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Itching to know the number of cells in your body? Ask a Biologist

ASU's Ask a Biologist can handle your questions about the natural world.
How trustworthy is ASU's Ask a Biologist? Google trusts it.
November 17, 2015

ASU online service a great success, and growing into larger legacy

We all want to be on top.

And in the online realm of search-engine optimization (SEO), that means crowning a topic field on the world’s most popular search engine.

It’s one of the reasons Arizona State University's Charles Kazilek smiles when he talks about his longtime online learning resource Ask a Biologist.

Type a science query — like, say, “Is a butterfly’s brain the same as the one it had when it was a caterpillar” — into Google and you’ll often see a results page that starts with an answer from Ask a Biologist, ahead of links from National Geographic, The Smithsonian or even the online mega-site Reddit.

It’s a cool feat — and major bragging right, one that’s built on smart SEO, a large online footprint and the ability to craft queries that people care about. But there’s also something else to consider: Ask a Biologist preexists Google’s search engine.

Yes, Kazilek’s brainchild has been around since 1997, one year before Googling became a word that’s as much fun to say as it is to do.

Since then Ask a Biologist has served answers to more than 34,000 biology queries and filled more than 6,000 pages with questions answered.

“So why do they come to us,” said KazilekKazilek is also a senior research professional in the School of Life Sciences; which is part of ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences., the chief technology innovation officer in the Office of the University Provost. “Because there’s information out there that is out of date. Or in the world of science it's not uncommon to have more than one theory, especially with new fields. And, it's not uncommon for a student to go out and find slightly different answers. So they come to us ... they want clarification.”

As he talks, the pride of accomplishment in Kazilek’s voice is replaced by the earnestness of a teacher who wants to help people understand the natural world.

Ultimately, this is why Ask a Biologist has become so effective: It’s a true teaching tool that strives to enrich its readers the same way a professor aims to enlighten his students.

That’s why the site does more than answer people’s questions about biology. It offers free teaching tools that educators can use in their classrooms and collects podcasts with science experts discussing their specialty fields.

Ask a Biologist wants to help us learn by satisfying those random questions that tumble about in our consciousness.

It’s a function born out of its creator’s own curiosity.

A destination for curiosity

Kazilek grew up in Colorado Springs, Colorado, a city roughly 90 miles south of Denver that’s anchored to the front range of the Rocky Mountains.

Nature dominates this locale where nearly every home has a clear view of the 14,000-foot summit of Pikes Peak, and where the city parks feel more like sprawling nature preserves cut with bike paths and random coyote trails.

So there’s little surprise why Kazilek was drawn to the study of our natural world, as he was raised in a place that grew out of and into nature. But it was a less likely inspiration point for Ask a Biologist — the Colorado Springs public library.

Kazilek said he used to love calling the library’s “hotline,” a phone number that allowed people to ask the library’s employees questions about, well, anything.

“It could be historical. It could be grammatical,” Kazilek said of the questions. “I thought it was really intriguing you could do that.”

There was just one problem: The hotline was available only during the library’s business hours. And, as we all know, the best questions don’t always come to us between 9 and 5.

Years later, when Kazelik was working in ASU’s Department of Zoology and the online age was in its dawn, he was thinking of ways he could help sate people’s curiosity about biology — the questions that people would present to ASU’s biology professors.

He thought back to the Colorado Springs library and that handy hotline. Then he took in the immediacy of the Internet and came up with the idea of a site that could collect, host and answer people’s questions about biology. It had to be smart, but also relatable, and basic enough that middle school students could understand the content.

It started with one page, a basic question-and-answer form.

“When we started we were like, ‘We’re going to open our virtual doors,’ ” Kazilek said of that beginning, 18 years ago.

Man with headphones

Charles Kazilek runs the online learning resource Ask a Biologist.

Word spread about Ask a Biologist and the new site was soon getting up to 50 questions a day, from around the Internet, asking everything from the number of cells in a human body to the differences between humans and other animals.

“At the time I was really cautious because I didn’t want to get the word out because I wasn’t sure I could sustain the program,” he said.

Like everything on the Internet, interest levels necessitated the program's continued existence.

Today, that one page has grown to more than 6,000 pages of questions and answers and has averaged 25,000 visitors a day this year. It has also earned that great placement on Google.

“We used to just mull (questions) over, but we don’t do that anymore. Everybody gets out their cellphones and goes to a search engine,” Kazilek said. “Google has pulled Ask a Biologist.”

A number of volunteers — ranging from “pure” scientists to high school teachers — help keep Ask a Biologist alive, with everything from researching information to translating questions and answers into different languages. They’re up to 11 now.

True, the number of questions submitted to the site has dropped over the years, but Kazilek credits that to the obvious fact that there are more sources for information these days. And the search engines have become more powerful.

At any rate, his simple idea has become a wild success.

“I honestly don’t remember what my expectations were,” he said about the early days.

But Kazilek does know what he sees for the future.

A growing legacy

Success often breeds expansion.

And like the proliferation of a popular fast-food chain or the expansion of a surging ant colony, Ask a Biologist will soon be growing.

In January there are plans to launch Ask an Anthropologist, a “spinoff” site that will focus on mining the expertise of ASU’s Institute of Human Origins.

William H. Kimbel, the institute’s director, said they’re excited to continue the Ask a Biologist legacy and take it into the realm of human origins.

“The Ask an Anthropologist website will help teachers and their students understand the latest scientific information on our place in the natural world and make learning about how and when we became human a fun and engaging experience,” Kimbel said.

And if Kazilek’s vision is fulfilled, this won’t be the last spinoff site.

“We could do some phenomenal things in the world of history,” he said. “I could see 'Ask a Composer.' I could see all sorts of things that fit into this realm. Those are the things I’m hoping for … to have these channels that link together so we don’t have duplicate sites and so when a visitor comes to the site with one question we lead them on a journey in learning in so many ways.”

Yes, the educational merit is important. But Kazilek would also like to preserve his excellent standing on Google.

“I’m greedy,” he said. “My goal is to get to a million visitors a month.”

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'A comedy for a cause'

ASU students get Hollywood filmmaking experience with unique summer internship.
ASU-made dark comedy film helps to fight ALS.
November 17, 2015

ASU students gain experience on 'Hollywood-style' film that's helping in fight vs. ALS

Valley theater vets Gene Ganssle and Ron Hunting had been meeting to play poker for roughly five years when Hunting began to lose the ability to shuffle.

That was around 2011, when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)ALS is also known as Lou Gehrig's disease..

The pair remained good friends, and Hunting continued to be active in the local theater scene, determined to produce work as long as he was able.

In 2014 Ganssle, a lecturer in the School of Film, Dance and TheatreThe School of Film, Dance and Theatre is an academic unit of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University. at Arizona State University, attended a staged reading of a play Hunting had written, titled “Anything You Hear and Only Half of What You See.”

Intrigued by its dark comedy and sense of mystery, Ganssle thought it would make a great film. So he broached the subject with Hunting, who was immediately receptive.

Time was of the essence, though, a fact both were acutely aware of.

“I’d never actually directed a feature before, and I thought this was the right time,” Ganssle said. “But I wanted to make sure he was at the premiere, so I moved forward quickly.”

As luck would have it, a fellow Herberger Institute faculty member, instructor Christopher LaMont, was looking for a film to take the place of another that had fallen through for ASU Film SparkIn past years, ASU Film Spark has produced the films “Car Dogs,” starring George Lopez, and “Justice Served,” starring Marvin Young, better known to most of the world as singer/rapper Young MC., a summer feature-film internship program that gives ASU film students the opportunity to gain experience working on a “Hollywood-style” film set.

So in July 2015, production officially began on “Postmarked,” Ganssle’s film adaptation of Hunting’s play, with support from ASU Film Spark that included a crew of more than 30 ASU students, as well as eight alums, and roughly $200,000 worth of production assistance.

“ASU making us their summer film project was a big lucky break for us, because our budget was originally only $40,000,” Ganssle said.

The plot of “Postmarked” centers on everyday postmen who may have witnessed something they shouldn’t have, and are subsequently taken hostage by a deadly organization. All manners of high jinks and bamboozlement ensue.

Hunting himself spent years working in the postal service, which lends a sense of authenticity to the story.

Filmmaking practices major Lila Hickey worked as an electrician and gaffer for the lighting department during filming. She plans to move to Los Angeles when she graduates this December to pursue a career in the film industry. The experience she gained while working on “Postmarked” has been invaluable.

“Not many kids still in film school have a feature-length film on their resume,” she said. “It’s a very practical application of all the things I have learned.”

That’s the whole point, said LaMont: “As a university, it’s important for us to give our students the biggest opportunities that they can to learn.”

Half of all proceeds from the film will go to fund ALS research.

“I like to call it a comedy for a cause,” said Ganssle.

“Postmarked” will hold an invited preview locally in January 2016.

To learn more about “Postmarked,” and to stay up-to-date on premiere info, visit the film’s website here, or its Facebook page here.

To help fund the film, visit its gofundme page, here.