Astrophysics graduate finds passion in education, community outreach

May 9, 2023

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2023 graduates.

As Alex Blanche sat down to work on his career fair project in fifth grade, little did he know that the assignment would spark a lifelong passion for astrophysics. With a poster titled "Why I Want to be an Astronomer," Blanche’s fascination with space began to take shape and evolve into a career path.  Alex Blanche will graduate with a Bachelor of Science in astrophysics from the School of Earth and Space Exploration. Download Full Image

An Arizona native, Blanche chose to stay closer to home to make his career fair project a reality at Arizona State University. Now, Blanche will graduate with a Bachelor of Science in astrophysics from the School of Earth and Space Exploration

Over the course of his academic career, Blanche has worked closely with Regents Professor Rogier Windhorst, doing research on the Hubble Space Telescope

“Alex Blanche has been superb in all things cosmology as well as SESE outreach. He has done innovative research on Hubble Space Telescope UV images of galaxies that are contributing to the reionization of the universe,” Windhorst said. “He has also been a truly superb TA for my AST 322 Cosmology course, helping make the homework (hardcore relativity!) better understandable and doable for the students. And Alex has been a triple black belt in many, many SESE outreach events.”

Together with his research, Blanche has also been extensively involved in SESE outreach activities, promoting science education and research to the wider community. Educating guests as a docent and presenter at the school, Blanche plans to use his experiences at ASU to pursue a career in education and community outreach. 

“I’ve been so lucky to have caught the bug from all the wonderful members of the outreach team, and to be able to continue to explore and pass that on to others is something I’m incredibly excited about. I don’t know where just yet, but that’s another thing for me to discover!” Blanche said.

He shares insights on his ASU experience.

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

Answer: I don’t know when I first realized I wanted to study astrophysics; I’ve always been surrounded by the sciences. When I was little, I had posters of the solar system my parents put up for me. I was also a big fan of Buzz Lightyear, but space ranger isn’t a very common career path. My clearest memory was in fifth grade when we were assigned a career fair project; we picked a career, researched where to go to school and what people did in that career, and made a poster. I still have a poster in the closet of my parent’s house that says “Why I Want to be an Astronomer." I think it was sometime around then when my fascination with space became less of a decorating option and more of a career path. 

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

A: The biggest thing I learned here while at ASU was how to keep a healthy work-life balance. It’s hard to keep a clear head when you’re your own drill instructor. It’s how I spent most of my high school career, so coming to ASU, the intense college environment, and finding that balance was surprising. Being able to go easy on myself when I needed to and focus on things outside of academia helped me grow into the person I’m proud of today.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: Definitely not because of the summers. In all honesty, I chose ASU at first because it was close. I knew people here, and being close to family and friends was important. Looking back, I don’t think I could’ve made a better decision. The opportunities I’ve had and the people I’ve gotten to meet have made my time here 100% successful.  

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

A: Dr. Rogier Windhorst was definitely the most influential professor I had during my time here. He was the first professor I talked to outside of class and the first to give me a chance as an undergrad in research. Although not intentionally, he taught me that professors aren’t as scary as my freshman-brain thought. I think I paced up and down the hall to his office for 10 minutes before eventually knocking on his door. He’s been a constant support and gave me opportunities that helped me get to where I am in my career today.

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

A: The best advice I have for anyone still in school is to go easier on yourself. You have to be kind to the person you’re always stuck with.  

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

A: My favorite spot on campus has to be the Marston Theater. I’ve been both a presenter and an audience member there, and it’s the coolest place to have to take a class on campus. Getting to watch the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope be streamed on the big screen is one of my favorite memories of my time here at ASU. But during the hot summer months, the AC full blast, you can nap in there for days (don’t tell Ric Alling). To me, it represents limitless scientific exploration and, more personally, comfort.  

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

A: What would I tackle? Nothing larger than a dog; any bigger and I’d probably lose. As for the money, I think I’d want it to go towards funding education in underfunded communities. There are so many problems that I think deserve that $40 million and more, but education is something I’m so passionate about. I think there are too many instances where people fall through the cracks in our educational system. Whether it be better supporting teachers or making education more equitable, education could use the money. Everyone has the potential to become successful in something they love, but not everyone gets that chance. The more educated society is, the better.  

Q: Any influences from past teachers, friends or family?

A: All of the above are my main influences. My parents encouraged my curiosity and learning from the very start; they’ve been nothing but supportive for every step and decision I’ve made so far. Without their guidance and upbringing, I doubt I’d be as passionate about the things I am. As for teachers, my biggest influences have to be Mrs. Baldwin and Mrs. Charnell, from my high school and elementary school, respectively, who supported and helped grow my interest in math and science. They saw potential in me beyond the bare minimum and always pushed me to reach for that. As for my friends, my No. 1 influence and inspiration has to be my lifelong friend Sarah, who always did the heavy lifting when I couldn’t. And of course, thank you to everyone else at SESE who were along for the ride, whether it be faculty, staff or my peers.

Taylor Hess

Marketing and communications digital aide , School of Earth and Space Exploration

Shining a spotlight on engineering leaders, creators, innovators

School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment honors new Hall of Fame, Academy of Distinguished Alumni members

May 9, 2023

More than just outstanding professional skills, expertise and career success are considered when assessing candidates for induction into the Hall of Fame and Academy of Distinguished Alumni of the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, part of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University.

Those selected for the honors are also evaluated for how they have excelled at serving their communities in ways that reflect the public service values and New American University aspirations of the Fulton Schools and ASU. Group of people gather inside, looking on to a stage with a podium and large screen above it. New Hall of Fame and Academy of Distinguished Alumni of the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment were honored at a recent event. Photo by Matthew Eicher/ASU Download Full Image

A recent ceremony celebrated the achievements of two new Hall of Fame inductees and five new Academy of Distinguished Alumni inductees whose work in engineering and construction fields exemplifies those qualities.

Professor Emeritus George Edward “Edd” Gibson Jr. and Professor Emeritus Sandra Houston are new members of the Hall of Fame. Edward Bouwer, inducted posthumously, Chidambaram Gnanasambanthan, Mark Kramer, James Murphy and Paul Von Berg were elected to the Academy of Distinguished Alumni.

Former professor oversaw school’s rapid growth

Gibson came to ASU in 2009 to become chair of the Del E. Webb School of Construction within the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment. He then served as the latter school’s director from 2010 to 2018.

Gibson led major fundraising efforts and was instrumental in the construction of a new building that serves as the school’s headquarters. He led the school during a decade of rapid enrollment growth and the expansion of faculty research pursuits.

Ram Pendyala inducts Edd Gibson to SSEBE HOF

Professor Ram Pendyala (left), director of the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, poses with Professor Emeritus George Edward “Edd” Gibson Jr. after Gibson was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame. Gibson oversaw the growth of the school for almost a decade as its first director. Photo by Erika Gronek/ASU

During his career, Gibson was elected to the National Academy of Construction, or NAC, received the Peurifoy Award for Outstanding Research from the American Society of Civil Engineers, or ASCE, and later won the Construction Industry Institute’s Richard L. Tucker Leadership and Service Award. In 2020, Gibson was elected a Distinguished Member of ASCE.

Earlier this year, he departed ASU to become the NAC’s president and CEO.

“Edd Gibson’s decades of contributions to research, teaching, service and leadership make him a standout among members of the school’s Hall of Fame,” says Samuel Ariaratnam, a Fulton Schools professor of civil and construction engineering and Gibson’s longtime colleague.

Former civil and environmental engineering chair sows seeds for soil research

Sandra Houston inducted into SSEBE HOF

Professor Emeritus Sandra Houston (left) was presented a commemorative statuette during her recent induction into the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment Hall of Fame. She is pictured with Claudia Zapata, an associate professor of civil engineering in the school, who noted Houston’s contributions as an educator, researcher and student mentor. Photo by Erika Gronek/ASU

Houston served for a decade as chair of the school’s civil and environmental engineering program, overseeing a period of its substantial expansion. During the 36 years she taught and conducted research in geotechnical engineering, she earned major awards for her expertise in unsaturated soil mechanics and related research.

Houston also served as president of the ASCE Geo-Institute. In that role, she was instrumental in supporting the work of many who became contributors to impactful geotechnical research.

“She attracted stars to the field,” says Claudia Zapata, a Fulton Schools associate professor of civil engineering and Houston’s colleague. “But just as important, she was determined in her mission to bring more women into ASU’s engineering faculty. Her work was part of much-needed efforts to advance equity and inclusion in the profession.”

Houston remains active in the civil engineering field since her retirement. Zapata noted that Houston continues to mentor women faculty members and support efforts of the National Science Foundation to increase the participation of women, minorities and people with disabilities in STEM fields.

Career marked by leadership, loyalty and integrity

Edward Bouwer inducted into SSEBE Alumni Academy

The late Edward Bouwer, a new Academy of Distinguished Alumni inductee, was an internationally prominent leader in environmental microbiology and biotechnology, known particularly for making advances in the bioremediation of contaminated groundwater. Photo courtesy the Bouwer family

Bouwer, who earned an undergraduate degree in civil engineering at ASU in 1977, became an internationally recognized leader in environmental microbiology and biotechnology. He served on the faculty of Johns Hopkins University’s Whiting School of Engineering for more than 34 years.

Early in his career, Bouwer won an achievement award for his environmental engineering doctoral dissertation, which helped to pioneer work in demonstrating how anaerobic bacteria could remove chlorine from hazardous chlorinated solvents, rendering them harmless. The discovery was pivotal in advancing the field of modern contaminated groundwater bioremediation.

Bouwer later served as chair of the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at Johns Hopkins for nine years, a period during which the department’s graduate and undergraduate environmental engineering programs were ranked among the top 10 in the nation.

“Edward Bouwer was a leader in all aspects of environmental engineering — in research, education and service to the profession,” says Fulton Schools Regents Professor Bruce Rittmann, director of ASU’s Biodesign Institute Swette Center for Envionmental Biotechnology, who first met Bouwer when they were doctoral students at Stanford University.

“Ed was also famous for his integrity and loyalty to his students, his colleagues and to ASU,” Rittmann says.

Exemplary entrepreneur, visionary, advocate

Chidambaram Gnanasambanthan inducted into SSEBE Alumni Academy

Academy of Distinguished Alumni inductee Chidambaram Gnanasambanthan (left) has 40 years of experience in civil engineering, structural engineering, project management and entrepreneurship. He was on the board of the American Council of Engineering Companies of Arizona for more than 11 years. He is pictured with wife Chitra Gnanasambanthan and son Ajay Gnanasambanthan. Photo by Erika Gronek/ASU

Gnanasambanthan graduated from ASU in 1986 with a master’s degree in structural engineering and then specialized in bridge design for more than a decade before starting his own company, Premier Engineering Corporation.

The business grew into a multidisciplinary enterprise with capabilities to provide civil, structural, geotechnical and transportation engineering, drainage engineering design and land survey services. Premier Engineering became a founding member of the Fulton Schools’ Friends of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

In 2021, the company was acquired by the engineering and design firm Olsson, where Gnanasambanthan now serves as an associate vice president. The company’s leaders encouraged his continued partnership with ASU faculty and students, especially those in the Fulton Schools.

Gnanasambanthan has been active in several professional organizations, including the American Council of Engineering Companies of Arizona, or ACEC Arizona, and the Society of American Military Engineers. He has served in multiple leadership roles at ACEC of Arizona over more than 14 years, acting as a liaison between the consulting industry and public agencies in Arizona.

“He strongly believes employees form the backbone of any company,” says Subramaniam Rajan, a Fulton Schools professor of civil engineering. “When asked about his company, he replies that Premier Engineering Corporation was created as part of his vision for providing workplaces in which employees can flourish in a family-like environment and provide quality products to the clients.”

Hard work, business acumen brought success

Mark Kramer inducted into SSEBE Alumni Academy

Mark Kramer, a new member of the Academy of Distinguished Alumni, leads the employee-owned company Soil and Materials Engineers. It is among the top engineering design firms in the U.S. He has held leadership roles in the American Council of Engineering Companies of Michigan, including serving on its board of directors. Photo by Erika Gronek/ASU

Kramer earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering degree at ASU and also graduated from the Harvard Business School Owner/President Management program. Today, he is chairman of the board and CEO of Soil and Materials Engineers, or SME, a leading civil engineering and environmental services consulting firm headquartered in Michigan.

The company works for clients such as Ford Motors and General Motors and other corporate and institutional clients, state and federal agencies, corporate and institutional clients, universities and hospital systems, real-estate investment trusts and private developers, and power and transmission companies.

Kramer is the controlling owner and second-generation leader of the employee-owned company. He is also the president and chairman of the board for a real-estate holding and development company and director of an insurance company that serves engineering and environmental consulting firms.

Since 2002, Kramer has led SME as CEO and grown the company to more than 380 professional and technical staff. The firm has continually been ranked among the top 500 design firms in the U.S. by the Engineering News Record and is currently ranked at No. 289 in the country.

“Mark readily admits he wasn’t at the top of the class while he was a civil engineering student at ASU," says Matthew Fraser, a Fulton School’s professor of chemical and environmental engineering. “However, he used the knowledge he gained here — with hard work and determination, built his company into a regional powerhouse providing civil engineering consulting for a wide range of clients and applications.”

Committed to company and community

Man holding award

James Murphy, a new Academy of Distinguished Alumni member, joined the Willmeng Construction company in 1999 as a young college graduate. Less than a decade later, he became the company’s president. Murphy is now CEO, overseeing a company of more than 350 employees. Photographer: Erika Gronek/ASU

Murphy graduated from the Del E. Webb School of Construction in 1998 with a degree in construction management. Soon after, he began an internship with the Willmeng Construction company, which hired him the following year.

Murphy worked in multiple roles for Willmeng, learning about both the technical and business aspects of the company’s operations. After only seven years, he bought the company and became its president and CEO. He went on to build a client base as a strategic partner in building projects.

Murphy now leads Willmeng, one of Arizona’s largest privately held construction companies, overseeing more than 350 employees and nearly $1 billion in revenue through a variety of market types far beyond the industrial market sector the company was founded upon. The company is recognized for its culture, strategy and industry relationships, winning more than 22 awards in 2022.

Murphy attributes much of his success to his education in the Del E. Webb School of Construction, particularly the faculty members who mentored and advised him, including Professor Emeritus William Badger, Professor Emeritus Dean Kashiwagi and Avi Wiezel, a Fulton Schools associate professor of construction engineering.

Building on those roots, Murphy developed a course on field leadership in construction that he now teaches to undergraduate and graduate students as an ASU faculty associate.

“James is a nationally recognized construction industry leader who embodies the knowledge we try to impart to our students,” says Kristen Parrish, a Fulton Schools professor of construction management and civil and environmental engineering. “He is a visionary who focuses on delivering value to and for people. He upholds the highest ethical standards and is committed to giving back to the community.”

Decades of accomplishment in construction

Paul Von Berg inducted into SSEBE Alumni Academy

Academy of Distinguished Alumni inductee Paul Von Berg worked on a wide range of projects in the construction industry throughout more than four decades. He was also on the board of directors of the national American Road and Transportation Builders Association. Photo by Erika Gronek/ASU

Von Berg is a retired executive vice president of Brutoco Engineering & Construction, which before closing specialized in heavy civil construction projects. He has more than 40 years of experience in the industry and worked on various projects, including water treatment plants, bridges, railroads, dams, tunnels, power plants and transit systems. He also served on the board of directors of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, a national transportation trade association.

“Paul built many notable infrastructure projects in 13 western U.S. states, including the the Eisenhower–Edwin C. Johnson Memorial Tunnel carrying Interstate 70 through the Rocky Mountains and the third power plant at the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington,” says James Ernzen, a Fulton Schools associate professor of civil engineering and construction management and engineering. “He was always guided by a willingness to give back to his industry, especially through recruiting young people into construction and mentoring them.”

Generous alumni enrich school in many ways 

“All of our new Hall of Fame members are outstanding mentors and leaders who have generously given their time and talent over a sustained period of time for the benefit of our students and the school’s many stakeholders,” says Professor Ram Pendyala, director of the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment.

“The new Academy of Distinguished Alumni members are ASU Sun Devils who have excelled in their chosen fields and are ideal role models who have risen to the pinnacle of their profession,” Pendyala says. “But what sets all the inductees apart is their commitment to service and to advancing the profession, the next generation workforce and their communities. We’re proud to etch the names of this year’s inductees into the annals of exemplary difference makers who have enriched our school.”

Nominations for induction into the Hall of Fame and Academy of Distinguished Alumni come from faculty members and alumni.

“The nominators are the professional peers and faculty members who understand the commitment to excellence it takes to do what the inductees have accomplished,” says Matthew Eicher, the school’s assistant director for student success and industry outreach. “Beyond their own achievements, a number of the inductees have also made an impact through significant philanthropic contributions that create opportunities for the growth of our school, improve our educational programs and open new pathways for academia and industry partners to engage in new and meaningful ways.”

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering