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Love at first bite: Dynamic duo find research home in Arizona’s mosquito hot bed

October 16, 2019

They go together like milk and cookies. Peanut butter and jelly. Batman and Robin. Disease and mosquitos. Wait, what?

Like other famous pairs, Krijn Paaijmans and Silvie Huijben are a dynamic duo. They just happen to study mosquitos. School of Life Sciences mosquito research Arizona State University School of Life Sciences researchers Krijn Paaijmans and Silvie Huijben have studied disease and insecticide resistance in several countries. They now find themselves in a mosquito hot bed here in Arizona. Photo by Samantha Lloyd/ASU VisLab Download Full Image

Paaijmans and Huijben, both assistant professors with Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences, met while in college in the Netherlands.

At that time, Paaijmans got hooked on studying mosquitos after they piqued his interest while working on a research project in Kenya. At the same time, Huijben was looking for a master’s degree project in parasitology.

Paaijmans knew of one involving penguins at the zoo.

“I wasn’t really interested in malaria, but there was this problem of penguins in the zoo getting malaria and I thought, ‘Well, that’s interesting,’” Huijben said. “It’s a very common disease among passerine birds where they don’t really get sick, but penguins aren’t exposed to it so they’re susceptible and easily die.”

Path to Arizona

Huijben spent her master’s degree learning about the species of malaria infecting these penguins and the species of mosquito that carried it. She had one foot in Paaijmans’ research world and never really left it.

Malaria and mosquitos — the perfect fit.

“Now, I’m just trying to avoid that she’s taking all my work,” Paaijmans joked. “I had to come up with another specialization.”

He moved with her to Pennsylvania and the two married while she was working toward her PhD.

Then, she moved with him to Barcelona, Spain, for an assistant research professor position. Her interest in malaria and mosquitos grew stronger after she joined Paaijmans for months at a time at a field station in Mozambique studying malaria elimination. Developing a research project in that area meant bringing the whole family, including their children, ages 1 and 3 at the time, so they could stay together during the field season.

Finally, last year, he moved with Huijben to Arizona, where they are both studying mosquitos and she will continue to study disease.

Decreasing insecticide resistance

Their Arizona research efforts recently got a huge boost: Their temporary insectary was completed, allowing them to work with live specimens again. And, Huijben was approved to start studying malaria specimens in the lab.

When then were working in Mozambique, they both remember watching mosquitos sit on insecticide-treated bed nets for hours when they should have been killed in minutes. These mosquitos often carry malaria, which is a life-threatening disease that affects millions of people worldwide.

Now, they each have their own research program aimed at reducing this problem.

Huijben is studying insecticide resistance in mosquitos, particularly those that carry malaria, and is looking for ways to prevent it. There are several computer models that predict methods to reduce resistance, but without testing them in lab and field environments, they are only predictions.

There are two main ways to reduce resistance. Both involve using multiple insecticides in villages, much like you would use a drug cocktail to treat a complex infection. One way is to rotate usage of insecticides so that mosquitos cannot develop a resistance to just one. Another is to treat half of the village with one and the other half with another so that if a mosquito develops resistance to one, it will still die when exposed to the other.

Now that she has a temporary insectory, she can test these methods to see which leads to a lower percentage of resistance in the population.

Paaijmans focuses more on implementing new trapping and deterrence tools in the field. Currently, bed nets are the standard, but those don’t help if the mosquitos are biting outside during the day or are in the house before you go to bed. Thus, he works on different types of traps, such as bait traps or funnel traps at the top of the bed nets that attract mosquitos and catch them at night.

“The standard approach to malaria control is giving bed nets and spraying houses, but we see lots of areas where mosquitos are biting before you go to bed. Or outside. Or during the day time,” Paaijmans said. “So, millions of dollars of funding are going into these tools but they might not be as effective as everyone thinks.”

His field experiments include having people sit outside with legs exposed and capturing mosquitos that try to bite them so he can learn about them: What species are they? What diseases can they carry? When are they biting? Where are they located?

He also wants to understand how current tools are being used since people often ignore or misuse the tools designed to reduce the spread of malaria.

He is currently working on an electronic mosquito barrier that would create electric fields between wires. People who protest the use of mesh in their windows because it reduces airflow in the summers could use this technology to keep mosquitos out. Military units could use it to keep mosquitos out of their temporary facilities.

Here in Arizona, it could be used around storm drains where mosquitos congregate to lay eggs. Then, either they would be blocked from laying eggs or be trapped after laying eggs.

Arizona is a mosquito 'hot bed'

Though excited about the insectory, this is only a temporary facility. In a year, they will have a high-security, negative air pressure insectory with flight rooms and large experiment areas where they will be able to bring mosquitos back from Mozambique and conduct their experiments on the mosquitos that carry diseases they are studying.

Currently, they can only have disease-free, local mosquitos in their temporary facility.

But luckily, the researchers are living in a mosquito hot bed.

“Vector control says Arizona is the highest density of mosquitos of anywhere in the United States and that’s why people love to come here and work with them,” Paaijmans said. “All of the storm drain water creates perfect conditions.”

Huijben added, “When we do our research in Guyana or Mozambique, we’re very happy if we get 100 in a trap, 50 even. But usually, it’s like three or eight. But here they had one trap, one night, 80,000 mosquitos. In just one trap.”

In the next year, they can pilot test many of their experiments on local populations, strengthening their hypotheses before bringing back mosquitos from Mozambique.

“Patterns will be quite similar. They’re just different vector,” Paaijmans said. “You never know until you do the experiment. We just don’t know how that will it will apply to malaria mosquitos. Many biological life history traits that we study in one mosquito applies to other mosquito species as well, but we have to test on both.”

Melinda Weaver

Communications specialist, School of Life Sciences


ASU Biodesign startup receives Fast Lane Award from AZBio

October 16, 2019

The Arizona Bioindustry Association (AZBio) has named OncoMyx Therapeutics, Inc., an Arizona State University Biodesign Institute startup, as a Fast Lane Company for 2019.

Other Arizona companies to receive the distinction during Arizona Biosciences Week this year were Biosensing Instrument in Tempe and Gt Medical Technologies in Mesa. Grant McFadden, director of the Biodesign Center for Immunotherapy, Vaccines and Virotherapy, is the co-founder of OncoMyx. Download Full Image

The annual award recognizes Arizona bioscience companies that have arrived at significant milestones during the past 18 months. Impact is measured by such factors as clinical results, regulatory approvals, certifications, collaborations, funding awards, product launches, job growth or product sales milestones.

OncoMyx was incorporated in 2018 by founders Grant McFadden, director of the Biodesign Center for Immunotherapy, Vaccines and Virotherapy, company CEO Steve Potts and COO Michael Wood. The company aims “to develop oncolytic immunotherapies with an unambiguous, promotable advantage that eradicate hard-to-cure cancers.”

The company is creating tumor-destroying immunotherapies based on the myxoma virus (MYXV), a poxvirus that causes localized skin infections in rabbits, but is safe in humans and any organism outside of rabbits. The virus has a unique ability to be carried systemically by human leukocytes where it can then infect tumor cells. McFadden has pioneered the MYXV field and is widely regarded as a top oncolytic virus (OV) expert.

McFadden and his collaborators have spent the past two decades evaluating MYXV in a wide variety of tumor models. The natural target of the virus is the European rabbit, in which it causes a lethal disease. Because it only grows in rabbit cells or cancer cells, it does not infect healthy human tissue. In humans, the virus is harmless, except when it encounters a cancer cell. McFadden’s research team has successfully targeted various types of cancers.

According to McFadden, “OVs are emerging as a new pillar of cancer care to complement the effectiveness of immunotherapies such as immune checkpoint blockade. The best-in-class MYXV platform is the only OV in development that is collectively a nonhuman pathogen, inherently immuno-stimulatory, easily multi-armed, and systemically delivered.”

In June 2019, OncoMyx announced the completion of a $25 million series A financing led by Boehringer Ingelheim Venture Fund (BIVF), Delos Capital and Xeraya Capital with participation from Korea Investment Partners (KIP), City Hill Ventures and Madison Partners. OncoMyx is using the proceeds to advance development of its lead oncolytic virus therapeutic program for the treatment of various cancers.

OncoMyx is currently being launched in Phoenix to test next-generation viruses in human clinical trials against a variety of human cancers.

OncoMyx will spearhead the next-stage development plans of oncolytic myxoma virus to seek FDA approval and conduct the first human clinical trials, using their patented systemic delivery approach. The company will capitalize on McFadden’s two decades of research into the potential of oncolytic viruses. McFadden sequenced the myxoma virus genome in 1999, and since then has produced dozens of genetically engineered constructs, demonstrating its ability as an oncolytic agent across many tumors in preclinical cell and animal models.

Preclinical studies in mice and testing on cancer patient samples from Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale have demonstrated encouraging immune responses against tumors. These data points build upon the continued clinical validation of OncoMyx’s platform to expand the boundaries of cancer treatment and potentially benefit a large group of patients.

Kanad Das, executive director of Boehringer Ingelheim Venture Fund said, “We look forward to working with the team to develop drugs that help improve patients’ lives across a range of malignancies.”

For more information about Grant McFadden and his work with the rabbit virus, visit “Treating cancer with a rabbit trick" at Ask a Biologist.

Written by Dianne Price, Biodesign Institute

Combining forces: Biophysicists study molecular effects of asthma drugs

October 14, 2019

A research team from the MIPT Center for Molecular Mechanisms of Aging and Age-Related Diseases collaborated with colleagues from the U.S., Canada, France and Germany to determine the spatial structure of the CysLT1 receptor in a paper published in Science Advances (DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aax2518).

Amongst these collaborators were three researchers from Arizona State University’s Biodesign Center for Applied Structural Discovery: Wei Liu, also an assistant professor in the School of Molecular Sciences; Uwe Weierstall, also a research professor for ASU’s Department of Physics; and Hao Hu. GPCR In the paper, the researchers investigated the structure of a G protein-coupled receptor known as CysLT1. It is involved in inflammatory processes and plays an important role in allergic diseases, including asthma, which affects about 10% of the global population. Download Full Image

In the paper, the researchers investigated the structure of a G protein-coupled receptor known as CysLT1. It is involved in inflammatory processes and plays an important role in allergic diseases, including asthma, which affects about 10% of the global population. The team of biophysicists obtained the detailed 3D structure of the receptor with zafirlukast and pranlukast, which are two drugs prescribed to patients with asthma, allergic rhinitis and urticaria.

“By solving the 3D structures of the cysteinyl leukotriene receptor, we can better understand the unique structural details of this important drug target,” Liu said. “Armed with this knowledge, it becomes easier to design lead compounds that will minimize unwanted side effects.”

G protein-coupled receptors, or GPCRs, are molecular machines incorporated into cell membranes. These receptors pick up specific signals on the outside of the cell and transmit them to the interior of the cell. The signals come from various sources, including photons of light, fat molecules, small proteins and DNA fragments. A GPCR can trigger various events in the cell, including division, relocation or even death.

The GPCR-mediated cellular “communication” is crucial for the functioning of an organism. It’s no wonder that these receptors are in some way involved in all processes in our bodies. They are the targets of about 40% of existing medications as well. Thus, it is interesting for structural biologists to understand the functioning mechanism of these biological machines and find ways to control them by developing new drugs.

Structural biology is a cross-disciplinary field at the interface of physics and biology, concerned with studying the 3D arrangement of biological macromolecules, such as proteins. Structural studies involve genetic engineering, artificial protein production, purification and crystallization. Once the protein crystal has been obtained, the physics comes in. Researchers expose the protein crystal to powerful X-rays to generate diffraction patterns. The resulting data can be mathematically processed to recover a detailed 3D atomic structure of a given protein molecule, with a precision of up to several angstroms.

Structural studies rely on powerful X-ray sources, which include synchrotrons and the more recently developed free electron lasers. In both cases, electrons are accelerated to nearly the speed of light. They are then forced to change their speed or direction, leading to X-ray emission. In a synchrotron, the electrons move along a curved, almost circular trajectory. In a free electron laser, they travel through a passage between two rows of alternating oppositely directed magnets, known as an undulator.

While structural biologists have used synchrotrons since the 1970s, free electron lasers are a relatively recent addition to the protein crystallography tool kit. Introduced in the early 2010s, they generate extremely powerful radiation and enable X-ray diffraction analysis of minuscule 1-micrometer crystals. This new instrument has already brought about the discovery of several hundred structures.

While relatively large, 0.3-millimeter crystals with pranlukast were grown in the study, the crystals with zafirlukast only reached the size of several micrometers. The former samples were investigated at the ESRF synchrotron in Grenoble, France. The latter were examined using the Stanford University-operated Linac Coherent Light Source, a free electron laser. The researchers’ colleagues from Canada helped to explore the mechanisms of signal transmission via CysLT1.

“These are no doubt unique structures, and we’ve grown quite fond of them,” said study co-author Aleksandra Luginina from the MIPT Laboratory of Structural Biology of G Protein-Coupled Receptors. “The CysLT1 receptor’s mechanism of operation updates how we see the functioning of GPCR protein subgroups. Also, by identifying the binding sites for the zafirlukast and pranlukast molecules, we lay the basis for improving asthma medications — increasing their efficiency and reducing side effects.”

GPCRs are notoriously difficult objects for structural studies. Only a handful of labs worldwide have managed to complete research projects of this kind.

Written by MIPT

Nanoscale research multiplies into vast opportunities

October 14, 2019

Alexis Hocken did not have many female STEM role models to look up to growing up, so now she wants to fill that void for future generations of aspiring young scientists and engineers.

Hocken, a third-year chemical engineering major in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, is well on her way to making an impact on engineering research. She is the lead author of a paper published in a special issue of Industrial and Engineering Chemistry Research, a journal of the American Chemical Society. Alexis Hocken performs mechanical testing with an Instron instrument used to investigate how much load the sample can handle before breakage. Photo by Erika Gronek/ASU Download Full Image

Before she ever began her undergraduate career, Hocken knew she wanted to get involved in the biomedical field. By the spring semester of her first year, she’d joined the lab of Matthew D. Green, an assistant professor of chemical engineering.

“When I met with Dr. Green, the project he suggested seemed like such a perfect fit,” Hocken said. “From there, my interest in nanomaterials for biomedical applications really took off.”

Engineering better body tissue replacements

Hocken worked on a research project with two master’s degree-level students for a little more than a semester before they both graduated, leaving her to lead her own project as just a second-year student. The project focused on copolymers, a combination of molecules formed by a chemical reaction to form a larger molecule with new properties. Polymers are everywhere from plastics to medicines.

“I really took it and ran with it, especially when Professor Green mentioned that he wanted to submit this project as his invited paper for Industrial and Engineering Chemistry Research’s special issue,” Hocken said.

Green, an expert in the design and synthesis of novel, ion-containing block copolymers, was recently named a member of the I&EC’s 2019 Class of Influential Researchers. Hocken worked with Green on one of his latest projects, which includes making photocured nanocomposites.

More specifically, the research involved investigating how the properties of varying amounts of nanoparticle additives could be used to prepare 3D hierarchical composites. One of Hocken’s interests is in the biomedical applications of the resulting composite material, which can be used in tissue engineering techniques to produce tailored cartilage or body tissue replacements.

“We can pick and choose the extent of the physical and mechanical properties that we want to implement into the material, depending on the needs of particular patients,” Hocken said. “We can use the information collected in this study to produce a composite with the loading of nanoparticles that corresponds to those desired qualities.”

Alexis hocken

Alexis Hocken, shown in the lab holding a nanocomposite sample, took lead on a research project as a second-year student. Photo by Erika Gronek/ASU

Hocken explains how the nanoparticles work:

“An analogy that I frequently use is pulling a tree out of the ground that has a lot of roots,” she said. “If rocks are interwoven between the roots, it is going to be significantly harder to pull out the tree than one with no rocks. The more rocks that are interwoven, the tougher the tree will be to pull out. In this case, the polymer is the tree roots and the silica nanoparticles are the rocks.”

When the team added more nanoparticles, they noticed a general increase in structural strength. This is because the nanoparticles act as a reinforcing anchor. They discovered the addition of nanoparticles into the composite increased the amount of load the composite could withstand before breaking.

“This material can be used to prepare 3D thermoset nanocomposites, wherein the nanoparticle and polymer mixture can be cured during printing using microstereolithography,” she said. “This allows for greater tunability within manufacturing and tissue engineering, producing materials that can be tailored to fit their specific functions.”

Hocken has also received funding from the ASU/NASA Space Grant program to continue her research. The next step for the project is to use nanoparticles that are functionalized. The nanoparticles will chemically react with the polymer resin to potentially create an even stronger network that can be utilized for tissue engineering and additive manufacturing.

In her recent journal publication, Hocken reported on her work to investigate “systems with inert nanoparticles that did not react with the polymer networks or the photoinitiator within the composite,” she said. “Now I am investigating the effects of implementing functionalized nanoparticles that will chemically react to see how this will alter the mechanical and physical properties of the nanocomposite.”

RISE-ing to a German summer challenge

Hocken’s love for research also extends abroad. She spent this past summer in Jena, Germany, participating in the DAAD Research Internships in Science and Engineering program. Called the RISE program, it allows students from English-speaking countries to live in Germany for a summer and conduct research alongside a German doctoral student. Hocken was selected to work in the Otto Schott Institute for Materials Research.

“In Jena, I conducted research on novel drug delivery mechanisms,” Hocken said. “We produced nanoparticles from varying concentrations of copolymer using a technique called nanoprecipitation.”

Those nanoparticles can then be used as drug vehicles within the body to deliver medication to specific organs. Different medications degrade at different rates and in different environments, requiring drug vehicles that match these medications’ specific degradation patterns.

“We worked to analyze these nanoparticles using various techniques,” Hocken said. “It will allow us to better pair medications with drug vehicles, the nanoparticles, derived from different concentrations of copolymer.”

In addition to her research, Hocken fully immersed herself in her new environment.

“During my 10 weeks abroad, I traveled to over 15 different German towns and cities to experience the various cultures across the country and to try the many, many delicious foods,” Hocken recalled.

“I also met many extraordinary people along the way,” she said. “My labmates were so incredibly welcoming and supportive. Also, I was able to meet many other RISE interns, some of whom I have formed lifelong friendships with. This experience was seriously so incredible, and I cannot think of a better way to have spent my summer.”

Reaching new heights as a role model

Back in Tempe, Hocken is currently a community assistant in Vista del Sol, an ASU residential community for upper-division students in ASU’s Barrett, The Honors College.

“I am the middlewoman between my residents and the many resources that ASU has to offer,” Hocken said. “I love interacting with all of them and hearing about their individual endeavors. I enjoy giving them advice about topics ranging from deciding on career paths to telling them about my favorite places to study.”

When she’s not studying or in the lab, Hocken looks for ways to introduce the sciences to other curious minds. Beyond research, the ASU/NASA Space Grant program puts a huge focus on students performing education outreach — enabling Hocken to get involved in efforts to inspire future generations of young women.

“Outreach is something I am very passionate about, specifically with women in STEM,” Hocken said. “Being a part of this program allows me to be that role model for another young woman who may be struggling to find her way through the beginnings of her STEM career.” 

Erik Wirtanen

Web content comm administrator, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


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Generations of Latinos yearn for a sense of belonging

October 11, 2019

ASU professor spent a decade studying millennials and Generation Z; her research shows millions believe they are not perceived and treated as Americans

Latino youth and young adults born and raised in United States who are fluent in English and steeped in American culture still feel excluded from this country. Though they are politically active and identify as Americans, they feel their identity and place in American society is constantly questioned.

These are the findings of Arizona State University’s Nilda Flores-Gonzalez, a professor and associate director of sociology in the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family DynamicsThe T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics is housed in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences., who studied societal placement of Latino millennials and Generation Z. That work is the basis of her landmark book, "Citizens but Not Americans: Race & Belonging Among Latino Millennials."

As National Hispanic Heritage Month comes to a close this week, ASU Now spoke to Flores-Gonzalez about her research and how this group of disenfranchised Latinos views themselves and their status as Americans.

Question: What does the title of your book, “Citizens but Not Americans” mean?

Answer: “Citizens but Not Americans” conveys a pervasive feeling of not belonging among U.S.-born Latinx millennials. These youth felt that despite their birthright citizenship and their embracement of American values, they are not perceived, nor are they treated, as Americans. This does not mean that they do not identify as Americans — because they do — but that in their daily interactions and experiences, their American identity is frequently questioned.

Q: What led you to research the thoughts and feelings of societal placement among Latino millennials and Generation Z?

A: During interviews with Latinx youth who participated in the 2006 immigrant mobilizations in Chicago, I found that most U.S.-born Latinx youth alluded to a feeling of not being “really American” or being a “different kind of American.” Since the study focused on politically active youth and their political socialization, I did not have data needed to explore their feelings of national exclusion, and if these feelings of national exclusion were shared by Latinx youth who were not politically active. I decided to conduct another study — on which the book is based — to understand why they feel they are “citizens but not Americans,” if this sentiment is common among U.S.-born Latinx youth and how they contend with feelings of exclusion from national belonging.

Q: You state that Latino millennials and Generation Z don’t feel as though they are a part of nation. Why is it important to feel as if they are a part of it?

A: With demographic changes that are transforming the U.S. into a majority-minority nation, it is imperative for the health of the nation to include nonwhites as full and equal members. We know that racial inclusion leads to access to opportunities. It also strengthens democracy as people with stronger attachment to their national identity have higher levels of political engagement. What will it mean for the economic and political future of the nation if most of its citizens are not considered or treated as full members of the nation? How can we prosper economically as a nation, and maintain a vibrant democracy, when most citizens are marginalized? These forms of exclusion have real life consequences in people’s life chances and everyday interactions in society.

Q: What do you feel are your big picture findings with Latino millennials?

A: In "Citizens but Not Americans," I examine how Latinx millennials understand their place in U.S. society, and highlight the role that race plays in how they see themselves as members of the nation. These youths understand that assimilation, or the adoption of American values and beliefs, does not turn them automatically into Americans. Despite being U.S. citizens by birth and embracing American values, they still face questioning of their status as Americans. This happens because in the national imagination, American continues to be associated with white and European heritage, and these youths’ physical and cultural traits such as skin color, phenotype and surnames mark them as nonwhite and non-European, and therefore as not Americans. To counter their national exclusion, these youths emphasize their American values as well as deploy counternarratives that offer an expanded vision of belonging to the nation and allow them to claim their rightful place as Americans. For instance, they emphasize that the United States is a nation of immigrants, and as the children of immigrants they embody this American trope.

Q: Do you feel that perception of Latino millennials and Generation Z will change over time?

A: As a society, we have to change the way in which we conceptualize who is an American for racial and ethnic minorities to feel that they belong. There is some indication that millennials and Generation Z are more politically liberal, and support same-sex marriage, interracial marriage and the legalization of marijuana. While it is assumed that these liberal views extend to more positive and inclusive attitudes towards ethnic and racial minorities, research suggests that white youths’ racial attitudes do not differ much from their parents. The resurgence of nativism, and particularly anti-immigrant attitudes and support for harsh immigration enforcement policies, suggests that Latinxs will continue to find themselves positioned at the margins of national belonging. 

Q: What are your recommendations, if any, to try to address these issues in the future?

A: As millennials age into adulthood, we are shifting our focus to Generation Z, seeking to understand how an increasingly nativist climate affects how diverse youths make sense of themselves and others as Americans. I am working on a new project with ASU faculty Angela Gonzalez, Nathan Martin, Emir Estrada and Edward Vargas to examine how an increasingly nativist climate affects Latinx, Native American and white youths' definition of who is American, shapes their sense of national identity and belonging, and motivates them to engage civically and politically to challenge this narrow conceptualization of Americanism. Our preliminary findings suggest that young adults see political engagement, both at the individual and collective levels, as the vehicle for challenging individual and institutional racial dynamics to achieve a more inclusive American society.

Top photo: ASU Professor Nilda Flores-Gonzalez published "Citizens but Not Americans: Race and Belonging Among Latino Millennials" in 2017. She wrote of her research showing that Hispanic people born between 1981–1996 are viewed as a different type of American, but not viewed as American. She looks at how they claim their Americanness. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now.

Reporter , ASU Now


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Weevil genius: Insect inspires stronger, more flexible materials

October 10, 2019

We humans like to think we invent things, but in a lot of cases, nature did it first.

It so happens that for materials scientists and engineers looking to develop strong, flexible complex materials, acorn weevils (specifically Curculio linnaeus, 1758) — small beetles with extra-long curved snouts — developed the blueprint millions of years ago. 

Now, a team of Arizona State University engineers and entomologists has uncovered a key from nature that could help make our material world better. Their findings were recently published in several life sciences and engineering journals, including Advanced Materials.

What’s the buzz around bugs?

This the first time Nik Chawla, a professor of materials science and engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU, has used insects as inspiration for his research; metal-based composite materials are more along the lines of his expertise.

It wasn’t until Chawla crossed paths with Michael “Andrew” Jansen, a recent doctoral graduate who has long been investigating insects, that weevils came onto his radar.

Jansen studied insect taxonomy and biomechanics in the ASU School of Life Sciences, where he was a member of Professor Nico Franz's lab of insect systematics and evolution since he began his graduate studies in 2012. His dissertation research explored weevil feeding behavior and biomechanics, or how insects use their bodies to navigate the laws of physics.

Long before his dissertation was complete, a photo of weevil behavior in a scientific journal article drove Jansen to delve into a brain teaser in bug biomechanics: How does a weevil with a strongly curved snout drill a perfectly straight hole in a hard acorn?

RELATED: Entomologist couple donates world-class insect collection to ASU

Published research didn’t yet have an answer, so Jansen decided to take a closer look at the unique structure of the acorn weevil’s long snout, scientifically known as a rostrum.

Because weevil snouts are very bendy, he assumed they must be rubbery, but they’re not. When Jansen took a closer, microscopic look at the cuticle (the hardened part of the exoskeleton) of a weevil’s snout, he saw it resembled fiberglass or carbon fiber.

It was Jansen’s idea to approach Chawla about studying this mysteriously strong and flexible organic structure.

“It had this layered structure to it that you really only see in artificial materials,” Jansen said. “So, at that point I thought maybe I should get in touch with someone who’s an expert on that kind of stuff, and Dr. Chawla happens to have written the book on composites.”

“Nature figured out a long time before we did that having fibers at different angles gives properties that are uniform throughout.”

— Nik Chawla, a professor of materials science and engineering 

Jansen knew it was a risk at that point in his graduate school career to ask a renowned materials scientist if he wanted to look at insect heads, but it paid off.

“When I emailed Nik, I didn’t expect he was going to actually email me back, much less eventually join my committee for my dissertation and get involved in my research,” Jansen said. 

Chawla, Jansen and the rest of their research team — Nico Franz, a professor of entomology and Jansen's doctoral adviser, and Jason Williams, a materials science and engineering assistant research scientist — were glad Jansen reached out. 

Researchers find the bug has a cool feature

Once Jansen learned how to use the 4D Materials Science Center’s testing and imaging tools to collect information about weevil snout structure and properties, the team members made some interesting discoveries about materials and insects.

They found the weevil’s snout is made up of alternating hard and soft layers in a very complex configuration that leads to a strong, flexible structure.

“Nature figured out a long time before we did that having fibers at different angles gives properties that are uniform throughout,” Chawla said. 

The weevil snout’s microstructure alternates between hard and soft layers that are arranged like a helix (like the shape of a DNA strand). It’s a very effective way to achieve a strong and flexible material — one the weevil can bend easily for feeding but be strong enough to drill through a hard acorn shell to lay eggs. However, it’s not a method that has been used in manufactured materials to achieve similar properties, Chawla says.

“The holy grail in a lot of materials is how to make something that is really strong but can also be stretched,” Chawla said. “One of the key things about this work is we’re starting to figure out how to get the best of both worlds.”

Pure aluminum, for example, is very stretchy, but not very strong. Adding substances to aluminum to form composite materials can change these properties. Current practice is to introduce harder particles such as copper or magnesium to pure aluminum to considerably increase its strength, but the resulting composite material loses some of its stretchiness and flexibility. 

But having materials with high marks in both properties is crucial for many critical applications. Airplane materials and highrise building materials, for example, both must be strong but also flexible to deal with turbulence or impacts of earthquakes. 

The researchers' findings on how weevils evolved their flexible and strong snouts could change how humans can manufacture similar materials to help avoid catastrophic structural failures.

“The understanding we got from this work is really to be able to apply this now to man-made engineering structures,” Chawla said. “Insects and nature are a lot smarter than we are.”

Interdisciplinary science worms out new ideas

Often, the most unexpected and scientific of revelations can be found at the crossroads of different disciplines, which is why ASU strives to foster transdisciplinary research as much as possible. 

“It’s where all the interesting stuff is,” Jansen said. “It’s hard to pick up a book on laminate mechanics as a biologist and try to figure it out and apply it to your own research. But those sorts of intersections are where most of the unknowns are in science, and that’s where we’re going to find the most interesting breakthroughs.”

Franz says this type of interdisciplinary research can often yield great rewards.

“We tend to look for other disciplines when we arrive at boundaries within our own,” Franz said, “and there’s promise to go beyond them with insights from a traditionally separate discipline.”

The interdisciplinary field of biomechanics — studying how a plant or animal moves on a physics level — is one such area. It’s a challenging field of study, but “in the end it’s worthwhile because you’re finding things that nobody has ever seen before, or even thought about asking before in a more traditional context,” Jansen said. “It’s really only possible when you have that interdisciplinary angle to see some of these questions or even begin to tackle them.”

Jansen is no stranger to pairing with engineers for his research. He has previously worked with Fulton Schools faculty members Dan AukesHeni Ben Amor and their graduate students on nature-inspired robots and artificial intelligence. But for something as important as his dissertation, Jansen knew ASU was a unique place that would accept such an interdisciplinary project.

“If I had been anywhere other than ASU I don’t think (my dissertation project) would have flown,” Jansen said. “The faculty at ASU were incredibly supportive of a project that was going in a direction where no one could see how it was going to turn out, and they were supportive of me doing interdisciplinary research.”

Biologists engineer new ideas from interdisciplinary science

For biologists, identifying the underlying structural properties of a weevil’s snout has important ramifications for insect research.

“I think the idea of a modified exoskeleton used to adapt to different amounts of force for different types of usage is going to be really common if we look at it a bit more closely,” Jansen said. “If we look at other systems I think we’ll see the exact same type of modifications, or something completely new, but I think it’s more common than we give it credit for — we take the material for granted.”

Franz, Jansen’s doctoral committee chair, says the results were surprising and the research wowed the dissertation committee.

“(Jansen) made large methodological leaps while analyzing his study system in a way that advanced both evolutionary biology and mechanical modeling of the insect cuticle,” Franz said.

A background in entomology wasn’t enough to get the job done. An interdisciplinary collaboration and learning new skills in biomechanics, materials science and even mathematics were key to Jansen’s success.

The recent graduate says he’s most proud of getting his work published in the Journal of Structural Biology, where he outlined the mathematical model he created for his dissertation to describe the mechanics of the acorn weevil’s exoskeleton. This was the fundamental basis for understanding why the weevil’s snout structure led to the strong-but-flexible mechanical behaviors the research team witnessed. 

“I think the more we look at living materials the more we’re going to find completely weird, off-the-wall types of innovations that we could borrow from.”

— doctoral student Michael “Andrew” Jansen

To do so, he took a page from the engineers’ handbook to create simulations of insect behavior from 3D models of the insect. Jansen says biologists often don’t typically measure the material properties of the species they’re studying before they begin plugging them into simulations. He now knows from experience why they don’t (it’s very difficult to do), but accurate measurements are important to show the functions of the exoskeleton cuticle material. 

“Any mechanical engineers or materials scientists would tell you if you give the model the wrong material properties, you’re going to get the wrong results,” Jansen said. “This is something that everyone normally does, but if you look through the biological literature they just ignore a lot of aspects of the cuticle’s behavior, which is a problem.”

He hopes to inspire his fellow biologists to take the time to get their models correct so they provide realistic insights into what the natural world can do.

Jansen thinks his research is just the tip of the weevil’s snout in terms of what scientists and engineers can learn from insect biomechanics. There are approximately 60,000 species of weevil alone, and with more than a million known species of insect and millions more to be discovered, the possibilities are endless.

“Hierarchically structured materials is a bit of an emerging field, especially in living materials,” Jansen said. “I think the more we look at living materials the more we’re going to find completely weird, off-the-wall types of innovations that we could borrow from.”

Top photo: The Curculio glandium acorn weevil is a type of small beetle that uses its long, curved snout to drill holes. An interdisciplinary collaboration between researchers from Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and School of Life Sciences studied Curculio glandium's relative, Curculio linneaus, which led to the discovery of unique properties of weevil snouts that could benefit both engineering and biology. The acorn weevil snout's exoskeleton structure could hold the key to a future of new material structures that are stronger and more flexible than what can be made today.

Monique Clement

Communications specialist , Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


1 in 4 Arizona suicides are domestic-violence related, ASU center finds

October 9, 2019

One in four suicides in Arizona are related to violence involving an intimate partner, according to a new report from Arizona State University’s Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety.

The center is based at ASU’s Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions. October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Download Full Image

The center released the Arizona Violent Death Reporting System (AZ-VDRS) report, titled "Suicides Involving Intimate Partner Violence," a compilation of statistics taken from the examination of 5,711 violent deaths in Arizona between 2015 and 2017.

Researchers found that 3,678 of those deaths were determined to be suicides, said Professor Charles Katz, the Watts Family Director of the center, with 25.6% of those involving “intimate partner violence,” or IPV.

Suicides were determined to have been related to IPV when one or more of the following indicators were present:

  1. The victim was known to have experienced intimate-partner relationship problems near the time of death.
  2. The victim was known to have experienced IPV near the time of death.
  3. The victim had a history of victimization by IPV and/or the victim had a history of perpetrating IPV themselves.

Katz said compared with victims of non-IPV related suicides, those whose suicides were IPV-related were less likely to have received some college credit, less likely to have been veterans, more likely to have been married and more likely to have been born in Arizona.

Other findings included the following:

  • Of males who died by suicide during those three years, 7.3 per 100,000 population were IPV-related, the study found, while among females, 2.1 were.
  • The suicide rate for Arizona males was higher than for Arizona females, 28.1 per 100,000 population versus 8.6. For both genders, about 1 in 4 suicides was associated with IPV, Katz said.
  • Whites died by IPV-related suicide at a rate of 5.9 per 100,000, with 19.6 being non-IPV-related, the AZ-VDRS found. For blacks, 3.7 suicides per 100,000 were IPV-related and 7.2 non-related, while for Hispanics, 4.4 suicides were IPV-related and 6.9 non-related. For American Indians, 4.1 suicides were IPV-related and 9.1 non-related.
  • Mohave County experienced the highest number of IPV-related suicides between 2015 and 2017, with 11.6 per 100,000 population, while La Paz County had the lowest with 1.6. Maricopa County, the state’s most populous, had an IPV-related suicide rate of 4.4 per 100,000. The statewide average was 4.7.

Read the full report.

Written by Mark J. Scarp

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ASU undergrads help produce first-of-its-kind report on business rules

ASU undergrads help produce groundbreaking report on business regulations.
October 9, 2019

Research ranks Phoenix, 114 other cities on regulations, ease of doing business

A team of undergraduate researchers at Arizona State University spent a year mining and analyzing data to produce a first-of-its-kind report that ranks 115 cities in three countries on how easy it is to start a business.

“Doing Business North America,” a wide-ranging comparison of six types of business regulations in Canada, Mexico and the United States, was released today by the Center for the Study of Economic Liberty, a joint endeavor of the W. P. Carey School of Business and the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership.

The project, based on the World Bank’s “Doing Business” report, involved a dozen undergraduates in different disciplines led by Stephen Slivinski, senior research fellow and project director at the center.

The students pored over data sets and websites, collecting information such as the laws covering maternity leave, how many steps it takes to get the power turned on and how high the tax rate is. For example, it can take more than two months to complete the procedures required to open a business in Little Rock, Arkansas, compared with four days in San Pedro, Mexico.

“'Doing Business North America' is predicated on the idea that a well-functioning economy requires good rules,” said Ross Emmett, director of the Center for the Study of Economic Liberty. “The ease of doing business in a location is higher when the rules are clear and the steps involved are few. A study like this is useful for policy research in both the academic and the policymaker communities.”

Among the 115 cities evaluated, Oklahoma City ranked first in overall ease of doing business. Phoenix came in at No. 20, scoring 80.52 out of 100.

Slivinski said that a lot of research compares business regulations between states and countries, including the World Bank report, but there are no city-to-city comparisons.

“So we instantly realized there was an opportunity here to go deeper,” he said. “That’s where a lot economic activity happens. It’s where people live.”

Besides the overall score, the team measured six other categories: starting a business, employing workers, getting electricity, registering property, paying taxes and resolving insolvency. All of the data will be available for download by the public.

“We wanted to make sure we had a data set that was robust to help researchers and policy makers understand the differences between places and the benefits that come with certain ways of doing things and disadvantages of doing it other ways,” Slivinski said.

“This is something that could only have been done at a place like ASU, where we have good students to choose from, we have this interdisciplinary approach where we can draw from different schools, and we think in a broader policy context.

“This goes beyond business. It goes to quality of life in an area.”

The research started in April 2018, when the team looked at the World Bank report and decided how to expand on it.

"They only did five cities in North America and the two they chose in the U.S. were New York and LA, which are not representative citites," he said.

The World Bank report includes many countries, some with developing economies. So some of the variables it measures, like barriers to women owning property and the likelihood of power outages, could be discarded.

Politics can play a role too.

“The World Bank can get pressure from member countries if a country doesn’t like its ranking,” Slivinski said. “This was a refreshingly academic endeavor. We wanted to plunge into the collection and find out what we could.”

Celeste Karlsrud, a senior in the School of Sustainability, was on the team of 12 student workers and enjoyed collecting the data.

“It was interesting to look at things like maternity leave and how many sick days were allowed. I liked getting down to the nitty-gritty public policy of it,” she said.

“We would dive into research papers and go through websites, and then we had to compare different kinds of resources. That’s when we would get together to go over what was relevant, or made sense or answered our questions.”

Paul Bernert, a research technician in the center, said the project had to start from scratch.

“There was no framework for how to collect data or what was in the realm of possibility,” he said. “Not only did we collect the data, but we had to come up with the system for how we actually ranked the cities. We had inspiration from the World Bank, so it’s an adaptation of what they did.”

The project is funded for several years by a donor, so the team will soon begin work on next year’s report, which Slivinski hopes will include more categories.

Nicholas McCrossan, a senior majoring in supply chain management and finance, helped to collect data and then create the ranking system.

“We had to look at things like, if you can find information online and file online or if you have to show up in person,” he said. “Then I helped to design the categories, making sure we could find all the information we needed.”

The category “employing workers” includes requirements such as minimum wage, paid annual leave and severance pay. Higher-scoring cities had lower or no requirements for those benefits. Slivinski said that “regulations on employing workers” also could be viewed as “worker protections.”

“I predict some of the cities that score low on this would say, ‘We disagree with your assumptions,’” he said.

“The best part about this is that because the data is being publicly released, they can take it and flip all the defaults and say, ‘We don’t think we should be marked down on that. We should be marked up.’

“That’s absolutely within the realm of what’s possible and what we hope people do with this.”

Top image: Phoenix was among the 115 cities ranked. The category rankings for Phoenix: starting a business, 40th; employing workers, 46th; registering property, seventh; getting electricity, seventh; paying taxes, 32nd. For “resolving insolvency,” all American cities tied for first, followed by Canadian cities and then Mexican cities. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU Now


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Understanding the magic of dogs

October 9, 2019

ASU psychologist’s new book tells us why dogs’ capacity to love makes them such suitable companions for humans

A recent study published in “Circulation,” the journal of the American Heart Association, concludes that having a dog is associated with a lower risk of death in humans, especially in humans who have cardiovascular ailments. Other studies show that people with dogs exercise more, stress out less and have better self-esteem. What’s more, dogs offer a special kind of companionship to humans — love.

In fact, Arizona State University Professor Clive Wynne would say that a dog can steal your heart, something dogs actually have evolved to do.

Recently, ASU Now sat down with Wynne to discuss his latest book, “Dog is Love: Why and How Your Dog Loves You,” and his fascination with dogs and their wild relatives. Wynne is the director of the ASU Canine Science Collaboratory and a professor of psychology at ASU. His book tells us how his dog Xephos showed him what makes dogs so special, why dogs’ capacity to love makes them such suitable companions for humans and why we love them back.

Question: What motivated you to write “Dog is Love”?

Answer: For a very, very long time, it’s been my ambition to write a book that would appeal to a wide audience. Part of the inspiration is quite deep. My late father left school when he was 13, and he was always asking me to explain things in terms he might have a hope of understanding. So, there’s always been a voice in my head trying to explain things in really basic terms. It’s very rewarding to be able to speak and write in a way that a lot of people can understand. It’s part of being a university professor, I think. When I came to the view that the uniqueness of dogs lies in their capacity to form strong emotional connections, I had a strong sense that this was something people might be interested in.

Q: Do you have a favorite chapter in the book?

A: I love all my children equally (laughs). I don’t know. Do I have a favorite chapter? I think it’s important that the final chapter is “Dogs Deserve Better.” I think people who worry about dogs, like people who worry about anything, want scientists to step forward, and not just provide a deeper understanding of things, but provide guidance about how to live in the here and now. In the final chapter, I do come out and say how we should go about living with dogs.

Q: What about your dog Xephos?

A: She has her own chapter in the book!

Q: What’s her chapter about?

A: Her chapter is about how my family and I hadn’t had a dog for some time, and there came a point where we were ready to get a dog. As it happens, this dog came into my life just at the point where I felt that other people’s claims as to what makes dogs unique had ceased to work for me. I felt I had refuted them. Yet, I hadn’t come up with what I could propose as an alternative to what makes dogs unique. I knew there was something going on with dogs. They’re not like other species. But I could not articulate what it was. And this dog came into our life. She’s not smart. She’s not a pedigree. She’s not what people call beautiful, but I think she’s beautiful. She’s just a cute mutt. I call her the book’s spirit animal because she was trying to communicate something to me. Finally, the penny drops. She’s so affectionate — and this is what makes dogs special, what makes dogs unique. It’s this exaggerated, ebullient desire to form strong connections, and she taught me that.

Q: Tell me more about that.

A: When I come home, she’s crazy happy to see me. She uses her whole body to express her enthusiasm for being back with me. And when we are home together, she’s always nearby. She’ll follow me around, watch TV with me, lie down in my office and keep an eye on things while I’m working, just these everyday miracles. We have this ability to communicate emotionally even though we’re not closely related species.

We’re such different species. We have such different body shapes; yet, we read each other’s emotional expressions extremely well. When she tucks her tail between her legs, she’s anxious or unhappy. Humans don’t do that, but we read it instantly, intuitively. And dogs read our emotional expressions, too.

Q: I have to ask, what does it mean when a dog licks your face, or kisses you, as some would say?

A: The best research is that it’s a mark of deference. Whereas when we humans kiss each other, it’s affection. People haven’t studied this very much, but for dogs living with other dogs, it’s not kissing, it’s licking the corner of the mouth. Licking the corner of the mouth is a mark of deference among dogs, one dog to another. And allowing yourself to be licked on the corner of the mouth is an act of social superiority.

Q: You haven’t always studied dogs. What did you study before them? 

A: I was always an animal psychologist, and like other animal psychologists I studied pigeons and rats and, later, marsupials while I was in Australia. The marsupials were fun. I came to studying dogs because when I came to the United States in 2002, I couldn’t continue to study marsupials, and I didn’t really want to go back to studying pigeons. I realized I wasn’t just interested in just animal minds. I was also interested in the human-animal relationship. I’m embarrassed to say it took me a couple of years to figure this out, but if you want to study human-animal relationships, there isn’t another animal that humans have had a more intense relationship with than dogs. I’ve been lucky. Since I turned to dogs, it’s been magic.

Upcoming dog-related events: 

Loving Dogs

What: An evening with three leading experts on the powerful bond between people and their pooches.

When: 6–8 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 17.

Where: Arizona Science Center, 600 E. Washington St., Phoenix.

More details and purchase tickets

Canine Science Conference

What: A symposium of leading experts in academia in the field of canine behavior. 

When: Various times, Oct. 18–20. See full schedule for details.

Where: Arizona Science Center, 600 E. Washington St., Phoenix.

More details and registration

Science writer , Media Relations and Strategic Communications

ASU researcher takes on challenge to build a synthetic cell

October 7, 2019

The challenge of designing a synthetic artificial cell has been accepted by a team of researchers from institutions across the country, including Giovanna Ghirlanda, professor in the School of Molecular Sciences at Arizona State University. Ghirlanda will lead the protein design, engineering and catalysis aspects of the project. 

Last spring, Ghirlanda attended an Ideas Lab organized by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Ideas Labs are intensive workshops focused on finding innovative solutions to grand challenge problems. The goal of this Ideas Lab was to facilitate the generation and execution of innovative research projects aimed at designing, fabricating and validating synthetic cells. The synthetic cell project is a subsection of one of NSF’s 2017 Big Ideas, the "Rules of Life." School of Molecular Sciences Professor Giovanna Ghirlanda Download Full Image

The Rules of Life Big Idea project is aimed at elucidating and harnessing the sets of rules that predict an organism's observable characteristics. Understanding the rules that govern extant life may allow the creation of new forms of life from scratch out of nonliving materials and facilitate new ways to produce biofuels, computing devices and pharmaceuticals. Integral to this effort is examining the potential societal and ethical impact of generating synthetic cells, calling for the involvement of social scientists and philosophers in the research teams. The NSF has committed $36 million to the Rules of Life Big Idea and Ghirlanda's project is one of the first to receive funding from this initiative. 

Cells are composed of proteins, lipids, nucleic acids and glycans. Nucleic acids store the information necessary to make proteins, which are the cells workhorses. Proteins catalyze all chemical reactions in the cell and also have an important structural role. Lipids compose the external and internal membranes that define the boundaries of the cell. 

The idea and question raised at the workshop from Ghirlanda’s team: Is it possible to engineer functioning cells that are made up entirely of proteins and nucleic acids, but no lipids? In other words, a "fat-free" cell? 

Cell membranes constructed from lipids control access to and from the cell and physically separate the various cell functions. However, it is not obvious why nature chose lipids to perform these functions since they have molecular structures that lack mechanical stability and are difficult to engineer. Ghirlanda proposes to replace the lipids with proteins. In contrast to lipids, proteins can form folded structures determined via patterns of ion pairing, hydrogen-bonding, or hydrophobicity that are in turn controlled by their amino acid sequence. Proteins can also catalyze specific chemical reactions, either autonomously or by incorporating metals and cofactors. In this way proteins can be designed that are structurally rigid and have physical and chemical propeties that can be controlled and engineered.

Eliminating lipids would simplify the metabolic demands on a minimalist synthetic cell, and replace the indistinct interface with a programmable, functional one. Functions such as energy transduction, as well as ion and small molecule transport, could be directly encoded into the proteins that make up the physical barrier. 


Schematic illustration of ProteoCell components to be generated in the proposed work.

Constructing cells in this way directly addresses one of the most basic molecular-level questions concerning the Rules of Life, which is the role and function of lipids and proteins. The ability to design and manufacture viable synthetic cells would also open the door to important new applications. For example, synthetic cells coulds be used as bioreactors to make new functional biomaterials and sustainable biofuels, or synthesis of organic chemicals could be performed under environmentally friendly conditions. Artificial cells could also be used to engineer new organs, or to generate artificial symbiosis with existing organisms, for example, in soil nutrification. The study of synthetic cells, and of the processes used in their creation, could also provide insight into the origin and evolution of life on Earth and, possibly, reveal the hallmarks for extraterrestrial life. 

“Our project will provide new understanding of the limits and capabilities of cellular life,” Ghirlanda said. “And it will enable streamlined biosynthesis in simplified cellular factories.”

The other investigators working on the project with Ghirlanda are Christine Keating (Pennsylvania State University), who will study the physical chemistry of the cell interfaces and phase separation; Cheryl Kerfeld (Michigan State University), who will work on protein microcompartments and biophysical characterization; Vincent Noireaux (University of Minnesota), who will perform quantitative studies on cell-free expression; Millicent Sullivan (University of Delaware), who will perform biomaterial design and peptide assembly; and Barbara Harthorn (University of California-Santa Barbara), who will provide guidance in assessing and responding to public perception of the project. 

Professor Ian Gould contributed to this story. 

Communication specialist, School of Molecular Sciences