From Antarctica to Arizona, professor studies desert ecosystems

August 23, 2011

For many people, the word “desert” conjures up an image of vast stretches of barren sand. Those who live in the Sonoran Desert know that desert ecosystems are much more diverse than that. But how many of us connect “desert” with “Antarctica?”

Becky Ball knows that whether you’re in one of the coldest places on the planet, or one of the hottest, you can be in a desert. It’s the lack of precipitation, not the temperature, that defines the area as a desert. Ball’s research has taken her to Antarctica and to Arizona State University’s West campus, where she is an assistant professor in ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences. Becky Ball in Antarctica Download Full Image

Ball is interested in trying to decipher how changes to the global environment affect, and will continue to affect, ecosystems including deserts. For the past four years she has spent approximately two months from early December to early February at McMurdo Station, one of three U.S. research bases in Antarctica, experiencing 24 hours of daily sunlight and temperatures averaging 0 degrees Celsius (32 Fahrenheit).

Ball’s research focuses on soils. She has worked not only with desert environments but also temperate deciduous forests in the Southeastern United States as well as agricultural systems.

“The overall goal of my research is to improve our understanding of the biologic, geologic and chemical processes that take place in soils,” Ball said. “I want to contribute to improved predictions of how these processes will be affected by global change, by working to understand not just what happens, but how it happens.”

Ball literally gets her hands dirty examining the process known as nutrient cycling. The movements of nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon are some of the most important processes that occur in ecosystems, she said.

“The cycling of these nutrients relies on the plants, animals and microbes living in the ecosystem, as well as geology, chemistry and climate,” Ball said. “If organisms, climate and chemistry of the environment change, so will nutrient cycling. This change in turn affects the organisms living there. For example, too much nitrogen can be poisonous for soil animals.”

Roger Berger, director of New College’s Division of Mathematical and Natural Sciences (MNS), is pleased to have added a scientist with Ball’s knowledge and skill set to the faculty.

“Professor Ball’s studies of hot and cold deserts provide fascinating new research opportunities for our science majors, and her expertise in soil ecology and soil science will support our curriculum in environmental science,” Berger said.

MNS offers an environmental sciences concentration within it bachelor’s degree program in life sciences. The concentration prepares students for careers in both the public and private sectors, in areas such as environmental consulting, environmental remediation, and natural resource management. Graduates also may choose to enter graduate programs in environmental science or a related discipline. Future plans call for New College to develop a full major in environmental sciences, with the Arizona Board of Regents having granted the college permission to do so.

For her part, Ball is pleased to have relocated to the heat of the Sonoran Desert. “Even though I spend time in Antarctica, I actually prefer hot weather,” she said. Ball earned her Ph.D. in ecology from the University of Georgia in 2007 and then spent three years as a postdoctoral research associate at Dartmouth College as part of the McMurdo Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Program in Antarctica.

Ball said her “typical” day in Antarctica can vary greatly. Her field work takes place in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, which receive even less precipitation than the Sonoran Desert. “On any given day I might be hiking from the field camp to sites where I’ll spend all day collecting samples, I might be taking a helicopter to distant sites to work on experiments, or I might be working from the field camp to make measurements with machinery,” she said. “I do some 24-hour projects, where I go on intermittent sleep/work cycles.”

According to Ball, climate change is the primary threat to the Antarctic ecosystem.

“Polar systems are very sensitive to small changes in temperature,” she said. “The Dry Valleys are a desert, but there’s actually quite a bit of water stored there in the form of ice. Warmer air temperatures will lead to more melting, which means the extremely dry desert ecosystem could be suddenly very wet. We observe these changes by monitoring the soil ecosystem during particular warm weather events or over natural gradients of climate, and we also simulate these differences in a controlled manner.”

Threats to ecosystems vary around the planet, Ball said, and can include such trends as desertification, invasive species, pollution, and deforestation. “These all come down to one factor: human decisions. I think that, rather than directing our attention to just one threat, we need to take into consideration that everything we do has an impact on ecosystems, and be more careful in all aspects of our decision making,” she said.

The fact that Ball now is also studying the deserts of Arizona will benefit New College students and the state as a whole, according to Berger.

“Her studies support ASU’s commitment to ‘Leveraging Our Place’ and will allow local issues to inform student learning and shape faculty research,” he said.

Maximizing health care for veterans: VA teams up with W. P. Carey School Consortium

August 23, 2011

As Americans, we thank our veterans for all they do to ensure our security and freedom. We also have the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs working to make sure our veterans get high-quality, cost-effective health care. To further improve efficiency and support the best possible medical care for our vets, the VA is now joining the Health Sector Supply Chain Research Consortium at the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University.

The consortium is an impressive group of health sector companies and academic researchers focused on how to better manage health care, boost the performance of hospitals, and support patients in getting the most for their money and well-being. Major private companies, such as Boston Scientific, Hospital Corporation of America (HCA) and Novation, are among the members. The VA becomes the first public-sector member, and it’s clear this may be an opportunity to apply lessons from the private sector to care for our veterans. Professor Eugene Schneller Download Full Image

“This could have a big impact on a group of people that really deserves great health care,” says W. P. Carey School of Business professor Eugene Schneller, co-director of the Health Sector Supply Chain Research Consortium. “The VA is persistently examining its supply chain model to make sure it’s supporting the best care possible, and this is an extraordinary chance for interaction between top companies in the public and private sectors to learn from each other for the benefit of the patients.”

Schneller points out that the VA has an especially difficult role in making sure the right treatments and facilities are available, in a timely manner, for veterans. Unlike hospitals, which can somewhat predict how many patients and what types of ailments they’ll have during certain times of year, the military often has to deploy to unexpected places and conditions with very little notice. The result is the VA needing to manage readiness under conditions of extreme uncertainty.

“Sometimes there’s only so much they can do to plan, so they’re always looking for the best practices to utilize for our veterans,” says Schneller. “They’re also dealing with shifting demographics, as more vets are females and/or younger than in the past few decades, so medical needs change. The VA appears to be handling these challenges with outstanding clinical results.”

Natalia Wilson, also co-director of the Health Sector Supply Chain Research Consortium, notes that the VA is the largest integrated health care system in the United States. VA hospitals are often affiliated with academic institutions and are well-respected for their clinical training opportunities and research. Joining the consortium also brings an academic focus to VA supply chain management and allows the private-sector members of the consortium to be exposed to models successfully utilized in VA hospitals.

“We know the VA has been quite progressive,” Wilson says. “The VA was ahead of its time in creating a pharmaceutical formulary and utilizing electronic health records. We look forward to the VA perspective as we develop future research projects.”

It’s possible some of the lessons learned may also be used by the federal government as it delves deeper into the issues of health care reform.
“For example, as the VA learns from other health systems, it will learn more about efficiencies and how to best achieve value for the money,” says Schneller. “The more you save in supply chain, the more money can go toward patient care, instead of just moving goods from the manufacturer to the point of use.”