ASU researchers, Nobel laureate have stake in 'Planet under Pressure' forum

March 20, 2012

The future of the oceans, poverty alleviation, global trade, biodiversity and food security are among research areas that will be at the core of the “Planet under Pressure” (PUP) conference this month with more than 2,500 participants, including several scientists from Arizona State University’s Global Institute of Sustainability.

“The agenda for worldwide sustainability science will be set at this conference,” stressed Sander van der Leeuw, dean of ASU’s School of Sustainability and a PUP conference participant. “The whole of the research agenda for sustainability science for the next several years will be recast and the funding reorganized to take account of the discussions at this conference,” he said. Planet under Pressure logo Download Full Image

According to organizers, the Planet under Pressure forum will provide a comprehensive update of human knowledge of the Earth system and the pressure the planet is now under, based on the latest scientific evidence. This major international science gathering, held March 26-29 in London, is designed to focus on solutions to the global sustainability challenge, organizers said. It will discuss solutions, at all scales, to move societies onto a sustainable pathway. Additionally, it will provide scientific leadership toward the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (“Rio +20”) in Rio de Janeiro this June.

ASU research professor and Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom is the chief scientific advisor for the Planet under Pressure conference.

“Given the mounting evidence of the sheer scale of global changes we are witnessing, the scientific community has a responsibility to urge public officials, citizens and private firms in all countries to focus on the need for major policy changes to avoid major irreparable damage to our planet,” Ostrom said in a stakeholder statement.

“I sincerely hope the 2012 conference will make a significant contribution to placing sustainability on everyone’s agenda,” said Ostrom, founding director of ASU’s Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Ostrom, who also is a Distinguished Sustainability Scientist in GIOS, is widely known for her study of institutions — conceptualized as sets of rules — and how they affect the incentives of individuals interacting in repetitive and structured situations. She splits her research time between ASU and Indiana University, where she is a Distinguished Professor and Senior Research Director for the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis.

Also participating at PUP will be the Urbanization and Global Environmental Change (UGEC) project hosted by GIOS at ASU. The UGEC project will convene and co-convene the majority of urban-themes sessions during the four-day forum, including:

• “Urban responses to climate change: evidence from cities in the Global South.” Michail Fragkias, executive officer of UGEC and Rimjhim Aggarwal, an assistant professor in the School of Sustainability and a project associate for UGEC, are co-authors of a paper to be presented during this session.

• “State of the world's cities: an overview of interactions between cities and global environmental change.” Fragkias is a convener of this session.

• “Urbanization as an opportunity for a sustainable future.” Fragkias is this session’s organizer and Christopher Boone, an ASU professor and associate dean of the School of Sustainability, is the session convener.

• “Urban governance challenges for sustainability and global environmental change.” Boone and Fragkias will be presenting a paper during this session that they co-authored, titled “A re-examination of urban ecosystem services delivery for good urban governance: implications for environmental justice and vulnerability.”

• “Improving collaborations in global environmental change research: perspectives from the IHDP core projects.” Van der Leeuw, Fragkias, and Corrie Griffith, project coordinator for UGEC, will discuss challenges and ways forward drawing from their own perspectives and experiences, exploring how the connections between the human and natural science dimensions of global environmental change could be strengthened as well as how to work better together collaboratively for future interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary sustainability research.

Among other ASU researchers involved in Planet under Pressure are:

• Marco Janssen, an associate professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change and a Senior Sustainability Scientist in GIOS. Janssen is co-chairing and speaking at the session “Building capacity for sustainability by learning to model nature and society.” He also is a co-convener of the session “Catalyzing improved global governance: achieving more precautionary global risk management through fit-for-purpose science policy engagement.”

• B.L. Turner, a professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning and the School of Sustainability. Turner is on the scientific committee of DIVERSITAS, one of the PUP conference coordinating organizations. DIVERSITAS (the Latin word for diversity) was established to address the complex scientific questions posed by the loss in biodiversity and ecosystem services and to offer science based solutions to this crisis. “One purpose of the PUP is to redesign global environmental change toward sustainability and science-practice boundary,” said Turner. “This is what DIVERSITAS will be doing.”

• Kenneth W. Abbott, a Senior Sustainability Scholar in GIOS and a professor of international relations in ASU’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, is a co-author of one of the nine policy briefs commissioned for the PUP conference. The policy brief is titled “Transforming Governance and Institutions for a Planet under Pressure: Revitalizing the Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development. “This is one of the official inputs of the research community into the planning process for the UN Rio +20 conference this June, where one of the two main themes will be the institutional framework for sustainable development,” said Abbott.

• Katelyn Parady, a graduate student in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change will be attending PUP as a fellow of the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT) in Urban Ecology at ASU.

Van der Leeuw also is chairing the session titled “Collective action for the transition to a sustainable society: building the research and action agenda” and co-chairing a session titled “Searching the past for clues to the future (IHOPE)” during which he will introduce several Integrated History and Future of People and Earth (IHOPE) projects.

Live streaming of each day’s plenary sessions is also planned. Additional information about the Planet under Pressure conference is online at More information about ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability in at GIOS is a transdisciplinary unit of ASU’s Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development, which is advancing research, entrepreneurship, innovation and economic development.

New brain-hand connection research aims to improve therapies, prosthetics

March 21, 2012

Research at Arizona State University to better understand the intricate sensory and cognitive connections between the brain and the hands has won support from the National Science Foundation. New discoveries about such connections could benefit people with neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and cerebral palsy, and those who need prosthetic hands.

The NSF has awarded a $640,000 grant to fund a research collaboration between Marco Santello, an ASU professor of biomedical engineering, and Columbia University scientist Andrew Gordon to expand their studies in this area. brain-hand connections experiments Download Full Image

Santello also is interim director of the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering, one of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. Gordon is a professor of movement science in the Behavioral Science department in Columbia’s Teachers College, where he coordinates the Kinesiology program.  

The two have worked together for several years in pursuit of deeper knowledge about interactions between sensory feedback and motor actions involved in control of the hand.

In their current project they’re seeking to determine the neural mechanisms that control learning and planning of the grasping and manipulation of objects. They’re examining the visual cues people use to assess object properties before they grasp or otherwise manipulate objects. In addition to using cues such as object shape or density, people often use memory of similar actions performed in the past.

“We can pick up these cues, and we can predict the result of our actions on an object, but we don’t know exactly how the brain does this,” Santello says.

Santello's focus is on neural control of the hand and the workings of senses such as vision and touch. By manipulating these senses in people with normal brain, hand and muscle functions, Santello studies what causes the performance of an action that is easy under normal conditions to become difficult. This allows him to identify what impact a specific sense has on how the brain controls the hands.

In his experiments, he imposes sensory deficits on test subjects, using goggles to block vision at selected times during the manipulation to interfere with the subjects’ abilities to learn and execute grasping tasks. “We want to understand what aspects of visual feedback help the brain to successfully control grasping of an object and store a memory representation of that action,” he explains.

Gordon’s does cerebral palsy research. His related collaborative work with Santello focuses on cognitive aspects of the interaction between the brain and the hands, assessing the information the brain gains and processes from sensing the shapes of objects and exploring the role of memory of past actions.

“It’s important to discern the basic mechanisms of storing the memory of recently performed actions, of planning future actions and integrating sensory feedback in healthy individuals, so that we might be better able to understand and treat neurological or musculoskeletal disorders,” Santello says.

“In particular, understanding how we integrate ‘what we know’ from prior  manipulations with an object and ‘what we see’ is crucial.” Gordon says. “This is all the more important when our senses, and thus our ability to create sensory memories, is impaired, as is often the case in cerebral palsy.”

Knowledge gained by such research can also be applied to improving neuroprosthetics. Current technology is able to provide extremely sophisticated artificial hands, but controlling the hands remains a challenge.

“The more we understand about the high- level processing that the brain has to go through to plan an action, the closer we will be to building more intelligent prosthetic systems that are capable of more human-like performance,” Santello says.

Like Gordon, Santello has expertise in kinesiology – the study of movement – with a focus on kinematics of the hand, involving how the hand is shaped and how it performs grasping and related actions.

He began conducting hand research while working as a post-doctoral researcher at University of Minnesota, where he met Gordon, who had just completed his post-doctoral research there.

In the past eight years, they have expanded research into the workings of physical motor skills by incorporating recent advances in knowledge of biomechanics, neurophysiology and psychology. Santello and Gordon now examine not only how objects are grasped, but look at why people choose to grasp an object in the ways they do.

By taking decision-making functions into account, they’re trying to  provide a more comprehensive view of the brain-hand relationship  – how, for instance, the brain and hand work together to  create a memory of the position and force necessary to manipulate particular objects.

The proposal submitted by Santello and Gordon for the research grant was among only about 10 percent of the 120 proposals recently approved for new funding by the Perception, Action and Cognition Advisory Panel, which is under the NSF’s Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences.

“It is extremely exciting, not only because it was very competitive,” Santello says, “but also because we are really passionate about improving our understanding of how the brain controls complex movements.”  

Written by Natalie Pierce and Joe Kullman

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering