Regents' Professor views economics through geography lens

February 15, 2012

Editor's Note: This professor profile is part of a series that looks at the achievements of seven outstanding faculty members who were named ASU Regents' Professors in 2011.

Students at the GeoDa Center for Geospatial Analysis and Computation joke that Luc Anselin thinks in matrix algebra and then translates equations into English. Luc Anselin Download Full Image

“Luc’s love for the mathematical and statistical foundations of spatial econometrics is contagious,” said Julia Koschinsky, the research director at the GeoDa center.

It is one of Anselin’s gifts to intuitively communicate mathematics and statistics through courses, publications and software products; students and stakeholders who thought they had math phobias suddenly find spatial analysis accessible and captivating. In one of Anselin’s classes on spatial analysis that covered matrix algebra, a student who was watching an unrelated YouTube video during class argued that he couldn’t see the relevance of matrix algebra for anything practical. Anselin convinced the student otherwise by explaining matrix multiplication and using the example of the mathematical tables of pixels that make up video images.

When Anselin was a graduate student in the late 1970s, spatial econometrics and analysis were at the margins of the discipline of economics. There was a lot of skepticism regarding the argument that spatial effects needed to be modeled with explicitly spatial methods. And there was a lot of pressure to instead analyze spatial data with existing econometric methods. Because spatial econometrics had not yet reached mainstream economics and econometrics, hardly any software existed to apply these methods.

Between the methodological marginalization of spatial econometrics and the absence of software to apply spatial methods, it took pioneers to move both the methods and software from the margins to the mainstream of economics and econometrics. Anselin is one of those pioneers who helped make this transition happen over the past 30 years.

Today, spatial analysis and spatial econometrics are among the hottest fields of interdisciplinary study at the intersection of geography, statistics and economics. Anselin’s more than 150 articles, several books and edited volumes have contributed to bringing spatial econometrics into the mainstream. His 1988 book “Spatial Econometrics, Methods and Models” has become a classic in the field.

Arizona State University’s recognition of Anselin as a Regents’ Professor tops a long list of prestigious awards, including memberships in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and awards such as the William Alonso Memorial Prize, Walter Isard Award, and election to the Regional Science Association International. Anselin arrived at ASU in 2007, as director of the School of Geographical Sciences, and led the initiative in 2009 that integrated ASU’s planning and geography programs to create the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning.

“With his experience in both fields – geographical sciences and urban planning – Anselin was just the right person to develop innovative synergies between the two degree programs and to foster collaborative research initiatives,” said David Pijawka, an urban planning professor and associate director of the school.

In 2010 Anselin was appointed as ASU’s first Walter Isard Chair. Walter Isard was Anselin’s mentor in his master’s and doctoral studies at Cornell University.

“As a scholar, Isard was a leader and innovator and as such this named chair in his honor is most appropriate for Anselin, who is a leader at ASU," said Elizabeth D. Capaldi, provost and executive vice president of ASU.  
"Anselin reflects the same commitment to advance new ideas across intellectual boundaries and encourage new perspectives on problems of our urban and rural environments.”

Anselin also founded and directs ASU’s GeoDa Center. The interdisciplinary focus at the center encompasses computer science, GIS, spatial statistics and software engineering, and gives students valuable skills in programming languages, such as Python. More than 66,000 analysts across the globe have downloaded OpenGeoDa – the center’s flagship software product – and the numbers keep growing. Analysts from disciplines as diverse as archaeology, criminology, epidemiology, economics, zoology and many other fields are using the software to solve a myriad of research problems.

“This is one of the things that makes the work with Luc and colleagues inspiring,” Koschinsky said. “Students, post-doctoral scholars and faculty from all over the U.S. and world can indulge their intellectual passions within the university and then translate them into real-world impacts.”

Barbara Trapido-Lurie
School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning

Lisa Robbins

Editor/publisher, Media Relations and Strategic Communications


Regents' Professor examines the physics of cancer

February 15, 2012

Editor's Note: This professor profile is part of a series that looks at the achievements of seven outstanding faculty members who were named ASU Regents' Professors in 2011.

Cosmologist Paul Davies, world-renowned for confronting galactic questions – “Why is the universe just right for life?” and “Are we alone?” – is now applying his inquisitive approach to a 40-year-old puzzle: How to survive cancer. Paul Davies Download Full Image

“We’re never going to make any progress with the so-called ‘war on cancer’ without understanding the grand story of life itself,” says Davies, a theoretical physicist and astrobiologist, who recently was named a Regents’ Professor at Arizona State University.

“You have to see it [cancer] in the broader context and that is where astrobiologists fit in,” Davies says. “They ask: ‘What are the key features of life?’ – not what is the story of our form of life, but what does it take for something to be living.”

Davies, who has published research that ranges from how black holes radiate energy to what caused the ripples in the cosmic afterglow of the big bang, is the founding director of the BEYOND Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at ASU. He was among the first scientists to suggest that life may have started on Mars and came to Earth inside rocks splattered off the Red Planet by comet impacts.

“People pooh-poohed my idea at first, but now it is widely accepted that Mars and Earth may have traded microbes when they traded rocks,” he says.

Davies also was one of a handful of cosmologists to propose the existence of so-called “dark energy,” a type of antigravity that speeds up the expansion of the universe. It was at that time a deeply unpopular theory, but several years later astronomers discovered, to their astonishment, that dark energy really exists.

Throughout his career, Davies has maintained a strong interest in the nature of time and its relationship to cosmology.

“It’s probably my longest-running research project,” Davies says.

When the deputy director of the U.S. National Cancer Institute called him in 2007 and asked if physicists could help by bringing a fresh approach to what she described as a glacial pace of clinical progress in the war on cancer, Davies wasn’t quite sure what to make of the call, but he was intrigued.

“I explained that my career was focused on quantum mechanics and black holes – and that I knew nothing about cancer,” Davies recalls. “She said that was alright and explained that physicists think about the world in a distinctive way and she was looking for fresh ideas and insight from our problem-solving approach.”

Davies now leads one of 12 NCI-funded physical sciences-oncology centers in the United States.

“By connecting the dots of evolutionary, developmental and cancer biology, we have come to view cancer not so much as a disease to be cured as a condition to be controlled,” Davies says.

He and Charles Lineweaver of the Australian National University published a theory of cancer last year “based on the concept that it is an evolutionary throwback to our earliest ancestors.”

“We proposed that cancer results from an accidental reawakening of the earliest metazoan genes, the ones programmed to build the sort of structures that inhabited Earth hundreds of millions of years ago,” Davies says. “If we’re right, then we will have a well-defined target for therapy.”

That kind of fearless championing of bold new ideas earned Davies the moniker of “the disruptor” in a June 2011 profile in the journal Nature. Colleague Stuart Lindsay, a biophysicist at ASU’s Biodesign Institute, told the reporter that “it takes someone like Paul, constantly nagging, asking disruptive questions, to get people to take a fresh look at their assumptions.”

Davies imparts that lesson to students and postdoctoral scholars as well, according to Sara Imari Walker, a NASA Astrobiology Institute post-doctoral fellow working at ASU.

“My research interest is the origin of life and that is a real tough question that requires knowledge of chemistry, biology and physics,” says Walker, who has a doctorate in physics and astronomy. “Paul can converse on all these different subjects and has an amazing capacity to engage people in science by being able to explain very difficult concepts at a level suitable to the audience.

“I’ve learned from him that deep questions really matter and they should inform all the science you do,” she says. “By approaching science that way, it makes you a better scientist. I find that I am asking much better questions about my mainstream research in ways I would not have thought about before.”

Another scientist describes Davies as unassuming.

Says Sid Bacon, an associate vice president for Knowledge Enterprise Development at ASU: “He is a next-door, down-to-Earth kind of guy. But once you start talking to Paul, you discover he is knowledgeable in so many areas.”


Most recent book
"The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence"

Popular best-sellers
"The Goldilocks Enigma: Why the Universe Is Just Right for Life"
"How to Build a Time Machine"
"The Origin of Life"
"The Last Three Minutes"
"The Mind of God"
"The Cosmic Blueprint"
"The Big Questions"

1995 Templeton Prize
1999 Asteroid 1992 OG officially named (6870) Pauldavies
2001 Kelvin Medal by the Institute of Physics
2002 Michael Faraday Prize from the Royal Society
2007 inducted as a Member of the Order of Australia
2011 Robinson Prize in Cosmology from Newcastle University in the UK
2011 Award for Excellence in Astronomy Research and Education by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific

1970 Doctorate in physics, University College London
1967 Bachelor’s degree in physics, University College London

Academic appointments
Macquarie University, Australia
University of London, UK
University of Newcastle upon Tyne, UK
University of Adelaide, Australia
University of Cambridge, UK

Research centers
Australian Centre for Astrobiology, Sydney (past)
BEYOND Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science, ASU
Center for Convergence of Physical Science and Cancer Biology, ASU