ASU Foundation premieres new season of Presidential Engagement Programs

September 20, 2013

Since 1994, the ASU Foundation has offered an annual series called Presidential Engagement Programs. Known as PEP, the programs were created by Elva Coor, wife of former ASU President Lattie Coor, and expanded by Sybil Francis, wife of current ASU President Michael M. Crow. Their purpose is to offer a gateway to the community, showcasing the benefits of having a major university next door.

That showcase opens on Tuesday, Sept. 24 with an away-presentation in the community of Prescott: “On the Road to Recovery – Economic outlook for greater Prescott and Arizona.” Lee McPheters of ASU’s W. P. Carey School of Business will provide an up-to-the-minute review of economic conditions, historical background and obstacles still to overcome as Arizona continues on the road to recovery. Download Full Image

McPheters will devote particular attention to the greater Prescott area, including how the recent fire disasters will affect ongoing recovery. Other Arizona communities will also be examined, with a look at how Arizona’s economic health and performance compares to that of neighboring Western states. The program is open to the public in the Simmons Community Center, but registration is required. Visit for information.

Throughout the 2013-14 season, PEP is partnering with colleges, departments and institutes throughout the university to provide a broad vista of what ASU is and does. Senior development coordinator Vanessa Barrera de Leyvas manages PEP for the ASU Foundation, and she says these collaborations are rich opportunities for PEP patrons.

“Our partnerships throughout the university have produced some fascinating offerings,” Barrera de Leyvas says. “It’s a pleasure for us to show members of the community that the variety of opportunities available to them through ASU is nearly endless.”

Other programs this fall include “The Future of the Brain,” “An Evening with (early childhood expert) J. Ronald Lally,” “The American Way of War,” “Is K-12 Education Keeping Up?”, “Sophocles ‘Antigone’” and “The Two Koreas.” A full slate of events is also planned for the spring, including President Crow’s annual community conversation in January, and other special events will be added throughout the year.

PEP audiences tend to be curious, enthusiastic and loyal. Kyle Longley is the Snell Family Dean’s Distinguished Professor in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, and a regular PEP presenter. He’ll be featured in “The American Way of War,” beginning in October. Longley says, “It’s so much fun to be in front of an enthusiastic, well-traveled group that asks great questions. Members understand how rewarding it can be learning just for the sake of learning.”

Barrera de Leyvas says it’s gratifying to hear from PEP members about how much they enjoy the programs and that they’re going to tell friends. “One couple told us, ‘We routinely tell our friends about PEP and share the brochure with them in the hope they will enjoy it as much as we do.’ That’s how we know we’re successful,” she says.

The ASU Foundation’s Presidential Engagement Programs are offered from September through May, including single events and multi-week courses. All the events require advance registration and most have a charge for entry. A complete schedule is available at

Erik Ketcherside,
Communications Manager | Editorial Services
ASU Foundation for A New American University

Professor 'thinks around the edges' of obesity problem

September 23, 2013

Research looks at complex interactions between human biology, culture

As an anthropology graduate student in the late 80s, Alexandra Brewis Slade carried out field projects in the Pacific Islands on women’s fertility and family planning. While Pacific Islanders at that time were among some of the most overweight populations on earth, she never heard obesity mentioned as a health problem even once. The islanders scolded her for being “too skinny” to attract a husband. Download Full Image

When she moved to expand a Samoan body image project at the University of Auckland in the early 90s, a colleague warned her that obesity was a marginal area for a social scientist to work in, a bit odd and freakish, and its explicit study was probably not the best career move.

Brewis Slade persisted, going on to study the cultural aspects of a high rate of school children’s obesity in rural Georgia and central Mexico, many of whom were at high risk for being obese. Now a widely-cited expert, she has been working on comparative studies of obesity, based on field research in a broad array of countries, such as Paraguay, New Zealand and Fiji.

The recipient of a Rockefeller Foundation pre-doctoral fellowship and an Andrew W. Mellon post-doctoral fellowship, she has published 55 papers and three books, including “Obesity: Cultural and Biocultural Perspectives” in 2011. She is director of ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change and director of operations for the ASU-Mayo Obesity Solutions Initiative.

Brewis Slade notes that in a stunningly short time, obesity has gone from being considered an aberration in both popular culture and scientific circles to being perceived as a massive global threat. Unlike many global calamities such as climate change, no one seemed to notice the dramatic rise in obesity until it was well under way.

“Obesity is arguably one of the greatest public health challenges we face, infiltrating almost every aspect of our lives,” says Brewis Slade. “It shapes whether we get into college, the job offers and promotions we get, how much money we make, our access to health care, our romantic relationships. We are bombarded in the media with messages about the need to be slim and lose weight.

“We associate obesity with moral failure, with a lack of control, laziness and lack of ambition. The stigma of being obese is profound, and it causes tremendous emotional suffering. The social cost is just as important to address as the health cost.”

Cruel comments about weight are socially acceptable in many circles, and are a leading factor in childhood bullying, she says.

She also has found that globalization has spread the stigma associated with obesity from the western world to other parts of the world, including regions that previously viewed large body size in a neutral or positive light. Her research shows that negative media and public health messages about obesity are so powerful that they overshadow the positive support of family and friends in shaping how people feel about their large body size.

Her most recent work on obesity-related stigma particularly appears to have hit a cultural nerve. Her comment, “Of all the things we could be exporting to help people around the world, really negative body image and low self-esteem are not what we hope is going out with public health messaging,” was quote of the day in the New York Times and was mentioned on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” which she notes with good humor.

Her research team’s work on obesity also has focused on university students, based on research conducted at ASU.

They have confirmed that obesity is socially contagious and the risk of a woman’s obesity rises if her friends and family members are obese. Shared eating and exercising habits may have the strongest correlation. Currently, her team is working with a start-up company to design ways of using smart phones to connect friends and family to exercise together.

“There are lots of reasons why we gain weight and we know that telling people to ‘eat less and exercise more’ doesn’t work. We’re swimming upstream with that approach because people are working long hours, they don’t have time to exercise or make home-cooked meals. We have to look at what’s possible to change.

“Instead of blaming people for their condition, we need to step back and look at the structure of our cities, our neighborhoods, our schools and our campuses, that shape health at every level.”

She works with ASU students enrolled in research practicum classes to do research on the campus, such as surveys, focus groups and interviews with other students. Fat stigma is surprisingly high at ASU, she says; about 20 percent of students would rather be blind than obese. Her work with undergraduates has a view to designing more healthful campuses, from the perspective of people’s norms and behaviors related to weight, exercise and nutrition.

Brewis Slade’s research is ultimately concerned with the complex interactions between human biology and culture, looking at human health in the context of massive transformational processes, such as globalization and climate change. She enjoys working in diverse collaborative teams, a factor that led her to join ASU in 2006.

“ASU is a fantastic place for someone like me who thinks around the edges of problems,” she says. “I’m inspired and invigorated by the transdisciplinary environment at ASU. It’s an energetic, exciting place and I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be.”

She believes the partnership with Mayo makes it possible, for the first time, for a university to think of tackling the challenge of obesity on a global scale.

“What makes ASU able to attempt this is the comprehensive nature of our expertise, and the scale and scope of our collective research. We have people with talent and expertise that can be applied to almost any aspect of the complicated problem of obesity, from the built environment, to food choices, to genetics. ASU’s coverage is unmatched in the volume of different ways we can devise to tackle the problem.

“Partnering with Mayo gives us additional access to talent in the medical understanding and treatment of obesity. This provides us with a truly massive shared toolkit to address the complicated challenge of obesity.”

The School of Human Evolution and Social Change is an academic unit in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.