4 teams earn seed grants from ASU’s Seize the Moment initiative

Projects include AI storytelling, board game, documentary, dance performance

April 17, 2023

Complex challenges like public health threats, social justice breakdowns and ecological degradation often intersect and exacerbate each other. To address these compounding crises, interdisciplinary and outside-the-box thinking that lead to creative solutions are needed.

The Seize the Moment initiative was developed in 2020 by the Arizona State University Humanities Lab, ASU-Leonardo Initiative and Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures LabIt brings together the arts, sciences, humanities and technology to address the most challenging questions of our time through collaborative research, social engagement projects and interdisciplinary, action-focused teaching strategies. Cream-colored, brightly lit mannequins made from recycled materials hang from a large domed cathedralesque ceiling. Costume design from Haikeus: Transmuting Ecological Grieving into Action. Photo courtesy Galina Mihaleva Download Full Image

Seize the Moment faculty research seed grants were recently awarded to four teams spanning seven colleges/academic units; among them are eight faculty members, two students and one staff member from ASU's College of Global Futures. These teams seek to explore and address several complex global problems. 

“These seed grant projects demonstrate the enthusiasm of ASU faculty for interdisciplinary, challenge-focused research support. They also reinforce the important role of the arts and humanities in addressing urgent challenges — from a broken food system to the exigencies of immigration, climate disruption and social injustice,” said Sally Kitch, University and Regents Professor, founding director of the Humanities Lab and co-founder of the Seize the Moment initiative. “By probing the intersections of disciplines and the gaps between them — an important principle modeled by the Humanities Lab — projects like these can serve ASU’s commitment to responsible innovation, use-value scholarship and public engagement.” 

The four funded projects share some common themes: the importance of narrative, a sense of place and mindfulness about the lands we inhabit from both an ethical and environmental perspective. The grantees presented their work during Leonardo’s most recent LASER Talk at ASU. 

“Leonardo is delighted to co-lead Seize the Moment and support such inspiring, collaborative research innovation. Showcasing these amazing research projects on Leonardo’s publications, media and LASER platforms connects this work with our global network and art-science community in over 55 LASER sites worldwide,” said Diana Ayton-Shenker, the CEO and president of Leonardo/ISAST, executive director of the ASU-Leonardo Initiative and Seize the Moment co-founder.

2023 Seize the Moment seed grant recipients 

AI-mediated Refugee Conversations: Building Documentary-Style Human-Computer Interfaces to Cultivate Empathic Interactive Oral Histories 

This team is working to create an AI-informed platform that facilitates conversations between refugees and the general public. Their hope is to generate empathy and understanding of the refugee experience through nuanced conversations. The platform will draw upon real stories shared by refugees living in Maricopa County while preserving their anonymity. This project leverages AI technology and offers an interactive experience; participants will be able to interview a simulated avatar that serves as a proxy for the real people who offered up their experiences.

Community Visions of the Salt River: Collaborative Meaning-Making through Game Play

The growing team behind this project is determined to tell an often overlooked story about the Salt River in a novel way — through an interactive board game. Their game, Living Lands, explores the connections between environmental damage, language loss in Indigenous communities and the importance of history. Playing through these topics, rather than listening to a single lecturer, creates a reciprocal learning experience that could be used in a wide variety of settings, from classrooms to homes to social gatherings. This game format also provides a template the project team hopes could apply to other topics, communities or ecosystems. 

Taste of State 48

The Taste of 48 team takes a deep dive into Arizona’s unique food landscape. Inspired by the work of Slow Food Phoenix, this project will be the pilot of a 12-part documentary series that highlights the local, native and seasonal foods found across the state. The series will also explore some bigger questions about the land we inhabit, the foods we consume, and the relationship between these concepts and the broader interconnection to current social, cultural and environmental problems facing the American Southwest.

Haikeus: Transmuting Ecological Grieving into Action

Haikeus is a Finnish word that means a simultaneous feeling of sadness and gratitude. The team behind this project drew their inspiration from this concept, supplemented by a myriad of other strong emotional responses people can have to climate change. "Transmuting Ecological Grieving into Action" acknowledges the mental and emotional impacts that climate change can have and promote healing through intentional movement. Their dance-based performance piece is intended to spark optimism and inspire action in the face of challenging global events. Every aspect of this project was created mindfully, with sustainability at the forefront. After the performances come to an end, the costumes, which were crafted from biodegradable and water-soluble materials sourced from nature, will be returned to the earth and the seeds embedded in the material will sprout new plants.

About Seize the Moment

Started in 2020, Seize the Moment is a collaborative effort between the ASU Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory, the Humanities Lab and the ASU-Leonardo Initiative to bring together seemingly unconnected disciplines in order to address the most pressing problems facing the world today. Transdisciplinary arts, science, technology and humanities come together to advance pedagogy, research and public engagement in novel ways. This program emphasizes the importance of community collaboration that incorporates the voices of those who are directly impacted by the intersecting crises of social injustice, health and income disparities, and environmental threats. 

Past Seize the Moment seed grant recipients: https://humanities.lab.asu.edu/seize-the-moment/seed-grants

Dana Peters

Communications specialist , College of Global Futures

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Untangling marine data to give coral reefs the best chance for survival

April 17, 2023

ASU professor analyzes compounding local, global threats to inform community coral conservation

Coral reefs are on the front lines of climate change. 

On a global scale, changing ocean chemistry, warming sea temperatures and increased frequency of severe storms all provide significant threats to one of the most biologically diverse and valuable ecosystems on Earth.

But mounting threats from climate change are not coral reefs' only foe. For decades, overfishing, pollution and other human activities like over-tourism have contributed to the stress and degradation of delicate vibrant reefs.

So, given the complex threats — at both local and global scales — what is the best conservation and management plan forward? And how do we give people the right information to make decisions and give corals the best chance for survival?  

The answer may already exist, hidden in data. 

Marry Donovan

Mary Donovan, an ecological researcher and data scientist at ASU, is using innovative methods to wrangle global and local data in new ways – that haven’t been accessible or usable before – and give local communities new insights to make their coral reefs more resilient to threats. 

The work by Donovan, an assistant professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning and the Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science, empowers coastal communities with the necessary information to make the best conservation and management decisions for their local reefs. 

“We are working with the knowledge we've gained from understanding the interactions between local and global human impacts to say: ‘What can people do locally to manage reefs with the idea of resilience in mind,” said Donovan, whose research sites include Hawaii, French Polynesia and the Caribbean. “Can we increase or protect the reef's resilience to these external threats and help them survive?”

For her research, discovery and local impact, Donovan was recently named an Ecological Society of America Early Career Fellow. 

The prestigious award is given to leading early-career ecologists, who are succeeding not only from an academic perspective but are putting high importance on communicating their work to the broader field.

“It's one thing just to ask ecological questions that us professors care about and cite, but it's something special to ask those questions in a way that helps guide the conservation and management of our key ecosystems,” said Deron Burkepile, professor of marine biology at the University of California Santa Barbara who was involved in the nomination process. 

“Mary's really engaged with the conservation community and making sure that her science really gets translated into conservation and management.” 

Asking big questions, drawing big conclusions

Donovan’s research has led to new insights into how interactions between local and global threats affect coral bleaching and coral recovery after bleaching. 

Off the coast of the French Polynesian island of Moorea, Donovan’s research has shown that coral reefs that are subject to higher levels of nutrient pollution tend to have more coral bleaching during marine heat waves. And, importantly, the pollution sensitizes the corals to the marine heat waves that happen because of climate change.

Her research brings into focus a new lens of management: how communities can relieve some of the impacts of global stressors, like underwater heatwaves, by managing local stressors, like pollution. 

“We need solutions at different scales to answer the big questions,” Donovan said. “We need to understand both fine scale and broad scale change to answer questions that are relevant to management that are broad and always changing.”

At the local level, Donovan for more than a decade  has engaged local community groups, fishermen and other organizations in Hawaii to think about how the science she produces can impact the decisions that the people of Hawaii make, and how they can best conserve and restore their local resources. 

The Donovan lab and looking forward 

Donovan and her lab — a team of nearly a dozen undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral ecologists, marine biologists and data scientists — continue the critical work necessary to improve the resilience of coral reefs, hand-in-hand with conservation decision-makers. 

For Donovan, while the recognition from the Ecological Society of America is a “huge honor,” she said she continues to gain inspiration for her research from her students and the impact that they are working to make together. 

“Everything I do now is about my students and mentees. It's not just about me, but it's about building the future,” Donovan said. “In thinking about climate change, and as educators, bringing those two things together, we have always to be preparing the next generation.” 

Top image: Members of the Donovan Lab examine coral reef ecosystems off the coast of Hawaii. Photo courtesy of Mary Donovan.

David Rozul

Media Relations Officer , Media Relations and Strategic Communications