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ASU Make a Difference Week highlights student, alumni service work

Service work can be just as enriching for you as it is helpful to others.
Make A Difference Week @ ASU runs from Oct. 16–21.
October 13, 2017

Since Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico three weeks ago, 83 percent of the island is without power and 36 percent has no running water. The humanitarian crisis there and the recovery efforts still underway in Texas, Louisiana and Florida from preceding storms underscore the importance of the work done by volunteers who put their life on hold to deliver essential supplies and provide life-sustaining aid.

That level of commitment may seem daunting to students given their myriad academic commitments. But Arizona State University junior Anita Le wants them to know that service doesn’t have to be a sacrifice.

“Service is a culture and a lifestyle,” she said. “It can be something you incorporate into whatever you’re already doing, regardless of your interests or major.”

As the Changemaker Devils in Disguise committee chair, Le has been helping to organize Make A Difference Week @ ASU, a weeklong series of activities running from Oct. 16-Oct. 21, geared toward getting students involved in service opportunities.

“Make a Difference Week is intended to build awareness of all the ways that ASU students and alumni can use their diverse education and experiences to make an impact in the world around them,” said Amy Michalenko, director of service delivery and strategic initiatives at ASU, who was also instrumental in the planning.

“ASU has a strong tradition of engaging students in service. ... Plus, we regularly hear from students of all majors that they have a desire to work in a position that will have a positive social impact.”

The week of events is co-hosted by ASU’s national service partners, including Teach For America, Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, and it will feature a book drive, film screening, street fair, Peace Corps information session and more.

It will culminate in Make a Difference Day on Saturday, Oct. 21, a national day of service for which ASU is partnering with various nonprofit organizations to provide service opportunities for students on every campus.

students pose in front of St. Vincent de Paul banner

Anita Le (center with sunglasses) poses with ASU students and Next Generation Service Corps friends while volunteering for St. Vincent de Paul. Photo courtesy of Anita Le

Le became involved in service work through Next Generation Service Corps after switching from pre-med to pre-law in order to get a better understanding of the areas in which she’d like to bring about policy change: advocacy work, sustainability and mental health.

Since then, she has tutored and worked with refugees and abused children around the Valley and hopes to one day become a civil rights lawyer.

“I want to effect big-picture, systemic change,” she said.

She’s far from the only one — several ASU students have and still are making waves in service work.

As an alternative energy and technologies student in 2013, Mentor Dida started Green Devils, a student club dedicated to sustainable solutions on campus, and introduced the Two Dollar Challenge movement, where students abstained from modern-day luxuries and lived on just two dollars a day, sleeping in cardboard boxes on campus. The goal was to reflect on the daily and prolonged challenges of living in poverty while raising awareness and funds to support economic development organizations.

Later, as a grad student, Dida collaborated to create the non-profit organization Prosperity Initiative in Kosovo, geared toward eliminating poverty in his homeland.

In 2010, a group of ASU students banded together as part of the Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) program in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering to create 33 Buckets, a purification system and distribution model to provide clean water to people in developing nations.

Adrian Fields, current graduate student at the W. P. Carey School of Business and a Peace Corps Fellow, works with EPICS to expand the program’s reach and increase its numbers. In his work for the Peace Corps, Fields spent two years in Gambia, training teachers on how to better manage their classrooms and teaching English as a second language. With a background in education and nonprofit work, he wants to focus on corporate responsibility in his career.

On his time in the Peace Corps, he said, “I thought giving up two years of my life to make an impact [on others] as well as an impact on myself was well worth it. I may have learned a lot more from those two years than I gave.”

That reciprocal exchange is part of what makes service a “beautiful thing,” said Cynthia Lietz, senior associate dean of ASU’s College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

“As we work to make the world a better place for others, we find our own situations simultaneously improved,” Lietz said. “Service is enriching; it brings meaning to our lives.”

students in a classroom wearing ASU shirts

Students in Kelsey Bayer's sixth-grade math class throw up their best pitchforks. Photo courtesy of Kelsey Bayer

Recent ASU graduate Kelsey Bayer got involved in service work as an undergrad through a fundraising campaign for an orphanage in Ghana. When she visited there in 2015, she said, “I experienced firsthand just how crucial education is to enhance any opportunity. The kids at the orphanage were so smart but didn’t have access to education. … It got me thinking about the inequity that so many kids are facing, even in our own country.”

When she returned from the trip, Bayer applied to be a volunteer for Teach For America. She now teaches sixth-grade math at a small charter school in Massachusetts and plans to continue on there once her two-year commitment is up.

She and many others are great examples of how the service they engage in at ASU helps shape their lives even after graduation.

“What’s special about ASU is that they gave us all these tools to do something great with,” Bayer said.

She credits not only her professors and education in general but the resources and opportunities to engage with nonprofits and other organizations for helping her begin a “really meaningful life and career.”

Top photo: ASU W. P. Carey graduate student Adrian Fields teaching a student in Gambia, where he served for two years in the Peace Corps. Photo courtesy of Adrian Fields

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ASU team supports first-ever detection of light from a gravitational-wave source

October 16, 2017

On Aug. 17 at 5:41:04 a.m. Mountain Standard Time, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detected a burst of gravitational waves. About two seconds later, a brief flash of gamma rays was observed by the orbiting Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope and by the International Gamma-Ray Astrophysics Laboratory.

Immediately, a team of astronomers, including Arizona State University's Nathaniel Butler, started using ground-based telescopes as well as space telescopes to try to pinpoint a candidate source in the sky. Based on the date when it occured, astronomers designated the gravitational wave source as GW170817.

The nearly simultaneous timing between the gravitational waves and the gamma-ray burst helped the team zero in on an elliptical galaxy designated NGC 4993. It showed a bright spot in visible, infrared and ultraviolet light where previous images of the galaxy showed nothing unusual.

This was the first time ever that light emitted from a source of gravitational waves has been observed. The team's report was published Oct. 16 in the journal Nature.

Two views of the gravitational wave source GW170817. At left, the elliptical galaxy NGC 4993, as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope and showing visible light from the gravitational wave source, circled at upper left. On the right, NASA's orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory also detected the source near the galaxy. This discovery is the first time such a source has been seen across the electromagnetic spectrum from radio waves to gamma rays. Images courtesy of Space Telescope Science Institute/NASA/Chandra X-ray Observatory

Shaking the fabric of the universe

Gravitational waves are ripples in space-time caused by events such as collisions or mergers between massive objects — for example, neutron stars or black holes.

"Gravitational waves are signals from the most powerful events that occur in astrophysics," said Butler, who is an associate professor in ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration.

Gravitational waves travel at the speed of light. When they pass through a gravitational wave "telescope" or detector, they reveal themselves by tiny, transient changes in the instrument.

Currently, three gravitational wave detectors are in operation. Two that are part of LIGO are in the United States, in Louisiana and Washington State, and one is in Italy near Pisa. Two additional detectors are being built in Japan and India.

Gravitational wave detectors work by measuring with extreme precision the distance between a central laser light source and mirrors at the ends of two arms at right angles to each other. At LIGO, each arm is 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) long. When a gravitational wave passes through the instrument, the distances along the arms briefly stretch and shrink by fractions of a millimeter, distorting the laser beam from the central source.

But local disturbances cause a lot of jitter in the instrument. To identify a passing gravitational wave, astronomers need to sift carefully the real signals from countless false ones. As a result, up until the Aug.17 event, only four such gravitational wave events have been reliably detected, one of them just three days before, on Aug. 14.

Where is it?

Butler was part of the team that identified the source in a distant galaxy and calculated the power of the explosion. This helped astronomers determine what caused the blast of gravitational waves.

"We were lucky," Butler said, "because the source emitted a gamma-ray burst that we could easily locate in the sky."

The gamma-ray burst was identified as coming from a small area of sky in the constellation Hydra. As noted above, this let the astronomers examine the area closely with ground-based and other orbiting telescopes.

Butler explained, "The host galaxy — NGC 4993 — is relatively bright and so was the visible light source. In fact, at magnitude 16, it could have been seen by eye in a large backyard telescope." The galaxy lies about 130 million light-years away.

What you see depends on where you stand. This sketch shows the neutron star binary pair (black dot) that merged and surrounding space. Viewers in different locations see different events; our view was neither edge-on nor straight down the polar jet. The thumbnail diagrams indicate the rise and decay of light from different parts of the object as time progresses after the outburst when the two stars merged. Image from E. Troja/University of Maryland

What is it?

After the team identified the likely source for the gravitational waves, the next question involved what caused the outburst. That meant examining evidence across all wavelengths where the source was visible. These spanned radio waves, visible, infrared and ultraviolet light, plus X-rays and gamma rays.

One possibility the team considered and then set aside: a supernova. These occur when a massive star reaches the end of its normal existence and blows up in a colossal explosion.

However, a supernova would be too powerful to be the source that was seen in the galaxy. A better fit is smaller explosion that astronomers call a "kilonova."

These occur when a pair of neutron stars are locked in a binary system where they orbit each other. Being objects with strong gravity, as they orbit they steadily emit gravitational waves. These are too small to be detected from Earth, but nonetheless steal orbital energy and velocity from the pair.

As their orbital velocity bleeds away, the neutron stars move closer and closer. When they touch, they quickly merge — and a kilonova explosion erupts.

Littering the neighborhood

The multiwavelength observations also helped fill in the picture of what surrounded the pair before and after the kilonova eruption.

"There is some discussion among the team about the details," Butler said. "However, it appears that the system would have included the binary pair, a disk of gas around them, and jets of high-temperature gas and energetic particles shooting out at right angles from the disk.

"Surrounding this at a greater distance would be shells of gas, charged to glow by the radiation coming from the binary pair."  

According to the team, the view from Earth suggests that we are not looking straight down one of the jets, nor are we observing the disk in its equator. Rather the view is from an intermediate angle.

"This was an exciting discovery," Butler said, "because we finally detected light across the electromagnetic spectrum from an event associated with gravitational waves. It brought a lot of pieces together."

It also confirmed, he said, "that some gamma-ray bursts are narrowly beamed toward us and arise from the merger of neutron stars. And now we know for the first time at least one kind of astrophysical system that emits detectable gravitational waves."

Top image: An artist's impression of gravitational waves generated by binary neutron stars. Image by R. Hurt/Calteck-JPL

Robert Burnham

Science writer , School of Earth and Space Exploration