Certificate program offers courses on injustice, incivility, political disengagement

Network is collaboration between honors colleges at ASU, City University of New York

November 22, 2021

Veronica Gonzales, a junior in Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University, is no stranger to difficult conversations about race and gender inequality.

The junior double-majoring in political science and English has for years talked with her mother and sister about the challenges and discrimination they have faced. woman's portrait Veronica Gonzales, an ASU Barrett, The Honors College junior double-majoring in political science and English, is a member of the Justice Equity Honors Network, a collaboration between Barrett Honors College at ASU and Macaulay Honors College at City University of New York. Download Full Image

“These injustices and inequalities were first brought to my attention when I was younger through my older sister and my mom, who both showed me the reality of being a woman of color. I witnessed discrimination committed against them, and their experiences and who they are as people fostered a sense of wanting to change the world, or at least make a small difference in it, in me,” Gonzales said.

That’s why when Gonzales heard about the Justice Equity Honors Network, a collaboration between Barrett, The Honors College and Macaulay Honors College at City University of New York, she wanted to be involved.

The network was co-founded by Olga Idriss Davis, professor and associate dean of the ASU honors college at the Downtown Phoenix campus, and Joseph Ugoretz, senior associate dean and chief academic officer at Macaulay Honors College. 

The network is a certificate program featuring multidisciplinary honors courses and activities focused on issues of injustice, incivility and political disengagement.

The program began this fall with an initial cohort of students, who are called JEHN Fellows, from both honors colleges. Weekly online classes are co-taught by Barrett Honors Faculty Fellow Rachel Fedock and Macaulay Honors College Professor Zohra Saed.

A summer conference that will bring JEHN Fellows from Arizona and New York together in-person is in the planning stages. The program may be expanded to include other honors colleges in the future.

Davis said the idea for the Justice Equity Honors Network emanated from events and crises of 2020, including a global pandemic, outrage over police violence and systemic racism, the long-standing assaults against Black lives and Black culture, political polarization and increasing economic disparity, environmental destruction and a dangerous degradation of civic norms.

“We felt we needed something academically to respond to these events focusing on values around American democratic society, justice, equality and equity,” she said.

“We wanted to create an honors network where young, high-achieving, future leaders see the value of collaboration with a consciousness that recognizes their responsibility of transforming our fraught world. Having a network, a community like this, is unique to an honors academic experience. JEHN offers a vision of possibilities beyond our imagination.”

“It’s really difficult to have conversations about such things as inequities, injustices and incivility, but these are conversations we need to have. We need to inform students, ‘Here are things that former generations didn’t clean up before you arrived. We need to give you the history so you can now pay it forward, teach others and create change,’” Davis added.

Ugoretz said the network aims to address the divisiveness that is plaguing the country.

“We are a fractured country that is feeling so divided. Bringing talented young people together across these divides is a way to heal that brokenness and inform the decisions they make in the future,” he said. 

What’s unique about the network, according to Ugoretz, is “the fact that this is specifically for honors students, and specifically a network."

"Those are the things that distinguish this program from existing ethnic studies or social justice programs," he said "This is a program for students who have strong academic skills, and because of that they feel a strong commitment to living up to their responsibilities and using their skills to heal their world. And they feel a strong desire to connect, in a network, with other students like them across the country.” 

Gonzales said she has learned about various cultures and social issues that impact marginalized groups, such as women and the Black, Latino and Indigenous communities.

“I think what’s so important and great about JEHN is how we’re learning about these parts of history that we might not have ever gotten to discuss at all. Along those lines, I’ve also learned how to properly have these types of conversations and how to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. It’s only through discussing such issues that we can begin creating change,” she said.

Sierra Santiago, a sophomore in Macaulay Honors College majoring in political science with a minor in Africana and Puerto Rican/Latino studies, said through the network she has learned how to critically analyze global history and gained knowledge of systemic oppression in the areas of education and criminal justice.

“Although the U.S. education system generally covers ‘important’ events in this nation’s history, many stories of colonization and subjection are still left unsaid,” she explained.

“Having challenging discussions and experiences is crucial to developing a well-rounded and comprehensive worldview. Learning how to reclaim and reframe the ‘American’ narrative towards new multicultural perspectives and in characterizing public issues is essential to protecting all through equitable legislation,” she said.

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Anusha Natajaran

Anusha Natajaran, a Barrett, The Honors College junior majoring in sociology and history, is using her experience to inform her honors thesis, which focuses on how Arizona’s history is portrayed in textbooks and the lack of history and culture pertaining to communities of color.

“I am very interested in cultural education as many people who identify as a person of color have been left out in our curriculum, such as our textbooks or histories,” she said.

Natajaran said through the network she learned about Arizona’s role in removing Native American youth from their homes and sending them to residential schools that stripped them of their culture.

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Alejandra Maya

“Arizona is one of the states that had residential schools, and the history behind them is dark and brutal. JEHN is filling that gap that we missed in our social studies curriculum,” she said. 

Alejandra Maya, a senior in Barrett, The Honors College majoring in political science, said students should not have to wait until college to learn about issues of justice and equity.

“This is a huge issue because not every person decides to pursue higher education, which is OK. But it is not OK that current and future generations are not exposed to these challenging topics. These topics are real-life experiences that every person in the world is exposed to. It is important to educate and make students aware of the environment we live in,” she said, adding that that is what the network does.

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Elisa Thomas

“JEHN has deepened my knowledge on systemic issues that we face as a nation and as a collective whole," said Elisa Thomas, a Barrett, The Honors College junior majoring in sociology with minors in justice studies and political science.

"I appreciate the depth and variety of sources we review: historical texts, modern-day news stories, documentaries, YouTube videos and poems. I think this breadth of knowledge is incredibly valuable to nourish strong discourse between students.”

Gabrielle Erves, a sophomore computer science major in Macaulay Honors College, said she appreciates “having a safe space to discuss issues.”

“I feel this is very important because the first way to heal these issues is to have conversations about them that are productive and that help to move the ball forward and promote change.”

The Justice Equity Honors Network is seeking a new cohort of honors students for the academic year 2022–23. The application is now open, and the deadline to apply is Dec. 20. 

Nicole Greason

Director of Marketing and Public Relations , Barrett, The Honors College


New possibilities for life at the bottom of Earth's ocean, and perhaps in oceans on other planets

November 22, 2021

In the strange, dark world of the ocean floor, underwater fissures, called hydrothermal vents, host complex communities of life. These vents belch scorching hot fluids into extremely cold seawater, creating the chemical forces necessary for the small organisms that inhabit this extreme environment to live.

In a newly published study, biogeoscientists Jeffrey Dick and Everett Shock have determined that specific hydrothermal seafloor environments provide a unique habitat where certain organisms can thrive. In so doing, they have opened up new possibilities for life in the dark at the bottom of oceans on Earth, as well as throughout the solar system. Their results have been published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences. A chimney structure from the Sea Cliff hydrothermal vent field located more than 8,800 feet (2,700 meters) below the sea’s surface at the submarine boundary of the Pacific and Gorda tectonic plates. Photo by Ocean Exploration Trust Download Full Image

On land, when organisms get energy out of the food they eat, they do so through a process called cellular respiration, where there is an intake of oxygen and the release of carbon dioxide. Biologically speaking, the molecules in our food are unstable in the presence of oxygen, and it is that instability that is harnessed by our cells to grow and reproduce, a process called biosynthesis.

But for organisms living on the seafloor, the conditions for life are dramatically different.

“On land, in the oxygen-rich atmosphere of Earth, it is familiar to many people that making the molecules of life requires energy,” said co-author Shock of Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and the School of Molecular Sciences. “In stunning contrast, around hydrothermal vents on the seafloor, hot fluids mix with extremely cold seawater to produce conditions where making the molecules of life releases energy.”

In deep-sea microbial ecosystems, organisms thrive near vents where hydrothermal fluid mixes with ambient seawater. Previous research led by Shock found that the biosynthesis of basic cellular building blocks, like amino acids and sugars, is particularly favorable in areas where the vents are composed of ultramafic rock (igneous and meta-igneous rocks with very low silica content), because these rocks produce the most hydrogen.

Besides basic building blocks like amino acids and sugars, cells need to form larger molecules, or polymers, also known as biomacromolecules. Proteins are the most abundant of these molecules in cells, and the polymerization reaction (where small molecules combine to produce a larger biomolecule) itself requires energy in almost all conceivable environments.

“In other words, where there is life, there is water, but water needs to be driven out of the system for polymerization to become favorable,” said lead author Dick, who was a postdoctoral scholar at ASU when this research began and who is currently a geochemistry researcher in the School of Geosciences and Info-Physics at Central South University in Changsha, China. “So, there are two opposing energy flows: release of energy by biosynthesis of basic building blocks, and the energy required for polymerization.”

What Dick and Shock wanted to know is what happens when you add them up: Do you get proteins whose overall synthesis is actually favorable in the mixing zone?

They approached this problem by using a unique combination of theory and data.

From the theoretical side, they used a thermodynamic model for the proteins, called “group additivity,” which accounts for the specific amino acids in protein sequences as well as the polymerization energies. For the data, they used all the protein sequences in an entire genome of a well-studied vent organism called Methanocaldococcus jannaschii.

By running the calculations, they were able to show that the overall synthesis of almost all the proteins in the genome releases energy in the mixing zone of an ultramafic-hosted vent at the temperature where this organism grows the fastest, at around 185 degrees Fahrenheit (85 Celsius). By contrast, in a different vent system that produces less hydrogen (a basalt-hosted system), the synthesis of proteins is not favorable.

“This finding provides a new perspective on not only biochemistry but also ecology because it suggests that certain groups of organisms are inherently more favored in specific hydrothermal environments,” Dick said. “Microbial ecology studies have found that methanogens, of which Methanocaldococcus jannaschii is one representative, are more abundant in ultramafic-hosted vent systems than in basalt-hosted systems. The favorable energetics of protein synthesis in ultramafic-hosted systems are consistent with that distribution.”

For next steps, Dick and Shock are looking at ways to use these energetic calculations across the tree of life, which they hope will provide a firmer link between geochemistry and genome evolution.

“As we explore, we’re reminded time and again that we should never equate where we live as what is habitable to life,” Shock said.

Karin Valentine

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