ASU astrobiologist and physicist receives early career award from the International Society of the Study of the Origin of Life

November 2, 2021

Arizona State University astrobiologist and theoretical physicist Sara Walker of the School of Earth and Space Exploration, the School of Complex Adaptive Systems and the Beyond Center has been selected to receive the Stanley L. Miller Early Career Award from the International Society of the Study of the Origin of Life. The award is provided in recognition to Walker for her outstanding contributions to origins of life research early in her career.

“This is a very well-deserved honor for Professor Sara Walker for her significant contributions to this important area of study,” said School of Earth and Space Exploration Director Meenakshi Wadhwa. “We are also proud of the fact that ASU provides the environment necessary to nurture the type of interdisciplinary and innovative work for which she is being recognized.” ASU astrobiologist, theoretical physicist and Associate Professor Sara Walker of the School of Earth and Space Exploration, the School of Complex Adaptive Systems and the Beyond Center. Image copyright Nerissa Escanlar

Walker’s research focuses on developing a new theory for understanding what life is, how we can quantify the origin of life and how we can build quantitative standards to guide our search for life on other worlds. She is particularly interested in whether there are “laws of life” that universally will apply to life anywhere in the universe, and that will allow transitioning astrobiology to a science that can predict what other kinds of life might be out there.

“Sara developed a unique approach to framing the problem of origin of life research, as well as bringing together astrobiology, origin of life, and artificial life,” stated one of her nominators. “These areas combine planetary science, chemical evolution and computer science, helping her establish an entirely new approach as she joined ASU as faculty in 2013. She then established a world-leading team exploring the statistical properties of both prebiotic and living systems with a focus to understanding the chemistry-to-biology transition. She is both an inspirational scientist, communicator and mentor, but her insights are as incredible as her humility.”

In addition to being on the faculty of the School of Earth and Space Exploration, and the School of Complex Adaptive Systems, Walker is also the deputy director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science and associate director of the ASU-Santa Fe Institute Center for Biosocial Complex Systems, as well as a member of the external faculty at the Santa Fe Institute.

“When I started out in origins research I would never have thought this award would go to theoretical research focused on understanding what life is, because that was so far outside what most of the field was doing,” Walker said. “I’m really grateful for the support I have gotten at ASU and in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. The kind of work I do could literally not happen anywhere else because it is just too out of the box for a standard department or university. This award is very dear to me for that reason, and also because it sets a precedent in our field that opens doors for others looking to apply theory and complex systems thinking in astrobiology and to map those ideas to experiments and observations we can do in the coming decades.”

Walker is the second School of Earth and Space Exploration faculty to receive this award, the first being Professor Jason Raymond, who was on the faculty at the school from 2011 to 2018.

“ASU and our school are gaining a good track record for fostering deeper thinking on the problems of origins of life and how we should search for it beyond what ‘more traditional’ departments and institutions can allow,” Walker said. “I’m glad to follow in the footsteps of my many colleagues at ASU whom I look up to in that regard, to be able to continue the tradition of boundary-pushing science that we do and to work with our amazing students who are even more fearless than we faculty are.”

About the International Society of the Study of the Origin of Life (ISSOL)

ISSOL has more than 500 members representing over 20 countries in disciplines as varied as astronomy and molecular biology. The society’s supporting journal, Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres, has been publishing work in the field since 1968 and is the longest-established and most authoritative journal for astrobiology and origins of life research.

Karin Valentine

Media Relations & Marketing manager, School of Earth and Space Exploration


Designed to deal with disruption

ASU engineering research supports new national effort to make urban systems more adaptable and resilient

November 2, 2021

How can urban businesses and transportation systems demonstrate resiliency and deliver efficient service through significant disruptions such as a hurricane or a pandemic? What knowledge, mechanisms and tools are needed to design a truly adaptable society?

Answering these questions is the purpose of a new National Science Foundation project called “Re-engineering for Adaptable Lives and Businesses,” funded by the Leading Engineering for America’s Prosperity, Health and Infrastructure, or LEAP-HI, program. Colorful illustration of cars driving on a flooded road in an urban setting The increasing frequency and severity of natural disasters and other societal disruptions have inspired a new National Science Foundation project to re-engineer urban systems in ways that better maintain public well-being and economic prosperity through future calamities. Researchers from the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University and peers at three other major institutions will collaborate to create tools that make society more adaptable before the unexpected happens. Illustration courtesy of Shutterstock Download Full Image

Researchers from the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, the University of Washington, the University of Notre Dame and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte will collaborate during the next four years to explore how key societal systems can switch between alternative operating modalities. They want to equip people with tools that will help them adapt to dramatic situations, while maintaining public well-being and economic prosperity.

“This project aims to develop systematic ways to reconfigure urban spaces and infrastructure for a variety of uses,” said Cynthia Chen, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington and LEAP-HI’s lead researcher.

“It will design mechanisms that provide business owners and supporting infrastructure such as transit operators with a set of options and decision support tools capable of accounting for future uncertainties,” Chen said. “We will explicitly model how information flows through a system so that people can adapt to external disruptions.”

The $2 million research effort seeks to advance knowledge at the intersection of multiple disciplines including urban planning, controls and optimization, human behavior and transportation systems analysis. Equally important, the project integrates people, businesses and transit into a network, thus enabling a better understanding of how society can adapt to different disruptions.

Two project case studies will address the vibrancy of small to mid-scale food systems in Phoenix and Seattle, focusing on challenges encountered by communities that include disproportionately large shares of front-line workers and public transit users.

“We saw that food systems such as restaurants and farmers markets were severely disrupted during the pandemic. Many of them had to close, and people were out of work — especially among the marginalized communities most impacted by disruptions of this nature,” said Ram Pendyala, director of the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, one of the seven Fulton Schools at ASU, and a co-leader of the LEAP-HI project.

“At the same time, food systems represent an adaptable enterprise. We saw the repurposing of sidewalks and street space for outdoor dining, ramping up takeout and delivery services and implementing social distancing in farmers markets,” Pendyala said. “It’s in this context that we see food systems as an adaptable system that connects key entities of interest: small businesses, front-line workers, transit services and marginalized communities.”

Pendyala and his peers also say the project takes account of our societal approach to efficiency. Maximizing efficiency has long been a driving force for economic growth and industrial expansion, but it often results in systems that are unable to adapt to external disruptions, as demonstrated by many natural disasters. There have been calls for increasing redundancy as a solution, but adding redundancies in systems design increases costs and resource demands.

“What is needed is an adaptable societal organization that can operate in a variety of configurations in response to a wide range of disruptions, thereby displaying both efficiency and resilience,” said Vijay Gupta, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Notre Dame and a LEAP-HI project co-principal investigator.

Katherine Idziorek, an assistant professor of urban design and planning at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, adds that achieving such adaptability demands considering how “our urban spaces and the regulations that are attached to them represent both constraints and opportunities in either prohibiting or enabling diverse functionalities.”

Pendyala says the availability of information about external conditions also plays a role in the way human activity patterns and mobility choices change in the wake of disruptions. Therefore, researchers supporting the project at ASU will develop predictive modeling frameworks and identify the human behaviors and choices that need to be modeled to meet the objectives of the project. They also will work with doctoral students at the four participating institutions to implement and apply the modeling system to test alternative scenarios.

“This is an exciting and timely project, given the increasing frequency of extreme events experienced by communities worldwide,” Pendyala said. “So, we look forward to engaging key stakeholders as we strive to advance more adaptable societal systems.”

Other key investigators on the LEAP-HI project team include Dan Abramson and Branden Born, associate professors of urban design and planning at the University of Washington, and Chaoyue Zhao, an assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering at the University of Washington.

Gary Werner

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering