ASU professor receives prestigious award for mentoring, interdisciplinary research

September 24, 2020

Ferran Garcia-Pichel, Arizona State University professor and researcher, has been awarded the 2021 D.C. White Award by the American Society for Microbiology.

The American Society for Microbiology is one of the largest professional societies dedicated to the life sciences and is composed of 30,000 scientists and health practitioners. Garcia-Pichel is an internationally recognized geneticist, a microbiology professor for the ASU School of Life Sciences, and director of the Biodesign Center for Fundamental and Applied Microbiomics.

The award recognizes distinguished accomplishments in both interdisciplinary research and mentoring. It was created in honor of David C. White, a well-known microbial ecologist widely recognized as a leader in interdisciplinary science, and for his dedicated and inspiring work as a mentor and teacher.

Garcia-Pichel is an internationally recognized geneticist, a microbiology professor for the ASU School of Life Sciences and director of the Biodesign Center for Fundamental and Applied Microbiomics.

ASU’s Biodesign Institute is the nation’s first interdisciplinary research institute dedicated to solving complex global challenges by reimagining the “design rules” found in nature to create bio-inspired solutions.

The Center for Fundamental and Applied Microbiomics aims to develop a thorough understanding of the complex systems of microbes and what they have to teach us about their critical roles in other systems – human, animal, the environment and society. The center brings together researchers and scientists from a variety of disciplines, including engineering, medicine, biology, ecology, chemistry and public health.

Garcia-Pichel’s research focuses on the diverse adaptations and impacts of microbes in natural environments that range from desert soils to shallow marine waters.

“In my lab, we don't shy away from using different methods,” he said of his research on how and when Earth’s atmosphere became oxygenized. “We tend to follow the questions and use whatever discipline is necessary to find out the answers instead,”

By employing traditional biological methods, Garcia-Pichel and his team discovered that the progression of atmospheric oxygen on Earth can be traced through the evolution of genes in scytonemin molecules, commonly called the “sunscreen molecule” which helps some microbes in filtering harmful UV rays.

Garcia-Pichel received his Licenciatura con Grado in science (MS) at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, Spain, and his master's and doctorate from the University of Oregon in microbiology. He was a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Germany before accepting a position at ASU in 2002.

In addition to his extensive research contributions, Garcia-Pichel is heavily invested in improving undergraduate and graduate education. As well as teaching both entry-level and advanced microbial ecology and geomicrobiology courses, he has served in multiple leadership positions throughout his remarkable career — most notably, as associate director of research and training for ASU’s School of Life Sciences, and as dean of natural sciences in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“Professor Garcia-Pichel is a master teacher and a committed academic leader,” said ASU President Michael M. Crow, upon Garcia-Pichel's appointment as dean.

Garcia-Pichel is also one of the contributors to the School of Life Sciences' Ask a Biologist, an online learning resource for students, parents, and lifelong learners since 1997.

"I find it's a lot of fun to train people and to mentor people," he said in the charming bio, Meet Our Biologists. “I enjoy that and I enjoy seeing people grow into the field.”

Dominique Perkins

Manager of marketing and communications, School of Life Sciences


Edson seed grants advance innovative dementia solutions

September 24, 2020

More than $300,000 from the Charlene and J. Orin Edson Initiative for Dementia Care and Solutions was awarded to three Arizona State University research teams for innovative research projects. The funding comes from a portion of Charlene and J. Orin Edson’s $50 million gift to ASU for dementia research and education initiatives. 

The Edson Initiative for Dementia Care and Solutions aims to revolutionize care for individuals suffering from neurological disease and support their caregivers. The Edson Initiative will support collaborative research aimed at understanding the roots of dementia in order to treat, detect and prevent its occurrence in patients. older man looks at wife, who is staring out Funding from the Charlene and J. Orin Edson Initiative for Dementia Care and Solutions supports research projects into neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer's and dementia. Download Full Image

“The Edsons have been very generous to Arizona State University over the years with multiple endowed and nonendowed gifts to a variety of research causes,” said Joshua LaBaer, executive director of ASU’s Biodesign Institute. “We are excited to see this vital funding propel innovative researchers and students forward in making impacts that help those suffering from dementias and other neurodegenerative diseases.”

Proposals awarded the seed funding by Biodesign embody the spirit of the Edson Initiative for Dementia Care and Solutions by bringing together scientific experts and students from different disciplines to create solutions to the challenges of neurological disease.

Protein-based therapies for neurological disease

Michael Sierks, a professor in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy; Jeremy Mills, an assistant professor in the School of Molecular Sciences and the Biodesign Center for Molecular Design and Biomimetics; and Brent Nannenga, an assistant professor in the Biodesign Center for Applied Structural Discovery and the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, were awarded funding to analyze toxic proteins in neurodegenerative diseases.

The team will develop and apply high-resolution imaging techniques to characterize the structure of proteins commonly found in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s patients. The information discovered from these studies will be used to develop protein-based therapies to fight the mechanisms of toxic proteins in degenerative neurological diseases.

Interdisciplinary living learning lab

Another team led by David Coon, associate dean and professor in the Edson College of Nursing and Health InnovationPhilip Horton, interim director of The Design School; and Patricia Moore, an industrial designer and gerontologist, received funding to create the Edson Family Neurodegenerative Disease Research Center Living Learning Lab.

The lab will bring together scientists and clinical researchers from across ASU to design, test and implement tools that improve care — from everyday object use and behavior management approaches to health care systems and homes of the future. The research outcomes will provide a platform to build real-world solutions for those living with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias and their family caregivers.

Uncovering molecular mechanisms of poor cognition

The final team, awarded for their work to decipher the underlying molecular mechanisms leading to cognitive dysfunction in Alzheimer's patients, is led by Ramon Velazquez, an assistant research professor at the ASU-Banner Neurodegenerative Disease Research Center. Velazquez will be collaborating with Patrick Pirrotte, an assistant professor at the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) in Phoenix, and Matthew Huentelman, head of the Neurobehavioral Research Unit at TGen.

Velazquez’s team will be determining whether exposure to glyphosate, a common herbicide used to prevent plants from making proteins needed for their growth, is a risk factor for cognitive deterioration leading to Alzheimer’s disease. The team will utilize findings on environmental toxin mechanisms to better understand how exposure to chemical agents in people’s daily lives can affect their risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases.