Engineering alum empowers women of color to engineer solutions for sustainable development

BioGals nonprofit works to establish a legacy of changemakers who embody cultural diversity


January 6, 2022

Shakira Hobbs had an idea as an engineering graduate student in 2014, and she transformed it into a globally impactful nonprofit only five years later.

Hobbs, who attended The Polytechnic School, one of the seven schools in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, first thought of a way to bring community engagement research to STEM fields as a National Science Foundation Integrative Graduate Education and Research Trainee for the sun utilization network, or what's known as an IGERT-SUN Fellow.  Two women leaning against a stone, smiling. Shakira Hobbs (left) and Evvan Morton (right) with their anaerobic digester prototype in Sittee River, Belize. Photo courtesy of Evvan Morton Download Full Image

Her idea became BioGals, an organization that empowers women of color from around the world to engineer dynamic solutions for sustainable development. BioGals works to establish a legacy of changemakers who embody cultural diversity.

The organization is currently leading sustainability efforts, specifically regarding food waste solutions, in a rural community in Belize using anaerobic digestion systems. Anaerobic digestion is the process by which microorganisms break down biodegradable material to manage waste and/or produce energy.

One of the group’s current projects includes the pilot design and implementation of a biodigester device to convert food waste into an energy source for cooking school lunches. The BioGals team is also collecting water and soil samples across Belize and in the U.S. in Kentucky. The work is part of a National Science Foundation award Hobbs is leading through the University of Kentucky, to investigate traces of glyphosate — a chemical compound found in weed killer — with the goal of reducing its environmental impact and safeguarding human health.

Community engagement is another significant pursuit of the BioGals mission. Hobbs and her board, composed of STEM experts from across academia and industry, host nationwide summer programs for students interested in including sustainability initiatives in their daily routines.

From community engagement to collaborating with other women of color in STEM-related fields, BioGals is committed to combining knowledge from diverse groups to make a difference.

“We decided to bring this experience to other women of color — those who are looking for a sense of belonging and creative space,” Hobbs said. “I suspect that part of the reason women of color feel a connection to a place like Belize may have something to do with the unique connection of being part of the African diaspora. We know what it feels like to be marginalized in a country we call home, so having a unique creative environment in this space felt like something we wanted to share with other women of color.” 

Shakira Hobbs

Shakira Hobbs graduated from ASU in May 2014 with a Master of Science in engineering. She received the Dean’s Award for Academic Excellence. Photo courtesy Shakira Hobbs

Along with running BioGals, Hobbs is an assistant professor of civil engineering at the University of Kentucky, where she teaches courses in sustainable engineering and humanitarian engineering. 

“I research global challenges at the food, energy, water nexus,” Hobbs said. “They all have unique problems, and I tackle that by looking at ways to manage food waste through anaerobic digestion and recovering energy from the process.”

She has been interested in this field since her time as a student at ASU, and was introduced to it by her faculty adviser, Bradley Rogers, the former associate director of The Polytechnic School.

Her engineering background as well as her experience as a woman of color in STEM academia led to the development of BioGals.

From concept to reality

When Hobbs first visited Belize during a study abroad program, she was drawn to the country and its people. She wanted to become an engineering changemaker there after becoming acquainted with the natives and their unique culture.

“I was fascinated by cultural competency, understanding how communities live and letting them identify the problems,” Hobbs said. “This translated to my work in Belize.”

During her time in the IGERT-SUN cohort at ASU, Hobbs met sustainable engineering doctoral student Evvan Morton, who eventually became the BioGals co-founder. Morton was also an IGERT-SUN Fellow at ASU and, together, they wrote a funding proposal for the BioGals concept.

Morton is now the vice president of BioGals and an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy Fellow for the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Sustainable Transportation.

“When we first went to Belize, we wanted to show the importance of including community engagement in a technical project, and I think that’s what makes us unique,” Morton said. “We’re told how to enhance a technology, how to research it and how to solve a problem, but we don’t always talk about how that technology affects the livelihood of the people it’s meant to benefit.”

During their first two trips to Belize, Hobbs and Morton conducted surveys to see if anaerobic digestion would benefit the community’s energy issues.

“Since they have a lot of fruit trees and so much of it that drops gets wasted, we thought that would be a good source of organic waste we could use, as well as the manure from farms in the area,” Morton said. “We also wanted to figure out a way to create a sustainable waste management process, because the village usually burned waste, so we wanted to reduce that and integrate recycling and other sustainable waste mechanisms.” 

Support and mentorship

Hobbs was supported by various ASU faculty during her quest to launch BioGals, including her mentor, Mark Henderson, President’s Professor emeritus and a former Fulton Schools engineering professor. He wrote a letter of support when Hobbs and Morton applied for project funding. 

BioGals

Community members of Sittee River in Belize pose with Shakira Hobbs after loading the anaerobic digester with pig manure. Photo courtesy of Shakira Hobbs

“(Polytechnic School faculty member) Bradley Rogers and I both saw a bit of ourselves in Shakira — she is absolutely tenacious,” Henderson said. “It’s a lot of fun to see our graduates go far and accomplish their dreams, and that’s exactly what Shakira did.”

Wim Vermaas, associate director of research and training initiatives for the ASU School of Life Sciences and former principal investigator of the IGERT-SUN grant, fondly remembers Hobbs’ and Morton’s dedication to their project.

“It’s great to see students take initiative and run with their ideas,” Vermaas said. “It was their idea, their project, and it was outside their scope, but it was important to them and became more than a little project.”

The future of BioGals

Hobbs, Morton and the BioGals board are highly motivated by their work in Belize. From local community involvement, to empowering women of color in STEM fields, to making energy sustainability strides in Belize, BioGals is making multilevel impacts.

“Belizean community members weren’t used to seeing people of color doing technical projects. It felt like we were breaking stereotypes about women of color and that this could be a good opportunity to empower other women of color to enter STEM fields,” Morton said. “When we got the funding through the IGERT program, we had no intentions of starting a nonprofit; it was purely a research opportunity, but we realized the impact we were making.”

Morton says she believes it’s important to instill confidence in women of color in STEM fields, especially when they may be the only person who looks like them in an academic or professional engineering setting.

In October, BioGals hosted faculty and students at their first virtual gala, where they shared a mini documentary about the inception of BioGals and goals for the future, including the acquisition of land in Belize.

They hope to develop the land into a research and development hub for future undergraduate and graduate students to be able to do more sustainable energy projects.

Long-term, Hobbs, Morton and the BioGals board hope to expand their work to other countries.

To support the BioGals mission, visit their donation website. To get involved with BioGals, fill out this form or email info@biogals.com.

Sona Patel Srinarayana

Communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

480-727-1590

Founder of Beatles tribute band talks about being part of pop music history

'Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles' will perform at ASU Gammage April 27


January 6, 2022

Mark Lewis traces his love of the Beatles to the Sunday night of Feb. 9, 1964, when his generation was smitten by the fab four on "The Ed Sullivan Show." Years later, Lewis would become the managerial and creative mind behind the transformation of Rain, a Beatles tribute band, from a 1970s southern California bar band doing Beatles covers into an ultra-professional group, recruiting the excellent musicians who would gel into Rain’s long-standing lineup.

This spring, "Rain: A Tribute to The Beatles" will perform at ASU Gammage on April 27. Tickets go on sale Jan 10. Members of Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles perform on stage. "Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles" will perform at ASU Gammage on April 27. Download Full Image

Originally called Reign, the band eventually went on to gain national fame, changed its name to Rain and cut the soundtrack for the made-for-TV movie "Birth of the Beatles" (thanks to Dick Clark).

An accomplished pianist at 13, having studied since age 5, Lewis began his musical career playing the Farfisa organ in teenage rock bands around his native Los Angeles. It was he, the original keyboard player for Rain, who worked out all of the musical parts and sounds that enabled Rain to bring many songs that the Beatles themselves never performed live to life.

Lewis answered some questions for ASU News about what it's like to be a part of popular musical history.

Question: When did you first start playing music?

Answer: I started piano lessons at 5 years old. My mom played piano, my father sang and my older sister took piano lessons from my aunt, who was a piano teacher. So I started at a very early age.

Q: What was your reaction when you first saw the Beatles perform?

A: The first time I saw the Beatles perform was their performance on the “Ed Sullivan Show.” I was actually watching “The Wonderful World of Disney” on the living room TV when my mom came in and said I should tune into Ed Sullivan. I was taking piano lessons at the time, and I figured my mom was trying to get me to watch Liberace or something as inspiration to get me to practice more. Even though I was only 12 years old at the time, I was very much into music, and I used to collect records (45s) and listen to music all the time.

I remember watching the performance and being totally blown away. I went out and bought the “Meet the Beatles” album the next day. It was rare that I came up with enough money to actually buy an entire album. I remember being amazed at everything about the Beatles. Their look, the way they talked and especially their sound. Upon closer examination of the album, I realized that they wrote their own music, played their own instruments and they all sang. The girls in the audience were going nuts for them. I remember thinking, “That seems like a good job.”

Q: What was the name of your first band?

A: I joined my first band when I was 13 years old, and it was called The 8 Balls. There were four guys in the band (do the math). That’ll teach you to ask!

Q: Rain has been performing together longer than the Beatles did. How did Rain first come together, and how has the show evolved over the years?

A: Rain, originally spelled Reign, was formed with the intention of becoming an original recording act. We played Beatles music for fun, and never thought of it as a tribute act. In fact, at the time, in the mid-1970s, there was no such thing as a tribute band.

Like thousands of other bands, Reign wanted to write their own songs and put out hit records, but in the meantime, we needed to make a living, so we used to play in bars and do Top 40 dance music. This was in the middle of the disco era, I might add. I met two of the guys when they joined a Top 40 band that I was in that used to play around the LA/Orange County area. We went on the road together and played each other some of our original music and became friends. When we got off the road, we decided to form an original band, but in the meantime, we decided that if we were going to play other peoples' music, it would be music that we really loved (e.g. the Beatles), and we found that we had a special talent at really duplicating the sound. I was really amazed how well these guys could sound like the Beatles vocally.

We were approached by a booking agent that was looking for an act that could sound like the Beatles to follow up a successful Elvis imitator that he managed. He met us. Next thing you know, we were playing at various nightclubs on "off nights" — Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays — for no guarantee. But if anyone showed up, we could keep whatever money came in the door. Well guess what? When it was promoted right, people showed up, and we made some money and played music we loved. I figured this was a cool way to make some money for a few months. Here I am, 35 years later. The original guys in Reign, which became Rain, eventually quit the band in order to go off and do their original music, and never were to be heard from again. I kept Rain going and eventually met up with the guys that are currently in Rain and who happened to be really great musicians and had a true love for the Beatles, and here we are touring the world and starring on Broadway. Well, that’s the CliffsNotes version anyway.

Q: How do you think the Beatles influenced popular music?

A: The Beatles influenced popular music on every level one can imagine. They made it cool to play your own instruments and sing. They wrote great songs with great lyrics. They all sang, and sang great. They looked different. They talked different. They said things that meant something in their lyrics. They always put out albums that sounded different from the preceding albums. They experimented with sounds and different styles of music. They had multiple songwriters. You can go on and on with how they influenced popular music. Basically, you can say that the Beatles did things, then everybody else copied them.

Q: Do you hear the influence of classical music in the Beatles’ music?

A: One can hear the influence of many styles of music in the Beatles music, including classical music. I consider the Beatles to be the classical music of our day. Just like traditional classical music, I believe the music of the Beatles will last forever, and there will be bands doing what Rain is doing today a hundred years from now. That’s how classical music becomes classic.

Q: If you could collaborate with any musician who would it be?

A: Unquestionably, Paul McCartney. If for no other reason, just to meet the guy. However, I don’t think he’d need to collaborate with me.

Q: What was the best concert you ever attended (besides the Beatles)?

A: Jimi Hendrix at the Hollywood Bowl.

Q: Other than Beatles tunes, what music is on your playlist?

A: I actually have very diversified taste. You’ll find a little of everything on my playlist. Besides the Beatles, you’ll find classical music including Beethoven and Gershwin. A lot of Elton John, Steely Dan, John Coltrane, Led Zeppelin, Billy Joel, Joni Mitchell, Greenday, Yes, Genesis. The thing about being a Beatles fan is that the Beatles covered a lot of different styles of music in their short history. "She Loves You," "A Hard Day’s Night," "Sgt. Pepper," "Helter Skelter," "Yesterday," "Strawberry Fields," "In My Life," "Let It Be," "Something"… you can go on and on. To love the Beatles is to love many styles of music. Because they did it all.

Marketing Assistant, ASU Gammage