image title

Beuses' $10 million gift to build world’s first-of-its-kind X-ray laser lab at ASU

April 18, 2019

Investment to advance drug discovery, medicine and renewable energy

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. Read more top stories from 2019.

Through their generous philanthropic investments, Leo and Annette Beus have already made a lasting ASU impact. They have changed the face of the downtown Phoenix landscape with the addition of the Beus Center for Law and Society, supported Sun Devil Athletics and provided numerous scholarships to increase student access to a college education.

Now, with a new $10 million investment, the Beuses want to help shape the future of medicine and improve the lives of others. Their ever-deepening ASU commitment will enable the completion of the Beus Compact X-ray Free Electron Laser (CXFEL) Lab, now under construction at ASU’s Biodesign Institute. The CXFEL will be a first-of-its-kind X-ray technology with potential applications in medicine, the “green” renewable energy economy, the computer industry and beyond.

“Leo and Annette Beus have become more than visionary benefactors critical to the mission and success of ASU; they represent the very best of our ASU family,” said ASU President Michael Crow, in announcing the gift. “With this most recent investment, they will spur the development of a brilliant, home-grown ASU X-ray technology that has a vast potential for life-altering, worldwide impact.”

For the Beuses, the opportunity to contribute to the future well-being of the community was a perfect fit for their philanthropic spirit.

“If you combine what you really think is sophisticated applied science and facilities with some of the most dedicated and smartest people you can ever imagine, it’s about as good as it gets,” said Leo Beus, who has practiced law in the Valley for more than 40 years at Beus Gilbert PLLC.

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU Now

The Beuses are hopeful this new ASU X-ray technology will lead to speeding up the costly drug discovery process and better drugs with fewer side effects.

“You know, every time that Leo and I have visited the Biodesign Institute, we have found something fascinating,” Annette Beus said. “And this laser is fascinating to me because I personally know of so many friends and family members who are affected by the bad effects of drugs that they have to take to support their lives. I just think the future is wide open with the good that can come from this laser.”

Looking even deeper beneath the surface

Ever since their original discovery almost 125 years ago, X-rays have transformed medicine and the way we see the human body, become modern-day national security sentinels at airports, and even captivated moviegoers’ imaginations by bestowing awesome powers to superheroes.

Despite changing the shape of medicine throughout the 20th century, X-ray technology changed only incrementally along the way. But there is a new excitement with 21st-century advances in applied physics to make a new leap in X-ray technology to benefit medical care.

“In many ways, the advancement of medicine has paralleled that of X-rays, going from the 19th century of basically describing diseases at the surface level, such as symptoms like 'the cholic' or 'the flu' to recognizing patterns in the cells and tissues that suggest different causes of disease," said Biodesign Institute Executive Director Joshua LaBaer, the Piper Chair in Personalized Medicine at ASU. "Now, in the 21st century, we are looking even deeper, within the cells at the molecules themselves, and finally understanding the molecular root causes of disease.” 

ASU is heavily involved in research projects to understand these molecular root causes of disease, including how the complete collection of proteins within our bodies, called the proteome, work.

“Proteins are the engines of biology,” LaBaer explained. “When they go wrong, we get disease. We need to understand how they function to make better drugs to repair the proteins or find out how they go wrong.”

But for the majority of proteins (an estimated 100,000 in the human body), how they work is not known. Current X-rays are too slow and disorganized to get the molecular details scientists need, limiting them to taking snapshots of the easiest proteins to study.

World’s most brilliant X-rays

Fast-forward to the 21st century, when, in just the last decade, it has been ASU’s scientific talent at the forefront of adapting the world’s most powerful X-rays to capture molecules in motion — making the fastest movies on Earth to better understand biology and medicine.

These X-rays are obtained by very fast pulses of light to string together images — like super slow motion — of a movie of the molecules to watch them in motion.  

But to peer ever smaller into the very heart of disease has required scientists to design ever bigger and more powerful X-rays using the “big guns of physics,” giant, billion-dollar, atom-smashing particle accelerators called an X-ray free-electron laser, or XFEL.

ASU scientists including Regents’ Professors John Spence, the Richard Snell Professor of Physics, and Petra Fromme, the Paul V. Galvin Professor of Molecular Sciences, were part of a worldwide team to develop the first theory and methodology to peer ever deeper into the biological world using XFELs in 2010.

“Proteins are in constant motion, carrying out the reactions that make life possible,” Spence said. “We want to see life in motion, but these movements happen on a scale too small, and too fast, to be seen with microscopes. They can only be seen with XFELs.”

Since then, the ASU scientific team has made a series of remarkable discoveries published in the world’s top scientific journals. They have solved protein structures that help us see and breathe, better understand diseases like diabetes and hypertension, and made the first movies to watch antibiotics in action.

“These movies can reveal biological reactions in unprecedented detail and demonstrate why drugs sometimes do not hit target proteins and how plant photosynthesis creates clean energy,” said Fromme, director of the Biodesign Center for Applied Structural Discovery and the BioXFEL program at ASU and part of the School for Molecular Sciences.

Before XFELs, it once took Fromme a dozen years to solve the structure of a key photosynthesis protein. It has been a lifelong ambition of Fromme to crack the code of how plants use sunlight for food to improve renewable energy applications.

A crowded road

But access to the big XFELs is limited and expensive. Currently, there are only five XFEL facilities worldwide, resulting in a traffic jam of scientific demand that is slowing down potential research.

In fact, a new giant X-ray facility completed in 2017, called the European XFEL, is 2.1 miles long and officially opened last summer in Hamburg, Germany. It took the combined effort of 11 countries, at a cost of $1.2 billion, and disrupted city blocks and uprooted houses during its decade-long construction.

Fromme and her team were among the first to use the European XFEL facility, and although she has been excited with XFEL science’s progress, she has been equally frustrated with the complicated logistics and costs to perform the science.  

Then, after a chance meeting on a flight to San Diego, she explained to Leo Beus her radical new plan. On that flight, Beus learned that Fromme wanted to start an X-ray revolution all over again.

“After I got off the airplane, I shot a note to President Crow saying I met one of the most delightful, phenomenal, fantastic, wonderful human beings I have ever met,” Beus said. “And her name was Petra Fromme. She is one of the head scientists on this project.”

Bringing the power of a national lab to fit inside a basement

The Beuses’ gift will enable ASU to pull off a seemingly unbelievable scientific magic trick — to shrink the power and cost of a 2-mile-long “big gun” XFEL lab into a small lab.

Or in this case, the one-of-a-kind vault that will house the world’s first compact X-ray laser machine within the Biodesign Institute’s newest building C, just completed last fall.

Fromme wooed physicist William Graves, the master designer and builder of this new compact XFEL (CXFEL), from MIT to ASU for the program. With the Beus gift, the laser is scheduled to be completed later this year, with the “first light” of turning on the machine and experiments beginning in 2020.

“The whole laser beamline is just 30 feet long, but it will deliver a performance similar to the big XFELs,” Graves said. “Because we came up with these ideas and ASU had the vision to execute this project, we’re going to be the first ones to develop the CXFEL. We think they will spread throughout the world after we demonstrate this first one.”

ASU’s aim is to create a new paradigm — where the CXFEL will offer cutting-edge performance, wide availability and ease of use in hospital or industrial settings — and test new ideas at their ASU Biodesign home without the barriers of schedule, travel and expenses of the big XFEL facilities.

Talking about a revolution

Locally, the ASU team is already collaborating with medical institutions to adapt the technology for medical imaging and semiconductor companies for quality control at their fabrication plants. And, in a series of CXFEL workshops ASU has hosted, scientists are eager to collaborate with ASU from their various institutions around the world.

This instrument at ASU has the potential to be a force-multiplier for discovery. It may one day give scientists and medical researchers throughout academia, industry and medicine access to brilliant X-rays in their own laboratories, accelerating and broadening scientific discovery like never before.

“Right now, if you want to take a drug from beginning to end it takes years,” Leo Beus said. “And it costs hundreds of millions of dollars in most cases. It can be accelerated. I think it (CXFEL) can change and revolutionize the lives of people, pain, malignancy, maybe even Alzheimer’s if you can figure out the proteins in the brain.

“And if other research scientists can have the benefit of what ASU is doing, and the technology can get spread out, it will revolutionize medicine.”

The reward in giving

During their 40-plus years of living in the Valley, the Beuses have witnessed ASU grow into a major metropolitan research university with a charter responsible for the well-being of the community it serves.

“The reward in giving to ASU comes back time and time again,” Annette Beus said. “And it’s so great to be able to see what they do. They want to bless the lives of other people and improve the lives of other people.”

There is a lasting affinity for ASU that resonates deep within their hearts.

“Even though neither one of us went to ASU, it’s become our life,” Annette Beus said. “It’s become where we look forward to getting together and we’ve learned so much. It’s just amazing what this institution is doing for the state of Arizona.”


Top photo: Annette and Leo Beus want to help shape the future of medicine and improve the lives of others. Their ever-deepening ASU commitment will enable the completion of the Beus Compact X-ray Free Electron Laser Lab, now under construction at ASU’s Biodesign Institute. 

Joe Caspermeyer

Manager (natural sciences) , Media Relations & Strategic Communications


Psychology undergraduate strives to help families and kids in need

April 18, 2019

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2019 commencement.

Have you ever wondered how infants convert a bunch of different sounds into language? Among all the other sounds a baby hears growing up, how do they know which ones are useful for learning speech? Emily Smith Emily Smith, a double major in psychology and human development from Arizona State University, wants to make a difference for families in need. Download Full Image

Emily Smith, who will graduate with a double major in psychology and human development from Arizona State University, completed an honor’s research thesis on just these questions. Smith worked as a researcher in the Learning and Development Lab with Viridiana Benitez, assistant professor of psychology.

The lab studies how young children learn generally. Recently, Benitez and her research team found that toddlers learned new words better when they were in a predictable situation. Smith’s senior research project built on this work, by looking specifically at how interruptions affected word learning.

“Infants have to take in so much information, and we wanted to look at how that information affected the process of word learning,” Smith said.

Her thesis, “The Role of Interruption on Infants’ Fast Mapping Abilities,” examined how word learning can be a fast but fragile process in infants. She presented her research at a poster session in the Department of Psychology and was recently recognized as a finalist for the ASU Department of Psychology Honors Thesis of the Year.

“My senior research project was the first real experience where I applied everything I have learned at ASU. It was a culmination of personal and academic accomplishments, and it feels great to be recognized as one of the top theses in the Department of Psychology,” Smith said. 

The Learning and Development Lab research team interrupted 16-month-olds during a word learning task. The infants were not able to learn a new word when the researchers moved the infants' bodies, like standing them up from a chair, or when there were flashing lights.

Smith was fascinated that learning words could so easily be interrupted by environmental factors, like whether an adult moved the infant.

“Word learning can be so easily disrupted by so many factors,” Smith said.

Smith and Benitez said these results demonstrate that word learning in chaotic environments can be challenging for infants because they do not know where to direct their attention. The findings could also have implication for how young children are taught language.

Benitez said she was thoroughly impressed with Smith’s work.

“It was truly a pleasure to work with Emily on this project. Throughout every step she was driven and insightful,” Benitez said. “With only a little guidance, she dove right into the problem and came up with a creative solution. Her work on the project was truly outstanding, and I have no doubt she will be successful in her next endeavor.”

Question: What made you interested in psychology?

Answer: I have always known I wanted to work with people and learn more about their thoughts and behaviors. I especially wanted to learn about families and child development. Completing a double major in psychology and family and human development has taught me so much about how children and families learn and get along, and how to solve and treat problems when they arise.

Q: What made you choose ASU?

A: I was destined to go here: I have a T-shirt from elementary school that says "Future Sun Devil."

But honestly, ASU offered me great scholarships that made my college education feel so much more accessible and achievable than if I had chosen another school. It was only after I started attending that I learned how many opportunities ASU has and about the mentorship opportunities the professors offer their students.

Q: What was your favorite part of campus?

A: I get nostalgic now walking through Barrett where I lived as a freshman. I love the grounds and the dining hall, and it brings back fun memories with the friends I've made.

Q: What was your favorite class/professor?

A: It's so hard to pick just one! The professors who have had the biggest impact on me were the ones who encouraged me to step outside my comfort zone and be active in my education, including my human event Professor Dr. Mack, my thesis directors and mentors Dr. Benitez and Dr. Glenberg, and my clinical psychology Professor Dr. Davis.

Q: What is the best advice you can give an undergraduate at ASU?

A: Get involved with anything and everything you're interested in. Figuring out what you want to do in life is no easy task, and I realized that finding something that sparked curiosity, joy and excitement wouldn't happen unless I was active in my own personal growth and discovery. Plus, ASU offers literally everything, so you're almost certain to find something you're interested in.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I will be working as a case manager at a mental health agency in Mesa, working with children and their families to help coordinate services and treatment. I also plan to go to graduate school in a year to become a child clinician or a marriage and family therapist.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem, what would you tackle?

A: I would pour it all into integrated health care or combining the care of mental and physical health into one cohesive system. Mental health and wellness are becoming more widely accepted as important issues for everyone, not just those with mental illness. I think treating mental health as a complement to physical health, rather than as separate, is the next natural step.

Robert Ewing

Marketing and Communications Manager, Department of Psychology