ASU engineer receives humanitarian award for GlobalResolve leadership

October 13, 2014

Program enables ASU students and faculty to help communities in developing countries

Mark Henderson’s colleagues and students said he was true to form in accepting the Tempe Sister Cities organization’s Making a World of Difference Award at the Tempe Center for the Arts on Oct. 9 for his humanitarian endeavors. Mark Henderson GlobalResolve Download Full Image

The Arizona State University engineering professor didn’t bask in the spotlight, but instead directed attention to people he has led and collaborated with in efforts to empower communities to improve their quality of life.

“The important thing is that this award is a chance for all of them to get recognition for the amazing work they are getting done through GlobalResolve, and I’m hoping that maybe this brings us more support and encourages more people to get involved with us,” said Henderson, who is on the faculty of the Polytechnic School, one of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

Henderson is the director of GlobalResolve, which he co-founded in 2006 with three fellow ASU faculty members, including engineering professor Brad Rogers, who became the program’s research and development director.

Projects in 10 countries

The group wanted to create opportunities to put the skills of the university’s engineering faculty and students to work helping communities in underdeveloped countries improve their living conditions.

Since then, GlobalResolve has gotten more than 500 students involved in such projects. Today, more than 200 students and 15 faculty members are participating each year in the social entrepreneurship and sustainability program.

They’re contributing annually to almost 50 projects in 10 countries that focus on upgrading communities’ infrastructure and resources for water, sanitation, energy, agriculture, health and education – and on boosting local economies.

Projects are in various stages of development in Ghana, Nicaragua, Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Trinidad and Tobago, Nepal and Cambodia – and in Arizona (a solar energy project in the Navajo Nation).

World-changing goals

The other primary mission of GlobalResolve, Henderson said, “is to give our students opportunities for life-changing experiences that make them more globally aware, and empower them to feel they can change the world just as much as anyone else can.”

Students said the goal is being fulfilled, due in large part to Henderson’s role as mentor and motivator.

“Mark really cares about changing the world. He is an inspiration. He has boundless energy, and he never runs out of passion,” said Kathleen Stefanik, a student in ASU’s Barrett, the Honors College, pursuing a degree in industrial and organizational psychology.

With Henderson’s guidance and help from other faculty and resources at ASU, Stefanik became founder and chief executive officer of GAIA International, a nonprofit humanitarian aid organization that is currently developing crop-production methods to help farming communities in Peru increase their crop yields.

She said Henderson has been a role model, showing her what skills are needed to make her efforts successful.

“He is one of those extraordinary salt-of-the-earth people who can connect with people anywhere in the world, and he can make the connections that are necessary to keep projects going, even in challenging situations,” she said.

Giving meaning to students’ work

Henderson “has this way of making people ambitious” about getting involved in solving difficult problems, said student Mentor Dida.

Dida earned a bachelor’s degree through the Polytechnic School program in electronics engineering technology with a concentration in alternative energy engineering. He’s now pursuing a master’s degree in the school’s global technology and entrepreneurship program.

He has been involved in projects to raise public awareness about the need to alleviate poverty, including an effort to empower young people to fight poverty in Kosovo, his native country.

Dida said he was motivated in part by Henderson’s teaching and mentorship to embark on those endeavors.

“He does more than show you how to apply engineering principles to solving problems,” Dida said. “He makes you understand how getting involved in these kinds of things can give meaning to your life.”

Sense of accomplishment

GlobalResolve is helping students understand the benefit of the social entrepreneurship and cross-cultural experiences for both the educational value and the sense of accomplishment, said electrical systems major Michelle Marco.

Marco came to Henderson to get involved and ended up starting the GlobalResolve student club. She’s now the club’s president.

She, along with Polytechnic School lecturer Gerry Polesky, is helping lead a project to improve living conditions in an orphanage in Peru, including building a greenhouse garden.

“You learn an array of hands-on engineering skills through GlobalResolve – leadership, teamwork, problem solving and creativity,” Marco said.

More than that, she adds, “You get to use those skills to help people. There is no feeling like knowing you have had a direct positive impact on people’s lives.”

She said Henderson is especially deserving of the Tempe Sister Cities award for his contribution to demonstrating that engineering is at its core a humanitarian enterprise.

Boosting humanitarian engineering

GlobalResolve’s progress has been a factor in enabling establishment of a humanitarian engineering program in the Polytechnic School. As of this year, students can major in traditional areas of engineering with a concentration in humanitarian engineering.

He is helping lead the new program with other engineering faculty members Brad Rogers, Kiril Hristovsky, Nathan Johnson, Benjamin Ruddell and B. Ramakrishna.

Henderson describes the budding field as engineering that aims specifically to provide the technological solutions and other means to help struggling communities meet their basic needs and lift themselves out of poverty.

It’s also about engineers – collaborating with experts in other fields – finding solutions tailored to the cultural and sociological environments of specific communities.

Combining expertise from many fields

That’s why Henderson and his engineering faculty colleagues are working to form more multidisciplinary GlobalResolve project teams.

“We need more than engineers’ viewpoints. We need English majors and journalists, cultural anthropologists, liberal arts and nursing students and business students, in fact students from all majors, to mix with engineering students,” he said.

“We welcome participation by all faculty members as well, and have had great help in the areas of design and sustainability, for example, from John Takamura and Nalini Chhetri,” he added. Takamura is an associate professor in The Design School in ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. Chhetri is a senior sustainability scientist and climate change science manager with ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability.

GlobalResolve leaders are already working on a new initiative to establish the Alliance for Global Impact. The plan is to create a network of universities that can take on humanitarian engineering challenges, mixing and matching the necessary expertise and resources from among the network’s members to tackle particular projects.

The alliance will work with the Peace Corps to identify regions and communities in need throughout the world.

Instilling commitment

“We would like to see thousands of students be exposed to developing countries so they could see all the opportunities that exist for them throughout the world,” said Rogers, the director of research and development for GlobalResolve.

Through his broad presence at ASU, Henderson may be in a position to draw in a more diverse contingent of students. In addition to his post at the Polytechnic School, he is an associate dean for the Barrett, the Honors College, a faculty affiliate for the School of Public Affairs and a senior sustainability scientist for ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability.

Rogers has little doubt Henderson will continue to drive the growth of GlobalResolve.

“I can’t think of anyone more dedicated,” he said, “and Mark connects with students as well as anyone I’ve ever seen. He truly wants to motivate them to love learning like he does.”

Rogers said that as an increasing number of students work on GlobalResolve projects, “more of them are telling us ‘I think I’ve found my calling. I found what I want to do with my life.’ This is happening all the time now, and a lot of that is because of the commitment Mark is instilling in them.”

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


New award accelerates ASU's efforts in synthetic biology

October 13, 2014

A new four-year, multi-million dollar award from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will be used to develop the technology necessary to synthesize, screen and sequence artificial genetic polymers composed of threose nucleic acid (TNA).

John Chaput, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and research investigator in the Biodesign Institute will lead ASU’s effort to evolve TNA molecules that fold into novel 3-D shapes with ligand binding affinity and catalytic activity. John Chaput Download Full Image

Chaput is joined by ASU colleague Wade Van Horn, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, as well as Martin Egli, Department of Biochemistry at Vanderbilt University, and Jennifer Heemstra, Department of Chemistry, University of Utah.

The research is part of a new DARPA program called Folded Non-Natural Polymers with Biological Function (Fold F(x)), which plans to use synthetic polymers to address rapidly emerging health and defense threats.

Naturally occurring biopolymers like DNA, RNA and proteins are limited to functions that are required to sustain life, and prone to degradation by metabolic pathways that recycle biomolecules for other purposes. Recognizing these limitations, researchers would like to design new types of synthetic polymers, with versatile functions and folding motifs, that are stable to biological and harsh environmental conditions.

“This project integrates chemistry with molecular biology and genetics to produce synthetic molecules with tailor-made activities,” Chaput says.

The group's project is based on Chaput’s efforts to develop TNA as an artificial genetic polymer that is capable of heredity and evolution. This requires using organic chemistry to synthesize TNA monomers that are not commercially available, and engineering DNA polymerases to copy genetic information back and forth between TNA and DNA.

By introducing a selective amplification step into the replication cycle, like the ability to bind a small molecule target or catalyze a chemical reaction, large combinatorial pools can be searched for TNA molecules with desired functional properties.

This process is analogous to natural selection, where deleterious traits are removed from the population through iterative rounds of selection and amplification. In the case of TNA, molecules that meet the selective challenge will be recovered and amplified to generate progeny molecules that increase in abundance.

Affinity reagents, like those under development, may prove invaluable for biomedical applications. Their strength lies in their foreignness. Most diagnostic tests currently use antibodies as the affinity reagent. However, antibodies are not stable to heating, and can be degraded by enzymes present in biological samples.

In contrast, TNA affinity reagents are expected to remain functional after heating and cooling, and biological systems have not developed the kinds of enzymes necessary to recognize and degrade these synthetic polymers. A key aspect of the project is new technology that will quickly generate affinity reagents capable of converting the presence of a specific molecule into an optical signal. Heemstra says, “Directly selecting for TNA affinity reagents that have the desired optical output will enable us to rapidly respond to emerging threats.”

The team plans to determine the 3-D structure of functional TNA molecules isolated by in vitro selection. Egli will head the X-ray crystallography experiments and Van Horn the nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy efforts. Understanding the structural architecture of TNA is an important part of the overall project because very little is known about the atomic organization of TNA. Structural information gained from these studies will allow scientists to understand how unnatural polymers, like TNA, fold into globular structures.

“Since TNA has a different backbone than DNA and RNA, it will be interesting to learn what shapes these molecules can adopt. This structural information will help us to understand how TNA molecules perform more complex functions as biosensors and catalysts,” Van Horn says.

The new project will also introduce modified bases into TNA molecules. The combination of altered bases and threose backbone may yield novel folding geometries, with as-yet unknown functional properties, potentially allowing nucleotides to perform in a manner similar to proteins.

The technical challenges involved in the current project are formidable, and therefore consistent with the high-risk, high-reward model of DARPA-funded research. The team hopes the synthetic biology initiative will be a springboard for new ideas and techniques to be exploited by other labs and, in time, brought to the forefront of molecular biology.

The Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry is an academic unit in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Richard Harth

Science writer, Biodesign Institute at ASU