image title

Fermenting a revolution in research

October 27, 2015

ASU team taps into expertise of food 'citizen-scientists' as way to engage community in gathering knowledge

Valley newcomer Stacey Kuznetsov recently discovered a rather unconventional way to meet new people: fermented salsa parties.

“All my friends brought whatever ingredients they had in their homes, and we just blended everything and made fermented salsa,” she said.

The idea came from a transdisciplinary research project Kuznetsov, an assistant professor in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering at Arizona State University, conducted along with grad student Christina Santana and associate professor Elenore Long, both of ASU’s Department of English.

Their findings, which they wrote about in a paper titled “Mindful Persistence: Literacies for Taking up and Sustaining Fermented-Food Projects,” were published this month in Community Literacy Journal.

As the lead researcher for ASU’s Social and Digital Systems (SANDS) Group, Kuznetsov was interested in pursuing a project that looked at the phenomenon of so-called “citizen-scientists” or “DIY-biologists” — people who are not professional scientists but who experiment and gather knowledge based on their personal interests.

“I thought food was a really interesting domain for that,” she said, as nearly everyone can say they have played the role of “citizen-scientist” in the kitchen at least a few times.

“I think it’s a pushback against traditional top-down ways of disseminating scientific information.”
— assistant professor Stacey Kuznetsov

Santana saw Kuznetsov’s budding project as an opportunity to delve deeper into her area of interest in community literacy by engaging local community members in research that relied on their expertise.

“What drew me to Stacey’s project was that, here’s an opportunity to get outside of ASU and … be the bridge and bring people in and create opportunities for people to experience some of the things that only our students get,” said Santana.

Over the course of several months, they spent time recruiting, interviewing and workshopping with members of the local community who regularly engage in experimentation with edible materials.

They met people who make homemade beer, forage for grasses, ferment fruit and vegetables and even one woman who practices human placenta encapsulation as a dietary supplement for new mothers. And they were invited to participate in a group workshop where they would demonstrate and speak about their methods.

Community fermentation workshop

A piece of SCOBY culture
(symbiotic colony of bacteria
and yeast) is added to tea to
ferment it.

Photo courtesy Christina Santana

“They were teaching us the skills as opposed to us coming and observing something that is already well-understood,” Kuznetsov said. “To me, that’s an example of community literacy, where I’m studying the practices of a community that’s clearly a lot more expert in a domain than I am.”

Following the initial food demonstration workshop was a co-authoring workshop, wherein the community members shared their ideas about their work and helped draft portions of the research paper. It was also at this time that Long came on board to assist with the writing.

“We wrote in lots of different ways. We had questions and then filled up the whiteboards with responses. And then we took sticky notes and people just consolidated their own themes. … And then we developed sets of patterns across the sticky notes, and then people wrote sections in teams,” Long said.

The theme of persistence revealed itself to the researchers over the course of the project as they worked alongside and listened to the experiences of local fermented-food experts who live by the mantra, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

“The inquiry [into alternative food preservation] itself requires a kind of persistence because you’re constantly bumping up against things that you didn’t quite predict that in some ways trouble the project, but also make you a more expert person in doing that,” Long said.

Santana said the experience has given her an “access point” into a world she may otherwise never have known about.

“I think it’s helped me be less afraid of food. It sounds funny, but I’d never tried sauerkraut before, I would never have tried kombucha. … So I approach the kitchen differently in that I see potential or limit, and I think a little bit more about how I’m working with food,” she said, “but I still let my husband cook, mostly.”

Kuznetsov hopes their project will bring more attention to ways the community can be involved in research — “I think it’s a pushback against traditional top-down ways of disseminating scientific information” — and, “More sauerkraut!”

The School of Arts, Media and Engineering is part of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. The Department of English is a unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

image title

The species steward: ASU alumna monitors human impact on Arizona wildlife

October 27, 2015

Editor's note: Leading up to Homecoming, we'll be running several stories a week on ASU alumni. Find more alumni stories here.

A chance encounter with a gopher snake at the age of 12 was all it took to turn Christina Akins on to “herpsShort for “herpetofauna,” which are amphibians and reptiles..” 

Now, the 2008 School of Life Sciences grad spends her days searching out frogs, snakes and other reptiles in the “remote and rugged mountain ranges of Arizona” as a wildlife specialist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

Akins was recently featured in an Arizona Highways story called “Getting Her Hands Dirty,” something she’s not afraid to do, frequently digging in hillside ponds or wading through vegetation all in the name of wildlife preservation.

Though she’d rather be active outside, the nature lover took some time out to talk with ASU News about how the university helped get her where she is today and what people need to know about wildlife extinction.

Question: At what point in your life did you know you wanted to pursue a career in biology?

Answer: My Opa and Oma (grandparents) built a cabin near the Mogollon RimThe long, steep cliff that forms the southern limit of the Colorado Plateau. when I was a small child. I grew up spending time at our family cabin, looking for fossils, catching tadpoles, etc. When I was 12, I was driving up with two of my uncles and we stopped for a large gopher snake on the dirt road. They picked the snake up off the road and let me hold it — I think that's when I began to have an interest in herps.

Q: How has your experience at ASU helped to put you in the position you are in today?

A: One of my college professors, Stan Cunningham, was instrumental in landing me a position within the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Stan worked for the department for many years prior to teaching at ASU, which allowed for his students to receive hands-on experience related to wildlife management and conservation and research activities the department was engaged in. It also allowed for us to build networking skills and connections with department staff. He encouraged me to apply for the department's internship program and, since I was one of the only students interested in herps, he thought I would be perfect for the Amphibian and Reptile Program. I became an intern for the Ranid Frogs Project in 2007 and have advanced within that project ever since.

Q: What is your favorite part of the work you do today?

A: My favorite part would be spending time in the remote and rugged mountain ranges of Arizona that most people don't have the opportunity to see. As a biologist working with amphibians, I survey and monitor frog populations in remote plunge-pool canyons, springs, "sky island" grasslands, and higher-elevation mountains ranges. Being outside is the best part.

Q: In your recent Arizona Highways feature story, it talks about how you are leading endangered-species recovery initiatives. Why should the general public care about species becoming extinct?

A: It's important to remember that we, the public, are stewards of Arizona's wildlife and each species holds intrinsic value. Because we are the stewards, we need to protect and preserve all wildlife species and their habitat for future generations. At the very least, outdoor activities bring people together, whether it's hunting, fishing, camping or a wildlife viewing opportunity. In addition, these activities bring economic value to the state to Arizona. 

Q: What should they know about how it could negatively affect them?

A: Extinction does happen naturally; however, because of human impact (habitat loss, movement of invasive species, pollution, climate change, etc.) we may be speeding the rate of extinction of some species. The loss of one species from an area could have negative consequences for the larger ecosystem. Additionally, we rely on wildlife species and habitat more than we think. Plants and animals play a significant role in medical research. Many medicines we rely on are derived from plants or animals. Even species native to Arizona have contributed to this type of medical research; saliva from Arizona's only venomous lizard, the Gila monster, has been used to create a drug to help type II diabetes patients.

Q: What advice would you give to aspiring biologists?

A: The best advice I can give to students pursuing a degree in biology or ecology is to volunteer for wildlife agencies or the like. The best way to get experience and "get your foot in the door" is to volunteer or be part of an internship program. Take initiative, ask questions and be passionate about what you do.

Emma Greguska

Reporter , ASU Now

(480) 965-9657