‘Ask A Biologist’ website answers community's coronavirus questions

ASU site addresses questions like 'How do viruses work?'

May 20, 2020

How can viruses be destroyed? Are they alive?

Why do vaccines take a long time to make? Ask A Biologist graphic Image courtesy of Charles Kazilek Download Full Image

Since the coronavirus pandemic began changing aspects of American life this spring, questions like these have been filling the inbox of one of Arizona State University’s most popular scientific resources: Ask A Biologist.

Created in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ School of Life Sciences in 1997 as a biology learning website for faculty, students and learners of all ages, Ask A Biologist functions as an online ambassador for the university to the greater academic world.

The site contains thousands of pages of biology-based games, coloring pages, puzzles, articles and more, with the goal of sharing ASU’s wide breadth of scientific knowledge with the world.

“For us, it’s an opportunity to reach out and educate people all over,” said Charles Kazilek, the executive director of K–12 education outreach in The College and founder of the site. “The key for the site is telling a story of the living world. That’s what we want: to tell really good stories that are based in fact, that have good science behind them, and that are engaging.” 

Lately, however, the influx of COVID-19-related traffic to the site can only be described in one word: staggering. 

In the months since the pandemic began, Ask A Biologist’s articles answering questions like “How do viruses work” have received more than a 600% increase in web traffic as compared with 2019, Kazilek said.

More generally, the site has had a 35% increase in users overall, 41% more page views, and will soon reach over 1 million plays of its games in just this year alone.

“As of the last month or so, the amount of questions we’ve been receiving has increased as well,” said Karla Moeller, the site’s managing editor. “One was like, ‘Is the virus doing this purposefully?’ Another asked, ‘Could we engineer a virus to take out the coronavirus?’”

Ask A Biologist graphic

Managing editor Karla Moeller and site founder Charles Kazilek.

Since the pandemic, Ask A Biologist receives about double the number of questions per day, according to Moeller.

The majority of people submitting these questions and using the site’s other resources are students, lifelong learners and teachers.

In the wake of the pandemic, Ask A Biologist has increased its coronavirus-related resources.

“We have a profile coming out on Brenda Hogue, a professor who studies coronaviruses,” Moeller said. “We have a general story that’s going to come out on coronaviruses, and a few other things, a research story. We’re increasing our virus-related resources for people to use.”

For more than 20 years, Ask a Biologist has provided free content to the community on what Kazilek describes as “a shoestring budget.” Kazilek said that donations — especially in light of the ongoing pandemic — go a long way to improving the site’s functionality and offerings.

“If someone is considering donating, they should know that the money they put into this is going to be used and impact learners globally,” he said. “It’s going to have a huge impact.”

The impact of the site extends to many in the local and global community.

“It’s not only teachers, but parents, too, who have to educate,” he said. “This site is a way for them to do that in a much more engaging way.”

Christopher Clements

Marketing Assistant, The College Of Liberal Arts and Sciences

'Carbon Cowboys': Farmers thriving during COVID-19, thanks to regenerative grazing

May 20, 2020

A new documentary series that examines an innovative farming technique — one that is now positively affecting food supplies during the coronavirus epidemic — has been released by the award-winning environmental nonprofit Carbon Nation in collaboration with Arizona State University.

The documentary series of short films, called “Carbon Cowboys”, was shot over six years in rural communities in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. and presents farmers who have avoided bankruptcy by using regenerative grazing to produce more food from less land.  Carbon Cowboys Download Full Image

Will Harris, a rancher from Bluffton, Georgia, says in the film: “Today I’m very glad that I made the changes that I made because the farm is again profitable, cash flow positive.”

Regenerative grazing involves quickly rotating cattle from pasture to pasture, before they can damage the land — similar to how bison herds moved across the Great Plains. The practice, which does not use chemical fertilizers or pesticides, builds soils that are richer in carbon, which in turn boosts crop and livestock yields. It also makes the land better equipped to cope with drought and reduces flooding. 

The 10-part (or paddock) series has films ranging from eight to 23 minutes. It was made available for the first time this week on a new “Carbon Cowboys” website and YouTube.

“As people are getting more concerned about their health, they’re thinking more about where they get their food from, especially their meat," said Arizona State University Professor of Practice Peter Byck, the film’s director. "The film shows farmers working with nature, rather than against it. You see them caring for their animals and for their land. You see farmers making more money and creating an alternative to industrial farming.”

Industrial farming has been linked to the transmission of diseases from animals to humans, according to scientists in the UK.*

Since the coronavirus outbreak began, the farmers in the film series who sell direct to consumers are reporting increased sales of between three and 10 times over the last year. Some have sold a year's worth of meats in the past month. This distribution method has proven resilient through the coronavirus epidemic, while the centralized industrial beef supply chain has been heavily impacted. 

“We are now sold out months in advance," said Tim Hoven, of Hoven Farms in Alberta, Canada. "This COVID crisis has made people who have been on the fence for a long time make a purchase. They’re saying, ‘I have always wanted to place an order and finally decided to order now.’”

Regenerative grazing has also been shown by scientists to address climate change, according to scientists at Michigan State University,** with the capacity to draw down and store 3.59 tons of soil carbon (13.2 tons of CO2) more per hectare per year than conventional grazing. If the approach was used across all of the world’s grazing lands (3.5 billion hectares), even using a conservative figure of drawing down only 1 ton of soil carbon (3.67 tons of CO2) per hectare per year points to the potential to annually store close to a third of annual global greenhouse gas emissions prior to COVID-19.

*Intensive farming increases risk of epidemics, warn scientists, University of Bath, 5 May 2020.

**Impacts of soil carbon sequestration on life cycle greenhouse gas emissions in Midwestern USA beef finishing systems, Stanley et al., Agricultural Systems, May 2018.

Jamar Younger

Associate Editor, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication