Online global health program empowers FEMA employee

September 21, 2023

Looking for a flexible, reputable degree program with a subject matter that applied to her career was important for ASU Online student Autumn Coalwell. 

Coalwell works full time as a program analyst and contracting officer representative for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). She is also enrolled in the global health 4+1 program through the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, and is minoring in political science.   Portrait of ASU student Autumn Coalwell. Autumn Coalwell during a volunteer event removing invasive species in Maine with a view from the top of the trail. Courtesy photo Download Full Image

The accelerated 4+1 program offers students both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in just five years. 

“I didn’t do my degree right out of high school,” Coalwell said. “I went and did the AmeriCorps national service program.” 

“When I went to finish my degree while I was working with FEMA, I needed something that would work well with my full-time work schedule because it just wasn’t feasible for me to take time off to do my degree. Especially when I would also have to be paying for the degree.”

ASU News spoke with Coalwell about her experience in the global health program and her work with FEMA. 

Editor's note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity. 

Question: Tell us about your career with FEMA.

Answer: I’ve worked with FEMA for about six years. I started with the AmeriCorps NCCC FEMA Corps program, and then I worked as a FEMA reservist, which is when you’re employed part time throughout the year, but you deploy into the field in direct support of disasters. 

After that, I obtained a job with headquarters as a program analyst and contracting officer representative. 

A program analyst is someone who administratively and strategically supports FEMA’s programs. I work on a wide range of tasks, such as the development of new training and mentorship programs for the workforce, the evaluation of existing programs and the development of program guidance documents. A contracting officer representative (COR) is a member of the agency who manages contracts for services or goods. So I help plan, write and manage contracts. 

Q: When you worked in the field for FEMA, was there a location that made a significant impact on you?  

A: Most of my time deployed to the field was spent in Puerto Rico working with the FEMA Individual Assistance Program, which helps individuals through the recovery process. 

Something that really stood out to me and has stayed with me was the situation of homeownership in Puerto Rico. Several generations ago, many people in Puerto Rico built homes on land that, at the time, had no ownership. The government of Puerto Rico allowed these homes and settlements to be built. 

Over the years, these homes were passed down through families. When Hurricane Maria hit and many of these homes were destroyed, the families were unable to prove ownership of their homes to seek response or recovery assistance. 

Even though they had grown up in these homes, their grandparents had built the homes and the building of these homes was not considered immoral or illegal at the time they were built, these families were left homeless. They could not prove that they were owners or renters. They had no avenues to seek repair or temporary housing assistance. This shocked me, and since then, I have learned of other similar situations around the world. 

Q: How do you hope your degrees in global health will help you in your career at FEMA? 

A: It already is helping with my career at FEMA, mostly because of the understanding of social and cultural differences. Even here in the United States, we have such a wide range of cultures and social differences around the country. 

When you are operating in disaster response and recovery situations, you’re encountering a lot of the social determinants of health that are discussed in the global health program. 

Understanding how to really help communities with recovery and resilience is important. A lot of those factors and considerations are recurrent in the global health major, so I really think that it’s applicable. I also hope to get into some international affairs work in the future. 

Q: Has there been a professor or course that has made a big impact on you? 

A: The class ASB 327: Disaster!, taught by President’s Professor Amber Wutich, was great. It was so much more than I expected. I’ve taken a lot of emergency management classes in the past and they really just revolved around policies within disaster response within the U.S. This course really dove into a lot of the ethics surrounding humanitarian relief and disaster response — and how those efforts and how humanitarian aid can be used to promote resiliency instead of just the immediate needs of the community and the importance of long-term development and recovery. 

Several other professors have made a profound impact on my degree through their engaging teaching methods. They include Gabriela Clarke, graduate teaching associate of Spanish at the School of International Letters and Cultures, and Charles Ripley, instructor at the School of Politics and Global Studies.

Nicole Pomerantz

Communications specialist, School of Human Evolution and Social Change


Putting medical tests to the test

ASU researcher Krishnendu Chakrabarty helps to ensure safety, accuracy of lab-on-a-chip devices using watermarks

September 21, 2023

Biofluidic chips are widely utilized in medical testing for polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests, which use lab-on-a-chip devices to diagnose various diseases or genetic changes. Although originally invented in the 1980s and widely used in the scientific community, PCR tests gained prominence among the wider public during the COVID-19 pandemic. They are held as the gold standard for accuracy among diagnostic tools.

However, PCR tests and other lab-on-a-chip devices are accurate only if the chips are built correctly, undamaged, properly used and have not been tampered with. Lab-on-a-chip tests must be processed and handled by multiple parties before reaching their destinations in medical facilities. This process presents the risk of chips being damaged or tampered with by malicious entities in the supply chain for financial gain. Close-up of a lab-on-a-chip medical test. Arizona State University Fulton Professor of Microelectronics Krishnendu Chakrabarty collaborated with colleagues to develop methods that detect whether a lab-on-a-chip medical test is fraudulent or has been tampered with. Photo courtesy Navajit Singh Baban Download Full Image

The effects of inaccurate results from lab-on-a-chip tests can have grave consequences. For example, a false negative result can cause accidental spread of viral diseases or failure to alert scientists of a medication’s side effects before its use on humans.

To ensure accuracy and reliability of lab-on-a-chip tests, Krishnendu Chakrabarty, Fulton Professor of Microelectronics in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, and Ramesh Karri, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering, collaborated with researchers led by New York University Abu Dhabi postdoctoral associate Navajit Singh Baban on a National Science Foundation-funded project to develop two types of watermarks that activate when a legitimate and properly functioning test is used. One watermark uses a dye only visible under ultraviolet light, and the other causes a reaction when force is applied.

The science journal Lab on a Chip published the team’s research in an associated paper, “Material-level countermeasures for securing microfluidic biochips,” in August.

“Trust is very important in biomedical engineering and clinical diagnostics,” says Chakrabarty, a faculty member in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, part of the Fulton Schools. “We are trying to lower the cost of diagnostics and health care to make it available in remote locations with point-of-care testing, and that can only be done if the user trusts the devices.”

Ensuring accurate health care

To the naked eye, watermarked chips look no different before their use; all is revealed only for those who know where to look.

Lab-on-a-chip devices using dye as a watermark incorporate the feature into the chip’s existing architecture. Many lab-on-a-chip tests have tiny valves known as microvalves, which direct fluid through the chips when activated with samples.

“You can think of these valves like a very, very thin membrane balloon,” says Baban, who specializes in research in mechanobiology and microfluidic biochip security. “When pressure is applied, it will deform, and these dyes will respond in a mechanical way and show signatures.”

The dye is added to the chip’s microvalve system and does not interfere with the test results. When the test is run, the dye reveals a signature spot that lab technicians check with an ultraviolet light to ensure the test is legitimate and accurate.

While Chakrabarty’s expertise is in microelectronics, he says the movement of fluids in microvalves work similarly to electronic chips channeling electrical current through transistors. The use of dye is similar to doping microelectronic chips, a process in which substances are added to chips to control the flow of electrical current, which changes characteristics such as impeding or enhancing electricity conduction.

The second type of watermark shows if a test is legitimate by analyzing the chemical composition of the chip through physical force.

“Initially, these materials are liquid and through the use of heat they’re made solid,” Baban says. “During this transition, one can add all these bad chemicals and alter the composition of the material, potentially hampering the working of the chips.”

Force is applied by a small metal punch tool connected to software that can detect how much resistance the chip material provides to the tool when pressure is applied. An artificial intelligence model trained on data from legitimate tests determines if the material provides the required amount of resistance for the test to be deemed authentic.

Increasing need for an expanding industry

According to medical journal The Lancet, 47% of the world does not have access to diagnostic tests. Inexpensive point-of-care tools are essential to help meet this need. Lab-on-a-chip devices, being simple and cheap to build, are in high demand to increase access to accurate medical tests. Market research company MarketsandMarkets estimates the revenue for microfluidics devices will grow from $22.3 billion to $41.1 billion between 2023 and 2028, an increase of more than 80%.

Simultaneously, the U.S. Senate has recognized a need for medical device security and included measures to address the topic in the spending bill to fund the government through September. With dramatic increases in both the need for lab-on-a-chip tests and medical device regulation, Chakrabarty emphasizes the importance of the research team’s work for the future of the medical device security and testing fields.

“This is a cost-sensitive market,” he says. “These are disposable one-time use devices, so they can’t cost much. One way to lower the cost is to have a distributed supply chain because there are specific entities that do the best job on specific parts of production. We are providing the mechanisms so you can validate various steps in this entire assembly process.”

Josh Hihath, a professor of electrical engineering in the Fulton Schools and director of the Biodesign Center for Bioelectronics and Biosensors in ASU’s Biodesign Institute, praises the research for reducing the risks associated with lab-on-a-chip devices.

“Developing pipelines that allow us to verify the providence of sensing and health devices is extremely important, as the risks of device failure are so profound,” Hihath says. “This approach provides an intriguing method to extend trustable pipelines into the microfluidics space.”

TJ Triolo

Communications Specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering