Lincoln Ethics Symposium weighs sustainability, human rights questions

October 10, 2013

Hundreds of students and community members will question their collective conscience about timely and troubling human rights and sustainability issues during Arizona State University’s 4th Annual Lincoln Ethics Symposium. This year’s popular forum is scheduled from 9 a.m. to noon, Nov. 12, on the Tempe campus.

“The real take-home of the symposium is that ethical issues are challenging, but also fun to engage,” said professor Jason Robert, interim director of ASU’s Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics. “And there are no easy answers, no matter how simple the questions might appear.” Download Full Image

According to Robert, the Lincoln Ethics Symposium inherits its topics annually from the high-profile summer education series at Chautauqua Institution. Chautauqua is a not-for-profit community in southwestern New York dedicated to exploring the best in human values and the enrichment of life.

“Every summer, a group of Lincoln professors and fellows spend a week at Chautauqua engaged in a series of conversations,” Robert said. “Last year, we looked at the ethics of cheating, while this year, we had the opportunity to explore markets and morals through the lens of human rights and sustainability. Next year, our focus will be the ethics of privacy.”

Designed for students and the community, the 4th Annual Lincoln Ethics Symposium at ASU is free and open to the public with limited seating in Memorial Union’s Ventana Ballroom. Interested persons should contact Programs Director Kelly O’Brien at with questions and to confirm attendance. Information about the Lincoln Center is available at

Four distinguished ASU Lincoln Professors and Lincoln Fellows lead this year’s discussion, themed “Are We Smart Enough to Save Ourselves? Are We Kind Enough to Save Each Other?” Robert, also the Franca Oreffice Dean’s Distinguished Professor in the Life Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, serves as master of ceremonies. The four academics frame the discussion by presenting each of their ethical questions briefly and then opening it up to the audience for an interactive exchange about all four issues on the table.

Members of the Lincoln family provide the symposium’s opening and closing remarks. David C. and Joan Lincoln of Paradise Valley, Ariz. founded ASU’s Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics in 1998.

Kicking off the symposium is Daniel Rothenberg, Lincoln Fellow for Ethics & International Human Rights Law, who asks, “Is Your Cell Phone Linked to Atrocities in Africa? Ethics, Markets and the Global Trade in Conflict Minerals.” He also serves as professor of practice in the School of Politics and Global Studies.

Rothenberg points out that anyone using a cell phone is connected to the 15-year conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where over 5.5 million people, mostly civilians, have died.

“While the DRC is one of the poorest countries in the world, it has trillions of dollars in mineral reserves,” he said. “These raw minerals mined by hand under the brutal control of armed militias are found in our cell phones and other consumer electronics. Does that make us responsible for what occurs in in these far-off mines?”

Next on the agenda is LaDawn Haglund, Lincoln Fellow for Human Rights and Sustainability and associate professor of justice and social inquiry in ASU’s School of Social Transformation in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She poses the question, “How Well Do We Take Care Of Ourselves and Each Other, Really?” that examines how our current production and consumption patterns impact sustainability, social justice and human rights, and she challenges audience members to explore potential alternatives.

“In the West in particular, we view ourselves as separate from and destined to dominate nature, and our economic system is organized around this domination,” Haglund explained. “An ethical orientation that takes seriously the ramifications of our reliance on fossil fuels, toxic and volatile systems of food production, unchecked extraction of resources and mindless materialism is long overdue.”

Lincoln Fellow for Sustainable Development and Ethics Amy Landis tackles the controversial issue of greenwashing – when companies and organizations mislead consumers regarding the environmental benefits of a product or service. She serves as associate professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and The Built Environment in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. Her talk will drill down to what it means to be green, or sustainable.

“Can you measure greenness?” Landis asked. “I want audience members to think hard about where responsibility lies for greening products and services. Are companies responsible for clearly reporting on the greenness of their products, or are consumers responsible for understanding green marketing and labeling and determining if that information is accurate?”

Compelling questions about conflict and its impact on civilization will be raised by Lincoln Professor of Sustainable Engineering and Ethics Braden Allenby. He is President’s Professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and The Built Environment in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, a professor of law in Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, distinguished sustainability scientist in the Global Institute of Sustainability and director of the Center for Earth Systems Engineering and Management. Allenby suggests we have been trained, for the most part, to view all conflict as undesirable.

“But history, if anything, tells us the opposite,” he said. “Conflict has always been part of the human experience and, in fact, is necessary for social and cultural innovation. But we are also constantly reminded of conflicts that are nothing but destructive. So should we conclude that both destructive and constructive conflicts exist?”

Several high schools from throughout Arizona send students to the symposium each year, O’Brien said. Students who will be attending complete a series of pre-event exercises in their classrooms in order to prepare. They research the issues and share their opinions with each other before joining the larger ASU forum. O'Brien notes that “this is where some of the symposium’s most beneficial work takes place."

Arcadia High School’s Kevin Mooney, assistant principal of student services and athletic director, attended the 2012 symposium. He called it “an extremely meaningful, thought-provoking exercise” for his Scottsdale students.

“The first thing I did after returning to the Arcadia campus last year was to reserve our spot for this year,” he said. “I have become convinced that applied ethics should be a required course for all high school students.”  

The symposium also will be broadcast online; details are pending.

The Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics is a unit in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Biodesign researcher wins prestigious 2013 Innovation Award

October 10, 2013

Nongjian (NJ) Tao is a winner of the Fourth Annual Innovation Award from Microscopy Today.

Each year, just 10 recipients are selected for the prize, which recognizes investigators whose work has made an outstanding contribution to the field. This year, the Innovation Award honored critical advances in light microscopy, scanning probe microscopy, electron microscopy and microanalysis.  portrait of scientist in lab Download Full Image

“While many people are pushing the spatial resolution of microscopy, we are interested in creating new capabilities to image local chemical reactions at extremely fast time scales,” Tao says. “I am glad this effort has been recognized.” Xiaonan Shan, a postdoctoral researcher in the Tao lab carried out the experiments. 

Microscopy Today is the trade magazine of the American Microscopy Society of America. The journal covers the depth and breadth of microscopic imaging techniques and features cutting-edge work from scientists in both the life sciences and physical sciences. 

Charles E. Lyman, editor-in-chief of Microscopy Today, presented this year’s Innovation Awards at the annual Microscopy & Microanalysis trade show in Indianapolis. Innovation Award winners are featured in the current issue of the journal.

The magazine emphasizes that the featured innovations will make imaging and analysis “more powerful, more flexible, more productive and easier to accomplish.”

Tao’s award recognizes his development of a revolutionary technique known as Plasmonic-Based Electrochemical Microscopy, or P-ECM. The method allows for the imaging of local chemical reactions of individual nanoparticles. To accomplish this, P-ECM determines the electrochemical current density from an optical signal generated from a phenomenon known as surface plasmon resonance, rather than from electrical measurement with traditional electrochemical detection methods. 

The procedure involves placing the specimen on a prepared surface, which is coated with a thin metallic film. The sample is then illuminated with polarized light. This causes free electrons (or plasma) to absorb the incident photons, which are converted into a plasmon wave, which travels across the surface of the metal film. When the specimen under study interacts with the plasmon wave, there is a change in light reflectivity, which can be converted into an image.

P-ECM boasts a number of advantages. Chief among these are its speed, (it can complete imaging of samples on micro-second time scales), non-invasive character and compatibility with conventional optical microscopy. These traits allow P-ECM to capture molecular phenomena in living systems, a significant advance in the study of biological features including protein interactions. It may also be applied in the development of new drugs or vaccines, in order to closely observe drug-target or antibody-antigen activity in real time. 

Tao’s new approach is a label-free method that will enable researchers to observe minute features of specimens, as well as study chemical reactions and charge-related properties in living systems with enhanced contrast (using a modified approach known as P-EIM). The technique’s unprecedented speed will permit the imaging of molecular-scale interactions as never before. 

Conventional optical microscopy methods can resolve samples down to a few hundred nanometers in size – small, but not sufficient to observe chemical reactions of nano-scaled objects directly. Other methods like atomic force microscopy, which make use of a scanning electrode, are too slow to capture the brisk pace of activity at the molecular scale and may interfere with the phenomena under study. 

Tao, who directs Biodesign’s Center for Bioelectronics and Biosensors is currently refining his plasmon-based microscopy under a grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. In previous research, his group used plasmonic imaging to examine single cells, cell organelles, viruses and nanoparticles. His recent advances have extended the method by allowing electrical impedance imaging, significantly increasing image depth and imaging contrast, as well as permitting charge-related properties (for example, the transport of charged molecules or ions) to be investigated in living systems.

In addition to his appointment at the Biodesign Institute, NJ Tao is a Professor in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering. Tao is also the Senior Sustainability Scientist, Global Institute of Sustainability

Richard Harth

Science writer, Biodesign Institute at ASU