ASU, USC faculty members collaborate on climate change research

February 20, 2012

Editor's Note: Arizona State University basketball will take on the University of Southern California on Feb 25. The men’s teams will play at 6 p.m, in Tempe, and the women’s teams at 2 p.m. in Los Angeles. Read more about ASU's collaborations with Pac-12 schools.

A research partnership that began seven years ago when Darren Ruddell was an Arizona State University graduate student in geography and Sharon Harlan a sociologist in the ASU School of Human Evolution and Social Change continues to bear fruit.  Download Full Image

Harlan directs the Phoenix Area Social Survey, which examine people’s values, attitudes and behaviors concerning the local environment and the impact of income and ethnic residential segregation on environmental inequalities. As a senior sustainability scientist in the Global Institute of Sustainability, she hired Ruddell as a research assistant in 2005 to help with data collection and environmental research.

The two discovered a common interest in climate change and social justice research. They developed a collaboration resulting in a number of shared publications, even as Ruddell has become a lecturer for the Spatial Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California. 

“It’s a complementary blend of skills, because I study social systems and he bridges to physical systems,” says Harlan, who with Ruddell co-authored a book chapter in 2010, “Risk and Exposure to Extreme Heat in Microclimates of Phoenix,” and a 2011 article on climate change and health in cities in Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability. They have an upcoming article on public awareness of regional and neighborhood climates in Climatic Change. 

“He became very interested in the research that I do, and he became a full partner in that,” she says. “Human-environment interactions is a very interdisciplinary area of research, and he studied spatial analysis with Elizabeth Wentz (associate professor of geography) and has learned urban climatology from Anthony Brazel (retired ASU geography professor). 

“It’s been a very productive partnership. He is still an investigator on my projects, and we are continuing our collaboration. He also has a paper on the urban heat island under review, co-authored with Tony Brazel.” 

Ruddell received his doctorate in geographical sciences from ASU in Spring 2009. He held a postdoctoral fellowship at the ASU Global Institute of Sustainability for two years before going to USC. 

Harlan is the principal investigator of a project examining urban vulnerability to climate change as a dynamic feature of systems that differentially place plants and humans at risk from extreme heat. The research is an effort to understand how various landscapes and temperatures are associated with different neighborhoods, and why we see disparities in heat-related health outcomes between low and high-income neighborhoods. 

Ruddell and Harlan have found that human exposure to high temperatures varies substantially throughout metropolitan Phoenix, and that public perceptions of climate also vary considerably by neighborhood and socioeconomic status. Mortality and illness related to extremely hot weather and poor air quality is a major public health concern for cities. Understanding public perceptions in order to develop mitigation and adaptation strategies is crucial. 

Harlan says she would like to improve the capacity of inner-city neighborhoods to adapt to climate change. She and her co-researchers are developing future climate scenarios, working with community partners to revitalize a community gardening initiative and modeling the cooling effects of neighborhood parks. They are interviewing middle school students about the ways in which high temperatures affect their families and communities.

ASU helps state attract venture capital for high-technology firms

February 20, 2012

Heliae, a technology-development company based in Chandler, is working to design an industrial process that starts with the creation of high-fat strains of algae and ends with the production of jet fuel and other commercial products.

Fluidic Energy, located in Scottsdale, is dedicated to transforming the way electricity is generated, delivered and consumed through an innovative energy storage approach. Its core technology enables a lower cost and its high energy density delivers ultra-long run times in comparison to traditional batteries. Download Full Image

Both young companies are recipients of the more than $45 million in venture capital that was invested in ASU spin-out companies last year made possible by working with Arizona Technology Enterprises (AzTE), the exclusive intellectual property management and technology transfer organization for ASU.

AzTE works with faculty, investors and industry partners to speed the flow of innovation from research laboratory to the marketplace. ASU faculty submitted a record 187 invention disclosures in fiscal year 2010.

While Arizona has always struggled to attract venture capital, the state managed to pull a rank of 16th in the nation this year, for venture capital dollars invested by state, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers. Arizona drew $247.5 million in 2011, compared to only $83 million in 2010. 

This is still below the national average on a per capita basis, according to Tom Rex, research administrator at the Seidman Research Institute at the W.P. Carey School of Business. Arizona has a lot of catching up to do, making ASU’s role all the more important.

Venture capitalists invest in firms that have a high potential for growth but are not ready to do an initial public offering of stock. Venture capital activity can be used to measure the number of potentially high-growth firms being started, which typically are innovative high-technology firms, such as biotechnology enterprises.

AzTE actually managed to secure funding for five spin-off firms, though three did not maintain a presence in Arizona. Most venture capitalists want the firms they invest in to locate near them, says Charlie Lewis, ASU vice president of venture development.

"It's a testimony to the quality of research coming out of ASU that these five companies were able to attract venture capital funding," says Lewis. "Arizona continues to struggle with the fact that few venture capital funds are located here.

"Venture capital is very important to the country as a whole. We need folks who are willing to take risks on early stage technology that is promising but unproven. Otherwise many innovations may never make it to the marketplace."

ASU also played a significant role in the launching of a new Arizona-based venture capital fund last year, Greener Capital. AzTE helped the firm connect to ASU researchers and also is a limited partner in the fund.  The company opened an office at ASU SkySong last year.

"Our new relationship with AzTE is a natural fit, because we focus on early-stage entrepreneurs who offer unconventional, even radical solutions to major problems in the production and management of energy," says Thomas Cain, a partner. "Arizona State University has a wealth of research taking place to address breakthrough solutions to our energy needs."