7 stats on Sally C. Morton

March 10, 2021

Sally C. Morton took the helm of the Arizona State University Knowledge Enterprise on Feb. 1 as executive vice president. In this role, she advances research, entrepreneurship, innovation, strategic partnerships and international development at the university.

“I have been very lucky to join this incredible team,” said Morton. “I always like to work at places that I am proud to be a part of and where I can learn from the people around me. I saw the ASU charter and knew this is a place that I would like to join because the charter really resonated with me. The value of inclusiveness is especially important in the Knowledge Enterprise to ensure that we are conducting the highest quality and broadest research in service of our community.” Sally Morton standing in front of ASU charter sign on Tempe campus Sally C. Morton on the ASU Tempe campus. Download Full Image

Morton is a statistician whose career spans multiple academic and research institutions, using statistics and data science to address critical health challenges. Before coming to ASU, she served as dean of Virginia Tech's College of Science and interim director of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. Morton is also a past president of the American Statistical Association and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Though Morton’s career in statistics is world-renowned, here are seven fun things you may not know about the first woman to lead ASU’s Knowledge Enterprise:

1. Morton is a math nerd at heart

Morton didn’t always know she wanted to be a statistician, but she always had a knack for math and solving those pesky word problems her teachers would give her.

“Even as an undergraduate student in math, I did not know what a statistician actually did,” admitted Morton. “It was not until I interacted with a faculty member, who was a famous health statistician, that I discovered how statistics could be used to answer really important questions about the world around us.”

Morton’s encounter with this mentor left a lifelong impression, leading her to pursue graduate study and develop a fruitful career in statistics. 

“This is why our faculty interaction with students is so important,” said Morton. “I got so lucky to be taught by and mentored by this teacher, as many of us who find our calling through faculty do. If not for that aha moment, I do not know where I would be or what I would be doing.”

2. Her favorite number is four

As a lover of all things math, Morton thinks that everyone should have a favorite number.

According to Morton, she has loved the number four from a very young age. 

“I decided the number four was my favorite when I was four years old,” she said. “I still like it because four is two plus two, and it is also two squared. It is kind of the perfect number in that way.” Added Morton, “Now as a statistician, I think it is interesting to hear what people’s favorite numbers are and why.” 

3. Her colleagues’ and students’ successes are her greatest professional passion

“There is a great sense of accomplishment I feel when I see the people around me succeed,” said Morton. 
Recently, one of Morton’s colleagues announced that he was promoted and was taking a step up in his position. 

“When people pass by you and move up, those are my proudest moments because I know what that person is capable of accomplishing in their new role,” she said. 

Having mentored students, faculty and staff across a range of disciplines at several different institutions, many of Morton’s mentees have gone on to pursue successful careers in health care, academia and industry. 

“When I write recommendations for students or give guidance to colleagues and they let me know of their acceptance into graduate school or a job opportunity, it is so rewarding,” said Morton. “The fact that I am able to be a part of their journeys and make a small difference in their lives is really wonderful. Those are the moments that keep me going.”

4. She believes variety really is the spice of life

“A famous statistician, John Tukey, said that the best thing about being a statistician is that we get to play in everyone else’s backyard,” said Morton. “In my career I have loved the fact that I have the opportunity to learn about all kinds of problems and work with all different types of people.”

Morton’s career in health statistics has led her around the world to investigate various problems such as health disparities, racial bias and the death penalty, mental health issues and homelessness. 

In addition to traveling for her work, Morton likes to live in different places. Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and California are just a few of the states Morton has called home over the past couple decades. 

“Despite all my moving around, I have never lived in the Southwest,” said Morton. “This is a very different place for me in terms of the area physically being a desert, the Indigenous culture and the distinct history this state has.”

Morton is excited to begin exploring the people and places Arizona has to offer once the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic subside. 

“I am all about exploration,” she said. “I am open to new experiences and want to get out there and learn everything I can. For now, that means going on hikes that folks recommend to me and learning about people’s research via Zoom.”

5. Morton is diving into life at ASU

Ideally, Morton would have liked to be taking walks around campus to learn more about the university and the faculty, staff and students.

“But it has been a bit hard to do that right now,” said Morton. “Instead, I have been using my swims to try and get that same interactive experience.” 

Several times a week, Morton makes her way to the Sun Devil Fitness Complex to complete her laps at the pool. 

“I am out there in my lane, doing my thing alongside other Sun Devils. After I am done, I talk to the lifeguards and other swimmers, trying to get to know them and learn more about ASU. I just love it,” said Morton. “The weather is perfect for swimming and there is truly so much you can do and discover here.”

6. Her family is front and center

Throughout her career, Morton has made sure to acknowledge her personal accomplishments as well as her professional ones. 

“For me personally, family is without a doubt what I am most proud of,” said Morton. “I am a spouse, a mother and a grandmother. It truly is the hardest job I have ever had.”

“I am proud of my children and what they have accomplished in addition to the relationships that I have been able to build with them.”

Morton admits that she is facing new and harder challenges now in the pandemic than ever before.

“I feel the challenges that families are going through right now in my own home,” she said. “I have a child who started college this year online, and it is just really hard all around.”

Since her family has not yet made the move from Virginia to Tempe, Morton sympathizes with all those who cannot be with their loved ones due to distance and safety precautions.

“It has been hard not having them here, but I am excited to have them come join me and explore everything Arizona has to offer together,” said Morton.

7. Morton loves a motivating mission statement 

“I am highly mission-oriented. So, a good tagline or mission statement really gets me excited about a place,” said Morton. “I remember the mission or mantras of every place I have worked.”

When she first stepped foot on ASU’s campus, Morton found herself drawn to the university’s title as “No. 1 in innovation” and the charter outlining a commitment to service and inclusivity. 

“The charter is really owned by people here,” said Morton. “It is aspirational, so it is something to work toward. I am very committed to fulfilling the tenets of our mission.”

Morton aims to continue supporting the innovative work pioneered by ASU researchers and students, while pushing the boundaries of what has already been accomplished. 

“We have a goal of $1 billion in research expenditures,” said Morton. “But, to me, there is a much more important metric than dollars. We want to keep increasing the positive impact that our research can have on Arizona, the nation and the world.”

Morton affirms that ASU must continue to foster an environment where research is collaborative, inclusive of multiple disciplines and focused on solving the world’s grand challenges. 

“I am honored to be a part of continuing to drive the Knowledge Enterprise forward,” she said. “We will motivate and support to ensure that we can all do our work better, faster and more nimbly.”

How would Morton define innovation? Well, the new executive VP sees innovation as more of a social way of operating than a technological product. 

“Thinking of new ways of doing things, putting ideas or resources together in ways you would not have done before — that is innovation,” said Morton. “At ASU, I have been learning from the faculty, staff and students that innovation is a social mindset, a culture that is grown and thrives here.”

Written by Maya Shrikant

ASU evolutionary cell biologist awarded 2021 Sloan Research Fellowship

March 10, 2021

Arizona State University Assistant Professor Kerry Geiler-Samerotte was recently named a recipient of the 2021 Sloan Research Fellowship, one of the most prestigious awards available to early career researchers.

The fellowship is awarded annually by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to extraordinary U.S. and Canadian researchers in eight scientific and technical fields: chemistry, computational and evolutionary molecular biology, computer science, Earth system science, economics, mathematics, neuroscience and physics. The grants support original research and recognize distinguished performance, creativity and notable potential for future contributions to these fields.  portrait of ASU assistant professor Kerry Samerotte Kerry Geiler-Samerotte is an evolutionary cell biologist and assistant professor in ASU’s School of Life Sciences and the Biodesign Center for Mechanics of Evolution. Download Full Image

“Kerry is a wonderful colleague, mentor and educator, making significant contributions to our understanding of how cellular features evolve at the molecular level,” said Michael Lynch, director of the Biodesign Center for Mechanisms of Evolution and professor in the School of Life Sciences. “Competition for Sloan Fellowships is intense, so the award is a strong validation of her growing reputation as a scholar and emerging leader in our field.”

Geiler-Samerotte is an evolutionary cell biologist and assistant professor in ASU’s School of Life Sciences and the Biodesign Center for Mechanisms of Evolution

As biologists work toward understanding and developing solutions to the world’s health problems, one major challenge is how much the effects of genetic variation depend on context. For example, contexts like environments and genetic background can change whether a mutation has a positive or negative impact on an organism’s health. This can obscure which genetic variants are contributing to disease. It also complicates predictions for how genetic variations present across diverse populations will respond to drugs. 

To combat these challenges, Geiler-Samerotte intends to move beyond simply mapping the effects of genetic changes on organisms, to understanding how and why these effects change across diverse contexts.

“I'm motivated by the idea that biologists may need to change the way we think,” she said. “Many ideas are still founded on the notion that genetic changes have fixed, rather than context-dependent, effects.

“For example, consider 'evolutionary traps,' which aim to trap infectious microbes or tumors by selecting for mutations that encourage resistance to some drugs at the expense of others. These traps will fail if cells can escape via contextual changes that disrupt the correlation between resistance and susceptibility. But how common is context dependence? Is it common enough to create concern? These are the questions that my research will answer.”

She combines high-throughput experiments in yeast with cutting-edge statistical and computational approaches to measure the characteristics and strength of a large number of mutations across different environments. She uses these measurements to build predictive models to reveal how new mutations will behave in contexts and environments we haven’t studied before. 

“I am honored to receive this award and to have my work be supported by the Sloan Foundation,” she said. “This award will allow me to increase the throughput of my experiments that measure the impacts of mutations across different contexts, which will provide a richer understanding of context dependence.” 

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation was established in 1934, and the first Sloan Research Fellowships were awarded in 1955. Highly sought after, former Sloan Research Fellows have gone on to receive some of the highest honors the scientific and technical communities can bestow, including the Nobel Prize, Fields Medal in mathematics, National Medal of Science and the John Bates Clark medal in economics. 

The 2021 fellowship cohort includes 128 researchers from 58 institutions across the U.S. and Canada. Each will receive a two-year, $75,000 fellowship that can be used to advance their research. Geiler-Samerotte joins seven other faculty from ASU who have received a Sloan Research Fellowship over the years. 

“ASU is the best place for this research because of the interdisciplinary nature of our research centers and departments,” said Geiler-Samerotte. “My work involves evolutionary, computational, molecular, cell and quantitative biology. I enjoy being part of a research community where scientists from different disciplines work together to improve each other's research and let each other achieve more than would have been possible alone.” 

“Dr. Kerry Geiler-Samerotte’s innovative approach toward characterizing the impacts of mutations in multiple conditions utilizes precise, high-throughput methodologies in budding yeast,” said Kara Schmidlin, a senior research specialist in Geiler-Samerotte’s lab. “This work will provide a better understanding of how context-dependence shapes evolution.”

Dominique Perkins

Manager of marketing and communications, School of Life Sciences