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New study reveals how COVID-19 is shifting our public, private behaviors

May 29, 2020

ASU transborder studies professor looks at how Americans are shifting their actions

Whether or not you wear a face mask in public probably has a lot to do with your political affiliation. And if you’re wearing a mask to show consideration to others, your motivation is likely related to your race.

Those were just a few of the findings in a recent study partially sponsored by Arizona State University that looked at how Americans are behaving during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Edward D. Vargas, an assistant professor with ASU’s School of Transborder Studies, was a principal investigator on a seven-member interdisciplinary team that pooled its research funds together to start the National Panel Study of COVID-19.

The study, which commenced in March, looked at how most ethnicities have shifted their behaviors in the past few months.

Vargas researches the effects of poverty and inequality on quality of life, focusing specifically on health, immigration status and social policy, and how these factors contribute to the well-being of vulnerable families.

Man with silver and black hair

Edward D. Vargas

ASU Now spoke to Vargas about the study, which is making national headlines.

Question: Tell me about the makeup of the research team and why you decided to undertake this study. 

Answer: Our interdisciplinary research consists of principal investigators from UCLA — Matt Barreto and Tyler Reny; University of New Mexico — Gabriel R. Sanchez; and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — Joaquin Rubalcaba. In addition, we are also working with colleagues from Howard University — Jevay Grooms — and my alma mater Indiana University — Alberto Ortega. Our team also highly values mentorship, so we are also using this opportunity to train and work with a diverse team of graduate students across institutions. 

Given the urgency of the pandemic, we pulled our research funds together and started the National Panel Study of COVID-19. The first wave, n=4,081, of the survey was administered from March 12 to March 15, dates that overlapped President Trump’s announcement of a national emergency in response to the coronavirus outbreak on March 13. The second wave included both respondents from the first wave and a new cross section of respondents for a total sample of 3,060 completed interviews from April 14 to April 21. We will continue to follow respondents in May, June and July.  We decided to undertake this study to help shape policy and use our positionality as researchers to better understand how Americans are responding to the pandemic. In keeping with best practices and data transparency ethics in the social sciences, the original survey data shall be posted to Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) in the near future.

Question: Most COVID-19 researchers are focusing on health, but your team is focused on mental health and shifting behaviors among Latinos, Native Americans, African Americans and Asian Americans. Which community shifted their behavior the most and why?

A: In general, we are finding that racial and ethnic minorities were more likely than whites to shift their behavior as a result of the coronavirus. For example, in our recent published blog, we find that the Asian American and Pacific Islander community was nearly twice as likely to report that they amended travel plans to reduce the spread of the virus (59% compared to 33%), with Latino and African respondents also being more likely than whites to have followed this important suggestion from public health leaders at the time.

Q: Can you give us a sample of how each of the aforementioned communities are changing their behaviors and what’s motivating those changes?  

A: When it comes to wearing masks we are also finding large differences in this behavioral change. For example, in our recent Washington Post article, we find that Republicans are less likely than Democrats to say they have been wearing a mask in public. An overwhelming majority, or 73%, of self-identified Democrats report that they do so, only 59% of Republicans and 58% of independents report doing so. We also found that rates of mask-wearing differed by race and ethnicity. Communities of color reported that they were more likely to have taken this important step; 82% of Asian Americans, 71% of Latinos and 74% of African Americans said they had been wearing a mask or scarf, while only 66% of whites said the same. 

Interestingly, we also asked all of the respondents who said that they have worn a mask or scarf in public whether they worry about being mistaken for a criminal while doing so. The answers show a clear distinction by race and ethnicity, with 32% of Latinos and 30% of African Americans worried about this — more than either whites or Asian Americans, at 19% for both groups. Reported mask wearing is even higher for black and brown men: 38% of Latino men and 36% of African American men worry about police perceptions when they wear masks.

Q: What’s the next phase of your study and what are you anticipating in your findings?

A: As states and local communities across the country are relaxing their rules and beginning to open up, our next wave will gauge this transition. In addition, we will continue to ask respondents about their mental and physical health and the financial and emotional challenges they face ahead and how individuals are being impacted by the Cares Act and the proposed HEROES Act. Our preliminary results suggest that the coronavirus has caused a historic rise in mental health problems for Americans as they are statistically more likely to report being anxious and depressed and if they know someone personally who has tested positive for COVID-19 this disparity widens. 

Our research also shows that essential workers and health care workers in particular are more likely to report poor mental health relative to nonessential workers and those who have not been financially impacted by the coronavirus outbreak. Lastly, contrary to popular belief, our data also suggests that female introverts and extroverted men with children who are now having to work from home are mostly likely to be reporting poor mental health. In our next phase, we will continue to track these trends and use this opportunity to collaborate with ASU colleagues on the social impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Top photo: Screenshot of a videoconference with many people connecting together. During quarantine at the time of COVID-19, many people are connecting with family and friends by using video conference and video calls. Photo by iStock/Getty Images.

Reporter , ASU Now


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Yes, your dog wants to rescue you

May 28, 2020

ASU Canine Science Collaboratory study shows that pet dogs will try to save their distressed human, as long as they know how

What to do. You're a dog. Your owner is trapped in a box and is crying out for help. Are you aware of his despair? If so, can you set him free? And what’s more, do you really want to?

That’s what Joshua Van Bourg and Clive Wynne wanted to know when they gave dogs the chance to rescue their owners.

Until recently, little research has been done on dogs’ interest in rescuing humans, but that’s what humans have come to expect from their canine companions — a legend dating back to Lassie and updated by the popular Bolt.

“It’s a pervasive legend,” said Van Bourg, a graduate student in Arizona State University’s Department of Psychology.

Simply observing dogs rescuing someone doesn’t tell you much, Van Bourg said. “The difficult challenge is figuring out why they do it.”

So, Van Bourg and Wynne, an ASU professor of psychology and director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at ASU, set up an experiment assessing 60 pet dogs' propensity to rescue their owners. None of the dogs had training in such an endeavor. 

In the main test, each owner was confined to a large box equipped with a light-weight door, which the dog could move aside. The owners feigned distress by calling out “help,” or “help me.”

Video courtesy Clive Wynne.

Beforehand, the researchers coached the owners so their cries for help sounded authentic. In addition, owners weren’t allowed to call their dog’s name, which would encourage the dog to act out of obedience, and not out of concern for her owner’s welfare.

“About one-third of the dogs rescued their distressed owner, which doesn’t sound too impressive on its own, but really is impressive when you take a closer look,” Van Bourg said.

That’s because two things are at stake here. One is the dogs’ desire to help their owners, and the other is how well the dogs understood the nature of the help that was needed. Van Bourg and Wynne explored this factor in control tests — tests that were lacking in previous studies. 

In one control test, when the dog watched a researcher drop food into the box, only 19 of the 60 dogs opened the box to get the food. More dogs rescued their owners than retrieved food.

“The key here is that without controlling for each dog’s understanding of how to open the box, the proportion of dogs who rescued their owners greatly underestimates the proportion of dogs who wanted to rescue their owners,” Van Bourg said.

“The fact that two-thirds of the dogs didn’t even open the box for food is a pretty strong indication that rescuing requires more than just motivation, there’s something else involved, and that’s the ability component,” Van Bourg said. “If you look at only those 19 dogs that showed us they were able to open the door in the food test, 84% of them rescued their owners. So, most dogs want to rescue you, but they need to know how.”

In another control test, Van Bourg and Wynne looked at what happened when the owner sat inside the box and calmly read aloud from a magazine. What they found was that four fewer dogs, 16 out of 60, opened the box in the reading test than in the distress test.

“A lot of the time it isn’t necessarily about rescuing,” Van Bourg said. “But that doesn’t take anything away from how special dogs really are. Most dogs would run into a burning building just because they can’t stand to be apart from their owners. How sweet is that? And if they know you’re in distress, well, that just ups the ante.”

Clive Wynne with puppy

Canine researcher Clive Wynne and one of his adorable subjects. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

The fact that dogs did open the box more often in the distress test than in the reading control test indicated that rescuing could not be explained solely by the dogs wanting to be near their owners.

The researchers also observed each dog’s behavior during the three scenarios. They noted behaviors that can indicate stress, such as whining, walking, barking and yawning.

“During the distress test, the dogs were much more stressed,” Van Bourg said. “When their owner was distressed, they barked more, and they whined more. In fact, there were eight dogs who whined, and they did so during the distress test. Only one other dog whined, and that was for food.”

What’s more, the second and third attempts to open the box during the distress test didn’t make the dogs less stressed than they were during the first attempt. That was in contrast to the reading test, where dogs that have already been exposed to the scenario, were less stressed across repeated tests.

“They became acclimated,” Van Bourg said. “Something about the owner’s distress counteracts this acclimation. There’s something about the owner calling for help that makes the dogs not get calmer with repeated exposure.”

In essence, these individual behaviors are more evidence of “emotional contagion,” the transmission of stress from the owner to the dog, explains Van Bourg, or what humans would call empathy.

“What’s fascinating about this study,” Wynne said, “is that it shows that dogs really care about their people. Even without training, many dogs will try and rescue people who appear to be in distress — and when they fail, we can still see how upset they are. The results from the control tests indicate that dogs who fail to rescue their people are unable to understand what to do — it’s not that they don’t care about their people.

“Next, we want to explore whether the dogs that rescue do so to get close to their people, or whether they would still open the box even if that did not give them the opportunity to come together with their humans,” Wynne added.

The study, “Pet dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) release their trapped and distressed owners: Individual variation and evidence of emotional contagion was published last month,” was published online last month in the journal PLOS.

Top illustration by Alex Cabrera/ASU Now

Science writer , Media Relations and Strategic Communications

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AI may present a different kind of revolution

May 28, 2020

Center on the Future of War professor’s new novel on artificial intelligence sheds insight into a maybe not-so-bright future

Want to know what a future with robots and artificial intelligence looks like? 

Let’s just say that if the "2001: A Space Odyssey" author Arthur C. Clarke were still alive, he might be stunned — or perhaps even a little frightened — by today’s challenges.

“We are seeing a change in the human role relative to our machines," said Peter W. SingerSinger is also a professor of practice in the Center on the Future of War and the School of Politics and Global Studies, where he teaches in the online MA in global security program. He also is a strategist and senior fellow at New America and the author of multiple award-winning books., co-author of the new book “Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution” and one of the world's leading experts on 21st-century security issues. "We’ve seen AI disrupt everything from finance to medicine, and we’re only at the start of this."

Singer presented a virtual talk on May 27 as part of his work this year with ASU’s Center on the Future of War, a partnership between the university and New America, a Washington-based think tank. 

Cover of book

"Burn-In" by P. W. Singer and August Cole.

“We’re at the space where the cutting edge of hardware and software are crashing together … the trends towards automation, AI and robotics were already there before the coronavirus but all data points to them now being drastically accelerated by it.”

Co-authored with August Cole, “Burn-In” is a techno-thriller about cyber terrorism and a fact-based tour of tomorrow. While it is a novel, Singer (who goes by the pen name of P. W. Singer) said it’s also a work of nonfiction culled from his years of research on AI, robotics, terrorism and the military.

“Peter Singer is one of the most original and significant thought leaders on national and international security issues. He also has the uncanny ability to write books about subjects just before everyone else realizes their importance, from child soldiers to private military contractors to the weaponization of social media,” said Daniel Rothenberg, a professor of practice in the School of Politics and Global Studies who co-directs ASU’s Center on the Future of War. “Now, he has written a techno-thriller about robotics and artificial intelligence which draws attention to very real threats policymakers and the public need to take seriously.”

Singer said big tech offers a utopian view of our future, but “Burn-In” explores the dystopian outcomes of the rapidly expanding influence of artificial intelligence, robots and related technologies in the military and greater society. And now, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, he sees a rapid acceleration of automation, remote work, machines replacing people and other changes in a variety of fields.

“We’ve pushed forward to a level where we never believed we’d be at,” Singer said. “In a couple of weeks, telemedicine has moved forward to where the industry thought it would be 10 years from now.” He added that robots have been used during the pandemic to enforce curfews, deliver groceries and clean hospitals and subways.

“The point of this is that after this outbreak is hopefully done with, we're not going back (to normal society) a hundred percent,” Singer said.

Singer believes we’re on the verge of a new industrial age involving three key trends: radical changes in what work means, including massive job displacement; profound ethical, moral and legal questions emerging as a result of new technologies; and the rise of distinct and transformative types of security vulnerabilities.

Regarding job displacement, Singer cited several studies that state automation will replace anywhere from 9% to 47% of current occupations in the next two decades. He said even the best case scenario is troubling.

“Even if you take the most optimistic view at 9%, it is a really big deal for the economic and society at large,” Singer said. “This is a different kind of industrial revolution.”

He added that just as the last industrial revolution created massive advances, it also destroyed entire industries. These types of changes, Singer explained, produce “economic winners and economic losers at every level.”

When it comes to security vulnerabilities, life imitating art can get downright scary, Singer said.

Last month, hackers made several intrusion attempts to change chlorine levels at wastewater treatment plants, water pumping stations and sewers in Israel. The cyberattack was successfully thwarted Singer said, but technology can provide new types of attacks and crimes as well as expose serious systemic vulnerabilities.

“If you think that small business and local water government treatment facilities in the U.S. have better cybersecurity than the Israeli government,” Singer said, “I have really bad news for you.”

Singer said that AI and technology present large challenges and that it would be wise for leaders to think how to deal with it in the short term rather than the distant future. He said Americans are typically “technologically optimistic” but cautioned there’s a flip side: After all, the robot revolution is no longer the stuff of novels or science fiction.

“’The Terminator’ and ‘The Matrix’ — you name it — would be fine if it stayed in science fiction,” Singer said, “except that now it shapes the future.” 

Top photo courtesy of iStock and Getty Images

Airborne science discovers complex geomorphic controls on Bornean forests

May 27, 2020

Tropical forests contain some of the most biodiverse and dynamic ecosystems in the world. Environmental conditions such as precipitation, temperature and soils shape the biota of the landscape. This influence is especially noticeable when comparing the towering trees found in low-elevation forests to the hardier, shorter ones found at the top of tropical mountains. Together, these factors create an ever-changing and heterogeneous ecosystem, with each niche harboring different species of uniquely adapted trees. 

Scientists have sought to understand the links between geology (the rock types that soils originate from), biogeochemistry (feedbacks between environmental conditions, nutrient cycling and plants), biodiversity (the variety of life in an ecosystem) and biogeography (how trees are distributed across a landscape) to paint a more complete picture of how life coevolved with our planet. Now, in a new study published Wednesday in Ecology Letters, researchers from Stanford University and Arizona State University used maps of leaf chemistry, high-resolution topography data and computer models to reveal new insights into the processes governing these complex interactions.  Leaf nutrient concentrations Leaf nutrient concentrations for Mount Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo: lowest (red) to mid-range (green) to highest (blue-purple). Photo courtesy Global Airborne Observatory, ASU Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science Download Full Image

“We wanted to explore how long-term processes that shape the Earth’s surface also act to control the organization of ecosystems across landscapes," said Dana Chadwick, lead author of the study. "Understanding these organizing processes requires the integration of concepts from across disciplines. The purpose of this study was to combine high-resolution airborne remote sensing datasets that contain information on both ecosystems and the morphology of landscapes to understand how the two are interrelated on this iconic tropical mountain."

The study analyzed data from Mount Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo, a 4,095-meter high mountain harboring a wide diversity of trees across topographically varied terrain. As tropical rains drench the mountain’s surface, elevation differences between its shallow slopes and steep peaks create imbalances in soil erosion rates — generally, the steeper the hill, the faster the rain rushes down its surface, taking soil with it. Soils carry nutrients needed by plants to grow, and erosion contributes to the distribution of these plant-required nutrients. Some areas become nutrient-rich and others become nutrient-poor, influencing the kinds of trees that can grow there. Adding to this dynamic process, some soil types are more or less prone to erosion than others depending upon their geological origins, and can also contain more nutrients plants need than others. 

To overcome limitations of previous studies conducted in tropical mountains at a local scale, the researchers used maps created by ASU’s Global Airborne Observatory to collect large-scale data across 32 watersheds and at elevations ranging from 700 meters to 2,800 meters. The maps included the concentrations of nutrients in the tropical forest canopy as well as the structure and architecture of the trees. This provided the researchers an unprecedented look at the forests of Mount Kinabalu and its remote complex terrain. 

“Although we originally deployed our airborne observatory to Borneo for conservation impact, such as the new protected area now under development, the opportunity to discover all-new patterns of biodiversity also presented itself in ultraremote areas like Mount Kinabalu,” said Greg Asner, author of the study and director of ASU’s Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science.  

The chemical maps revealed that leaves from trees contained different amounts of nutrients depending upon both the elevation and geology of its environment. Along hillslopes, from ridge to valley, trees contain more nutrients while their ability to capture and utilize sunlight also increases. The researchers found that this trend was significantly impacted by changing erosion rates, highlighting the important role erosion plays in distributing fresh nutrients to the soil.    

“The discovery of such strong and beautifully complex geologic control on forest composition gives us new insight into the fundamental makeup of Bornean forests, in ways that inspire even more exploration,” Asner added. 

Funding for this study was provided by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Avatar Alliance Foundation, the Rainforest Trust, the United Nations Development Programme, William R. Hearst III and a National Science Foundation EAR Postdoctoral Fellowship.

Heather D'Angelo

Communications director, Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science

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ASU develops state’s first saliva-based COVID-19 test

May 26, 2020

Simplicity of new test kits make supply chain easier to maintain, but could also help bring the cost of testing down

In an effort to make COVID-19 diagnostic testing easier and more readily available to Arizonans, researchers at Arizona State University have developed the state’s first saliva-based test.

Dr. Joshua LaBaer

Joshual LaBaer

“This new saliva-based test will be a real game-changer for those individuals who want to know whether or not they have an active COVID-19 infection,” said ASU Biodesign Institute Executive Director Joshua LaBaer, who leads ASU COVID-19 research efforts. “As we return to the workplace, schools and other daily activities, testing early and often is going to be the best way to help us prevent the spread of COVID-19.” 

Diagnostic tests detect an active COVID-19 infection by measuring the amount of virus present in the body. Because it can take as long as eight to nine days for an individual to develop symptoms after infection, a diagnostic test is the only test that can accurately detect an early infection. But individuals with early infections can still spread the virus.

The saliva diagnostic test starts with a collection kit that is as simple as spitting into a screw-top tube through a straw, making collections possible at drive-thru sites, doctors' offices, the workplace, and even at home. This will not only make the supply chain of test kits easier to maintain, but could also help bring the cost of testing down. 

“One of the bottlenecks with diagnostic testing has been the ability to quickly obtain samples,” LaBaer said. “Even with a highly-trained medical staff, medical providers have been limited to an average of 100 people with the nasopharyngeal (NP) swab collection in a four-hour window of drive-thru testing. The goal of the saliva tests was to overcome these obstacles.” 

For the past couple of weeks, ASU’s Biodesign Institute has been pilot testing the saliva-based testing with its first responder partnership network. This was performed alongside nasal swab collections samples to validate, as well as reconfigure its high-throughput robotic instruments, which currently have enough capacity to perform 1,200 diagnostic tests per day.

“From those results, we found that the saliva-based tests were just as good, if not even better, as those collected from NP swabs,” LaBaer said.

LaBaer points out that saliva tests offer several benefits over the NP swab tests while providing the same accuracy and sensitivity, including:

• Accuracy: The Biodesign saliva test uses the same diagnostic qPCR assay as the NP swab tests and are 100% accurate if there is any detectable amount of virus present in the sample. Research shows that saliva tests are as just as sensitive as NP swabs for detecting SARS-CoV-2 infections. One study suggests that saliva tests may offer even greater sensitivity.

• Safety: NP swab tests pose a risk to health care workers because they can make people sneeze or cough. Saliva tests can be self-administered and require minimal interaction with test site staff.

• Less invasive: NP swab tests can be invasive and uncomfortable, reducing compliance for repeat testing. Saliva tests are minimally invasive and thus easier to gather a sample from participants.

• Less PPE: NP swab kits and the personal protective equipment (PPE) needed to administer them are in short supply. Saliva tests require less PPE during sample acquisition.

• Less labor intensive: Saliva tests eliminate the need for swab kits, reduce the amount of PPE required, and reduce the amount of staffing needed at COVID-19 sample collection sites.

ASU’s Biodesign Institute will pivot its current diagnostic testing of first responders to switch its entire NP swab collection protocols for the new saliva-based kits. The Biodesign Institute has also applied for FDA Emergency Use Authorization for the test and will make its protocols readily available for other commercial and academic partners so they can adapt their instruments to perform saliva-testing.

“The goal is to rapidly increase statewide diagnostic testing to continue to protect first responders, get more Arizonans back to work, and students back to school again this fall,” LaBaer said. “Ultimately, we are going to need to continue the testing blitz underway and quickly ‘test, trace and isolate’ individuals to get society back up and running.”

Top photo: Diagnostic tests, like the ones performed at the ASU Biodesign Institute's Clinical Testing Lab, detect an active COVID-19 infection by measuring the amount of virus present in the body. Photo courtesy ASU.

Joe Caspermeyer

Manager (natural sciences) , Media Relations & Strategic Communications


The evolutionary reason why you should FaceTime Mom and Dad

New paper shows the deep evolutionary connections of being socially integrated and positive health outcomes across a range of animals

May 26, 2020

Social animals — from primates to yellow-bellied marmots, dolphins and more — can help us better understand the role social interactions play in health and mortality, not just within their own species but in humans as well.

Noah Snyder-Mackler, an assistant professor of the Center for Evolutionary Medicine in Arizona State University's School of Life Sciences, talks about these connections in a groundbreaking synthesis he helped organize that resulted in a review article in the May 22 Science magazine. ASU Assistant Professor Noah Snyder-Mackler in the field. Download Full Image

Snyder-Mackler was part of a multiyear interdisciplinary working group on the social determinants of health in humans and other animals. The article, for which he is the lead author, brings together the disparate fields of evolutionary biology with sociology and epidemiology and finds that much can be learned from studying mammals and their social proclivities, especially as they relate to health.

Question: What does your paper outline?

Answer: This is the first effort, to our knowledge, to synthesize the evidence of social disparities in health and survival across many social animals, including humans. The goal was to bring together researchers from fields that have been addressing similar questions on social disparities in health, but using different systems and with different vocabularies and approaches.

It began with a working group organized at Duke, University of North Carolina and Wake Forest, where we brought together evolutionary biologists, demographers, behavioral ecologists, sociologists and epidemiologists, to identify the ways in which animal research could inform human studies of social disparities and vice versa. These two fields — evolutionary biology and sociology — don’t often communicate, living in somewhat parallel universes addressing pretty similar questions when it comes to understanding the consequences of social stratification on reproduction, health and survival. 

We see this in humans. For example, a meta-analysis led by Julianne Holt-Lunstad showed being more socially connected has as strong or stronger of an effect on survival than quitting smoking or abstaining from drinking. There are many parallels in nonhuman animals, from mice to monkeys, showing that low social status and social isolation are associated with poor reproduction and health, and ultimately higher mortality. 

Our Science review lays out the shared interests and similar findings, while also detailing some key shared avenues of future work where we can help develop a better understanding of the biology of social disparities in health and survival, which is what my lab focuses on. 

Q: Seems like for humans and other animals these social groups help make them stronger and more resilient. Is this an effect that can be measured?  

A: Humans are social animals, and we have evolved to thrive in social groups and with social interactions. So it's not surprising that these social interactions — or the absence of interactions — impact our health and well-being. 

We would like to know how the social environment “gets under the skin” to affect our health and mortality risk. This is the focus of my research and is relevant to improving disease prediction, prevention and targeting interventions; understanding the causes and consequences of social inequality; and investigating the evolution of social group living and its relevance to human health.

We can measure it at multiple levels. At a high level we can see it in the population by observing changes in demographic patterns; in the individual, by examining overall health and well-being; and we see it when we zoom way down into individual tissues and cells.  

My lab primarily focuses on the tissue and cell level. We use genomic tools to pinpoint some of the molecular mechanisms that are altered by our social experiences, which might be the key links between the social environment and health and survival. For instance, in one project we’re identifying molecular (epigenomic and transcriptomic) signatures of low social status (a measure of social adversity) that mimic the molecular signatures of aging in the immune system. So, looking to see how chronic social adversity can actually accelerate the aging of cells. My ultimate goal is to use this knowledge to find ways to mitigate the negative health effects of poor social experiences.

Q: If these social connections don’t exist, do animals become more fragile and less resilient? 

A: Yes, there is connection between social environmental effects and health. This is the other side of the coin of the “social buffering” hypothesis, which suggests that social integration is protective for health because it dampens the deleterious consequences of acutely stressful events. If you are less connected, or have low social status, you have a less predictable environment, which can lead to lots of poor health outcomes. The thought is that with less predictability comes increased stress reactivity, which itself leads to a hyperactive inflammatory system. Many of the noncommunicable diseases we see today are linked to chronic inflammation. The emphasis here is on noncommunicable — isolation certainly prevents you from getting infectious diseases, which is why we’re socially distancing right now.  

Q: Can this be applied to the situation today with COVID-19 pandemic? 

A: I think it is pretty timely, even before the COVID-19 crisis. Each year we accumulate more and more evidence of social gradients in health across environments and societies. We also have mounting evidence that social isolation is associated with a higher risk of mortality — something that pushed the U.K. in 2018 to appoint its first minister for loneliness. This is particularly relevant during a time when we are social distancing to prevent the spread of a dangerous virus. I don't want to speculate that this period of social distancing is going to drastically affect health and survival, though it certainly is acutely affecting mental health. I think that any negative consequences of social distancing are far outweighed by the positive impact it is having to curb the spread of the virus.  

Additionally, we're seeing that some of the most severe cases of COVID-19 happen to individuals with preexisting health conditions, which themselves exhibit a social gradient that is not unique to humans. This means that the current pandemic is amplifying health gradients that already exist in society, which emphasizes the need for us to implement policies and solutions that mitigate these gradients.

Q: So how can we stay socially "healthy" during social distancing?

A: While you may not be able to physically be with your friends and family, you can do so virtually. So call your grandparents, FaceTime your family, text your friends. These connections are deeply rooted in our evolutionary history and can help buffer us from the negative health consequences associated with these uncertain times.

Director, Media Relations and Strategic Communications


Memories of home: ASU research shows how species can readapt to ancestral environments

Genes are more than blueprints for building organisms; they are also vessels of memory

May 22, 2020

Genes are more than blueprints for building organisms. They are also vessels of memory. In new research published in Science Advances, Wei-Chin Ho, a researcher in Arizona State University's Biodesign Center for Mechanisms of Evolution, and his colleagues describe how species can readapt to ancestral environments.

Phenotypic plasticity is the phenomenon in which one set of genes can code for the expression of various traits. Only one trait is expressed at a time depending on the environment, but if the environment changes, that trait may change as well. This alteration can range anywhere from a change in coloring to a change in diet, and oftentimes the change can confer an increase in fitness. Plasticity Phenotypic plasticity, along with random mutations introduced into a population, are what drive adaptation to novel environments. But what happens when a species adapts to an environment it has already inhabited thousands of years ago? Download Full Image

This plasticity, along with random mutations introduced into a population, are what drive adaptation to novel environments. But what happens when a species adapts to an environment it has already inhabited thousands of years ago?

In previous research, plastic changes were observed in species as they are exposed to new environments; however, researchers have yet to study what happens when species are reexposed to environments they once inhabited, or “ancestral environments.”

“Researchers seldom discuss in what situations the role of phenotypic plasticity can be different,” Ho said. “One interesting factor is the organism's past history of adaptation.”

In this study, this concept of readaptation was put to the test in chickens. About 1,200 years ago, domesticated chickens were brought to the Tibetan plateau from the lowlands of Southeast Asia. They adapted to this high-altitude environment over time, acquiring a greater number of red blood cells and a higher rate of efficiency in distributing oxygen to the body. To determine the role plasticity plays in the chickens’ ability to adapt, researchers transplanted highland chickens to lowland environments and vice versa.

“We have a setup of ‘reciprocal common gardens,’ in which we measured the transcriptome of lowland and highland chickens in both lowland and highland labs," Ho said. "Therefore, we are able to look at all the plastic responses during the readaptation.”

The researchers found that it took fewer phenotypic changes for the chickens to readjust to their habitat in the lowlands than it was for chickens in the lowlands to adjust to the novel high-altitude environment of the highlands. This suggests that the chickens have some form of genetic memory of their ancestral environment, and that their past adaptations dictate their future evolution.

“This research points out how the role of plastic changes can be different based on how ‘familiar’ the organisms are with an environment,” Ho said. “Specifically, if the organisms are reexposed to the environments they have already inhabited (as they are when they readapt to ancestral environments), then after the plastic changes, the status of gene expression are more likely to be brought back to the preferred status at the ancestral environment.”

In the paper, the researchers also compiled similar studies conducted on E. coli and guppies. Parallel conclusions were drawn from these studies, suggesting that this phenomenon is not species-specific.

In the future, the researchers plan to take a deeper look into how this trend translates into differences in adaptation. 

“I hope to keep studying the role of phenotypic plasticity in different environments with respect to an organism's evolutionary history. For example, how long and how strong does ancestral adaptation have to be for this kind of phenomena,” Ho said.

Gabrielle Hirneise

Assistant science writer , Biodesign Institute


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African American community experiencing higher rates of COVID-19 exposure, infection and death

May 21, 2020

ASU's Mako Fitts Ward says pandemic reveals longstanding health disparities due to social and economic conditions

African American communities are negatively affected by COVID-19 more than other ethnic minority groups because of enduring systemic racism and structural inequalities that exist in the United States, says an Arizona State University professor.

Researchers are discovering that health differences between racial and ethnic groups are often due to economic and social conditions, lower access to health care and other existing heath disparities. Mako Fitts Ward, a clinical assistant professor with ASU’s School of Social Transformation and faculty lead of African and African American Studies, said all of these conditions have left the African American community especially vulnerable during the pandemic.

An educator, writer, facilitator and social justice advocate with over 15 years of experience teaching core principles of justice and social change to college students and advocating for racial and gender equity in communities around the country, ASU Now spoke to Ward about her observations on how COVID-19 has impacted the African American community.

Woman with wavy hair and denim shirt

Mako Fitts Ward

Question: News reports are stating that there’s a disproportionate amount of deaths in African American communities in large cities and rural areas. What do you account for this and what are some conditions that exacerbate the factors that put this community at higher risk?

Answer: The COVID-19 pandemic reveals longstanding racial health disparities where African Americans experience some of the highest risk factors across racial and ethnic groups. Factors that contribute to the higher death rates are the result of structural inequalities that reflect the intersection of economic, labor, housing and health conditions. These include the increased number of African Americans working in essential industries — especially black women — which increases the threat of exposure; decreased access to health facilities; higher concentrations of African Americans living in areas that are medically underserved, both urban and rural; overcrowded living conditions — e.g., from multigenerational households to criminal detention facilities; and historical mistrust of the health care systems due to conscious and unconscious racial and ethnic bias and systemic racism. All of this results in the precarity of survival for the most vulnerable communities across the U.S. during this pandemic. 

Q: In a prior interview, you stated there is mistrust of the medical establishment by the African American community ever since the Tuskegee clinical studiesThe "Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male" was a 40-year clinical study that took place between 1932 and 1972 by the United States Public Health Service. It followed the medical journeys of 600 rural African American males in Alabama with syphilis, but doctors refused to tell patients or treat them in order to gauge long-term effects of syphilis. The deception led to an erosion of trust in the medical community by African American males, which continues to this day. were exposed in the early 1970s. Is that having an impact now?

A: The "Tuskegee effect" speaks to a sociological concern about how African Americans respond to and engage with the medical system based on legacies of race-based harm. I think we won’t know the full impact of COVID-19 infections and treatments until we have the necessary qualitative data on African American experiences during this time. Recommended guidelines from state and federal health agencies on preventing cultural bias in health care are necessary and important. Further data on the experiences of African Americans navigating these systems over the past five months will provide more accurate information to fully understand the impact.

Q: Are elected officials doing enough to draw attention to or address these inequities?

A: Politicians on all levels are naming the disproportionate death rates, from Congressional letters and gubernatorial press briefings to the Joe Biden presidential campaign releasing its plan to address African American communities. However, addressing structural inequalities requires long-term planning and strategic efforts that are much greater than media soundbites and social media posts can convey. Organizations like the African American Policy Forum, Color of Change and Black Women Organized for Political Action, along with data monitoring projects like the COVID Racial Data Tracker provide a model for what coalitions across research, policy and advocacy efforts should look like. These efforts can incite the necessary pressure on lawmakers to address structural racism at its root.

Top photo: Courtesy of iStock/Getty Images

Reporter , ASU Now


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Remote working could shift how employees identify with companies

Clicking with co-workers is key to working remotely, ASU professor's study finds
May 21, 2020

Professor sees cultivating work friendships as key to easing telework

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many employees out of the office into their homes. A recent Gallup poll shows that 62% of employed Americans report having worked from home during the crisis, twice as many as in mid-March.

But the key is that workers now have no choice in the matter, according to Blake Ashforth, who holds the Horace Steele Arizona Heritage Chair in the Management and Entrepreneurship Department of the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. Ashforth studies how people identify with organizations, which has produced studies on topics such as stigmatized jobs and bullying in the workplace.

“In pre-COVID times, working remotely worked pretty well because there was self-selection going on,” he said. “When people self-select to work at home, they have the resources to make a go of it, and they can create a home environment to block out those distractions.

“COVID times are different. You’re in a situation where you don’t have a choice and people are scrambling to figure out how to make this possible.”

Last fall, Ashforth published a study in the Academy of Management journal about how workers who rarely see each other face-to-face form relationships. He and his co-authors found that a key to bonding with remote colleagues is “cadence,” defined as being able to predict how co-workers interact, and that managers should set aside personal time during conference calls for workers to have some fun.

Ashforth answered some questions from ASU Now about the new way of working.

Professor Blake Ashforth

Question: What makes working remotely successful?

Answer: The key things that need to be there are, first of all, an ability to create boundaries, temporal and spatial. You need to able to carve out a hunk of the day to say, "This is what I’m going to do."

It’s hard to work with kids at home but you want to carve out time where you will be primarily focused on either work or home.

The other part is spatial — "This is where you do your work that’s efficient."

Question: What else is different about working at home compared to the office?

Answer: Having rituals. In pre-COVID days, the daily commute was the big ritual. If you get into the car, that’s a strong sign that you’re on your way to work or you’re on your way home.

Now, some people get dressed for work even though they don’t need to look like they’re at the office, just so they’re getting into work mode.

Question: What did your research on teams that work remotely discover?

Answer: It was with technology workers who work primarily on the road and in teams. How do you pull that off and create relationships with very little face-to-face contact?

We found that people were able to personalize their relationships, and have, if not a full-on friendship, at least a sense of friendliness. They were more efficient team members and felt better about being on a team.

We think of home and work as separate and friendships as different from officemates. People who were able to blend the two were able to get things done — get immediate responses, get the benefit of the doubt if problems arose and have people vouch for them.

Also, they don’t have the normal friction of the office and, given the distance in virtual work, don’t have the office politics.

Q: How did they do that?

A: This division was almost entirely remote. They would meet periodically, but there was no ongoing face-to-face communication. And no videoconferencing. Everything was by text, emails and instant messaging. The company wanted the visual privacy and asynchronicity of IM, where people can take time to respond.

Q: So how do you become friends in a world that’s all textual?

A: It was little things they did, asking, "Where do you live?" Or someone might tell a little off-color joke, and if it fell flat, back off.

The most efficient leaders were the ones who implicitly recognized this and created a moment for these interactions. In (phone) meetings, they would give five minutes for something unrelated to work, like the song of the day. They personalized relationships so when the meeting began, it wasn’t anonymous.

Q: What areas of research do you see in the future for this time?

A: There are certainly identity implications in this. What does this do for your affinity for the organization? When you work at a location like ASU, the campus provides a strong cue and that feeds our identity as an "ASU person.” When we’re working remotely, those cues are gone.

Already, pre-COVID, people were moving away from organizational identity and more toward occupational and network identity. This will hugely speed that up. People will be less inclined to invest in their organization.

Top image courtesy of Pixabay

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU Now


‘Ask A Biologist’ website answers community's coronavirus questions

ASU site addresses questions like 'How do viruses work?'

May 20, 2020

How can viruses be destroyed? Are they alive?

Why do vaccines take a long time to make? Ask A Biologist graphic Image courtesy of Charles Kazilek Download Full Image

Since the coronavirus pandemic began changing aspects of American life this spring, questions like these have been filling the inbox of one of Arizona State University’s most popular scientific resources: Ask A Biologist.

Created in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ School of Life Sciences in 1997 as a biology learning website for faculty, students and learners of all ages, Ask A Biologist functions as an online ambassador for the university to the greater academic world.

The site contains thousands of pages of biology-based games, coloring pages, puzzles, articles and more, with the goal of sharing ASU’s wide breadth of scientific knowledge with the world.

“For us, it’s an opportunity to reach out and educate people all over,” said Charles Kazilek, the executive director of K–12 education outreach in The College and founder of the site. “The key for the site is telling a story of the living world. That’s what we want: to tell really good stories that are based in fact, that have good science behind them, and that are engaging.” 

Lately, however, the influx of COVID-19-related traffic to the site can only be described in one word: staggering. 

In the months since the pandemic began, Ask A Biologist’s articles answering questions like “How do viruses work” have received more than a 600% increase in web traffic as compared with 2019, Kazilek said.

More generally, the site has had a 35% increase in users overall, 41% more page views, and will soon reach over 1 million plays of its games in just this year alone.

“As of the last month or so, the amount of questions we’ve been receiving has increased as well,” said Karla Moeller, the site’s managing editor. “One was like, ‘Is the virus doing this purposefully?’ Another asked, ‘Could we engineer a virus to take out the coronavirus?’”

Ask A Biologist graphic

Managing editor Karla Moeller and site founder Charles Kazilek.

Since the pandemic, Ask A Biologist receives about double the number of questions per day, according to Moeller.

The majority of people submitting these questions and using the site’s other resources are students, lifelong learners and teachers.

In the wake of the pandemic, Ask A Biologist has increased its coronavirus-related resources.

“We have a profile coming out on Brenda Hogue, a professor who studies coronaviruses,” Moeller said. “We have a general story that’s going to come out on coronaviruses, and a few other things, a research story. We’re increasing our virus-related resources for people to use.”

For more than 20 years, Ask a Biologist has provided free content to the community on what Kazilek describes as “a shoestring budget.” Kazilek said that donations — especially in light of the ongoing pandemic — go a long way to improving the site’s functionality and offerings.

“If someone is considering donating, they should know that the money they put into this is going to be used and impact learners globally,” he said. “It’s going to have a huge impact.”

The impact of the site extends to many in the local and global community.

“It’s not only teachers, but parents, too, who have to educate,” he said. “This site is a way for them to do that in a much more engaging way.”

Christopher Clements

Marketing Assistant, The College Of Liberal Arts and Sciences