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Citizen scientist finds ancient white dwarf star with enigmatic dust rings

February 19, 2019

ASU astronomer Adam Schneider helps research team zero in on puzzling astrophysical object

A volunteer working with the NASA-led Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 project has found the oldest and coldest known white dwarf — an old Earth-sized remnant of a sun-like star that has died — ringed by dust and debris. Astronomers suspect this could be the first known white dwarf with multiple dust rings.

The star, LSPM J0207+3331 or J0207 for short, is forcing researchers to reconsider models of planetary systems and could help us learn about the distant future of our solar system.

Adam Schneider, a research scientist at Arizona State University's School of Earth and Space Exploration, was part of the team that unwrapped the discovery data to draw a picture of the white dwarf's surprising details.

Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 is a project led by Marc Kuchner, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Launched two years ago, it enlists volunteers to sort through infrared data for new discoveries using an online interface and search engine.

"This object was found by Melina Thévenot of Germany using the Backyard Worlds project," he said. "She originally thought it might be a cold brown dwarf, something the project is very interested in and has had a lot of success finding."

Brown dwarfs are low-temperature objects too big to be planets yet too small to be stars. They shine dimly at far infrared wavelengths and because of their low luminosity, all those known lie relatively close to the sun.

"When Melina investigated further, she found that although the object had significant infrared brightness; it was not a nearby brown dwarf," Schneider said. Instead it had to be something brighter and farther away, and the best candidate was a stellar evolution remnant: a white dwarf star. 

"The team looked at it together, and we determined it was likely a white dwarf with infrared excess," said Schneider.

Old star, warm rings 

The excess was believed to be radiating from a warm, dusty circumstellar disk. Such disks are thought to result from the continual breakup of small rocky planetesimals orbiting the white dwarf. Yet with an age of roughly 3 billion years, J0207 is colder and nearly three times older than any other white dwarf known to harbor such a disk.

"However, we were brown dwarf experts and not white dwarf experts, so we needed to 'phone-a-friend' and contacted white dwarf expert John Debes for help interpreting what Melina had found," said Schneider.

Debes is an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

Above image: Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 volunteers scour infrared images from NASA, searching animated blinks for moving objects. Like other white dwarf stars, J0207 shows a bluish tinge in visible light (top), but also sports an orange hue in the infrared (bottom), indicating the unexpected presence of circumstellar dust rings. Credit: Digitized Sky Survey/WISE/NEOWISE, Aaron Meisner (NOAO)

"This white dwarf is so old that whatever process is feeding material into its rings must operate on billion-year timescales," Debes said. "Most of the models scientists have created to explain rings around white dwarfs only work well up to around 100 million years, so this star is really challenging our assumptions of how planetary systems evolve."

Adding to the puzzle, the J0207 disk may be composed of more than one distinct ring-like component, an arrangement never before seen in circumstellar material surrounding a white dwarf.

To study the rings and their structure, Debes and Kuchner contacted collaborator Adam Burgasser at the University of California, San Diego to obtain follow-up observations with the Keck II telescope at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

The Keck observations helped confirm J0207’s record-setting properties. Now scientists are left to puzzle how it fits into their models.

Debes compared the population of asteroid belt analogs in white dwarf systems to the grains of sand in an hourglass. Initially, there’s a steady stream of material. The planets fling asteroids inward towards the white dwarf to be torn apart, maintaining a dusty disk. But over time, the asteroid belts become depleted, just like grains of sand in the hourglass. Eventually, all the material in the disk falls down onto the surface of the white dwarf, so older white dwarfs like J0207 should be less likely to have disks or rings.

Follow-up with future missions like NASA's James Webb Space Telescope may help astronomers tease apart the ring’s constituent parts.

Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 bigger and better

The publication of the paper in Astrophysical Journal Letters describing the white dwarf star and rings coincides with a major upgrade of the original Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 project.

The database that volunteers search comes from NASA's WISE satellite telescope. WISE, which stands for Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, was launched in late 2009 and has mapped the entire sky numerous times over the past 10 years. WISE detects infrared light, the kind of light emitted by objects at room temperature, like planets, brown dwarfs — and dusty rings around white dwarfs. 

"We built Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 mostly to search for brown dwarfs and new planets in the solar system," Kuchner said. "But working with citizen scientists always leads to surprises. They are voracious — the project just celebrated its second birthday, and they’ve already discovered more than 1,000 likely brown dwarfs. Now that we’ve rebooted the website with double the amount of WISE data, we’re looking forward to even more exciting discoveries."

For ASU's Schneider, the more the better.

"My job is to weed through the candidates found by the citizens, prioritize them for follow-up, and help organize the observations. It's like a front-row seat for discoveries," he said.

Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 is a collaboration between NASA, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Arizona State University, National Optical Astronomy Observatory, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, the University of California San Diego, Bucknell University, the University of Oklahoma, and Zooniverse, a collaboration of scientists, software developers and educators who collectively develop and manage citizen science projects on the internet.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, manages and operates WISE for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. The WISE mission was selected competitively under NASA's Explorers Program managed by the agency's Goddard Space Flight Center. The science instrument was built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory in Logan, Utah. The spacecraft was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colorado. Science operations and data processing take place at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech, which manages JPL for NASA.

Top photo: The star, designated LSPM J0207+3331, is the oldest, coolest white dwarf known to be surrounded by a ring of dusty debris. This illustration depicts the ring with two distinct components, which scientists think best explains the system’s infrared signal, and an asteroid broken up by the white dwarf’s gravity. Image: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Scott Wiessinger

Robert Burnham

Science writer , School of Earth and Space Exploration


Geoscience Alliance national conference inspires Native American students to pursue careers in the geosciences

February 18, 2019

Earlier this month, Arizona State University hosted the Geoscience Alliance, the nation's leading organization devoted to promoting geoscience studies and careers for Native American, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian and other indigenous students.

“The Geoscience Alliance has been important for many years for its unique and far-ranging mission of mentoring and supporting Native American and other indigenous students and professionals in the geosciences,” said ASU School of Earth and Space Exploration Professor and geologist Steven Semken, who served as host for the conference. Geology Professor Steven Semken of the School of Earth and Space Exploration leads a geology field trip to the Superstition Mountains with Geoscience Alliance conference participants. Download Full Image

“More recently, it has further grown in importance by catalyzing research and education involving indigenous geoscientific knowledge and its applications — work that is primarily led by indigenous geoscientists themselves.”

The alliance has long had an active presence at annual meetings of much larger professional organizations like the American Geophysical Union and the Geological Society of America, but its own national conference, held every few years, has the greatest impact on the stakeholder community overall. This year’s conference included 160 attendees for the three-day conference, which included workshops, breakout sessions, invited speakers and a poster session. 

Ángel Garcia, who earned his PhD in geosciences from ASU earlier this year and is currently a visiting assistant professor at James Madison University in Virginia, was one of the conference’s returning attendees and is also on the conference planning committee. 

Garcia first attended the Geoscience Alliance in 2015 when he was a graduate student at ASU. He learned about the conference from SemkenSemken is also a senior sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, and a faculty affiliate of the Center for Education through Exploration and the Global Drylands Center at ASU., who suggested that it would be a good way to develop networks in the geosciences with people who were interested in multicultural topics and indigenous cultures. 

“People from tribal lands have a strong connection to places,” said Garcia, who is Puerto Rican and Dominican. “We might first describe what tribe we are from, but then refer to a specific place within our tribal lands where we grew up and have family. Connections to those places go back generations for us.”

For Garcia and other participants, one of the best parts of the conference is making connections, networking with other scientists and meeting other students in the geosciences. 

“These conferences give us an opportunity to learn from people with a similar culture and background,” said Garcia. 

“At the Geoscience Alliance, I felt included right from the start. Now every time I see this group of people at other conferences we identify ourselves as members of the alliance, both as students and professionals.”

Since the first conference, the alliance has adopted the practice of “talking circles” from Native American ceremonies.

“We develop questions, break up into small groups and make sure each person gets a chance to talk,” explained Diana Dalbotten, who is on the alliance conference planning committee and is a diversity director at the University of Minnesota. “We have developed this to make our conference more participatory and to respect the idea that everyone is there to teach and everyone is there to learn.”

Conference attendees were also invited on several diverse field-trip opportunities related to different aspects of the geosciences, including a trip to the Superstition Mountains, the Heard Museum and Biosphere 2.

On the last night of the conference, attendees were asked to participate in a “science pop-up night” where everyone could spend three minutes talking about their projects and research. This event was so popular that even though it was the last day of the conference, it went well into the night. 

“It’s important for ASU to host events that focus on local communities in Arizona and especially indigenous communities in the Southwest,” said Garcia. “Giving teachers, researchers, professors and students the opportunity to share knowledge and connection to the land shows that ASU embraces diversity.” 

The conference organizers, including Semken and Garcia, hope that participants will seek more collaboration with each other in the future as a result of this conference. Garcia, for example, is working with two other researchers he met through the alliance on a National Science Foundation proposal to study the geology of caves in the Caribbean.

They also hope to continue to offer travel awards to the conference.

“Some of us come from places that are not financially stable, making conferences like this out of reach,” said Garcia. “But thanks to sponsors like the National Science Foundation, the alliance is able to provide the opportunity to those who otherwise would not be able to go.”

Previous conferences were held in the northern Midwest, the northern Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Northwest.

“It was an honor for ASU to host this most recent conference in Phoenix and Tempe,” said Semken. “I think that the alliance members enjoyed their visit to our campus and their time in the warm desert sun.”

Semken is grateful for the support given to this endeavor by many colleagues in the School of Earth and Space Exploration; the ASU President's Special Advisor for American Indian Initiatives Bryan Brayboy; ASU Vice President for Tribal Relations Jacob Moore and his staff; and to ASU alumna (and a former graduate student of Semken’s) Nievita Bueno Watts, who is the co-director of the Geoscience Alliance.

The Geoscience Alliance is a national alliance of individuals committed to broadening participation of Native Americans in the geosciences. Its members are tribal colleges, universities, research centers, Native elders and community members, students and educators.

The alliance’s goals include creating new collaborations in support of geoscience education for Native American students, establishing a new research agenda aimed at closing gaps in our knowledge on barriers and best practices related to Native American participation in the geosciences, increasing participation by Native Americans in setting the national research agenda on issues in the geosciences, providing a forum to communicate educational opportunities for Native American students in geoscience programs, and understanding and respecting indigenous traditional knowledge.

The Geoscience Alliance conferences are made possible through the generous and ongoing support of the National Science Foundation and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Karin Valentine

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


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Panama study abroad gives students research experience

February 15, 2019

Last chance.

The words jumped off the page.

And for senior Nicholas Ambus, those words turned into the chance of a lifetime. As a freshman at Arizona State University with no research experience, Ambus, a biological sciences major, stumbled across an email advertising a final chance to apply for the Experimental Tropical Biology course in Central America. He seized the chance to try something new.

“It seemed really enticing to me,” Ambus said of the program. “With the hands-on experience, the travel, it seemed like the perfect opportunity.” He signed up and began a journey that would change his perspective on science and enrich his undergraduate experience.

He spent nearly a month in a Panamanian rain forest walking through towering jungles, discovering tropical wildlife and beginning his first-ever scientific research project.

He initially wanted to study resources in streams, such as leaves that drop from surrounding trees, but became more interested in how fish affect a stream’s ecosystem. He was so interested in the project that he continued the research with desert fish species in Professor John Sabo’s lab after he returned to Arizona. Ultimately, his research was published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Ecology of Freshwater Fish.

Ambus isn’t alone. Since the Tropical Biology study abroad course began in 2014, about 12 students each summer have participated. Like Ambus, the students joining the program didn’t have previous research experience. However, many leave with projects published in peer-reviewed journals. From last summer’s group, half are submitting their projects for publication.

That’s the entire point of the class, said School of Life Sciences Professor Jon Harrison, who has directed the program the last three years.

“When we started the tropical biology study abroad program in Panama for the first time, that was always our goal: It’s all about the projects,” Harrison said. “There are no tests. Students get interested in something and come up with a project. At the end, they present it. That’s the core of the course.”

Along with life sciences Professor Juergen Liebig, Harrison is leading another group of BIO 494 students into the rainforest this summer from June 4-21. Students take the course at a biological field station operated by the renowned Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. During their time abroad, they’ll hike through the rainforest, eat Panamanian meals cooked by a local chef and, well, do lots of research.

For Ambus, that meant heading out to streams to dig through dirt, looking for fish. For senior Lauren Welch, who completed the course last summer, that meant following leaf cutter ants and measuring their leaf mass at different times of day. For other students, it meant watching hummingbirds at feeders, measuring plants, finding frog eggs in puddles or counting the number of animal species along the main road that runs through the research station.

“It’s a lot more involved than you would imagine,” Welch said of her project. “You go in thinking, yeah, I’ll just come up with a quick idea and then execute it, but it was much more involved than that.”

Students first submit a few ideas for research projects. Once they develop an idea, they submit a proposal. Then they collect the data. At the end of the class, they present their results to the class.

However, for many students, they are so inspired by the research, it doesn’t end there.

Nearly a year later, Welch and three other students from last summer’s program, undergraduate students Tess Prendergast, Nhu Nguyen and Melissa Hayhurst, still meet with Harrison every other week to discuss progress on the articles they are writing about their projects. They call the group “Publish That Research.”

“We’re all learning from each other,” Welch said. “We’ll go in and help each other with statistical analysis or how we should write our introduction. As a group, we discuss ideas. We compile papers that might be useful for everyone. It makes it a lot easier to get things done. I don’t feel so alone.”

Whether continuing in research or ending it after the six-week course, many students agree it changed the way they think about science.

“It changed my appreciation for science entirely because if you look at my research, it may seem insignificant to someone who doesn’t understand,” Ambus said. “I made measurements of excretion from very specific fish in a very specific ecosystem, but it’s really broadened my perspective on how everything matters and everything goes into a larger understanding of all these greater interconnected parts.”

This is just one of the many experiences offered through the ASU Study Abroad Office, which has 250-plus programs in more than 65 different countries.

Students interested in the Experimental Tropical Biology course must apply by March 1. Cost is $4,385, which includes tuition, room and board, insurance and day trips to historical and cultural sites around Panama.

Top photo: ASU student Daniel Karstetter works on his research in Panama, studying hydraulic forces on driftwood. Photo by Jon Harrison/ASU

Melinda Weaver

Communications specialist , School of Life Sciences


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Do consumers need to jump on 5G? Not so fast

February 14, 2019

Coming advance in technology will improve computer-to-computer communication; despite the hype, it's not consumer-centric

5G! 5G! 5G!

It’s coming! It’s the future! It’s going to be amazing! Smart everything!

Whoa, there. Simmer down. Let's take a look at what 5G actually means.

Is 5G going to be so amazing that people will love their phones even more than they do now?

And, more importantly, exactly what does 5G mean, and why is everyone so excited about it?

To vastly simplify it — it’s not for you, the consumer. 

Sorry to burst that bubble.

“It’s primarily for machines, and it’s for machines interacting with humans,” said Martin Reisslein, an expert in communication networks and a professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering at Arizona State University. “It’s really not what you think, primarily. It’s also much more than what you think.”

One problem is the telecom companies are telling tall tales like a bunch of cowboys around a campfire. It’s so bad Sprint filed a lawsuit against AT&T earlier this month, on the grounds that AT&T is claiming its 5G services are more technologically advanced. So one company is saying its unicorn is better than the other’s unicorn.

What 5G will enable is a decrease in latency. It’s the time interval between stimulation and response.

“It’s not about bringing the bit rate or the throughput up,” Reisslein said. “The more important thing is to bring down the latencies. … It’s not about the number they say you get in the Qwest or Cox ads — (like) ‘lightning-fast Internet!’”

Pings measure the round-trip time for messages sent from the originating host to a destination computer that are echoed back to the source.

“Go home and do a ping and you will see it’s hundreds of milliseconds,” Reisslein said. “The goal for 5G is to bring us down to one millisecond or less.”

The tech we use now is just fine for human-to-human interaction.

“A fringe population will benefit: gamers that are playing games where each millisecond matters,” Reisslein said. “Those people will see a difference. For us ordinary folks, it will not make a difference in our consumer behavior, but it will make a difference in the way new technologies are enabled.”

Autonomous vehicles will need 5G, for instance.

“If you think of a street crossing and you’re going down at 45-50 miles an hour, you have to have very close, tight interactions,” Reisslein said. “There is no time to spare for interactions. That is what 5G is about.”

So, 5G will be used by a lot of things that haven’t arrived yet. The flying cars that are set to appear in the 2020s will use 5G. So will smart cities, and other cyberphysical systems with brand-new dimensions — basically anything where you can’t afford any kind of a lag. Machine-human interactions like remote surgery and robotic prostheses will require 5G.

“We are thinking of things that require lightning-fast millisecond reactions,” Reisslein said. 

5G will make the internet tactile, in Reisslein’s words. Like that remote surgery, or even remote piano lessons, where teacher and student are wearing gloves wired to the net.

As the internet equalized access to knowledge, Reisslein predicts 5G will equalize and democratize skills.

“What is a skill?” he said. “A skill is something that goes beyond information. It goes to movements of very fine-grained coordination in both position and timing. Think of piano playing or helping someone rehabilitate their gait. Position and time is important to teach or re-teach skills. This democratization of skills is this big kind of societal imperative related to 5G.”

So why are we being bombarded with all the hype?

Telecom companies “are envisioning that there will be a fourth or fifth industrial revolution coming where if you don’t master and learn the game of this 5G, low latency, tactile communication, you’re out,” Reisslein said. “However, once you have your self-driving Tesla or Ford or BMW or whatever at home, and you want to control it and steer it and want to have that interact with your entire communication cloud and infrastructure, you need to have an integrated system. Think of Apple. You’re either in the Apple universe or the Android universe. … If you’re not a part of this and you’re locked out, it may be very difficult to catch up later.”

For now, if your telecom company is pushing 5G on you, should you hang up on them?

“That’s what you should do,” Reisslein said.

Top photo by Pixabay

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now


Student group creates module to teach non-majors how to code

INFORMS chapter has been active across multiple objectives

February 14, 2019

Sometimes the best teachers are our peers. It was that mentality that inspired students from Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering to team up with students from the W. P. Carey School of Business to develop a software-development learning module that teaches non-computer science and engineering students how to code.

The Fulton Schools students are members of ASU’s Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences student chapter, better known as INFORMS. Three students standing in an atrium INFORMS students Logan Mathesen, Nathan Gaw and Daniel Tran presented their work to the Principal Financial Group after a second-place finish at the Principal Cup. Photo courtesy of ASU INFORMS student chapter Download Full Image

INFORMS is an international society established to improve operational processes, decision-making and management. At ASU, the student chapter has several different focuses, including service and making academic connections through seminars, networking events and fun activities.

Jorge Sefair, an industrial engineering assistant professor, guides the INFORMS student chapter by helping them brainstorm ideas for activities and connecting them with the resources they need.

Students becoming teachers

The idea of creating a learning module began in the spring of 2018 when graduate students in INFORMS and undergraduate students from ASU’s Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers student chapter hosted the Python Seminars, a two-session introduction to the Python programming language.

“Back then we were experimenting with different kinds of activities to see which ones our members are mostly involved with,” said Dorukhan Sergin, an industrial engineering doctoral student and vice president of academics for the ASU INFORMS student chapter. “The Python Seminars were professional development activities. We chose to teach Python because it is in unusually high demand both in academia and in industry.”

The INFORMS chapter also wanted to form stronger ties with the IISE chapter so they decided to make the seminars a joint effort. Their collaboration was awarded the Best Community Builder award at the Fulton Schools Student Organization Awards and Recognition ceremony in April 2018.

“We surveyed our members, and the results showed that they wanted to see more of that kind of professional development activity,” Sergin said.

The success of the Python seminars compelled the group to do more. Over the summer they created a new software-development course for students to improve their coding skills. This time the seven-lecture course was jointly developed with the Data Science Society from ASU’s W. P. Carey School of Business and ran throughout the fall 2018 semester.

The group emailed students they felt would benefit the most from the course and maxed out the enrollment with 30 participating students.


INFORMS student Dorukhan Sergin led the creation of a learning module to teach students coding skills. Photo courtesy of ASU INFORMS student chapter

Sergin was the face of the course as he delivered the lectures and created the course content, including presentations, notes and lab projects. Logan Mathesen, who is now an industrial engineering doctoral student, helped take care of the logistics of running the course.

“We believe this to be the only structured attempt to teach software-development fundamentals to a group of students who wouldn’t learn them as part of their curriculum,” said Sergin. “We believe that it is way past the time to share these skills to other departments in a world where children are being taught coding in the very early stages of their K-12 education.”

Sergin believes coding skills are necessary to keep up with the fast pace of technology.

“We wanted to make our case strong by demonstrating the feasibility of our idea and the demand for these skills,” said Sergin.

The majority of the participating students in the module were female and the number of participating students from the Fulton Schools and W. P. Carey were evenly distributed, highlighting the demand for the module across disciplines. Most of the students will be graduating in 2019, signaling the need for coding skills as they enter the job market. Now with some experience teaching the material, the team hopes to expand the lectures in the future.

“Our aim is to get more support from the faculty, the dean and anyone who can support us,” said Sergin. “This cannot stay as just a grassroots movement, we need to democratize it to even more people.”

Showcasing skills in competition

The student members of INFORMS also put their skills to the test in industry competitions in the operations research, management sciences and analytics fields. One of those competitions was the Principal Cup hosted by the University of Michigan INFORMS student chapter in September 2018 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Nathan Gaw, the 2017-18 ASU INFORMS chapter president; Logan Mathesen, the current INFORMS chapter president; and ASU INFORMS student chapter members Anson Park and Daniel Tran, both industrial engineering graduate students, placed second in the competition, which challenged teams to develop an objective decision-making process to buy, sell or hold stocks using historic data and operations research tools.

The four students created a decision framework called kNN-Stock that fuses machine learning and conventional stock-trading expertise to make optimal trade decisions. The team went on to present their results at the headquarters of the Principal Financial Group, the co-partner of the challenge, in Des Moines, Iowa.


The first-of-its-kind INFORMS student mixer featured games and prizes at Sparky’s Den during the 2018 INFORMS Annual Meeting. Photo courtesy of ASU INFORMS student chapter

“I really enjoyed going to the headquarters (of Principal) to present our results and get objective feedback on our model,” said Nathan Gaw. “They have a lot of experience in industry, and I felt their feedback was really useful in how we can improve the model in the future.”

According to Gaw, the chief data scientist of Principal was impressed with their ideas and may implement some of them into their research.

Recognition for a job well done

The ASU chapter was one of 11 INFORMS student chapters to receive a 2018 Student Chapter Annual Award at the cum laude level and one of just 19 honored in total. The award, given out by the International INFORMS organization at the annual meeting held in November, is based on multiple criteria the chapter submitted about their activities and goals in a yearly report.

Chapters are graded on the communications, such as newsletters and websites, as well as the content of their meetings and networking events, including special events and service initiatives the chapter hosts during the academic year.

Showing their ASU pride

Last November, the 2018 INFORMS annual meeting was held in Phoenix. Mathesen and Gaw decided to use the meeting as an opportunity to showcase the ASU INFORMS student chapter and ASU’s Tempe campus. As a result, the chapter hosted the first-ever student mixer held in conjunction with an INFORMS meeting.

“We thought it would be a great opportunity for students to get to meet each other in a more informal setting and potentially make some connections for the future,” said Gaw.

The mixer event featured a hike up “A” Mountain and tours around campus led by the student chapter members. The event proceeded to the Memorial Union and featured a dinner, live music, a raffle and games inside Sparky’s Den.

“They coordinated everything with the conference staff,” said Sefair. “They engaged many students from around the world and showed them what it means to be a Sun Devil!”

Erik Wirtanen

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


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The ethics of eating chocolate on Valentine’s Day

February 13, 2019

ASU lecturer walks consumers through the process of taking chocolate from bean to bar; says business side is ‘not a pretty picture’

Valentine’s Day is upon us, and that means chocolate.

Before you take that first delectable bite to satisfy your sweet tooth, you might want to consider how many hours of labor go into taking chocolate from bean to bar.

And if you don’t know, there’s someone at Arizona State University who does.

Rhian Stotts is a lecturer in anthropology and global health in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change. In high school, she dreamed of being either an archaeologist or a chocolatier. Through a program at her high school in Worthington, Ohio, she was able to spend the second semester of her senior year doing two nine-week internships exploring both fields. Her love of archaeology ultimately won out, but her interest in chocolate has always remained. Now she uses chocolate as a medium to discuss many aspects of human culture in her courses at ASU.

ASU Now spoke to Stotts about the origins of chocolate, how it is made, what it takes to bring it to market and — most importantly — is it ethical to eat chocolate on Valentine's Day (or any other day for that matter)?  

Woman with necklace and green shirt smiling

Rhian Stotts

Question: How should we classify chocolate? As food? A product? A luxury item?

Answer: I typically talk about chocolate as a food item, though when I am talking to students about food items, I’m typically talking about food as both a biological necessity and food and eating as a symbolic act.

For example, in my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology course, I’ve used the exchange of chocolate on the holidays of Halloween and Valentine’s Day to explore how these exchanges take on different meanings in each of these contexts. I’m also leading a study abroad program this summer in Paris where we are focusing on food and culture; we will be focusing on artisan chocolate as a luxury food item and how the French have used chocolate to define and redefine French identity within a European and global framework.

Chocolate, like other food items, is also a product, though, and so it is important to consider the food chain of modern chocolate — where and how chocolate is produced and for whom, which is an issue we discuss in my course, Ethics of Eating.

Q: When was chocolate originally produced for a mass market, and how did this New World item catch on over the centuries?

A: First, I think it’s important to say that the earliest evidence of cacaoThe cacao tree is the source of cacao beans, the seeds of the tree which are used to make cocoa, chocolate and cocoa butter. consumption comes to us from pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica, where residue analysis and ceramic vessel form suggest consumption of a chocolate drink. Invading Spaniards in the 16th century appear to have learned about cacao from the Aztecs, who called the beverage chocolatl.

It appears that the drink wasn’t much appreciated by these invaders, though they brought it back to Spain, where sugar was added, and it became a drink of the aristocracy and began spreading through Europe. It wasn’t until the 1800s that food chemists were able to turn the drink into what we now know as the chocolate bar. The Industrial Revolution and factory-level chocolate production really helped to make chocolate production easier and more available to the general public. Though nowadays, many of the products marketed as chocolate have more sugar and flavor additives than actual cacao.

Q: Since chocolate is a luxury and not a food staple, how does it tax the land and the farmers?

A: While chocolate is a luxury item, it is also one that people who have the income tend to indulge in a lot. For example, research has shown that the average American eats the equivalent of about 120 bars of chocolate a year. Also, I think it is important to recognize that many of our agricultural products, even for staple foods, tax the land and that there are many unfair labor practices in agricultural production. All that being said, cocoa production has spread from Latin America to West Africa and Southeast Asia and has led to deforestation in all of these areas. Cacao farming is also quite difficult, and harvesting must be done by hand. Unfortunately, research has shown that much of this production is done under unfair labor practices. For example, over 70 percent of the world’s cocoa is produced in West Africa, where it is estimated that approximately 2.1 million children are involved in the industry, often in slave-like conditions.

Q: What does the business side of making chocolate look like?

A: Unfortunately, the business side of chocolate is generally not a pretty picture. Chocolate is a $100 billion industry, and as with much of our food production nowadays, the supply chain between the producers and the consumers is quite long. Such long supply chains often mean that the farmers who are the first step in that chain make very little money off of their product. For chocolate, low productivity and other factors, like limited economic development and political instability in production regions, have also contributed to hardships for the farmers who grow this crop. The long supply chains also mean that consumers are often unaware of how our food is produced. This separation between production and consumption, in both our food and in other items like our clothing, is a topic I like to explore with students a lot.

Q: What does the original chocolate product look and taste like, and how is it prepared for market?

A: The cacao tree is the source of chocolate, though there are different varieties of this tree that result in different properties in the cacao. The tree produces pods within which are the cacao beans. Typically, after the pods are harvested by hand, they are cracked open and the seeds are fermented and then dried. Dried beans are then shipped off to manufacturers around the world.

At this point, the beans are typically roasted and then deshelled, and what remains are known as cacao nibs. The nibs are then ground up into a paste. This is basically where modern chocolate production diverges from earlier production as extra cocoa butter, which is the fat in the nibs, is added in allowing for the formation of solid chocolate. Sugar and other ingredients are added as well, including, in most modern products, additives like stabilizers which do things like help extend the shelf life of the products. One common additive is palm oil … a problematic, though ubiquitous, product which has its own range of environmental and human impacts, including deforestation and loss of habitat for many endangered animals such as orangutans. Ultimately, many of the chocolate items available on the market today tend to have more sugar and other ingredients than cacao, and so what we think of today as chocolate is quite different than the bitter drink that the Aztecs called chocolatl.

Q: How can people learn more about the purchasing of chocolate that doesn’t exploit the environment or people?

A: One thing that I stress in my Ethics of Eating course is that “ethical” means something different to each person, and so each individual must develop their own guidelines for being an ethical consumer and must then do research on how they can best live by those guidelines. It takes a lot of time and effort to establish and live by such standards, though. I recognize that having the time and ability to research these things is a privilege.

One source I like to share each year around this time is Grist’s Guide to Ethical Chocolate. This short article outlines a lot of the challenges in chocolate production and offers suggestions for how people can address these challenges as individual consumers. I have hope that the chocolate industry, and other industries as well, will rise to the challenge of our times and develop more sustainable practices that will keep our traditions like Valentine’s Day chocolates alive.

Reporter , ASU Now


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Study finds lack of mental health interventions for ethnic minority youth in the US

February 12, 2019

Hispanic and Latino youth are more likely to drink alcohol at a younger age than their African-American and non-Hispanic Caucasian peers, but they are less likely to receive treatment for substance abuse.

African-American youth show more symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder than their Caucasian peers, but they are less likely to receive appropriate treatment for disruptive behaviors.

The suicide rate among Native Americans has been outpacing the rest of the country since 2003. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among Native American adolescents, and there are very few effective interventions.

A research team of experts from Arizona State University, DePaul University and the University of Southern California has evaluated the effectiveness of interventions for mental health problems like substance use, disruptive behaviors and suicide prevention in ethnic minority American youth. The study, which was commissioned by Division 53 of the American Psychological Association, will be published Feb. 12 in the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology.

“This careful study provides a benchmark for evidence-based interventions in minority youth, which is central to providing effective care to the diverse youth population and will be very useful to funders of research, payers of health care and family members,” said Margarita Alegria, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and chief of the Disparities Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital. Alegria was not involved in the study. “This evaluation also sets the groundwork for the future, by identifying the need to focus on the development and evaluation of more interventions for minority groups that have not yet been addressed, like Asian-Americans, Native Americans and youth who do not speak English.”

Ten years ago, there were zero evidence-based interventions for American ethnic minority youth that met the strongest criteria and were considered well-established.

Now there are four.

Well-established and evidence-based

To evaluate the effectiveness of mental health interventions for ethnic minority youth, ASU’s Armando Pina, associate professor of psychology, worked with Antonio Polo, associate professor of clinical psychology at DePaul University, and Stanley Huey, associate professor of psychology and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California. The trio rated evidence-based interventions designed to target problems like anxiety, depression, disruptive behavior, substance use, trauma and stress reactions and self-harm or suicide. In total, the team evaluated 65 interventions that had either analyzed the impact on ethnic minority participants or been tested on a participant group that was at least 75 percent ethnic minority youth.

The highest rating was “well-established” and included interventions that were tested using randomized controlled experimental designs, had been replicated by more than one research group and demonstrated benefits to the youth that were statistically significant.

The four interventions that met the well-established criteria were designed to treat anxiety, disruptive behaviors and substance use in ethnic minority youth.

The team found cognitive behavioral interventions were effective at helping Hispanic and Latino youths experiencing anxiety. These interventions teach strategies to change problem thinking patterns and behaviors and often include social skills training.

Interventions that involved parents, called family therapy, helped African-American youth struggling with disruptive behaviors and Hispanic and Latino youth with drug- or alcohol-use problems. Including the family, school system or peer networks in therapy to address disruptive behaviors was also effective in helping African-American youth.

“Parents and caregivers need to know that for some of the most common problems children and adolescents face, there are well-established treatments that have been systematically tested,” said Pina, who was the lead author on the study. “They should demand children get these empirically supported treatments and interventions.”

From bench to bedside

On top of the four well-established interventions, the researchers identified other treatment programs that met less-stringent rating criteria and could be considered best practices in the future.

The analysis also determined which mental health problems did not yet have effective interventions for ethnic minority youth and which minority groups were underrepresented. There were no well-established interventions for depression, trauma and stress reactions, self-harm, suicide or the co-occurrence of more than one problem, like anxiety and disruptive behaviors. And, none of the 65 studies analyzed by the research team included enough Asian-American or Native American participants to evaluate whether any of the interventions were robust for these populations.

Related: Book provides a new framework for making sense of mental illness

“Including Native American youth in research studies is important and requires working directly with tribal nations because they regulate research within their communities. Researchers must invest considerable time to build relationships and establish trust to gain tribal approval for a research study,” said Monica Tsethlikai, assistant professor in ASU’s T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics and an affiliate faculty member of the university’s American Indian Studies program. Tsethlikai was not involved in the study. “Native Americans also have a unique worldview that includes a metaphysical perspective of health and well-being that does not fit within Western interventions, so effective interventions would need to originate from a foundation of respect and reciprocity and would have to be congruent with the lived experiences of Native American youth.”

The team advocated for more research that includes underrepresented ethnic minority populations. Because the trajectory of an evidence-based treatment program from a research setting into the real world takes 17 years on average, the researchers also suggested future work should focus on the development of streamlined methods to develop interventions and test how well they work.

“Research should move outside of the lab and into the community,” Pina said. “Intervention scientists need to increase collaborations with established systems of care and real-world providers, who are under real-world constraints.”

Spanish Version of Video

Top photo: A research team of experts from Arizona State University, DePaul University and the University of Southern California has evaluated the effectiveness of interventions for mental health problems like substance use, disruptive behaviors and suicide prevention in ethnic minority American youth. Photo by Devin Avery on Unsplash

Science writer , Psychology Department


X-ray laser study identifies crystalline intermediate in our 'pathway to breathing'

February 11, 2019

Scientists from Arizona State University’s School of Molecular Sciences, in collaboration with colleagues from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, have captured for the first time snapshots of crystal structures of intermediates in the biochemical pathway that enables us to breathe.

Their results, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the article "Snapshot of an Oxygen Intermediate in the Catalytic Reaction of Cytochrome c Oxidase," provide key insights into the final step of aerobic respiration. Austin Echelmeier et al (From left) Austin Echelmeier, Alexandra Ros, Petra Fromme and Raimund Fromme, all from ASU’s School of Molecular Sciences and the Biodesign Institute’s Center for Applied Structural Discovery. Download Full Image

“It takes a team to conduct such a sophisticated experiment,” said Associate Professor Alexandra Ros who, together with her graduate student Austin Echelmeier and former intern Gerrit Brehm, developed the hydrodynamic focusing mixer that made these experiments possible.

The mixer is a microfluidic device, which is high-resolution, 3D-printed and enables two streams of oxygen-saturated buffer to mix perfectly with a central stream containing bovine cytochrome c oxidase (bCcO) microcrystals. This initiates a catalytic reaction between the oxygen and the microcrystals.

In the beginning

This research was instigated by a conversation between Professor Petra Fromme, director of the Biodesign Institute’s Center for Applied Structural Discovery (CASD); Raimund Fromme, School of Molecular Sciences associate research professor; and Professor Denis Rousseau from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City who works on the structure of cytochrome c oxidase, a key enzyme involved with aerobic respiration.

Cytochrome c oxidase (CcO) is the last enzyme in the respiratory electron transport chain of cells located in the mitochondrial membrane. It receives an electron from each of four cytochrome c molecules, and transfers them to one oxygen molecule (two atoms), converting the molecular oxygen to two molecules of water.

cytochrome c oxidase intermediate

Researchers at CASD, including ASU’s Richard Snell Professor of Physics John Spence, helped to pioneer a new technique called time-resolved serial femtosecondA femtosecond is a millionth of a billionth of a second. crystallography (TR-SFX). This technique takes advantage of an X-ray Free Electron Laser (XFEL) at the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University. 

TR-SFX is a promising technique for protein structure determination, where a liquid stream containing protein crystals is intersected with a high-intensity XFEL beam that is a billion times brighter than traditional synchrotron X-ray sources.

While the crystals diffract and immediately are destroyed by the intense XFEL beam, the resulting diffraction patterns can be recorded with state-of-the-art detectors. Powerful new data analysis methods have been developed, allowing a team to analyze these diffraction patterns and obtain electron density maps and detailed structural information of proteins.

The method is specifically appealing for hard-to-crystallize proteins, such as membrane proteins, as it yields high-resolution structural information from small micro- or nanocrystals, thus reducing the contribution of crystal defects and avoiding tedious (if not impossible) growth of large crystals as is required in traditional synchrotron-based crystallography.

This new “diffraction before destruction” method has opened up new avenues for structural determination of fragile biomolecules under physiologically relevant conditions (at room temperature and in the absence of cryoprotectants) and without radiation damage.

CcO reduces oxygen to water and harnesses the chemical energy to drive proton (positively charged hydrogen atom) relocation across the inner mitochondrial membrane by a previously unresolved mechanism.

In summary, the TR-SFX studies have allowed the structural determination of a key oxygen intermediate of bCcO. The results of the team’s experiments provide new insights into the mechanism of proton relocation in the cow enzyme as compared to that in bacterial CcOs, and paves the way for the determination of the structures of other CcO intermediates, as well as transient species formed in other enzyme reactions.

Other coauthors on this paper, not previously mentioned, include Izumi Ishigami, Ariel Lewis-Ballester and Syun-Ru Yeh, all from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine; Nadia Zatsepin and Stella Lisova of the ASU Department of Physics; Jesse Coe, Zachary Dobson, Garrett Nelson and Shangji Zhang all from the School of Molecular Sciences and CASD; Thomas Grant from University at Buffalo, State University of New York; and Sébastien Boutet, Raymond Sierra and Alexander Batyuk all from SLAC.

This research was also supported by an NIH R01 (Petra Fromme) and the NSF BioXFEL STC.

Jenny Green

Clinical associate professor, School of Molecular Sciences


Quantum strangeness gives rise to new electronics

February 11, 2019

Citing the startling advances in semiconductor technology of the time, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965 proposed that the number of transistors on a chip would double each year — the accuracy of that observation has been borne out. Still, it’s unlikely Moore could have foreseen the extent of the electronics revolution currently underway.

Today, a new breed of devices that bear unique properties is being developed. As ultra-miniaturization continues apace, researchers have begun to explore the intersection of physical and chemical properties occurring at the molecular scale. Nongjian “NJ” Tao is the director of the Center for Bioelectronics and Biosensors at the Biodesign Institute and is a professor in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University. Download Full Image

Advances in this fast-paced domain could improve devices for data storage and information processing and aid in the development of molecular switches, among other innovations.

Arizona State University's Nongjian “NJ” Tao and his collaborators recently described a series of studies into electrical conductance through single molecules. Creating electronics at this infinitesimal scale presents many challenges. In the world of the ultra-tiny, the peculiar properties of the quantum world hold sway. Here, electrons flowing as current behave like waves and are subject to a phenomenon known as quantum interference. The ability to manipulate this quantum phenomenon could help open the door to new nanoelectronic devices with unusual properties.

“We are interested in not only measuring quantum phenomena in single molecules, but also controlling them. This allows us to understand the basic charge transport in molecular systems and study new device functions,” Tao said.

Tao is the director of the Biodesign Center for Bioelectronics and Biosensors. In research appearing in the journal Nature Materials, Tao and colleagues from Japan, China and the U.K. outline experiments in which a single organic molecule is suspended between a pair of electrodes as a current is passed through the tiny structure.

The researchers explore the charge transport properties through the molecules. They demonstrated that a ghostly wavelike property of electrons — known as quantum interference — can be precisely modulated in two different configurations of the molecule, known as Para and Meta.

It turns out that quantum interference effects can cause substantial variation in the conductance properties of molecule-scale devices. By controlling the quantum interference, the group showed that electrical conductance of a single molecule can be fine-tuned over two orders of magnitude. Precisely and continuously controlling quantum interference is seen as a key ingredient in the future development of wide-ranging molecular-scale electronics, operating at high speed and low power.

Such single-molecule devices could potentially act as transistors, wires, rectifiers, switches or logic gates and may find their way into futuristic applications including superconducting quantum interference devices, quantum cryptography and quantum computing.

For the current study, the molecules — ring-shaped hydrocarbons that can appear in different configurations — were used, as they are among the simplest and most versatile candidates for modeling the behavior of molecular electronics and are ideal for observing quantum interference effects at the nanoscale.

In order to probe the way charge moves through a single molecule, so-called break junction measurements were made. The tests involve the use of a scanning tunneling microscope, or STM. The molecule under study is poised between a gold substrate and the gold tip of the STM device. The tip of the STM is repeatedly brought in and out of contact with the molecule, breaking and reforming the junction while the current passes through each terminal.

Thousands of conductance versus distance traces were recorded, with the particular molecular properties of the two molecules used for the experiments altering the electron flow through the junction. Molecules in the Para configuration showed higher conductance values than molecules of the Meta form, indicating constructive vs. destructive quantum interference in the molecules.

Using a technique known as electrochemical gating, the researchers were able to continuously control the conductance over two orders of magnitude. In the past, altering quantum interference properties required modifications to the charge-carrying molecule used for the device. The current study marks the first occasion of conductance regulation in a single molecule.

As the authors note, conductance at the molecular scale is sensitively affected by quantum interference involving the electron orbitals of the molecule. Specifically, interference between the highest occupied molecular orbital or HOMO and lowest unoccupied molecular orbital or LUMO appears to be the dominant determinant of conductance in single molecules. Using an electrochemical gate voltage, quantum interference in the molecules could be delicately tuned.

The researchers were able to demonstrate good agreement between theoretical calculations and experimental results, indicating that the HOMO and LUMO contributions to the conductance were additive for Para molecules, resulting in constructive interference, and subtractive for Meta, leading to destructive interference, much as waves in water can combine to form a larger wave or cancel one another out, depending on their phase.

While previous theoretical calculations of charge transport through single molecules had been carried out, experimental verification has had to wait for a number of advances in nanotechnology, scanning probe microscopy and methods to form electrically functional connections of molecules to metal surfaces. Now, with the ability to subtly alter conductance through the manipulation of quantum interference, the field of molecular electronics is open to a broad range of innovations.

Richard Harth

Science writer, Biodesign Institute at ASU


Running toward answers: ASU researcher receives $4.5 million for Alzheimer's work

February 8, 2019

Boris DeCourt was about 12 years old when he knew he would be committing his life to biomedical research. During those tender years, his 38-year-old father had a heart attack, an incident so serious that it called for a transplant. The young DeCourt traveled with his father to a Paris hospital that could perform the surgery.

“It was a special kind of transplant that was done in an extreme emergency,” DeCourt said. “He had a second heart — connected to his original heart. He had two hearts.” DeCourt explained that the donor was a person only slightly older than himself. DeCourt's results suggest that lenalidomide, an anti-cancer drug, has the potential to lower Alzheimer's disease brain pathology and to do so over a long period of time. Download Full Image

Afterward, DeCourt attended medical seminars to learn about cardiology and cardiac surgery. He was struck by how much more there was to learn and committed then and there to devote his life to research.

His doctoral studies combined neuroscience and neuropharmacology. “I wanted to understand what the drugs do," he said. "What does it mean to give drugs to patients, what are the feedbacks and side effects we can anticipate from drugs? 

“Now, I am doing basic research with a foot in medical research,” said DeCourt, an assistant research professor at the ASU-Banner Neurodegenerative Disease Research Center and a researcher at Arizona State University's School of Life Sciences.

The road from focusing on the heart to focusing on the head led him from France to Indiana, where he did his postdoc at Purdue and studied axonal outgrowth and regeneration in spinal cord injuries and traumatic brain injuries. Arizona would be DeCourt’s next stop, working with Marwan Sabbagh at the Banner Sun Health Research Institute. It was during his time with Banner that he noticed that inflammation was present in all stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

His steely focus on understanding the Alzheimer-inflammation connection is paying off today with two grants that will help him and his team study the effects of an anti-cancer drug, lenalidomide, on addressing the ravaging effects of Alzheimer’s disease.

Boris deCourt

Boris DeCourt is assistant research professor at the ASU-Banner Neurodegenerative Disease Research Center and a researcher at ASU's School of Life Sciences.

The National Institutes of Health has awarded DeCourt and his team $3.2 million to test the efficacy of lenalidomide, an FDA-approved drug that is used today to treat a variety of blood cancers. Both are five-year grants. The NIH-funded trial will include 30 patients who will receive the intervention for 12 months. The patients will receive brain imaging prior to the intervention and six months after so that DeCourt can identify changes. Inflammatory markers will be measured every three months. The team will also measure cognitive performance.

The Alzheimer’s Drug Disease Foundation has provided $1.3 million to fund a similar trial for 45 patients over six to 12 months.

Lenalidomide is in popular use among oncologists, meaning the researchers will have access to data about patients with cancer.

“This allows us to know about 90 percent of what we should expect,” DeCourt said.

Not content to be confined to the lab, DeCourt is passionate about doing research that connects him to doctors and patients. In his new clinical trial, lenalidomide will be given to Alzheimer’s patients with mild cognitive impairment. He will be working with his previous mentor, Sabbagh, in Sabbagh’s new role as director of Cleveland Clinic Nevada’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, one of the largest clinical trial sites in the country, 

DeCourt’s earlier research has shown, in a transgenic mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease, just four weeks of lenalidomide treatment robustly reduced inflammation.

“Basically we said that if it works with the mice, why don’t we try a clinical trial? And finally again last year, we submitted a grant — got pre-approval and this summer; everything was approved,” DeCourt said. This, after being rejected three times by the Alzheimer’s Association.

Anti-cancer drug shows promise

“Early results suggest that lenalidomide has the potential to lower Alzheimer’s disease brain pathology, and to do so over a long period of time, by normalizing the activity of enzymes responsible for the production of Aβ to nonpathological levels,” DeCourt said.

Lenalidomide is an immunomodulatory agent, in the same class as its more notorious cousin, thalidomide, but without the same level of toxicity. The compound alters the actions of the inflammatory molecule, tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α).

According to DeCourt, “the vast majority of therapeutic interventions targeting Alzheimer’s disease until now have focused on monotherapies to alter a single neuropathology, including BACE1 inhibitors, gamma-secretase inhibitors and modulators, and active and passive immunization against amyloid beta. Unfortunately, all these approaches have failed to meet the clinical endpoint of significantly slowing cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s disease.”

“Alzheimer’s disease is a multi-factorial disease,” DeCourt said. “To treat it we need multiple drugs or drugs that have multiple effects. Lenalidomide not only regulates inflammation, it regulates lots of different things.”

According to Research Features magazine, “inflammation is a natural reaction of the body, aimed at fending off foreign invaders like cancer cells. In the case of Alzheimer’s disease, it has been shown that Aβ and amyloid plaques damage the structure and function of the cells. This stimulates the immune cells located in the brain to develop an inflammatory reaction in an attempt eliminate the cause of the cell injury (Aβ and amyloid plaques), and the wounded cells and tissue. In the process, immune cells release an array of inflammatory molecules (called cytokines and chemokines), which may contribute to further cell dysfunction and neuronal death.”

DeCourt said it is yet unclear whether inflammation is a cause or an effect in the development of Alzheimer’s.

“But what we do know is that at some point, it kicks in and when it kicks in, it never stops. It aggravates the disease,” he said.

“Inflammation is pervasive to many neurological disorders, yet no clinical trial has demonstrated the efficacy of anti-inflammatory agents for Alzheimer’s disease,” DeCourt said.

Currently, the cost of lenalidomide in the U.S. is fairly prohibitive at $500 per pill. DeCourt explains that in India, it is only $8 per pill. Safe harbor laws allows DeCourt and his team to use a drug that is not produced in the U.S.

According to DeCourt, if the “trial is successful, lenalidomide will become one of the very few compounds capable of lowering several neuropathological features associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Making the opportunity even more attractive is the fact that the drug is already FDA-approved for cancer treatment, so it could rapidly be repurposed in a Phase II study.”

“If the drug works, it has huge potential here,” DeCourt said.

But that’s not all.

“For me, the idea is really to learn more about Alzheimer’s disease, and if it’s possible, to find a cure.”

In the meantime, DeCourt encourages everyone to exercise. According to a new study, “participating in 150 minutes of exercise a week — just 2.5 hours of walking briskly or another physical activity — could delay an inherited form of Alzheimer’s."

The cross-sectional study, recently published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association, gathered 15 years of data from 459 participants.

DeCourt runs a startup that organizes bicycle races and other running events. He’s happy to be bringing this resource to Las Vegas. “I want to combine this personal enterprise with the research enterprise — moving to Las Vegas will allow me to create events,” he said. “From these events, we will recruit volunteers to participate in our studies.”

Though DeCourt has moved to Las Vegas, he plans to remain connected as he will be using ASU’s mass spectrometry technology – a technology that is not currently available in Las Vegas. In addition, he will continue research collaborations with Karen Sweazea, an associate professor in ASU’s College of Health Solutions and the School of Life Sciences.

Written by Dianne Price