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ASU, Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation forge partnership to reclaim language

November 19, 2021

Agreement represents expansion of ASU Professor Tyler Peterson's work with local tribal communities

Recent years have seen a concerted effort by many in public-serving institutions to acknowledge the ancestral peoples and cultures that inhabited — and were often displaced from — the lands on which those institutions now exist.

At Arizona State University, for instance, whose four campuses within the Salt River Valley occupy land that was once home to Indigenous peoples including the Akimel O’odham (Pima) and Piipaash (Maricopa) Indian communities, such acknowledgements are often made before public events and even included as addendums to staff and faculty email signatures.

portrait of ASU English Professor

Tyler Peterson

While that is all heartening for ASU Professor of English Tyler Peterson, he is also aware that part of this reckoning with the history of place is the reality that among those Indigenous peoples, many of whom still live very close to the university, language loss is an ever-present threat to the preservation of their history and culture.

A trained linguist, Peterson has been working for several years with Indigenous communities across the American Southwest, such as the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, to help document, revitalize and maintain their languages.

Most recently, Peterson and his colleague Jacob Moore, who is responsible for intergovernmental affairs between ASU and tribal nations and communities, oversaw the formalization of a partnership between the university and the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation Cultural Department to work on Yavapai dictionary building and the creation of a Yavapai language curriculum, among other things.

As with many Indigenous languages, Yavapai is considered to be endangered.

portrait of , who oversees intergovernmental affairs between ASU and tribal nations and communities

Jacob Moore

“There are things that go beyond language, things like positive self-identity, that are at risk,” Peterson said. “We’re just starting to understand the sort of broader social and psychological impacts of rebuilding linguistic identity.”

Peterson is quick to acknowledge that he’s not Indigenous himself, but rather “just a European dude that works at ASU.”

That said, Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation’s museum and culture department coordinator Albert Nelson thought enough of Peterson’s work to reach out to him about providing assistance interpreting legacy materials on the Yavapai language.

“When we're talking about legacy materials, what we mean is work that was done on the language, usually by linguists and sometimes anthropologists, that was written for an academic audience,” Peterson said. “Usually it's a dissertation or thesis; something that was done in the fulfillment of a degree.”

And while such work is extremely valuable, it’s not often easily comprehensible to those outside academia. So when Nelson reached out, Peterson happily accepted his offer to assist, designing a series of workshops with tribal members to translate the academic language of the documents into something they could work with.

Through that informal relationship, a sense of trust was built that eventually resulted in the memorandum of understanding that now exists between ASU and the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, for which Moore was essential.

“I could not have done that on my own,” Peterson said. “Nor should I have.”

Both he and Moore emphasized the importance of tribal autonomy to the agreement, especially given a long history of often non-Indigenous scholars who go into Indigenous communities to study the language only to satisfy their own scholarly pursuits, without contributing anything helpful to the communities when they leave. What Peterson hopes to do is flip that model on its head.

“There’s this idea of language reclamation, which is where the communities decide what the priorities are, and then we (academics) go in and help to build their capacity for the work they want to do,” Peterson explained. “We’re more like consultants.”

It’s also a great learning opportunity for students, who are currently working with Peterson to develop a series of workshops for the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation to train them in various methods and tools used for language documentation. In addition, Peterson is engaging professors at ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College to develop a curriculum to teach the language to younger generations, a crucial element of the work.

Moore, a citizen of the Tohono O’odham Nation, noted that many individuals from older generations are still marked by their experiences in the now-infamous Indian boarding schools, where they were discouraged and even punished for speaking their ancestral language and, as a result, may not harbor as strong of a desire to preserve it.

“But the generations behind them are saying, ‘No, we do need to reclaim it. Otherwise we're going to lose it,’” Moore said. “So the fact that this young man (Nelson) has kind of taken it upon himself to begin the work of that reclamation puts them on a good path toward that end.”

Meanwhile, Peterson is continuing work on similar projects with the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community to document the Piipaash and O’odham languages. As part of ASU's inaugural Humanities Week this fall, he invited members of the community to speak to his students, who had recently completed a project transcribing stories from the languages.

Sejdina Haseljic, a fourth-year English undergraduate and a native of Bosnia, said it was an eye-opening experience.

“What I’ve learned in this class about how language diversity is declining really got to me,” she said. “Being bilingual myself (I speak Bosnian and English), I feel like it informs my worldview and helps me to be more empathetic, in a way. And I think that's so important, especially considering the brutal history of Indigenous peoples in America. I think they deserve justice for that, and maybe this work can help a little bit.”

Moore shared a similar sentiment about the idea of reciprocity.

“Fort McDowell has always been one of (ASU’s) major donors of the tribes within the metropolitan Phoenix area,” he said. “And I've always felt, what are we giving back? So I think in many ways, what Tyler and his students are doing is kind of extending that relationship so that it goes both ways.”

Top photo courtesy of iStock/Getty Images

Emma Greguska

Editor , ASU News

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New microscopy method offers 3D tracking of 100 single molecules at once

November 19, 2021

Since its invention over 400 years ago, the microscope has continued to evolve, peering ever deeper into nature’s mysteries at the smallest scales.

In new research, Associate Professor Shaopeng Wang and his postdoctoral research scholar Guangzhong Ma, along with their colleagues at the Biodesign Center for Bioelectronics and Biosensors at Arizona State University, describe advances in microscopy based on a phenomenon known as surface plasmon resonance (SPR). graphic showing the basic experimental setup for Surface Plasmon Resonance Microscopy (SPRM) This graphic shows the basic experimental setup for surface plasmon resonance microscopy (SPRM). When a particle of interest binds with a receptor, tethered to a thin gold film, the event disturbs a surface plasmon wave, which is registered as a change in light intensity. SLED (super-luminescent emitting diode) is the light source, which illuminates the sample and induces a surface plasmon wave that ripples across the gold surface. A high-speed camera captures these rapid changes, imaging the binding dynamics. Adapted with permission from Three-Dimensional Tracking of Tethered Particles for Probing Nanometer-Scale Single-Molecule Dynamics Using a Plasmonic Microscope. Copyright 2021 American Chemical Society Download Full Image

The new study highlights a series of experiments that show how SPR technology can be used to precisely image 100 single molecules simultaneously and describe their dynamic activities in real time, particularly when molecules bind with each other and carry out important biological functions.  

“Taking advantage of the extremely high sensitivity in the axial (vertical) direction, SPR can track the particle's axial motions with sub-nanometer precision, which is much more precise than regular microscopy imaging,” Wang said. “We demonstrated that this feature can be used to study the details of molecular binding events at the single molecule-level and also for processing multiple signals at once.”

The new study appears in the current issue of the journal ACS Sensors and has been selected as an ACS Editors' Choice, due to its potential for broad public interest.

New wave science

SPR is an optical effect that can be used to detect and precisely measure the binding of molecules without the need for fluorescent labels. The technique has broad applications, both in industry and the medical field, where it can be used to screen and develop new pharmaceutical drugs and biotherapeutics and new diagnostic assays, and unlock some of the mechanisms of disease.

Many critical biomolecules in health and disease are challenging to observe using conventional techniques such as X-ray crystallography or NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) spectroscopy. SPR offers an efficient and low-cost alternative for these investigations. 


Shaopeng Wang

SPR relies on the fact that metals contain many electrons that are not bound to atoms. When incident light is shined on these free electrons under the proper conditions, the energy contained in the light causes these electrons to resonate, producing a wave across the metal surface, known as a surface plasmon. 

The SPR technique can be used to measure the binding between proteins, nucleic acids, small molecules and many other interactions. Precise explorations of such biomolecules are challenging as most measure just a few nanometers in size. The resulting data can help researchers identify which molecules in a sample interact, why they interact and the strength of these interactions.

SPR is one of the only techniques that allows researchers to study not only the binding affinity of molecules, but also their binding kinetics, yielding valuable information not captured by traditional tests, such as ELISA (enzyme-linked  immunosorbent assay). Surface plasmon resonance microscopy (SPRM) takes the basic SPR phenomenon a step further, producing a highly versatile technology for investigating molecular binding events at sub-nanometer scales and with millisecond time resolution.

Sensitive detections

In order to use SPR to delicately probe the binding of a single molecules, the receptor molecule, such as a short segment of DNA, is immobilized on a sensor surface composed of a very thin layer of gold. Then the binding molecule is added to an aqueous solution.


Guangzhong Ma

When polarized light is directed onto the gold film at just the right angle, plasmonic waves are generated. A binding event of the immobilized receptor and the binding molecule can be detected when it alters the refractive index at the gold surface. This effect acts to disturb the surface plasmon, producing an increase in signal intensity. These fleeting effects are then captured with the aid of high-speed cameras.

In the current study, SPR imaging was used to track 100 particles simultaneously in three dimensions. In one experiment, bound segments of double-stranded DNA, 48 base pairs in length and affixed to a gold surface, acted as the receptor molecules. The molecule they were poised to detect was a small enzyme known as a helicase. Its role in biological systems is to bind with and unwind DNA, when repairs to the DNA sequence are required.

The DNA helicase was first attached to a gold nanoparticle, to allow SPR to reveal its subtle optical properties as it bound with the tethered DNA strand.

With the addition of ATP to the aqueous solution, the helicase set about its task, unwinding the double-stranded DNA at a rate of roughly 10 base pairs per second, with the live action captured by a 400 fps camera. The high-precision 3D tracking method outlined in the study enabled the researchers to derive the unwinding rate of the DNA strand as well as the rotation angle of the bound helicase molecule.

Multipurpose technology

Other experiments demonstrate that the method can perform particle-based detection of antibody-antigen binding and discriminate between specific and non-specific binding events. (Non-specific antibody binding can occur when a cell lacks a receptor or epitope for a specific antibody.) Here, the molecule troponin T, a common biomarker for heart disease, was observed as it bound to its corresponding antibody affixed to the gold surface.

The ability to separate specific from non-specific binding events is a valuable benefit, as the latter often occur in mixed samples like serum, making accurate diagnostic analysis challenging.

Further, because the SPRM technique can capture data on 100 molecules at once in three dimensions, the method allows detailed statistical analysis of molecular binding events and kinetics not possible with conventional methods. Thus, the new technique shows considerable promise for rapid, low-cost and detailed detection of biomolecules and may be incorporated into a new generation of biosensing devices.

Richard Harth

Science writer, Biodesign Institute at ASU