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Bringing today's science to tomorrow's scientists

May 4, 2022

ASU researchers are developing interactive virtual lessons to bring biotechnology to diverse classrooms around Arizona

From rising bread and domesticated dogs to penicillin and rubber, humans have a long history of shaping our world through biotechnology — using biological systems and organisms to improve or create desired products.

Today’s hot science topics, such as genetically modified crops and new vaccine techniques, show that biotechnology also plays a large role in society’s present and future. That’s why it’s important to introduce this subject to the next generation of scientists and decision-makers.

A group of Arizona State University researchers and local Arizona teachers are developing a revolutionary virtual curriculum to do just that.

Abhishek Singharoy, an assistant professor in the School of Molecular Sciences and associate faculty in the Biodesign Center for Applied Structural Discovery, leads this project, called the BioSense Network. It recently received a $1.4 million National Defense Education Program grant from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD). The grant will allow the group to develop lessons that use virtual simulations, train teachers to use these materials, and build an online platform that will bring the BioSense Network to diverse student populations throughout Arizona.

“With the molecular simulations, which is a big component of these e-modules, students get to approach learning about biology and biotechnology in a different way. They get to see things like proteins and viruses in three dimensions, move and measure and add things, and really engage with it,” says Cassandra Kellaris, the project’s coordinator and a technology strategist in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

Teaching how to teach

Rachna Nath sits at a lab counter next to a microscope and is wearing a lab coat

Rachna Nath is a biotechnology teacher at Arizona College Prep High School in Chandler, Arizona. She is also a honeybee scientist. She helps the BioSense Network team create curriculum that meets teachers’ needs. Photo courtesy Rachna Nath

Singharoy’s work started as an after-school biophysics club with virtual learning components. After receiving a seed grant from the Flinn Foundation, he partnered with local high school teacher Rachna Nath, who ran the club with students from her school.

During this time, Singharoy developed his Visual Molecular Dynamics (VMD) program, which taps into ASU’s computing power to give students interactive simulations of molecular processes.

The club was a success, eventually spreading to three other local schools. This work is expanding into the BioSense Network, thanks to the DOD grant — along with ASU colleagues from the Teachers College and K–12 teachers like Nath, who contribute their expertise as educators to help Singharoy create useful, engaging curriculum.

“That’s where educators come in; they teach us how to teach,” Singharoy says. “That was really important.”

Science minds of the future

So why is the DOD, an agency devoted to protecting our nation’s security, interested in helping young minds learn about biotechnology?

Singharoy notes that biotechnology is ripe for developing foundational technologies that people can apply to many types of problems — including those related to national security. Exploring the latest science developments now will also help tomorrow’s leaders make more informed choices. Additionally, biotechnology classes ask students to solve problems and make decisions in unique ways.

“We’re trying to build a decision-making science mind, and that’s a skill set that comes in handy when you’re making decisions pertaining to national defense,” Singharoy says.

“The Department (of Defense) is cultivating the future STEM workforce by providing unique education opportunities to students and educators of all ages and across all demographics throughout the country. These efforts are vitally important to maintaining our nation’s competitive advantage, ensuring we are prepared for the ever-changing global technology landscape,” says Robert Irie, acting director of Defense Research and Engineering for Research and Technology, in an online statement.

It’s important for a diverse array of students to start to see themselves in that field so that their voice can be represented in the future of biotechnology.

– Cassandra Kellaris, technology strategist in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

In Nath’s biotechnology classroom, students get to work on a variety of research projects, including ones that they choose on their own. Past projects have included developing a heat-monitoring wristband, using flavonoids in fruit peels to make bioplastics more degradable, and growing moss in simulated Martian soil.

“I love teaching this class because it gives me the opportunity to conduct research with my students to give them that critical thinking aspect that will push them further into future research,” Nath says.

Nath notes that the BioSense Network’s interactive lessons accommodate diverse learning styles.

“Students learn in different ways. Some of them are visual, some are kinesthetic, some are verbal,” she says. “Showing them that they can actually manipulate a molecule helps the students get out of their zone of one-directional instruction to something that they can do hands-on and is interactive. That’s always been successful for me.”

The BioSense Network aims to ensure that this learning is accessible to a broad range of communities and schools.

“It’s important for a diverse array of students to start to see themselves in that field so that their voice can be represented in the future of biotechnology,” Kellaris says. “They are the ones deciding why biotechnology is important and what are the biggest issues facing the communities they’re part of.”

Meeting teachers’ needs

Over the next three years, the BioSense Network team will develop six curriculum modules, as well as the technology platform to support the VMD software and training for teachers — all of which will come at zero cost to schools. Each module will have two versions: one for high school and one for middle school.

The lessons will cover many emerging technologies and science questions: the role of shapes in controlling biological functions; giving molecules chemical instructions; growing plants in low light with artificial photosynthesis; using a nanosensor to detect genetic material in surroundings; vaccine design; and gene editing with CRISPR-Cas9.

“We want this to be a tool that the teachers can implement in the way that is best for them and their students. We are giving them the time and space to think through how these tools will support what they are already doing,” Kellaris says.

“Being a biotechnology teacher and also having an idea of the state standards and the actual classroom requirements helps bring that perspective of what I truly want to teach the kids,” Nath adds.

Singharoy and a student look at a computer in Singharoy's lab.

Assistant Professor Abhishek Singharoy works with graduate student John Vant at his lab in the Biodesign C building on ASU's Tempe campus. Singharoy’s lab is developing advanced simulations of molecules to incorporate into the BioSense Network curriculum. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU

Tara Nkrumah, an assistant research professor in the School of Social Transformation’s Center for Gender Equity in Science and Technology, also works with the team to make inclusivity a built-in feature of the lessons. The BioSense Network aims to encourage an interest in science among students whose communities are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

The team plans to engage up to 15 secondary schools in Arizona. The modules could be used as part of a school’s regular science curriculum or as an after-school club; each teacher will decide the best way to use them.

The BioSense Network team is currently developing the first module’s content while training teachers on how to use the technology. At the end of the three-year grant period, Singharoy hopes the project’s success will attract additional funding so that the network can expand outside of Arizona and spread nationwide.

If you are a middle or high school science teacher in Arizona interested in participating in the BioSense Network project, contact Cassandra Kellaris at

A strategic advantage

To apply for the DOD grant, Singharoy worked with ASU’s Global Security Initiative, which has longstanding relationships with the security and defense communities.

The initiative offers a strategic advantage to ASU researchers who want to apply for DOD research or education grants: its dedicated proposal team is familiar with the DOD’s unique application processes and understands how to frame ideas that will appeal to the agency. While the DOD is its specialty, the Global Security Initative can also help ASU researchers apply to grants from other federal agencies.

“The team works with you towards making sure that your milestones are met, so the principal investigator can focus on their part,” Singharoy says. “They essentially guide us through the entire process.”

If you are an ASU researcher interested in working with the Global Security Initiative on your federal grant proposal, contact GSI at

The BioSense Network project is funded by the U.S. Department of Defense.

The Biodesign Institute and the Global Security Initiative are partially supported by Arizona’s Technology and Research Initiative Fund. TRIF investment has enabled hands-on training for tens of thousands of students across Arizona’s universities, thousands of scientific discoveries and patented technologies, and hundreds of new startup companies. Publicly supported through voter approval, TRIF is an essential resource for growing Arizona’s economy and providing opportunities for Arizona residents to work, learn and thrive.

Top photo: High school teacher Rachna Nath and her students worked on an early stage of this research, which started as an after-school biophysics club with virtual learning components. Photo by Andy DeLisle

Mikala Kass

Communications Specialist , ASU Knowledge Enterprise


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Desert enthusiast earns scholarship to Oxford to grow love of biophilia

May 4, 2022

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2022 graduates.

Connecting people to nature fuels William Walker VI. Growing up in the Phoenix suburb of Ahwatukee, exploring the nation’s largest municipal park — South Mountain Park and Preserve — which is also one of the largest in the world, created a love for nature and the environment which he now plans to make his life’s mission.

Walker is graduating with his Bachelor of Science in sustainability from the School of Sustainability and a minor in French, he plans to take his magnetic smile across the pond to pursue his master’s at the University of Oxford in England. And the best part is his hard work and relentless pursuit of excellence has led to a full scholarship to fund his Ivy League graduate studies in MSc in sustainability, enterprise and the environment.

He leaves behind a standing legacy for ASU students through a course that he created, called Intersectional Environmentalism and Sustainability, that focuses on environmental justice principles in underrepresented minorities and the environment. 

Walker says he credits his parents for all their support along the way.

He took a moment to sit down with us in his favorite spot on campus, the Secret Garden, which is not really a secret anymore but nonetheless, where he spent countless hours connecting to nature and refueling his mind and body at ASU.

Graduate William Walker VI heads to Oxford on full-ride scholarship

During his time at ASU, Walker created a course called Intersectional Environmentalism and Sustainability.

Question: Why did you choose ASU?

Answer: I chose ASU because I wanted to study sustainability in the Sonoran Desert and delve deeper into social-ecological challenges. Arizona State University gave me a holistic perspective on sustainability while balancing themes such as justice, social impact, and the importance of biodiversity.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: In my junior year, I joined the JEDI workgroup for the School of Sustainability as an undergraduate chair member. In our first meeting, we discussed how the school has done little to acknowledge the contribution of underprivileged identities in academia. I advocated for the idea of a course that studied the intersections of race and identity and how different communities experience sustainability. I suggested that we move quickly to offer this new course in the upcoming spring semester and make it student-led, faculty-advised.

It usually takes 18 months for a class to get approval. However, I received apt support from Sonja Klinsky, a (School of Sustainability) faculty member, and developed the course, without any prerequisites, to be accessible to anyone at my university while being inclusive of all degree levels, such as undergraduate, master’s and doctoral students. I was able to successfully enroll 21 students in the course.

After facilitating part of the class, I handed it over to the students where they split into teams to teach a class. Collectively, we brought in guest speakers and learned about topics such as ecofeminism, leadership from indigenous communities, and land stewardship. The collaborative learning approach and integration of guest speakers from local organizations made us immerse ourselves in the topic. An idea I thought was ambitious at the time only scratched the surface of my potential and made me learn that my leadership prevails when I amplify the voices of others.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Dr. Milan Shrestha taught me the importance of environmental sustainability with anthropological approaches. Dr. Shrestha taught me to look at how history, global economies and policies have shaped the world we see today and to unpack those stories.

Q: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

A: My “aha” moment was when I took an AP environmental science class in high school. We learned about environmental justice, which sparked a passion in me and propelled me to advocate and learn from others.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends, or just thinking about life?                                                                                  

A: My favorite spot on campus is the Secret Garden because it integrates diverse plant and bird species in a place where I can experience environmental well-being. I go here weekly to reflect before a class, take in the sun and watch the birds. My favorite spot for power studying is in the Art and Design Library.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Universities are epicenters of innovation, diversity, and opportunity. It is a rare chance in your life to search for parts of your purpose and define some of your passions. You are often provided with numerous experiences on a silver platter. All you have to do is experiment to discover what you like and dislike. Take every chance and opportunity in your power because you will grow and find out where your leadership prevails.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: Upon graduating from ASU, I will be attending the University of Oxford to pursue an MSc in sustainability, enterprise and the environment. I will advance conservation by working with social impact companies, philanthropists and policymakers to make access to nature more equitable and sustainable. Long-term, I intend to promote sustainable development and social justice by providing agency to communities historically excluded from the environmental movement or have experienced environmental injustices.

Lack of collaboration between stakeholders often obstructs access to resources for those who most need them; in particular, I plan to advance sustainable development through initiatives that promote community engagement and urban conservation. By working with organizations such as World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Conservation International, I hope to provide funding to underserved communities to conduct environmental projects that advance urban forests, green buildings, transportation planning, and renewable energy plans. I draw inspiration from models such as Conservation International and WWF, which place Indigenous communities at the forefront of their conservation practices. They connect them to technology, funding opportunities, training, and resources to promote their projects and traditional knowledge.

This engagement is crucial to sustainable development because it supports how humans are developed first. I aim to achieve a similar type of collaboration where I work alongside communities to achieve their environmental goals.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would advance economic and environmental empowerment for historically-excluded communities by providing grants and resources for environmental impact projects. I believe there is a role for sustainability practitioners to have a justice component in the bulk of their work. They should also participate in community participatory action research where community members are leaders addressing challenges they deem necessary.

Senior media relations officer , Media Relations and Strategic Communications