image title

The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences counts down top 2021 stories

December 22, 2021

Throughout 2021, problem-solvers, storytellers and dog lovers made headlines at The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University. 

From solutions for dog anxiety and new research rankings to a 2021 Pulitzer Prize winner — students, faculty and Sun Devils in the community showed determination, innovation and hope.

MORE: 2021 top stories from around the university

As we enter 2022, The College community will continue to thrive as the core of success and discovery and the academic heart of ASU.

Count down The College’s top 10 stories to ring in the New Year:

Dog looking up at its owner.

No. 10: Easing your pup into post-pandemic life

With many businesses asking employees to return to the office in 2021, some dog owners were concerned about the impact that change would have on their furry friends.

Clive Wynne, Lisa Gunter and Rachel Gilchrist of the Department of Psychology’s Canine Science Collaboratory shared insights and pointers for easing pups into the transition, including identifying signs of anxiety and gradually introducing changes.

Woman sitting on the couch with her laptop.

No. 9: From ASU Online to medical school

Desiree’ Brionne Dillard and David Reed were the first ASU Online graduates to get into medical school.

Dillard earned a degree in biological sciences from the School of Life Sciences and was accepted into the Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Reed, who majored in biochemistry from the School of Molecular Sciences, was accepted into the Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine at Marshall University in West Virginia.

Golfer hits a ball into the air.

No. 8: Forks up for Tokyo Olympic games

Twenty Sun Devil athletes competed in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which were delayed until 2021 due to the pandemic. These athletes included several alumni of The College: 

  • Promise Amukamara, bachelor’s degree in communication, 2015.

  • Dallas Escobedo, bachelor’s degrees in family and human development and special education, 2015; master’s degree in curriculum and instruction, 2017.

  • Chelsea Gonzales, bachelor’s degree in family and human development, 2017. 

  • Lena Mihailovic, bachelor’s degree in biological sciences, 2018.

  • Azahara Munoz, bachelor’s degree in psychology, 2009.

  • Sashel Palacios, bachelor’s degree in family and human development, 2017; master’s degree in higher and postsecondary education, 2019.

  • Jon Rahm, bachelor’s degree in communication, 2016.

  • Fanny Teijonsalo, bachelor’s degree in psychology, 2019.

Man squats down to pet his dog.

No. 7: The myth of the alpha dog

The Canine Science Collaboratory made headlines again in August 2021.

This time, Wynne, the collaboratory’s director, busted a common myth about dominance in dogs. 

Wynne’s research, published in Frontiers in Psychology, found that dogs do experience dominance, but how it plays out among themselves is very different from how it plays out when they live with humans.

He concluded that humans occupy a position of “super dominance” over dogs.

Five portraits of scholars of color.

No. 6: 5 new faculty join ASU's Department of English, Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies 

The Department of English expanded this year, welcoming five new faculty members. 

This hiring initiative was led by Ayanna Thompson, director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, in an effort to elevate scholars of color working on issues of race in premodern studies.

These new members of The College and ASU community are Brandi Adams, Lisa Barksdale-Shaw, Ruben Espinosa, Mariam Galarrita and Madeline Sayet.

A deep crack in the ground.

No. 5: That sinking feeling

In May 2021, news came out that Mexico City was sinking as much as a foot and a half annually, making it the fastest sinking city in the world.

Grace Carlson, an ASU postgraduate researcher who earned her master’s degree in geoscience at the School of Earth and Space Exploration, explained this sinking phenomenon, called subsidence, caused by groundwater pumping.

There are three subsidence areas in metro Phoenix, one called the West Valley Feature around Luke Air Force Base, one in the northeast Phoenix-Scottsdale area and one in the East Valley near the east Mesa and Apache Junction border with U.S. 60.

Three students pose for a picture.

No. 4: Student startup AirGarage receives $12.5M from venture capitalists

In 2017 three ASU alumni, including physics graduate Jonathon Barkl, founded AirGarage, an online marketplace for people to list, find and book parking spaces. 

In 2021 they received $12.5 million from Silicon Valley investors. Their plans with the funding? Keep building the best possible parking operator in the world.

A close-up of the head of Mars 2020's remote sensing mast.

No. 3: ASU climbs to sixth in national research rankings

ASU moved up to sixth out of 759 universities in the nation for total research expenditures among universities without a medical school in the National Science Foundation’s Higher Education Research and Development report.

In the report, ASU was ranked No. 1 for geological and Earth sciences, No. 1 for anthropology, No. 4 for social sciences and No. 11 for psychology.

The School of Earth and Space Exploration, the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, The College’s division of social sciences and the Department of Psychology fueled these rankings with innovative and socially embedded research.

Portrait of Natalie Diaz.

No. 2: Poet Natalie Diaz wins Pulitzer Prize

Natalie Diaz , associate professor in the Department of English and director of the Center for Imagination in the Borderlands, was awarded the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for her collection “Postcolonial Love Poem,” which has been described as “an anthem of desire against erasure.”

Diaz joined seven other Pulitzer Prize winners among ASU’s faculty. She is the second to receive the award while being a faculty member at ASU; the first was former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove, who won in 1987, also for poetry.

A concept illustration of the ‘Oumuamua object as a pancake-shaped disk.

No. 1: ASU scientists determine origin of strange interstellar object

​​In 2017, the first interstellar object from beyond our solar system was discovered via the Pan-STARRS astronomical observatory in Hawaii. It was named ‘Oumuamua, meaning "scout" or "messenger" in Hawaiian. The object was like a comet, but with features that were just odd enough to defy classification.

In 2021, ASU astrophysicists Steven Desch and Alan Jackson of the School of Earth and Space Exploration published papers on the odd features of ‘Oumuamua and their conclusion that it is likely a piece of a Pluto-like planet from another solar system.

“Until now, we've had no way to know if other solar systems have Pluto-like planets, but now we have seen a chunk of one pass by Earth,” Desch said.

Top photo: The College celebrates its newest graduates at the Fall 2021 convocation ceremony. Photo courtesy of ASU

image title

Biological paradox offers new insights into the mystery of cancer

December 22, 2021

Researchers analyze cross-species database to learn why very large animals have remarkably low rates of cancer

The cells in the body can be thought of as tiny archery targets, each vulnerable to the deadly arrow of cancer. The more cells a given animal has, and the longer it lives, the greater its odds of accumulating harmful cell mutations that can eventually lead to cancer. Or at least, this is what intuition suggests.

Nevertheless, many very large animals bearing huge cell populations, including elephants and whales, not only survive to old age, but have remarkably low rates of cancer. This biological enigma bears the name Peto’s paradox. In short, the paradox says that species size and longevity should be proportional to cancer incidence, yet the real-world data across species suggest this association does not hold.

In a new study appearing in the journal Nature, Carlo Maley, a researcherIn addition to conducting research at ASU's Biodesign Center for Biocomputing, Security and Society, Maley is also a researcher with the ​Biodesign Center for Immunotherapy, Vaccines and Virotherapy, as well as the Biodesign Center for Mechanisms of Evolution. He serves as an associate professor at ASU’s School of Life Sciences and as director of the Arizona Cancer Evolution Center with the Biodesign Center for Biocomputing, Security and Society at Arizona State University, along with international colleagues, explores recent implications of Peto’s paradox and highlights what science is learning about cancer across the tree of life.

The researchers analyze the largest cross-species database of its kind — a pool of adult mammalian life from zoo records that includes 110,148 individuals spanning 191 species.

The aim is to assess species-specific cancer mortality rates across a wide assortment of mammals, reexamine the claims of Peto’s paradox in a rigorously quantitative way and explore possible cancer suppression mechanisms relevant for fighting the disease in both humans and animals.

The study provides the most intensive evaluation of Peto’s paradox to date. The findings offer conclusive proof that cancer mortality risk is largely independent of both body mass and adult life expectancy across species.

The solution to the paradox lies in the fact that the evolution of greater size and longevity in species has been accompanied by the co-evolution of potent mechanisms of cancer resistance.

Ceaseless battle

The fight against cancer has logged some recent victories. Annual statistics for 2020 reveal the largest single-year drop in cancer mortality ever recorded, according to the American Cancer Society. Yet despite significant advances in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, the disease remains a leading killer, with an estimated toll of over 600,000 last year in the U.S. alone.

The scourge is not limited to humans. Indeed, the new study reports a significant cancer burden across species, particularly among some mammals under human care, where the death toll from cancer in the adult population can reach an astonishing 20–40%.

While cancer is a fact of life across the entire range of multicellular species on Earth, the disease is hardly democratic in selecting its victims. Some species have significantly higher or lower cancer rates, for reasons that researchers are still working to puzzle out.

The new study explores some of the surprises, including unusually high cancer vulnerability of some carnivorous mammals. The disparity was found to be closely associated with diet, with the highest cancer rates found in mammals that consume other mammals, though other factors also play important roles.

More cells, more problems?

Multicellular organisms, from simple to highly complex, face challenges when their cells divide. Cell mutations can arise when DNA copying mechanisms fail to faithfully duplicate the 6 billion base pairs of the genetic code. Environmental factors such as radiation can also damage DNA integrity, leading to mutations.

Most such mutations have no perceptible effect on an organism’s health. Some, however, trigger a devastating chain reaction, resulting in cancer, an often-lethal affliction.

The problem can be exacerbated when organisms grow large, acquiring more cells in their bodies. Another key factor is the accumulation of mutations over time, with age representing a key risk factor for cancer. The trend is readily observed in a variety of species, including dogs and humans.

But while this commonsense rule applies within a given species, researchers see something quite different when looking across a broad range of diverse species, where large, long-lived species are often seen to flourish with low rates of cancer.

This apparent contradiction was first expressed by epidemiologist Richard Peto. He studied cancer rates in humans and mice, finding cancer incidence in the two species approximately equivalent. Given that humans have roughly 1,000 times more cells than mice and live 30 times longer, this presents a conundrum. Even more surprising is the observation that large and long-lived wild animals do not appear to show a markedly greater propensity for cancer.

It appears that nature has confronted the problem of cancer in large, long-lived species and arrived at a number of solutions, which differ according to the species involved. These cancer suppression mechanisms may offer clues for suppressing cancer in other animals, including humans.

Probing a paradox

Although the fundamental insights of Peto’s paradox have long been recognized, scientific confirmation has been challenging. Until now, the available data have been insufficient in terms of sample size, age distribution, species relatedness and cause of mortality to draw firm conclusions in support of Peto’s paradox.

The current study takes advantage of a large data set known as the Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS), which compiles detailed information on age, sex, dead/alive status and postmortem pathological data for adult non-domesticated mammals. This rich storehouse of cross-species information was crucial for a thorough analysis of Peto’s paradox.

High cancer risk was observed in the zoo survey among carnivores. This may be due to the use of progestins and other forms of hormonal contraception, as well as postponement of pregnancy in zoo animals. Both factors have been linked with the development of human cancers, as well as in non-domestic cats.

Yet the researchers determined that contraceptive practices cannot fully account for the heightened cancer risk among carnivores. If they could, a clear sex-bias in the data would be evident, with female carnivores showing higher cancer rates. Rather, a key determinant appears to be diet.

Diet as destiny?

Carnivores typically consume a high fat, low fiber diet, which is a known risk factor for cancer. Because carnivores are at the top of the food chain, they can ingest pollutants or other carcinogenic compounds at more concentrated levels than animals that appear lower on the food chain.

Further, the consumption of meat can expose carnivores to various pathogens that have been linked with processes of cancer formation. Viruses in particular can present considerable cancer risk, with 10–20% of all cancers believed to have a viral origin.

Further analysis of the zoo data showed that among carnivores, those that consumed other vertebrates as a regular part of their diet had the highest rates of cancer, compared with carnivores that rarely or never consume other mammals. The data suggest a high cost in terms of cancer risk for a carnivorous diet, particularly one rich in mammalian prey.

Other factors that could affect cancer rates in these animals include low microbiome diversity, the degree of physical exercise in captivity or other physiological factors. In contrast to the carnivores, ruminants were found to have the lowest cancer risk among mammals.

Talking to the animals

The study results confirm the central assumptions of Peto’s paradox. The data shows no significant association between cancer mortality risk and body mass across species, suggesting that natural selection of cancer resistance mechanisms in large animals are what markedly reduce their risk of carcinogenesis.

These varied mechanisms have already become the focus of intensive research for their potential to prevent this deadly disease, both in wild animals and in humans, though much remains unknown. The study provides the basis for further explorations in this area and highlights the power of zoological data for future cancer research.

Top photo by Rachel Claire from Pexels.

Richard Harth

Science writer , Biodesign Institute at ASU