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ASU’s ‘starbirth’ research a top 10 ‘Breakthrough of the Year’

December 13, 2018

Key discovery on the birth of stars highlighted by Physics World publication

A key discovery on the birth of stars and unexpected conditions in the early universe by Arizona State University cosmologist Judd Bowman and his research team has been chosen by the U.K.-based publication Physics World as one of its top 10 "Breakthroughs of the Year."

“It has been amazing to see the response to our paper over the last nine months and now to have the potential of this research acknowledged by Physics World," said Bowman, an associate professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. "This is an extremely challenging measurement and we are eager for another team to reproduce it so that we can fully explore its implications.”

Judd Bowman

Bowman is an experimental cosmologist interested in the formation of structure in the early universe, the great Cosmic Dawn that includes the very first stars, galaxies and black holes.

After 12 years of research, last February, Bowman’s research team — which included Raul Monsalve, Thomas Mozdzen and Nivedita Mahesh in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, and collaborator Alan Rogers of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — used their specially constructed experiment at the Australian national science agency's (CSIRO) Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) in Western Australia to observe colder-than-expected hydrogen gas that existed just 180 million years after the Big Bang.

The discovery provided the first evidence for the oldest ancestors in our cosmic family tree. But a bigger surprise was the temperature of the gas around those early stars. One possible explanation is that the primordial gas was cooled through extremely weak interactions with dark matter. 

There is five times more dark matter in the universe than normal matter, but it has never been directly seen; instead it is inferred to exist due its gravitational influence on other objects. If confirmed by additional investigations, the discovery by Bowman and his team will have provided the first clues in the decades-long search for the nature of dark matter.

Finding such signals is a painstaking process that took the research team more than a decade to develop technology to accurately separate signal from noise. By necessity, much of Bowman's data collection takes place in the desert outback of Western Australia and in other remote sites around the world where interference from human-generated radio sources like FM radio and TV stations is greatly reduced.

Through their Experiment to Detect the Global EoR Signature (EDGES) project, the team measured the average radio spectrum of all the astronomical signals received across most of the Southern Hemisphere sky.

“There was a great technical challenge to making this detection, as sources of noise can be a thousand times brighter than the signal — it’s like being in the middle of a hurricane and trying to hear the flap of a hummingbird’s wing,” said Peter Kurczynski, the National Science Foundation program officer who supported this study. "These researchers with a small radio antenna in the desert have seen farther than the most powerful space telescopes, opening a new window on the early universe.”

The signals detected by the radio spectrometer for the study came from primordial hydrogen gas that filled the young universe and existed between all the stars and galaxies. These signals hold a wealth of information on the conditions in the early universe that opens a new window on how early stars — and later, black holes and galaxies — formed and evolved.

“It is unlikely that we’ll be able to see any earlier into the history of stars in our lifetimes,” Bowman said. “This project shows that a promising new technique can work and has paved the way for decades of new astrophysical discoveries.”

And while further observations are needed to back up this hypothesis, noted Physics World, the research could help resolve one of the most important unsolved mysteries of physics: What is the nature of dark matter? 

Joe Caspermeyer

Manager (natural sciences) , Media Relations & Strategic Communications


National Academy of Inventors names 2 ASU researchers as 2018 Fellows

December 11, 2018

Arizona State University researchers Joshua LaBaer and Nathan Newman have been named Fellows of the National Academy of Inventors, the organization announced today.

Election to NAI Fellow status is the highest professional accolade bestowed solely to academic inventors who have demonstrated a prolific spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on the quality of life, economic development and welfare of society.  Download Full Image

“With this honor, Josh LaBaer and Nate Newman join the prestigious ranks of nearly 1,000 academic inventors worldwide who are recognized for scientific contributions that are having a significant impact on the world around us,” said Sethuraman Panchanathan, executive vice president of ASU Knowledge Enterprise Development and chief research and innovation officer at ASU.

“Josh’s work in helping us understand biomarkers – the “fingerprints” of disease – will lead to more effective medical diagnostics and treatments. And Nate’s work in nanoscience and the discovery of new materials is improving the effectiveness of microwave electronic systems,” said Panchanathan. “Both are leaders in their respective fields, creating jobs and inspiring scientists all over the world to pursue new ideas and solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems.”

Cancer fighter takes discoveries from bench to bedside

LaBaer is the executive director of ASU’s Biodesign Institute and director of the Biodesign Virginia G. Piper Center for Personalized Diagnostics, where nearly 180 biologists, chemists, statisticians, toxicologists, engineers and others are working to identify new ways to diagnose disease earlier and more precisely to save and improve lives. In addition to his work as a biomedical researcher, LaBaer is a medical oncologist. At ASU he holds the Virginia G. Piper Chair of Personalized Medicine and the Dalton Endowed Chair of Cancer Research and is a professor in the School of Molecular Sciences. LaBaer is also an adjunct professor at Mayo Clinic's College of Medicine.

“We scientists and researchers have a privileged position in society — the opportunity to stand at the edge of knowledge and look forward to the future,” said LaBaer. “The greatest reward comes when we can use that knowledge to improve the state of humanity. I hope this recognition from NAI inspires others to do the same.”

LaBaer is considered one of the nation’s foremost investigators in the advancement of personalized medicine. He is a pioneer in the field of using blood-based autoantibodies as potential indicators of disease status both in cancers and autoimmune diseases. His discoveries of novel biomarkers provide early warning diagnostics for those at risk of major illnesses, including cancer and diabetes. He holds eight U.S. patents that have been licensed to five companies. A new blood-based diagnostic for breast cancer (Videssa Breast) is one example of the impact of his work.

Joshua LaBaer

NAI Fellows are noted for making an impact on society. With LaBaer’s discoveries, women with unclear mammography results now can get a blood test rather than an invasive biopsy to accurately identify early-stage breast cancer. Each year, approximately 182,000 American women are diagnosed with breast cancer and 40,000 patients die from the disease. Current screening methods miss about 25 percent of cases, and four of five findings are false positives.

To accelerate discoveries the world over, LaBaer created DNASU, an open-source plasmid repository to accelerate the discovery of biomarkers and drug targets. DNASU distributes about 300,000 plasmids that encode thousands of human and pathogen genes to researchers all over the world.

Solid state researcher invents for impact

Newman serves as the Lamonte H. Lawrence Professor of Solid State Science in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. His research focuses on the growth, characterization and modeling of novel solid state materials for microwave, photonic and high-speed applications.

“I’m honored to be recognized as an NAI Fellow for the diversity of my inventions and their impact on individuals’ lives outside of the academic world,” said Newman. “It’s truly a privilege to make ASU proud with this substantial distinction.”

During the course of a prolific career, Newman has been granted 13 U.S. patents for a wide range of applications, from high-powered electronics and ultra-low-power computing to direct energy generation from a nuclear source.

Most recently, Newman and his former graduate student received a patent for a method to switch microwave dielectric devices on and off. Dielectrics serve as a filter to selectively pick up specific signals while disregarding others.

Once optimized, the invention has the potential to revolutionize communication and Doppler technology, improving designs of just about all microwave electronic systems such as cell phones, radar, satellite, wireless radio and more.

Newman leads a team of about 25 researchers who are working to further solid state electronics and push the performance limits of materials and devices, which are of prime importance to funding agencies such as the Department of Defense and the National Security Agency. In 2018 alone, he has presented plenary, keynote and invited speeches on his recent research in Japan, Scotland, Serbia and China, among others.

Additionally, Newman has exhibited a highly prolific spirit of innovation through his collaboration with Nobel Laureate Frank Wilczek on an initiative called the Science Hub, or “SciHub.” The team enhances people’s limited scope of perception with modern technology to improve lives. In one project, Newman and his team are developing lighting solutions to help overcome color blindness.

Nathan Newman

Newman credits much of his success to his phenomenal research group, which has included more than a dozen senior research and visiting professors, several staff and dozens of graduate, undergraduate and high school students. In particular, he recognizes the hard work and determination of an extremely talented engineering associate Richard Hanley, who constructed the inventions and made all this possible.

“My team works coherently together to make our dreams a reality,” said Newman. “I really owe it to them.”

ASU elite inventor ranks continue to grow

LaBaer and Newman join several other ASU faculty, including Charles ArntzenBruce RittmannStuart Lindsay, Michael KozickiSethuraman PanchanathanStephen Johnston and Deirdre Meldrum who have also been honored as NAI Fellows in recent years, helping to further raise ASU’s reputation as a leader in innovation. Additionally, in a strategic effort to foster ASU innovation throughout its entrepreneurial ecosystem, ASU formed a NAI Chapter in March 2017 to recognize inventors and promote innovation across all disciplines of the institution.

Panchanathan was named an NAI fellow in 2013. In 2018, he was appointed vice president of the National Academy of Inventors

Those elected to the ranks of NAI Fellow were nominated by their peers for outstanding contributions to innovation in areas such as patents and licensing, innovative discovery and technology, significant impact on society, and support and enhancement of innovation.

NAI Fellows named on nearly 4,000 patents

On April 11, 2019, the 2018 NAI Fellows will be inducted as part of the Eighth Annual NAI Conference at Space Center Houston.

The 2018 NAI Fellows will also be highlighted with a full-page announcement in The Chronicle of Higher Education Jan. 29, 2019 issue, and in an upcoming issue of Science and Technology and Innovation, the journal of the NAI.

With the election of the 2018 class, there are now over 1,000 NAI Fellows representing over 250 research universities and governmental and nonprofit research institutes. The 2018 Fellows are named inventors on nearly 4,000 issued U.S. patents. 

Included among this year's NAI Fellows are more than 25 presidents and senior leaders of research universities and non-profit research institutes; 59 members of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; two inductees of the National Inventors Hall of Fame; five recipients of the U.S. National Medal of Technology & Innovation and U.S. National Medal of Science; three Nobel Laureates; 43 AAAS Fellows; 32 IEEE Fellows; and 22 Fellows of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, among other awards and distinctions.

The National Academy of Inventors is a member organization comprising U.S. and international universities, and governmental and non-profit research institutes, with over 4,000 individual inventor members and Fellows spanning more than 250 institutions worldwide. It was founded in 2010 at the University of South Florida to recognize and encourage inventors with patents issued from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, enhance the visibility of academic technology and innovation, encourage the disclosure of intellectual property, educate and mentor innovative students, and translate the inventions of its members to benefit society. The NAI publishes the multidisciplinary journal, Technology and Innovation. 

Written by: Dianne Price and Amanda Stoneman

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ASU Law explores legal implications of differences in women’s, men’s brains

December 10, 2018

Exciting new research in neuroscience highlights sex differences of the brain at all levels, from structure and function to nervous systems. It is now understood that sex is a significant biological variable in areas beyond reproduction.

It’s a groundbreaking area of neuroscience discovery, and the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University is at the forefront of exploring the complex web of legal, ethical and policy implications it creates.

“We know that some brain disorders have sex-biased population differences. For example, in the general population, men have higher rates of autism and ADHD, while women have higher rates of depression and Alzheimer’s disease. The hope is that this research will help with diagnosis and treatment for those disorders. Scientists have also observed population behavioral differences between men and women in areas like emotion, memory, pain perception, spatial processing, facial identification, motor speed — those kinds of behaviors,” said ASU Law Professor Betsy Grey, who specializes in neuroscience and law.

“And for a very long time, neuroscience just assumed that these observed population-based differences in behavior were due to cultural and social factors. Now we are starting to question whether biology may influence those differences as well, as we start discovering these sex-based differences in brain systems. And that may or may not account for some of the behavioral differences. And that’s what is very controversial.”

Leading experts gathering at ASU Law

These sex-based differences in the brain are the latest focus area for ASU Law’s Center for Law, Science and Innovation, which examines emerging neuroscience topics on a two-year rotational basis.

Josh Abbott, executive director of the center, said each two-year project features a workshop of leading experts in the first year, followed by a large, public conference in the second year. Previous projects have focused on topics such as concussions and Alzheimer’s disease.

The workshop on sex-based differences in the brain, which was not open to the public, took place Dec. 10 at ASU Law’s Beus Center for Law and Society in downtown Phoenix. The forum featured some of the nation’s foremost neuroscience scholars, such as Larry Cahill from the University of California, Irvine, who led the conversation; Northwestern’s Catherine Woolley; and ASU’s own Heather Bimonte-Nelson. They were joined by a diverse group that included neuropsychologists, psychiatrists, judges, professors and medical professionals from Mayo Clinic.

“We’re very excited about the mixture of the participants,” Grey said. “The workshop is designed for robust group discussion at a high level.”

‘An explosion of research’

Grey says MRIs, CT scans, PET scans and similar technology have served as game-changers in neuroscience research by allowing scientists to examine the structure and function of the brain. 

“We didn’t have that capacity before,” she said. “With those developments in the last 15 to 20 years, there’s been an explosion of research in how brains operate and function, and how the nervous system operates.”

She said functional magnetic resonance imaging, which measures brain activity by detecting changes associated with blood flow, has been a tremendous breakthrough in revealing how the brain actually functions.

As researchers study and document sex-based differences in the brains and nervous systems of men and women, Grey says a primary goal is to help better diagnose and treat brain disorders — especially disorders that affect men and women differently in terms of incident rate or nature of the disease.

“So this is an outgrowth, some say, of the movement toward precision-based therapy,” Grey said. “That’s the way scientists view it, as a precision-based therapy, to help us better diagnose and treat brain disorders like PTSD or depression. And now it’s seen as a critical biological variable when they’re doing biomedical research.”

Examining the implications

But with the medical advances come a complex set of legal and ethical implications, some of which could alter the course of equality movements.

“For a long time, there was a lot of sex-based bias in the law, where men and women were treated differently based on assumptions that were not necessarily valid or fair, and I think there’s been a lot of historical injustice in the legal system that’s come out of that,” Abbott said. “The more recent approach has been to assume there are not differences unless there are compelling reasons to treat men and women differently in legal proceedings.”

But he says the sex-based brain differences now being identified between men and women may provide a basis for distinctions in how men and women are treated in certain legal settings.

Grey says the science could affect everything from criminal law and sentencing to forensic evidence, workplace discrimination and equality in education.

“Fundamentally, it could challenge our concept of equality in law, at least in certain areas,” she said. “So that’s why this is such a controversial and significant area of research. Do we want to have a universal legal standard of neutral application or recognize and embrace real differences?”

In terms of sexual discrimination in the workplace, Grey says research could document that men and women perceive threatening behavior differently, which could alter legal analysis of harassment.

“Some courts have actually accepted that we should define a hostile work environment from the point of view of a reasonable woman working in that job, as opposed to a reasonable person,” she said. “So if we could document that there are real differences, that could change how we analyze what harassment means in a workplace setting.”

Another specific area that could be challenged is the definition of severe emotional distress, which is tortious behavior if negligently inflicted on another.   

“If, in fact, women generally perceive and respond differently to inflicted severe emotional stress than men do, we might need to reconsider what we think of as the harm in that setting,” she explained. “And it turns out that some of this research may lead to that conclusion that women and men on average have different responses to severe stress through their nervous system and through their brain system. Should the law take those differences into account?”

But as these differences are identified, some experts are cautioning against “neurosexism” — which, Grey says, means giving in to sex-based stereotypes, viewing differences as limitations or simply failing to recognize that some differences are cultural or social, rather than biological. As Grey says, when sex-based differences are identified in the brain, it is important not to assign value.

“A big goal in law is to always be objective and apply laws neutrally,” she said. “If women react differently than men, we don’t want to go backward and suggest that women are frail and they can’t take the stress that men can take. So we have to be very cautious as we start suggesting that women and men perceive and react to severely stressful situations differently.”

Lauren Dickerson

Marketing and communications coordinator , Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law


ASU instrument on NASA probe finds hydrated minerals on asteroid Bennu

December 10, 2018

NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, newly arrived at asteroid Bennu, has found strong spectral evidence that the asteroid's rocks have undergone interactions with water at some point in their history.

The evidence comes from two onboard spectrometers, one of them designed and built at Arizona State University's School of Earth and Space Exploration. OSIRIS-REx spacecraft at asteroid Bennu This artist's concept shows the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft contacting the asteroid Bennu with its Touch-And-Go Sample Arm Mechanism, or TAGSAM. The OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer, built at ASU, will help scientists choose a location for TAGSAM to collect a sample for return to Earth. The spectrometer will also gather detailed information about Bennu's mineralogy and provide data to analyze the asteroid's future trajectory. Image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Download Full Image

The discovery was announced Dec. 10 at a news conference at the American Geophysical Union's Fall Meeting in Washington, D.C.

"We're delighted to share in this discovery," said Philip Christensen, Regents' Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. Christensen is the instrument scientist and designer of the OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer, or OTES for short.

"The two instruments found similar results, and their data complement each other," Christensen said. "This result is just the beginning."

"Spectral interpretation of asteroids like Bennu is one of the key science objectives of OSIRIS-REx," said the University of Arizona's Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for the OSIRIS-REx mission.

"We are the first planetary mission to fly both a visible-near-infrared spectrometer and a thermal emission spectrometer. With this discovery, our investment in top-notch scientific instruments has paid off. We are confident in achieving mission success by returning pristine samples of carbonaceous asteroidal material to Earth."

Long journey

Launched in September 2016, OSIRIS-REx stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer. Led by the University of Arizona in Tucson, the mission's goal is to bring to Earth a sample of Bennu's surface materials for scientists to study. OSIRIS-REx finally arrived at Bennu on Dec. 3, 2018.

But before choosing a location to sample, the spacecraft has begun a global study of Bennu, which is about 500 meters (1,600 feet) in diameter and has a day lasting 4 hours 17 minutes. The global study, to which OTES will contribute a mineralogical survey and temperature measurements, will see the spacecraft map Bennu's entire surface at medium resolution and selected areas at high resolution.

Bennu's gravity is extremely weak: only 1/100,000th that of Earth. This means the spacecraft must move slowly, adjusting its path with small thruster burns. The global survey is expected to take until summer 2019 to complete.

When the time comes to collect a sample, OSIRIS-REx won't even land. Instead it will use a touch-and-go mechanism that jets nitrogen gas to stir up dust, sand and rock particles, plus a collector similar to a car air filter to catch the samples. The mission aims to collect at least 60 grams. The samples will then be packed away in a heat-shield-protected sample return capsule. 

OSIRIS-REX will continue to study Bennu until the spacecraft leaves the asteroid in March 2021. The sample capsule will be delivered to Earth in September 2023.

Hunting paydirt

The OTES spectrometer operates at far infrared wavelengths, where rocks and surface materials reveal their mineralogical nature more clearly than at the visible wavelengths to which human eyes are sensitive.

"It's very exciting to see the first up-close thermal infrared spectra of an asteroid," said Vicky Hamilton, OTES deputy instrument scientist. Currently at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, Hamilton received her PhD from ASU.

"Currently, we're seeing lots of surface in the field of view," she explained. "But when we get down closer, we'll see details and variations that are all merged together at our present distance."

The other spectrometer on the mission, the OSIRIS-REx Visible and InfraRed Spectrometer (OVIRS), made a parallel discovery using the visible and shorter infrared wavelengths where it is most sensitive.

"The presence of hydrated minerals across the asteroid confirms that Bennu, a remnant from early in the formation of the solar system, is an excellent specimen for the OSIRIS-REx mission to study the composition of primitive volatiles and organics," said OVIRS deputy instrument scientist Amy Simon, of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

Watch the temperature

Working in the thermal infrared, OTES also acts as a thermometer, taking the temperature of Bennu's surface.

"Bennu is a black object at about Earth's distance from the sun," Christensen explained. "This means it gets quite hot — at noon the surface has a temperature of about 150 degrees Fahrenheit."

But because Bennu lacks an atmosphere, he says, the surface cools off quickly at night, dropping to about -45 degrees Fahrenheit just before sunrise.

Later on, when OSIRIS-REx approaches Bennu more closely, OTES will see smaller details on the asteroid. At that point, said Christensen, "The day-night temperature differences from place to place will tell us something about the physical properties of the surface materials — how loose or compacted they are."

Looking ahead, the OTES team is hoping to study boulders and other features on Bennu, which the instrument can't yet resolve.

"We have a long ways to go, but the data are very encouraging," Christensen said. "From the very first observations, we're able to talk about comparing Bennu to meteorites that people have been studying for decades.

"We're excited and looking forward to helping OSIRIS-REx find a good location to sample."

Robert Burnham

Science writer, School of Earth and Space Exploration


Choose your favorite star at ASU’s new art and science exhibit

December 6, 2018

Our Milky Way Galaxy has hundreds of billions of stars and is more than 100,000 light-years across. So how do you pick your favorite star? Arizona State University's School of Earth and Space Exploration may be able to help.

A new art installation, located in the school’s Tempe campus headquarters in Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building IV, depicts our solar neighborhood and includes 66 of the nearest stars to the sun, including the sun itself. The exhibit also includes the Alpha Centauri system, Sirius, Altair and Procyon.   Star exhibit in ISTB4 Volunteers string out stars on Earth and Space Exploration Day. Each globe represents a specific star in the solar neighborhood and was decorated by a child participant. Photo credit: ASU Download Full Image

The exhibit is the brainchild of Steve Desch, an astrophysicist with the School of Earth and Space Exploration. He was looking for a way to convey our place in space and show the solar system in three dimensions.

“The aim of the exhibit is to provide an intuitive, visual representation of what stars look like and how near or far they are to each other,” Desch said. “If you didn’t know how close Luyten's star is to Procyon, this is your chance to see for yourself!”

The exhibit is the completion of a "STEAM" (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) project as part of the ASU-led and NASA-funded Nexus for Exoplanet System Science program, or “ASU-NExSS” for short. Desch, who is the principal investigator for ASU-NExSS, leads a team of astrophysicists, geophysicists, biologists and astrobiologists to help devise a strategy for looking for life on exoplanets around other stars.

The new art exhibit, which hangs in the building’s Gallery of Scientific Exploration, was created with the help of visitors to the school’s recent Earth and Space Exploration Day. Participants were assigned a specific nearby star and given information about it, then they decorated and personalized a plastic globe representing the star. Many of the stars are quickly seen to be part of double or even triple star systems. Each star is decorated with the actual color of the star. There are three blue stars, each of which is a well-known, bright star in the sky (Sirius, Altair, Fomalhaut). But most are red, and only a few are yellow like the sun. Each star was then expertly arranged nearly exactly as it would be in space.

Some of the stars are famous to fans of science fiction. For example, 40 Eridani is host to the planet Vulcan in Star Trek. The triple star 70 Ophiuchi is host to the planet of House Harkonnen in "Dune." But many of the depicted stars have planets in fact, not fiction.

“Amazingly, and appropriately for our ASU-NExSS project, although these are the 49 closest stellar systems, at least 8 of them are known to have exoplanets,” Desch said.

The exhibit will be on display through January 2019 in the Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building IV. The building is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday–Friday and from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday. To learn more about stars, our solar system and the universe, visitors may also want to visit the building’s Marston Exploration Theater for a 3D planetary show

Karin Valentine

Media Relations & Marketing manager, School of Earth and Space Exploration


What’s on the menu for people in the Amazon? Not the paleo diet

Researchers look at what modern subsistence groups eat — and how that’s changing after increased contact with larger society

December 6, 2018

You’re a human and you need food. What do you do?

Well, if you’re a modern city-dweller, you’re likely to drive yourself to the nearest restaurant or grocery store — a process that takes just minutes. But that diet of convenience is a relatively new addition to our menu. photo of Tsimane house seen from river Download Full Image

“If you condense human evolution into a single year, we were hunter-gatherers starting on Jan. 1 and didn’t move into the first major cities until 11:40 p.m. on Dec. 31,” said Benjamin Trumble, an assistant professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change and the Center for Evolution and Medicine.

However, some modern groups, like the Tsimane of Bolivia, still maintain a way a life similar to our pre-urban ancestors.

“The average Tsimane hunt lasts over eight hours and covers more than 11 miles. Even then, only around two-thirds of Tsimane hunts are successful,” said Trumble, who studies this group. “That would be like walking 11 miles to the grocery store, only to find they had no food.”

Though cities and industrialization have profoundly transformed the way we live and eat, our bodies are still engineered for that former way of life — a disparity that causes many of the health issues we face today, like obesity and heart disease.

To better understand the diet of traditional, subsistence populations, and thus gain insight into our own health needs, Trumble and a group of multi-institutional researchers are working to collect Tsimane dietary data.

“By working with populations that still have to hunt or grow the calories they eat,” he said, “we can get a better understanding of what diet was like before pizza delivery.”

Paleo diet not the secret to hunter-gatherer health

photo of Tsimane hunter
The Tsimane diet is high in calories and carbs, but the people, like this hunter, also have extreme levels of physical activity. Photo credit: Benjamin Trumble

According to a 2017 paper co-authored by Trumble, the Tsimane have the healthiest hearts ever recorded. To build on that, Trumble and a research group he belongs to — Tsimane Health and Life History Project — have recently published a new paper, which examines the Tsimane diet.

Its surprising takeaway is that a high-calorie diet that’s rich in complex carbohydrates is, in fact, compatible with low risk of heart disease, at least when coupled with a physically active lifestyle.

So what does this mean for the popular paleo diet, which attempts to mimic an ancient hunter-gatherer diet by focusing on lean meat, fish, nuts and whole fruits and veggies?

“Humans evolved in a variety of environments, all of which would have had different plants and animals. So the idea that there is one single ‘paleo diet’ is a little silly,” he said. “The Tsimane diet is not a low-carbohydrate or a low-calorie diet, though it is relatively low in fat.”

However, he adds that diet, while important for the heart, is not the only factor at play for the Tsimane, whose health is also likely a product of their extreme levels of physical activity and other environmental factors.

Consider that in the U.S. we aim for 10,000 steps a day and often fall below that; the Tsimane, on the other hand, average a whopping 17,000 steps per day.

Hunting down food data

photo of fish smoking over a fire pit
The Tsimane are in the early stages of nutritional transition and still rely on traditional methods like fishing to get much of their food. Photo credit: Benjamin Trumble

This unexpected connection between food, lifestyle and heart health comes out of the group’s dietary analysis of the Tsimane and a neighboring indigenous group, the Moseten, which they compared to U.S. averages in order to explore diet shifts in response to socioeconomic change — a process they term nutritional transition.

Both the Tsimane and Moseten are forager-horticulturalist groups who live in the Bolivian Amazon. They fish, hunt and gather some wild plants while cultivating a few others. The Tsimane have had limited interactions with society at large and are in the early stages of nutritional transition, while the Moseten are more acculturated and are in the intermediate stages.

The U.S. is considered post-transition — we have fully adopted an industrialized approach to food that gives us easy access to a variety of goods, but also to a greater number of processed foods and food additives such as fat, oil, salt and sugar.

In comparing the three groups, the researchers found that the Tsimane consumed more calories, protein and carbohydrates than Americans, but only about half the fat. The Moseten had similar values for protein and fat intake, but consumed less carbohydrates than the Tsimane and less calories than either of the other two groups.

New menu coming soon

photo of Tsimane house and horticultural plot
The Tsimane fish, hunt and gather some wild plants while cultivating others, as seen in this horticultural plot behind a house. But that approach to food may soon change. Photo credit: Benjamin Trumble

During the course of the multiyear study, however, the team observed that the Tsimane diet is rapidly changing.

“Even in the context of transitioning populations, the pace of change in the consumption of food additives that we observed for the Tsimane is astounding,” said the study’s lead author, University of California Santa Barbara postdoctoral scholar Thomas Kraft. “Over five years, per-capita consumption of sugar and oil rose by 565 and 592 percent, respectively, suggesting that health outcomes could be affected well before more visible changes in diet.”

“While market foods still only make up 8 percent of the Tsimane diet, it is clearly the beginning of a nutritional transition,” Trumble added.

The next step for the team is a closer look at cardiovascular disease among the Moseten. The group is a near relation of the Tsimane, but has integrated itself more deeply into Bolivian society. Their changes in diet, physical activity and lifestyle offer a glimpse into what Tsimane life may be like in a few decades.

Though the food we eat is not universal, the desire to keep our hearts beating certainly is, with an urgency now more than ever — according to the World Health Organization, coronary heart disease is the number one cause of death globally as of 2016. Research like Trumble’s can give us key insights into how to keep our lifestyles healthier and more natural in an increasingly globalized world.

Top photo: A typical Tsimane house, as seen from a river. Photo credit: Benjamin Trumble

Mikala Kass

Editorial Communications Coordinator, School of Human Evolution and Social Change


ASU-led mapping of dwarf planet shows a world both old and young

December 6, 2018

An international team of researchers led by Arizona State University planetary scientist David Williams has created the first global geological map of the dwarf planet Ceres.

The map, published recently in the journal Icarus, shows a world that appears both old and young in geological terms. It may even be active currently. Geology of dwarf planet Ceres This geological map of dwarf planet Ceres was compiled by 14 geologists on the Dawn Science Team. They used images from the low altitude mapping orbit with a resolution of 110 feet per pixel. Colors indicate distinct geologic materials: Brown is the ancient cratered plains; blue, gray, pink and red are impact ejects from old craters Kerwan, Yalode and Urvara; yellow and tan are crater ejecta from younger craters; and green shows landslides and icy flows. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Dawn Science Team Download Full Image

"Ceres showed us a heavily cratered surface overall, but some features appear quite young," said Williams, a research professor in ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration and director of its Ronald Greeley Center for Planetary Studies.

Scientists count numbers of craters as a gauge of relative age — the more craters in an area, the older the surface. And conversely, a lack of craters on features suggests that they formed relatively recently.   

"In places, the surface of Ceres is only a few millions to tens of millions of years old," he said. That qualifies as old in human terms, but it's just 1 percent (or less) of the age of the solar system, which is 4.6 billion years.

The data the scientists used to map Ceres came from NASA's Dawn asteroid mission, launched in 2007. Dawn had two targets: The first was the asteroid Vesta, explored between July 2011 and September 2012, and the second was Ceres, where Dawn arrived in March 2015. The spacecraft carried a suite of instruments including a camera, a spectrometer and a gamma-ray and neutron detector.

In all Dawn spent more than three and half years at Ceres, with the mission ending only when the spacecraft ran out of fuel on Oct. 31, 2018.

In the transition zone

Ceres travels around the sun between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, taking 4.6 Earth years for one revolution. It lies toward the outer part of the asteroid belt at an average distance from the Sun of 2.8 astronomical units (Earth orbits at 1 a.u.).

The asteroids are small bodies that occupy a middle zone between the rocky terrestrial planets from Mars inward and the gas- and ice-giant planets that orbit farther outward. Discovered in 1801, Ceres is the largest body in the asteroid belt, but is less than 600 miles in diameter. It spins once every nine hours.

Before the Dawn mission, studies from Earth (including with the Hubble Space Telescope) had sketched a rough portrait of Ceres.

"It was dark and spherical and had a few bright spots," Williams said. "But we had no idea of the nature of Ceres' geology."

The picture became clearer, if more complex, as Dawn approached Ceres, then flew a sequence of orbital surveys at different altitudes, down to as low as 22 miles above the surface during the last phase of the mission this past summer.

World of surprises

"The first major discovery was that Ceres had many impact craters preserved on it," Williams said. "The original thinking had been that Ceres was mostly an icy object, and ice doesn't preserve impact craters the way rock does because the ice relaxes. So that was a surprise."

Another surprise was a comparative lack of large basins produced by the impact of big meteorites, which are common in the asteroid belt.

"As we studied the high-resolution images and fitted them together into larger mosaics," Williams explained, "we spotted large lowland areas and high-standing areas, but no really large, well-preserved impact basins such as we found on Vesta."

On Ceres, the largest recognizable impact is the Kerwan basin, 177 miles in diameter and named for the Hopi Indian spirit of the sprouting corn. This was in sharp contrast to Vesta, Dawn's first target. Vesta is only about half the size of Ceres yet it has two big impact basins near its south pole. Mapping of Ceres has now revealed the rim of an ancient impact basin, Vendemia Planitia, which was initially recognized as a large lowland area early in Dawn's mission.

Scientists now think the reason for Ceres' appearance is because it is built from a mixture of ice and rock, and has partly evolved geologically. "Its nature is more similar to Saturn's icy outer moons like Enceladus or Dione," Williams explained.

The internal heat that drove the geological evolution probably created a subsurface ocean of brine.

"At some point in its history, Ceres had a global ocean like the icy moons farther out in the solar system," Williams said. "And perhaps its surface today is the remnant of that frozen ocean, with just a couple of hot spots where activity still reaches the surface."

The warm water also acted on the rock to make clay minerals, he said. Especially significant for Ceres' history were ammonia-bearing clay minerals.

"Ammonia is not stable at Ceres' location in the solar system," Williams explained. "So either a bunch of ammonia-bearing comets slammed into Ceres — or perhaps Ceres formed in the outer solar system and moved inward."

Since then, smaller impacts have continued. And in localized places, icy volcanism, with brine taking the role of molten rock, has erupted, producing white spots and pushing up domes, much as lava can build domes on Earth.

"However," Williams said, "such activity is now very limited."

Asteroids 'R' Us

While the Dawn mission has ended, asteroids will remain large in SESE's space exploration efforts, with researchers involved in three current missions to explore asteroids. The targets include Jupiter's primitive Trojan asteroids, a unique all-metal asteroid named Psyche and a near-Earth asteroid named Bennu.

The Lucy spacecraft to Jupiter's Trojans is scheduled to launch in 2021, while the Psyche mission is slated to go the year after. SESE researchers are building an instrument for Lucy and directing the development and the science team on the Psyche mission.

With Bennu, however, the action has already begun. The mission is named OSIRIS-REx, short for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer. The mission, led by the University of Arizona, is designed to bring back samples of the asteroid's surface rocks, sand and dust.

SESE Regents' Professor Philip Christensen has an instrument on the spacecraft: the OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer, or OTES. It has started to survey Bennu with the aim of helping mission scientists choose the best place to collect the samples.

Next steps?

As for future exploration of the hybrid world of Ceres, scientists are just now beginning to think about what the next mission should be.

No spacecraft is likely to return to Ceres for at least a decade. However, that gives scientists a chance to absorb what Dawn has learned, build models for Ceres' structure and evolution based on what we now know, and also compare the results from other asteroid missions

"We have to fully understand the data returned from the Dawn mission, what it's telling us about the dwarf planet as a whole body," Williams said. "Then we'll be able to design just the right spacecraft and mission to go back to Ceres."

The Dawn mission is managed by JPL for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Dawn is a project of the directorate's Discovery Program, managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. JPL is responsible for overall Dawn mission science. Orbital ATK Inc., in Dulles, Virginia, designed and built the spacecraft. The German Aerospace Center, Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Italian Space Agency and Italian National Astrophysical Institute are international partners on the mission team.

Robert Burnham

Science writer, School of Earth and Space Exploration


ASU In the News

The weird spider that produces milk

Scientists have discovered a spider that, uncharacteristically for its kind, nurtures its young and produces a fluid with milk-like properties.

Katie Hinde, a lactation expert and an associate professor in Arizona State University's School of Human Evolution and Social Change and the Center for Evolution and Medicine, commented on whether the substance can truly be considered milk, as well as what it can tell us about biological life on earth. photo of Toxeus magnus spider Photo credit: Sarefo, Wiki Commons
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“We can call it spider milk. I’m not hung up on it coming from a mammary gland. I’m interested in how it supports development,” she said. “These rare variants across the animal kingdom give us really exciting insights into the evolution of parental care.”

Read the full article to learn more.

Article Source: The Atlantic
Mikala Kass

Editorial Communications Coordinator, School of Human Evolution and Social Change


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Study: Universities' revitalization efforts in neighborhoods, cities is beneficial but nuanced

December 5, 2018

'Anchor institutions' connect with their communities by investing in programs and initiatives

In the late 1990s, the University of Pennsylvania had a problem: The neighborhood surrounding the university was unsafe. Parents didn’t want to send their kids there, and professors didn’t want to teach there.

Since UPenn officials couldn’t do anything to change their location, they decided to invest in it. They spent millions revitalizing housing and commercial property along Walnut Street, the campus’ main thoroughfare, adding bookstores, hotels, coffee shops and more.

And it paid off. The area became safer, more active and more vibrant.

More than a decade later, Arizona State University School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning Assistant Professor Meagan Ehlenz attended UPenn for her doctorate, where the inspiring tale stuck with her.

Recently, she published a paper in the Journal of Urban Affairs titled, “The university and its neighborhood: A study of place-making and change.

Ehlenz surveyed 22 four-year universities in urban settings across the country about what kinds of investments they were making, then compared median home value and median rent in 1990 and 2010 in the surrounding neighborhoods to determine if there was a relationship.

What she found was that university revitalization initiatives are meaningfully correlated with neighborhood change.

“When a university is investing in revitalization measures, the neighborhood surrounding the university behaves differently than all the other neighborhoods in the region,” Ehlenz said. “Median home values and rents appreciate more quickly than you would expect given the trend of neighborhoods in the same region.”

The idea of so-called “anchor institutions” began to catch on in the U.S. over the past 10-15 years, mostly among universities but also with some hospitals.

“Unlike corporations,” Ehlenz said, “they’re anchored in place. They’re not going to pick up and move to the suburbs for tax reasons; they have a different mission and purpose.”

Part of the anchor institution model is to invest in a suite of different programs and initiatives meant to connect them with the community. At ASU, the building of the Downtown Phoenix campus helped to revitalize the area and spur continued growth.

But, as Ehlenz discovered in her study, the results can be quite varied, depending on such factors as the type of revitalization effort — student volunteerism versus real estate investment, for example — as well as the strength of the market in a certain city.

And there is also reason for caution. ASU Now asked Ehlenz more about her findings.

Meagan Ehlenz

Q: How is ASU a part of this phenomenon?

A: ASU does work in this anchor institution model but we’re a little different. Take the Downtown Phoenix campus for instance. We built a whole brand new campus. That’s not happening at a lot of institutions. So we’re engaging in those revitalization efforts in part by building brand new campuses, and when we’re doing that, we’re also investing in things like Civic Space Park, which is public, but it’s still connected to the campus because we have very open boundaries. ASU is growing in a polycentric model, which means we have multiple campuses and little hubs but we’re one institution. And I’d say that reflects our region; the city of Phoenix is very much like that, too.

Q: Some of the universities you looked at had more of a positive impact on their surrounding neighborhoods than others. What accounts for those differences?

A: If you’re in a strong market, say a place like Boston, Portland (Oregon) or Chicago, where there’s a lot of upward momentum in the regional market, those university neighborhoods saw much more rapid appreciation. In places like Philadelphia, Columbus (Ohio) and Durham (North Carolina), that are in a more moderate market, there was growth but it wasn’t as big of a leap. We still saw positive growth in median home values and rents but it was a little more modest. Then there were cities like Akron (Ohio) and Cleveland, where the market is weak, where there was change, university neighborhoods did see additional appreciation but it was a lot more variable and you couldn’t count on it.

Q: Did you find anything surprising in your study?

A: Something we found that was kind of interesting was that in strong markets, it doesn’t matter what kind of revitalization initiative universities employ. Those neighborhoods automatically saw appreciation. In moderate and weak markets, though, it mattered. Among moderate and weak markets, places that saw positive gain from university investment had to have some kind of place-based investment, whether housing or commercial. If only initiatives like student volunteerism or public amenities improvements were employed, it didn’t necessarily change the tide for that neighborhood. But when universities invested in housing or commercial real estate, it was a signal to the development community that, "We’re here, we’re anchored, we can work together." So the style of investment mattered, especially in moderate and weak markets.

Q: Could there be negative consequences of the anchor institution model?

A: By and large, universities investing in neighborhoods leads to more appreciation, more gain, more positive outcomes from the built environment perspective. However, you also have to look at the people. When you look at the people, it’s a lot more complicated. There’s concern about the neighborhoods gentrifying, and we are seeing more of a turnover of who’s living in these neighborhoods. We see an increase in median income but we also see wholesale demographic shifts. Universities can do a lot to catalyze positive improvement for their neighborhoods, but they need to be cautious. City development organizations and others who represent the local community should be involved. Universities generate a lot of value in the market, and in doing so, they need to remember to protect things like affordable housing and they need to provide opportunities that allow people in university neighborhoods to tap into the growth, not be pushed out by it.

Top photo: Arist rendering of the new Thunderbird School of Global Management building, which is expected to open in January 2021, and will be located at the Downtown Phoenix campus between First and Second streets, just north of Polk Street. Artist rendering courtesy of Jones Studio

Mars 2020 rover mission camera system ‘Mastcam-Z’ testing begins at ASU

December 4, 2018

Arizona State University research technician and Mars 2020 Mastcam-Z calibration engineer Andy Winhold waited patiently on the loading dock of ASU’s Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building IV in anticipation of the arrival of a very special delivery.

On board the delivery truck was precious cargo from Malin Space Science Systems, a test model of “Mastcam-Z,” the mast-mounted camera system for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover mission. Mastcam-Z Team The Mastcam-Z team tests the engineering model in ASU’s cleanrooms. Download Full Image

Mastcam-Z is being designed, built and tested under the direction of principal investigator Jim Bell, of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. The dual camera system can zoom in (hence the ‘Z’ in “’Mastcam-Z’), focus and take 3D pictures and panoramas at a variety of scales. This will allow the Mars 2020 rover to provide a detailed examination of both close and distant objects.

The test model that arrived on the Tempe campus in November, otherwise known as an engineering qualification model or EQM, is an important step in designing and building instruments for space. These models not only serve as a way to run the instruments through the rigors of launch and functionality in space, they also serve as a way for the instrument team to evaluate the design and testing plans before the final cameras are fully assembled.

Testing the Mastcam-Z engineering model

The engineering model essentially allows the team to do a "dry run" through the complete design and build process of the instrument before the final versions of the cameras are complete.

“Parts may take longer to build than expected, a certain assembly step may be more difficult than initially thought or resources from third parties could become scarce on short notice,” Winhold said. “These are all things we can learn about and prepare for in advance using the engineering model.”

The team first verifies that the test instrument operates correctly in terms of parts, power consumption and software. They also use the model to ensure the instrument meets mission requirements in terms of functionality, size and weight. “For Mastcam-Z, one of the primary interests with the engineering model was evaluating the instrument’s ability to change focal length — or zoom,” Winhold said. 

Specifically, the team tested the engineering model in the thermal vacuum chamber, located in ASU’s Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building IV, to confirm that their support equipment was designed appropriately and allowed the camera to be placed securely in the chamber and view out the chamber's window clearly. They also timed the tests so they knew how long testing the actual cameras will take, and they tested the IT network's ability to share data quickly between people inside the cleanroom and other support team members outside of the room and around the world.

Winhold describes his role on the mission as similar to someone playing the game "Operation," where the patient is the Mastcam-Z cameras and the tweezers are the support pieces.

“But in my case,” said Winhold, “I'm only shown pictures of the board game, and based on those pictures I need to design and create the best tweezers for removing ailments without hurting the patient.”  

And according to the team, the testing has been a success so far.

“We had a few hiccups we worked around, like cables not being long enough, not understanding best communication procedures, that sort of thing; but nothing truly unexpected,” Winhold said. “That's exactly how we like things. In testing equipment that will be going to space, a boring day that goes according to procedure is a good one.”

Next steps for the Mastcam-Z team

In December, the actual Mastcam-Z flight cameras will arrive on the ASU Tempe campus for testing. They will then be delivered to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and installed on the Mars 2020 rover, which will launch in summer 2020, landing on Mars in February 2021. The mission is expected to last at least one Mars year (687 Earth days).

“The tests we ran on the engineering unit at ASU are almost identical to the tests we'll be running on the actual cameras when they arrive,” Winhold said.

Once the instrument is finalized and installed in the Mars 2020 rover, the engineering model continues to have a purpose.

“Largely it is considered a ‘flight spare’ and will be a back-up unit should something happen to the flight cameras before launch,” Winhold explained. “Once the rover launches in the summer of 2020 we won't be able to do any hands-on interaction with the flight cameras, though, so we’ll have the engineering model as a reference for possible problem solving and as a reference for subsequent rover missions.”

About Mastcam-Z

The cameras weigh about 8.8 pounds and will produce images of color quality similar to that of a consumer digital HD camera (2 megapixels). The cameras will help other Mars 2020 experiments on the rover by looking at the whole landscape and identifying rocks and soil (regolith) that deserve a closer look by other instruments. They will also spot important rocks for the rover to sample and cache on the surface of Mars, for eventual return (by a future mission) to Earth.

Mastcam-Z's purpose is to take high resolution panoramic color and 3D images of the Martian surface and features in the atmosphere with a zoom lens to magnify distant targets. It will be mounted on the Mars 2020 rover mast at the eye level of a 6-foot-5-inch person. The two cameras are separated by 9.5 inches to provide stereo vision. These cameras, with their all-seeing sharp vision, will provide images for science team members to pick out the best rocks, to hunt for evidence of past habitability recorded in the geology and texture of the landscape, and to look for signs of past water on Mars.

Mastcam-Z’s principal investigator is Professor Jim Bell of the School of Earth and Space Exploration. The deputy principal investigator is Dr. Justin Maki of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Planetary Society serves as the instrument’s education and public outreach partner, and the prime subcontractor for instrument development is Malin Space Science Systems, Inc.

NASA's Mars 2020 rover mission

The Mars 2020 rover mission is part of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, a long-term effort of robotic exploration of the Red Planet. The Mars 2020 mission addresses high-priority science goals for Mars exploration, including key questions about the potential for life on Mars. The mission also seeks to gather knowledge and to demonstrate technologies that address the challenges of future human expeditions to Mars. These include testing a method for producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, identifying other resources (such as subsurface water), improving landing techniques, and characterizing weather, dust, and other potential environmental conditions that could affect future astronauts living and working on Mars.

Karin Valentine

Media Relations & Marketing manager, School of Earth and Space Exploration