New course pays tribute to legendary women in music industry

November 21, 2013

It’s no secret that men like Keith Richards, John Lennon and Frank Sinatra are the first to be mentioned when talking about the evolution of music. But what about women like Joan Jett and Tina Turner, who are equally responsible for putting rock and roll on the map?

This spring, an online course titled "Women Who Rock" will right that wrong by paying homage to the ladies who are often overshadowed in the male-dominated industry. The list of 90 artists includes Etta James, Janis Joplin, Donna Summer, Gladys Knight, the Go-Go’s, k.d. Lang, Amy Winehouse, Alanis Morissette, Cher and Beyonce Knowles. Download Full Image

“When narrowing down the list, I was looking for things that make the artist unique beyond looking good or selling records. What did they contribute to a time period in music? Do they have longevity?” said Mike Shellans, professor in the School Music within the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University.

While he plans to keep his opinions to himself, Shellans says he is excited to have students voice their opinions about each artist.

“There are those like Avril Lavigne who spark controversy because some people love her and others don’t. I also use odd examples for each artist, like Mariah Carey’s cover of “All I Want For Christmas” and Whitney Houston’s cover of the Star Spangled Banner. You can’t listen to that song without tearing up, and it really shows off her pipes,” he said.

The larger issue that arises in the course is why women are not receiving the same credit as their male counterparts. According to Shellans, it is a social and historical problem.

“To be a female in a band in the 1950s was an anomaly. Female artists in general were ripped royally by record labels. Their male counterparts had things like production costs built into their contract. Women had to pay for everything out of their salary.”

Furthermore, women were often seen as replaceable. The Supremes easily switched out Florence Ballard for Cindy Birdsong. They also toured without lead singer Diana Ross at one point.

Shellans feels that music executives strongly followed the belief that sex sells. Those who had musical talent but didn’t necessarily have the “looks” wouldn’t get promoted, whereas male singers just needed a hint of talent and strong following.

“Mick Jagger was once called the ugliest man in rock and roll, but The Stones were still at the top of the charts. Same with Bob Dylan. He wasn’t the greatest singer, but he had Joan Baez to accompany him and enhance his vocals.”

Shellans certainly isn’t a stranger to teaching such a course. He also instructs classes on Elvis, The Beatles and The Beatles' solo careers, after the group split. (Seriously, that’s his job.) Through the use of multimedia, he is able to delve into what made their careers succeed, decline and leave a legacy that resonates today. He also shares interesting facts that many do not know. For example, The Beatles could not read music when they started. They learned new chords visually and by ear.

Before he arrived at ASU, Shellans was making a living as a professional trombone player. He played with legends such as Natalie Cole, Bob Hope, the Temptations, Motown, Sammy Davis Jr. and George Burns. When a shift in popular culture skyrocketed rock bands to the top of the charts, jazz musicians like Shellans began having a hard time landing gigs. Soon after, he made the transition to ASU, where he has been educating students on music throughout the ages.

Interested in learning more about the courses mentioned above? Visit the spring 2014 course schedule now.

Biomedical engineering project aimed at improving diabetes treatment

November 21, 2013

In her synthetic biology lab, Karmella Haynes focuses much of her effort on developing better ways of exploring how human body cells work – or don’t work like they should. She’ll be applying her expertise in that area to a major new research endeavor to produce more effective treatments for diabetes.

The project is being undertaken by the national Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC), which is supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF). SynBERC members include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard Medical School and Stanford University. karmella haynes pancreatic cells Download Full Image

Haynes became an affiliate researcher for the center as a result of the synthetic biology research she conducted at Harvard before joining Arizona State University, where she is an assistant professor in the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering, one of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.  

The NSF recently awarded her an $81,000 grant to support her role in the project. She will seek to develop more advanced synthetic monitors to track the development and health conditions of body cells.

In this case, Haynes will zero in on pancreatic islets cells – tiny clumps of cells in the pancreas that produce glucagon and insulin, which helps the body burn sugar and maintain blood sugar levels.

“When something goes wrong within these clumps of cells, you develop diseases such as diabetes,” she explains.

Diabetes is a major disabling and deadly disease that is projected to afflict about 300 million people by 2025, according to the World Health Organization.

Glucagon is a peptide hormone that the pancreas secretes. It raises blood glucose levels – the opposite of the function of insulin, which lowers blood glucose levels.

Haynes will grow pancreatic cells that produce glucagon and insulin in an artificial culture (outside the body), enabling her to study the effects of particular synthetic proteins and DNA on those cells.

In the past, such cell cultures have been grown on flat surfaces. Haynes will collaborate with labs at MIT to grow and study the cells in a three-dimensional translucent biomaterial.

Being able to make observations from a three-dimensional view “gives us a much more holistic view of how treatments affect the pancreatic islet tissue, and of ways we can genetically manipulate cells so a disease can be treated effectively,” she explains. “We can gain a deeper understanding of the proper growth process of that small mass of pancreatic cells that is critical in preventing development of diabetes.”

The cells themselves will be implanted with synthetic monitors capable of tracking changes in the chromosomal structure of the cells. That will give Haynes a precise look at various stages of cell development.

She will be designing the synthetic proteins that act as monitors, revealing “the molecular changes that occur in the cells as they grow” and allowing her “to manipulate the states of the cells to maintain healthy pancreatic tissue.”

The DNA-based monitoring device signals what it finds by glowing – enabled by the use of a genetically encoded fluorescent protein that the monitor can produce.

“We can engineer the DNA-based monitor so that when the chromosome structure of the cells changes, the monitor is tripped and starts producing a green fluorescent protein,” Haynes explains. “Certain changes in chromosome structure can promote cell viability or cause cell death.”

The process enables close tracking of the condition of the coiled material in the chromosomal structure of pancreatic cells. If the coils become too loose or too condensed, they can interfere with insulin production or other proper functions of the pancreas.

Haynes’ says one of her project‘s goals is “revealing the physics underlying the coiling and uncoiling of these strands of DNA” and using that knowledge to “design small proteins that go into cells and actually control the coiling and uncoiling of DNA so that the pancreas islets have plenty of cells that are producing proper levels of insulin.”

A portion of her NSF grant will support students in getting hands-on lab experience. One undergraduate and one graduate student will be part of Haynes’ SynBERC project research team.

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering