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5 top ASU researchers earn prestigious Regents Professor title

5 top research experts at ASU honored as Regents Professors.
November 21, 2019

Professors awarded for expertise in business, criminal justice, ecology, evolution and energy

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

Five Arizona State University professors are being honored with the highest faculty award possible: Regents Professor.

The five are internationally recognized experts at the top of their fields, and on Thursday, they joined an elite rank when their nominations were approved by the Arizona Board of Regents.

“The 2019 Regents’ Professors are pioneers in ecology, engineering, judicial decision making, business and social evolution,” said Mark Searle, executive vice president and university provost at ASU. “Their scholarship contributes to the better understanding of our world, environment and each other. The entire ASU community celebrates their great achievement.”

The new Regents Professors are:

Blake Ashforth, an expert on organizational behavior who holds the Horace Steele Heritage Chair in the Management and Entrepreneurship Department of the W. P. Carey School of Business.

Nancy Grimm, who holds the Virginia M. Ullman Chair in Ecology in the School of Life Sciences.

Joan Silk, a world-renowned primatologist in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change.

Cassia Spohn, a Foundation Professor and director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

Vijay Vittal, Ira A. Fulton Chair Professor and ASU Foundation Professor in electric power systems in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering.

“Arizona State University is proud to count these deserving scholars among our world-class faculty,” ASU President Michael M. Crow said.

“Their work meaningfully expands our knowledge of the world, and our university community is fortunate to benefit from their experience and leadership.”

Here’s more on the new Regents Professors:

Blake Ashforth

 Ashforth’s work focuses on how organizations and individuals affect each other, how newcomers find meaning and a sense of identity in their workplaces, and why things go wrong in organizations, from corporate corruption to job burnout. He also looks at how individuals find dignity in stigmatized occupations and the importance of respect to employees.

His recent research has included topics such as bullying in the office and the ways that employees think of their companies as a person.

One reviewer wrote: “Professor Ashforth is one of the premier living scholars in the field of organizational behavior and management. He has brought the concept of social identity into the mainstream of organizational behavior and in doing so expanded it to make apparent how participation in an organization can shape an individual’s sense of self and membership (both “who am I” and “who are we”).”

Nancy Grimm

 Grimm is a scientist who has had an international impact in the environmental sciences and is a pioneer in desert stream ecosystems. Her collaborations across the disciplines of earth, life and social sciences, as well as engineering, helped create the subdiscipline of urban ecology. Her research includes novel projects that have shaped current approaches to environmental sciences, including ASU’s Central Arizona–Phoenix Long Term Ecological Research, a project that’s been in the works for almost 40 years.

Her lab, the Urban and Stream Ecosystems Lab, is working on several projects, including a collaboration among several universities to develop a way to take the “pulse” of streams. She recently won an award for being part of a team that created an international consensus on how to approach urban ecology.

Grimm, who earned her master’s degree and PhD at ASU, inspired a reviewer to write this: “Nancy recognized early the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to solving global change problems and has been an effective champion for integrating the work of natural and social scientists and engineers to promote resilience of urban infrastructure.”

 Joan Silk

 Silk is recognized internationally as a leader in the study of primate and human behavioral evolution. Her research has transformed understanding about the relationship between nonhuman primate behavior and human evolution, especially the origin of humans’ prosocial behavior, such as sharing, cooperating and volunteering. She is a co-author of the signature book “How Humans Evolved,” now in its eighth edition and published in Spanish, French and Japanese.

She spent years studying the social lives of baboons in the Okavango Delta of Botswana and did research on how baboons use relationships to decrease stress.

One reviewer wrote: “Her multiple theoretical and data-based contributions across a 40-year span have shaped the modes and manners by which we model and understand primate groups and primate sociality. It is near impossible to read any substantive work on primate studies and not see Dr. Silk cited.”

Cassia Spohn

 Spohn has shaped three areas of criminology: race and justice, sentencing and handling of sexual assault cases. She has researched the decision-making of prosecutors, judges and police officers to understand patterns in the administration of criminal justice, and she’s looked at how laws have different effects on different populations. Her book, “The Color of Justice,” is a definitive source, and her work on sentencing was cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in revising sentencing guidelines to eliminate systemic biases.

Her research on biases in the investigation and prosecution of sexual assault led the Defense Department to call upon her as an expert on its advisory board. She reviewed material from different branches of the military service to compare the outcomes of sexual assault in the military justice system with the civilian justice system.

One reviewer wrote: “She is hands down the leading American social scientist in the study of sentencing and prosecution decisions, and among the small handful of leading specialists on racial disparities and discrimination in the criminal justice system. … Her creativity, combined with her methodological sophistication, make her uniquely influential.”

Vijay Vittal

 Vittal’s expertise is in the field of large-scale power grids — the transmission, distribution and security of energy infrastructure, including smart-grid and renewable energy technologies. One of his pioneering contributions has been the development of methods for dealing with fluctuations on the power grid due to renewable energy sources. Another transformative contribution is his development of the theory and application of “islanding” to isolate parts of the power grid to prevent the rapid and disastrous cascade of outages.

Earlier this year, Vittal was part of a team that received a $3.6 million award from the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office to advance solar energy’s role in strengthening the reliability and resiliency of the nation’s electricity grid.

One reviewer wrote: “Dr. Vittal is without question the No. 1 scholar globally in power system dynamics and is amongst a handful of scholars that lead the broader area of power system engineering in the world.”

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


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'Celebration for Resilience' commemorates the past, present and future vitality of Maricopa County

November 21, 2019

Resilience dividends pay off through groundbreaking work that helps county adapt to new threats and challenges

Arizona’s ability to roll with the punches, which shapes and shifts over time, is largely dependent on proactive planning, swift actions and openness to change, according to an Arizona State University educator.

“I see the word resilience as an adaptive term,” said Elizabeth Wentz, the lead researcher of the Knowledge Exchange for Resilience (KER) initiative and dean of social sciences in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at ASU. “It’s always shaping, and we have to retain that awareness because as environmental or economic conditions change, we have the capacity to adapt. So it really isn’t an end state but a continual, ongoing state.”

Wentz and members of the year-old KER initiative explored the topic Tuesday night at Phoenix’s Desert Botanical Garden in front of a crowd of nearly 300 people. Attendees included ASU scholars, staffers, members of the nonprofit community and a sprinkling of donors and city officials from Phoenix, Surprise and Scottsdale.

The “Celebration for Resilience” event explained the mission of KER, recognized their 2019 milestones and introduced the new class of 2020 fellows, a “knowledge exchange” of representatives from all sectors tasked with identifying vulnerabilities in their communities and throughout Maricopa County.

According to Wentz, their work is to advance social cohesion, promote economic prosperity and enhance environmental security to create profound and enduring change that brings “resilience dividends.”

KER also awarded the inaugural Resilience Prize to the city of Scottsdale’s Indian Bend Wash Greenbelt, an 11-mile oasis located in the heart of Scottsdale that serves as more than just a beautiful recreation area for residents. The greenbelt’s primary function is as an efficient flood-control system. Scottsdale resident Bill Walton's newspaper column in the Scottsdale City Progress helped to launch the project in the 1970s. He later became the city’s planning director.

The Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust gave $15 million to launch KER in late 2018. Its mission is to build resilient communities in Maricopa County by sharing knowledge, discovering vulnerabilities and responding to challenges together. 

By embedding in the communities of Maricopa County and tapping the expertise of research scientists, citizen scientists, community members and partnership organizations, KER was designed to become a community resource and address pressing issues and needs, fostering positive change and building resilience.

Mary Jane Rynd, president and CEO of the Piper Trust, said the gift was perfectly matched for KER because of its mission.

“Virginia’s commitment to progress aligns so well with the Knowledge Exchange for Resilience and its mission, which is to share knowledge and solve problems together — all of them,” Rynd said.

Judith Rodin and Michael crow

Keynote speaker Judith Rodin poses for a photo with ASU President Michael Crow at the Celebration for Resilience on Nov. 19. Photo by Laura Segall

Arizona State University President Michael M. Crow said the initiative is vital to ensuring the state’s long-term future growth and progress.

“Maricopa County is now about 4 1/2 million people, roughly the size of Ireland, and it’s going to be growing to 6, 7, 8 million people by 2050,” Crow said. “It’s absolutely essential that we build a modern university that can connect everybody and then begin thinking about resilience. If we do that, we’ll be OK. If we don’t do that, we won’t be OK.”

The initiative is making a pretty good dent so far. In 2019, they engaged 100 community partners and created data-driven models and prototypes that addressed themes such as heat, food, youth, shelter, economic security and health and aging.

Jennifer Vanos, a 2019 fellow and an assistant professor in ASU’s School of Sustainability, spent the last year working on a 17,000 square-foot sustainable playground called a “Natural Outdoor Play and Learning Area” at Paideia Academy and Preschool in Phoenix.

The space would be comprised of grass, trees, hedges, mulch, hills, tunnels, caves, walls, gardens and a sand box, Vanos said. Additionally, the play space also comes equipped with a weather station on the roof, which measures temperature, humidity, radiation, wind speed, nitrous dioxide and particulate matter.

“There’s a lot of benefits to bringing natural spaces into urban areas in addition to the different types of learning opportunities this type of space can provide,” said Vanos, who said the playground could also mitigate noise, pollution and shade as well as provide lessons for students on ecology, weather and math.

There are also lots of lessons to be learned about resilience when it comes to the relationship between homelessness and prisons, said Adonias Arevalo, a 2019 fellow who is the community impact manager with Valley of the Sun United Way.

Last year Arevalo worked on a database on how to decrease prison reentry from people who experienced homelessness.

“People who are experiencing homelessness enter local jails after three-to-five violations through a variety of reasons — trespassing, sleeping on the streets or sidewalks, many minor crimes,” Arevalo said. “Arizona is the fourth largest prison population in the country, and we have a lot of work to do when it comes to prison reform.”

Arevalo said working with local policymakers can change this outcome, increase affordable housing in Maricopa County and improve eviction rates. He said more than 50,000 people were evicted from their residences last year and that housing them in jails or prisons is more expensive than housing them in shelters and affordable housing units.

“We have to create more investment into housing, case management, resources and how to deal with this on a more humanitarian level, especially those who are facing mental health issues,” Arevalo said.


Sparky was on hand at the resilience event to mingle with guests, including 2019 fellow Edmund Williams (left) and Sandra Price. Photo by Laura Segall

Wentz said the 2020 fellows will be expanding the definition of resilience by looking into areas of energy, security, disease, transportation, urban farms and food access.

Food access is important to 2020 fellow Terra Rose Ganem, who is the director of Brilliant Planet. Her Mesa, Arizona-based nonprofit is dedicated to seeding and sowing an organic living laboratory that feeds families who suffer from food insecurity challenges by helping them grow more than 75 different types of food and edible plants.

“Resiliency offers an opportunity for action and a positive spin on the challenges of the world today,” said Ganem, whose organization has a long term lease on a one-acre plot of land near the intersection of Power and McDowell roads on a county island in Mesa. “We really want to create an area where people can see what’s possible. Until we see it sometimes, we don’t actually know what we’re capable of. These people can create food and economic security for themselves.”

Libraries are also looking for ways to survive and stay relevant said 2020 fellow Michael Simeone, who is the director for data science and analytics at ASU Library.

“I’m interested in learning how libraries are related to community resilience,” said Simeone, who will be collecting data on local libraries and interviewing staff members. “If we’re looking at resilience as an ability to endure hardship and spring back in a more adaptive form, libraries do this in a way that people don’t always appreciate. They educate people so they can have more economic ability, they give access to knowledge and resources, and they are hubs for free information. All of these things have a key relationship to resilience.”

Keynote speaker Judith Rodin, the former president of the Rockefeller Foundation, praised Crow as a national “thought leader” and saluted the initiative in her remarks.

“ASU has the power to be a great agent of change and must serve as a model of civic engagement for students and its neighbors,” said Rodin, who wrote “The Resilience Dividend: Being Strong in a World Where Things Go Wrong in 2014. “In today’s dizzyingly complex world, universities have a tendency to isolate everyone in their ivory towers. Over the past decades, a host of universities like ASU have breathed new life into their communities.”

Top photo: Elizabeth Wentz speaks at the Celebration for Resilience event Tuesday, Nov. 19, at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. Photo by Laura Segall

Reporter , ASU News