From brain connections to memories: ASU psychology graduate student wins National Science Foundation fellowship

April 19, 2018

Blake Elliott, a graduate student in the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University, has received a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The prestigious fellowship funds Elliott’s tuition and stipend for three years and provides research funds. Elliott uses magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to study how connections within the brain contribute to what we remember.

It was a breakfast burrito that started Elliott on the path to wanting to know about connections between neurons, which are the cells that make up the brain, and human behavior. A track-and-field coach at his high school bought Elliott the burrito while talking about running competitively. Blake Elliott, graduate student in ASU Department of Psychology Blake Elliott, a graduate student in the Department of Psychology at ASU, will use his NSF Fellowship to study how memory works. Photo by Robert Ewing Download Full Image

“Success on the track changed my life. It motivated me to keep improving, which caused me to train harder and smarter,” Elliott said. “I began reading everything I could on kinesiology, exercise physiology, nutrition and sports psychology.”

Elliott’s love of running fast introduced him to science and eventually landed him at ASU as a star member of the track team and an undergraduate psychology student. Elliott finished his collegiate running career last year when he began working toward his doctorate in psychology.

“When I was an undergraduate student at ASU, I became interested in how we can remember things that are valuable to us,” he said. “As a graduate student, I decided to use MRI methods that measure brain activity and map brain pathways to look at how the brain tracks value and uses it when we remember.”

To study what role brain connections play in memory, Elliott had to connect two research labs in ASU’s Department of Psychology. Elliott works with Gene Brewer, associate professor of psychology, in the Memory and Attention Lab and with Samuel McClure, associate professor of psychology, in the Decision Neuroscience Lab.

Brewer’s lab studies memory, and one area of focus is how the brain uses its limited resources to remember what is most relevant, important or useful.

“We cannot remember all the events and details of our lives,” Brewer said, “and we need signals that let us know something is important or relevant and is a priority to remember.”

Scientists think the dopamine system broadcasts signals in the brain that indicate an event or detail is valuable enough to remember. McClure’s lab studies the role of the dopamine system in decision-making by using mathematical models and by developing new human neuroimaging methods.

“Dopamine monitors how valuable something is to us. It tracks the value of everything, from cheeseburgers to abstract goals, and sends those value signals throughout the brain,” McClure said. “The goal of my work with Blake and Gene is to link the value signal to memory formation in the brain.”

Elliott will use the MRI scanner to create a map of the connections between brain areas where dopamine is made and brain areas where memories are formed. Working with McClure and Brewer, Elliott will compare the strength of those connections with value signals from mathematical models of memory formation.

“It is rare that you can find a link between a complex behavior, such as memory, and individual connections in the brain,” McClure said. “Pursuing this link is what makes Blake’s research innovative.”

Science writer, Psychology Department


Honoring outstanding alumni from construction and civil engineering

April 19, 2018

On March 2, the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment hosted their annual Academy of Distinguished Alumni and Hall of Fame awards ceremony and dinner.

The academy honors a select group of SSEBE alumni who have had stellar careers and given back to the programs within the school. On March 2, 2018, the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment hosted their annual Academy of Distinguished Alumni and Hall of Fame awards ceremony and dinner. Photo by Marco-Alexis-Chaira/ASU Download Full Image

Established in 1990, the Hall of Fame recognizes individuals who are not alumni but have contributed to the advancement of the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, one of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, its educational and research mission and its preparation of the industry’s workforce.

The ceremony inducted two of the school’s outstanding contributors into the Hall of Fame and six alumni exemplars into the Academy of Distinguished Alumni.

Entering the Hall of Fame

Bo Calbert and Charles E. O’Bannon are this year’s Hall of Fame inductees.

Calbert served as president of McCarthy Building Companies — Southwest Division from 2000 to his retirement in 2016, concluding 35 years with the company. Calbert’s contributions and leadership for the Del E. Webb School of Construction have been substantial.

“When I look at someone who really provides servant leadership, Bo [Calbert] comes to mind immediately,” said G. Edward Gibson Jr., director of the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment. “Bo has been a great leader of his company with a wonderful 35-year career.”

Calbert’s work with the Alliance for Construction Excellence and the Construction Industry Advisory Council made a significant impact on strategic direction and vision for the school, including the development of the construction engineering program. His commitment to the Block 12 Building fundraising campaign was instrumental in helping construct the College Avenue Commons building.

O’Bannon, the other 2018 Hall of Fame inductee, retired from ASU in 1997 after 33 years as a professor, including seven years serving as chair of the Civil Engineering Department.

During his tenure, he established a legacy of inspiring hundreds of leaders in civil engineering and construction. O’Bannon’s energy, intellect, humor and his quest for living in spite of physical challenges were an inspiration to his family, friends, students and all the “strangers he never met.”

Carey O’Bannon Kyler and D’Ann O’Bannon Clewis accepted the honor posthumously on behalf of their father, who passed away on July 14, 2000.

“Over and over again, when I first arrived at ASU, I heard stories from people who went through both the civil engineering and construction programs about how O’Bannon helped them make it through ASU and into their career,” Gibson said. “His career had a huge impact on the legacy we have here at the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment.”

These awardees join eight others who have been honored as Hall of Fame members in the past.

Joining the Academy of Distinguished Alumni

The Academy of Distinguished Alumni recognizes alumni who embody the spirit of ASU as a New American University and show excellence in their professional work as well as compassion and support for their communities.

These individual awards are granted to outstanding alumni of the Del E. Webb School of Construction and the Civil, Environmental and Sustainable Engineering program.

This year’s awardees include:

  • George J. “Jim” Geiser, PE (’77 BS, civil engineering) is the retired principal of Prelude Engineering. Geiser was recognized for working with undergraduates through Friends of Civil Engineering and establishing a scholarship for civil engineering undergraduate students. Geiser, who retired from the United States Marine Corps, recently lead the effort to create a recognition wall outside of the Tillman Center for all of ASU’s fallen soldiers.
  • LeRoy C. Hanneman Jr. (’69 BS, construction) is a 35-year veteran of the housing industry and former president, chief operating and executive officer of Del Webb Corporation. Hanneman supported construction management for many years through the Industry Advisory Council, student competitions and establishing several undergraduate student scholarships.
  • Geza E. Kmetty, PE (’65 BS, civil engineering) has more than 40 years of civil engineering design and business management experience in transportation and urban infrastructure development. Kmetty is world renowned for value engineering, continues to teach civil engineering courses at ASU and was recently recognized with the Arizona Transportation Engineering Legacy Award.
  • Debra Larson, PE (’94 PhD, civil engineering) is provost and vice president for academic affairs at California State University, Chico. Larson is the consummate PhD graduate, balancing experience in engineering and in academia. She has received significant recognition during her career, most notably the Excellence in Civil Engineering Education Leadership Award from the American Society of Civil Engineering.
  • Valerie S. Roberts (’87 BS, construction) is the senior vice president of Global Field Services at Jacobs Engineering. Roberts has had an exemplary career in construction management. Prior to Jacobs, she was the acting principal deputy for the NIF & Photon Science Directorate at Lawrence Livermore. She joined the NIF project in 1996 as construction manager. Prior to Lawrence Livermore, Roberts worked 11 years at Sandia National Laboratory. 
  • Michael D. Roy (’79 BS, construction – office operations) is executive vice president of Bragg Companies, Inc. Roy, a continuous supporter of the Del E. Webb School of Construction, helped establish connections with alumni and professional associations in Southern California during the College Avenue Commons building campaign. 

Many of these alumni have remained affiliated with ASU since their graduation and have contributed to the success of the Fulton Schools.

These awardees join 24 other alumni who have been inducted into the academy since it began in 1995.

Erik Wirtanen

Web content comm administrator, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering