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Materials matter

September 15, 2022

ASU celebrates opening of Navrotsky Eyring Center for Materials of the Universe with presentations, lab tour

In the world of Alexandra Navrotsky, it’s all about materials. 

Materials both seen and invisible to the naked eye. Materials on the Earth’s surface and deep within its mantle. Materials mined from the moon and from other planets in the solar system. Even materials from galaxies far beyond our own.  

The study of materials continues to change lives — from making cars more efficient, to reducing the greenhouse effect, to allowing rockets to soar in a safer way. And maybe one day, it will help us find another planet to inhabit. 

Ongoing materials research is essential for advancing technology. 

This is what excites Navrotsky, a professor in Arizona State University's School of Molecular Sciences and School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy. So much so that she leads the Navrotsky Eyring Center for Materials of the Universe and has invested $10 million to support the future of materials science at ASU. 

On Tuesday, Sept. 13, the center had its pandemic-delayed grand opening, with deans, colleagues and students from a range of disciplines gathered on the Tempe campus to mark the occasion. The event featured an overview of the center's achievements and plans, tours of lab spaces where work is being conducted, and lectures on a range of topics by researchersHongwu Xu is a professor in the School of Molecular Sciences; Qi-Jun Hong, assistant professor of materials science and engineering in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy; Jie Xu, associate professor at the School of Molecular Sciences; Dan Shim, professor at School of Earth and Space Exploration; and Candace K. Chan, associate professor in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy Hongwu Xu, Qijun Hong, Jie Xu, Dan Shim and Candace Chan, among other speakers. Shim and Chan are the first-ever Navrotsky Professors of Materials Research, and Hongwu Xu and Jie Xu (not related) are newly hired for the Center for the Materials of the Universe.

It was a chance for event goers to learn more about the center and peek inside its work.

How it began

In 1969, ASU hired Navrotsky at a time when it was difficult for women working in the sciences to get faculty positions. After ASU, she worked at Princeton University and the University of California, Davis. Over time, she was recognized as a world-renowned geochemist and received countless honors, medals and awards, including the prestigious V.M. Goldschmidt Award. 

But in the end, Navrotsky wanted to come back to ASU, a place she calls home. With her return in 2019 came some soul-searching.

“I asked myself a question,” Navrotsky said Tuesday as she kicked off the celebration. “What can ASU do now that would be as exciting as those early days?”

The answer to that question became the Navrotsky Eyring Center for Materials of the Universe.

And what does “materials of the universe” mean? Everything, Navrotsky said.

“It's an all-encompassing term, but really in a way, the Center for Materials of the Universe effectively has several parts to it,” she said.

“The idea of materials of the universe is that there's a natural confluence of materials science and geological and planetary science. Planets, after all, are made of materials. So in order to understand the variety of planets that one has in the universe, one has to have a great knowledge of the materials that they might be made of. 

“... So setting up an interdisciplinary collaboration, the strength of this materials problem and its application to planets, was one of the goals of of MotU, Materials of the Universe. The second goal of course, is you need better material. If you're going to do space exploration, you need to go to space. You need to have resources. You need to build things in space. ... So basically MotU explores this commonality between materials science and earth and space science.”

Collaboration has been key for the center, Navrotsky said, and it will continue to be so.

“We want to be inclusive, not exclusive.” 

Woman speaking at lectern

Alexandra Navrotsky, director of the Navrotsky Eyring Center for Materials of the Universe, speaks during the center's grand opening celebration on Sept. 13. Photo by Samantha Chow/ASU

Present successes and future plans

The celebration included a showcase of some of the center’s successes since its opening, as well as future plans. Among those speaking was Qijun Hong, assistant professor in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy.

Hong talked about his database and models for melting-temperature prediction, which are the culmination of 10 years of research. The models allow scientists to rapidly screen, design and discover new materials that will survive extremely high temperatures and high-pressure conditions, with such applications as protective barriers for gas turbines and heat shields on aircrafts. The future of his work will focus on creating a model that can determine the physical properties of any combination of elements in just three seconds. 

The center has also received funds from the National Science Foundation for a new lab that is “unlike any in the Western Hemisphere,” said Kurt Leinenweber, associate research professional in the School of Molecular Sciences. 

The lab, called FORCE — Facility for Open Research in a Compressed Environment — will be a one-of-a-kind, high-pressure facility where researchers can observe the impact of extreme pressures and discover new materials. Expected to draw scientists from around the world, the facility is scheduled to be completed by 2023 thanks to a $13.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation. 

After the morning presentations at the Biodesign Auditorium, attendees had the opportunity to tour the center’s lab facilities, and the celebration wrapped up with a reception at ASU’s ISTB4 building featuring university leaders including Chief Science and Technology Officer Neal Woodbury and Sally C. Morton, executive vice president of Knowledge Enterprise. President Michael M. Crow, who spoke via video, praised the work being done at the center.

“I think the exciting thing here is that Alex has brought together scientists and engineers and conceptualizers,'' Crow said. “And, in my mind … dreamers.”

He said that the work being done by the center is at the heart of where we are as a species.

“We've gotten to this point where our understanding of the universe, our understanding of the chemistry and of the physics, our understanding of the matter-energy relationships are such that we're just leaping ahead in gaining a fundamental understanding of who we are, where we are, why we're here, how things work now and how they will work in the future.” 

Top photo: Pieces of cubic boron nitride, the world’s second-hardest material, sit on a table at the Physical Sciences Building B on the Tempe campus during a lab tour, part of the Sept. 13 grand opening celebration of ASU’s Center for Materials of the Universe. Photo by Samantha Chow/Arizona State University

Reporter , ASU News

Coming home: ASU dance alum to perform new Lerman work at Gammage


September 16, 2022

Just about a year after Ruby Morales graduated from Arizona State University with a BFA in dance, she was invited by Herberger Institute Professor and legendary choreographer Liz Lerman to participate in a new work about witchcraft and women’s bodies.

Nearly four years later, “Wicked Bodies” has come to fruition, premiering at Green Music Center in Sonoma County, California, in the spring and then presented at Jacob’s Pillow performing arts theater in Becket, Massachusetts this summer. On Sept. 24, “Wicked Bodies” will finally be coming to ASU Gammage. ASU grad Ruby Morales performing in "Wicked Bodies" by Liz Lerman ASU grad Ruby Morales performing in "Wicked Bodies" by Liz Lerman. Photo courtesy Brennan Sparks Photography Download Full Image

READ MORE: Interactive dance performance asks audiences: 'Good or bad: Which witch is which?'

Since graduation, Morales has been working with Los Angeles-based activist dance theater company CONTRA-TIEMPO. She says her dream is to create more opportunities for dancers here in Arizona. 

“I feel passionate about Arizona, and the desert and all the things that happen here,” Morales said. “I just want to keep cultivating that and to continue to create opportunities for dancers so they don’t feel they have to leave the state to find those opportunities.”

Morales shared about her personal connection to “Wicked Bodies,” how the experience has changed her, what’s unique about presenting the work at ASU, the timeliness of the piece and what audiences should know about the show.

Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Question: What personal connections do you have to this piece?

Answer: My family is from Mexico City, Mexico. At the time, I was really curious about what spiritual practices my family did prior to being Catholic. I was asking my great-grandma a lot of questions. At first she was like, “We’ve always been Catholic!” I said, “I don’t think that’s possible. Is there anything else you remember?” Then she started talking to me about curanderos who cure people. There is some witchcraft or brujeria inside that healing practice. I actually recorded her telling me the story, which is the story you hear in the show.

When Liz asked me about my connection to this topic I said, “I actually just had this conversation with my great-grandma and recorded her, do you want to hear it?” She just loved it and asked if it was OK to use some of this story. I feel like one of the most important things inside of the process is consent. Liz was very clear from the beginning that if at any time I wanted to take something back or I felt I was offering too much, I had all the right and agency to do that. That created a space where I felt I had agency inside of the process.

Q: How has this experience changed you?

A: I definitely think it was witnessing the capacity of the show. When I first started, graduation was very fresh and I didn’t know what it was like to be in high production shows. It showed me what was possible; it showed me what it’s like to have a team that believes in you and supports your ideas. I was witnessing how everyone believed in Liz and believed in the work that she was doing and her legacy. It was very impactful to see what it looks like when an artist is truly supported and being held. I had only ever seen examples of that in spaces outside of art. Scarcity always seems like a thing inside of art, and it was the first time I really saw what was possible. As I’m thinking now about what that looks like in my own art, it was really important for me to see that and witness that.  

Q: What is unique about presenting the show at Gammage?

A: First, it’s home. All of my immediate family lives here in Arizona. It's rare to get the opportunity for them to witness what I do for a living. I’m really excited to have them witness the show. My grandma’s brother takes care of my great-grandmother. It’s going to be very special to have him there and have him hear her voice and her story inside of this larger production and woven piece. That feels very personal and exciting for me.

In general, this feels like home for a lot of the artists. I think it will be really fun and special to have our people get to witness the work that we’ve been doing.

Q: How do you feel about the timeliness of this piece?

A: The work was already a fruitful space for these conversations to happen because the process started years ago. When everything started coming up in the world, it was a nutritious space for these conversations to happen. We were already on our way and talking about some of these things. Because it feels so alive and relevant right now, these moments feel very real inside of the work. Because we are talking about lived experiences, some of us are already living these things that have now become super big news. Now that this is happening specifically in the U.S., it really gives another entry point, another place for empathy, another place for relatability. But it was already there and we were already having those conversations. Those topics were alive in our bodies. 

Q: What should audiences know before they come?

A: I don’t want to give too much away, but I do want to say that the great thing about the show is that there are multiple entry points and multiple ways people can see themselves in the work. There are moments for anybody to see themselves in the work. There are also places for us to feel empathy for where we are at in the world and the things that are happening. I hope everybody leaves asking what has been their responsibility and what is their responsibility now. It’s not up to one person to tell their story. We all have played a role to get where we are now and we all still have a responsibility afterward. 

“Wicked Bodies” will be presented at ASU Gammage at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 24. Tickets can be purchased online at the Gammage Box Office.

Lacy Chaffee

Media and communications coordinator, School of Music, Dance and Theatre

480-727-5550