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ASU prof's research shows gluten-free pastas lead to higher blood glucose levels
September 22, 2017

Associate director of ASU's Nutrition Program on whether avoiding gluten offers health benefits to the general population

Sales of gluten-free foods continue to soar, reflecting a widespread belief that eliminating gluten from a person’s diet can produce health benefits, even for those without gluten sensitivity or celiac diseaseCeliac disease is an autoimmune disorder affecting the small intestine that is triggered when gluten is consumed..

Carol Johnston, professor and associate director of the Nutrition Program in Arizona State University's College of Heath Solutions, has studied the effects of gluten-free foods and their impact on health. She will present her research findings to students at an undergraduate research colloquium on Sept. 27.

Question: Does avoiding gluten have any benefits for those without celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity?

Answer: There is no clear evidence that avoiding gluten offers any health benefits for the majority of the population. Less than 1 percent (0.71 percent) of the population of the United States has been diagnosed with celiac disease, and an additional 3 percent has a non-celiac gluten sensitivity. While the popularity of gluten-free diets has clearly extended beyond those who have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, researchers have not identified any health benefits to avoiding gluten for those without a sensitivity to it.

Q: Your research has shown that gluten-free pastas (such as rice or corn pasta) cause a person’s glucose levels to jump significantly higher than if they ate traditional wheat pasta. What are the health impacts of these findings? Should these types of pastas be avoided?

Carol Johnston

A: In my research, it was interesting to observe that the gluten-free corn and rice pastas caused participants to have higher blood glucose levels than traditional wheat pasta. One explanation for this may be found in the way starch and gluten interact during digestion. When starch is digested, it breaks down into sugars and produces glucose, which enters the bloodstream. However, the gluten present in traditional grain pasta may actually encase some of the starch, preventing it from breaking down and resulting in less glucose released into the bloodstream. Without the presence of gluten, the starch in corn or rice pasta is easily digested to glucose, causing a post-meal spike in glucose levels.

That said, more research is needed to better characterize the glycemic index of gluten-free pastas and breads. There are many versions of gluten-free products, and we need to better understand which substitute ingredients contribute to elevated glucose levels.

Q: A recent study found that those who eat gluten are less likely to develop type 2 diabetes. How does the consumption of gluten help to prevent this disease?

A: Most refined-grain products, like corn or rice pasta, have a high glycemic index. Sharp increases in blood glucose levels following a meal, or postprandial glycemia, have been linked to risk for chronic disease, particularly cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Gluten may help to moderate the glycemic response of grains as discussed above. However, to lower the risk of type 2 diabetes, individuals should adopt multiple strategies, including exercising daily, managing caloric intake to manage body weight, reducing intake of refined carbohydrates and sugars, and consuming nuts daily.

Katherine Reedy

Media Relations Officer , Media Relations & Strategic Communications


Latest hurricanes aren't rewriting the record books, says official keeper of weather extremes

September 21, 2017

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma decimated Florida and the Houston area with destructive winds and torrential rains. These intense hurricanes leave everyone drained, but there is more. A third storm, Jose, is brushing the Atlantic seaboard. A fourth, Maria is lashing Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic before it turns north towards the U.S.

So what’s up with the weather? Are these storms the most intense faced by the U.S.? Are they being amplified by climate change? An aerial shot of Hurricane Irma NOAA's GOES East satellite captured this infrared image of Hurricane Irma in the Bahamas on Sept. 8. Photo by NASA/NOAA GOES Project Download Full Image

Randy Cerveny, a climatologist and an ASU President’s Professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, says that although these storms are huge and impressive, they are not rewriting the record books. Cerveny is the rapporteur on climate extremes within the United Nations-affiliated World Meteorological Organization. He literally is the keeper of Earth’s weather extremes, recording and verifying (or repudiating) weather extremes as they are reported around the world.

Cerveny talks about Harvey, Irma, Maria, a warming planet and the effects of human activity on the Earth.

Question: Was Irma a record-setting hurricane?

Answer: While Irma was without question nasty, it wasn't globally record-setting. The world’s records for most intense hurricane (by wind speed) remain tied: Sustained winds of 215 mph for Typhoon Nancy (1961) in the northwestern Pacific Ocean and Hurricane Patricia (2015) in the eastern Pacific Ocean. Irma’s 185 mph winds were some of the strongest recorded in the Atlantic. Irma also sustained those winds for a very long time, and we will be evaluating the data to see if it set a record for the Atlantic basin in terms of longest sustained winds. However, there have been two previous Category 5 hurricanes that were Category 5 at the time they made landfall in Florida: The 1935 Florida Keys “Labor Day” hurricane, and Hurricane Andrew, which hit Dade County, Florida, on Aug. 24, 1992. Irma was a Category 4 storm when it made landfall.

Beyond Florida, the strongest hurricane to make landfall in the U. S. (and the only other Category 5 hurricane to make landfall as a Category 5) was Hurricane Camille, which hit Mississippi in 1969. 

Q: With Harvey, Irma and now Maria, are we experiencing more hurricanes now than in previous years?

A: No. This is the normal time (early- to mid-September) that we have the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season. Over the last couple of years, the Atlantic has been relatively quiet due in part to the extraordinary El Niño episode in the Pacific. However, this does demonstrate the accuracy of our long-term seasonal hurricane predictions as this year was predicted to be an above-average hurricane year.

Q: The hurricanes seem bigger and stronger than previous years. Is that true?

A: There is some theoretical research suggesting that with global warming, hurricanes may increase in size and intensity, but there is still much debate about that in the scientific community. In general, hurricanes have not changed much in the last few decades in terms of size or intensity. The last hurricane of Category 5 strength to hit the United States was Andrew (1992). The difference is the coverage of tropical cyclones (via 24/7 news and social media) that brings tropical storm activity much more into public attention.

Q: Might climate change make these storms more severe?

A: A lot of things impact hurricanes but, yes, in general, a warmer climate produces hotter ocean surfaces and more evaporation. Because it is water that powers hurricanes, hotter oceans and more evaporation should produce, in part, more intense hurricanes. The problem is that there are many other factors that also impact hurricanes. For example, “wind shear,” the variations in wind speed and direction with height, can also cause storms under certain circumstances to weaken or to intensify. The impact of climate change on those many other factors is still being studied.

Q: What is fact/fiction in terms of climate change making storms worse?

A: In general, hurricanes are producing more rain due to climate change. Warmer warms and more evaporation put more moisture into the atmosphere, so increased precipitation can occur. With that said, Hurricane Harvey’s incredible rainfalls were primarily the result of the hurricane abruptly stalling along the Texas coast (due in part to a giant ridge of high pressure in the Southwest). That lack of movement allowed for continued rainfall over many days — and that led to massive flooding.

It is always difficult to attribute one storm’s impact to climate change. Just as it is absurd to say that a single major snowstorm in the winter contradicts anthropogenic global warming theory, it is equally absurd to say that one hurricane in summer confirms global warming theory. Climate is “long term,” while meteorology is “short term.” As climatologists, we look at long-term (years to decades) averages of hurricanes (size, intensity, frequency), for example, to establish the impact of climate change, not single storms.

Q: What types of weather are we experiencing a spike in?

A: Most computer climate models indicate an overall increase in precipitation for a warming planet. Again, that generally is the result of warmer ocean temperatures leading to greater evaporation and, consequently, more fuel for heavier rains. Conversely, most computer climate models also indicate shifts in circulation patterns that might produce greater droughts for regions of Earth. So in general the models are indicating an overall greater variability in some aspects of climate (greater floods but also more intense droughts) with a warming planet.

Q: Is there anything else we should know about the current state of weather and how human activity might be affecting it?

A: One thing that is important to realize is that we are influencing climate and environment at all scales, not just the global scale. Some of the really big problems associated with Hurricane Irma, in terms of damage and flooding, can be attributed as the direct result of human activity over the last 50 years — not so much at the global scale but at local and regional scales. By changing the environment from the Florida marshlands (e.g., Everglades) to massive urban and suburban landscapes, humans have dramatically increased the damages associated with hurricanes. This is because the marshlands have, in the past, acted as critical barriers and reservoirs for storm-surge flooding and rainfall associated with hurricanes like Irma. 

In addition, the leveling and paving of roads and housing developments doesn’t allow the rains to run off as they would in natural marshlands. Sustainability with regards to climate change isn’t just at the global scale; it really begins at the local and regional scales.

Associate Director, Media Relations & Strategic Communications


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In honor of Sept. 21 World Alzheimer's Day, a look at related research at ASU.
September 20, 2017

ASU's Neurodegenerative Disease Research Center part of $5 million to apply big data to the fight against the unremitting illness

Alzheimer’s, a mysterious disease of cognitive decline, was first recognized a century ago. The unremitting illness continues to frustrate the best efforts toward treatment or prevention, and a tidal wave of new cases in the coming decades threatens to overwhelm the nation’s health-care system.

Sept. 21 has been declared World Alzheimer’s Day by Alzheimer’s Disease International, a worldwide federation of Alzheimer's organizations. The occasion offers an opportunity to reflect on the impressive scientific strides already made in understanding Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia, while also coming to terms with the daunting challenges still facing the field.

By 2050, Alzheimer’s is expected to strike one new patient in the U.S. every 33 seconds, resulting in nearly 1 million new cases per year. It remains the only leading killer for which no effective therapy exists.

Arizona State University is intimately involved in the war against this disease and has recently formed a path-breaking, interdisciplinary contingent of leading researchers known as the ASU-Banner Neurodegenerative Disease Research Center (NDRC).

The center, headquartered at ASU’s Biodesign Institute, has just received a portion of a new $5 million grant, with three of the six researchers named in the new award belonging to the NDRC, including the center’s Interim Director Eric Reiman, a world-renowned leader in the fight against Alzheimer’s. Reiman also directs the ASU-Banner Neuroscience Initiative and is spearheading the Arizona collaboration.

"There is an urgent need to clarify the brain processes involved in the development of Alzheimer's disease and use this information to discover effective ways to treat and prevent the disease," Reiman said. "While studies in animal, cellular and other laboratory models play essential roles in this endeavor, detailed molecular data from persons with and without Alzheimer's are needed to further inform these experimental studies and clarify the extent to which findings are relevant to this fundamentally human disease."

Reiman also serves as executive director of the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute, CEO of Banner Research and University Professor in ASU’s School of Life SciencesThe School of Life Sciences is a unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. as well as the director of the Arizona Alzheimer’s consortium. 

The grant and resulting data will help attract future investment from the National Institutes of Health to support further expansion of the human data set.

"This funding provides the foundation to build one of the largest basic and translational neuroscience programs for the fight against Alzheimer's and related neurodegenerative diseases," Reiman said.

The project will be led by Reiman, Winnie S. Liang of Translational Genomics (TGen) and Thomas G. Beach of the Arizona Alzheimer's Consortium, and it will include Ben Readhead, a member of the NDRC team, and Joel Dudley, currently affiliated with the ASU-Banner Neurodegenerative Disease Research Center and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.

The important new funding source will help accelerate ASU’s research efforts to apply big data and bioinformatics strategies to the challenge of grappling with an avalanche of new information concerning the causes of Alzheimer’s, as well as to explore the most fruitful avenues for Alzheimer’s therapy.

The NDRC hopes to use the resulting data to further investigate the molecular processes involved in various aspects of Alzheimer’s pathology, including the early drivers of Alzheimer’s development in the brain.

The project provides a foundation for what will be a defining feature of the NDRC, fostering the dynamic interplay of experimental studies in animal and cellular models and new data describing regions of the human brain that are preferentially affected by Alzheimer’s.

The resulting information repository will provide a unique public resource for the global community of Alzheimer’s researchers. Indeed, the partners predict that the data set resulting from this project will become one of the most widely used and highly valued scientific resources in the fight against Alzheimer's disease.


The grant funding comes from the NOMIS Foundation, a private Swiss organization supporting insight-driven scientific endeavors across all disciplines. Established in 2008 in Zurich, the NOMIS Foundation seeks to "create a spark" in the world of science by funding highly innovative, groundbreaking research in the natural sciences, social sciences and the humanities.

In this four-year project, funds will be used to develop a public resource of detailed gene-expression data from human brain cells and regions that differ in the vulnerability or resilience to Alzheimer's disease, and help to galvanize discovery of disease mechanisms, risk factors and treatments.

The project will capitalize on high-quality brain tissue from 100 brain donors with and without Alzheimer's. The brain samples are made available through the Banner Sun Health Research Institute's Brain and Body Donation Program, a world-leading resource of data and brain samples for the fight against Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and other cognitive changes associated with normal aging.

Researchers at ASU will capitalize on emerging data analysis tools to interrogate and make sense of these large data sets, discover those molecular networks that seem to be involved in vulnerability or resilience to different forms of Alzheimer's pathology, and identify molecular targets at which to aim new treatments.

The ASU-Banner Neurodegenerative Disease Research Center will then capitalize on the push-pull relationship between this potentially transformational data set, other human data sets and experimental studies in mouse, cellular and other laboratory models at ASU to discover new Alzheimer's disease mechanisms and treatments.

Top image: Graphic by Jason Drees/Biodesign Institute

Richard Harth

Science writer , Biodesign Institute at ASU


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Could chili peppers become the hottest new thing in weight loss?

September 20, 2017

ASU study shows 1st promising links between active ingredient capsaicinoids and an individual’s energy-burning ability

For scorching taste buds, nothing beats the zing of a chili pepper.

Now, a new Arizona State University research study has shown that chili peppers may also be a key ingredient to melting the pounds away and reducing one’s appetite.

The ASU research team, led by scientists Yue Deng and Fang Chen at the Biodesign Institute, has shown the first promising links between capsaicinoids (the active ingredient that gives chili peppers their sweat-inducing hotness) and an individual’s energy-burning ability.

“The innovation of the study is to validate the effectiveness of capsaicinoids during the first real-time tracking of an individual’s metabolism,” said study first author Deng, a postdoctoral research associate in the Biodesign Center for Biosensors and Bioelectronics, who completed the work for her doctoral dissertation in 2016. “It is important to measure the metabolism change with intake of the capsaicinoids, which is the most straightforward way to tell people this actually works or not.”    

Capsaicinoids, known for their anti-inflammatory properties, have been used as a natural remedy to rub on sore joints, and as antioxidants that may help deter aging or even cancer. Several research groups have been investigating their potential benefits as part of a weight-management program.

In the ASU pilot study, 40 people (average age of 28) were given either a placebo or 2 milligrams of a capsaicinoid supplement per day. Each person took the test twice, either with the supplement or a placebo. Researchers then looked at the effect of capsaicinoids on an individual’s energy-expenditure ability (metabolic rate), as well as heart rates.

The participants were limited to healthy individuals who were not pregnant and did not use vitamins, other supplements or medications that may be the result of chronic conditions.

A grouping of chili peppers

Capsaicinoids (the active ingredient that
gives chili peppers their sweat-inducing
hotness) are known for their
anti-inflammatory properties.

This and top photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now


To measure the resting energy expenditure (REE), researchers took advantage of an ASU Biodesign spinout technology that has been on the market since 2015, called Breezing. Breezing is the first handheld calorie-measuring device that measures human breath (oxygen consumption rate and carbon dioxide production rate). It can connect wirelessly to a smart device via Bluetooth and display results through an easy-to-use mobile app.

Participants were given a customized bagel and cream cheese meal that was adjusted to a portion of calories set to their REE value (either 0.35 portion or 0.25 portion) along with the supplement. Next, their REE was measured at one, two and three hours after eating. All participants were required to fast for at least four hours prior to the test, and they were restricted from any strenuous or moderate exercise for at least 12 hours before the test.

For the people who took the capsaicinoid supplements, their energy expenditure showed an average predicted change of 130 kcal/day, while the people from the control group only reflected an average energy burn of 8 kcal/day.

For the calorie counters among us, that 122 kcal/day difference is like burning off an extra can of soda every day (150 kcal), or a medium latte, or for the truly nutritionally tempted, an ounce of potato chips.

Researchers did not find a significant difference in the heart rates of any study participants.

Next, the team is planning to test the effect of capsaicinoids on metabolic rate across more diverse sample populations, including older adults, those who are obese, athletes and children.

The key point, caution the researchers, is that the capsaicinoids supplements alone do not act as magic bullets. Rather, they should be considered as part of a holistic weight management strategy that includes diet, physical activity or exercise, and taking into account one’s unique physiology and genetics. They were are also excited to further validate the Breezing device’s potential as an affordable personal metabolic tracker and weight-management tool.

“Although the results did show that the supplements had a positive effect on people’s metabolic rate on average, this study also brought the attention to the necessity of measuring real-time individual parameters with an affordable mobile device, which is becoming more and more important in individualized diagnose and precision medicine,” Deng said.

This study also points to the potential use of other natural bioactives like green tea beverages (catechins) as weight-loss supplements, and further nutritional studies of weight-loss management.

And for Southwest cuisine lovers, it may just be one more reason to add a little bit more spice into their diets. 

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September 18, 2017

ASU program director Kimberly Kobojek delves into the world of crime-scene analysis ahead of Tuesday event on the latest in DNA

Shows like “CSI,” “The First 48” and “Forensic Files” have captivated audiences, keying into a general fascination with murder, crime and forensics. In the world of make-believe, high-tech laboratories, fancy gadgets and instantaneous lab results solve a murder in 60 minutes (43 minutes with commercials).

But what really happens behind the scenes in a crime lab, and who are the real-world people who discover, examine and connect the clues left behind?

Kimberly Kobojek, program director of forensic science at Arizona State University’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the West campus, worked for 17 years as a forensic scientist for the Phoenix Police Department before joining ASU as a clinical associate professor.

ASU’s forensic science program is more than savvy investigation. It emphasizes laboratory coursework in chemistry and biology, both essential to work in a crime lab. The program also features its own crime lab, where students begin to learn how to investigate scenes.

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU Now

To celebrate National Forensic Science Week, Sept. 17–23, the West campus is hosting Scott Rex from the Arizona Department of Public Safety’s Central Laboratory at “One Step Closer to CSI — Rapid DNA Analysis.” Rex will discuss the latest breakthroughs and answer questions about the technology and what it means for Arizonans at the free public lecture Tuesday evening.

Here, Kobojek delved into the world of forensic biology with the ASU Now team.

Question: What is forensic biology?

Answer: Forensic biology, in its “purest” definition is the application of biological sciences to matters of law. In other words, it's the analysis of evidence that may contain biological material that is collected from a crime scene. Forensic biology includes both serological tests [testing and ID of body fluids] and DNA analysis.

Q: Why is forensic biology an integral part of a potential or actual crime scene?

A: Like other pieces of physical evidence, forensic biology evidence can demonstrate a link between a person and a location or another person. It could be a link between victim and suspect, suspect and location, or victim and location, or all of the aforementioned (and possibly more). Some forensic biology evidence may be “invisible” or latent, so a person may not know it's there. Examples of this include “touch DNA,” or the DNA from skin cells that may be left when someone handles an object.

Q: What is the role of a crime-scene investigator?

A: It is the crime-scene investigator's responsibility to document, preserve and collect evidence at a crime scene while working in tandem with other law enforcement and (if necessary) medical-examiner personnel. This includes recognizing what may or may not be potential evidence.

Q: How is forensic biology applied in a criminal case?

A: Forensic biology can be applied in a few different ways. An analyst may test evidence for the presence of biological material and then conduct DNA analysis to obtain a DNA profile for that person/biological stain. If there is another person to whom that DNA sample may be compared, a comparison will happen.

For instance, if a suspect's shirt is found to contain a blood stain, the blood stain will be tested and a DNA profile is generated. The DNA profile will then be compared to both the suspect and the victim. If the victim’s DNA matches the bloodstain on the suspect’s shirt, we now have a link between the victim and the suspect. Statistics are then calculated to determine how unique that DNA profile is.

DNA analysis can also be conducted on samples from missing persons, unidentified remains and biological samples belonging to family members of missing persons.

Q: You mentioned DNA, and we know it is a significant tool in a criminal case. Is there value in extensive DNA collection and storage?

A: DNA can be an extremely useful tool in a criminal investigation and has helped “crack” many a cold case. However, as with any forensic science, its use needs to be tempered with common sense and the notion that just because you can do something doesn't mean you should do it. What I mean by this is that companies have advertised and collected a number of DNA samples from individuals all across America. I don't know how strict these companies’ rules are regarding allowing agencies such as law enforcement, immigration and insurance companies to access the DNA profile or the sample itself. 

Crime labs who participate in the national DNA database, CODIS, have very strict rules about what can and cannot go into the database. There are also expungement procedures in cases of wrongful entry or wrongful conviction. And while crime labs typically keep the whole reference standards from individuals who submit them for testing in a criminal case, the samples aren't subject to transfer without at least an order from a law-enforcement official if not a court order.

I believe this technology is amazing, and it will keep getting even more sensitive, which means the DNA evidence must be collected, analyzed and interpreted with even more caution.  

Q: One usually relates forensic biology to crime scenes and courtrooms. Does forensic biology exist outside the criminal justice field?

A: Yes, it does. DNA fingerprinting, first developed by Alec Jeffreys in the United Kingdom, was created in his university laboratory. It was only after the Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphism (RFLP) technique was used in a criminal case that its use exploded outside of the academic environment.

Today, DNA/forensic biology is used by public and private crime labs, academic researchers, medical researchers and businesses who specialize in creating your ancestry profile.

Answers have been edited for clarity and length. Top photo: ASU Clinical Associate Professor Kimberly Kobojek uses an ultraviolet light to fluoresce certain biological fluids in the forensics lab on the West campus. Kobojek’s lab focuses on reconstructing an incident through discovery and forensic science. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

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Cassini's grand finale: ASU scientist comments on its discoveries

September 14, 2017

The spacecraft — whose mission ends Friday — showed us a dynamic Saturn, its 62 moons, and ice particles as large as office buildings

The Cassini space probe will end its mission early Friday morning. After 13 years orbiting Saturn, traveling some 4.9 billion miles total, Cassini will plummet into Saturn in a matter of minutes, vaporizing as it enters its atmosphere.

Arizona State University’s David Williams, an associate professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and a NASA supported scientist, knows Cassini well. While not a member of the Cassini Science Team, Williams supported the team in developing the concepts and techniques for making geologic maps of Saturn’s moon Titan from Cassini’s images. He has followed the Cassini mission since its beginning, and has worked with a number of Cassini scientists.

Question: What did we know about Saturn and its moons before Cassini? 

Answer: Prior to the Cassini mission, Saturn had been largely explored by Earth-based telescopes, and quick flybys from NASA’s Pioneer 10 and 11 (1970s) and by Voyager 1 and 2 (1980 and 1981) spacecraft. These missions showed some complexity existed in Saturn’s atmosphere and ring system, and that it had a series of heavily cratered icy moons with some surface variations. But those flybys did not provide detailed information about Saturn and its moons. So NASA began plans soon after the Voyager flybys to develop a Saturn orbiter mission, which became Cassini.

Q: How has Cassini redefined this view of Saturn and its moons?

A: The Cassini mission has greatly expanded our knowledge of how dynamic Saturn, its rings and its 62 moons are as planetary objects. Cassini has shown that Saturn has a very dynamic atmosphere similar to Jupiter’s, with giant storms that periodically erupt in its clouds. It has a dynamic northern polar region with an unusual hexagon-shaped cloud pattern surrounding a hurricane-like eye at its center. The storm is equivalent in size to four Earth’s.

Cassini showed that Saturn’s rings are composed of icy particles, some as large as office buildings, and some as small as smoke particles. Many of the small moons orbit within the ring plane, contort and distort the rings into dynamic patterns. And Cassini has shown that Saturn has geologically active moons. Two in particular, Titan and Enceladus, have altered our understanding of planetary objects. Both have liquid water oceans in their interiors. Enceladus erupts geysers of water vapor and organic materials from its south pole, and Titan has both wind-formed dunes and lakes and rivers formed by flowing methane.

Saturn's rings as seen by Cassini
Bright spokes and the shadow of a moon grace Saturn's B ring in this Cassini spacecraft image. Photo credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Q: Why is this important to those of us on Earth?

A: Cassini has shown that Earth-like atmospheric and geologic processes are not restricted to the Earth, or Mars and Venus, but can occur on icy worlds and in the cold outer reaches of the solar system. It has shown that the ingredients for life can exist in more varied ways than we previously understood from studying the Earth alone, and it has expanded our understanding of the universe. 

Q: What is the legacy of the Cassini spacecraft? 

A: Cassini’s 13-year-long study of the Saturn system has set the stage for what’s next in planetary exploration. The knowledge gained, and the experience of the scientists and engineers has prepared them for the next major flagship mission to explore the outer solar system, the Europa Clipper mission, which will launch in 2022 to orbit and explore Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, which has a liquid water ocean underneath its icy crust. Faculty and students in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration will be building instruments and analyzing data for that mission in the next decade and beyond.

Q: Are you sad to see Cassini go?

A: Yes, I am sad. It is always sad to see the end of an era of exploration. But new exploration awaits. With luck, Cassini’s discoveries will enable new missions back to Saturn, and new discoveries, in coming decades. 


Top photo: With this view, Cassini captured one of its last looks at Saturn and its main rings from a distance. Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Associate Director , Media Relations & Strategic Communications


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How can apps get users to generate content? ASU study finds gender differences

Competition or cooperation as motivator? Men and women differ, ASU study finds.
September 13, 2017

Research team discovers that cooperation, competition are different motivators

China’s largest recipe-sharing platform needed a carrot to motivate more content from users, and research from a team of Arizona State University professors was able to pinpoint what works.

A new study by faculty in the W. P. Carey School of Business found that specific kinds of notifications could elicit more content from the app users — and that there are differences between men and women. Feedback that promoted a message of helping others prompted women to contribute more content, while men were more likely to respond to competitive messages.

The findings are an example of use-inspired research — important because many huge companies are dependent on user-created content, and they are constantly looking for ways to prompt customers to contribute.

Ni Huang, an assistant professor of information systems at ASU and the lead author, said that the teamThe other authors are Bin Gu, a professor of information systems, and Chen Liang, a doctoral student, both from the W. P. Carey School of Business at ASU, and Gordon Burtch, an assistant professor in the the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. Gu is the Earl and Gladys Davis Distinguished Professor and is associate dean for China programs at the W. P. Carey School of Business. worked with Meishi, a Chinese company that owns the largest recipe-sharing smartphone application in China, in which users contribute and rate one another’s recipes.

Also on the research team was Yili Hong, an assistant professor of information systems at ASU who has done previous research on companies that require user-generated content.

“One of the questions that resonated with me was that they have tens of millions users but guess how many contribute? Less than 10 percent,” he said of the recipe app.

The Chinese company agreed to let the researchers perform the study with all the users in the new “foodie talk” section of the platform, and the 1,129 subjects were divided into four groups. Each group received a different kind of push alert on their smartphones once a week for seven weeks, and then their content contributions for the following week were recorded.

App users received different types of push notifications.

The control group received a generic message inviting users to look at the app, Huang said.

“Most of the time we find that kind of message is not very effective compared to when you provide performance feedback, how well you are doing in terms of the content you’ve contributed,” she said.

The other groups received feedback on how many “likes” they had, but the content was framed in different ways. One group’s push alerts gave the number of “likes” and emphasized how much they helped other people, saying, “You have provided cooking inspiration” for X number of other users.

Another group received a push alert giving a ranking, such as “you are in the top 3 percent of users.” This is “individualist” framing.

The fourth group was competitive, comparing performance, such as “you beat 98 percent of other foodies.”

The results differed by gender. In the group that received the “helpful” messages, everyone produced more content, but the effect was bigger for women, who contributed about 6 percent more postings than the control group. The “helpful” feedback prompted males to contribute about 2 percent more postings than the control.

In the competitive group, males generated nearly 11 percent more content than the males in the control group — but females responded negatively, uploading about 2 percent fewer postings than females in the control group.

“For females, if you tell them they’re outperforming other people, they’ll actually contribute less,” Hong said.

There was little difference between males and females who received the “individualist” messages with a ranking, Huang said.

The study also compared engaged users, who were already contributing a lot of good content, with users who contributed but did not receive a lot of “likes.”

“Think of it like ‘good students’ and ‘poor students,’ ” Hong said. “When we give this performance feedback, the good students will be more responsive and do even better, but when we tell the poor students this feedback, they’re less responsive. It’s demotivating.”

Companies that rely on user content already know that feedback generates more content among users, and they try a variety of methods to incentivize them.

“But no one knows which practice works or how to optimize for different users and genders, and that is the main contribution of this paper,” Hong said.

When the team submitted the paper to the journal Management Science, the editors were concerned that because the experiment involved cooking, an activity that could be considered female-oriented, the results might not be generalizable. So the group did another crowd-sourcing experiment, using 1,000 online subjects in the United States to rate (non-cooking-related) content, and replicated the results. The paper was accepted and published Aug. 31. Find the study here.

The Chinese app company was excited about the results and asked the team to do more research.

“If you think about the results, we were only looking at people who are already contributing some sort of content, and getting some likes,” Hong said. “But if a person has never contributed anything, how can you convert them into someone who is engaged? Is there a way to nudge them?”

The researchers are looking at the concept of fairness: “We’re using that concept to say, ‘You have benefitted from others; why don’t you try something yourself?’ ” They hope to produce another paper on that topic.

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now


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Mapping out the next steps after natural disasters on coastlines

September 13, 2017

ASU geophysicist creates maps from satellite data for first responders during emergencies and policy makers for long-term planning

Knowing the lay of the land is crucial for first responders during emergencies and for civic planners making decisions that direct a city's future. Natural disasters, however, have a way of drastically and suddenly changing that land.

Manoochehr Shirzaei, a geophysicist and radar remote sensing expert at Arizona State University's School of Earth and Space Exploration, specializes in satellites equipped with instruments that use highly accurate remote sensing, called Synthetic Aperture Radar. The data collected from these satellites allow Shirzaei to create high-resolution images of the Earth, with an emphasis on identifying sinking lands and flood zones. The maps are then provided to first responders as well as to public policy makers for long-term planning.

Question: What is a geophysicist, and how does that field relate to flooding caused by hurricanes like Harvey and Irma?

Answer: Geophysics is the study of the physical processes and physical property of Earth (and its surrounding space environment) by mapping the variations of physical property that are remotely sensed. In my case, I’m using satellites to study the Earth’s surface and specifically ground-level changes, which can be the result of natural causes or human-caused ones like extraction for water or fuel. 

Q. You created a map of the Houston area with flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey (the map is pictured above, with flooded areas in red). How was this map created?

A: We acquired data from the Sentinel 1A/B satellites that belong to the European Space Agency. The instruments on these satellites use radar to provide highly accurate remote sensing data. There are two satellites that have a six-day revisit time (orbiting the Earth every six days), so we can compare an area before and after a disaster. 

The raw images at first look like black and white dots, as if you were to spread large amounts of salt and pepper over a sheet of paper.  Once we’ve processed the data, we can colorize the mapped areas based on levels of flooding. 

See a larger version of the map here.

Q: How will the map be used?

A: During an intense storm, it is difficult to fly an airplane or drone over an affected area. And then clouds often are in the way of any satellite pictures that would show us what the flooding may look like. But radar can get through both clouds and rain.

This is helpful for first responders so they can determine where aid and relief is needed the most. It can also help with estimating the overall damage of an area. 

In terms of forecasting, remote sensing is also useful to determine which land is above or below sea level and therefore more prone to flooding. 

A map showing areas flooded in Florida after Hurricane Irma
A map of southeast Florida flooding caused by Hurricane Irma generated from two C-Band SAR images acquired by Sentinel 1A/B satellites between Aug. 28 and Sept. 10. Image by Manoochehr Shirzaei

Q: And how did you create a similar map for the flooding caused by Hurricane Irma?

A: I contacted the European Space Agency in advance of the storm hitting Florida and requested data from their Sentinel 1A/B satellites. Once the storm hit and the data were available for the affected area, I began creating maps depicting the areas of flooding along the Florida coast. These maps are then provided to the appropriate local and national authorities so they can better assist those areas in need. 

Q: You recently were recently selected to join the NASA Sea Level Change Team. What will you be doing for NASA as part of this team?

A: I will be working on mapping the U.S. coasts and studying the coastal land subsidence as well as the impact of sea-level rise on coastal flooding. NASA will use this data to inform local and national public authorities so that they can plan for flooding and infrastructure improvements, with the goal to minimize future damage.  


Top photo: Map of Houston flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey generated from two C-Band SAR images acquired by Sentinel 1A/B satellites between Aug. 24 and 30. Image by Manoochehr Shirzaei

Karin Valentine

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


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ASU climatologist says trio of hurricanes might just be bad coincidence

September 13, 2017

ASU professor's research is on extreme weather; says recent powerful storms don't necessarily point to climate change

Arizona's official climatologist says she thinks the recent trio of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Jose may simply be a terrible and unfortunate coincidence and is not necessarily a result of global warming.

Nancy Selover, a professor in ASU's School of Geographical Sciences and Urban PlanningThe School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning is a unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences., focuses on extreme weather in her research. Selover educates groups around Arizona on climate topics, including urban heat islands, monsoons, drought, climate change and Arizona's climate more generally. She recently spoke to ASU Now about one of the most devastating hurricane seasons in decades.

Woman in blue shirt
Nancy Selover

Question: Are these three hurricanes occurring so close to each other a rare coincidence or a harbinger of things to come?

Answer: I think it’s a rare coincidence. We typically see hurricanes follow each other moving into the Caribbean, particularly at the peak of the season (which is now). One of these formed in the Gulf and the other formed in the Caribbean, and both benefitted from extremely warm water, which is required to get to Category 5, among other factors.

Q: So is this not a result of global warming as others in academia have claimed?

A: I don’t think this is a result of global warming as we have had many storms more powerful than these prior to 1960, including many Category 5 and 4 storms. We tend to focus on the most recent storms as being worse than historical storms because we have so much coverage of them and a larger population that puts itself in the path of the storms. The probability of a major hurricane making landfall anywhere on the Gulf or Atlantic coast is exactly the same as it was 100 years ago. What is not the same is that 100 years ago the number of people at risk by being in the path was at least one order of magnitude smaller.

Q: Do you predict hurricanes will become stronger and more powerful in the future? 

A: It’s been 12 years since Katrina and Rita, and it has been relatively quiet since then, other than Sandy, which was very different in its path and timing and was at the end of the season. Sandy was not even a hurricane when it came ashore, so I think it’s important to remember that any tropical storm has the capacity to devastate a coastal community. If the ocean waters become warmer, the available energy for major hurricanes increases, but warm water is not the only condition necessary for forming, strengthening or sustaining a hurricane. If it were, then Jose would have followed Irma as a Category 4 or 5.

Q: Any other types of weather-related disasters you think might be coming our way? 

A: If the warmer waters of the eastern Pacific, western Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico are sustained, more evaporation will occur and we will have the potential for heavier rain (or snow) events due to the increased moisture. It would be nice if it came in the winter as snow. But for the past few years, it has been adding to the monsoon moisture resulting in some heavier rain events, which lead to local flash flooding.

Q: What are preventive measures that we as a society can do to ensure the longevity of our planet? 

A: That’s an impossible question to answer as the planet will be fine regardless of what we do. I think the longevity of ourselves and the ecosystems are of more concern. The Earth has changed drastically over hundreds of millions of years and will continue to do so, with or without us.  

Q: What type of natural disasters might Arizona be facing one day? 

A: We have earthquakes, though small, and our volcanic activity is probably behind us. Our weather-related disasters will continue to be the same ones we currently have: winter storms, heavy rain or rain-on-snow leading to flooding, drought and wildfires. We aren’t likely to have hurricanes, though we do get the remnants of tropical storms mixed into the monsoon. We do have tornadoes, but typically only EF3 or smaller, and even the very small ones are rare. I don’t expect that will change. Because we are an arid state, we have so much variability already in our weather that we do a much better job than most places in handling that variability.

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ASU anthropologists design method for studying groups on social media

September 12, 2017

The study of modern culture may start with your next post, but analyzing these online materials requires new research methods

It’s official: Anthropology has gone high tech. From online museum exhibits to digital repositories and even the use of satellites to survey archaeological sites, there’s a 21st-century twist on nearly every facet of this evolving field.

That includes ethnography, the study of cultures. Though ethnographers have historically observed their subjects in person, the fact that we now live so much of our lives online means these scientists also have a growing interest in the virtual human experience.

The challenge, as discovered by one team at Arizona State University’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change, is that while there are many standard methods for conducting traditional research, there are currently none to help guide the scientific study of online texts such as blogs and social-media posts.

In a pioneering effort, the team designed a study tracking blogs to better understand how people support each other in weight-loss efforts online. Along the way, they ended up addressing complex challenges such as how search results can generate a representative sample of a group, or how scientists can best respect subjects’ online lives and identities — which may be very similar or vastly different from their physical ones.

We sat down with the team members — students Liza Kurtz, Melissa Beresford and Monet Niesluchowski; postdoctoral scholar Sarah Trainer; and Professors Amber Wutich and Alexandra Brewis Slade — to discuss the unique implications and requirements for this type of study, and how the relatively unexplored digital space is ripe with potential for insights into humankind.

Q: What inspired you to look into online ethnography?

Amber Wutich: The Center for Global Health has been doing research on fat stigma — the negative treatment endured by people with large bodies — for many years. We knew that people were talking about and experiencing fat stigma in important ways online, and we needed new methods to track and interpret how fat stigma develops and impacts people, over time, online.

Liza Kurtz: I think we were all struck by how much more present digital social platforms are in our lives than they were 10 or even five years ago. We knew these online experiences were becoming embedded in our own everyday lives, and we wanted to know how this integration might affect something very personal and very physical, but also laden with social meaning.

"You can’t ignore the power of online spaces at this point in our history."

— Liza Kurtz, global health graduate student

Q: Could you explain your study a bit more? What were your goals?

Alexandra Brewis Slade: From the four-year ethnographic study Obesity Solutions conducted with weight-loss patients at Mayo Clinic, we knew how emotionally challenging weight loss can be. We wondered if online communities, where the body is not physically present in every interaction, might be a place where people were able to try to lose weight and feel better about it.

Sarah Trainer: It turned out that virtual weight-loss attempts were just as emotionally fraught for people as in-person ones, and most people documented long-term personal failures at it. Beyond this fact, though, the project also allowed us to work through some new, complex challenges about how you actually collect and analyze data from the stories of bloggers.

Melissa Beresford: For example, when gathering a representative group to “study,” we found that search engines’ results — based on predictions of what users want to see — kept us from getting an unbiased sample. Our solution was to systematically gather search results from top search engines and then compile that information with results from DuckDuckGo, a search engine that doesn’t optimize results.

We also ran up against ethical concerns related to protecting blogger privacy, intellectual property and identity, which we addressed by setting up strict parameters on what sources we gathered from and how we cited blogger material.

Trainer: This was one of the hardest parts of the study to manage, because we found ourselves entering completely new territory. Social-science protocols around these kinds of issues are being redrawn as we speak.

Monet Niesluchowski: The volume of materials you can draw from for this research is huge. You have to carefully decide, and justify, what to exclude and include. Plus, the materials change — a blog can sit around in cyberspace for years or be deleted at any moment by its author. It was so different compared to my experiences doing ethnographic interviews in the field, where the challenge is mostly to make sure you have enough people to include in your study.

Q: Why is it important to create standards for this type of online ethnographic research?

Wutich: Increasingly, people are living their lives online. Major decisions about dating, purchases, travel and so forth are filtered through online interactions. “Big data” methods are important, but ethnographic methods help us understand and interpret cultural data in ways other methods can’t. Anthropologists like us need to update our research methods to ensure that they can capture and help us interpret that data.

Kurtz: In other areas of anthropology and ethnography, there is a certain tool kit of broadly accepted research methods that have been shown to produce thoughtful, robust results. In our most recent publication, focused on the methods in particular, our goal was to further the conversation around online ethnography and hopefully start moving towards a similar tool kit specific to digital spaces.

screen shot of publishing a public postPublic vs. private forums require different research approaches.

Q: After finishing the study, do you think that any eventual standards will be rigid, or will flexible adaptation be the name of the game, much like social media itself?

Beresford: There must be somewhat flexible standards for online research, because there are so many different types of online environments. Conducting research on Twitter posts, where everything said is in a public forum, is very different than conducting research in a private Facebook group, where people expect some sort of privacy. Blogs are particularly tricky because some people may be posting to the public, while other people may start a blog for their own private reflection.

Kurtz: Rigorous research methods are always a worthwhile goal, but the research methods are ultimately dictated by the question a researcher is asking, so a certain flexibility is called for. Hopefully online research strategies continue to develop so researchers have a broader array of tools at their disposal, but there’s definitely no one-size-fits-all answer.

Q: What kinds of questions will online ethnographic study be uniquely able to answer?

Wutich: Ethnographic research has always been adaptable as humans themselves are in the myriad environments we inhabit. Understanding the new, social world humans experience online helps us more scientifically and definitively answer questions like, how do people construct meaning there? What sorts of cultural norms govern online behavior? How do social worlds created online differ from the spaces people physically inhabit, and how does that affect life in the “real world”?

Kurtz: We are increasingly interested in ethnographies that explore the relative anonymity of the internet, and how people may be willing to digitally present themselves in ways they would never consider in real life. Weight loss is just one example. But this work will also shed new light on old concepts, like how people build personas through group affiliations, or how communities create group identity from shared history and events.

Q: Do you think that this is the future of ethnography, as more people around the world create digital presences?

Beresford: I don’t think that online research will ever replace in-person research efforts, with real people, but it can complement it. The purpose of ethnographic research is to gain a holistic view of a culture. And our online lives are just one aspect of our overall existence.

Kurtz: I certainly think that online ethnography will be an increasingly important part of understanding people’s lived experiences and societies’ collective meanings. We’re already seeing how important the digital sphere is, from very personal endeavors such as weight loss to large-scale political movements in the United States. You can’t ignore the power of online spaces at this point in our history.


Photos courtesy of Pixabay

Mikala Kass

communications assistant , School of Human Evolution and Social Change