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Young people learn how to create change at ASU event

Obama Foundation trains young people in how to create change at ASU event.
November 12, 2017

Obama Foundation training day teaches participants to collaborate and be inclusive to solve problems

To create real change, include everyone. That was the message sent to a group of young people who attended the Obama Foundation’s training day for civic engagement on Saturday.

The daylong event, held in partnership with Arizona State University, gathered 150 people ages 18 to 24 from the Tempe area at the new Student Pavilion building on the Tempe campus.

The young people talked about identity, shared their stories with each other, mapped out their strengths and met community leaders who already are working for change. The day involved several workshops that gave them practical skills for identifying and solving problems in their communities.

Randy Perez, an ASU student who is pausing his studies while he works for the Obama Foundation in Tempe, addressed the group, telling them how he pored over the more than 450 applications to be part of the event.

“Something I picked up on was what I’ll call the inspiration gap,” said Perez, who is working on a public policy degree.

“A lot of you said, ‘I’m looking to be inspired to do this work.’ It’s not my job to inspire you. It’s all of our jobs to inspire each other.”

In one session, the young people were asked to reflect on themselves by Steve Becton, associate program director at Facing History and Ourselves, a nonprofit that engages people on the topics of race and prejudice.

“We all have blind spots,” Becton said. “What you have to be is critically conscious. You’re not so much questioning everybody else, but you’re questioning yourself. Your biggest project is yourself.”

ASU student and peer adviser Odessa Clugston works with her group on how they perceive themselves during a session at the Obama Foundation's training day on Saturday on ASU's Tempe campus. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Odessa Clugston, a senior at ASU, was one of 24 peer advisers for the training, a group that spent weeks preparing for the day — including learning how to form a team, lead seminars and work on self-reflection.

“I think working on yourself is the hardest one, right? Knowing our own biases,” said Clugston, who is majoring in justice studies and political science and is working on addressing homelessness in Maricopa County.

“For me, being sustainable is a blind spot. I value the environment but don’t always recycle so I’ve been working on that.”

Another powerful exercise was meant to create empathy. The young people were paired and, led by facilitators from the Narrative 4 nonprofit, each told a three-minute personal story that was then retold by their partner. An African-American woman described her white partner’s experience of being disciplined in high school for sitting during the Pledge of Allegiance. Then the white woman described her African-American partner’s realization that a racially insensitive comment she received came from a lack of understanding, not malice.

In the afternoon, the participants worked on identifying assets — strengths in themselves and in their communities.

“Instead of ‘This is what my community doesn’t have,’ look at what it has,” said Ruthie Moore, a youth council director with Mikva Challenge, the nonprofit organization that led several of the workshops.

She asked the young people to consider the motto of the day: “One voice can change a room.”

“What if we put together more than our voices? What if we put together our assets? Assets help us take action,” Moore said.

The group texted their responses, creating a colorful word cloud on a giant screen, which included determined, diplomatic, resilience, library, public transportation, ASU. The word cloud was another lesson for the future changemakers — in how presenting information visually creates a bigger impact than just speaking.

All of the activities built a framework for learning to take action. The young people chose from a list of Phoenix-area problems, such as homelessness and food deserts, and created a storyboard, listing symptoms and causes, identifying decision makers, brainstorming solutions and agreeing on a first step. They gave one another feedback and envisioned what would happen when the problem is solved.

Among the key points that were emphasized: Be as inclusive as possible by taking a nonpartisan approach.

“Without a broad-based coalition, change can’t happen,” said Josh Prudowsky, chief program officer for Mikva Challenge.

Many of the young people at the training day have already identified community issues they want to address. Brandon Vaca, a psychology major at Chandler-Gilbert Community College, said his high school didn’t fully prepare students for college, so he wants to work with teenagers on college readiness.

“I want them to understand that college is an option. I never saw the bigger picture of how important college is until a few years after high school,” said Vaca, who will transfer to ASU next fall.

He said that networking with the other civically engaged young people in the room was one of the best parts of the program.

“I really liked getting to know all these other people,” he said.

Megan Tom, a senior at ASU, is Navajo and wants to help prepare tribal leaders to work together to preserve the environment. She attended the Obama Foundation training day to ensure that there was a Native voice at the event.

“I wanted to support any Native students who were here, as well as voicing the Native perspective because this is a prestigious opportunity and it’s something I believe can help ensure that indigenous voices are maintained in the civic-engagement dialogue,” said Tom, a senior majoring in English literature with a minor in public policy.

The Tempe training day was only the second one for the Obama Foundation. The first was last month in Chicago, and David Simas, the CEO of the foundation, said he was pleased with one marker of that day’s success: A survey done before the session found that one-third of the participants knew how to take steps to make changes in their community, and a survey after the training showed that 91 percent knew what to do.

“Today we give them inspiration, some skills and some connections that then begin to answer that question, ‘Do you want to get involved?’ This is the way to begin,” Simas said, adding that the foundation will refine the training-day format based on feedback from the Tempe group.

Former President Barack Obama showed up at the Chicago training last month, surprising the group. At Saturday’s ASU event, the day started with a video of Obama giving the same message he gave to the South Side young people:

“When I left the White House, I thought, ‘What’s the single thing I could do that would be the most impactful in this next phase of my life?’

“I realized that the best way for me to have an impact is to train the next generation of leaders so that I can pass the baton, and all of you can make change in your communities, in the country and in the world.”

Clugston, the peer adviser, said that when she learned about the training opportunity, she applied immediately.

“I want to be in community involvement for the rest of my life,” she said, and the Tempe training day was just a start.

“It’s about continuing to mobilize and never giving up hope that things could be better.”

Top photo: Facilitator Charles Miles (left) of the nonprofit group Narrative 4 concludes a session during the Obama Foundation's training day event at the Student Pavilion on ASU's Tempe campus Saturday. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


Founding director of ASU’s Biodesign Institute, Charles Arntzen, retires

Arntzen's creative science led to discovery of Ebola antidote

November 13, 2017

From his roots as a fair-haired Minnesota farm boy to climbing the ladder of success in big pharma, to blazing a translational academic research path into life-saving therapies, Charles Arntzen has led one extraordinary life in science. 

During the course of a prolific career, Arntzen and his collaborators have gained international recognition and helped burnish a special shine on ASU’s star with their dedicated efforts of using plants as biofactories for the production of life-saving vaccines and therapeutics.  Charlie Arntzen Portrait Charles Arntzen was honored by colleagues at his retirement celebration on Nov. 2. Download Full Image

For these achievements and his two decades of leadership at Arizona State University, Arntzen was honored by colleagues with a retirement celebration at the Biodesign Institute on Nov. 2.

“It’s been a creative wonderland within the Biodesign Institute that has allowed us to chase ideas that maybe initially, sounded a little crazy, but bring together the parts to make them a reality,” said Arntzen, who, among his many ASU titles, served as founding director of the Biodesign Institute, co-director of the Biodesign Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology, the ASU Florence Ely Nelson Presidential Endowed Chair and a Regents’ Professor in the School of Life Sciences within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Ebola epidemic

One of those crazy ideas that turned into a career-crowning achievement for Arntzen was an academic, federal and industry collaboration that helped create an experimental drug called ZMapp that was used to treat U.S. aid workers infected with Ebola during the 2014 epidemic in West Africa.

“What does happen in biology, rarely but wonderfully when it happens, is the application of some aspect of research in a way that changes someone's life,” Arntzen said. “On Aug. 4, in 2014, that happened to me. And to be able to draw a straight line from a hypothesis to such a dramatic outcome is rare for a biological scientist like me. I'm still amazed but delighted.”

During the height of the Ebola outbreak, two American missionaries became infected. Physician Kent Brantly and health-care worker Nancy Writebol, both near death and desperate for help, became the first people to receive ZMapp, knowing full well that it had never been tested in humans before.

Kent Brantly

“In 2014, as I was dying from Ebola virus disease, I agreed to take an experimental drug called ZMapp,” Brantly said.  “It seemed like a last resort in my fight against the infection.”

Within 24 hours after taking ZMapp, Brantly went from death’s door to walking again, and both Writebol and Brantly fully recovered.

“Since my recovery, I've had the chance to learn the miraculous history of this drug's development,” Brantly said.

“I'm grateful for the role the Biodesign Institute at ASU has played in the discovery process and in forging ties to industry collaborators who translated new ideas into the product that I received. And upon the occasion of his retirement,” Brantly said, “I offer my sincerest thanks to Charles Arntzen for his pioneering role in establishing plant-made manufacturing and especially for ZMapp. The importance of lifesaving medications cannot be overstated, a lesson I have learned firsthand!”

For his leadership role in developing ZMapp, Arntzen was nationally recognized in 2015 as the No. 1 honoree with Fast Company’s annual “100 Most Creative People in Business.” Closer to home, Arntzen received the 2014 Arizona Bioscience Researcher of the Year award, given annually to the researcher who has made the most significant contributions to Arizona bioscience advancement.

“Charlie Arntzen has been one of the most important faculty members in the history of this university. He’s a person who can think, connect, drive, create and link ... do all of that in the spirit of a scientist in either a corporate or university setting.”

— ASU President Michael Crow

A fertile mind

Little was known of ZMapp at the time of the epidemic, but since then, the world has learned how it originally sprung from the minds of creative scientists like Arntzen and his collaborators more than a decade ago at ASU’s Biodesign Institute.

“Charlie Arntzen has been one of the most important faculty members in the history of this university,” said ASU President Michael Crow. “He’s a person who can think, connect, drive, create and link … do all of that in the spirit of a scientist in either a corporate or university setting.

“Most importantly, one thing I know from working with him, is that nothing is impossible. Anything that you can imagine ... let’s see if we can take viruses that attack animals, embed these viruses genetically into plants, have these animals, humans or others ingest these plants and then be vaccinated from these viruses. Who thought that up? Someone in a science fiction story? No. Arntzen. He thought it up.”

ZMapp is a serum made in a plant with a notorious reputation as a killer, tobacco. The pathway from discovery to treatment began with an idea Arntzen had to produce low-cost vaccines in plants to fight devastating infectious diseases in the developing world.

On a trip to Thailand, Arntzen witnessed a mother soothing a hungry infant by placing a mashed banana on the baby’s lips. He wondered if plants could be a brand-new route for his research, by developing orally delivered or “edible vaccines” from fruits like bananas.

But after spending a decade formulating vaccines in bananas, tomatoes and even potatoes, his team had to veer from that initial idea. It simply took too long to grow the plants (up to three years for bananas) and it was too tough a hurdle to control the dosage from a fruit to pass FDA guidelines.

Now, they focus on making purified plant extracts from quick-growing, leafy tobacco plants (which have a very high yield) containing the vaccine or therapeutic of interest (from plants that are only a few weeks old).

This is how ZMapp is currently made.

The best defense

After 9/11 and the anthrax attack on the U.S. Senate, the government invested heavily in biodefense, including $3.7 million to Arntzen and a small San Diego-based startup called Mapp Biopharmaceutical, led by Larry Zeitlin and Kevin Whaley.

The goal was to develop defenses against pathogens, including Ebola, that could be used as potential biological threats.

“I think the real gain is from all of the money that was invested early on — our work dates back to 2002 — and it takes a long time to build up that core competency that is necessary for drug development,” Arntzen said. “This has happened for both vaccines and therapeutics in academia and companies. We should give credit to funding agencies like DARPA and NIH for giving us the tools that we need.”

With a dream team of collaborators, they modified the tobacco plants to produce a protective cocktail made of three monoclonal antibodies. In work published in 2014, this therapeutic cocktail proved to be 100 percent effective in protecting animals against Ebola, even five days after onset of infection.

“We’ve been teaming together manufacturing innovation, tobacco engineering innovation, our virus work and antibody discoveries,” Arntzen said. “I’m guessing, just in the development of ZMapp, there were about 100 different people with many different skills who came together.”

ZMapp is the leading therapeutic to fight Ebola, but because it was experimental, there were only enough doses to save a few during the 2014 outbreak. In response, the government has awarded a multimillion-dollar contract to Mapp for the massive scale-up desperately needed to stockpile enough of the drug and safeguard against another possible outbreak.

Now, commercial partner Kentucky BioProcessing has produced enough ZMapp for testing in future clinical trials to help optimize the study of how ZMapp works to fight Ebola.  


The godfather of pharming

His research as a scientist at the ASU Biodesign Institute has put Arizona on the map in new ways, as people all over the world are fascinated by the idea that it is possible to produce modern protein drugs inside a plant.

The discovery that tobacco plants could be medicine-machines earned Charlie the title of the “godfather of pharming.” In other words, he was “farming plants in a way that would turn them into medicines — also known as “farmaceuticals.”

These have included plant-based anti-cancer agents, therapeutic agents to protect populations from bioterror threats, proteins to combat rabies, plant-derived vaccines against Hepatitis C, noroviruses and many infectious diseases.

Arntzen's longstanding ASU research team, which includes Tsafrir Mor, Hugh Mason, Qiang “Shawn” Chen and many others, has been a pioneer in producing pharmacologically active products in transgenic plants, overcoming health and agricultural constraints in the developing world as well as the use of plant biotechnology for enhancement of food quality and value.

“Most scientists only plow in one plot,” Mor said. “So few transcend the disciplines as Charlie Arntzen did. Thank you for allowing me to go bananas with you, and being part of this exciting time.”

Together, they will carry on Arntzen’s quest to pursue plant-based vaccines and therapeutics to combat West Nile virus, dengue fever, nerve agents and even cancer.

ASU leadership

Arntzen was recruited to ASU from Cornell, where he served as president and CEO of the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research.

“Charlie joined us in August of 2000, and little did we know that it was such an inflection point for this university,” said Lattie Coor, ASU president from 1990–2002. “Everything I saw when I got here was that this university was already better than it knew it was, but this message hadn’t reached the rest of the world. Once we determined where our strengths were, we began looking actively on how we could build out a better, stronger research platform for the university.

“Charlie was the very first member of the National Academy to join as an ASU faculty. He paved the way for ASU in that kind of pioneering fashion that he showed.”

Arntzen was elected to the prestigious U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 1983. He is known throughout the scientific community for his basic research contributions to plant structure and function and increasing the efficiency of plant photosynthesis for agricultural improvements.

“My research career evolved over 40 years, but always focused on basic research in plant molecular biology and protein engineering, with a goal of enhancing food quality and value,” Arntzen said.

In the late 1980s, he left academia to work as director of plant science and microbiology in DuPont's agricultural products division, where he gained valuable expertise in bringing crop biotechnology to the market, with a focus on herbicide and insect resistance to help boost crop yields.

Once at ASU, he and Coor put together plans to bundle a new source of state funding, the voter-approved Proposition 301 sales tax, into supporting the growth of ASU research in a new interdisciplinary concept of nature-inspired research called the Biodesign Institute.

Their guiding principles were to move away from individual investigators and use multidisciplinary teams to tackle the world’s biggest challenges, with much closer ties to industry to translate groundbreaking discoveries to benefit Arizonans and beyond.

“We wanted to put these components into practice, that as a team, we could never do as individual researchers,” Arntzen said.

Arntzen served as the founding director of the Biodesign Institute (originally called AzBio) until May 2003, and as co-director of Biodesign’s Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology until 2007.

Arntzen was also the director of two NIH-funded cooperative research centers at ASU, working on the development of hepatitis C vaccines and vaccines and microbicides to prevent sexually transmitted infections.

Arntzen’s early, big science team pursuits set the tone for the massive expansion of ASU research, and for the more than 400 creative scientists and students now at the Biodesign Institute who continue to produce groundbreaking discoveries.

These include: linking gut microbial composition to autism, identifying diseases like cancer at their earliest stages, generating renewable energy and making polluted water and soil clean, all with the goal of advancing global health, energy and the environment. 

Most recently, the Biodesign Institute capped another fiscal year with almost $40 million in annual research expenditures, and approaching nearly $700 million in research funding since the bright early days of Biodesign under Arntzen’s leadership.

Since its inception, Biodesign Institute scientists have disclosed nearly 700 inventions, resulting in 97 patents, 53 licensing agreements and 22 spin-out ventures. In its first full decade of operations, Biodesign has had a $1.5 billion impact on the regional economy and supported more than 3,000 jobs. Researchers at the institute currently are studying more than 100 diseases, including cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, immune disorders and infectious diseases.

With their game-changing approach to breaking traditional boundaries between biology, chemistry, physics, computing, engineering and mathematics, Biodesign scientists have launched such new technologies as the world’s first mobile metabolism tracker, an effective treatment for Ebola, a $1 diagnostic for Zika, systems for turning algae into clean energy and a diagnostic platform that can detect some 90 diseases with a single drop of blood.

“Thank you for all that you have done for ASU,” Crow said. “For getting Biodesign off the ground, and most importantly for helping us understand that human beings, when they connect to nature and they understand nature, can really do anything.”

National leadership

Throughout his career, Arntzen has also served the nation through science societies and policy.

Arntzen provided expertise and national service from 2001–2008 on the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST). This policy panel met with former President George W. Bush and members of his administration to provide technical summaries and proposals for advancing the U.S. research capacity and economic growth. As part of PCAST, Arntzen made significant contributions to multiple reports, including biodefense. These reports were the basis of many budget proposals, including the successful establishment of the federal Project Bioshield and expanded university research funding.

Arntzen was selected by the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB) to receive the inaugural fellow of ASPB Award and the Botanical Society of America Centennial Award in 2007. The 2007 fellow of ASPB Award was granted for: “recognition of distinguished and long-term contributions to plant biology and service to the Society by current members in areas that include research, education, mentoring, outreach and professional and public service.”

He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and also of the American Society of Plant Biologists, and a member of the National Academy of Inventors. He received the Award for Superior Service from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for international project leadership in India 1980, and the American Society of Plant Biology Leadership in Science Public Service Award in 2004.

Forging ahead

An avid golfer, nature photographer and global traveler, Arntzen will now have ample opportunity to take advantage of Arizona’s year-round sunshine and enjoying life with his wife, Kathy, his son's family and especially his grandchildren.

Yet he’ll still keep an advisory role, hoping to help ASU’s plant experts and his academic family with bringing more vaccines and therapeutics to the market.

“I have been fortunate to work with a wonderful team of people at ASU, and with companies with extraordinary and complementary skills at Mapp, ICON and KBP,” Arntzen said. “I am not yet ready to quit just yet, as I believe that a plant-made norovirus vaccine will only come if we can find a formulation that will work, and we still have ongoing research with that goal in mind.”

Due to the Ebola epidemic of 2014 — and continued concern about the spread of newly emerging dangerous viruses — the number of scientists and pharmaceutical companies interested in finding cost-effective new vaccines and drugs is expanding. 

Arntzen will cheer on the continued developments in the use of plants as “medicine machines” and trying to save many more lives, particularly in developing world.

“In my mind, ZMapp has been a success both as a medicine and to show that ‘pharming’ works,” Arntzen said.

“I’m happy to retire, but will certainly keep watching what you do.”

Joe Caspermeyer

Manager (natural sciences), Media Relations & Strategic Communications