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When fake 911 calls lead to real danger

January 18, 2018

'Swatting' — making a false emergency report to 911 operators to prompt a response by police SWAT teams — is a trend on the rise

A Los Angeles man gets into an online gaming dispute over a $1.50 wager and retaliates by sending a SWAT team to his opponent’s home. That address turns out to be fake and police end up at a Kansas residence, fatally shooting the homeowner at his doorstep.

Sound confusing? It’s called “swatting,” which refers to the act of deceiving emergency services into sending a police tactical unit to respond to an adversary or random person’s address. The FBI reports that approximately 400 of these fake calls occurred last year. The Kansas swatting incident is the first known perpetrated hoax that has resulted in death.

To understand more about this disturbing trend and what can be done to prevent it in the future, ASU Now turned to Michael S. Scott, a clinical professor at ASU’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice and the director of the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, a research center that produces and disseminates information about how police can effectively address specific public-safety problems.

Man in suit and red tie
Michael S. Scott

Question: What is swatting, and when did we first see this phenomenon emerging?

Answer: Swatting is making a false report of an emergency to 911 operators in order to prompt an emergency response by a police SWAT (special weapons and tactics) team. Typically, the caller disguises the telephone caller ID from which the call is actually being placed to make it appear to 911 operators that the call is emanating from a telephone and location elsewhere. This other location might be miles — even states — remote from where the false report is actually emanating. The motive behind such false reports is usually pure mischief, but it could also be an act of aggression or revenge against someone at the falsely reported location.

This phenomenon emerged as a relatively common problem nationwide about 10 years ago. Swatting is one of several policing problems that fall into the larger category of misuse and abuse of police services.

Q: Is it preventable, given that the intent is to deceive?

A: It is preventable, largely through technological changes to telephone 911 systems. Some 911 centers have made changes that make it harder to disguise caller locations — many as part of the so-called Next Generation 911 package of upgrades. But there is a certain technological cat-and-mouse game to this problem, with hoax callers constantly looking for new ways to disguise call locations and 911 technicians constantly looking to defeat those ways.

Q: How can law enforcement agents deal with swatting if it becomes a bigger trend? 

A: Much of the response will have to continue to be technological changes of the sort mentioned above. Additionally, 911 operators can be trained, first to recognize the possibility of a swatting call, and second to ask callers certain questions that can readily be verified or disproved to ascertain whether the claimed emergency is real. The obvious trade-off is between delaying responses to genuine emergencies and preventing wasteful and hazardous responses to false emergencies. One option available to police is to restrict sending out full SWAT teams only to verified incidents, and relying on one or two patrol officers to make the initial response to verify whether the incident appears real and gauge what level of further response is warranted. Here, too, this involves some trade-off of time for certainty.

Q: What is the cost associated with a swatting call?

A: If a full SWAT team response is launched, depending on the protocols and costs of the particular team, a swatting call could cost tens of thousands of dollars, largely in the form of the responding officers' wages. Because not all SWAT teams operate on a full-time basis, part-time teams often must be called into service from off-duty, thereby generating considerable overtime compensation costs. 

The real costs of the problem come if and when the SWAT response leads to injuries or fatalities of either civilians or officers. There are also opportunity costs that come from wasting officers' time (when they can't be doing other productive tasks). 


Top: A SWAT team prepares to respond to an emergency call. Photo illustration courtesy of Pixabay

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Navigate your way through Dash, Bitcoin and smart contracts

January 18, 2018

Many consumers are still confused by cryptocurrency, blockchain; ASU director explains how the technology works

Dash is up and Bitcoin is down. U.S. Nasdaq Market Technology and Switzerland’s SIX Securities Services are exploring digital ledger technologies for stock market trades. IBM and Microsoft have introduced blockchain platforms. 

But despite the growing buzz about crypto-technologies, most consumers remain puzzled by what it all means.

Dragan Boscovic, an Arizona State University computer science professor and director of the Blockchain Research Lab, provides some answers.

Dragan Boscovic, Blockchain Research Lab director
Dragan Boscovic, ASU computer science professor and director of the Blockchain Research Lab.

Question: What is cryptocurrency?

Answer: Digital currencies, like Dash and Bitcoin, are also known as a “cryptocurrencies.” They are a decentralized form of online money that doesn’t require or rely on government controls, banks and credit card companies.

Cryptocurrencies offer a form of money that is portable, inexpensive, divisible and fast. It can be spent easily and instantly online at merchants across the globe, at much lower fees than credit and debit cards.

Since the original cryptocurrency — Bitcoin — was launched in 2009, more than 1,300 different cryptocurrencies have been introduced. Dash, short for digital cash, is among the top 10 digital currencies. It was built from Bitcoin’s code base, but implemented with a number of improvements.

Dash has partnered with Arizona State University to launch the Blockchain Research Lab.

RELATED: Read more about the ASU-Dash partnership

Q: What is a blockchain?

A: Blockchain is a decentralized, digital ledger system that serves as the foundation upon which Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies operate. Just as a public record of a town’s transactions enables the community to verify property ownership, blockchain uses a wide network to keep track of digital transactions, whether they are cryptocurrency, property transfers or contracts for goods or services. It’s a chain because additions or changes can only be made by adding new information to the end.

This means the blockchain cannot be surreptitiously edited or changed. Once the transaction is encoded in the blockchain and becomes part of the “chain,” the parties cannot reverse or alter it without mutual agreement and the creation of a new transaction record that affirms the change.

Each digital currency platform has its own blockchain network, as does each business platform — such as IBM’s blockchain business platform for smart contracts and the array of Hyperledger platforms from Linux.

Blockchains can be public, open-source networks or private ledgers that require explicit permission to read or add transactions. 

Q: Where is the blockchain?

A: Blockchains are replicated on networked computers around the globe and accessible to anyone with internet access.

However, a specific group of network participants, called “miners,” are responsible for inputting and validating transactions from users. Only after these transactions are validated and encrypted by miners are they added to the blockchain.

Q: How do blockchain transactions work?

A: Using the Dash cryptocurrency blockchain as an example, transaction ownership is determined by two cryptographic keys. A public key is visible to anyone who has access to the blockchain. A private key is held by the owner and not made visible on the blockchain.

• Peter wants to transfer a single Dash unit to Paul.  
• Paul sets up a digital address to which Peter will send the cryptocurrency, plus a digital “key” that will enable Paul to collect the payment once it arrives.
• When Peter sends the Dash, it is encoded with a chunk of text that includes the amount and Peter’s “address.”
• The transaction record is sent to every computer running “mining” software for the Dash currency.
• The transaction is added to the distributed blockchain ledger. 

Next transaction:

• Paul wants to send Michael a single Dash unit.
• Michael sets up an address and a key.
• Paul takes the Dash unit he got from Peter, uses his address and key from that original transfer, and signs the Dash unit over to Michael.
• This new transaction is sent to all of the Dash-mining computers to make sure that Dash unit is still in Paul’s account.
• After validating the funds are there, the Dash miners authorize the transaction.
• The transaction is added to the distributed blockchain ledger.

Q: What makes blockchain attractive?

A: Blockchain’s technological infrastructure has a number of elements that make it desirable.

1. The identities of the transaction participants are encrypted; it is unnecessary to share those identities unless all parties agree. Despite the lack of identity, the transaction is verified; there is no “backing out of the deal” once the blockchain has done its job.

• When Peter makes a cryptocurrency exchange with Paul, they don’t need to know each other’s identity for the transaction to be executed.  
• This ensures that Paul can’t later hack the account from which Peter funded the transaction.

2. The blockchain ledger confirms the “spendable balance” for each transaction, ensuring in advance that the exchange won’t “bounce” for lack of funds or property.    

3. Blockchain transactions bypass bureaucracy. If Peter lives in the U.S. and wants to execute an agreement with Paul in France, he can do so without worrying about currency exchanges or trade regulations in the two countries. Blockchain transactions are especially valuable in countries without banking systems.

4. Blockchain transactions bypass intermediaries, like banks and credit card companies, and their fees. These third parties have historically served as the “keepers of trust,” notarizing documents, releasing funds from accounts and verifying the transactions have taken place — all steps that take time and cost money. Blockchain technology itself serves as the keeper of trust, providing a permanent record of verified transactions.

5. Because using cryptocurrency can lower transaction fees and, thus, minimum transaction amounts, some believe that micro-transaction blockchains may transform how consumers pay for services and products such as music and individual news articles.

6. Increasing numbers of merchants are accepting cryptocurrency because it eliminates credit card fraud.

Q: Who owns and manages the blockchain?

It depends on the type of blockchain.

• Public blockchains, like most that deal with cryptocurrencies, have no governing bodies. They are designed to bypass third parties and support peer-to-peer transactions. Anyone can join and participate in the network (although identities of those making transactions remain private). 

• Private blockchains are controlled by one organization that determines who may have access to read the data or participate in transactions. In some cases, users are authorized for only specific transactions. Because one entity controls the blockchain, transactions are faster and fees are lower.

• Consortium blockchains are hybrids of public and private blockchains. A group of companies may share a blockchain platform, but access to read transactions is granted for specific purposes. For example, if Company A is trading only with Company B, Company A will have access only to those transactions — not to Company B’s transactions with Company C.

At the moment, no one entity owns the blockchain. However, if 51 percent of the blockchain became controlled by a group of cryptographers working in collaboration, that group could take over the chain.  

Currently, cryptocurrency mining requires lots of electrical power, and as a result, miners are located in countries where power is not expensive. Because such countries tend to be those in which government has overriding control of business, there is concern that a government may claim ownership of a public blockchain.  

Q: If banks are not a part of cryptocurrency exchanges, where are my assets stored?

A: Cryptocurrency is stored in a digital “wallet” which, for each transaction, holds elliptic curve digital signature algorithm (ECDSA) keypairs. These pairs are comprised of a public key that identifies the transaction, and a private key known only to the “owner” and used to decrypt the transaction to transfer the “coins” for goods or cash.

Q: How can I spend my cryptocurrency? Do merchants accept all of them?

A: The list of merchants that accept cryptocurrencies is expanding and includes merchants like Overstock and Expedia. But for now, most users can cash out via their wallets and have the funds deposited into a specified bank account. Several digital-asset exchanges around the world provide trading pairs with fiatFiat money is currency such as paper bills that is not convertible into coins. and other digital currencies, as well as bank wire transfers.

Terry Grant

Media Relations Officer , Media Relations and Strategic Communications


Safety first: A human-centered approach to brain implant design

ASU engineer's research earns $850,000 National Science Foundation award

January 17, 2018

The complex network of signals in the human brain make us capable of amazing athletic feats and innovative ideas, but they can also cause debilitating problems such as seizures. Advances in brain implant technology can help us better understand and monitor the brain’s signals and give hope to a better future for the treatment of neurological disorders.

Junseok Chae wants to use his expertise of microdevices to help people with neurological disorders through wireless, passive neural recorders — safety-minded brain implants. He believes current wired, battery-powered or energy harvesting implant technologies don’t meet the threshold of safety that patients deserve — and that he has a solution. Junseok Chae holds a prototype of a wireless, fully passive neural recorder. Junseok Chae. Photo by Marco-Alexis Chaira/ASU Download Full Image

The Arizona State University Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering electrical engineering professor and associate dean for research is working to design and test a new kind of brain implant with researchers at Ohio State University and Florida International University that he hopes could one day help people who have neurological disorders such as seizures related to Parkinson’s disease.

Chae is leading the effort to build the implant prototype while his research partners test its accuracy and effectiveness in measuring brain signals.

This interdisciplinary team — whose expertise covers electrical engineering as well as signal processing and social and behavioral science — behind the project, “Fully passive and wireless multichannel neural recording for chronic in-vivo studies in animals” recently earned its latest three-year, nearly $850,000 award from the National Science Foundation.

A safer way to monitor the brain

Think of a tranquil ocean — teeming with life and activity under the surface, but seemingly calm above. What’s underwater tends to stay undetected as we look from above the surface. The brain’s activity can be similarly opaque. Brain signals are rather isolated inside our heads as the scalp, skull, and the water content, called cerebrospinal fluid, in the brain significantly attenuate, or reduce, signals from outside getting in to detect what’s going on inside.

Electroencephalogram, or EEG, technology can get through those barriers from the outside for the strongest of signals — like the sight of a whale swimming just below the ocean's surface. While good for some applications, implants are needed to detect weaker signals blocked by the brain’s outer protective layers, just as one needs to get in the water to see smaller fish.

 Marco-Alexis Chaira/ASU
The brain implant prototype is held next to an external antenna that emits electromagnetic waves to the internal device. The electromagnetic waves reflect back with the brain signal patterns for external analysis. Photographer: Marco-Alexis Chaira/ASU

However, putting an implant in the brain currently poses many risks for a patient. Most brain implants today incorporate wires and cables to route the brain signal outside. Many research reports propose battery-powered implants to avoid wires and cables, and the battery is often located outside a patient’s head, inside the skull or under the scalp. This positioning still exposes inner tissues in a way that can lead to serious infection.

“The problem is, if a battery leaks it’s not easy to replace — who wants to go through open skull surgery just because of a battery?” Chae said.

Chae is working on a wireless design that involves fully isolated, fully passive parts so there are no points of electronics-associated failure in the implanted device.

“You don’t want to use an implant unless you have to, but when you do, wireless, fully passive [implants] shine,” Chae said. “We want to have a self-contained unit inside the skull without wires coming out or failure sources inside the brain.”

This type of device relays brain signals similar to how sonar in a fishing boat sends acoustic waves into the ocean that reflect back the presence of fish and other underwater objects.

The 4 mm x 12 mm x 0.2 mm implant design uses an external antenna that emits electromagnetic waves — the same as a mobile phone — to a tiny antenna on the implanted device. A small electronic device on the implant called a varactor then combines the incoming electromagnetic signal with brain signal and reflects both back to the external antenna in a process called backscattering.

Having a passive, wireless device in the brain helps keep complex electronics on the outside where they don’t pose a safety risk.

“I can make a complicated and humongous system outside the brain, not a problem — if that fails, it’s fine, I can fix it,” Chae said. “I just don’t want to have any complex things inside the brain.”

Backscattering is not a powered method of signal collection — it’s just a reflection of the signal that attenuates, or weakens, as it travels through the brain’s protective layers — so the device does lose some signal quality.

Chae believes the increased safety makes the compromise in performance worth it for certain applications, like seizure detection for people with Parkinson’s disease where the signals are strong enough to be detected by this wireless fully passive technology.

While such technology is likely decades away from use in humans, Chae has high hopes for what it could do to help people with neurological disorders regain their daily routines.

The external part of the system Chae speculates can be embedded in a baseball cap or clothing to conceal it, and has the potential to also deliver electrical stimulation to dampen some of the neurological disorder symptoms based on the brain signals detected.

Interdisciplinary team makes bigger impact

All these wireless and fully passive electronics are useless without the knowledge of what brain signals mean from researchers at OSU and FIU, Chae said.

Chae will lead the design of the implant’s biotelemetry, antenna and device, as well as manufacturing the implant prototype using micro electrical mechanical system, or MEMS, technology at ASU’s NanoFab facility, while his academic partners at OSU and FIU lead the testing to move the implant’s new capabilities beyond the theoretical to the experimental in animal models.

“If you don’t understand what the brain signal is for, it’s useless,” Chae said. “Without such collaboration [with OSU and FIU], the importance of the device and the telemetry and the system cannot be verified or validated.”

Building on a strong foundation

Chae has had previous success in this area with previous awards from NSF, National Institutes of Health and NASA for projects advancing innovative neurotechnologies. Five years ago, Chae earned $2 million in funding from the NSF smart-connected health program on studying single-channel wireless fully passive neural recorders. This single-channel recorder study resulted in a robust and reproducible neural recording system and protocol.

The current project, through the NSF BRAIN Initiative, is to explore a demonstration of multi-channel recording in animal models. This multi-channel recording allows effective means of monitoring brain signals, such as seizure detection, and lowers the possibilities of false positives and false negatives.

Chae’s believes his work to create a new type of medical telemetry device is why the NSF continues to show interest in his research.  

“Very few wireless fully passive biotelemetry exists,” Chae said. “People have studied wireless ‘passive’ telemetry in the past, which does not have a battery, yet the active electronics on the implant require active power, which is supplied externally, such as inductive coupling.”

The reason very little wireless fully passive technology exists, Chae said, is due to a few key reasons. The dense and complex circuitry on the implant is prone to failure and requires that the external and internal implant be aligned precisely in order for it to work. Scaling the device down to a small implant is also difficult, as effective power transfer requires the implant to be relatively large.

However, Chae is hopeful the work his team has done so far and the developments they hope to achieve will help overcome these challenges as they continue their funded research.


Monique Clement

Communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


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Q&A: Bachelor's degree vs. associate degree in nursing

Will a new trend in advanced degree requirements affect nursing in Arizona?
January 16, 2018

Thanks to new legislation, a debate rages on about how much schooling nurses need

In late December 2017, New York signed legislation mandating that all new nurses in the state earn a Bachelor of Science in nursing (BSN) within 10 years of initial licensure. The move sparked heated debate in the health-care industry, with legitimate arguments both in favor and against the new law.

While research has shown that hospitals with higher numbers of nurses with BSNs found lower rates of infection and mortality, some argue that bachelor’s degree-prepared nurses are less clinically capable than their colleagues with associate degrees (ADN). And with a massive nursing shortage projected over the next decade, there are worries about the time and cost it would take to get nurses into hospitals if they are required to take extra schooling.

To get a better handle on the situation and what it means for the future of health care in the U.S., ASU Now spoke with Heidi Sanborn, clinical assistant professor and interim director of the RN-BSN and Concurrent Enrollment Program (CEP) in the College of Nursing and Health Innovation at ASU.

Sanborn predicts the future of nursing education might look a lot like what ASU is already offering. Read on to learn more.

Editor's note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Question: What’s the difference between a BSN and an ADN?

Answer: On the surface the answer is nothing. Nursing is set up where you have different pathways to get to the same endpoint, the NCLEX exam, which everyone has to take to be a registered nurse. That’s the standard in all of North America. So they all graduate with the ability to be basic-level nurse practitioners. What differentiates the two is critical thinking skills. A BSN focuses on evidence-based practice, leadership, the bigger picture of global health and how it impacts communities and public health. But some argue that ADNs have stronger clinical skills because BSN teaches “fluff” skills that don’t involve, for example, how to dress a wound or start an IV. That’s the crucial difference.

What we’re learning is that both sides are important. So the model we have here at ASU blends the strengths of both programs together. We’re partnered with many Arizona community colleges for our Concurrent Enrollment Program, so all the colleges in that system have a pathway program agreement with us. Students take face-to-face clinical classes for their ADN at the community colleges, and at the same time take all their BSN courses online through ASU. So they graduate with their ADN, then a semester later, once they’ve passed their NCLEX, they finish up the final two courses in the BSN program and graduate with that as well. The way this Concurrent Enrollment Program is set up is unique, and we’ve been doing it for a long time. It really gets nurses to the bedside quickly, and gives them the best of both levels of education.

With all this increase in focus on the BSN, while it may not impact nurses’ current jobs, if they want any kind of mobility, if they want to move up the career ladder, the BSN comes front and center for them. It’s becoming more of the norm, more of a desired trait from employers. The fact that New York could finally pass this legislation is definitely going to continue to put increasing pressure on ADNs to have that bachelor’s degree as well.

Q: What are some of the barriers to getting a BSN, and how is ASU helping in that area? 

A: What we typically hear from students when they’re evaluating programs is a focus on the length of time it’s going to take and the amount of money they’ll have to spend in tuition. The beauty of the way our program is divided is that they pay university tuition for their BSN courses but everything else can be done at a community college for a lower tuition rate. It’s especially great because we have a model where you can do both at the same time. For those already working as RNs who want to come back for the RN to BSN program — many of whom are adult learners, or married, or parents, or they have parents of their own they’re taking care of — it’s all online, so it allows them to progress in a manner that works for their life setting. And with the online delivery format, it really doesn’t matter anymore where you live when you come to ASU. You don’t have to show up at class at 3 p.m. on Friday afternoon, you can do it whenever it works for you. It can be at 3 a.m. when you get off your shift. Whatever works for your lifestyle.

Q: Do you expect other states to follow New York’s example? 

A: New York was sort of the floodgate; everybody said if New York couldn’t pass it, it wouldn’t happen. I do anticipate that other states may consider similar legislation but I don’t believe Arizona will be at the forefront. Both the Arizona State Board of Nursing and the Arizona legislature are very pro-business when it comes to hospitals; they see hospitals as businesses that need to keep their doors open. I think there would be concerns that if hospitals mandated nurses to have BSNs, they would have to pay nurses more because they have a higher level of education. So that’s always caused some hesitation. But there is some pressure from accrediting bodies to have more BSNs on staff.

There is also the Magnet designation that recognizes hospitals for excellence in nursing, and Magnet recognition can get hospitals more patients. It’s also a really a big feather in their cap when they’re looking to recruit nurses, so hospitals are really desiring that.

There’s still a long way to go: this issue has been around for many years and it’s not going to change in the next year or two. But this is a monumental first step given how long people have been working in the industry to get the BSN recognized as a critical credential.

Q: How might requiring nurses to have a bachelor’s degree affect the future of health care overall, especially considering the projected nursing shortage?

A: There really will be a nursing shortage, there’s no question about it. Arizona is looking to be 25,000 nurses short by 2025. The numbers are all over the map but it’s not looking pretty for most states; there are very few not projected to have shortage. Baby boomers are retiring and utilizing the health care system more as they age, and you have this double whammy effect where nurses are also nearing retirement. So that has been one of the fundamental arguments against adding two extra years of education before we can get a nurse to the bedside.

That’s where our program model comes into play. ADN programs can do what they’ve always done and get nurses to the bedside quickly while they continue to get to the education level they need to provide excellent care through the online BSN program. It’s kind of a win-win, and that’s probably most likely what the future of nursing education will look like, a partnership between two programs. I think realistically, when we partner together, based on my experience here and our relationship with the Maricopa Community College system, it’s a really great approach to getting nurses trained to provide the best level of patient care possible to the bedside for very little extra cost and very little extra time.


Top photo: Nursing graduates head to the College of Nursing and Health Innovation Convocation in May 2016. Photo by ASU Now

ASU launches inaugural Lab Safety Innovation Award

The Laboratory Safety Committee will issue awards for safe research practices

January 10, 2018

After receiving his doctorate in microbiology in the 1980s, Mitch Magee, now a researcher in the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, began studying tuberculosis (TB) in a lab on the East Coast. Because TB is a highly infectious, airborne disease, the lab purchased a centrifuge tool with a special lid to keep the bacteria from getting in the air.

“We were smart. We knew what we were doing. We were covering all our bases,” explained Magee. The team grew some TB bacteria for six months and conducted their experiments. Mitch Magee is a researcher in the Biodesign Institute. Photo by Jason Drees. Mitch Magee is a researcher in the Biodesign Institute. Photo by Jason Drees Download Full Image

A year later Magee had to get a TB skin test to make sure he hadn’t been exposed to the disease. With the test, an extract of TB bacteria is injected in your skin, and if you’re infected you get a little red bump the size of a small marble.

Magee’s bump was three times that size.

He called his boss and they had everyone in the lab tested. Three other people were infected. 

“One of them actually had a lesion on her lung. She had active tuberculosis. So they had to go test all of her family. Her little brother had an active lesion on his lung. So they had to go test all of his junior high school class,” Magee said. Fortunately, the infection stopped there.

Magee shared this story at the launch of ASU’s inaugural Laboratory Safety Innovation Award on Dec. 6. He was selected as the event’s keynote speaker for his commitment to safety in his lab.

Inaugural award for safe science

The award is sponsored by ASU’s Laboratory Safety Committee in partnership with the offices of Knowledge Enterprise Development and Environmental Health and Safety. It is designed to encourage safe research practices and showcase ASU’s commitment to safe science. The committee will issue awards annually to ASU researchers who have implemented innovative safety programs.

The awards include a monetary prize. Applications are due by Feb. 22.

Learn more about ASU’s Laboratory Safety Innovation Award

“At ASU, the commitment to the responsible and safe conduct of research is a shared responsibility led by principal investigators, supported by university leadership and fostered by the University Laboratory Safety Committee,” said Deb Murphy, director of research operations and senior compliance advisor within KED. “The USLC, a standing committee reporting to the provost through KED, is comprised broadly of the disciplines and campuses of the university and is charged with promoting a strong safety culture for research and academic endeavors at ASU.”

Magee said he learned early in his career that even when something gets written into the standard operating procedure, people may not always follow the rules.

After a yearlong investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, his previous lab figured out that one of the technicians hadn’t been using the special centrifuge lid. Without it, the bacteria likely got in the air, and later into the lungs of the affected people.

“Sometimes people get lax. You have to make sure your procedures are being followed. If you write them, you have to follow them,” he said.

Safety is still key for Magee

Magee knew he wanted to work with infectious disease since his sophomore year in college, when he started studying the immune response of rabbits to bacteria. For decades he has worked with tuberculosis, valley fever and influenza — all diseases that can infect with a single breath. Because of this, his lab is certified as a Biosafety Level 3 lab, meaning it has highly specialized, exhaustive safety measures built in to protect workers.  

Magee, who also leads Biodesign’s Laboratory Safety Committee, says his goal is not just to meet all of the safety requirements, but to exceed them. For example, he requires people working in his lab to wear special efficiency particulate respirators to filter the air they breathe, even though it isn’t technically required by safety regulations.

“With research, the neat thing is that we’re finding something better,” Magee said. “We’re finding a better way to diagnose disease. We’re finding a better method to do a test or analysis. We’re finding a better way to do whatever we need to do.”

He finished his speech at the award kickoff by arguing that safety is the same thing.

“With safety, there’s always a better way," he said. "You just don’t know it yet."

Safely finding a better TB test 

Today, Magee is an assistant professor of research in Biodesign’s Virginia G. Piper Center for Personalized Diagnostics. He still studies TB and is working to develop a TB test that is easier, faster, less expensive and more accurate than current methods.

With nearly one-third of the world infected with tuberculosis, it’s no surprise the disease is remarkably easy to catch. A person with TB can cough out tiny droplets teeming with bacteria. By inhaling just 10 of those bacteria flying through the air, a person nearby can be infected in a single breath. The bacteria start boring a hole in that person’s lungs, the coughing begins and the cycle continues. It is estimated that nearly two million people die of TB each year.

As with most diseases, the earlier TB is diagnosed, the better. Treatment is much easier during earlier stages of the disease, and early treatment can help keep TB from spreading. But early diagnosis is a challenge.

Tuberculosis bacteria.
Tuberculosis bacteria. Illustration by Jason Drees

Doctors can detect TB infection with a skin or blood test. However, not everyone infected with TB will develop the disease and become contagious. The current method for diagnosing TB disease is to culture a sample of mucus (sputum) coughed up from deep inside the lungs. Unfortunately, these samples can be difficult to collect and the cultures take a long time to produce results. They also have a high false-negative rate.

Rather than looking for TB bacteria, Magee’s method looks at how the body responds to the bacteria. When your body is infected with a disease, your immune system creates proteins called antibodies that help to neutralize the disease. Antibodies are extremely specific and target proteins produced by the disease.

“The antibodies can be indicative of one disease state over another. Maybe like latent versus active tuberculosis. The ability to detect antibodies to tuberculosis could help provide a better test to identify tuberculosis patients,” said Magee.

He is able to identify the right antibodies using a technique called High Definition Nucleic Acid-Programmable Protein Array (HD-NAPPA), developed by Joshua LaBaer, director of the Center for Personalized Diagnostics and executive director of the Biodesign Institute.

So far, Magee has identified 40 different TB proteins that could potentially serve as biomarkers to detect the disease. Now he’s working on validating all 40 and picking out five or six robust ones to use for his diagnostic test.

“We could take a serum sample from a patient, and in about 15 to 20 minutes ask, ‘Do they have antibodies to these key proteins?’ They would know that day that they have tuberculosis,” said Magee.

Not only would this test be faster, but it would also be more accurate than the current sputum test, which can miss bacteria that haven’t grown fast enough. This gives the test an edge when diagnosing people that have both TB and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), because HIV can make TB bacteria even harder to detect. This could prove particularly helpful in the developing world, where TB and HIV are both prevalent and diagnostic resources are limited.

Magee’s research on TB is funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). One of his most recent grants supports research comparing TB patients in the United States and South Africa over time. South Africa has one of the highest rates of HIV in the world.

"The ability to detect antibodies to tuberculosis could help provide a better test to identify tuberculosis patients," said Magee.

Written by Sabrina Leung

Evolution and cancer take center stage at ISEEC conference

January 9, 2018

Evolution is the creative force shaping all earthly life. It is also the reason why all multicellular life is susceptible to cancer. The processes of evolution are the fuel behind the interplay of malignant cells and the bodies they attack.

From Dec. 7-10, researchers attended ISEEC 2017, the conference of the International Society for Evolution, Ecology and Cancer, held on the Tempe campus of Arizona State University. The conference, held every other year, drew a diverse assortment of researchers from around the world including anthropologists, computer scientists. evolutionary biologists, ecologists and doctors who treat cancer in the clinic. The theme of this year’s gathering was resistance, resilience and robustness. ISEEC 2017: The International Society for Evolution, Ecology and Cancer Conference Download Full Image

Cancer may be the ultimate laboratory for the study of evolution. Here, in the thicket of cells ceaselessly angling for an adaptive advantage, we see the same processes that alter the course of species over vast tracts of time — evolution in complex ecosystems — play out over the course of months, or perhaps days or even hours.

Athena Aktipis and Carlo Maley, both evolutionary biologists at the Biodesign Institute, hosted the conference and kept attendees as well as worldwide followers on social media up to date with a steady stream of live announcements and tweets, while Alex Cagan, an evolutionary biologist with the Sanger Institute in the U.K., provided captivating drawings depicting the highlights of many of the lectures.  

ISEEC was established as a multidisciplinary society, bringing together cancer biologists, evolutionary biologists, ecologists, quantitative modelers, bioinformaticians and clinicians to approach the problem of cancer within an evolutionary and ecological framework.

The organization hopes to advance cancer research by employing evolutionary, comparative and ecological approaches and principles to cancer biology, prevention and treatment, as well as engaging the public in fundamental questions about the nature and evolutionary origins of cancer. 

Illustration of a panel at a cancer conference
Alex Cagan created drawings capturing lecture highlights throughout ISEEC 2017, including this panel discussion on the future of Evolution, Ecology and Cancer research.

Ready, set, evolve!

ISEEC 2017 kicked off with a keynote lecture by Paul Turner, "Evolutionary Robustness of Oncolytic RNA Viruses." Turner is a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale University and the microbiology program at Yale School of Medicine. He spoke of how insights from experimental evolution can shed new light on cancer.

His lecture concerned the use of so-called oncolytic (cancer-killing) viruses in cancer treatment, noting that such viruses grow better in cancer cells than in normal cells. Currently, nine different viral families are in clinical trials for cancer therapy. Turner notes that the great promise of viral therapy is that viruses may be able to co-evolve with the cancer.

An opening series of talks followed. Carlo Maley, associate professor in ASU's School of Life Sciences, spoke of the challenges of managing resistance in cancer. He noted that while combination therapies have been game-changing in the case of diseases including HIV, they have generally met with poor success in treating resistant cancers. 

Maley went on to suggest that the field had much to learn from strategies of pest management. Farmers have learned that attempts at full eradication of agricultural pests generally lead to more highly resistant pests, once sensitive pests have been eradicated. Instead, integrated pest management retains some pests sensitive to treatment, which act antagonistically toward the resistant pests, keeping their numbers in check and preventing the assault on crops from raging out of control.

As Maley explained, this is the basic idea behind radical new approaches to cancer, including Robert Gatenby’s adaptive therapy, which similarly seeks to control rather than eradicate a cancerous tumor by backing off on chemotherapy when a tumor responds, so as to maintain a subpopulation of sensitive cells to compete with resistant cancer cells. (Gatenby is an MD who studies the evolutionary dynamics of drug resistance in cancer at Florida’s Moffitt Cancer Center.)

Maley also outlined a new consensus statement published in the journal Nature Reviews Cancer, designed to help clinicians classify malignancies based on evolutionary characteristics like cell heterogeneity.

Cancer-like behavior across the web of life

Many other lectures explored insect analogies with cancer progression and treatment. In a fascinating plenary talk, Stanford University’s Deborah Gordon described the evolution of collective behavior, focusing on questions of species invasion into new physical environments and cancer invasiveness of physiological environments.

Gordon has been tracking the invasive spread of Argentine ants and their interaction with winter ants in the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve in Silicon Valley, with the take-home message that nothing in evolution makes sense except in light of ecology. 

Illustration of a woman speaking at a cancer conference
Deborah Gordon, a researcher from Stanford University, talked about the spread of Argentine ants and their ecological interactions with winter ants, highlighting the relevance of this invasive behavior and response in cancer. Illustration by Alex Cagan

Entomologist Bruce Tabashnik, from the University of Arizona, described mechanisms of insect resistance to transgenic crops, showing that when treatment-sensitive insects are maintained in refuges near croplands, they effectively dilute out resistant pests over time, maintaining equilibrium. His lively lecture also highlighted a few cases of poorly devised management strategies and their catastrophic consequences, again with obvious implications for cancer therapy.

How do organisms decide if a cell poses a cancer threat? ASU's Athena Aktipis explored cancer susceptibility as an unfortunate fact of life for multicellular organisms in her talk. She noted that the evolution of many-celled organisms opened a space for cells attempting to break free of multicellular constraint — to “cheat” the system for their own benefit, a phenomenon we recognize as cancer. Three kinds of cheater detection were described: cell intrinsic, including DNA damage, misfolded proteins or the presence of viruses; neighborhood threats, including alterations in tissue architecture; and system-wide detection, including immune surveillance and resource usage.

“We are made of 30 trillion cells that are tirelessly working and cooperating with one another to keep us functioning so we can live, eat, breathe and do everything else we need to do to carry our genes to the next generation," Aktipis said. "But these cells not only need to do all the jobs necessary to keep us alive — these cells also need to be vigilant to the threat of potential cellular cheaters in their midst that can evolve into cancer. Our cancer suppression mechanisms are essentially systems for detecting and responding to cellular cheating within."

Aktipis also highlighted the fact that the cancer-suppressing mechanisms used by large and long-lived species require intense cellular information processing to distinguish between cells that pose a cancer threat and those that don’t. She suggested that this cheater-detection approach may help us better understand the complex information processing happening inside cells, potentially providing important guidance for human efforts against the disease.

Christina Curtis is a Stanford University researcher in medicine and genetics. Her keynote lecture underlined the fact that the growth of human malignancies cannot be directly observed. Tumor growth is an evolutionary process with each tumor cell’s genome providing a historical record of its ancestral history.

Curtis presented a “big bang” model of cancer in which the very earliest mutations are the most critical for the development of the expanding cancer universe. Such mutations are likely to be found at every stage of cancer progression.

Illustration of a woman speaking at a cancer conference
Christina Curtis of Stanford University spoke of the central importance of early mutations in guiding the eventual trajectory of cancer. Illustration by Alex Cagan

Catching cancer?

Amid the severe challenges posed by cancer resilience, resistance and robustness, there is at least one ray of light. The dreaded disease dies with its victim. Or does it? In a series of intriguing lectures, researchers described new studies of several contagious cancers, including the famous case of the Tasmanian devils, large marsupials who have been devastated by an aggressive, communicable and deadly affliction known as Tasmanian devil facial tumor disease.

Beata Ujvari of Deakin University in Australia noted that the disease is not always fatal and there may be some signs of resistance in the population as well as changing mating behavior of the devils, perhaps aimed at curtailing the epidemic. Ominously, however, she notes the emergence last year of a second form of facial cancer.

Elizabeth Murchison of Cambridge University delivered a public lecture, "Fighting a Contagious Cancer," concerning the fate of the Tasmanian devils. Her lecture also described a canine-transmissible cancer, tracing its origins to a single dog that lived some 11,000 years ago, thus suggesting that the oldest cancer on record was indeed a contagious cancer. (Murchison even showed a drawing of what this unfortunate dog from the very distant past may have looked like — based on a genetic profile.)

Illustration of a dog
Earliest contagious cancer? A sketch by Emma Werner shows what researchers believe the first dog with this disease may have looked like.

It turns out that not even the lowly soft-shelled clam is safe. Michael Metzger of Columbia University described the latest example of evolution at the intersection of cancer and infectious disease — a leukemia-like cancer in clams that can spread through the water to neighboring clams. Not only does contagious cancer seem to be more prevalent than generally assumed, its origins are likely very ancient, according to Metzger, exerting profound selective pressure on all subsequent multicellular life.

Celebrated science journalist George Johnson turned the discussion to the challenges involved in writing about science in general (his nine books and innumerable articles cover everything from Soviet radio transmitters to the enigma of consciousness), and cancer specifically. His latest book, "The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine’s Deepest Mystery," gives a view from above for a general reader.

Johnson delivered a public lecture ahead of the ISEEC conference, which was sponsored by the Beyond Center at ASU and titled "Why Everyone Seems to Have Cancer," and he later spoke to ISEEC attendees. He noted the human propensity for finding pattern and meaning in the universe, stressing that in the case of cancer, the temptation may lead us astray. The disease more often has its roots in bad luck and our evolutionary legacy as multicellular organisms than in aspects of daily life under our control, like where we live or what we eat.

Johnson also spoke of the need to balance the scientist’s fascination with one of nature’s most elegant and sophisticated examples of evolution in action with the public’s understandable revulsion and dread at this pitiless disease.

Looking ahead

A panel of researchers discussed the future of research and funding priorities for the field of evolution and ecology of cancer. Though evolution is the theory of cancer and fundamental to understanding and combating the disease, it remains the most underfunded and underrepresented area of cancer research, a fact Anna Barker drove home in her remarks. (Barker was the deputy director of the National Cancer Institute and is now professor and director of the Transformative Healthcare Networks in Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, the director of the National Biomarker Development Alliance, and co-director of the Complex Adaptive Systems Network at ASU).

Barker delivered a wish list for the field that included a network of evolution and cancer centers; renewed efforts to bring outsiders into the field; the sharing of common resources; a centralized multidimensional database; and standards and registries of evolutionary math models, algorithms and relevant clinical trials.

Alex Sekulic, director of Mayo Clinic’s Arizona Cancer Center, was also on the panel and spoke of the need to build close collaborations with clinicians to use evolution and ecology to solve our most pressing problems in oncology. Dan Gallahan, deputy director of the Division of Cancer Biology at the National Cancer Institute, highlighted opportunities at the NCI to fund research in the evolution of cancer.

At the close of the conference, Maley offered final remarks, noting exponential growth of the field and the enthusiasm of attendees for this unique gathering.

“We need the tools from evolutionary biology and ecology to really understand the problem of cancer,” said Maley. “These approaches are literally game changers, and the ISEEC community is opening up new ways to understand, prevent and control cancer.”

He said he is optimistic that the excitement surrounding so many new insights and discoveries will encourage many other researchers to apply their talents to the profound puzzle of cancer, as this fast-paced field continues to evolve.

ISEEC 2017 was made possible through the generous support of the Biodesign Institute at ASU, the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at ASU, Mayo Clinic Cancer Center, and Genentech — part of the Roche Group.

Richard Harth

Science writer, Biodesign Institute at ASU


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ASU developing biodegradable plastics made from bacteria

January 9, 2018

The world is awash in discarded plastics. A recent estimate of the amount of plastic in Earth’s environment puts it at 6.3 billion metric tons (of the 8.3 billion metric tons that have been mass produced since the 1950s). This includes what is in landfills and what floats around in our rivers, lakes and oceans. Some plastics can take up to 400 years to degrade.

What can be done to change this situation? ASU Assistant Professor Taylor Weiss says one way would be to make 100 percent biodegradable bioplastics that would dissolve in the environment in a matter of months. 

His idea is to use bacteria to make plastics, specifically employing cyanobacteria, a photosynthesis-happy bug, as one of the starting materials. Weiss recently published a paper in Metabolic Engineering that outlines a new production method that would be powered by cyanobacteria and the naturally occurring Halomonas boliviensis. 

Weiss recently joined ASU’s Polytechnic campus, where he will work on scaling up the process at the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation (AzCATI). Here, Weiss describes his idea for making environmentally friendly bioplastics.

Biogel capsules next to a penny for scale
Ten barium-alginate "beads," encapsulating cyanobacteria, are displayed for scale. Assistant Professor Taylor Weiss is designing a partnership between a photosynthetic, sugar-producing cyanobacterium and a sugar-consuming, plastic-producing bacterium. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now


Question: What are the issues with today’s plastics?

Answer: Plastics fall into two very distinct categories: Those that can be melted down and reused, and those that cannot. Recycling some plastics can save energy, but all plastics don’t ultimately degrade like biological materials down to “nothingness” or become metabolized by a living creature. Most plastics degrade like rocks: They just break down into smaller and smaller pieces that accumulate in the environment.

Q: The plastics you produce are 100 percent biodegradable. Over what time frame?

A: Degradation times depend on the object and conditions, but bioplastics typically break down faster than plant celluloses, like wood. With lots of biological activity, like in a compost pile, fibers and films will biodegrade within two months. The human body takes about three months to completely dissolve bioplastic suture threads. Something like plastic utensils in the ocean would take longer, but still be unrecognizable within a year. 

Essentially, because the average usage-lifetime of a disposable plastic bag in the U.S. is 12 minutes, yet take hundreds of years to degrade, we're looking to bioplastics to create the benefits of disposability without the long-term negative consequences.

Q: How do you make these bioplastics?

A: We created a symbiotic partnership between two bacteria, each specializing in a specific task. The cyanobacteria use photosynthesis to create sugar and are engineered to constantly excrete that sugar. A second bacteria (Halomonas boliviensis) then consumes the sugar to alternately grow and produce bioplastics in cycles. Additionally, the cyanobacteria are captured in hydrogel beads (made from seaweed extract) that are submerged in saltwater filled with the bioplastic-producing bacteria.

Q: What is the advantage of this process?

A: In the big picture, we don’t use resources better spent on food production (fresh water and farmable land) to first grow a crop that can be processed into sugar and then fed to the bacteria to make bioplastics. We’ve done this by efficiently bringing together two bacteria species that are among the best on Earth at making sugar and bioplastics.

Trapping the cyanobacteria in a hydrogel is also critical — it means that the same cyanobacteria can be reused instead of regrown, and because the trapped cells barely grow at all, energy otherwise spent on growth can be redirected toward even greater sugar production. As a bonus, the system seems to stand up to contamination. We didn’t tightly control the system to keep out contaminating bacteria, or add chemicals to kill them. What contamination was present simply didn’t interfere — for more than five months — because our bioplastic-producing bacteria was simply so good at consuming all of the sugar. 

Q: What needs to be done to make the process industrially viable?

A: The cyanobacteria, the Halomonas boliviensis bacteria and hydrogel have already been industrialized, so each has a lot of proven potential. Using as little of the hydrogel as possible and for as long as possible needs to be further explored. That will help keep costs down. Bringing all these elements together and in real-world conditions at large scales needs to be done. Fortunately, we have a one-of-a-kind academic test bed facility here at AzCATI that is uniquely suited to answer the remaining production questions and push development of the technology.

Top photo: Assistant Professor Taylor Weiss stands among flat-panel bioreactors filled with algae, on the ASU Polytechnic campus on Wednesday, Dec. 6. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Associate Director , Media Relations & Strategic Communications


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ASU interns serve enticing digital experiences for Starbucks customers

January 8, 2018

Starbucks Technology Center interns at ASU’s SkySong get hands-on, real-world experience at a top tech enterprise

For a team of 10 Arizona State University computer science and software engineering students, a Starbucks technology internship means considerably more than becoming a connoisseur of coffee — although that is part of the package. Being an intern at the new Starbucks Technology Center at ASU’s SkySong means an opportunity to get hands-on, real-world experience at one of the country’s top tech enterprises.

Starbucks, which built its reputation as a brick-and-mortar retailer, has become a leading force in digital engagement, providing consumers with seamless rewards, ordering and payment platforms supported by a state-of-the-art, enterprise-level “back end” that keeps it all running smoothly.

But staying on the consumer engagement edge requires finding partners, as Starbucks refers to its employees, who can lead digital innovation in the retail space.

The ASU students, who began as interns in September, have been working as teams in three technology areas: information security, application development and business intelligence.

“The Starbucks Technology Center was a natural next step in our evolving partnership with ASU; two organizations with common values around inclusivity, innovation, and excellence,” said Gerri Martin-Flickinger, Starbucks executive vice president and chief technology officer.

“Spending time with our STCStarbucks Technology Center interns and experiencing their compelling work firsthand, I am confident that we are achieving the goals that we set out to accomplish; bringing valuable experience and career opportunities to student interns while accelerating innovation and delivering exciting new experiences for Starbucks customers," Martin-Flickinger said. "I am proud to be a part of this team and look forward to our continued momentum in 2018.”

Information security

The information security team, comprised of computer science majors Anthony Pipia and Liam Lowrey, both seniors, and Caleb Schwartz, a junior, built a dashboard that details vulnerability across a range of systems, enabling data to be sorted by department rollup to determine instances of risk for specific teams, or the organization as a whole.

“In my last gig I felt like a lowly, part-time worker,” said Pipia, who is looking forward to continuing his partnership in the second half of his senior year.

“Starbucks is exactly the opposite — I feel like part of the big picture,” he said. “I have the opportunity to work in a collaborative environment with the team, whether we’re in different states or just down the hall, and constantly be engaged.”

Application development

The interns supporting digital products — computer science seniors Ross Carrigan and Diana Chen, computer science junior Michael Rojas and software engineering senior Aaron Musengo — worked on a variety of support projects for the Starbucks iOS app. A major project included improving the customer search function to return a more relevant list of items. The resulting app upgrade will deploy this month.

For Rojas, the importance and scope of work undertaken by the interns was surprising.

“I didn’t think they’d trust interns to become such integrated members of the technology team. Of course, they checked my code,” he said, laughing, “but I felt fully supported by the whole team.”

Rojas also identifies learning softer skills not taught in school as one of the biggest benefits of the internship.

“I’ve learned how to work with local and remote team members in an Agile framework on a daily basis, and have been able to see things in code that I learned in class," Rojas said. “I’ve never had the opportunity to work with a designer before — and now I’ve worked with one on a project from start to finish.”

Business intelligence

Avinash Reddy Kaitha, who graduated in December with a master’s degree in computer science; Tejinder Singh Kang, a computer science senior; and Kirtus Leyba, a computer science doctoral candidate, worked on adding and improving artificial intelligence and machine learning models across a variety of projects. This included wait time analysis predictions, outside temperature correlation to drink orders, and a chatbot interface that allows both customers and baristas to improve their experiences.

Working on information processing-recommender systems in depth required the team to develop a strategy on how to collect and integrate data.

“My number one takeaway is understanding what it takes to build a technology product from start to finish,” Kaitha said.

Impressed with the work environment, Kaitha said he’d love to do a stint in Starbucks corporate offices — a goal that has become a reality. He officially joins Starbucks as a full-time partner assigned to the Starbucks Technology Center this month.

In November, the teams participated in the Starbucks Innovation Expo (SiX) Hack Day project — one of a series of events in which Starbucks Innovation Technology partners can create and demonstrate concepts that improve the partner-customer experience. The interns built an app add-on feature that will allow customers to collect “You are Here” digital mugs when they make purchases in different cities, ultimately redeeming them for a physical mug. This project, one of 13 company-wide, won the Best Customer Facing Project Award.

“The moment I realized the team had really come together was during the Hack Day Project,” said Andy Scearce, program manager for mobile applications at the Starbucks Technology Center. “They were all sitting in one cubicle with their laptops talking through their ideas and working out the details. They were fully engaged, operating as an independent team on a single project. That’s what we’re looking for in this program — creating teams that can come together to both innovate and problem solve.”

Learning beyond technology

Chen said the Starbucks experience was enlightening because in a previous internship, technology was the product.

“With Starbucks, the product is retail that is supported by the technology. Unlike many technology-based enterprises, we have to be able to interact with partners on the retail side, not just the customers,” she explained. “The technology may be similar, but the communication processes are very different. That’s a valuable skill to take out into the workforce.”

And soon more ASU students will learn that skill.

“This spring we will be welcoming 12 more interns to the STC. With such impressive results in our first intern class, we are eager to see what the new cohort can achieve in their time with us,”  said Jessica Gabry, Starbucks Technology Center program manager. “The ASU students create an organic environment of collaboration and innovation that is hard not to be inspired by.”

While giving end-of-semester project presentations for audiences both in Phoenix and in Seattle via live webcast, the interns commented on the value of the fully immersive internship, noting that at Starbucks, immersion extends beyond technology. In addition to short assignments working with retail teams at Starbucks stores, regular coffee tastings are designed to educate partners on Starbucks core product and build team relationships. 

At the close of the end-of-semester presentations detailing their accomplishments, each intern cited his or her favorite Starbucks roast and beverage.

“The Starbucks Technology Center internships give our engineering students a direct path from college into the workforce, providing them with hands-on, in-the-field opportunities to enhance their skills at an international, corporate team level as well as on small-team projects,” said Kyle Squires, dean of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. “Whether participants go on to become full Starbucks partners or move into other arenas, the opportunities generated by this program give them a competitive advantage as they enter the job market.”

Terry Grant

Media Relations Officer , Media Relations and Strategic Communications


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Get ready for a great year!

These monthly tips from ASU experts will help you have a better 2018.
January 5, 2018

Smarten up your 2018 with month-by-month tips from a range of ASU experts

Alonzo Jones has one of the best jobs at Arizona State University: associate athletic director for inclusion and championship life.

Who doesn’t want to lead a championship life?

Jones is in charge of the “life skills” programming for student-athletes at ASU, teaching them how to balance all parts of their busy lives.

“It’s a wraparound for the student-athlete to ensure that for as much as they’re giving their institution, their institution is giving as much back to them,” said Jones, who graduated from ASU.

Alonzo Jones and a student write on a whiteboard
Sun Devil Athletics' Alonzo Jones and ASU freshman defensive back Alex Perry talk about the concept of "45." Photo by Jarod Opperman/ASU

An energetic and motivating speaker, he tailors his message to the age of the athlete — freshmen learn about decision-making, stress and wellness, while sophomores become engaged in the ASU community.

“After the sophomore year, it’s all about, ‘What are you going to be doing the day after graduation?’” he said.

A little verbal shortcut that Jones and the department have come up with is “45” — reminding the young adults that one day, they’ll be 45 years old.

“It’s a reminder that students must prepare now for a good quality of life later,” Jones said.

His advice? You have different identities and must wisely choose which one to wear and when.

There’s plenty of time for social interests and fun, as long as “the intellectual self is the lead guardian of your life,” Jones said.

“Your social side is obsessed with the moment. It’s obsessed with fun. It marks milestones by Fridays. It thinks about three hours out. … So I ask the students: Will you one day be 45?”

It’s good advice for everyone of any age: Have fun, but make sure you’re also thinking past Friday. To that end, we’ve gathered advice from a variety of ASU experts on ways to prepare for a better year ahead. There’s one tip for every month, with two in January — just so you can hit the ground running.


Change your passwords

Although you should be changing your passwords more often than once a year, it’s a good way to start the new year off right.

“Sometimes the number of passwords we need to keep track of can seem overwhelming,” said Kim Jones, director of New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences’ Cybersecurity Education Consortium. “This unfortunately makes things so much easier for the bad guys.”

If it’s something you find really difficult, you may want to consider purchasing password management software, such as LastPass or KeePass.

Look up

The winter offers a particularly bright and clear sky for stargazers. Patrick Young, an astronomer in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, encourages stargazers to appreciate the stellar life span they’re witnessing.

“As the year begins, go outside when night has fallen and look to the south to see the constellation Orion. The darker your sky, the better, but you can see the bright stars even from the city; short of the sun and moon it’s the easiest thing in the sky to recognize,” he said.

“In a moment you’ve connected with the entire span of a star’s life from the newborns nestled in the nebula that appears as the middle star of the sword to bright red Betelgeuse teetering on the edge of a violent death.”


Campus orange harvest
Vitamin C supplements or citrus can help ward off illness. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Do flu season right

About 30 percent of Americans have low vitamin C status, so ASU nutrition Professor Carol Johnston recommends considering supplements during the winter months to ward off nasty bugs.

“Research at the School of Nutrition and Health Promotion at ASU reports a 45 percent reduction in colds and cold symptoms in young adults taking 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C daily during the winter months,” said Johnston, associate director of ASU’s Nutrition Program.

As a bonus, the supplementation also increased physical activity levels of participants compared with the placebo treatment.

Johnston also recommends favoring fist-bumps over handshakes during flu season, along with frequent handwashing. 


Data ‘spring cleaning’

How much data is sitting around on your devices that you never use?

“March is a great time to clean that data off of your systems and free up space,” Jones said.

Also take the time to shut down old accounts for applications you no longer use and clean those old apps off of your devices.


Lend a helping hand

April is National Volunteer Month — it’s a good time to spring into action, says Victoria Ames, professor in the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law. She believes everyone has talent that can benefit their communities.

“Volunteers come in all shapes and sizes and can make a big difference by donating just a few hours of time,” said Ames, who noted that there is no shortage of volunteer opportunities in the Phoenix area, including the Arizona Legal Center at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. “Volunteering has the added benefit of bringing people who share like-minded values together for the greater good.”

MLK Day of Service
STEM elementary education major David Benjamin bags apples to hand out during a Produce on Wheels Without Waste event. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Neal A. Lester, director of ASU’s Project Humanities, says the long-running homeless outreach program “Service Saturdays” is a good way to get in touch with your humanity.

Every other Saturday he helps volunteers organize in downtown Phoenix to distribute various items — including clothes, toiletries and books and magazines — to the homeless as part of an effort called “Humanity 101.”

“The outreach is transformative, to witness what a kind word or gesture, or a pair of shoes and socks can do for those who are without,” Lester said. “Such support to others gets us out of our heads and allows us to witness the power of both our individual and shared humanity.”

For information, visit projecthumanities.asu.edu or call 480-727-7030. 


Embrace minimalism

One way to make an impact on everything from your finances to your health to your environmental impact is to embrace the minimalism movement. Chris Wharton, interim director of the School of Nutrition and Health Promotion, calls it “voluntary simplicity.”

The goal, he said, is to simplify your life by buying less, eating more simply and using your body more often for things like transportation or entertainment.

“The results can be profound,” Wharton said. “So if you’re thinking about how to be healthier, skip the faddish diet or cultish exercise regime, and instead try simplifying your life. The results could be better and more multifaceted than you thought possible!”

His blog, Practically Awesome, explores minimalism in more depth.


Take stock

It’s halfway through the year. Are you halfway to your financial goals for 2018? It’s a good time to check in.

Money and a clock

Creating a “net worth report” is an easy way to see where you stand each year and monitor your progress, says Debra Radway, W. P. Carey School of Business lecturer as well as a certified financial planner, trustee and investment adviser.

Make a list of everything you own (house, car, investment accounts, 401(k), IRA, etc.) and put the current value of each next to it. Add it up; these are your assets. Then make a list of everything you owe (mortgage, car loan, student loan, etc.) with the amounts owed. Add those up; those are your liabilities.  Now take what you own and subtract what you owe — that’s your net worth. Monitoring this on an annual basis helps you know where you stand financially and helps you monitor progress toward your financial goals.

And if you aren’t contributing enough to your 401(k) to take full advantage of a company match, get on it and give yourself a raise, Radway says. A match of even a few percentage points could add up to $100,000 or more after 30 years of contributions and growth — and that’s free money.


Prepare for the worst

Summer headlines are full of natural disasters, from forest fires to hurricanes to monsoon floods. Cheryl Schmidt, a clinical professor in the College of Nursing and Health Innovation who has been a volunteer nurse in the American Red Cross since 1974, says it’s easy to become complacent, especially if you live in an area that faces less risk of natural disasters.

“But any area is at risk for man-made disasters such as apartment fires, overturned tankers transporting toxic chemicals or even terrorist attacks,” she said.

She encourages everyone to make a written plan of what they might need if they had to leave their home on short notice and never return. At a minimum, people should have a “go-bag” containing:

• one week’s worth of daily medications, or at least a list of medications

• copies of important papers (or scanned documents on a USB drive) such as proof of insurance for house and vehicle

• water and non-perishable food

• first-aid kit

• flashlight with extra batteries

• small, battery-powered radio

• change of clothing

• personal hygiene supplies

Each individual and family should personalize their lists and supplies, preparing them to quickly evacuate the area or to shelter in place. Find more information at www.redcross.org and www.ready.gov.


Improve your vocabulary

Back-to-school time can be a good motivation to expand your own mind.

“The key to learning new vocabulary is excitement,” Regents’ Professor of English Elly van Gelderen said.

She recommends looking for new words in your own areas of interest to keep you motivated. There are plenty of resources online, such as World Wide Words, where you can find “great-sounding words” and click to find out their meanings. 

“Select new words to memorize, keep a list of the ones you like, put them in a sentence, and review them,” she said.

Also, learning about the history of language is a good supplement to vocabulary and can help keep you engaged. For example, the words “cool” and “glacial” are related.


Try opera — no, really

Many people have a view of the opera as stuffy, loud and indecipherable. But that’s not true, says Brian DeMaris, artistic director of Lyric Opera Theatre.

“Operas come in all different shapes and sizes,” he said. “Not all are big, scary and intimidating. Many are quite funny, and most are absolutely beautiful.”

DeMaris discovered the opera in college and says he was surprised by how entertaining and relevant it was and still remains. Phoenix has several to offer, including ASU’s own Lyric Opera Theatre in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, producing two operas and two musicals per year. 


Backing up data

Back up your data

Take it from Kim Jones: “Nothing ever goes wrong with technology … until it does.”

The upcoming holiday season is a great time to make sure all of your data is backed up and stored in a secure fashion.

“Do not depend exclusively on cloud-based services to store your critical data,” he said. Instead, invest in a local external hard drive and keep a copy of your data locally.


Be on high alert for scammers

More security advice from Jones — keep this in mind this month as well as in April.

“As tax season and holiday season approach, scammers increase their efforts to relieve you of your sensitive data,” Jones said.

He advises being extra cautious of suspicious emails and phone calls, and making sure your security software is up to date.


Stop and listen

When the holidays’ hectic pace gets to be too much, find a spot outside to sit and listen — “headphones off, phone silenced,” said Associate ProfessorPaine is an associate professor in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering and a professor of composition in the School of Music. Garth Paine, whose research interest is studying sound in the wilderness.

“Try active listening: focusing in on a single sound, hearing every tiny detail and then listen to the relationship between that sound and all the others you hear around you,” he said. “Listen to the reverberation off the buildings, hear the open or closed quality of space and, most of all, sense yourself being present, connected and part of that ecology.”

It’s a simple way to connect with the world and to recenter yourself.

Reporters Mary Beth Faller, Emma Greguska, Marshall Terrill and Scott Seckel contributed to this story. A version of this story appeared in the January 2018 issue of ASU Thrive magazine.

Early flu cases rise sharply in Arizona

Vaccine remains best form of protection, says ASU Health Services medical director

January 5, 2018

The spread of influenza across the U.S. usually starts slowly in October and peaks with the most reported cases near the end of flu season in February and early March.

This season started differently. Graphical representation of a generic influenza virus. Image courtesy: cdc.gov Download Full Image

Arizona has already reported over 2,400 laboratory confirmed cases so far in Maricopa County, a nearly 1,000 percent increase from the same time period last year, according to county statistics. 

Experts say the best protection from the flu is the vaccine, despite recent news reports painting a gloomy prediction of this year’s effectiveness. The reports stemmed from an interim estimate against one strain of the virus during Australia’s most recent flu season. But it’s too early to tell what will happen here, said Arizona State University’s top physician.

“The H3N2 virus is the one predominantly circulating in the southern hemisphere and that particular strain was found to be only 10 percent responsive to the current vaccine,” said Dr. Stefanie Schroeder, ASU Health Services medical director. “Even though the flu was particularly virulent in the southern hemisphere, it tends to mutate and drift as it comes north and the experts are not certain that we will have the same experience.”

Vaccine effectiveness varies depending on the strain, since more than one type of virus circulates during flu season. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention point out that the best predictor of effectiveness for the current flu season is to look back at the previous season. Last year the overall effectiveness against all circulating flu viruses was 39 percent.

Even during years of low vaccine effectiveness, there are benefits to vaccination.  

“Ten percent protection is better than no protection, and the flu vaccine does help with herd immunity,” Schroeder said. “It also lessens the severity of the symptoms if you do get the flu.”

Herd immunity, also referred to as community immunity, makes it difficult for germs to spread when more people are vaccinated. This helps everyone but in particular it offers some shielding to those who cannot be vaccinated due to medical conditions or weakened immune systems.

The current vaccine targets the four most common strains of the flu virus, Schroeder said.  

It is estimated that on average more than 4,000 people in Arizona are hospitalized from flu complications and about 700 people die from flu each year. Young children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with chronic medical conditions have the highest risk of flu complications.   

Sometimes it’s difficult to differentiate between having the flu or a common cold. Symptoms can be similar — stuffy nose, sore throat, chest discomfort and cough. But a person with the flu is more likely to also experience other symptoms such as fever, headaches, general aches and pains, fatigue or extreme exhaustion.

“The recommendation is still to get vaccinated, practice good handwashing hygiene, hydration and get plenty of rest,” Schroeder said.

Because it takes about two weeks for people to build the antibodies after the vaccine, Schroeder recommends that anyone interested in receiving the vaccine do so as soon as possible. Vaccines are still available at ASU Health Services on Tempe, Downtown Phoenix, Polytechnic and West campuses.

Jerry Gonzalez

Media Relations Officer, Media Relations and Strategic Communications