications for political, cultural and personal decision-making.

Elser also is highly active in building integrative research collaborations within ASU and abroad. For example, one project’s study – in partnership with Valeria Souza, a professor with Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México – of a unique series of ancient hot springs and ecosystems in Cuatro Cienegas in Chihuahua, Mexico – has led to the discovery of new species of microbes and fundamental insights into how phosphorus limitation has shaped their evolution and that of the food webs that they support. His work with Souza has greatly increased the national and international profile of this unique landscape, including added support from the governor of Coahuila, the secretary of the environment, and Mexican President Phillipe Calderon.

Creative approaches and partners also have helped Elser garner millions of dollars in research funding from National Science Foundations, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and National Institutes of Health.

Elser’s commitment to learning and discovery also extends to the wider community in Arizona. As associate director of the Research and Training Initiative Program in the School of Life Sciences, he has led faculty and students to paint houses for the elderly during the Rock and Roll Paint-Thon, held fundraisers for Chrysalis Shelter for Women and Children, Pappas School for Homeless Children, and Camp Kesem (an ASU undergraduate organization that provides experience for children whose family members have cancer), among others projects. He also has spearheaded the creation of credible, institutional relationships with Arizona Science Center and area public schools, and encouraged his colleagues to reach out, communicate and contribute in ways that outlast a funding cycle. In addition, he created the annual SOLS Takes a Hike community outreach event that puts graduate students and faculty in touch with the public through a series of guided hikes conducted in local parks. This event is now part of ASU in the Community, and has touched the minds and hearts of more than 300 children, families, retirees and ASU alumni.

Margaret Coulombe

Director, Executive Communications, Office of the University Provost


Master's in psychology joins degree offerings on West campus

October 21, 2009

Students interested in psychology – which focuses on topics as diverse as substance abuse, emotions, health care communication and juror decision-making – have a new option for continuing their education. Applications are being accepted for Arizona State University’s Master of Science degree program in psychology, offered through ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences.

The West campus-based program will accept its first class of students for the Fall 2010 semester, with classes starting in August. Prospective students are encouraged to submit their applications by Feb. 15, 2010. Download Full Image

“During this two-year, full-time master’s program, students will engage in all aspects of the research process,” says Dawn McQuiston, associate professor in New College’s Division of Social and Behavioral Sciences (SBS) and director of the new degree program. “They will gain experience in research design, laboratory instrumentation, data collection and analysis, manuscript development and grant proposal writing. Students will be encouraged to attend regional and national conferences to present their research findings.

“The program is most appropriate for students planning to continue on to a doctoral program, as well as those interested in research-based careers in fields such as marketing, education research analysis, public policy analysis or program evaluation,” says McQuiston, who earned her master’s and Ph.D. degrees in experimental psychology at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Like her SBS colleagues, McQuiston is actively involved in a variety of research projects. She is principal investigator on a project funded by the National Institute of Justice, studying how jurors respond to fingerprints, bite marks and other forensic identification evidence, in collaboration with colleagues from ASU’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. Also, she and colleagues at the University of California, Irvine, are investigating the role of DNA evidence in criminal cases involving false or coerced confessions.

Other examples of SBS faculty research projects include Mary Burleson’s investigation into the potential health benefits of affectionate touch funded by the National Institute of Health, and Elias Robles’ study at a community substance abuse treatment clinic that explores the relationship between patient impulsiveness and the effectiveness of treatment.

Laboratories on the West campus established by SBS professors include the Health Behavior Research Laboratory; Healthy Families Laboratory; Emotion, Culture, and Psychophysiology Laboratory; Legal Psychology Research Laboratory; and Stress and Social Relationships Laboratory.

In addition to training in advanced research methods and statistics, master’s students can choose from elective seminar courses in areas including abnormal psychology, affective science, behavior analysis, cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, health psychology, legal psychology, psychophysiology, social psychology and social neuroscience.

Once they are admitted to the master’s program, students will be matched individually with a faculty adviser who assists in designing the student’s program of study and facilitates the completion of program requirements. During their second year, students complete a thesis or a capstone project; a thesis is recommended for those wishing to seek admission to a doctoral program.

More information is available by calling Dawn McQuiston at (602) 543-6157 or by visiting http://newcollege.asu.edu/programs/msp/">http://newcollege.asu.edu/programs/msp/">http://newcollege.asu.edu/progr....