Trip to Kenya brings hard work and adventure

March 29, 2011

Spring break for Amy Kaczmarowski and four other ASU students featured two overnight plane trips and a 10-hour bus trip into the heart of Kenya.

For eight days they experienced heat and rain, and took long hikes to the Yalla River to collect water samples. They slept under nets, and learned to eat ugali, a cake made of ground maize, and fish eyes. Generous families fed them tilapia, roasted corn, collard greens and chapattis. Download Full Image

For Kaczmarowski, an ASU aerospace engineering junior who is working on her second overseas project for Engineers Without Borders (EWB), the experience was “fabulous.”

“It was a very productive trip, in the sense that it gave us a clear idea of what is going on,” she said on her first day back, still pumped by the adventure. “The Kenyans have so much need. The government provides treated water, but the pipes are in such terrible condition that the water is full of bacteria by the time it gets to them.

“There are about 20,000 people living in four communities in the Bondo District, and they have terrible problems with typhoid and malaria. For us, the solutions seemed so simple, to determine the filtration needed, and to design basic systems for storing and delivering water. But we learned that it’s a huge project.”

Once they’ve made an assessment, she and her team will report back to the national EWB organization. They’ll work with professional engineers, including a team mentor, to create a project proposal on creating a sustainable water supply for the district.

They hope to return to Kenya for a month in December to begin building a water system, and again for two months in summer 2012. About 30 ASU students are involved, though only eight or 10 will travel. The project is expected to take about five years, so other ASU students will eventually take over.

The team is raising money for the project with a 5K run around the Tempe campus on April 2, titled “Kenya Dig It.” While most of the construction materials are donated, the students must pay for their trip costs themselves.

Kaczmarowski is unusual in her commitment. She was also leader for the last EWB project in Ecuador, starting when she was a freshman. Civil engineering professor Edward Kavazanjian said he is amazed by her energy and accomplishments.

“Amy served not only as manager but as the inspirational leader of the ASU team,”said Kavazanjian, group adviser. ”She successfully negotiated the cultural challenges in dealing with a small tribe on the edge of the Amazon rain forest and Ecuadorian regional government officials, as well as the logistical challenges involved with managing a group of up to 15 students working in a foreign country.

“She ably coordinated design of the system and worked through several challenging technical issues on the project, including developing appropriate, sustainable filtration and disinfection schemes for the village’s water supply.”

In addition to her EWB activities, Kaczmarowski does research on ionizing radiation modeling in the lab of electrical engineering professor Keith Holbert, director of ASU’s nuclear power generation graduate program. She also is deeply involved with NASA Space Grant Robotics, as chief mechanical engineer for a competitive student team.  

Her eventual goal is to work for a private space development corporation, to improve technology that will make a space faring civilization possible. She said she chose to attend ASU not only because of the quality of the Fulton Schools of Engineering, but also because she was “very excited about the School of Earth and Space Exploration.”

“I love the idea of programs that are so incredibly interdisciplinary,” she said. “Space exploration itself seems to rely so heavily on so many different fields, it just makes perfect sense to participate in a program that trains you to think about all of the different aspects.

“With Fulton's astronautics concentration, I actually get a lot of exposure to the SESE classes, so it makes the engineering degree at ASU just that much more interesting.”

A Flinn Scholar from Gilbert, Kaczmarowski also is enrolled in Barrett, the Honors College.

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Biologist's work sheds light on the shape of seahorses

March 29, 2011

People are naturally fascinated by seahorses. Characters from King Neptune to Aquaman to the Little Mermaid have been depicted as using these enigmatic creatures as a means of transportation.

But why are seahorses shaped the way they are? Turns out, according to an Arizona State University professor, seahorses have something in common with people – they like to eat. And their unique shape may be a result of evolutionary adaptations enabling them to improve their feeding efficiency. Download Full Image

Lara Ferry, an associate professor in ASU’s" target="_blank">New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, is co-author of “An adaptive explanation for the horse-like shape of seahorses,” recently published in the journal Nature Communications. The article explains that seahorses and pipefish (aptly named because of their long, thin shape) share a common ancestor. That ancestor looked a lot more like the pipefish of today than the seahorse.

Today’s pipefish and seahorses both eat tiny shrimp, but the pipefish swims slowly forward to capture its prey while the seahorse employs a sit-and-wait approach, often with its prehensile tail attached to a reef or seagrass bed. Through experimental mathematical modeling, Ferry and her colleagues discovered that the seahorse’s peculiar head, neck and trunk posture allows for the capture of prey at larger distance from the eyes than the pipefish is capable of – an advantage if you’re not moving toward your potential meal.

So Ferry and her co-authors suggest that the seahorse’s evolution into its current form may be related to the biomechanics of prey capture. Theirs is the first proposal of a functional explanation for the body shape of seahorses.

“The paper attempts to examine one possibility for why we see such an unusual shape in nature,” Ferry said. “There is really nothing else in the sea like seahorses. Why do they look this way? We don’t really know if there is some benefit, or if it is a shape that emerged from a series of evolutionary compromises. It is probably a combination of both, but our modeling approach suggests at least one beneficial outcome regarding the ability to capture food.

“We like to think that evolution takes species along a path of improved efficiency, in terms of food gathering or other functions that promote survival. But, in actuality, we know that animals are a series of compromises,” said Ferry, who earned her Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Irvine.

“Animals have to use the same parts for breathing as they do for feeding, for example. This means we often see trade-offs. One skill or feature might be improved at the cost of another. Or, the features represent compromises, meaning they are not perfected for either skill but allow organisms to perform each function ‘good enough.’”

Ferry’s research interests are centered on the field of functional morphology. “Quite simply, it’s the study of organism structure – anatomy – and function – how that structure works in a particular context,” explained Ferry, who describes herself as “fascinated with how animals work.”

Ferry is most fascinated by fish; she calls them the most successful and diverse vertebrates on the planet. “Fish have been the ecological dominants in aquatic habitats pretty much since complex life evolved on this planet,” she said. “Aquatic habitats are diverse; therefore fishes as a group exhibit an incredibly rich suite of forms as necessary to meet the challenges faced in these different habitats.”

So what’s a lover of fish doing in the desert?

Ferry is interested in desert fishes, including the desert pupfish, a small, severely endangered species. “I was doing research on this family of fishes while working on the West Coast, so coming to the desert is a perfect extension of the work I was already doing.”

Ferry arrived at ASU’s West campus, the home of New College and its" target="_blank">Division of Mathematical and Natural Sciences (MNS), for the start of the Fall 2010 semester. Her previous employer was San Jose State University’s Moss Landing Marine Labs.

But Ferry is no stranger to the Southwest. She grew up in metro Phoenix and is the daughter of ASU engineering professor David Ferry. And she said she is happy with her decision to join the MNS division.

“I love the attitude within the division and the diversity of research interests among the faculty,” Ferry said. “It’s an environment that challenges and motivates me.”

“Lara’s expertise in functional morphology has brought a new dimension to our faculty’s research portfolio,” said Roger Berger, MNS division director. “She already has attracted several undergraduate students to work in her laboratory on research projects similar to those reported in the Nature Communications paper. This supports MNS’s dedication to hands-on learning for our students.”

Ferry has provided scientific support to television nature programs, including a Discovery Channel program about the Loch Ness Monster. “The program examined the possibility that something like Nessy lived in the Loch. To the disappointment of conspiracy theorists, we concluded there was no Nessy,” she said.

Ferry also is maintaining her working relationship with the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Labs, where she spends time in the summer teaching and conducting research. This is where she met her two co-authors for the newly published paper about seahorses. Both are faculty members at a Belgian university.