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ASU researchers pursue neural mechanisms of music perception

April 18, 2018

In a famous social experiment a decade ago, a world-renowned violinist stood against a wall in a Washington, D.C., subway station and expertly played one of the most difficult pieces of music in history on a violin worth more than $3 million. Of the more than 1,000 people who walked by violinist Joshua Bell as he played that morning, only seven stopped to listen.

Why were people unable to recognize they were hearing world-famous music? Michael McBeath and Sam McClure, researchers in the ASU Department of Psychology Michael McBeath (left) and Samuel McClure, professors in the ASU Department of Psychology, are studying how people perceive music. Photo by Robert Ewing Download Full Image

One answer is: context matters. A few days before he stood in the subway station, Bell played to a full theater in Boston, where the cheapest tickets were $100.

In a theater, people expect to see a world-famous violinist and hear excellent music. In a subway station, they do not expect Joshua Bell to be playing Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Chaconne” on his one-of-a-kind Stradivari violin.

Researchers in the Arizona State University Department of Psychology, along with collaborators from the University of Connecticut and the University of Arkansas, measured what was happening in the brain during a version of the Joshua Bell experiment. The findings from their study were published in the April 18 issue of Scientific Reports.

“We wanted to test whether having contextual information about a musical performance affected what people thought about the music,” said Göekhan Aydogan, a postdoctoral researcher in ASU’s Decision Neuroscience Lab, “And we wanted to see how the brain handled this information which was not directly related to the quality of the musical performance.”

In the experiment, participants listened to pieces of music that were just over a minute long while the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure brain activity. Before the music sounded, the researchers either told participants it was played by a student or a professional musician. This information gave the participants context about the music they were about to hear.

“Standard economic theory assumes that people are rational, and the contextual information need not be considered when deciding on the quality of the music,” Aydogan said.

The researchers found that participants perceived the music differently. They rated pieces they thought were played by professionals higher than those played by students. The researchers found differences in brain activity that depended on who played the music.

“We found an attentional bias effect,” Aydogan said. “Measures of neural activity were higher in the auditory cortex for the entire time people were listening to music reportedly played by a professional.”

Half of the time, when the participants thought they were listening to music played by a professional, it was actually a student. This mismatch allowed the researchers to study how people were able to change their opinions about the music.

They found that an important part of the executive control network, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, played a central role in overcoming the initial bias people had from the information about who was playing the music.

“We found that people were biased based on the sensory input they received — the music they heard — and based on the activity we measured in the prefrontal regions, it appears that this bias was reduced when participants engaged in deliberative thinking,” said Srekar Nagishetty Ravi, a senior in the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering who worked as a research assistant in the Decision Neuroscience Lab.

The researchers found that the strength of the connections between the prefrontal regions and other brain regions indicated how biased people were. Participants with weaker connections to the executive control network were more susceptible to context, or the information about whether a student or professional played the music, when assessing the quality of the music.

“There is very little research on what makes art or music beautiful,” said Samuel McClure, associate professor of psychology and head of the Decision Neuroscience Lab. “There are theories that suggest what artists do is discover by chance the principles of how our brains represent visual scenes or sound, and science has yet to define these principles.”

ASU researchers are now working to test such theories.

McClure recently joined an interdisciplinary group of ASU professors, lecturers and students who are all interested in the science of music perception. The researchers named themselves “The Science of Art, Music and Brain Activity” or SAMBA for short. They meet once a week at 3:14, in honor of pi, and are planning a series of neuroimaging experiments to map how people perceive music.

The idea for the SAMBA group came from Jeffrey Atchison, a post-baccalaureate student working toward a degree in psychology. Atchison’s first degree, also from ASU, is in music. He worked as a music educator in the Phoenix area before deciding to return to ASU.

“The more I taught, the more I had questions about how students processed music and interacted with musical concepts,” Atchison said. “I decided I had to try and understand the biological and neural mechanisms underlying how we perceive music.”

Atchison recruited his former mentor Joshua Gardner, clinical associate professor of music, to join him in the study of music perception.

“Music has been around for a very long time — some flutes date to 40,000 years ago — and is everywhere,” Gardner said. “The experiments we are planning will help us understand the cognitive processes that occur when we experience music as listeners or performers, which is interesting from a curiosity and pedagogical standpoint.”

Atchison also met with Michael McBeath, professor of psychology, and McBeath publicized and promoted the group. Additional members of the interdisciplinary SAMBA group include Xin Luo, assistant professor of speech and hearing development; Vaughn Becker, associate professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society; Jakob Patten, lecturer in psychology, and Seth Gory, an ASU music student.

Research Assistant Professor, Psychology Department


How women's colleges helped win World War II

Author Liza Mundy speaks at ASU + GSV Summit about her 'Code Girls' book

April 16, 2018

Editor's note: Read more of the highlights from the ASU + GSV Summit on our blog.

Monday at the ASU + GSV Summit, author Liza Mundy gave the audience a history lesson tied to her book “Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II.” A partial transcript follows: Author Liza Mundy speaks at ASU GSV Summit Author Liza Mundy speaks about the role of women in coded communications at the ASU+GSV Summit 2018 in San Diego on Monday. Mundy’s book, "Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II," shares the story of college women and teachers being recruited for the clandestine work. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now Download Full Image

"World War II was a time when the freedom of democracy hung in the balance, and diversity and a willingness to be inclusive was truly a reason we won World War II.

"Much of our tech industry was born during World War II. It was really women doing that work because the men were doing the fighting.

"Goucher College was a women’s college founded in the 19th century when people thought higher education for women was a bad thing. It was a rigorous institution, but there was enormous pressure on the women to get married. One of the women from Goucher was Jackie Jenkins, mother of Bill Nye the Science Guy, so you get a sense of her intellectual chops.

"She had been tapped by the U.S. Navy and spent weekends being ushered into an arcane field called cryptanalysisCryptanalysis is the study of ciphertext, ciphers and cryptosystems in order to understand how they work and find ways to defeat them.. She was one of thousands.

"Everything took place over the radio waves using Morse code. We had to figure out how to break those. Americans had led code-breaking responsibility for the Pacific Ocean.

"A bureaucrat in the U.S. Navy literally typed in a memo: “New source: women’s colleges.”

"They (female candidates) were asked two questions: “Do you like crossword puzzles?” and “Are you engaged to be married?” If they said yes and no (respectively), they were recruited.

Code Girls book cover

"The Army sent their handsomest soldiers to do the recruitment because they thought these women would be susceptible to the charms of a young man and that’s why they would take this work. They were so wrongheaded about why an educated woman would want a way to do work.

"Thousands of schoolteachers from the South learned the geography of Asia and the code systems of the ships supplying the Japanese army, spread out on islands all around the Pacific. They were trained to read an encrypted message, and they were doing an early form of hacking.

"There was an African-American unit breaking the code of the private sector. They were also former teachers. Just as banks and companies do today, encrypting all their financial info before sending it out on the internet, banks and companies were doing that in World War II. They were figuring out who was doing business with Hitler or Mitsubishi.

"I interviewed 20 women for the book and have heard from many more. They had to do complicated math to strip out the encryption. The intelligence would go out to American submarine commanders waiting on the horizon.

"We sank thousand and thousands of Japanese ships. Most Japanese army deaths were from starvation and disease because they weren’t getting supplies.

"When they learned that their efforts led to a convoy being sunk, these women felt pure satisfaction. Later in their lives they had more complicated feelings about the lethal intelligence work they were part of.

"They made an incredible contribution to the end of World War II. Our willingness to innovate, and be diverse when freedom hung in the balance, was a central reason we won World War II."

Mary Beth Faller

reporter, ASU Now


Studying oxygen in Earth’s oceans, ASU scientists discover clues to recovery from mass extinction

April 16, 2018

About 252 million years ago, more than 90 percent of all animal life on Earth went extinct. This event, called the “Permian-Triassic mass extinction,” represents the greatest catastrophe in the history of life on Earth. Ecosystems took nearly five million years to recover and many aspects of the event remain a mystery.

A research team, led by scientists from Arizona State University and funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation, is helping to understand why this extinction event happened and why it took life so long to recover. The study, published in Science Advances, was led by ASU School of Earth and Space Exploration graduate student Feifei Zhang, with direction from school faculty member Ariel Anbar. Field view from Iran where samples were collected for this study The collection site for the sediments used in this study, located near the village of Zal in East Azerbaijan Province, Iran. Photo credit: Sylvain Richoz Download Full Image

Pioneering a new technique for understanding

For this study, the research team focused on marine ecosystems, which were decimated during the Permian-Triassic mass extinction. Previous studies demonstrated that the loss of dissolved oxygen in Earth’s oceans, an effect called “marine anoxia,” played an important role in the mass extinction event. The team wanted to find out when the anoxia occurred, how widespread it was, and how long it persisted after the extinction event. 

In particular, the team wanted to see if separate episodes of extinction that happened during the long period of recovery were driven by episodes of ocean anoxia and other environmental changes.

Typically, scientists determine ocean anoxia levels by looking at the abundance of pyrite, commonly known as “fool’s gold,” and other elements and minerals in ancient mud rocks. But mud rocks only provide clues to what may have happened at a single location. Scientists need to sample dozens of sites around the world to infer the big picture from mud rocks.

To overcome this, the team pioneered a new and more efficient approach. By studying the variations of uranium isotopes recorded in carbonates, the team was able to infer global anoxia occurring throughout the ocean using samples from a single outcrop. These sediments, collected in modern day Iran, were deposited 246-252 million years ago in a relatively shallow tropical ocean near the equator.

The resulting variations of uranium isotopes gave the team the answers they were looking for. They were able to show that episodes of extinction coincided with pulses of ocean anoxia, driven by changes in ocean circulation and nutrient levels. 

“This finding,” Zhang said, “provides important insights into patterns of oceanic environmental change and their underlying causes, which were ultimately linked to intense climate warming during the Early Triassic.”

Climate change — then and now

This team’s discovery also calls attention to the possible effects of modern climate change, because global warming was the ultimate driver of marine anoxia in the Early Triassic period.

“One of the most interesting and worrying things about the Permian-Triassic extinction is how similar those events are to what is happening today,” co-author Stephen Romaniello said. “Similar to what happened during the Permian period, the Earth’s modern oceans are facing rapid climate warming and enhanced nutrient fluxes.”

Point in fact, scientists have discovered more than 400 marine dead zones in the modern oceans. These are mostly linked to elevated nutrient fluxes in coastal areas, and global warming is likely to cause these zones to expand dramatically in the future.

“Our work shows that if we continue on our present course, there is a good chance that oxygen depletion will exacerbate the challenges marine organisms are already facing,” co-author Thomas Algeo of the University of Cincinnati added.

The ASU-led team includes Zhang, Romaniello, Anbar and Harrison Smith of the School of Earth and Space Exploration who worked with researchers Algeo; Kimberly Lau of the University of California, Riverside; Matthew Clapham of the University of California, Santa Cruz; Sylvain Richoz and Micha Horacek of the University of Graz (Austria); and Achim Herrmann of Louisiana State University.

Karin Valentine

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


ASU and BCG unveil new study on value of investment for institutions seeking to scale digital learning

April 12, 2018

The Arizona State University Action Lab at EdPlus and The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) have unveiled a new study called “Making Digital Learning Work: Success Strategies From Six Leading Universities and Community Colleges.” The study, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, examines the return on investment for higher education institutions looking to implement high quality digital learning practices so they can achieve impact at a larger scale.

Utilizing a case study approach, the study included six leading universities and colleges that have a strong track record of using digital learning to serve large socioeconomically diverse student populations including Arizona State University, University of Central Florida, Georgia State University, Houston Community College, Kentucky Community and Technical College System and Rio Salado Community College. A person's hands on a laptop on a table Download Full Image

The study looked at return on investment of digital learning in full immersion and blended digital immersion scenarios. It finds that when colleges and universities take a strategic approach to digital learning and invest in the design and development of high quality courses and programs, they can achieve three critical objectives. These include: higher retention and graduation rates and quicker matriculation for students who took at least some portion of their degree program online; increases in the total volume of student enrollment; and increases in the proportion of specific populations including Pell Grant-eligible students, older students and female students.

“We are now seeing how scaled digital learning environments circumnavigate barriers of time and space, decrease time to completion amidst a radical demographic shift, and provide pathways for unprecedented program completion,” said Lou Pugliese, managing director and senior education fellow at EdPlus. “The maturity of digital technologies has given way to new design methods that now allow institutions to more effectively address the unique set of specific learner needs in order to sustain in their academic journey.”

Findings from the study offer an understanding of how each institution adopted successful digital learning approaches and what impact they had. Based upon a review of the six case studies, some promising best practices are suggested:

  • develop a portfolio of different digital delivery models tailored to the particular needs of the institution’s student populations
  • achieve similar or better outcomes online by investing in instructional design, learning science, digital tools and capabilities that produce courses and curricula created for the unique challenges and opportunities in the digital realm
  • offer a network of remotely accessible support structures that are adapted to the needs of online learners
  • engage faculty as true partners and equip them for success by giving faculty a voice in key decisions, providing professional development, and fostering a culture of innovation
  • create a central team to manage the institution’s digital learning portfolio ensuring quality and sustaining momentum
  • rather than building everything in-house, tap outside vendors to accelerate innovation, expand capabilities and boost enrollment
  • develop strong institutional research, analytical capabilities and reporting systems necessary to make the data actionable

The Action Lab researchers are working on a number of other projects such as creating models to measure online student learning beyond grades.  The focus is on using observed student performance and behavioral data captured within ASU’s learning management system (e.g., exam grades, log data on whether a student clicked on a video, discussion group analysis, etc.) to dynamically estimate student learning in relation to the course objectives and associated program outcomes, explains Action Lab Senior Research Associate, Phil Arcuria.

This information could then be used by a variety of stakeholders, from students and faculty members to instructional designers and program directors to understand better student learning related to course and program objectives.

Another study in progress is looking at the removal of remedial math as a stepping stone course to MAT 117:College Algebra for online and campus immersion students at ASU. Instead, learners are placed directly into MAT 117 that now features ALEKS adaptive technology.

Action Lab Research Associate Jim Cunningham is studying: Whether ALEKS is effective in producing mastery of math concepts in college algebra; how are remedial students faring in the new system; what is the relationship between mastery in ALEKS, performance on the math final and the final grade in the math course and; and how well ALEKS prepares students for success in the next major steps in math, pre-calculus and calculus. 

Led by Pugliese, the Action Lab is designed to assess tools used in fully online and blended teaching systems with a suite of academic research methods, evidence-centered design, media industry quality-control approaches, usability studies and new data analytics. The Action Lab draws from ASU’s leadership position in digital learning, world-class research capacity in cognitive science, adaptive and personalized learning and social science. Leveraging this depth, the Action Lab develops new frameworks of digital learning evaluation so that these data can be translated into practical classroom applications to improve student outcomes at scale.

To obtain copies of the executive summary and full report of the Action Lab’s Making Digital Learning Work study email Lou.Pugliese@asu.edu. Future published research by the Action Lab will be available on the EdPlus website.

David Weissman serves as Senior Director of Communications for EdPlus.  He can be reached at davidweissman@asu.edu.

Not just a summer fling: Teenage love affects mental health, school performance, ASU research shows

April 12, 2018

Adolescence is a time when biological changes in the body happen faster than psychological changes, a mismatch that creates challenges for teenagers that can lead to problem behaviors, depression or even substance abuse. 

Healthy relationships support teenagers as they mature into adults, and many scientists study the relationships teens have with their parents and friends. But though teenagers spend a lot of time thinking about, talking about and being in romantic relationships, few researchers study adolescent romantic relationships. Thao Ha, a new assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University, is one of the few. Thao Ha, ASU Department of Psychology Thao Ha, a new assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University, speaking in from of the ASU Hispanic Mother-Daughter Program. Photo credit: Spencer Brown, EOSS Marketing Download Full Image

“We learn as developmental psychologists that early romantic relationships carry forward into later, more committed relationships such as marriage, but this idea is just starting to be tested,” Ha said. “What if the social and emotional skills necessary for happy and healthy relationships later in life are actually learned in these adolescent relationships?”

Ha studies how experiences in adolescent romantic relationships like conflict and breakups influence mental health, behaviors that promote physical health and engagement in school.

Ha leads the @HEART lab and uses techniques from developmental psychology, social psychology and cognitive neuroscience with the goal of collecting subjective and objective measures about the quality of the romantic relationship. The use of multidisciplinary methods is important, because almost all teenagers who complete surveys about their romantic relationships report being really happy, even though they might not actually be in a healthy relationship. The @HEART lab researchers observe and videotape couples as they work through a conflict, deliver surveys over a long timeframe to couples, measure levels of stress hormones in saliva and measure electrical activity in the brains of couples.

“The most difficult part about this research is keeping up with the teenagers,” Ha said. “Recruiting is challenging because by the time participants are enrolled and scheduled for a study, they might have already broken up!”

In the lab, participating couples might argue or have conversations about jealousy while the researchers videotape the session. The researchers then use the video to identify what emotions each participant displayed, based on their facial expressions, posture and tone of voice, what they talked about, and whether they were supportive to each other.

Ha also sends participants text messages with short survey questions such as: How do you feel today? How jealous are you today? How much love do you feel today? What was the most stressful event today?

“These momentary assessments give us insight into how the relationship functions in real life,” Ha said.

Participants receive the text message survey questions about twice a week for three months. The response rate is high, even after participants are no longer in the romantic relationship. Once teenagers begin a study, Ha said they are very committed participants.

Ha’s research is basic science, but community outreach is also an important part of her work. She recently spoke at the ASU Hispanic Mother-Daughter Program, where she told the mothers, fathers, and teenagers in the audience about the significance of adolescent relationships relative to mental health and school performance and the importance of keeping lines of communication open.

Next year, Ha will collaborate with the Tucson Unified School District to study how teenagers navigate relationships in general, not just romantic relationships, and whether those with healthier relationships perform better in school.

The idea of ASU as the New American University resonates with Ha, who is the oldest child of Vietnamese refugees to the Netherlands and a first-generation college student. When she started college, Ha had no idea what academia was, and a career in science seemed beyond her reach. She credits her mentors at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, who supported her and helped her navigate graduate school. Ha earned two master’s degrees in developmental psychology and her doctorate from the university before coming to ASU as a postdoctoral researcher in 2013. Ha first worked in the T. Denny School of Family and Social Dynamics and the Institute for Interdisciplinary Salivary Bioscience Research before joining the Department of Psychology in fall 2017.

Research Assistant Professor, Psychology Department


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Giving pound puppies a paw up

April 11, 2018

ASU researcher Lisa Gunter focuses on improving shelter dog welfare

Dogs — they’re our best friends but there’s still a lot we don’t know about them: what they daydream about, if they’re really smiling, why they’re scared and how we can help. And until Dug the dog’s magical speaking collar from “Up” becomes available on the mass market, we’ll have to use other means to find out.

ASU psychology doctoral candidate Lisa Gunter has spent several years doing just that. A researcher at the university’s Canine Science Collaboratory, Gunter’s work focuses on improving the welfare of shelter dogs. She recently wrapped up three studies on the topic.

The first study found positive effects related to short-term fostering, the second confirmed a relationship between presumed stress behaviors and dogs’ physiological responses, and the third dispelled myths about shelter dog breeds. The latter is currently under review to be published by the open-access scientific journal Plos One.

“I think the aim of sheltering in general is to be doing things that improve the dogs’ well-being or that help them find a home,” Gunter said. “But a lot of times in shelters, we just don’t know a lot about the dogs. And I think if we know more, we can better help them.”

Sleepovers: Not just for kids

The first of Gunter’s recent studies was a larger-scale roll-out of an earlier study in which dogs from a single shelter spent one night away with a volunteer “foster parent.” In the initial study, cortisolCortisol is a hormone involved in the stress response. levels were measured in samples of the dogs’ urine taken at three separate points in time: at the shelter before the sleepover, during the sleepover and back at the shelter after the sleepover.

That study found that one night away from the shelter significantly reduced the dogs’ cortisol levels.

In the larger-scale roll-out, Gunter’s team, which included Erica Feuerbacher of Virginia Tech, received a grant from Maddie’s Fund to expand the study to include dogs from four shelters across the U.S.: the Arizona Humane Society in Phoenix; the Humane Society of Western Montana in Missoula; DeKalb Animal Services in Decatur, Georgia; and the SPCA of Texas in Dallas.

This time around, dogs spent two nights away from the shelter in the home of a volunteer foster parent, and their cortisol levels were measured before they left the shelter, on each day of their time away and for two days after they arrived back at the shelter.

Researchers wanted to look at the two-day post-intervention baseline cortisol level — as opposed to just the one-day post-intervention level — because there was some concern after the initial study that following the intervention, the dogs’ stress may actually increase over the next few days to levels higher than it was before they left the shelter, due to the shock of getting a break and then having to return.

“Some people were like, ‘Well yeah, they get to go spend time in a home but then they have to come back!’” Gunter said.

However, Gunter and her team found that two days post-intervention, the dogs’ cortisol levels were no higher than before they left the shelter for the sleepover. And at all four sites, they found reductions in cortisol levels during the sleepover.

“Our interpretation of [the results] is that these sleepovers are kind of like a weekend to the work week,” Gunter said. “It doesn’t make all the dogs’ stress go away but it lets them go to a house, take a breather, rest and recharge. And then come back to the shelter ready to find their forever home.”

One additional interesting finding was a difference in stress levels of dogs between shelters. What that suggests is that there may be best practices for running shelters that can make them less stressful environments.

Factors such as a lack of social interaction and high noise levels can have a huge effect on dogs’ well-being. According to Gunter, one study even found dogs who had spent six months or more in a shelter showed signs of damage to their hearing.

“The fact that we saw the sleepover intervention working despite the differences in the shelters suggests to us that it would be a useful practice [for shelters to implement],” she said.

Panting and howling? Sure signs of distress

We might think that when a dog pants it needs water or that when it howls it’s just admiring the moon, but we don’t actually have scientific proof of why it’s acting that way. So for another of Gunter’s recent studies, carried out at the Arizona Humane Society and funded by PetSmart Charities, she set out to identify behavioral indicators of welfare by linking them to dogs’ physiological responses.

She and her team analyzed footage of 62 dogs in their kennels over a four-hour period, noting various behaviors throughout. They then compared their findings to physiological data taken from the dogs, including cortisol levels, heart rates and amount of movement, to determine which behaviors were indicative of increased stress.

Behaviors such as barking, howling, pawing at the kennel and panting were shown to be associated with a more engaged stress response.

Though Gunter stressed the results are only preliminary, behaviors such as the dog scratching itself or stretching, which were associated with a less engaged stress response, could be indicative of the dog actually coping with stress.

Taking physiological measurements was key in this study, as it allowed researchers to get a more complete picture of the dogs’ stress response. The better we understand that, the better we’ll be able to intervene and help, through practices like the sleepover intervention.

“If we can find the behaviors that are related to stress or welfare, then we can really start looking at not only how they’re doing in the shelter but what can we do to improve their welfare,” Gunter said.

More than just pit bulls and Chihuahuas

Gunter has two dogs, one of which, Sweetie, is half Chesapeake Bay retriever, a quarter American Staffordshire terrier, an eighth rottweiler and an eighth German shepherd.

“We know that from DNA analysis,” Gunter said. “I never knew what she was for so long, and I totally thought I knew. And I was wrong.”

What she found in the final study was that quite often, so are shelters.

For her master’s degree work, Gunter looked at how labeling a dog as a certain breed can influence people’s perception of its personality and whether or not it gets adopted. For this latest study, she took that a step further.

Gunter and her team performed a DNA analysis on nearly 1,000 dogs from two shelters: the Arizona Animal Welfare League and the San Diego Humane Society.

Some key findings:

• Less than five percent of the dogs in the shelters were purebreds.

• Most often dogs had at least three breeds in their heritage, and sometimes as many as five.

• Over 125 breeds were identified across the nearly 1,000 dogs. More than 90 of those breeds were shared between dogs at the San Diego and Arizona locations.

“So we’re kind of selling dogs short when we’re thinking they’re all Lab mixes and border collie mixes or pit mixes or Chihuahuas,” Gunter said. “Shelter dogs are way more interesting than that. There’s a lot of variability in breed and in combinations.”

One dog she and her team came across, Bruce, turned out to be a beagle, cocker spaniel and Labrador mix.

“Previous research that’s been done suggests that one reason why folks don’t go to the shelter is because they don’t perceive that the type of dog they’re looking for is there. And I think what that says is, well, maybe (they are) though,” Gunter said.

Researchers addressed what Gunter calls “a common refrain on the West Coast,” that shelters only have pit bulls and Chihuahuas. What they found was that "pit bull-type“Pit bull-type” breeds include American Staffordshire terriers, Staffordshire bull terriers, American bulldogs, bull terriers, etc., each of which is its own separate breed." breeds and Chihuahuas only accounted for about 50 percent of dogs in the shelters.

They also looked at how accurate shelter staff were at identifying dog breeds, based on the dogs’ DNA analyses. When it came to picking out one breed in the dog’s overall makeup, the staff were right about two-thirds of the time. When staff was asked to pick out more than one breed (which most dogs in shelters are), they were right only about 10 percent of the time.

“That that has nothing to do with the expertise of staff,” Gunter said. “I think that has everything to do with [the fact that] it’s a really hard job to just look at a dog and know what it is.”

She added that we don’t really know how multiple breeds in an individual dog influence its behavior anyway.

“Just because a dog is a border collie-Lab mix doesn’t mean it’s going to herd and swim well,” she said. “At the end of the day, it just matters if they’re a good fit for your home and for your life and for your family. And that’s something that you’ve just got to take on a dog-by-dog basis.”


Top photo: ASU psychology doctoral candidate Lisa Gunter play with Cera, a mixed breed, at the Arizona Humane Society Sunnyslope campus in Phoenix. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

The secret life of teeth: Evo-devo models of tooth development

ASU research explains variability in molar crown configuration

April 11, 2018

Across the world of mammals, teeth come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Their particular size and shape are the process of millions of years of evolutionary fine-tuning to produce teeth that can effectively break down the foods in an animal’s diet. As a result, mammals that are closely related and have a similar menu tend to have teeth that look fairly similar. New Arizona State University research suggests, however, that these similarities may only be “skin deep.”

The teeth at the back of our mouths — the molars — have a series of bumps, ridges and grooves across the chewing surface. This complex dental landscape is the product of the spatial arrangement of cusps, which are conical surface projections that crush food before swallowing. How many cusps there are, how they are positioned and what size and shape they take together determine a molar's overall form or configuration. teeth A simple, straightforward developmental rule — the “patterning cascade” — is powerful enough to explain the massive variability in molar crown configuration over the past 15 million years of ape and human evolution. Photo courtesy Pixabay.com

Over the course of hominin (modern humans and their fossil ancestors) evolution, molars have changed markedly in their configuration, with some groups developing larger cusps and others evolving molars with a battery of smaller extra cusps.

Charting these changes has yielded powerful insights into our understanding of modern human population history. It has even allowed us to identify new fossil hominin species, sometimes from just fragmentary tooth remains, and to reconstruct which species is more closely related to whom. Exactly how some populations of modern humans, and some fossil hominin species, evolved complex molars with many cusps of varying sizes, while others evolved more simplified molar configurations, however, is unknown. 

In a study published this week in Science Advances, an international team of researchers led by ASU’s Institute of Human Origins and School of Human Evolution and Social Change found that a simple, straightforward developmental rule — the “patterning cascade” — is powerful enough to explain the massive variability in molar crown configuration over the past 15 million years of ape and human evolution.

“Instead of invoking large, complicated scenarios to explain the major shifts in molar evolution during the course of hominin origins, we found that simple adjustments and alterations to this one developmental rule can account for most of those changes,” said Alejandra Ortiz, a postdoctoral researcher with the Institute of Human Origins (IHO) and lead author of the study.

Model of molar cusps

CT-rendered chimpanzee cranium (left) with enlarged image of a virtually extracted molar (middle). The outer layer, called enamel, is rendered transparent revealing the 3-D landscape of a molar’s underlying dentine core. The location of embryonic signaling cells that will determine future cusp position is indicated by yellow spheres (middle). The distribution of these signaling centers across the dentine landscape is measured as a series of intercusp distances (red arrows in right, top), which determines the number of cusps that will ultimately develop across a molar crown, as well as the amount of terrain mapped out by each cusp (dashed lines in right, bottom). Image credit: Alejandra Ortiz and Gary Schwartz

In the past decade, researchers’ understanding of molar cusp development has increased a hundredfold. They now know that the formation of these cusps is governed by a molecular process that starts at an early embryonic stage. Based on experimental work on mice, the patterning cascade model predicts that molar configuration is primarily determined by the spatial and temporal distribution of a set of signaling cells.

Clumps of signaling cells (and their resultant cusps) that develop earlier strongly influence the expression of cusps that develop later. This cascading effect can result in either favoring an increase in the size and number of additional cusps or constraining their development to produce smaller, fewer cusps. Whether this sort of simple developmental ratchet phenomenon could explain the vast array of molar configurations present across ape and human ancestry was unknown.

Using state-of-the-art microcomputed tomography and digital imaging technology applied to hundreds of fossil and recent molars, Ortiz and her colleagues created virtual maps of the dental landscape of developing teeth to chart the precise location of embryonic signaling cells from which molar cusps develop. To the research team’s great surprise, the predictions of the model held up, not just for modern humans, but for over 17 ape and hominin species spread out across millions of years of higher primate evolution and diversification.

“Not only does the model work for explaining differences in basic molar design, but it is also powerful enough to accurately predict the range of variants in size, shape and additional cusp presence, from the most subtle to the most extreme, for most apes, fossil hominins and modern humans,” Ortiz said.

These results fit with a growing body of work within evolutionary developmental biology that says very simple, straightforward developmental rules are responsible for the generation of the myriad complexity of dental features found within mammalian teeth.

“The most exciting result was how well our results fit with an emerging view that evolution of complex anatomy proceeds by small, subtle tweaks to the underlying developmental toolkit rather than by major leaps,” said Gary Schwartz, a study coauthor, paleoanthropologist with IHO and associate professor with the School of Human Evolution and Social Change.

This new study is in line with the view that simple, subtle alterations in the ways genes code for complex features can result in the vast array of different dental configurations that we see across hominins and our ape cousins. It is part of a shift in our understanding of how natural selection can readily and rapidly generate novel anatomy suited to a particular function.

“That all of this precise, detailed information is contained deep within teeth,” continued Schwartz, “even teeth from our long-extinct fossil relatives, is simply remarkable.”

“Our research, demonstrating that a single developmental rule can explain the countless variation we observe across mammals, also means we must be careful about inferring relationships of extinct species based on shared form,” said Shara Bailey, a coauthor and paleoanthropologist at New York University. “It is becoming clearer that similarities in tooth form may not necessarily indicate recent shared ancestry,” added Bailey, who, in 2002, was the first doctoral graduate to be affiliated with IHO.

Julie Russ

Assistant director, Institute of Human Origins


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Collateral damage is not inherent in innovation

April 10, 2018

ASU professor says technological advances need better oversight to protect public safety

Two recent fatalities related to autonomous vehicles are raising concerns about trade-offs between societal progress and human collateral damage.

While technological advances can make our lives easier and safer, that progress can come with a steep price: a human life. Christopher Jones, an assistant professor of history in the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies at Arizona State University, joined ASU Now to discuss these pressing issues.

Jones, who researches and teaches the history of energy, technology, and environment, believes when proper safety protocols are put in place to protect citizens and workers, “innovators have found ways to advance new technology with much lower levels of collateral damage.”

Man in blue and white shirt smiling
Christopher Jones

Question: The public reaction to the Uber driver who accidentally killed a pedestrian last month, while not unsympathetic to the victim, indicates some believe that with certain technological advances comes collateral damage. Are innovation and fatalities inextricably linked in manufacturing technology?

Answer: No. Innovation and death are not inextricably linked. One of the most advanced and arguably dangerous technologies in the world — Japan’s shinkansen, or bullet trains — have not experienced a fatality in 50 years of operations. When proper safety protocols are put in place to protect citizens and workers, innovators have found ways to advance new technology with much lower levels of collateral damage. Will Uber eventually resume self-driving cars? Yes, that is very likely. Should they? Yes, but with much better regulation. The major problem was not that they were testing this new technology, it was that they did so with almost no oversight of their operations to protect public safety. 

Q: Innovation in technology seems to be happening at lightning speed these days. Are we living in a time of unprecedented technological change? 

A: Many historians argue no. While it is true that the last couple decades have witnessed enormous changes in information technology, other eras have undergone more radical transformation. Consider the couple decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century. At the nation's centennial in 1876, few people had access to indoor plumbing and most owned two to three sets of clothing, had no central heating, and never moved faster than their feet or a horse could carry them. By the start of World War I, people lived in a world of electrified homes, automobiles, streetcars, and a much broader range of consumer goods that had never been experienced before. So from a history of technology perspective, there have been eras where the everyday conditions of life have changed more from than in this era. 

Q: How does society usually react to a massive technological overhaul such as self-driving vehicles, and what’s the usual rate of adoption in terms of time? 

A: First, I'd argue that autonomous vehicles are not nearly as radical a break as the introduction of automobiles in the first place, or airplanes. With autonomous vehicles, you still have a world of travel in cars (with the necessary infrastructure of roads, fueling stations, parking lots, etc.) It's a pretty big deal that people aren't driving, but people are still getting from point A to point B in a car. It is not, therefore, as revolutionary as going from having no cars to having widespread automobile ownership.

Unfortunately, it's not possible to define a “usual” in terms of social adoption of technologies, because it's always specific to time and place. I'd expect there to be different levels of interest and protest over autonomous vehicles in different countries, and perhaps even in different states within the U.S. It is true that there have often been eager early adopters of new technologies in times past (the historical equivalent of your friend who would sleep out at the Apple store to be the first to have a new iPhone), just as there have been those who have been quite resistant.

Typically, it takes several decades (from) the introduction of a new technology (to) widespread adoption, though a governing factor is often price. Most major new technologies come at significant expense, and so even if there wasn't a great deal of resistance, you still might find most of the population unable to afford the new technology. Consider air travel, for example, which until a half a century after it was introduced was largely restricted to the wealthy because of its cost. 

Q: Any idea when you think autonomous vehicles will be commonplace on our public streets and roads?

A: I expect we'll see autonomous vehicles continue to be introduced and become more widespread within a decade. Though I'm not a technological forecaster, I see two main reasons to think it will move forward. The first relates to the powerful vested interests behind it. In short, some very large and powerful companies stand to gain a great deal of money from autonomous vehicles, while those who lose out will be the millions of Americans in driving professions (truckers, bus drivers, delivery vehicles, taxis, etc.) who are not nearly as well organized.

Second, there is a legitimate safety argument to be made that if done carefully and with proper oversight, autonomous vehicles could be a safety improvement, given the demonstrated ways in which humans cause accidents through inattention, distraction, or inebriation. 

Learn more about autonomous vehicles

Expert ASU panel: A different standard for self-driving cars

Autonomous vehicles traveling the wrong road to safety, engineer says

Humans must drive initiatives for autonomous vehicle safety

Flying cars are coming, and they'll be autonomous


Top photo courtesty of Pixabay.com

Solar system born amid flood of ultraviolet light, say ASU astrophysicists

April 6, 2018

The sun is made almost entirely of hydrogen and helium. Earth, on the other hand, is made mostly of oxygen packed into various compounds. So are its rocky planet neighbors. The giant planets, such as Jupiter and Saturn, have compositions more like the sun's, but still are notably different from it.

Here's the puzzle. The sun and planets formed at the same time from the same cloud of gas and dust. But the material that made the planets had a composition different from the sun's. How did that happen? The sun is a strong source of ultraviolet light, as seen in this image from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory satellite. Ultraviolet light, either from the young sun itself or from a powerful nearby star, may have given the planets a different composition than the sun. NASA image. Download Full Image

A team led by Arizona State University scientists has found an explanation for this long-standing question and published it recently in the journal Nature Communications.

"Our goal is to determine the starting composition for the solar system," said James Lyons, associate research professor of astrophysics and cosmochemistry in ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration and lead author on the paper. His co-authors are Ehsan Gharib-Nezhad of ASU's School of Molecular Sciences, and Thomas Ayres of the University of Colorado.

The team studied carbon and oxygen, common among the terrestrial planets, but not in their standard elemental form. Instead, they used these elements' isotopes, varieties of an element that have an extra neutron or two.

"We're most interested in the light, stable isotopes," Lyons said.

These are the isotopes of elements that do not decay radioactively. He explains that isotopes such as those of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and sulfur should reflect the original bulk composition of the molecular cloud from which the solar system formed.

To determine the abundances of these isotopes, the researchers started with infrared spectroscopic data on carbon monoxide in the sun's atmosphere. This was collected by the Atmospheric Trace Molecule Spectroscopy (ATMOS) spectrometer, which flew in Earth orbit aboard the space shuttleScott Parazynski, the astronaut who tended the ATMOS instrument on that flight, went on to become a professor at the School of Earth and Space Exploration from 2014 to 2017. (STS-66) in 1994.

The ATMOS data were compared to measurements of solar oxygen from the Genesis mission (2001–2004), which collected and returned to Earth samples of the solar wind, which is in effect the sun's outermost atmosphere. The comparisons showed that Earth and (by analogy) the inner planets are 5 percent enriched in both carbon-13 and oxygen-18 compared to the sun.

"When talking about isotope ratios, a 5 percent difference is massive," Lyons said. He added that it implies that the carbon and oxygen that formed part of Earth and the inner solar system experienced a different history than these elements did in the sun.

What caused that difference remains partly unknown, say the scientists, but they point to a likely culprit: ultraviolet light.

As Lyons noted, "One possible explanation for the isotope difference is that carbon monoxide was blasted by ultraviolet light in the early stages of forming the planets."

Irradiation by UV would have attacked both elemental carbon and oxygen and their compounds. This would break up compounds and change the isotope ratios, gradually moving the overall composition away from that of the sun.

The source for the ultraviolet light could have been either a vigorously active young sun or — more likely, says the team — a hot, massive star that was close to the gas and dust cloud from which the sun and planets formed. The radiation from such powerful stars can affect a large volume of space within giant molecular clouds.

In this scenario, the proto-sun is a massive body unaffected by those isotope effects, and therefore still carries the isotope composition of the starting material from which the solar system formed. Yet the thin disk of material from which the planets formed would have been affected much more, leading to a difference in isotopic composition between the sun and planets.

"If this explanation is correct," Lyons said, "then we have a strong constraint on the UV radiation present when the solar system formed."

Such a constraint would help astronomers understand the degree of UV processing of organic molecules in the nascent solar system.

It would also, he said, "help us characterize the role of ultraviolet radiation in the formation of other stars' solar systems with Earth-like planets."

It is likely, the team adds, that UV radiation processed organic materials on ancient Earth, contributing to the prebiotic chemistry that led to the origin of life.

Lyons said, "We now see that this UV processing actually began in the solar nebula, even before Earth formed, and it must have occurred in some exoplanet systems as well."

Robert Burnham

Science writer, School of Earth and Space Exploration


ASU study looks at why religious people are trusted more than non-religious people

Researchers reveal that behavior, not belief, drives trust in the religious

April 6, 2018

Think of someone you trust. What is it about them that makes them trustworthy? In general, religious people are more trusted than people who are not religious, and researchers in the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University have found explanations for why that is.

Psychology graduate students Jordan Moon and Jaimie Krems, along with psychology Professor Adam Cohen, found that the trust of religious people is not based on their beliefs but on how they live their lives. Their findings have been published in the March 28 issue of Psychological Science. Religious people are trusted more What is it about religious people that makes them seem more trustworthy? ASU investigated. Photo by John Price via Unsplash Download Full Image

“People trust the religious more, but not for the reasons they might think,” Krems said.

The study examined the reasons why religious people are more trusted than non-religious people. The researchers thought that the trust of religious people might actually be driven by how religious people behaved, not by what they believed.

“We thought religion might serve as a cue to a specific set of behaviors that make a person trustworthy,” Moon said.

The specific set of behaviors comes from an evolutionary biology theory called life history theory. This theory can explain many human behaviors based on individual life experiences. Life history theory includes two main groups of behaviors called strategies. A “fast” life history strategy is used in an unpredictable environment and includes behaviors such as early and frequent mating, aggression and risk-taking. A “slow” life history strategy is used in a stable environment and includes behaviors such as fewer sexual partners, greater parental involvement and investment in education, and less aggression and risk-taking.

The researchers conducted three experiments. The first experiment used fictitious dating profiles that stated whether the person was religious or non-religious. The dating profiles also gave information about the person’s education and dating preferences, such as if they were interested in a committed relationship or casual encounters. Participants rated how much they trusted the person described in the dating profiles.

“Overall, the participants trusted the religious people more,” Moon said, “but we found that the trust ratings were driven by reproductive strategy, such as whether the people in the dating profiles were interested in a committed relationship or still wanted to play the field.”

Jordan Moon and Jaimie Krems, ASU Psychology
Psychology graduate students Jordan Moon and Jaimie Krems

The second experiment also used fictitious dating profiles, but this time all the people in the profiles were described as religious. Some of the people in the profiles had slow life history behaviors, and the others had fast life history behaviors. Participants in the experiment again rated how much they trusted the person in the fictitious dating profile. The researchers found that in this context, trust was again driven by behavior.

“This experiment explicitly manipulated the life history strategy, or behaviors, of religious people,” Krems said. “We found that religious people who were promiscuous were less trusted than religious people who expressed interest in a committed relationship.”

The final experiment examined what happened to trust ratings in a professional context instead of a dating profile. The researchers devised fictitious business-oriented social media profiles that specified if the person was a Christian who attended church regularly, was a Muslim who attended mosque regularly or was non-religious. Participant ratings showed that both Christians and Muslims were trusted more than the non-religious professionals.

“People are less interested in the specific beliefs of another person,” Moon said. “They want to know how that person is going to behave, and religion suggests what kind of person they might be.”

The researchers believe that the findings from this study could suggest ways to counteract the distrust of non-religious people, which are a growing segment of the American population.

“The psychology of religion focuses on why people believe what they believe and the effect on their lives,” Cohen said. “We think it is just as important to examine how religious people act and how that affects their lives.”