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Tiny volunteers help ASU lab study curiosity

April 6, 2021

The Emerging Minds Lab turns to technology to continue studying how babies, toddlers learn

Building a baby lab is no small feat, though its subjects may have some (small feet, that is). It’s a fact that was only reinforced when the pandemic forced ASU psychology Assistant Professor Kelsey Lucca and her intrepid staff to transition their nascent Emerging Minds Lab from in-person experiments to a completely online format over the past year.

Much of the lab’s team is made up of ASU alumni, undergraduates and research staff students who were just as excited about their research as they were that it meant interacting with chubby-cheeked little ones every day.

“When they joined the lab, they wanted to interact with kids,” said Lucca, who serves as its director. “This is not that, and it’s been a really challenging time, but they have adapted so well. They’ve shown incredible resiliency, and have really risen to the challenge.”

The challenge, as it were, involved adapting experiments designed for a lab setting to something parents could do at home with their children, which researchers could still guide and observe remotely.

“It happened so fast,” said Sarah Kiefer, project coordinator for the lab and an alum of ASU’s psychology program. “Dr. Lucca had me take home a laptop to work from home, just in case, and that was the last day I saw her before everything shut down.”

During those first weeks of lockdown, Kiefer and lab manager Vanessa Lazaro worked together, combing online forums and listservs for strategies and resources to keep their experiments going virtually.

Each of them faced unique issues with the individual projects they were overseeing.

For “Aquatic Adventures,” a project involving children ages 3 1/2 to 6 actively exploring a curated environment, Kiefer and her team of students were able to recreate the environment in an online format. For “Ready, Set, Play!,” a project involving children ages 10 to 24 months interacting with a variety of toys, Lazara and her team of students ended up mailing a care package with toys to participating families.

They also relied a lot on the help of the parents, to whom they sent detailed instructions for how to set up the space in their home in which the experiment would be conducted, as well as instructions for how to allow the researchers into the space via Zoom.

Once the families had the tools they needed, Kiefer and Lazaro were able to run some pilot tests to ensure the experiments would indeed be feasible with the new virtual setup.

baby in a high chair smiling

Young participant of the Emerging Minds Lab's "Ready, Set, Play!" study. Photo courtesy of Kelsey Lucca.

“It was all about finding the best ways to transition all of these very active components and elements of the in-person studies to an online format and still be fun and engaging for the families,” Lazaro said. “This is really a collaboration between us and the families. We're working together to contribute to developmental science as a whole.”

And the field of developmental science is one that could use some contributions.

“There really has not been a lot of systematic, scientific study of curiosity during infancy and toddlerhood,” Lucca said. “For a long time, it was thought that infants didn’t even have the prerequisite skills to be curious.”

Metacognition is a term that describes one’s awareness and understanding of their own thought processes. It’s how adults are able to realize what they don’t know so that they can attempt to fill that gap. In recent years, Lucca said, scientists have been discovering that babies and toddlers actually do have metacognition and the ability to seek out information when they don't know something.

Experiments that have compared babies’ responses to simply being acknowledged when they expressed interest in an unfamiliar object to babies’ responses when they were given more information about the unfamiliar object found that babies who were only acknowledged but not given more information continued to point and vocalize, which is interpreted as their way of communicating that they want to know more.

And there’s a lot of value in understanding what prompts that kind of a reaction.

“Curiosity is one of the strongest predictors of academic success, as well as positive life outcomes more broadly,” Lucca said. “The more curious you are, the more likely you are to report higher life satisfaction, better earnings, better job outcomes … It even shows up in relationships and has been shown to be related to healthy aging. So curiosity is really important throughout the lifespan.”

The only problem is, as we age, we lose much of that natural instinct to question the world around us. Lucca paraphrased an idea from UC Berkeley Professor Alison Gopnik's book "The Philosophical Baby," which compares a baby’s attention to a lantern: They are broadly interested in everything. As we get older, our attention becomes more like a spotlight, zeroing in on the things we’re good at or have a specific interest in.

“It’s a trade-off we make,” she said. “But if we can design experiments that help us to gain a better understanding of how infants and young children learn about the world around them, we can better equip parents and caregivers with the tools they need to help them thrive.”

group photo of the staff of ASU's Emerging Minds Lab

The researchers of ASU's Emerging Minds Lab, including lab director Kelsey Lucca (far left), lab manager Vanessa Lazaro (second from left) and project coordinator Sarah Kiefer (fourth from left). Photo courtesy of the Emerging Minds Lab (taken before current face covering requirements).

While conducting those experiments over the internet isn’t ideal, the staff of the Emerging Minds Lab has found that there are some benefits.

“There is a unique challenge with working with kids online,” said Kalie Scirpo, psychology undergraduate and Barrett, The Honors College student. “It can be hard to keep their attention, which is something that takes practice and patience. But it's also kind of fun to see them in their own environments, and we’re able to measure their behavior in a real-world context.”

Scirpo is one of several undergrads who do research in the Emerging Minds Lab. As a researcher on the “Aquatic Adventures” project, Scirpo is gaining invaluable knowledge that she’s putting to use for her honor’s thesisScirpo received funding from Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University for her honor's thesis., which will look at how parents’ language influences their children’s strategies to search for information.

“Undergrads are the heart and soul of our lab,” Lucca said. “They do it all. They’re not just entering data into a computer. They design experiments, conduct tests with families, analyze data, write things up … They’re an essential part of the lab, and I think they have fun doing it.”

They’re not the only ones. One of the most enjoyable parts of the job for Kiefer and Lazaro is interacting with the parents of the children. After every experiment, they debrief the parents and field any questions they may have.

“Parents have the best questions, and the best ideas too,” Kiefer said.

And by way of gratitude for their participation, compensation is provided in the form of toys, gift cards and activity bundles. The lab is always recruiting babies, toddlers and young children for their studies, and Lucca encourages anyone interested in participating to sign up through the lab’s website.

Video by Rob Ewing of the ASU Psychology Department.

Top photo: Young participant of the ASU Emerging Minds Lab's virtual "Aquatic Adventures" study. Photo courtesy of Sarah Kiefer

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ASU is among the leaders in patents granted, startups launched

April 6, 2021

Arizona State University, through Skysong Innovations, continues to achieve high rankings in technology transfer metrics. The latest read on this comes from the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM). According to AUTM’s most recent survey (fiscal year 2019), ASU was fourth in patents granted, fourth in startup companies launched and third in inventions disclosed when compared with other universities without a medical school. 

The AUTM report is an annual survey of the performance of technology transfer offices around the country. Skysong Innovations is the intellectual property management and technology transfer organization for ASU.

With 129 patents awarded in FY19, ASU is No. 4 (out of 58 universities and colleges in this peer group) behind MIT, North Carolina State University and California Institute of Technology and ahead of Purdue University, Carnegie Mellon University, the Rochester Institute of Technology and Princeton University. Patents are one measure of how well an institution can identify and move new scientific ideas from the lab into the marketplace. 

With 18 startup companies generated, ASU ranked No. 4 (of 58 universities and colleges), behind only MIT, Caltech and Purdue and ahead of Carnegie Mellon, Princeton and the University of Georgia. Startups are a measure of an idea entering the market through the formation of a company dedicated to developing that innovation. 

A third category ASU did well in was invention disclosures. ASU had 301 invention disclosures in FY19, putting it at No. 3 (of 58 universities and colleges). ASU was behind only MIT and Purdue University in this measure and ahead of Caltech, North Carolina State and Iowa State University. An invention disclosure is an innovation or technology submitted by an ASU researcher for potential commercialization.

In addition to these measures, ASU startups raised more than $100 million in outside investments in FY19 and, to date, have raised almost $1 billion to develop technologies invented by ASU faculty and researchers. ASU was one of five universities without a medical school ranking in the top 10 for issued patents, startups launched, inventions disclosed, and licenses and options, along with MIT, Carnegie Mellon, North Carolina State and Purdue.    

“These survey findings are representative of one of the most critical areas of ASU’s charter — that of advancing research and discovery of public value,” said Sally C. Morton, executive vice president of ASU’s Knowledge Enterprise. “We take great pride in moving our research from the lab to the classroom and into society with speed and scale where it has impact and helps solve some of the most pressing challenges we face as a global community.” 

“ASU researchers are tackling some of the world’s biggest challenges, from sustainable resources and carbon capture to cancer detection and treatment,” added Augie Cheng, Skysong Innovations CEO and chief legal officer. “Skysong Innovations identifies those technologies with broad commercial potential and coordinates with the right partners to bring these innovations into the marketplace.”

Metabolism analysis on the run

One of the patents awarded in FY19 was for a “metabolic analyzer” developed by Erica Forzani and the late N.J. Tao. This device provides a method for weight and/or fitness management by measuring a person’s metabolic data including oxygen and carbon dioxide during exercise or at rest. 

The pocket-held device is licensed to the startup Breezing. It is marketed as the first portable device that can track an individual’s metabolism and use that information to provide diet and exercise recommendations for maintaining or reaching a healthy weight.

The device analyzes a human’s exhalations and transmits that information to an integrated app on a cellphone or tablet via Bluetooth. The user can then apply that information to customize a diet or exercise program through the app that will help achieve personal weight goals. 

The device works via “indirect calorimetry,” the preferred measurement method of the American Dietetic Association, World Health Organization and other institutions. Traditional indirect calorimeters are bulky, difficult to use and usually found only in doctor’s offices. Breezing replaces all that with a simple, handheld device based on cutting-edge sensor technology.

A blood test for cancer in dogs

A second patent from FY19 pertains to diagnosing cancer in dogs. The new method, developed by the Biodesign Institute’s and School of Life Sciences' Stephen Johnston, is used for diagnosing and characterizing lymphoma utilizing patient antibodies bound to peptide microarrays in comparison to an immunosignature characteristic of a lymphoma state or a nonlymphoma state. 

A single blood test capable of diagnosing cancer with high sensitivity and specificity would enhance patient care by streamlining the diagnostic process. A serological test for monitoring lymphoma could be used at multiple stages: early detection, diagnosis and monitoring of residual disease.

Spontaneous canine lymphoma and human non-Hodgkin lymphoma have nearly identical presentations and pathologies, making them ideal partner species in which to explore blood-based diagnostics. A serological test would facilitate routine monitoring during an annual wellness exam, enable faster diagnosis when lymphoma is suspected and allow monitoring of lymphoma following treatment. Design of such a test for lymphoma is dependent on the identification of an appropriate biomarker.

Startups to save lives

One of the startup companies launched in FY19 is OncoMyx Therapeutics, founded by Grant McFadden of the Biodesign Institute. OncoMyx develops cancer therapeutics based on the myxoma virus, which is a highly immuno-interactive virus that can selectively infect and kill a broad range of cancer cell types. McFadden is a pioneer in the field of oncolytic virotherapy that can successfully program a virus to infect and kill cancer while leaving normal cells unharmed.

As a virus that is nonpathogenic to humans, myxoma does not have to overcome preexisting immunity. With a large genome, myxoma is ideal for multi-arming, creating a precision medicine approach with a unique oncolytic virus that activates the cancer immunity cycle and expands the therapeutic effectiveness of immunotherapies.

McFadden and his collaborators have spent the past two decades evaluating the myxoma virus as a cancer-fighting agent in a wide variety of tumor models. The natural target of the virus is the European rabbit, in which it causes a lethal disease. Because it only grows in rabbit cells or cancer cells, it would not infect healthy human tissue. In humans, the virus is harmless, except when it encounters a cancer cell. McFadden’s research team has successfully targeted various types of cancers.

Autism diagnosis and treatment

A second startup from FY19 is Autism Diagnostics, a company founded by ASU’s James Adams, a professor in ASU’s School of Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, working with Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown of the Biodesign Institute and a professor in ASU’s School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment. 

The company is working to produce the first biomedical test for diagnosing autism. It has also developed two metabolomic tests for autism that can also assess treatment efficacy in clinical trials. Therefore, the test could diagnose children while also helping to guide personalized medical interventions.

The company received first place for best startup opportunity in a universitywide competition at ASU in November 2019.  

Top photo: A solar cell printed with "ASU." Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU News