$3M NSF award to launch alternative energy research, PhD program

August 17, 2012

A new effort at Arizona State University to educate and train students in renewable and solar energy is receiving backing by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Through its Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program, the NSF is providing $3 million to ASU to help develop a doctoral program in energy and to equip students with the skills needed to find solutions to the energy challenges of the future by establishing the IGERT Solar Utilization Network (SUN) program.  ASU Professor Willem Vermaas Download Full Image

“ASU is taking a leadership role regarding research, education and policy issues in renewable energy utilization,” said ASU President Michael Crow. “We are working at the leading edge of transforming our society from a fossil-fuel-focused energy consumer to a sustainable, renewable-energy based consumer.”

The IGERT SUN program will focus on four key research areas including biological conversion, photovoltaics, solar thermal and sustainable policy. Over a period of five years, some 24 graduate students will complete in-depth core courses in these four SUN research concentrations, as well as conduct research and interact with local, national and international sustainable energy stakeholders.

The program will provide the groundwork necessary to create an energy doctoral program by 2016, offered through ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability.

“At ASU, we are strong in three important areas: biological energy conversion, photovoltaics and solar thermal energy conversion,” said Willem Vermaas, Foundation Professor in ASU’s School of Life Sciences, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and lead scientist in the program. “Because we have those three, we are in a unique position to say, ‘Now let’s train students so they are not only experts in those areas, but also so they can understand the pros and cons of the various ways of creating alternative energy.’ We also need to teach them about the social, environmental and economic contexts of emerging solar technologies so societal transformation can happen,” he added.

Until the doctoral program is established, students will choose a PhD in a traditional degree program within engineering, the natural sciences, or the social sciences, with a concentration in energy. 

ASU’s goal is to attain 25 percent minority participation, effectively doubling the current levels in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields at ASU by recruiting underrepresented minority students through its existing, extensive network of mentorship relationships with minority education programs. 

“We are trying to build on people’s strengths, and develop their thinking and their understanding of this complex issue, so they can make contributions that others haven’t,” said Vermaas. “We want to teach students to use this type of broad training and knowledge of energy issues in their own unique ways to help secure energy supplies and improve conservation in the coming decades.”

“This is exactly the kind of transdisciplinary program we are committed to,” said Gary Dirks, director of LightWorks. “With our combined efforts, we can solve our grand energy challenges.”

LightWorks is a university initiative that pulls light-inspired research at ASU under one strategic framework. This effort leverages the university’s strengths, particularly in renewable energy fields including artificial photosynthesis, biofuels, and next-generation photovoltaics.

The IGERT Solar Utilization Network program begins this fall semester.

ASU’s commitment to solar

Solar energy reaching the Earth is several orders of magnitude larger than human energy consumption, and conversion of a small part of solar energy to electricity or fuels could significantly help in sustainable energy generation.

Arizona State University is a logical place for solar energy research and education. Because of its long-standing emphasis on this area starting in the 1970s, the university established the Center for the Study of Early Events in Photosynthesis (now the Center for Bioenergy and Photosynthesis) in 1988 and the Photovoltaics Test Laboratory in 1992.

Today, the university exceeds 15 megawatts (MW) of solar energy capacity, which is more than 20 percent of ASU’s peak load – and the most solar capacity of any university in the United States. ASU’s goal is to reach a university-wide total of 20 MW of solar energy capacity by 2014.

Sandra Leander

Assistant Director of Media Relations, ASU Knowledge Enterprise


American Indian spiritual beliefs influential in spurring youth to avoid drugs, alcohol

August 20, 2012

New research by ASU social scientists indicates that urban American Indian youth who follow American Indian traditional spiritual beliefs are less likely to use drugs and alcohol.

The study, “Spirituality and Religion: Intertwined Protective Factors for Substance Use Among Urban American Indian Youth,” was recently published in The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse. The authors include Stephen Kulis, principal investigator and ASU School of Social and Family Dynamics professor; David R. Hodge, ASU School of Social Work associate professor; Stephanie L. Ayers, ASU Southwest Interdisciplinary Research Center associate director of research; Eddie F. Brown, ASU American Indian Studies professor and American Indian Policy Institute executive director; and Flavio F. Marsiglia, ASU School of Social Work professor. Download Full Image

“Most American Indians now live in cities rather than tribal communities," Kullis said. "Our study is one of the few to address the role of spirituality and religion among urban Native youth, recognizing the unique histories of cultural integration that characterize today’s urban American Indian communities and the complex belief systems and practices that sustain them in the urban landscape."

Among the general American Indian youth population, higher rates of substance abuse are reported than their non-native counterparts. They also are more likely to consume heavier amounts, initiate substance use earlier and have more severe consequences from use, according to past research.

American Indians typically do not separate spirituality from other areas of their lives, making it a complex, cultural and intertwined aspect of their daily existence. 

Researchers found that adherence to American Indian beliefs was the strongest predictor of anti-drug attitudes, norms and expectations. Concerning substance use, aspects of spirituality and religion associated with lower levels of substance use were in affiliation with the Native American Church and following Christian beliefs.

Researchers presented their findings Aug. 20 at the 107th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association.

Data for the study were collected from American Indian students enrolled in five urban middle schools within a large southwestern city. The average age of the 123 respondents was 12.6 years old.

Most of the study respondents expressed strong anti-drug and alcohol beliefs with the majority stating that they “definitely would not” use alcohol, cigarettes or marijuana if given an opportunity (55 percent) and that it was “definitely not okay” for students their age to use those substances.

Respondents also felt that their parents (78 percent) and grandparents (69 percent) would be “very angry” if they used drugs or alcohol, and 51 percent stated they were “very sure” that they would reject any substance offers.

Also notable was that about half (53 percent) had resisted offers of drugs in the past 30 days.

Spirituality was reflected as an important aspect in student’s lives. More than 80 percent of respondents said that spirituality held some importance to them and was part of their lives. Seventy-nine percent of the students felt it was “somewhat” or “very important” to follow traditional American Indian beliefs and about half felt it was important to follow Christian beliefs.

However, a general sense of spirituality that did not refer specifically to American Indian traditions, beliefs or culture was not found to be a deterrent against substance use.

“Rituals and ceremonies have helped American Indian communities adapt to change, integrate elements of different tribes, infuse aspects of Western organized religions, and make them their own,” according to the paper.

In addition, the paper states that possessing a feeling of belonging to traditions from both American Indian and Christian cultures may foster integration of the two worlds in which urban American Indian youth live.