ASU student combats global vulnerabilities with sustainable technology

August 5, 2014

Bangladesh. One of the world’s most populous countries, and one of its poorest.

Akane Ota was living in a village far from Dhaka, the country’s capital. Her assignment with Grameen Bank, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning microfinance organization, asked that she survey villagers to assess their living conditions, then create a business plan to improve them. portrait of ASU sustainability student Akane Ota Download Full Image

Unfazed by the difficulty of this task, Ota made her way through the village, diligently collecting data. As she did so, two things become increasingly apparent: the connection between unreliable energy and inaccessible social services, and the environmental injury caused by non-renewable technology.

As Ota explains, “I was amazed by the beautiful untouched nature of Bangladesh. But I also saw highly polluted air and water, which was depressing.”

Around this time, Ota’s native Japan was shaken by a major earthquake that, in turn, triggered a tsunami reaching 133 feet in height. The wave disabled the power supply and nullified the cooling mechanisms for three reactors at Fukushima’s nuclear plant. The consequences of the subsequent meltdown left a lasting impression on Ota and heightened her passion for stable and sustainable energy.

Eager for solutions and up for a challenge, Ota enrolled in Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability. Three years later, Ota is a Norton and Ramsey Sustainability Scholarship recipient researching energy sources that are stable, renewable and can support internet-based social services.

“Improving health care and education is one of the best ways to mitigate poverty. Having stable energy is the most effective and affordable way to make this happen,” Ota says.

Now entering her final year in the Energy, Materials and Technology track within the bachelor of science program, Ota appreciates the transdisciplinary resources and collaboration opportunities provided by the school. While developing a watch that doubles as a personal security device for women travelling alone, Ota and her team received guidance from three sustainability scientists with different areas of expertise.

“The School of Sustainability is the best in terms of diversity of the faculty,” Ota says. “Our security device won third place in the Carnegie Mellon Venture Challenge out of 60 teams from 40 universities. The diversity and great support from our mentors helped us achieve this.”

Whether tackling vulnerabilities in the First or Third World, it is evident that Ota is a force for change. Her conscientious approach to technological entrepreneurship is sure to have a lasting impact.

Established in 2009 with a gift from the Rev. Jenny Norton and Bob Ramsey, the Norton and Ramsey Sustainability Scholarship was the first endowed to undergraduate students. It is awarded each fall semester to a School of Sustainability undergraduate major (sophomore level or higher) who is interested in pursuing studies about how populations facing poverty and social justice issues may be more likely to benefit from sustainability practices.

Communications specialist, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability


ASU's connection to the new Ebola drug

August 5, 2014

Charlie Arntzen has worked tirelessly on new platforms to deliver drugs. He has focused on plant-based drug delivery systems, testing a wide range of plants as possible “manufacturing platforms” for therapeutics for the developing world.

Now Arntzen, an ASU Regents' Professor in the School of Life Sciences and founding director of the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, may have hit on an unlikely combination of using tobacco as a way to make and deliver a promising treatment for the Ebola virus. man holding tobacco plant in lab greenhouse Download Full Image

That treatment already may have saved the lives of two aid workers infected with the virus, with the continuing recovery of Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol from the deadly virus.

“This is an incredible step for plant biology and biotechnology,” said Arntzen of the successful use of the therapeutic on the two missionaries.

Arntzen is quick to point out that the drug itself was developed by researchers at Mapp Biopharmaceutical in San Diego. Researchers there had been working with Arntzen’s team at ASU, and with a team at Kentucky BioProcessing, on the treatment called ZMapp.

Kentucky BioProcessing is where ZMapp, the cocktail of antibodies that were injected into Brantly and Writebol, is produced. The antibodies are produced in specially modified tobacco plants. The plants are harvested, ground up into a green liquid, purified and turned into tiny doses of the drug.

Arntzen has worked with Mapp Biopharmaceutical for 15 years on the idea of plant-based therapeutics, with the work eventually focusing on the Ebola virus and receiving funding through the U.S. Army. The work steadily progressed over several years when, suddenly, the two Americans became infected in the worst outbreak of Ebola.

“The stars were aligned,” said Arntzen, who has studied plant-based drug delivery for 20 years. “We had some of the serum available, we had risk takers in the government willing to use the drugs and we had two patients who consented to its use.”

“It’s extremely gratifying,” said Arntzen, who adds that notoriety for a scientist is usually limited to publication of a scientific paper or presenting findings at a conference of peers. “It’s astonishing and rewarding as a biologist to see a straight line from a technology to the saving of two lives.”

Director, Media Relations and Strategic Communications