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ASU nuclear-emergency research project moves to product development phase

When a false alarm warning of an impending nuclear missile launch recently panicked Hawaiians, it raised bigger questions on U.S. emergency preparedness.

ASU has been at the research forefront with a multi-million, multi-year project aimed at helping to triage a population in the event of a nuclear emergency. ASU has been at the research forefront with a multi-million, multi-year project aimed at helping to triage a population in the event of a nuclear emergency.

Recently, GenomeWeb updated its readers on the progress of Project Bioshield, funded by the US Department of Defense’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA.

One of the BARDA projects featured was from ASU’s Biodesign Institute, led by Biodesign executive director Josh LaBaer to develop tests to rapidly measure radiation exposure, or biodosimetry tests.

The test from ASU is meant to quantify how much radiation a person was exposed to after a single explosive event.

"This particular tool was specifically for detecting gamma radiation exposure to civilians if a nuclear bomb were detonated in a city or populated area," Josh LaBaer, told Genomeweb.

In the article, reporter Madeleine Johnson told of the research issues that had to be overcome to be one of the few funded to advance from project discovery to the product development phase.

“The researchers had to grapple with things like proximity to a blast and whether or not people were directly exposed or behind concrete walls.

"If it is detonated 1,000 feet above the ground it is going to have one radiation angle at which it is going to hit people, whereas if it is exploded from the inside of a shopping center that is going to have a different angle of exposure — our tool doesn't worry about how the radiation gets to you, but focuses on how much radiation did you absorb," LaBaer said.

The ASU test looks at the effect of radiation on gene expression in white blood cells and runs on real-time PCR systems from Thermo Fisher Scientific such as the Applied Biosystems 7500 Fast Dx and QuantStudio Dx, as previously reported. The choice of platform was meant to enhance the ability to utilize qPCR instruments that already exist, and are regularly maintained in clinical labs.

"The last thing you want in the event of a nuclear explosion is to have to dust off a brand-new machine and pull out the instruction manual," LaBaer said.

It will assess the level of exposure, from the moment of an event until seven days after, gauging exposure levels up to 10 gray, where somewhere in the 4 to 6 gray range is a lethal dose, LaBaer said.”

The group has whittled down a large pool of potential biomarkers to around 13 or so, LaBaer said. It used animal models and has done verification studies, and is gearing up for a large validation study.

The project was also a good example of ASU creating a win-win scenario when academia partners with industry to advance the science.

During the multi-year, nearly $40 million project, the Biodesign Institute partnered with industry leader Thermo Fisher Scientific's Life Sciences Solutions business, which has since been licensed to MRIGlobal for further development.

LaBaer said MRIGlobal won funding worth $100 million over 10 years using the ASU technology, and they will now be developing it further. "We're shifting from discovery to product development," LaBaer said. 

The funding involved in-process review sessions at BARDA where a team of 40 experts would review data and presentations. "We got reviewed probably a half-dozen times, over the course of that period and the majority of people in the program were not continued for funding."

Article Source: Genomeweb
Joe Caspermeyer

Managing editor, Biodesign Institute


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NCUIRE program leads to vitamin D study, sets student's course

Vitamin D linked to health factors we're still discovering, including longevity.
NCUIRE at ASU sets undergraduates on path to success through hands-on research.
January 17, 2018

Undergraduate research program at ASU's West campus helps Marya Sabir find her calling as a research scientist

It’s a commonly held belief that college is where you “find yourself,” whether that means realizing a passion for the arts or discovering a hidden talent for mastering equations. Still, many students set out with a plan already in mind.

That was the case for Marya Sabir. She entered her freshman year at Arizona State University's New College for Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences with a one-track mind: medical school or bust. Then, as the year came to a close, a friend recommended trying out some research with a professor whose lab was known at the West campus for encouraging undergraduate study.

Sabir contacted the professor, Peter Jurutka, with the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences. He laid it all out for her, including the two-year commitment stipulation. His molecular endocrinology lab, which looks at how nutrients affect our overall health and aging, sounded interesting.

“So I accepted, not really knowing really what I was getting into,” Sabir said.

The excitement of hands-on research

Soon, she was hooked. Fascinated by the subject matter and buoyed by Jurutka’s encouragement, she decided to make a more permanent commitment, applying to the New College Undergraduate Inquiry and Research Experiences (NCUIRE) Program.

“I found myself staying in the lab until 2 a.m. working on projects, trying to get every little detail right. Before that, I didn’t even consider research a field that I might go into,” she said.

Founded in 2011 by Todd Sandrin, West campus vice provost and dean of New College, NCUIRE provides undergraduates with the opportunity to engage in meaningful research partnerships with faculty and each other, across all disciplines.

Sabir found great value in the faculty-student research collaboration model.

“It was an amazing experience,” she said. “Dr. Jurutka is a great mentor. He gives you a level of independence to come up with your own ideas and troubleshoot on your own, like a real scientist would.”

The appreciation, it appears, is mutual.

“It is extremely rewarding, both personally and professionally, to engage students via intellectual discovery, and to pass on not only an academic knowledge base, but also the tools that my students will use to access new discoveries and ask novel questions in their role as lifelong learners,” Jurutka said.

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Professor Peter Jurutka (far left) and ASU biochemistry alum Marya Sabir (center) in his lab on ASU's West campus. Photo courtesy Phoenix Magazine

Sabir graduated from ASU in 2015 with a degree in biochemistry and is currently conducting neurogeneticNeurogenetics studies the role of genetics in the development and function of the nervous system. research on atypical Parkinson’s disease cases at the National Institutes of Health.

During her tenure in Jurutka’s lab, she received numerous undergraduate fellowships and scholarships to conduct research, as well as poster presentation awards and travel awards to attend national conferences.

That’s pretty typical of NCUIRE students, who have a 97 percent year-to-year retention rate. They also publish alongside world-class faculty in top-tier journals — Sabir included. In addition to serving as a co-author on multiple peer-reviewed manuscripts and book chapters, she served as the lead author on a study published in the Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in September 2017.

Turning a degree into a career

The study, conducted during her time in Jurutka’s lab at ASU, used kidney and bone cells derived from animal models to alter their gene expression, essentially testing what factors made vitamin D receptors more active, thereby leading to increased health benefits.

Vitamin D is linked notably to bone health but also a number of other factors we are still discovering, including the immune system, small intestine, colon, heart, cognitive function and longevity.

“There’s so much that vitamin D affects, we still don’t know the extent of it,” Sabir said. Her goal with the study was to try to illuminate more of what we don’t know.

What she and her team found was that the presence of a certain enzyme increased activity in vitamin D receptors, providing a missing piece in the puzzle of which molecular mechanisms are important in anti-aging, as well as cancer prevention.

“There is a unique satisfaction that arises from learning a scientific concept in a textbook and then having the ability to go into the laboratory to actively study the described phenomena that is immensely gratifying,” Sabir said.

She still contributes to research in Jurutka’s lab and has plans to enter into a dual master’s-doctoral degree program, with hopes of becoming a physician-scientist, conducting interdisciplinary and collaborative research in the field of neuroscience.

For Sabir, the opportunity to engage in research as an undergraduate at ASU was paramount in determining the course of her future, enabling her to “hone marketable aptitudes such as teamwork, interdisciplinary thinking and problem solving, and written/oral communication.”

“As an undergraduate student at ASU, I was prepared in the classroom to think critically and hone my problem-solving aptitudes that were then exponentially amplified in Dr. Jurutka’s molecular endocrinology research program,” she said. “Through Barrett, the Honors College and NCUIRE programs, the extensive resources at ASU allowed me to connect textbook learning to practical applications in the biomedical field while making meaningful contributions to the enterprise at large.”


Top photo: ASU biochemistry alum Marya Sabir arranges vials in Professor Peter Jurutka's molecular endocrinology lab on ASU's West campus. Photo courtesy of Marya Sabir

ASU engineer showcases NASA research for Congress

January 17, 2018

To help NASA better explore outer space, Yuji Zhao headed to Capitol Hill with NASA’s best and brightest collaborators in academia to talk space tech with U.S. Congress members.

Zhao, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, was one of only three faculty members from across the country invited to join NASA’s senior leadership in the nation’s capital for NASA Tech Day on Nov. 29, 2017. Yuji Zhao (left) poses with U.S. Representative Lamar Smith, chairman of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Yuji Zhao (left) poses with U.S. Representative Lamar Smith, chairman of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Zhao was one of a select few invited to meet with members of Congress to talk about advances in technology for space applications during the Nov. 29 NASA Tech Day event. Photo courtesy of Yuji Zhao Download Full Image

The important research Zhao presented involves high-temperature solar cell technology for missions that head to the very hot planet Mercury.

This is made possible by Zhao’s work with gallium nitride, which has enabled devices such as solar cells to sustain their performance in very high temperatures

“One major breakthrough is we can develop a solar cell that has improved performance over high temperatures, whereas the silicon cells we have now would degrade with higher temperatures,” Zhao said.

Silicon-based solar cells at room temperature (20–25 degrees Celsius, 68–77 degrees Fahrenheit) operate at 80 percent capacity, but at 80 degrees Celsius or 176 degrees Fahrenheit it degrades to 20 percent, Zhao said.

Gallium nitride based solar cells, however, operate at 50 percent capacity at room temperature and all the way at 300 degrees Celsius or 572 degrees Fahrenheit they operate at 80 percent capacity.

“This is quite exciting and we are working with several groups here as well as at Stanford University to figure out the fundamentals behind [gallium nitride],” Zhao said. “The whole result is very interesting and NASA has high regard for those results.”

Zhao has also been using gallium nitride to power electronics as part of research supported by NASA as well as the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy and the Department of Defense’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency. Zhao has also received the NASA Early Career Faculty Award and participated in the NASA HOTTech Program.

“Yuji Zhao’s expertise and research have positioned the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering as a leader in the emerging uses of gallium nitride, including lighting and photovoltaics,” said Stephen Phillips, professor and director of the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering. “We’re proud that he was selected by NASA to participate in this exclusive event that showcases important innovations in engineering to Congress.”

NASA officials have also visited Zhao’s Metal-Organic Chemical Vapour Deposition Lab at ASU for a workshop on photovoltaics in December 2016, and in November 2017 Zhao was invited to NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland — its major research center for high-temperature electronics and photovoltaics for Mercury and Venus missions — to talk about gallium nitride and its role in the future of space technology.

A group photo of NASA Tech Day participants
Yuji Zhao (middle row, seventh from left), assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, poses with Steve Jurczyk (middle row, far left), associate administrator of the NASA Space Technology Mission Directorate, and other faculty, students and NASA associates at the NASA Tech Day event on Capitol Hill. Photo courtesy of Yuji Zhao

Zhao’s rich history of NASA-supported research was a major factor that led to his invitation to the NASA Tech Day event. Along with the other faculty members, students funded by NASA grants were also invited to attend.

“NASA wanted to showcase the best research they have supported from the leading universities in the U.S.,” Zhao said.

The event included a poster session, technology demonstrations and talking with members of Congress. Zhao was also able to meet with Lamar Smith, chairman of the committee for space, science and technology and U.S. Representative of the 21st Congressional District of Texas.

He also met with the staff of Kyrsten Sinema, U.S. Representative from Arizona’s 9th Congressional District, and Andy Biggs, U.S. Representative from Arizona’s 5th Congressional District.

Zhao hopes to continue the discussion with local representatives to help foster a relationship between government and academia and support for local engineering and technology efforts — a goal also supported by Kyle Squires, professor and dean of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

“Bringing a technology with interplanetary applications and truly global impacts to the national stage highlights our faculty’s research excellence and the innovative applications enabled by their discoveries, in this case in solar cells and photovoltaics,” Squires said. “We look forward to building upon this connection with Phoenix-area leadership to further advance engineering and technology research and education.”

Monique Clement

Communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


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January 16, 2018

ASU invites the wider community to explore the spaces normally closed to the public during free, family-friendly events

We all remember when the floor was lava, when we were schoolteacher to our stuffed animals, when we played detective to solve the mystery before dinnertime. Some of us turned that imagination into reality — becoming scientists, teachers and more.

Arizona State University hopes to spark the next generation's imagination with ASU Open Door, a signature event of the Arizona SciTech Festival. During the free Open Door events, adults and children of all ages are invited to take a sneak peek at the learning spaces that help make ASU the most innovative university in the nation.

The four-campus event celebrates the power of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) with more than 340 hands-on activities, performances, demonstrations and games. The campuses open their doors on different nights:

• Jan. 26 — Polytechnic campus
• Feb. 2 — Downtown Phoenix campus
• Feb. 10 — West campus
• Feb. 24 — Tempe campus

“What makes the ASU Open Door event unique is that we open the four campus locations to the community and allow them to enter the spaces normally closed to the public,” said Darci Nagy, ASU special events manager. “Visitors are able to go into classrooms and talk to faculty and students who are excited about what they’re working on. Not only are they inside these classroom spaces, there are activities where children — and adults — can learn from hands-on activities.”

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Cash Allen watches older sister Ryeley handle a rosy boa during the 2017 Open Door on ASU's Tempe campus. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Each ASU campus has a unique personality and feel, with different activities that match its environment.

Nestled in the Arizona desert, the high-tech labs and classrooms at the Polytechnic campus will hum to life as visitors learn to code using Minecraft or be an air-traffic controller in a hands-on simulation with ASU’s engineering experts. End the day and head home victorious as a Sustainability Super Hero by visiting Sustainability Central at the School of Sustainability.

Join the Downtown Phoenix campus the first Friday of February for a tour of Arizona PBS inside the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Adventure seekers can find out how safe it is to ride a rollercoaster, and after an exciting afternoon, end your downtown journey by unwinding with a relaxing session in mindfulness, meditation and yoga with the College of Health Solutions.

Your sleuthing will lead you to the West campus where visitors explore crime scenes, learn how police solve crimes and learn that bones have ages too. Continue the investigative journey by learning the secrets of handwriting and stop by for a Bio-dot that will track your stress levels as you make your way around campus.

A fun-filled month ends at the Tempe campus where young wizards should be on the lookout for dementors while using their wands to correct misspelled words with English education students. After leaving Hogwarts, test your skills and tackle the ROTC obstacle course. If you’re here for the science, drive an underwater robot, see and touch real meteorites, make your own tiny robot and don’t leave before visiting reptile row or getting a picture of yourself in infrared.

“This is a very interactive experience,” Nagy said. “We have hundreds of activities for every interest you can think of. If you’re into forensic science, music, bugs, rockets, reptiles, the moon, dancing or want to run through an obstacle course, we have it. There is so much to do whether you come visit us for an hour or five. Every campus is a different experience. Looking at activities ahead of time, picking the ones you really want to see and bringing your walking shoes is always a good plan!”

With so many activities to consider, ASU Open Door also offers an app through Devils on Campus (Android or iOS) to help visitors choose activities in advance and navigate each campus. Follow all the excitement on Twitter @ASUopendoor and Facebook at www.facebook.com/asuopendoor.

“Our Sun Devil community looks forward to this every year, the chance to say ‘come on in’ and share why ASU is the most innovative university in the nation,” Nagy said.

For information on dates, locations, free tickets and parking, visit www.opendoor.asu.edu. Top photo: Sam Martin (left), 11, and Shelby Martin, 9, carry out a science experiment that examines the various densities of water and oil. The project was part of the 2017 Open Door celebration on the Downtown Phoenix campus. Photo by Anya Magnuson/ASU Now

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CEO fame is not always good news, ASU research finds

When everybody knows your name it's not always great for CEOs, ASU paper finds.
January 16, 2018

Creator or rebel? Professor's paper examines celebrity 'archetypes'

It’s cool when everybody knows your name, but if you’re running a big company, fame can have a down side.

A new theoretical paper by an Arizona State University professor looks at why CEOs who become celebrities frequently see a drop in their company’s performance.

Jonathan Bundy, an assistant professor of management in the W. P. Carey School of Business, said he and his fellow researchersBundy’s co-authors on the paper are Donald C. Hambrick and Timothy G. Pollack of Penn State University and Jeffrey B. Lovelace of the University of Virginia. The research will be published in “The Academy of Management Review.” wanted to explore the relationship between celebrity and a company downturn.

“We’re trying to solve this idea of why is it a negative relationship, because multiple empirical papers have found that celebrity is actually bad for performance in the long run,” Bundy said.

So they developed a model and theorized that CEOs are not only held up as celebrities, they’re typically cast into one of four “archetypes” — creator, transformer, rebel and savior. The leaders then begin to internalize the roles they’ve been assigned and that can lead to faulty decision-making.

Bundy and his team looked at previous research, which has shown:

• CEOs can become popular regardless of how well they’ve performed.
• Celebrity brings benefits to CEOs, such as higher salaries and insulation from dismissal, and those benefits spill over to the top management team — whose chances of becoming CEOs at other companies are increased.
• The party isn’t everlasting. The paper cites two studies showing that when popular CEOs win major awards, their companies then suffer a negative performance trend in subsequent years.

Bundy and the team modeled four common “archetypes” in the way that popular CEOs were portrayed by journalists.

“Creators” are acclaimed for founding or growing a company and possibly even creating a new market category or industry. They’re described as visionaries and risk-takers. Examples include Bill Gates of Microsoft, Howard Schultz of Starbucks, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX.

“Transformers” are heroes who save firms from failure. They’re portrayed as able to predict problems that others do not see. Examples include Jack Welch at GE, Ursula Burns at Xerox and Indra Nooyi at Pepsico.

“Rebels” are CEOs who defy industry conventions. They’re considered to be courageous rule-breakers. Examples include John Legere of T-Mobile, Tony Hsieh of Zappos and Brian Chesky of Airbnb.

“Saviors” turn around companies in decline, and the media uses themes such as accountability, toughness and discipline. Examples include Lee Iacocca of Chrysler, Carlos Ghosn of Nissan and Jamie Dimon of Bank One (now JP Morgan Chase).

Jonathan Bundy is an assistant professor of management in the W. P. Carey School of Business.

The paper refers to these archetypes as “shackles” because, after attaining praise, the company chiefs often not only persist in the behaviors of each type but often will double down on them — sometimes unwisely. With their confidence fueled by fame, the CEOs base more decisions on intuition rather than careful judgment, exacerbated by a lack of external control.

“With some of these cognitive pressures, and particularly the idea of typecasting, you have to live up to that greatness and when you don’t, it leads to exaggerating behaviors,” Bundy said. “You do what you did but in more extreme ways.”

Travis Kalanick is an example, Bundy said. Kalanick’s unrestrained methods brought big investors and attention to Uber, but he was eventually forced out of the CEO job after reports surfaced of a problematic culture at the company, which generated a lot of negative publicity.

“He came in and did great things in very counter-normative ways. But now people are questioning whether that’s good,” said Bundy, whose research focuses on corporate reputation.

And fame can produce a stronger backlash to wrongdoing.

“When you become famous or you gain a lot of status, people give you a lot of deference. What that does is it increases the expectations and when you violate those expectations, the punishment tends to be more severe.”

The message to corporations is: “proceed with caution.”

“The idea is that celebrity can bring a lot of short-term benefits. It brings attention to your firm and it serves a marketing function. But the whole idea is that celebrity restricts your ability to think broadly,” he said. “Over decades, and a career, that has a negative effect because you can’t anticipate change or be reactive to innovation.”

And if a company sees its CEO on a trajectory toward fame?

“You would want to make sure there is a devil’s advocate in the CEO suite who’s challenging that,” he said.

Bundy and his fellow authors are now taking the project a step further by testing the idea empirically. They’re looking at coverage of CEOs in newspaper, magazine and broadcast stories, and also examining social-media data.

“Now we’re trying to predict who becomes a celebrity," he said. "Who gets the most coverage and the most positive coverage?”

And what about Oprah and Jay Z? The team would eventually like to consider people who were celebrities before they became CEOs.

“They may have their own really interesting effect on their businesses,” he said.


Top photo courtesy of Pixabay.com.

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now


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ASU's iLux Lab looking at exercise's impact on social, emotional intelligence

Can exercise improve your thinking abilities? An ASU lab aims to find out.
January 12, 2018

Experiments are just the start in partnership with adidas to explore the future of sport

A lab at Arizona State University is measuring the link between exercise and higher thinking.

The experiments, part of the partnership that ASU has forged with adidas to explore the future of sport, are being done in the iLux Lab, which stands for “Innovative Learner and User Experience.”

Robert Atkinson, an associate professorAtkinson has a joint appointment in the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering in the Ira A. Schools of Engineering and the Division of Educational Leadership and Innovation in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. His research explores the intersection of cognitive science, informatics, instructional design, and educational technology. at ASU who leads the lab, started working several months ago with researchers from adidas, who were interested in the unique services offered by iLux. The lab has a comprehensive biometric sensor suite that includes EEG, brain computer interface, eye tracking, facial coding and galvanic skin response. The researchers can measure a person’s physical responses to different kinds of stimuli. 

“At adidas, they believe that through sport, we have the power to change lives,” Atkinson said. “We wanted to come up with something that would contribute to that idea.”

Adidas has a consumer research lab with similar capabilities at its North American headquarters in Portland, Oregon.

“By working collaboratively, we (ASU and adidas) can accomplish more than working individually. ‘Open source’ is a critical part of our global strategy, which means we work with partners, like ASU, that have knowledge, skills and abilities that help to push us beyond our internal capabilities,” said Aurel Coza, director of Applied Science and Future at adidas.

The work at iLux Lab is part of the adidas and ASU Global Sport Alliance, a strategic partnership aimed at shaping the future of sport and amplifying sport’s positive impact on society. The partnership will bring together education, athletics and research to explore topics including race, sustainability and human potential.

The partnership, launched in June, will investigate issues such as sustainability in sport, athletic potential and consumer behavior, which is at the heart of what the iLux lab can do.

So now, Atkinson’s team is conducting two experiments to measure cognitive effects related to exercise.

“Generally, the belief is that with exercise, you’re activating some problem-solving capabilities and spatial reasoning,” he said.

The ongoing experiments are using two groups of students, one that exercises regularly and one that doesn’t. The exercisers were asked to skip their workouts for a few days, take a battery of tests, and then resume exercising and return to the lab within two hours to retakes the tests.

“The belief is that exercise activates these mechanisms and they’re heightened immediately after exercise,” Atkinson said.

The non-exercise group also came to the lab twice and took the same tests, which involve activities such as tapping a button to measure dexterity, as well as filling out questionnaires.

Early results indicate that exercise has a significant impact on social and emotional intelligence. That may mean that before a big presentation or important meeting you may be better off going for a run than cramming or rehearsing a few more times.

Another research project in the works involves using eye trackers on basketball players to test their reactions to new apparel designs.

Through the partnership, the company can leverage the expertise of the iLux lab along with an almost unlimited supply of young people as test subjects, Atkinson said.

“We’re doing things they value, and we can do it quickly,” he said.

Atkinson gave a tour of his lab to adidas researchers several months ago.

“The brainstorming that went on in those early meetings was remarkable for how many different things the folks at adidas were thinking of and how the researchers here at ASU can help them,” he said.

The research projects conducted so far between adidas’ Consumer Behavior Lab and ASU’s iLux lab are just the beginning of planned research collaborations between adidas and ASU. Targeted areas of exploration include sport performance, consumer experience and product design.


Top photo: ASU Associate Professor Robert Atkinson (right) demonstrates eye-tracking equipment to a group of adidas researchers in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering's iLux Lab. The adidas group was observing how the university applies its biometric sensors to predict and determine human behavior. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now


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ASU astronomers to build space telescope to explore nearby stars

January 10, 2018

In 2021, a spacecraft the size of a Cheerios box will carry a small telescope into Earth orbit on an unusual mission. Its task is to monitor the flares and sunspots of small stars to assess how habitable the space environment is for planets orbiting them.

The spacecraft, known as the Star-Planet Activity Research CubeSat, or SPARCS for short, is a new NASA-funded space telescope. The mission, including spacecraft design, integration and resulting science, is led by Arizona State University's School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE).

"This is a mission to the borderland of astrophysics and astrobiology," said Evgenya Shkolnik, assistant professor in SESE and principal investigator for the SPARCS mission. "We're going to study the habitability and high-energy environment around stars that we call M dwarfs."

She announced the mission Jan. 10, 2018, at the 231st meeting of the American Astronomical Society, in Washington, D.C.

"We're aiming to show that small space telescopes like SPARCS can answer big science questions." 

Assistant Professor Evgenya Shkolnik

The stars that SPARCS will focus on are small, dim, and cool by comparison to the sun. Having less than half the sun's size and temperature, they shine with barely one percent its brightness.

The choice of target stars for SPARCS might seem counterintuitive. If astronomers are looking for exoplanets in habitable environments, why bother with stars that are so different from the sun? An answer lies in the numbers. 

To start with, M dwarfs are exceedingly common. They make up three-quarters of all the stars in our Milky Way galaxy, outnumbering sun-like stars 20 to 1. 

Astronomers have discovered that essentially every M dwarf star has at least one planet orbiting it, and about one system in four has a rocky planet located in the star's habitable zone. This is the potentially life-friendly region where temperatures are neither too hot nor too cold for life as we know it, and liquid water could exist on the planet's surface.

Because M dwarfs are so plentiful, astronomers estimate that our galaxy alone contains roughly 40 billion — that's billion with a B — rocky planets in habitable zones around their stars. This means that most of the habitable-zone planets in our galaxy orbit M dwarfs. In fact, the nearest one, dubbed Proxima b, lies just 4.2 light-years away, which is on our doorstep in astronomical terms.

So as astronomers begin to explore the environment of exoplanets that dwell in other stars' habitable zones, M dwarf stars figure large in the search.

rendering of an exoplanet
The closest exoplanet to Earth is Proxima b, just 4.2 light-years away. Proxima b orbits a red dwarf star, one of billions in the Milky Way galaxy. Because red dwarfs are commonly accompanied by planetary systems, such stars are the target for a new ASU-led space telescope mission which will determine the habitability of the space environment for any exoplanets that orbit them. Photo courtesy of European Southern Observatory

Taking the pulse of active stars 

According to Shkolnik, while M dwarf stars are small and cool, they are more active than the sun, with flares and other outbursts that shoot powerful radiation into space around them. But no one knows exactly how active these small stars are. Over its one-year nominal mission, SPARCS will stare at target stars for weeks at a time in hopes of solving the puzzle.

The heart of the SPARCS spacecraft will be a telescope with a diameter of 9 centimeters, or 3.6 inches, plus a camera with two ultraviolet-sensitive detectors to be developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Both the telescope and camera will be optimized for observations using ultraviolet light, which strongly affects the planet's atmosphere and its potential to harbor life on the surface. 

"People have been monitoring M dwarfs as best they can in visible light. But the stars' strongest flares occur mainly in the ultraviolet, which Earth's atmosphere mostly blocks," Shkolnik said.

Although the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope can view stars at ultraviolet wavelengths unhindered, its overcrowded observing schedule would let it dedicate only the briefest of efforts to M dwarfs. 

"Hubble provides us with lots of detail on a few stars over a short time. But for understanding their activity we need long looks at many stars instead of snapshots of a few," said Shkolnik.  

Capturing lengthy observations of M dwarfs will let astronomers study how stellar activity affects planets that orbit the star.

"Not only are M dwarfs more active than the sun when they are old, they remain more active for longer," Shkolnik said. "By the time it was 10 million years old, the sun had become much less active and it has been decreasing steadily ever since. But M dwarfs can remain active for 300 to 600 million years, with some of the smallest M stars flaring often essentially forever."

Build local, fly global

SPARCS will follow in the footsteps of other space instruments and probes originating from SESE. Already on its way to asteroid Bennu (arrival August 2018) is the OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer (OTES). 

In the pipeline are the Phoenix CubeSat (built by an all-student team to study the local climate effects of cities on Earth), LunaH-Map (to measure lunar hydrogen as a proxy for water), the Europa Thermal Emission Imaging System (to seek temperature anomalies on Jupiter's moon Europa), the Lucy Thermal Emission Spectrometer (to measure surface properties among Jupiter's family of trojan asteroids), and Psyche, a mission to study an asteroid made wholly of nickel and iron. 

"Building SPARCS at ASU will give students educational and training opportunities to become future engineers, scientists and mission leaders." 

— Assistant Professor Evgenya Shkolnik

Like LunaH-Map, SPARCS is a CubeSat built of six cubical units, each about four inches on a side. These are joined to make a spacecraft two units wide by three long in what is termed a 6U spacecraft. Solar power panels extend like wings from one end. 

"In size and shape, SPARCS most resembles a family-size box of Cheerios," Shkolnik said.

The spacecraft will contain three major systems — the telescope, the camera, and the operational and science software. Along with Shkolnik, SESE astronomers Paul Scowen, Daniel Jacobs, and Judd Bowman will oversee the development of the telescope and camera, plus the software and the systems engineering to pull it all together.

The telescope uses a mirror system with coatings optimized for ultraviolet light. Together with the camera, the system can measure very small changes in the brightness of M dwarf stars to carry out the primary science of the mission. The instrument will be tested and calibrated at ASU in preparation for flight before being integrated into the rest of the spacecraft.

"We'll have limited radio communications with SPARCS, so we plan to do quite a bit of data processing on board using the central computer," said Jacobs. "We'll be writing that software here at ASU, using a prototype of the spacecraft and camera to test our code." 

After launch, Jacobs said the team will do science operations at ASU, connecting up to SPARCS via a global ground station network.

A key part of the mission plan, Shkolnik said, is to involve graduate and undergraduate students in various roles. This will give them with educational and training opportunities to become future engineers, scientists, and mission leaders.

"The fast pace for development — from lab to launch might be as short as a couple of years — works well with student timescales," Shkolnik said. "They can work on it, start to finish, in the time they're here at ASU."

The SPARCS space telescope is CubeSat that will be built at ASU out of six cubical modules, each about four inches on a side. The plan is for students to be involved the design and construction of the spacecraft to provide educational and training opportunities to become future engineers, scientists, and mission leaders. Image by ASU

Small package, big science

Joining ASU in the SPARCS mission are scientists from the University of Washington, the University of Arizona, Lowell Observatory, the SouthWest Research Institute, and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

"The SPARCS mission will show how, with the right technology, small space telescopes can answer big science questions," Shkolnik said.

These include, she says, "How likely is it that we humans are alone in the universe?  Where should we look for habitable planets? And can we find a new and more fruitful understanding of what makes an exoplanet system habitable?"


Top photo: Not the sun as we usually see it, but our star's activity as seen in ultraviolet light. The SPARCS space telescope will use an ultraviolet sensitive telescope and camera to survey nearby stars that are more active than the sun and likely to have planetary systems. The mission goal is to measure how habitable those star systems may be. (The round black dot is the planet Venus, seen as it crossed the sun on June 6, 2012.) Image by NASA

Robert Burnham

Science writer , School of Earth and Space Exploration


Research outlines interconnected benefits of urban agriculture

Led by ASU and Google, the study assesses the value of urban agriculture and quantifies its benefits on a global scale

January 10, 2018

From a vacant plot in a blighted neighborhood spring neatly combed rows of plants put in by the neighbors. They meticulously care for this small piece of land, and among the drab-looking buildings sprouts a patch of green. Cultivating the land may have started as a way to unite a neighborhood, to give pride to place, or it might be the project of a local high school to teach land stewardship.

The urban agriculture phenomenon has grown over the years for many reasons, each specific to the plot of land or rooftop it covers. While most of the benefits from these efforts seem to be limited and very local, when taken collectively the result is a significant environmental impact. Urban Garden The Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis campus garden. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons Download Full Image

Now a team of researchers led by Arizona State University and Google has assessed the value of urban agriculture and quantified its benefits at a global scale. They report their findings in “A Global Geospatial Ecosystems Services Estimate of Urban Agriculture,” in the current issue of Earth’s Future.

Crunching the numbers

“For the first time, we have a data-driven approach that quantifies the ecosystem benefits from urban agriculture,” said Matei Georgescu, an ASU associate professor of geographical sciences and urban planning and corresponding author of the paper. “Our estimates of ecosystem services show potential for millions of tons of food production, thousands of tons of nitrogen sequestration, billions of kilowatt hours of energy savings and billions of cubic meters of avoided storm runoff from agriculture in urban areas.”

The researchers analyzed global population, urban, meteorological, terrain and Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) data sets in Google Earth Engine to come to their global scale estimates. They then aggregated them by country.

Overall, the researchers estimated the annual value of four ecosystem services provided by existing vegetation in urban areas to be on the order of $33 billion. In this scenario, they projected an annual food production of 100 million to 180 million tons, energy savings of 14 billion to 15 billion kilowatt hours (insulation properties provided by soil on roofs), nitrogen sequestration between 100,000 to 170,000 tons and avoided storm runoff of 45 billion to 57 billion cubic meters annually.

With intense urban agriculture implementation, the researchers estimate the overall annual worth of urban agriculture could be as much as $80 billion to $160 billion. Importantly, urban agriculture could help feed a world that may face future challenges in industrial agriculture as a result of climate change.

“We’ve known there are benefits to having these small plots of land in our cities, but we found that the benefits extend well beyond having fresh food in the hands of those who will consume it,” explained lead author Nicholas Clinton of Google.

“By integrating across elements that comprise the food-energy-water nexus, our work characterizes the heterogeneous nature of ecosystem services. It is a benchmark global scale assessment,” added Georgescu, who also is a senior scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU.

In addition to Georgescu and Clinton, co-authors of the paper are Albie Miles of the University of Hawaii; Peng Gong of Tsinghua University, Beijing; ASU graduate students Michelle Stuhlmacher, Nazli Uludere and Melissa Wagner; and Chris Herwig of Google.

Urban agriculture’s full effect

“The most obvious benefit of urban agriculture is that it improves access to healthy foods,” Stuhlmacher said. “In addition to considering yield, our analysis evaluates the potential ecosystem services — such as urban nitrogen fixation, pollination, biological control of pests, control of damaging stormwater runoff and energy conservation — that result from urban agriculture.”

The work, the researchers say, provides more than an accounting of the effect of urban agriculture in one scenario. It can be used as a tool for future assessments of the changing urban agriculture landscape to better understand tradeoffs between urban design strategies.

“The value of this approach to the global community — research, governmental organizations, political groups — is that it provides local stakeholders with a quantitative framework that they themselves can use. For example, they can assess local implications of varying urban agriculture deployment scenarios based on current or projected urban extent, current or projected building height and facades, different yields, etc., that are all specific to the location under consideration,” Clinton explained.

“The global estimates that we provide are useful because they provide a benchmark for other researchers but the societal benefits extend well beyond that because of the implementation of Google’s Earth Engine platform,” Georgescu added. “Anyone on the planet who wants to know whether and how much urban agriculture can provide for their locality can now do so using open data and code provided with the paper.”

Looking at the future of urban agriculture, Clinton said countries that have the most incentives to encourage it share two primary characteristics — sufficient urban area, and a national-scale mixture of crops that lends itself to urban cultivation. 

“Relatively temperate, developed or developing countries with the right mix of crops are expected to have the greatest incentives for urban agriculture,” he said. “These would include China, Japan, Germany and the U.S.”

Seeing the whole picture

“Analysis of the food-energy-water nexus sometimes leaves the impression that benefits are concentrated in one place and costs in another,” said Tom Torgersen, program director for the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Water, Sustainability and Climate program, which supported the research. “But that’s not always the case. Urban agriculture, for example, is an underdeveloped industry that could produce food, sequester urban nitrogen, generate energy savings, help moderate the urban climate and reduce stormwater runoff, as well as provide more nutritious foods.”  

In addition to the NSF, funding for the project came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a National High Technology Grant from China and Google Inc.

Associate Director, Media Relations & Strategic Communications


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Snobs and slobs: Ants are just like us

January 9, 2018

ASU animal behavior researcher finds that tree-anchored colonies in Panama display different personalities from their neighbors

You’re at your front door, engaged in the universal human pastime of judging the neighbors.

There’s Perfect Guy. His lawn looks like a flawless green carpet. His wood pile could pass Marine inspection. Your place is never going to look that good.

Then there’s The Slob, with the blue tarp over the carport and a car perched on blocks for years. 

You and your neighbors, as it turns out, have a lot in common with ants — according to a recently published study by an Arizona State University animal behavior researcher.

Azteca ant colonies live in Cecropia trees, defending the trees from threats like choking vines and leaf-eaters. But some ants are more active in defending their tree homes than others, revealing that colonies themselves have personalities.

Peter Marting, a doctoral candidate in animal behavior in the School of Life Sciences, discovered that trees with more active, aggressive colonies have less leaf damage, suggesting that colony personality plays an important role in the mutually beneficent relationship between ant and tree.

“There are inherent, consistent differences from one colony in this tree versus one colony down the street in that tree. You could see it even without officially quantifying it,” Marting said. “... This colony just doesn’t respond to anything; they’re being very cautious and reserved about what they respond to. It’s hard to measure their intent, whether it’s caution or apathy or what it actually is. ... Other colonies are just full-throttle.”

Video by Pratt Lab

In the lowland tropical rainforests of Soberanía National Park in Panama, Marting studied five types of behavior: patrolling behavior, vibrational disturbance, response to intruders, response to leaf damage and exploratory tendency.

The study of animal personalities, or behavioral syndrome, is relatively new. The term was coined in a 2004 paper by biologist Andy Sih of the University of California, Davis.

“He pointed out that the field of behavior, in many fields, tend to look at the population average — take what everybody is doing and take the average — and say something about this population versus that population, and not exploring that variation,” Marting said. “Let’s say I take the mean of these ants I just studied, like the mean aggression level. I would be completely losing all this really valuable information about individuality. What’s up with this variation? Where does it come from? What are the consequences of having a certain personality type?”

Some animals will take an aggressive, bold approach, and others will be more cautious and reserved. There is a world of variation going on among them.

“That really opened up a lot of people’s eyes,” Marting said. “I think one of the things that’s really attractive about that concept in this field is that we interact with that conceptual framework on a day-to-day basis with the humans that we know. We’re judging personality all the time. This person has this, that person has that. It’s just something that’s so inherent to our everyday experience. ... It opens up the animal world in terms of thinking about their existence. ... I think that sparks a lot of interested researchers — certainly myself — in thinking about ‘OK, wow, I really want to know why is this bird like that and why is that bird like this?’”

Think about pets you’ve owned that had different personalities, regardless of breed. The same thing goes on in the wild. The advantage we have in observing this behavior in pets is we spend every day with them. It’s tough to study in the wild.

“With wild animals, we see one individual, once,” Marting said. “If you’re able to track wild animals and measure their behavior repeatedly in the wild, you get to reveal these personalities that exist. It’s really hard to do in the wild, so there are very few studies which have shown behavioral syndromes in ecological context in nature. The study system I’m using here with the ants that are locked in the trees — those trees aren’t going anywhere; colonies don’t move — I have a huge advantage in being able to roll right up to these trees and look at it for months or years.”

Don’t mistake anthropomorphism — assigning human traits to animals, long taboo in biology — for behavioral syndrome, Marting said.

“I think anthropomorphism is something you should be cautious about,” he said. “It’s also kind of a nice tool sometimes to open up different aspects of an animal’s existence that you can explore. I’m not as cautious as most biologists about anthropomorphizing. I think it can be a good tool to understand or get a story across. It should always be explored or backed up by research. I tend to be a little loose with it myself.”

He pointed to grackles hunting for crumbs on the Starbucks patio where he was sitting for an interview.

“These grackles right here — there’s probably all kinds of different personalities, and those personalities are interacting, and they have friends, if you would, interacting with some more than others. There’s this whole world of variation going on.”

Three follow-up papers by Marting are coming along. “Colony personality and plant health in the Azteca-Cecropia mutualism” was published in November in Behavioral Ecology.

 All photos courtesy of Peter Marting; http://aztecacecropia.com

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now


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ASU-led study finds exposure to calorie counts on menus will vary by income, ethnicity

FDA requires calorie info to appear on many restaurant menus starting May 8.
Less than 1/2 of restaurants projected to require calorie info actually will.
January 8, 2018
ASU prof  and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand
Punam Ohri-Vachaspati

Those New Year’s health resolutions may get easier to stick to when new Food and Drug Administration guidelines requiring restaurants with 20 or more locations nationwide to post calorie information on menus go into effect in May.

But while earlier research led by Arizona State University Professor Punam Ohri-Vachaspati of the School of Nutrition and Health Promotion found that menu-labeling, as the practice is called, does generally encourage consumers to make healthier choices, the most recent study to come out of her camp found that exposure to the practice could be woefully limited.

“A large portion of restaurant-goers will not have exposure to menu-labeling, which makes it harder for individuals to make informed choices about what they eat,” said Jessie Gruner, an ASU alum and lead author on the paper. “It makes finding healthy choices that much more difficult when nutrition information is not provided to customers, especially since consumption of away-from-home food is at an all-time high historically …

“Additionally, lower-income populations, which are already at risk for poorer health outcomes, will likely have less exposure to menu-labeling, which could result in further health disparities,” Gruner said.

The results of the study, published recently in the American Journal of Public Health, found that less than half of the number of restaurants projected by the FDA and the National Restaurant Association to be affected will actually be required to adopt menu-labeling — 17.6 percent of restaurants, compared to the projection of 36 to 40 percent.

Furthermore, the study found that exposure to menu-labeling will vary depending on income and race/ethnicity.

Researchers analyzed publicly available geocoded data collected from 1,753 restaurants in four New Jersey cities (Camden, New Brunswick, Newark and Trenton). Among those restaurants, 308 (17.6 percent) belonged to chains with 20 or more locations, and will therefore be required to adhere to menu-labeling regulations come May.

The location data was then cross-referenced with census data to determine which income tracts and races/ethnicities would be most affected.

Restaurants located in higher-income areas were found to be more likely to be required to adopt the practice than those in middle- or lower-income areas.

Jessie Gruner

SeparatelyResearchers adjusted for income when determining percentages of certain races/ethnicities to be affected., restaurants located in majority non-Hispanic black and mixed race/ethnicity neighborhoods were also found to be more likely to be required to adopt the practice.

“This gives us kind of a baseline to see which communities will be impacted,” Ohri-Vachaspati, a senior author on the paper, said.

That knowledge will be important when evaluating menu-labeling’s effects, giving researchers an idea of where to test increased exposure or if it’s necessary to require smaller restaurants (with less than 20 locations nationwide) to adopt menu-labeling as well — something that may be a prohibitive cost and necessitate federal support.

“We know that certain populations have a greater risk of poor health outcomes, particularly low-income communities,” Gruner said. “Policies, especially health policies, should target these at-risk populations in order to reduce the health disparities that we see.”

Exposure to menu-labeling is just one ingredient in the recipe for making a lasting, positive change to dining out in America. Another is ensuring consumer understanding of the labeling. Thankfully, as part of the upcoming FDA regulations, restaurants will also be required to add contextual language to help consumers understand menu labeling with respect to daily calorie recommendations (for example, “2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice, but calorie needs vary” for adults and “1,200 to 1,400 calories a day is used for general advice for children ages four to eight years, but calorie needs vary” for children).

Beyond that, Ohri-Vachaspati foresees public health officials working with restaurants to come up with healthier meal options, whether that means adjusting portion sizes or offering more nutrient-rich foods.

And while these early results suggest changes need to be made at the exposure level of menu-labeling regulations so that everyone has the ability to make healthier decisions, polls have shown that consumers are hungry for the chance.

“There has been overwhelming support from consumers,” Ohri-Vachaspati said. “So maybe there will be a bigger demand once the regulation goes nationwide.”


Top photo courtesy of Pixabay.com.