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Finding solutions one step at a time

ASU gallery brings minds together for creative conversations on treadmills.
May 11, 2017

Gallery brings MacArthur fellow, ASU community members together for conversations on treadmills

Liz Lerman is somebody who both talks the talk and walks the walk. Over the course of the past semester, she’s been doing both in a gallery in the ASU Art Museum.

For “Minds on the Move: The Treadmill Tapes,” the MacArthur fellow and Herberger Institute professor invited members of the ASU community to join her on side-by-side treadmills to talk about whatever is most “current, curious, urgent, or vexing” for them.

The first walk she took in the museum, in January, was with Cristóbal Martinez, a scholar in rhetoric, composition and linguistics and a member of the indigenous arts collective Postcommodity. For the final installment of this iteration of the Treadmill Tapes, she walked with ASU President Michael Crow.

In between, she walked and had conversations with 36 people: ASU students, faculty and staff. These conversations were projected onto three of the gallery’s walls during the course of the exhibition.

Lerman believes that when you walk and discuss something at the same time, the conversation goes in interesting and unexpected directions, as if it's energized by the walking. As Crow said toward the end of their walk together, "Things happen in your brain. It's a little clearer."

Walking, and movement more generally, are how Lerman processes the world. A dancer from childhood, she founded the groundbreaking Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in 1976 and led the group for 34 years. In addition to performing on the stage, she has taken her practice into nursing homes and religious institutions, into prisons and hospitals — in keeping with her belief that the Dance Exchange needed to keep one foot in the community and one in the concert world.

During a Treadmill Talk with Herberger Institute dean Steven J. Tepper, Lerman said she “was given some deep missions in life that went well beyond me.” These came in large part from her father, a civil rights activist, and her mother, who “lived and breathed art.” Lerman herself could be described as both an arts activist and civil rights artist. She’s a proponent of the power of artistic practice and the role that artistically driven research can play beyond the art world, and she practices what she preaches.

In 2005, she was commissioned to create a piece for an international conference on human rights at Harvard Law School. The law professor who commissioned the piece wrote to Lerman that she hoped a dance “would reach people who seldom think about mass atrocities — students, lawyers — with the chance to be drawn in emotionally and intellectually.

At Wesleyan University, she premiered a piece called “Ferocious Beauty: Genome,” as part of the institution’s goal of connecting art and science, for which the dancers worked with geneticists. The challenge and the paradox of the piece, she wrote, was “to take a subject, genetics, and a form, modern dance, both of which can be difficult to understand, then to combine them into something that would be understandable.”

“From the beginning, dance has been a way for human beings to grasp what they otherwise could not comprehend,” she writes in her 2011 book “Hiking the Horizontal: Field Notes from a Choreographer.”

‘Beyond movement for movement’s sake’

Lerman arrived at ASU in January of 2016 as Herberger Institute’s first Institute Professor, and the first member of its Ensemble Lab. Her class, “Animating Research,” introduces students to her Critical Response Process, a four-step approach to giving and receiving artistic feedback, and links them to ASU research projects in a way that enables artists to refine their personal voice in the course of translating ideas, statistics and other research into new forms.

“I didn’t know about Liz Lerman before I took the class,” said David Olarte, a salsa dancer who earned master's degrees in dance, and in social and cultural pedagogy in 2016. (He’s entering the doctoral dance program in the fall.) “Some of my peers in the dance community told me she’s pretty much a living legend in the dance world.”

Olarte said that Lerman is “down to earth and extremely approachable, but at the same time she’s extremely intense when it comes to being an artist and a researcher and a teacher. You rarely find all three in one person.”

In a class that was both interdisciplinary and multigenerational, Olarte said, Lerman served as a mentor and a guide.

“The class was about using the arts to illustrate, animate, bring to life research of all kinds,” said Allyson Yoder, who earned her bachelor's degree in dance last year. “I remember Liz saying to us at the end of the class, ‘I don’t want you to feel like there’s anything out of your reach or anything you can’t approach with art.’ What she gave us was tools and techniques and a mindset, a way of listening and asking questions that can help you get to the heart of issues that are complicated and that might not seem immediately relevant to your life.”

“I feel like I have a starting place to tackle things that go beyond movement for movement’s sake.”

“For her, being an artist, you need to research what your topic is,” Olarte said. “It’s more than just being a self-absorbed artist. It’s about really making connections.”

Risk, Purpose, Love

Lerman has said that she sees research as “an act of conversation.” Conversely, in the case of the Treadmill Tapes, she also seems to approach conversation as an act of research.

Like Lerman, ASU President Michael Crow makes connections quickly and nimbly. Their hour-long treadmill talk was fast-moving and wide-ranging. (See an excerpt below.)

Over the course of 60 minutes, they touched on everything from the parallels between dancing and javelin throwing (Crow was a javelin thrower in college) to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle to the impact that Crow’s frequent moves as a child — he went to 17 different schools before graduating from high school — had on the way he sees the world. (Answer: “What you get from that is a sense that life is very different across all families. Everybody doesn’t have the same chance. There’s lots of natural favor that’s given to certain groups and certain people.”)

Along the way, Crow talked about how his youngest granddaughter, who is 18 months old, starts dancing when she hears music.

“It’s just amazing to watch her eyes light up,” he said. “Now what is that? That means that there’s something innate in human beings. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something innate in our desire to be connected to energy that’s taking a form that activates a certain thinking in our brain, and then allows us or desires us to express it. That could be sociological, could be biological. Could be one of those things, but she’s only 1 1/2 years old!”

“I think it’s also not just sociological or biological but it’s a form of comprehension,” Lerman said. “Physical is the first way we come to see and understand anything. And why we give that up over time, because we’re embarrassed or whatever — embodiment is a deep form of learning and discovery….”

“ ….and expression,” Crow added. “Every child is an explorer, every child is a natural learner, every child is an artist and a scientist. Every child.”

“Yes,” Lerman said. “I believe that, too.”

two people talking on treadmills

Choreographer, MacArthur 'Genius Grant' recipient and Herberger Institute Professor Liz Lerman takes a walk on treadmills with ASU President Michael Crow in the ASU Art Museum, on Thursday, April 27, as part of her "Minds on the Move: The Treadmill Tapes" exhibit. The two walked and talked for 55 minutes, covering 2.5 miles worth of topics ranging from their backgrounds to evolution, the necessity of higher education and the future. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Lerman asked the president for his thoughts on three key concepts she’s been mulling over lately: risk, purpose and love.

“Those are three extremely important concepts,” Crow responded. “Among human beings, love is probably the most important, because I think it’s almost impossible for a human being to go it alone. I don’t think it’s possible.”

As for purpose, he said, “life’s purpose could be that, could be love, loving others, taking care of others and being part of others, that’s a huge part of everyone’s life. But I’m a believer that purpose has to be that plus other things.”

Lerman and Crow agreed that humans have an innate need for risk-taking. “That’s one reason I make art,” Lerman said.

As the walk drew to a close, Lerman asked Crow what’s bothering him these days. He replied that his answer changes minute to minute, and that in fact walking on the treadmill with Lerman had allowed him to relax and let go of some of the day’s tension.

Then he went on to say, “What I worry about is how do we work to broaden this concept — you’ve got these people running around now saying with artificial intelligence coming we're just going to have to give a guaranteed income to every person that will never be able to work again. And I’m like, well, whoever says that must not understand anything about human nature. Everyone needs to be creative, needs to be empowered, needs to be a part of the solution, needs to be figuring out how to make things happen. And so what I’m interested in is trying to find every day ways to move around this notion of ‘There will be a few winners and lots of losers.’”

And then eventually the treadmill slowed, to indicate the end of the final Treadmill Tape at ASU.

Crow asked Lerman what would happen to the tapes now. She answered that they would be archived and that there may be a podcast in the future. “People say amazing things when they’re walking on the treadmill.”

“That’s one of the things I never understand,” Crow said. “We have so many people and so many ideas and so many ways to express things. How do we synthesize them down to where people can capture them or glimpse them?”

Maybe, he posited, we need to figure out how to express things in ways that allow people to connect with them emotionally and then delve into them.

No doubt recognizing that the president had just articulated one of art’s primary jobs, Lerman replied, “I think that is a beautiful sentence with which to end.” 

Excerpt from Lerman and Crow's Treadmill Tape conversation

Liz Lerman: I’m very interested in the possibility of flexible structures and how we bring them to the university.

Michael Crow: Well, we have flexible structures in that there’s no one that says to anyone here, ‘You must live within structure A or structure B,’ other than themselves. We don’t say that. We’ve created design freedom for those that want to exercise it. But lots of people are afraid to exercise it.

LL: So we’re back to fear.

MC: Fear not in an overwhelming sense. It’s kind of funny to me — so people always talk about well, we can’t do this because of that, we can’t do this because they might be upset, we can’t do that because we might be laughed at by the other universities.

LL: I just say, Be like water and go. That’s sort of my answer to that. It’s not quite the same, but it works, for me. Be like water, go around, go under, go through, whatever.

MC: And then also remember that everything water touches changes, so there is no static associated with anything that touches water, is in water, that water flows through or around; it’s changing constantly.

LL: This is why I like choreographic thinking. Because it supports constant change. With rigor, and understanding that it’s change.

MC: So constant change, constant reassessment, constant rethinking, constant conscious evolution. Human beings have been, for most of our species’ existence, evolving in meaningful and demonstrable ways but not well thought through. So we’re just now getting to the point where we’re thinking about it a little bit more. What do we want to be? Where do we want to end up, what do we want the world to be like? Not what can we make it like: What do we want it to be like.

Deborah Sussman

Communications and media specialist, Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts


ASU professor to extend potential benefits of rapid TB test to children

May 11, 2017

Recently, a new Arizona State University invention by ASU Biodesign Institute researcher Tony Hu has resulted in the development of the world’s fastest and most accurate blood test for tuberculosis (TB). The test can provide new hope to physicians in the treatment of people infected with TB, with results in a just few hours instead of the week or two it currently takes with traditional methods.

This new test, which Hu hopes to bring to the market soon, means patients who might have waited weeks or months to get the right drugs can now be diagnosed in a few hours. Doctors will be able to run the test early and often during therapy to see whether a patient’s treatments are working. This gives those infected with TB a greater chance of recovery. ASU Biodesign Institute researcher Tony Hu. Download Full Image

Helping children

Tony Hu now wants to extend the vast potential of the test’s benefits to help save children infected by TB. This would be a potential game-changer for the one million children and ten million people who fall ill with TB every year.

Hu, a researcher at the Virginia Piper Center for Personal Diagnostics at ASU’s Biodesign Institute and faculty at the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, was recently awarded a five-year, $2.7 million grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to adapt his breakthrough technology and develop a new rapid tuberculosis diagnostic test for children.

“We are confident that our strategy will provide for the early detection of active pediatric TB cases, which will decrease TB disease progression and improve outcomes,” Hu said. “We also hope that rapid monitoring of pediatric TB therapy may allow physicians to personalize a child’s treatment to avoid unnecessary exposure to toxic TB drugs once a child has cleared their TB infection.”

Tuberculosis has historically been one of the most fatal diseases of the last couple centuries with about a billion deaths; it has historically been known as consumption or the white plague.

Part of the reason is that TB has cunningly evolved to survive within the human host undetected, living within one of the body's first lines of defense — immune cells. When the immune system is working as it should the infection is called latent, meaning the patient is asymptomatic but it can still be detected and treated.

Hu’s TB test is the first one that can rapidly and accurately identify the most dangerous, active stage of TB infections using a blood sample.

Although we have come a long way in our fight against tuberculosis, one-third of the world's population is still infected with TB today. According to the World Health Organization, in 2015, 10.4 million people around the world became sick and there were 1.8 million TB-related deaths worldwide — with an estimated 1 million children becoming ill and 170,000 children died from it.

Tuberculosis is a particularly dangerous disease for the young. Pediatric cases of TB have a particularly large rate of mortality and morbidity because children have not developed their immune systems fully and the disease can progress rapidly from latent to active TB.

The current testing methods are time intensive and sputum samples, the common way to confirm TB infection in adults, are difficult to obtain. Children often are infected with a smaller number of bacteria (paucibacillary disease) and can often falsely test negative.

It’s no wonder the World Health Organization has highlighted the development of a faster and more sensitive method for TB testing as a worldwide top priority.

Making an impact

The idea for the test sprung up when Hu was a chemist at the University of Texas Houston, working on new nanotechnology development — but he realized there were no known applications to the technology he was developing yet. He attended a biochemistry lecture that got him thinking about using it for diagnostics and decided to move into the biomedical engineering field seeing how his current skillset could be enhanced and applied for medically relevant purposes.

One of the hurdles they had to overcome was that biomarkers had not been detected in the blood before that were specific for active cases of TB. The team did extensive analysis on protein fragments and eventually found ones that made testing sensitive to even the difficult to detect cohorts like the commonly fatal HIV-TB co-infected.

“This exploratory work is in itself ground-breaking due to the wealth and quality of clinical and bacteriological data to match with biomarker responses,” Hu said. “The new insights gained will promote future work in the field of markers of treatment response in children with TB. This research is critical to pave the way to more appropriate management of children with TB.”

With the NICHD funding support, Hu’s team will combine the powers of advanced nano-sensing technology and TB molecular biology, and intend to optimize and validate a quantitative biomarker detection and monitoring platform that works in tandem with “miniaturized” mass spectrometry.

At the core of the technology, Hu’s lab developed nanoparticles with very specific antibodies attached, through which blood and eventually urine samples can be used to detect TB. This is a much faster and less invasive approach than the current methods of coughing up sputum, biopsy, spinal taps or growing blood cultures.

For this grant, Hu’s lab has partnered with Stellenbosch University's Desmond Tutu Tuberculosis Centre to test blood samples from infected patients. South Africa has the fourth highest TB rate in the world, while the Western Cape Province has the highest number of new TB cases in the country, the Desmond Tutu Centre is in the unique position to have access to a large variety of samples from their community.

The grant aims to validate and develop a quantitative model for active TB in which they could potentially test the effectiveness of treatment as well by testing the blood at various time intervals throughout treatment.

“The proposed work on evaluating our Nanoparticle-MS assay as a marker of TB treatment response will ensure unprecedented in-depth engagement with the bioanalytical and clinical data, and thus improve data management and interpretation of results, leading to clinically relevant outputs, and new hypotheses and insights,” Hu said.

Eventually, once the system has been refined the goal would be to us this accurate, high-throughput testing method with an easy-to-use shoe-boxed size detection system which would allow this technology to reach some of the world’s populations that are most in need.

Written by: Lerys del Moral, freelance science writer 

Media contact: Joe Caspermeyer,