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Q&A with ASU director on the value of science in society

As he approached his 40th birthday, ASU chief research and innovation officer Sethuraman “Panch” PanchanathanPanchanathan is also the executive vice president of Knowledge Enterprise Development. asked himself a question: “How do I want to spend the rest of my life?”

His recent election as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science clearly illustrates the answer he came up with — advancing science for the benefit of society and empowering students to design the solutions they want to see in the world. Sethuraman Panchanathan is the founder and director of CUbiC Download Full Image

Here, he shares the importance of science in everyday life, his advice for students and his thoughts about the future.

Question: Why is science important to society?

Answer: If you look at any of the grand challenge problems that we need to solve for society — from providing clean water and addressing poverty to thinking about the kind of planet that we want to leave for future generations — all these solutions necessitate a scientific approach. And by that I mean, the broadest form of science, how we understand the world around us. In other words, for me science is exceedingly important if you want to address societal problems in a constructive and an outcome-oriented way.

Q: Is advancing science and innovation in society something you set out to do, or did it evolve over your career?

A: Initially I was very curious about basic science and I wanted to equip myself with the knowledge, mind-set, thought process and the tools to be able to work in a scientific domain. Personally, I started with an undergraduate degree in physics and then went on to pursue electrical engineering, computer engineering and computer science. I have found that this journey of learning has been extremely valuable to me.

But then at some point in time you also have to ask the question, “Of all of these things that you have explored, how can it benefit humanity?” And so that question was what motivated me to build tools and technologies, devices, solutions and environments for assisting individuals with disabilities. This pivot happened at a particular time, but the thought process was probably an evolution.

Q: Can you tell me when that pivot was in your career?

A: It was when I was 39 years old, I was entering my 40th year, and I said, “What do I want to do with the rest of my life?” And that was the moment. You know when people say midlife crisis? For me it was a midlife opportunity, not a crisis.

Q: What do you see as the most pressing scientific challenge of the future? 

A: To me the grand challenge is contextualizing science and its importance to all of society. It is enabling people to see science as exceedingly important in everyday life and that it relates to them; it's not something external to them. An associated challenge, therefore, is maintaining an interest in science beyond STEM. Because if you see that science matters to you on a daily basis, that it is a tool that enables you to better humanity with, then you will want to know more.

Q: What role do you want to have in addressing those challenges?

A: First, I want to do my own scientific work to keep me inspired and continue to be curious. Next I want to enable the advancement of science, which is the current role that I have at ASU, encouraging the scientific spirit to permeate, prosper and advance. I love this role that I have, which allows me to do that. And then I would love to go out and talk about science to inspire young minds. Finally, I want to be engaged in venues like the National Science Board where you can contribute to policies that advance science. All of this is important to me.

Q: Has there been an accomplishment that you are particularly proud of, either individually or as part of your lab or an initiative at ASU?

A: The thing that I'm most proud of is being able to work with students with disabilities and see them achieve like any other student, or more in fact. My former student David Hayden, who created the Note-Taker technology, is a good illustration of this. It is most exciting when you are able to unleash the potential in people, despite whatever challenges they may face, whether it is because of family situation, physical disabilities or other kinds of impediments that they might face. And that's why being in a university like ASU is exciting.

Q: Technology is really changing the nature of work that people do and how we do work. How do the challenges that you are working on address that future of work?

A: What I have found is that we have come to a point where people feel worried or threatened by technology. With my own work at the interface of technology and humans working together in a symbiotic manner, I see that technology actually can enhance the human experience. And to me that is a very powerful thing. I therefore see the future of work is promising at the interface of the human and technology.

Q: And this gets back to communicating and demonstrating the importance of science in people’s everyday lives. When something is “other” it can be scary and fearful.

A: Correct. It's got to be part of what they see and experience and even be a part of their everyday life — understood and relatable. When this happens, then they will feel more excited to be part of this transformation.

Q: What advice would you give to today’s STEM students?

A: Keep an open mind. Engage your curiosity to know more about science. You might still decide to pursue something else, but you will not feel that science is unapproachable. What I want all students to feel is empowered and excited to pursue science or have an appreciation for the scientific spirit. In order to get to that point you have to engage. You have to experiment and you have to experience. If you stay out of it, you'll never get that spark ignited.

Q: It sounds like you're saying STEM isn't just for a particular set of students — that it's something that can be accessible to everyone. Even if STEM doesn't happen to be your career path you can still have interest or knowledge of it.

A: Yes. What people might not understand is that even if you're a lawyer or a philosopher, the fact that you have a scientific spirit will allow you to contribute to society one way or the other. A scientific mind-set, when cultivated, will manifest itself in different forms. Whether or not you are a scientist is not the point.

Q: How important is it that researchers have a transdisciplinary approach to problems?

A: It is important to have a transdisciplinary mind-set to solve grand-challenge problems. Whether transdisciplinary research is at the core of what you do or you simply have an appreciation for the transdisciplinary mind-set, you will still contribute to finding real solutions.

Q: That seems to mirror how ASU has been designed. We still have the traditional disciplines, English for example, but it's very open.

A: Correct. It's very open. You can engage with and gain a sense of appreciation for other disciplines. At ASU, you are not constrained by the barriers, but you are empowered by the opportunity.

Q: What was your reaction upon receiving news of your election as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science?

A: I am very grateful for the award. Along the way, in your career you are recognized for accomplishments. I believe that these are not just a manifestation of what you have done alone but recognition of the collective spirit that has contributed. You never do anything individually. You stand on the shoulders of so many people that have lifted you up. By this I mean mentors, colleagues, students and the environment who have made this all possible.

Kelsey Wharton

Science Writer, Knowledge Enterprise Development

Researchers explores genome fidelity, its consequences for cellular health

Non-inherited, chance mutations may also provide a new window into understanding human disease

November 17, 2017

It’s biology’s version of the whisper game. Inside a cell, every DNA phrase or sentence that makes a protein, known as a gene, first must be precisely copied, to ensure its instructions can properly build the foundation of life.

But much like children tasked in the game with faithfully whispering a phrase to one another, each time, there is the possibility of introducing errors when the DNA information is passed along inside every living cell. A study on how sporadic mutations affect cell function may also provide a new window into the understanding of non-inherited forms of human disease. Download Full Image

In biology, scientists have long wanted to explore this fidelity and how much random error a cell can handle before things really start to go haywire and affect its survival.

Now, in a large survey, a team of researchers, has come to grips with this issue in a study that has both implications for understanding how sporadic mutations affect cell function, but also, may provide a new window into understanding non-inherited forms of human disease. 

“Our observations demonstrate that there is an inherent limit to the faithful expression of the genome, and suggest that the impact of mutagenesis on cellular health and fitness is substantially greater than currently appreciated,” said ASU Biodesign Institute researcher Michael Lynch, who was recently recruited to ASU as director of the Biodesign Center for Mechanisms of Evolution and professor in the School of Life Sciences. 

If DNA is the blueprint of life, faithfully copying out its instructions inside every cell make proteins, which are the architect’s bricks and mortar of every cell. There is an intermediary in this transaction, called RNA. In a process called transcription, the DNA blueprint must first be copied into RNA, from which it can eventually make proteins.

Unlike genetic mutations, transcription errors are transient events that are not stably inherited from cell to cell, which, until now, has made them difficult to detect.

In a collaboration with Marc Vermulst at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Lynch’s research team, which included critical contributions from postdoctoral researcher Jean-Francois Gout and graduate student Weiyi Li, has developed a powerful new sequencing technology to provide the first comprehensive analysis of the fidelity of transcription across the genome with single letter resolution (of the DNA chemical bases G,C,A,T (or U in the case of RNA).

“Sporadic errors are unavoidable though, and these errors reveal how important biological fidelity is for organismal health,” said Vermulst, whose lab is focused on understanding how these errors may contribute to the mechanisms of aging.

One theory is that, much like a high-mileage car, things inside the cell start to wear or break down, including copying DNA.

“For example, errors that occur during DNA replication contribute to carcinogenesis, while errors that occur during transcription and translation induce protein aggregation, which has been implicated in a range of diseases including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.”

This protein pile-up is like a multi-car accident on the freeway, clogging up normal cell functions. 

“... There is an inherent limit to the faithful expression of the genome, and suggest that the impact of mutagenesis on cellular health and fitness is substantially greater than currently appreciated,” said Michael Lynch, who was recently recruited to ASU as director of the Biodesign Center for Mechanisms of Evolution and professor in the School of Life Sciences.

To determine the error rate of transcription, the research team analyzed more 2.5 billion bases from 12 biological replicates of healthy yeast cells, a model organism used by biologists because of its ease of genetic manipulation.

They found that on average the yeast transcriptome contains about 4.0 errors per million base pairs. That may not sound like much, but their results demonstrate that transcription errors occur greater than 100-fold more frequently than when DNA is copied every time a cell divides, known as DNA replication errors.

“Our experiments represent the first comprehensive analysis of the fidelity of transcription in a eukaryotic organism,” Lynch said. “The errors we detected were distributed across the entire transcriptome of S. cerevisiae, indicating that our approach provides a genome-wide view of transcriptional mutagenesis in yeast.”

Transcription errors play an important role in protein stability. For example, in humans, transcription errors generate toxic versions of the Aβ protein in patients with non-familial Alzheimer’s disease and faulty ubiquitin-B proteins in patients with Down syndrome. In addition, transcription errors induce proteotoxic stress and accelerate cellular aging in yeast.

Most likely, these observations directly underlie the link between transcription errors and misfolded proteins inside cells. The team has previously shown, and confirmed in their latest experiments, that these misfolded proteins can affect both the growth rate and lifespan of yeast cells.

To better understand the link between transcription errors and protein instability, they examined the impact of transcription errors on proteins in greater detail. The took advantage of some tricks of yeast genetics so that could tweak the genetic background, hijacking these mutant cells to increase the transcription error rate in comparison to normal cells. 

Overall, they identified 21 genes that were significantly upregulated in error-prone cell lines.

A whole-proteome analysis was performed, sifting through more than 4000 proteins and demonstrating that 12 of these 21 genes were also upregulated more than 2-fold higher at the protein level in both error-prone cell lines.

Five of these genes play a role in protein quality control, consistent with the idea that transcription errors result in proteotoxic stress.

“Surprisingly though, we found that the remaining genes were involved in various metabolic pathways,” Lynch said.

“Together, these experiments provide evidence for the idea that in addition to proteotoxic stress, transcription errors can also lead to widespread changes in the metabolism of eukaryotic cells, possibly due to the depletion of vital resources,” Lynch said.

“In addition, we describe how numerous proteins maintain the fidelity of transcription.

Similar experiments could determine how age, nutrition, genotype or exposure to chemicals affects the error rate of transcription, or whether transcriptional fidelity is perturbed in the context of human disease,” Lynch said.

With the technology, the team has opened up a new and exciting avenue of research.

“It will be possible to define the transcriptional component of these non-genetic mutations for the very first time and to understand how this molecular noise affects cellular function. Together, these considerations indicate that our experiments open up a new field of mutagenesis to widespread experimentation,” Lynch said.

One of the most challenging aspects of this field will be to define the impact of transcription errors on cellular health.

“We anticipate that these experiments will ultimately lead to the discovery of a wide range of unexpected phenomena, including new mutagens, new mutational mechanisms, and new disease processes, that could help us understand how the environment and our lifestyle choices affect our overall health, as well as our predisposition to diseases that are caused by protein aggregation,” Lynch said.

Joe Caspermeyer

Managing editor, Biodesign Institute


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'Guantanamo was a huge mistake,' says ASU law professor and former Homeland Security counsel

November 16, 2017

The controversial Guantanamo Bay Detention Center has been largely out of the headlines during the last year — that is, until President Donald Trump recently threatened to send New York terror suspect Sayfullo Saipov to the shadowy prison in Cuba. Former President Barack Obama had promised to shut down Guantanamo Bay on various occasions dating back to his 2008 presidential campaign, but failed to do so during his eight years in office.  

To provide answers on Guantanamo's role and why it still exists, ASU Now reached out to Andy Gordon, a partner at Coppersmith Brockelman in Phoenix and an adjunct professor at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law who teaches national security and foreign relations law. Prior to coming to ASU, Gordon served as counsel to the general counsel at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security from April 2009 to October 2010, working primarily on national security issues related to Guantanamo and the Southwestern border. His view in brief: “Guantanamo was a huge mistake with no real forethought, and we will be paying for this for a very long time.”

Man in beard smiling
Andy Gordon

Question: Trump recently threatened to send the New York terror suspect to Guantanamo, which Obama had sought to shut down. Why is the facility still open, and what is its future?

Answer: The Guantanamo Detention Center or GTMO was the brainchild of the George W. Bush administration. They were looking for place to hold and interrogate people they believed were illegal enemy combatants that was both outside the active theater in the Middle East but was also outside the jurisdiction of United States courts. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court found that, because of the totality of control the U.S. has over Guantanamo, detainees thereAbout 240 at the beginning of Bush's administration, according to Gordon. have habeas corpus rights to challenge their detention and treatment in detention.

The simple reason it is still open is Congress, beginning during the Obama administration and over Obama’s objection, mandated that it stay open. Despite the staggering cost of operating GTMO, about $150 million a year or well over $1 million a year per detainee, Congress won’t shut it down. Obama’s plan was to review all the detainees there; transfer or repatriate, sometimes under security conditions, those who were not a threat to the U.S.; and then bring the 40 or so who continue to be significant security risk to a federal maximum-security facility. However, with no serious voting constituency to end the lunacy, it’s easier for Congress to do what it does best — do nothing and spend lots of money.

Q: At this point, what would it take to shut down GTMO, and who has the power or authority to do so?

A: The president does not have the unilateral power to shut down GTMO. It would take an act of Congress. What the president can do is transfer or repatriate detainees to other countries. Congress has made it illegal, however, to bring any of the detainees stateside. Under these circumstances and with the current Congress and president, there is virtually no chance of shutting it down.

Q: Does military sentencing as an enemy combatant achieve a more productive outcome than working through the civilian courts?

A: No. Stateside Article III courts have been much more successful at prosecuting enemy terrorists. The rate of conviction in Article III courts has been nearly 100 percent, and the sentences imposed by Article III courts dwarf what the Military Commission has been able to achieve. Indeed, because of seemingly unending challenges to the existence and procedures of the Military Commission, it has actually not tried and imposed a truly long sentence on any detainees. It has had some success with plea agreements but nothing close to what Article III courts have achieved.

The argument put forth for trying foreign terrorists and illegal enemy combatants in military proceedings is that there are no mandated Miranda warnings and other similar procedures. From that, people like Sen. Lindsey Graham argue we can get better intelligence from interrogation and are less likely to lose a conviction because of a procedural error. Again, this is simply wrong. As learned in the “underwear bomber” matter, we can obtain very good intelligence both before and after “Mirandizing” a person. Intelligence is really a function of the skill and knowledge of the interrogator.

Q: Guantanomo has not taken in a prisoner since June 2008. What is happening to the remaining prisoners and the tribunal process, and why does it take so long for them to get a trial?

A: As of this writing, there are 41 detainees remaining at GTMO. This group is made up almost entirely of individuals who a panel of U.S. government experts for several agencies have determined represent both a real and present risk to the U.S. and who are virtually impossible to try without revealing sources and methods. Because they are being held as illegal enemy combatants, under established law of armed conflict, they can probably be held without trial as long as the Authorization for the Use of Military Force is in place and operative.

Q: In hindsight, was it a mistake for the U.S. to turn to Guantanamo as a response to deal with 9/11 attackers and other terrorists?

A: Yes, because the fundamental theory was both wrong legally and wrong morally. The Bush administration wanted a place where they could take detainees to “harshly interrogate them” without having either international bodies such as the International Committee of the Red Cross or U.S. courts looking over their shoulder. The fact is, we processed many more detainees through our detention facilities in theater and obtained as good or better intelligence. GTMO was a huge mistake with no real forethought, and we will be paying for this for a very long time.


Top photo courtesy of Pixabay

Learning from photosynthesis

ASU researchers explore new methods to capitalize on nature’s light-harvesting secrets

November 15, 2017

The green sulfur bacterium makes its home in the chilly waters of the Black Sea. To eek out its lonely existence, this life form scavenges energy from the feeble sunlight available to it at a depth of over 250 feet.

Plants perform the same remarkable trick, gathering radiant energy from the sun and converting it to biological energy essential for growth. This process — perfected over billions of years — is known as photosynthesis. Seen in grey, the DNA DX-tile forms a scaffolding allowing for the precise placement of dye molecule chromophores, which self-assemble on the scaffold in characteristic J configurations, seen in green. Blue and red chromophores represent donor and acceptor molecules, respectively. Download Full Image

Now, Hao Yan and Neal Woodbury from Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute and colleagues from Harvard and MIT explore new methods to capitalize on nature’s light-harvesting secrets. Their new study outlines the design of a synthetic system for energy gathering, conversion and transport that may point the way to innovations in solar energy, materials science, nanotechnology and photonics.

“This multi-institute collaborative effort demonstrates a nice use of DNA nanotechnology to spatially control and organize chromophores for future excitonic networks,” Yan said.

Light moves

In research appearing in the advanced online issue of the journal Nature Materials, a system for the programmed assembly of light-gathering elements or chromophores is described. In natural systems like plants and photosynthetic bacteria, the spatial organization of densely packed chromophores is vital for efficient, directed energy transfer. Such biological systems arrange chromophores in a precise manner on rigid scaffolds composed of protein.

Virtually all life on earth relies directly or indirectly on photosynthesis. The organisms using it efficiently transport the energy of sunlight from receptors, which gather photons from sunlight, to reaction centers where the energy may be harnessed — a performance easily rivaling the most efficient manmade solar cells.

Efforts to understand natural light harvesting systems in plants and photosynthetic microbes date back at least a century. Although the phenomena have been understood in broad outline, the details turn out to be complex and the challenges in creating synthetic analogues have been significant.

Plants carry out photosynthesis by converting photons of light striking their chromophores into another form of energy known as an exciton. An exciton is an energetic state of a molecule, or closely coupled group of molecules after they are excited by light absorption. Excitons are valuable in both natural photosynthesis and research efforts to duplicate the process, because they can carry energy from one molecule to another, energy that can ultimately be used to power the movement of electrons.

Solar energy is expected to contribute significantly to the global energy supply over the next century, as society transitions away from the use of fossil fuels. To accomplish this, researchers must learn how to capture, transfer and store solar energy with maximum efficiency at affordable cost.

Hao Yan is the director of the Biodesign Center for Molecular Design and Biomimetics; professor, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Chemistry and Biochemistry; and Milton D. Glick Distinguished Professor, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, chemistry and biochemistry.

Designing from nature

In the current study, dye molecules responsive to particular ranges of light energy are used as synthetic chromophores. By using DNA as a scaffold, the relative positions of the dye molecules can be precisely contolled, better mimicking natural systems.

This DNA scaffolding can self-assemble from 6 strips of single-stranded DNA whose base pairing properties cause it to form the desired structure. The form, which has become a mainstay in the field of DNA nanotechnology, is known as a double crossover- or DX-tile. It is commonly used as a basic building block for programmed synthetic DNA assemblies.

The method outlined allows for the optimum arrangement of chromophores to be modeled, producing a light-harvesting circuit that can efficiently carry the energy of an absorbed photon over distance along the DNA architecture with minimal energy loss along the way.

“The ability to model and build molecular circuits for gathering light energy and moving it around in a controlled fashion, opens the door for the design and development of a variety of nano-scale devices that are powered and controlled by light,” Woodbury said.

The resulting synthetic circuit allows the absorption spectra of the chromophores to be subtly tuned in a manner similar to natural light-harvesting systems.  This can be accomplished in part by precisely controlling the orientation of dye molecules and their distance from each other.

Neal Woodbury is the director of the School of Molecular Sciences at ASU and a researcher in the Biodesign Center for Innovations in Medicine.

Quantum leap

Recently, researchers have determined that part of the success of natural photosynthetic systems is due to quirky physical effects belonging to the quantum world. It turns out that in photosynthetic organisms containing multiple chromophores packed tightly together, light excitation can be shared between molecules. This feature — known as quantum coherence — can significantly enhance the efficiency of energy transfer. It’s one reason that plants and photosynthetic bacteria are so good at it.

The effectiveness of biological systems and nanomachines in capturing light and transporting energy is owing to the highly ordered nanoscale architecture of photoactive molecules. In the last few decades, the use of DNA as a template for the arrangement of functional elements like organic dyes into precise arrays has undergone rapid advance.

In the current study, the self-assembling properties of DNA and chromophores were exploited to precisely determine the locations for the J-aggregate chromophore assemblies on the DX-tile. These J- aggregate chromophore assemblies have light-gathering characteristics similar to the natural light-harvesting antennas used by photosynthetic purple bacteria.

The first step was to identify the size range of chromophore dye aggregates that could successfully self-assemble on a length of double-stranded DNA, while still retaining efficient energy transfer properties. Modeling determined that the minimal DNA length necessary to accommodate a stable J-aggregate of chromophores was 8 base pairs.

Next, a circuit composed of four chromophore aggregates arranged on the DX-based tile was designed, modeled, and optimized, using principles of quantum dynamics to guide the rational assembly of multiple discreet dye aggregates within a DNA DX-tile. The chromophore aggregates were explored computationally to identify sequence designs displaying fast exciton transport properties.

The optimal circuit design was then synthesized and sophisticated methods of florescence spectroscopy were used to accurately characterize the results. Further investigations attempted to precisely characterize the molecular organization of chromophores within a single J-aggregate.

The researchers estimated that an aggregate of six dye molecules would assemble per eight base pair segment of DNA, a result, which aligned well with earlier estimates of eight to 12 dye molecules for each turn of DNA’s double-helical ladder. A separation distance of two base pairs was determined to provide the best excitonic coupling between adjacent chromophore aggregates. The resulting circuit displayed properties of energy transport consistent with modeling predictions.

Future light

The success is another demonstration of the power and versatility of a bottom-up approach to the assembly of nano-scale architectures. Specifically, the design of excitonic circuits like the one described could lead to new applications beyond light-harvesting technology, including innovations in information and communications technology, and advances in fields ranging from the environment, transportation, healthcare, manufacturing and energy. 

Richard Harth

Science writer, Biodesign Institute at ASU


ASU professor explains new blood pressure guidelines

November 15, 2017

A lot of people learned this week that they have high blood pressure after new guidelines were released lowering the definition of hypertension.

The changes come from the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association as part of their scientific guidelines for prevention, detection, evaluation and management of high blood pressure in adults. bloodpressurecuff Download Full Image

As a result of the new guidelines, nearly half of the U.S. adult population (46 percent) now qualify as having high blood pressure, according to the ACC, but the biggest increase is expected among people under the age of 45.

Arizona State Univeristy College of Nursing and Health Innovation Clinical Professor Heather Ross specializes in cardiovascular care; here she provides details on what the change means and things you can do to decrease your risk. As always, before making any diet or lifestyle changes it is important to consult your health-care provider.

Question: Can you explain in simple terms what the new blood pressure guidelines mean for people and how it might affect them?

Answer: The new blood pressure guidelines mean that more adults technically have high blood pressure. For most people, this means making lifestyle changes like eating a healthier or lower-salt diet, exercising more or losing weight. For some people, it may mean taking medication to keep their blood pressure in a healthy range. However, most people will be able to treat their high blood pressure with lifestyle changes.

Q: Why were the guidelines changed?

A: The guidelines were changed because large population studies found that blood pressures above 120/80 put people at a statistically higher risk of having cardiovascular disease including chest pain, heart attack, heart failure, stroke, peripheral arterial disease or abdominal aortic aneurysm. All of these conditions can cause long-term health problems or even be life-threatening. Therefore, the best approach is to prevent them from ever happening by keeping blood pressure in a safer, lower range. 

Many people are confused when a change like this happens, especially when it means that a health number like blood pressure changes. For years, we have told people that 120/80 is a perfect blood pressure, and all of a sudden 120/80 is too high. The reason for the change is that researchers are constantly learning new things about our health based on ongoing studies of large groups of people, using new technologies that give us a better understanding of how health measurements change over time. Therefore, we try to incorporate these new scientific findings into health-care recommendations for people.

, PhD, DNP
Heather Ross

Q: Will this mean more and especially younger people will require medication for hypertension?

A: For most people, lifestyle changes alone will be enough to keep blood pressure in a healthy range. Compared to the old guidelines, just a few more people are likely to need to take medications for high blood pressure. However, people who are prescribed medications for high blood pressure should continue to take them, even when their blood pressures are back to being in a healthy range. Blood pressure medication isn't like an antibiotic that you'd take for an infection and stop taking after the infection goes away. For most people, high blood pressure is a lifelong condition and blood pressure medication is necessary long-term to keep the blood pressure in a healthy range and prevent any more serious heart or artery problems from developing.

Q: What are some of the things people can do to decrease their risk under the new lower definition of high blood pressure?

A: For many people, eating a healthier diet that is lower in salt will go a long way to lowering their blood pressure. Some people may also need to lose weight with a combination of diet and exercise. For people with high blood pressure, it is never a good idea to go on a crash diet or take diet pills to lose weight; that could actually be dangerous. Of course, moderate cardiovascular exercise for 30 minutes five days per week is a great idea for just about everyone, whether you have high blood pressure or not.

Q: Is this a wake-up call for American’s to pay more attention to heart health in general?

A: Yes, absolutely. Heart disease is still the No. 1 killer of men and women in America. Taking steps to keep your blood pressure at a safe, lower level can help to prevent developing more dangerous heart conditions in the long run.

Amanda Goodman

Media relations officer, College of Nursing and Health Innovation


Statewide gathering goes viral

ASU, UA team up for conference on virology

November 14, 2017

Arizona State University and the University of Arizona — infamous rivals on the playing field — joined forces for a special joint conference on virology. The first-of-its-kind event took place at the Biodesign Institute at ASU on Friday, Nov. 3 and presented a broad range of research concerning one of the more enigmatic entities in the biological world.

The gathering was co-hosted by Grant McFadden, director of the Biodesign Center for Immunotherapy, Vaccines and Virotherapy (CIVV) and Felicia Goodrum of the Bio5 Institute at UA. The get-together marked the first opportunity for virologists from across the state to present up-to-the-minute research, share ideas and plan future collaborative projects. Participants in this year's ASU-UA joint symposium on virology. Pictured (front row right) the co-organizers: Felicia Goodrum, of UA and BIO5, and Grant McFadden, director of the Biodesign Center for Immunotherapy, Vaccines and Virotherapy. Download Full Image

McFadden opened the interactive all-day symposium, outlining the menu for the day’s lectures. Each of the eight speakers presented a 20-minute talk, followed by a 10-minute Q&A session. The event featured researchers from ASU and UA, with the exception of the opening plenary lecture. As McFadden explained, “fortunately, it so happens that an eminent external virologist — Susan Weiss — is visiting us.”

Professor Weiss was then introduced by her friend, colleague and fellow coronavirus specialist Brenda Hogue, a virologist in Biodesign’s CIVV. In her introduction, Hogue observed the impressive rise in virology research in Arizona, since her arrival at ASU in 2002. She noted Weiss’ contributions to the study of coronaviruses, viral pathogenesis and neurovirology.

Weiss is a professor of microbiology at the University of Pennsylvania, associate dean for postdoctoral research training, and director in the Office of Biomedical Postdoctoral Programs. Her lecture focused on a specific pathway of critical importance for the virus-host interaction characteristic of coronavirus infection. (The name of this RNA virus comes from the halo-like appearance of a coronavirus particle or virion, when seen under an electron microscope.)

Weiss’ lab studies the betacoronavirus MHV in order to investigate acute viral encephalitis, demyelinating diseases such as multiple sclerosis and virus-induced hepatitis.

As Weiss noted, coronaviruses had been largely ignored in the field of virology until November 2002, when a now-infamous member of the coronaviridae family burst on the scene in China, producing an epidemic of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS. The disease resulted in the deaths of 774 people in 37 countries, with the majority of fatalities occurring in China.

Coronaviruses are primarily respiratory pathogens, with members like OC43 and 229E producing common colds, while SARS and the later-identified MERS (for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) lead to serious, life-threatening illness. The SARS and MERS coronaviruses are newly emerged viruses with fatality rates of ~15 percent and 35 percent, respectively. The MERS virus continues to cause infections and is a global concern.

The talk focused on mechanisms used by coronaviruses to outwit host defenses. A key part of the process involves the action of virus-induced phosphodiesterase that acts to disable a key antiviral pathway known as OAS-RNase L.

Next on the program, Koenraad Van Doorslaer of UA and BIO5 turned the discussion to another human pathogen, papillomavirus — more specifically, the Alpha papillomavirus, which is believed to be responsible for virtually all cases of cervical cancer. Curiously, different strains of Alpha papillomavirus produce widely varying levels of pathogenicity, from benign to extremely carcinogenic.

Van Doorslaer’s investigations focus on understanding of the underlying molecular mechanisms differentiating oncogenic from nononcogenic viral forms, by applying functional screenings of viruses with an eye toward viral epidemiology and evolutionary history. He emphasizes that the emerging picture of viral oncogenicity is more complex than originally appreciated in the field.

Herpes viruses were the subject of Ian Hogue’s talk. Hogue, a recent addition to the faculty of Biodesign’s CIVV, studies neurovirology, the molecular and cell biology of viruses in the nervous system. Specifically, Hogue’s laboratory uses specialized live-cell fluorescence microscopy methods, cryo electron microscopy structural biology methods, and primary neuron cell culture methods to study how alpha herpes viruses interact with the molecular and cell biology of neurons.

Herpes viruses constitute a highly diverse family known to affect mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and even oysters, co-evolving with their natural hosts for tens or hundreds of millions of years. The viruses in the alpha herpesvirus sub-family including human Herpes Simplex Virus 1 & 2 (HSV-1 & -2) and Varicella-Zoster Virus (VZV), infect neurons and are among the very few viruses that have evolved to make their living in the mammalian nervous system. The virus can enter a prolonged state of dormancy. Periodically, the HSV-1 virus may be reactivated to resume its normal cycle of gene expression, generating new viruses that travel back along axons to the periphery.

Hogue’s lecture described the means by which a particular alpha herpesvirus — PRV (for pseudorabies virus) — might exit from infected cells and spread along circuits of synaptically connected neurons. The research unexpectedly showed that transneuronal virus spread is not correlated with action potential firing—a finding of great importance in understanding alpha herpesviruses’ ability to spread through the nervous system.

Sam Campos, an assistant professor of immunology from the University of Arizona's Cancer Center described high-risk human papillomaviruses (HPVs), the most prevalent sexually transmitted infections, responsible for 5 percent of cancers worldwide. These oncogenic viruses establish persistent infections in the mucosal epithelium. Campos' described HPV’s unique entry pathway, which allows the virus to evade important immune pathways.

His work is aimed at deepening the understanding of fundamental HPV biology, particularly, the viral mechanisms of immune evasion and persistence.

Bert Jacobs, Biodesign virologist and director of ASU’s School of Life Sciences, shared his knowledge of another very large family of important viruses — the poxviruses. Jacobs presented recent research results bearing on vaccinia (VACV), a double-stranded DNA poxvirus that was famously used in a vaccine to successfully eradicate smallpox and has subsequently been explored by Jacobs and others as possible vector for immunization against other viruses.

Jacobs’ talk outlined the mechanisms by which poxvirus inhibits necrotic cell death using an innate immune evasion protein, E3. Virus-induced cell death — known as necroptosis — is an important innate defense mechanism used by vertebrates to safeguard cells against infections by poxviruses, as well as herpesviruses and the influenza A virus.

The new research presents a plausible mechanism for the inhibition of necroptosis by VACV, resolving the longstanding issue of evasion protein E3’s role in inhibiting the host interferon system and paving the way for improved diagnostics and therapeutics.

The next talk moved from viral infection to parasitic infection. Anita Koshy is an assistant professor in the Department of Neurology, as well as in the Department of Immunobiology at UA and a researcher in BIO5. Her research focuses on how the common parasite, Toxoplasma gondii persists in the brain, using a mouse model of parasitic infection. Neurons are the primary target cell for Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite believed to have already infected one third of the world’s population. 

The parasite acts to alter the immune environment in the brains of those it infects, thereby carving out a hospitable environment. The work points to possible methods to control the immune environment in the brain and intervene in other diseases where inflammation of the brain may be present.

Paul Boehmer, interim associate dean for research, chair and professor in the UA College of Medicine, Phoenix, next spoke about genome maintenance in another alpha herpes virus: HSV-1, a large, double-stranded DNA virus that is neurotropic, establishing latent, life-long infections within sensory neurons. In the course of its complex life cycle, HSV-1 executes a complex chain of events aimed at optimizing replication. The talk focused on the means by which the virus maintains its genome and the emergence of the virus from neuronal latency.

The symposium concluded with a presentation by John Purdy, from UA’s College of Medicine, immunobiology department and BIO5. Purdy turned attention to another virus causing lifelong infections in over 60 percent of the world’s population, the Human Cytomegalovirus (HCMV), which is a ß–herpesvirus.   

Often, carriers are asymptomatic, but some — particularly those with weakened immune systems — may be vulnerable to serious health effects. It can also affect babies infected with the virus before birth. (HCMV is a major source of birth defects, an opportunistic infection in HIV/AIDS cases and a potential life-threatening complication in transplant patients.)

Purdy outlined the process by which the HCMV pathogen is able to rewire the host cell’s metabolism, turning it to the benefit of the virus. The research has implications for the study of other host-viral interactions.

Following the symposium, McFadden shared the hope that the event will become a growing part of the scientific landscape in Arizona, with meetings hosted again at Biodesign as well as in Downtown Phoenix, Tucson, Flagstaff and beyond.

Richard Harth

Science writer, Biodesign Institute at ASU


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New ASU course will look at fake news, alternative facts through the ages

Think fake news is a new thing? Let's talk about the Great Moon Hoax of 1825.
ASU's 'Fake News and Alternative Facts' to meet Tuesdays downtown in spring '18.
November 14, 2017

Course will use historical lens to offer lessons on how to be better consumers of information amid today's competing news

According to Arizona State University Assistant Professor Sarah Viren, “fake news is nothing new, and alternative facts were around long before they were given that name.”

Viren is teaching a new English course in spring semester 2018 that will put the falsification of truth in historical contexts and offer lessons for how we can become better users of information today.

“We’ll cover some of the earliest examples of fake news — including an invented history by a Byzantine historian — alongside more recent hoaxes, from fictionalized memoirs to bogus news accounts of life on the moon,” said Viren (pictured above, right), assistant professor of English and creative writing in the Languages and Cultures faculty of the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts. “Within this context, we’ll also look at the evolution of factuality as a concept and map its relationship with literature and news, both fictional and not.”

Even those who are unable to take her course might enjoy, and learn something from, one of the readings — what has come to be known as the Great Moon Hoax of 1825.

The piece was printed in six installments in the New York Sun newspaper over one week and written by a fictionalized Dr. Andrew Grant, who maintained he’d been hired to make an account of the astronomical observations that Sir John Herschel was making with a magnificent new telescope.

The details shared seem utterly preposterous to us today.

There were luxuriant forests, barren prairies, blue oceans, white-sand beaches. There were miles of wine-colored amethyst quartz formations and temples built of polished sapphire. The account described exotic lifeforms: bison who, by wiggling their ears, could move a flap of skin from their forehead down to cover their eyes; goats with a unicorn-like horn; biped beavers who glided along the ground carrying their young in their arms; and winged humanoids characterized as man-bats, who “spent their happy hours in collecting various fruits in the woods, in eating, flying, bathing and loitering about on the summits of precipices.”  

The story went viral, 19th-century style.

“Subscriptions doubled within days,” Viren said. “People were lining up outside the newspaper offices waiting for the next installment.”

Why was it such a sensation?

“Like a lot of the fake news today, the story had the veneer of truth; it even claimed to be a reprint of findings from a scientific journal,” she noted. “And hoaxes like that weren’t uncommon then. The writer Edgar Allan Poe published his own invented news in the New York Sun sometime later, though his was a little more believable. It told the story a man who crossed the Atlantic in a hot-air balloon.”

Viren, who worked as a journalist for six years before she completed a master of fine arts in creative nonfiction at the University of Iowa and a doctorate at Texas Tech University, said the impetus for the course grew out of a panel proposal that she and another colleague worked up for the March 2018 AWP conference, titled “The Facts About Alternative Facts.”

“We’re both experts in nonfiction, and we study the essay and other forms of writing,” Viren continued. “We thought we had an obligation to dispel the notion of fake news being a modern phenomenon and could bring some nuance and history to the discussion. As I started thinking about the ways we might talk about factuality that‘s contemporary and historic, I thought, 'Hmm, I think this is a class.' ”

The idea of “fact,” Viren noted, is a relatively modern phenomenon.

“In ancient Greece, oracles were considered a form of truth and so when a guy named Onomacritus forged oracles and tried to pass them off as real, he was in a sense publishing fake news. There’s also an example of a Roman-era historian who invented history. And the writings of someone who claimed to be a disciple of the apostle Paul, but wasn’t, managed to influence Christian thought throughout the Middle Ages,” she said.

One of the texts students will examine during the first part of the semester is “Robinson Crusoe” by Daniel Defoe. Published in 1719, it blurred the boundaries of truth and fiction. 

“Today we think of ‘Robinson Crusoe’ as literature, as a novel,” explained Viren. “But when it came out, works like this were talked about —and read by some — as if they were nonfiction, until they became their own genre.”   

Students in the course will read examples of “yellow journalism” prominent in the U.S. of the late 1800s, the false or exaggerated reporting that newspapers frequently used to try to lure more readers, and then the focus will move on to more contemporary publications and podcasts.

“We’ll look at at least one falsified memoir,” said Viren, like the recent "A Million Little Pieces" by James Frey, once an Oprah's Book Club title.

“(Oprah) Winfrey brought Frey back on her show to confront him after the falsifications had been revealed, accusing him of cheating and harming his readers by giving this false story,” she said. “There have been lawsuits against him, which is odd, considering there’s usually no actual harm to someone from reading a fictionalized memoir. But the way we read is different when we decide something is true,” she continued. “The way we make meaning for ourselves is different if we think what we’re reading is fiction.”

Students will eventually find their own examples of fake news and compare them with examples from the class, so they can contextualize what they see today with fake news from the past — and think about their present-day consumption of information as well. 

Viren, who joined ASU this fall, has always had a fondness for storytelling.

She started her journalism career at a weekly newspaper in Florida, on a tiny island of 3,000 people.

“I rode a golf cart around and reported on anything and everything that was going on,” Viren said with a laugh. “By the time I’d left, it felt like I’d written about just about everybody! I came away understanding that there are stories to be told about anyone and everything.”

From there she moved to the Galveston County Daily News, where she focused on the police beat, city council and other county news. After writing investigative stories for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, often doing data-based reporting about social issues and juveniles, she was hired by the Houston Chronicle in 2006 to cover youth affairs.

Her transition from award-winning journalist to university professor has brought publication success as well.

Ploughshares Solos published Viren’s translation of the Argentine novella “Córdoba Skies,” and her first essay collection, “Mine,” won the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Book Prize and will be published in 2018.  

Her new course, which will be offered on ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus, is open to any students who might have interest, Viren said, but she noted that it might be especially appreciated by majors in English, history, philosophy and journalism.

“It’s my very favorite kind of class to teach,” she said, “where you’re evaluating literary texts and you’re going to be able to dig into important questions with the students as you move forward.”

This ENG 494: Special Topics course "Fake News and Alternative Facts: A Survey Course" (registration code #30441) will meet from 4:30 to 7:15 p.m. Tuesdays in the spring 2018 semester, in the University Center Building on ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus. Top photo: Award-winning journalist Sarah Viren is now an English professor in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts at ASU. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Maureen Roen

Editorial and communication coordinator , College of Integrative Sciences and Arts


Fueling the future: ASU scientists promote new, efficient method of algal hydrogen production

Changing the way the nation generates and consumes energy is at the heart of a new NSF grant awarded to Arizona State University and Kevin Redding, professor in the School of Molecular Sciences and director of the Center for Bioenergy and Photosynthesis (CB&P).

The goal of Redding and his research group is to obtain industrial scale algal hydrogen production, a goal that requires an improvement over current technology by at least five-fold. ASU scientists promote new and efficient method of algal hydrogen production Download Full Image

“I do not view hydrogen so much as a fuel, but as an essential commodity that we consume at a rate of over 20 million metric tons per year — and which we now make by steam reformation of fossil fuels, a process that is energy intensive and produces carbon dioxide,” Redding explained. “If we could replace even a part of that with algal biohydrogen that is made via light and water, it would have a substantial impact. However, the state of the biohydrogen field is not even close to where it needs to be in order to be commercially viable.”

“We thought that some radically different approaches needed to be taken — thus, our crazy idea of hooking up the hydrogenase enzyme directly to Photosystem I in order to divert a large fraction of the electrons from water splitting (by Photosystem II)  to make molecular hydrogen."

It is common knowledge that plants and algae, as well as cyanobacteria, use photosynthesis to produce oxygen and “fuels,” the latter being oxidizable substances like carbohydrates and hydrogen. There are two pigment-protein complexes that orchestrate the primary reactions of light in oxygenic photosynthesis: Photosystem I (PSI) and Photosystem II (PSII).

Algae (in this case the single-celled green alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, or ‘Chlamy’ for short) possess an enzyme called hydrogenase that uses electrons it gets from the protein ferredoxin, which is used to ferry electrons from PSI to various destinations. The algal hydrogenase is rapidly and irreversibly inactivated by oxygen that is constantly produced by PSII. It is hoped that linking the hydrogenase directly to PSI will mitigate the problems, including the fact that hydrogenase competes poorly for electrons and that it is inactivated by oxygen.

“Using the kinked PSI-hydrogenase concept, Andrey Kanyginthe doctoral student working on the project has managed to produce an engineered alga that gives the best sustained hydrogen production of any alga ever. Working with Alec Smith, a Barrett Fellow of the CB&P, they have produced a new strain that has the highest initial rate ever measured, but later it drops. With this grant, we can hopefully produce an organism with the best of both: high rates that are sustained for long times.”

In a future commercial system, one will want to be able to grow the cells normally at first, and then switch them to a mode in which most of the electrons are diverted to make hydrogen — essentially crossing over from a cheap replicating system to a “biofactory” in which sunlight drives production of hydrogen using water. The proposed systems provide an obvious way to do that by turning on the genes encoding the linked PSI-hydrogenase proteins. Consequently, electrons will be diverted away from carbon dioxide fixation to hydrogen production.

Partnering with Israel

The NSF grant is part of the U.S.-Israel Binational Science Foundation (BSF). In this arrangement, a U.S. scientist and Israeli scientist join forces to form a joint project. The U.S. partner submits a grant on the joint project to the NSF, and the Israeli partner submits the same grant to the ISF (Israel Science Foundation). Both agencies must agree to fund the project in order to obtain the BSF funding. Prof. Iftach Yacoby of Tel Aviv University. Redding's partner on the BSF project, is a young scientist who first started at TAU about 5 years ago and has focused on different ways to increase algal biohydrogen production.

"Iftach is taking very different approaches to this problem, which I see nobody else out there doing. Some of his work is a little controversial, but I think his basic conclusions are sound. We have been talking to each other on and off for a few years, but recently we came to realize that our approaches and skills are very complementary. It is a natural partnership. We are already working on our first two joint manuscripts!"

Harnessing talent from local schools

Redding is also partnering with ASU's Global Institute of Sustainability to develop a module within their Wells Fargo Regional Sustainability Teachers Academy. They are working with Molly Cashion and Robert McGehee, the Academy Program Coordinators.

The team will develop a module on screening algae with an agar overlay method. They will train local middle and high school teachers how to do this in the Academy. They will need only a microwave oven and water bath to perform the assay, and their students will build their illuminators out of a cardboard box using LED strips and AA batteries. Undergraduate student volunteers will bring other materials to classrooms and assist the teachers as needed. Algae are grown on plates, covered with agar mixed with Rhodobacter, and allowed to develop overnight.

The students can image them the next day with their own phone cameras using a small green interference filter provided by the grant. They can then draw their own conclusions about the best hydrogen-producing strains. This plan draws upon concepts from the next-generation science teaching concepts, in which learning is driven by the students’ own curiosity. They will be given only a cursory explanation at first but, as the experiment progresses, the scientists will answer their questions about how things work. The students will be encouraged to experiment with different conditions so as to discover the best algal strains and how to coax them to make more hydrogen. In this way, they become partners in discovery.

The team included Kevin E. Redding, Andrey Kanygin and Alec Smith of ASU and Iftach Yacoby of Tel Aviv University. This work was funded by the National Science Foundation, grant number CBET-1706960.

Jenny Green

Clinical associate professor, School of Molecular Sciences


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November 7, 2017

Melikian Center director discusses how conspiracy thinking is used to influence the public and how leaders get swept up in it

Roswell. JFK. Moon Landings. Elvis faking his death. 9/11. Sandy Hook.

It really happened. It didn't happen at all. A cabal of people made it happen.

Conspiracy thinking appears to have reached a feverish pitch, exacerbated by the recent release of JFK assassination documents and reports that survivors of the Las Vegas killings are facing threats from conspiracy-minded people insisting that the mass shooting was a hoax.

ASU Now explored the topic with Keith Brown, director of Arizona State University’s Melikian CenterASU’s Melikian Center is a unit within the School of Politics and Global Studies, whose individual research focuses primarily on politics, culture and identity in the Balkans. Notes Brown, “What's new today is the connectivity offered by the internet, which allows folks to share their stories — whether grounded in fact or fantasy — more readily and shorn of context.”

Man in glasses smiling
Keith Brown

Question: It seems that conspiracy thinking has expanded and grown more intense. Do you think this is the case? If so, why?

Answer: Conspiracy thinking is not new in the United States: It is over 50 years since Richard Hofstadter diagnosed the "paranoid style" as made up of "heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy," and offered examples from the early 19th century and beyond. In his 1964 article Hofstadter argued that its reappearance in right-wing circles in the 1960s sprang from a sense of dispossession, which they attributed to the sinister infiltration of the U.S. government and erosion of traditional American virtues, by individuals and movements labeled as "intellectuals," "socialists" or "foreigners."

What's new today is the connectivity offered by the internet, which allows folks to share their stories — whether grounded in fact or fantasy — more readily and shorn of context.  What's also new is that 9/11 provided incontrovertible evidence that there are in fact people in the world conspiring to kill Americans. The subsequent boost to all kinds of conspiracy thinking amplified the effect of al-Qaida's original attack, tearing at the national fabric in ways its leaders could hardly have anticipated.  

Q: Last month’s release of thousands of new documents surrounding the JFK assassination is a fresh reminder of how strong the belief still is that President Kennedy’s murder was a conspiracy. Does this surprise you?

A: I'm not surprised. It serves as a reminder of a reality that historians always face: However rich the archival record is, and even when we can agree on what happened, the how and why remain open to different interpretations. Visual evidence only serves to fuel speculation; in the case of President Kennedy's assassination, as with Yugoslav King Alexander's assassination in 1934, the fact that the critical moments were captured on film provides both motivation and raw material for near-endless debate over who was responsible. In King Alexander’s case, the full extent of the conspiracy remains unknown 80 years later. 

In President Kennedy’s case, it is not just an intellectual puzzle, but an emotional challenge for Americans: If the most powerful man in the world can be brought down so easily by a “lone gunman,” where can we find security, stability or certainty?

Q: How is conspiracy thinking used to influence the public and undermine their belief in facts and the views of those in leadership positions?

A: Conspiracy thinking is a way of seeing the world: The issue is less that leaders "use" it, and more that they get swept up by it. After 9/11, for example, the U.S. government's efforts to make the case for Iraqi complicity, as well as for the vitality of the Iraqi WMDweapon of mass destruction program, were marked by drawing spurious connections between "facts" that were generated with those connections in mind.  Amplified and repeated by trusted authorities, beliefs grounded in fiction are stubborn, even in the face of contrary evidence. In December 2014, polls showed more than half of Republicans, and Fox viewers, still believed (falsely) that U.S. military forces found WMDs in Iraq. 

President Trump's reliance on intuition rather than documentation, and his dismissal of evidence that challenges his firmly fixed world view, appears to reflect similar deeply grooved beliefs, rather than knowing manipulation. That said, the parallels between the right-wing playbook of the 1960s and the messaging of today's "alt-right" machinery are striking. But that, of course, makes me sound like a conspiracy theorist myself. 

Q: There are those who think Sandy Hook was a hoax, and some people have threatened survivors of the recent Las Vegas mass shooting, telling them they are perpetrating a lie. Is there a limit to this? Is there something that the society can do to re-establish a clearer commitment to shared facts and stronger trust in both our political leaders and major institutions?

A: We have to start by acknowledging the political climate. In that 50-year-old diagnosis on the paranoid style of thinking, Richard Hofstadter wrote that it flourishes in conditions of extreme political polarization. We are at such a point now, where "Democrats" and "Republicans" act almost as tribes or ethnic groups unto themselves. They consume different media, they tell incompatible "deep stories" (as discussed brilliantly by Arlie Hochschild in her 2015 book "Strangers in Their Own Land") and they don't trust each other to bargain or compromise. 

They can't even agree on whether this deep divide is natural or inevitable (we can trace it, for example, back to the Founding Fathers' arguments over the power of federal government versus state rights), or is the product of deliberate efforts to divide American society for political gain (by right-wing radicals, left-wing revolutionaries or Russian trolls). And they can't agree on a forum, format or moderator for a frank exchange of views, grounded in data which both sides acknowledge as valid and relevant. Social scientific scholarship has arguably played a role in creating this impasse, through theories of social constructivism, cultural relativism and pluralistic acknowledgment of different life experiences and choices as valid and coherent on their own terms. 

The good news is that an absolute majority of U.S. citizens remain committed to living in truth and expect political leaders and news institutions to do the same. The best way forward, it seems to me, is to work to focus our national dialogue not on the individual, distracting issues that divide us, but the pressing global issues on which there is broad consensus — protecting the environment, providing access to education, health care and economic opportunities, and combating extremism and political exclusion — for the benefit of today's kids and tomorrow's citizens. Teaching them critical thinking — by modeling it ourselves — seems a good place to start.


Learn more about the Melikian Center here. Top photo courtesy of Pixabay

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The concept of "slow time" is a call to slow down in our fast-paced world.
How do you classify the period in which a tick is frozen, suspended in time?
November 7, 2017

ASU hosts conference that challenges us to rethink our relationship to time, space, Earth

Big questions about the nature of time and space and how they relate to mankind and the Earth have confounded some of the greatest minds since humans were capable of complex thought.

At this current point in time, when everything feels sped up — communication happens at lightning speed and the Earth itself is degrading at an exponential rate — perhaps it would do us well to slow down a bit and reconsider those questions from a modern-day perspective, said Ronald Broglio, ASU associate professor of English.

Ronald Broglio

Broglio is president of the Society for Literature, Science and the Arts (SLSA), which will host its 31st annual conference Nov. 9–12 at Arizona State University. The theme of this year’s conference is “Out of Time,” and it will bring together experts in such varied fields as engineering, technology, medicine, humanities and the arts to explore such topics as species extinction, life after humans, digital temporalities and more.

“The international strength of ASU lies in its cross-disciplinary thinking,” Broglio said. “From the titles of schools and centers to the actual research, ASU is known for innovations in thinking. Members of the Society for Literature, Science and the Arts work in a similar fashion. They bring together philosophy and science, biology and cultural studies, digital technologies and the humanities, art and ecology, science fiction and predictive future-casting, etc.”

He and conference co-organizer Adam Nocek, ASU assistant professor of media and engineering, hope that bringing the society’s members to ASU will give them a chance to see firsthand the collaborative research taking place here.

Adam Nocek

In addition, Nocek said, “ASU's forward-looking transdisciplinary approach to research and pedagogy has inspired many new developments” at this year’s conference, including an art exhibition that brings together art, science and design around a focal theme, featuring work by ASU, local and international artists. There will also be a new series of workshops on practice-based research, and a roundtable on the state of game studies with top scholars in the field of digital gaming.

Nocek and Broglio will be presenting on the topics of philosophy and science and on animal studies, respectively.

Other ASU professors presenting at the conference include Ed Finn, assistant professor and director of the Center for Science and the Imagination, who will speak about a new edition of “Frankenstein” that he co-edited, geared toward science and technology students. Adriene Jenik, professor of art, and Marco Janssen, professor of sustainability, will present with their students on an art and science experiment of rationing water while living in a remote desert area. Associate Professor of English Matt Bell and the Piper Center for Creative Writing will give workshops on creative fiction and science.

Broglio recently spoke with ASU Now to help break down some of the seemingly nebulous concepts into more digestible explanations.

Question: The theme of this year’s SLSA conference is “Out of Time.” What does that refer to?

Answer: We can think of “out of time” in at least two ways: First, time that is outside of and beyond human perception (think slow geological time frames or quick atomic speeds); and second, human-created climate change is having an impact on the Earth and on culture such that life as we now know it is running out of time.

Q: Can you elaborate on some of the topics that will be discussed? For example, “the long now,” “nonhuman temporalities,” “slow time.” What does that all mean?

A: In regards to “the long now,” we live inside geological time. Here in the Valley of the Sun, it surrounds us, and we can see the stratifications and different rock formations. It is a “now” but on a long scale that we cannot fully comprehend. We use numbers and chemical compositions to try to describe this long time. It takes imagination to feel the depth and weight of such timescales. This is one of the advantages of having SLSA at ASU — people can viscerally experience the presence of geological time. At a human scale, a “long now” is the project of culture — passing on knowledge and ways of doing things from one generation to the next. Cultural know-how is fading, even as new forms of knowledge are being born.

“Nonhuman temporalities” means ways of perceiving time that are outside of our human perception. A small tick can be frozen for 10 years then unfrozen and be alive and moving — what sort of time is this? Or think of the song “Eskimo Blue Day” [by Jefferson Airplane] with the line “But the human name/ Doesn’t mean [expletive] to a tree” — a saguaro for example, can live over 200 years. Its life and world feel outside of human history and culture. And yet, too, with climate change and the sprawl of Phoenix, animal and plant life become entwined with our own.

“Slow time” is a great topic — in a world of “just-in-time capitalism,” with Amazon next-day delivery and the speed of texts and emails, there has been a call to slow down. It is a call to change our speed of doing and our attention span. We will be hosting workshops on slow time and slow thinking and doing.

Q: What topics will you and Nocek be presenting?

A: Professor Nocek will present primarily on philosophy and science. His work uncovers hidden fundamental assumptions within scientific research and tools. These assumptions change the way biological life (for example) is represented, and these representations give us insight but also have blind spots. He is finishing a manuscript on molecular animationMolecular animation seeks to bring the power of cinema to biology, recreating in vivid detail the complex inner machinery of living cells. and philosophy.

My own work is in animal studies, and asks us to take animals seriously in culture. Often culture appropriates the cute animals for its own ends but does not take the animal worlds seriously. I look at animal attacks, for example, and how they show a contrast between what we expect the animal to do (to behave within culture) and its needs and interests. I also write about artists who work with animals. Some of those artists will be at the conference.

The two keynote addresses at the SLAS Conference are free and open to the public; find more details here. The "Out of Time" art exhibit, which runs through Dec. 1, is free as well; find details here.