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With ASU mentors, high schoolers pursue research as varied as their interests

January 29, 2021

COVID-19, sharks, black holes and more: Herberger Young Scholars Academy students work with faculty on a range of topics

For most teens, the break between semesters is a relaxed time of unstructured adventure. Driving around with friends. Meeting at the mall. Lounging by the pool. 

While these past months were uncommon due to the COVID-19 pandemic, for a handful of students from the Gary K. Herberger Young Scholars Academy this break was always going to be out of the ordinary.  

Going into their final year, graduating seniors at HYSA are offered the opportunity to be mentored by an Arizona State University professor and conduct firsthand work on a research project.

“It started out as an opportunity for our high school students to interact with real, authentic research being conducted at ASU,” said Kimberly Lansdowne, HYSA’s founding executive director.  “Since its beginning, mentorships have morphed into opportunities for our students to confirm their passions and, maybe, discover that what they always thought they wanted to do, their childhood wishes, are not true anymore.”

The mentorships have become the capstone experience for HYSA students, she said.

Students have worked on research projects as varied as their interests, she says, from understanding shark cartilage to helping to develop a COVID-19 vaccine and from understanding how ancients made stone tools to exploring black holes in space.

Started in 2011, HYSA is an ASU-supported and Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College-affiliated learning environment located on the West campus and designed for highly gifted students in grades 7-12 . 

A female high school student in a white blouse poses for a photo in front of a long sidewalk lined with trees

Herberger Young Scholars Academy senior Mackenzie Brooks worked with the Morrison Institute of Public Policy on how adverse childhood experiences impacted someone’s likelihood of developing a chronic illness. Her research work is now the foundation of a paper that will be presented to the Arizona Adverse Childhood Experiences Consortium. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU

The daughter of two attorneys, Mackenzie Brooks, 17, has developed — not surprisingly — an interest in the law but also in public policy. HYSA secured for her a mentorship at ASU’s Morrison Institute of Public Policy, working on how adverse childhood experiences impacted someone’s likelihood of developing a chronic illness later in life.

Starting in September, Brooks spent about four hours a week combing through existing research on the topic.

“I was surprised to learn that these incidents have a direct link to increases in actual diseases, like heart disease,” she said. “Working on this has made me a lot more interested in the family side of law. I found it fascinating even though it wasn’t what I was planning to go into.” 

Brooks' research work is now the foundation of a paper that will be presented to the Arizona Adverse Childhood Experiences Consortium, which will help members craft policy initiatives.

“I was blown away by the quality of her analysis and the synthesis of her writing,” said her mentor in the project, Erica Quintana, a Morrison Institute senior policy analyst. “Definitely far above what I was expecting from a high school student.”

When she was younger, Annika Erickson, 17, began spending quite a bit of time at a family friend’s house, where they spoke almost exclusively Hebrew. Rather than be left out of the conversation, Erickson instead taught herself the language. 

Her interest in how people learn languages led her to a mentorship looking at how basic vocabulary was introduced on a Sesame Street-type television show in Israel. Each week, beginning in the summer, Erickson spent four hours a week watching the show and tracking when new words were introduced. The research project is set to end in May.

“I’m passionate about language learning,” she said. “Before the project, I had a pretty solid base but this is reenforcing my religious and language skills and understanding.” 

Working on the research with her mentor, Judith Shemer, senior lecturer at ASU’s School of International Letters and Cultures, solidified Erickson’s plans to major in speech pathology in college.

The biggest thing influencing the world became the topic of Tal Spector’s mentorship over the summer. Along with a partner, Spector, 16, conducted research into whether social media posts could be used to accurately identify outbreaks of COVID-19. Working from a database of about 1,000 posts on Twitter, Spector found that they could correctly identify outbreaks 95% of the time.

“This has a lot of potential to effectively track diseases,” said Spector, who submitted the research paper into the ASU Sustainability Solutions Festival. He’s now working on a second research project with his ASU mentor — Kuai Xu, associate professor in the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences — creating a system to alert someone when their home Wi-Fi is attacked by an outside user.

“I’m not sure how I’m going to go about creating it,” Spector said. “I went into this having zero experience and knowing very little, but now I know a lot about how routers work and how Wi-Fi systems interact.”

He intends to major in computer science but hasn’t settled on where he might attend.

Learn more about Herberger Young Scholars Academy at

Written by DJ Burrough. Top photos by Charlie Leight/ASU (shark image) and iStock

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A new vision of coral reef sustainability

January 29, 2021

Allen Coral Atlas provides data insights and actionable steps to preserving reef systems around the world

The world’s coral reefs are at risk.

To save them, we’ve got to see them — clearly, and in the “big picture.”

Fans of Disney’s "Finding Nemo" see coral reefs as vibrant, colorful underwater worlds. In real life, the world’s reefs face serious challenges, including rising sea temperatures, choking sediments and overfishing.

The Allen Coral Atlas powers solutions to these problems with high-resolution mapping and monitoring that governments and researchers can put to use to save coral reefs. It is funded by Vulcan Inc., a private company founded by Jody Allen and the late Paul Allen with a mission to make and leave the world a better place. The atlas was developed through a unique partnership between Arizona State University, University of Queensland, National Geographic Society, Planet and Vulcan.

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A benthic map of the state of coral reefs around Fiji. Image courtesy Allen Coral Atlas 

As of the first of the year, Arizona State University has taken on the leadership of the atlas. It’s a powerful tool to map and monitor coral reefs around the globe and provides that “big picture” scientists and policymakers need to bring coral reefs back to health.

ASU President Michael Crow announced that Greg Asner will be the new lead of the Allen Coral Atlas. Asner is currently the director of the Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science (GDCS) at ASU.

“We are pleased to take the leadership role in this incredible partnership with Vulcan and other organizations of the Allen Coral Atlas," Crow said. "The goals of the atlas are a perfect fit with ASU’s mission to achieve sustainable futures at a global level, and GDCS is the ideal home for the atlas going forward.”

The Allen Coral Atlas maps can show changes among the world’s massive reefs at a level of detail of just a few square meters. From the maps and other analytics, reef scientists and managers can spot threats and head off risks with innovative solutions.

“For nearly three years, my team and our partners have been working in the trenches to create the Allen Coral Atlas from a concept to a scalable mapping and monitoring program," Asner said. "Following Vulcan’s outstanding leadership over these past years, GDCS is well-positioned to take on management of the program and its partnerships.”

Reefs do far more than serve as a home for colorful marine life. According to reporting by National Geographic, it’s estimated that 500 million people earn their livings from fishing and tourism that depend on coral reefs. These underwater ecosystems can also soften the blows of hurricanes on fragile coastlines.

In addition to the global maps, many new capabilities are slated to roll out this year, such as technology that will make it possible to detect subtle changes to reefs over time. Until now, most science has been focused on the damage to reefs from large-scale “bleaching events” that interfere with the life cycles of the organisms that build reefs. But sediments can also cause damage, so the GDCS team has built the capacity to see ocean sediment and quantify its severity. With this new technology in hand, researchers can quickly identify and act on potential threats to reef ecosystems. Future applications of the atlas technology will include robotics, artificial intelligence and new satellites to further expand the platform’s capacity.

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Atlas image of the bleaching of coral reefs at Waimanalo Beach, Hawaii. Courtesy of Allen Coral Atlas

In 2019, GDCS piloted a beta version of the atlas monitoring system in the Hawaiian Islands during the Pacific Ocean warming event. ASU and its partnering agencies engaged Hawaii's citizens with the new monitoring system to report observed coral bleaching throughout the archipelago. Community feedback helped atlas scientists tune the new algorithms to actual coral bleaching as it occurred.

“The new monitoring system literally changed how we view coral bleaching and thus the management responses we can invoke to reduce pressure on the reef,” said Brian Neilson, head of Hawaii’s Division of Aquatic Resources.

Allen Coral Atlas maps continue to roll out, but they have already had an impact worldwide. In 2020, the atlas habitat maps played a key role in the Sri Lankan government’s effort to expand their marine national parks and to carry out reef restoration work. 

“Our growing international experience continues to drive home the scalable potential of our effort, mapping and monitoring a world of coral reefs at a resolution that is actionable at local to regional levels,” said Paulina Gerstner, ASU program director for the Allen Coral Atlas.

Right now, users can download habitat maps, satellite imagery and ocean depth data from the Allen Coral Atlas website. GDCS will also be inviting ASU students to apply for upcoming internships and opportunities to collaborate on this exciting research venture.

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An example of the multitude of data available on the Hawaiian Islands, among other worldwide locations, on the atlas tool. Courtesy Allen Coral Atlas. 

“This is the tip of the iceberg in global reef science for governance and the public. We can and must do more to support activities that increase awareness and drive innovations to protect, restore and steward coral reefs into the future,” Asner said.

The Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science is part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences as well as the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory at ASU, an effort to make meaningful contributions to ensuring a habitable planet and a future in which well-being is attainable.