Tech showcase spotlights 5 digital projects at ASU

May 26, 2023

For one of the largest universities in the nation, technology plays a critical role in the advancement of student and learner success. 

Recently, over 500 team members from Arizona State University’s IT community united at Empower, celebrating the collective impact of technology-driven innovation happening within the university. From immersive learning environments to intelligent chatbots, ASU stands at the forefront of educational advancements.  Person wearing a virtual headset. Students immerse themselves in virtual reality at Arizona State University's Tempe campus. Photo courtesy Mike Sanchez/ASU Enterprise Technology Download Full Image

Five teams from across the university took the stage at Empower for the 5x5 Technology Showcase to share how their projects are enhancing the digital ecosystem at ASU and beyond. Below is a glimpse at those presentations.

1. Unlocking learning in virtual reality at Dreamscape Learn

Presented by Hasrah Thomas

ASU’s Dreamscape Learn offers fully immersive learning environments, providing students with engaging, interactive educational experiences. Seamlessly blending cutting-edge virtual reality technology and innovative pedagogy, Dreamscape Learn enhances and complements traditional learning methods, propelling students into the future of education. 

At Empower, Hasrah Thomas, director of Realm 4 initiatives at Dreamscape Learn and EdPlus at ASU, delved into recent research on the success rate of nearly 700 students participating in the Dreamscape Learn biology course. 

“We found that the students participating in Dreamscape Learn labs not only enjoyed the experience but also significantly outperformed their peers in the non-DSL labs, leading to greater student success and confirming the effectiveness of this innovative approach,” Thomas said.

In recent studies, students’ lab grades were 9% higher than those in the conventional courses. The median lab grade for students in Dreamscape Learn was 96%, compared with 87% for the other group. Additional findings highlighted the positive impact of the full-immersive course on collaboration and engagement, with students expressing overall enjoyment and giving it a high rating of 4.4 out of 5.

2. Exploring credit mobility to advance student and learner agency

Presented by Bobby Gray and Kate Giovacchini 

Research shows that there are 39 million learners in the U.S. who have some college but no degree. Bobby Gray, executive director of products and programs at Enterprise Technology, and Kate Giovacchini, director of the Trusted Learner Network at Enterprise Technology, took to the stage to share a suite of tools being developed by ASU’s Enterprise Technology to improve credit mobility.

First, the Trusted Learner Network (TLN) is designed as a central credential repository. Institutions and organizations that are part of the TLN can securely store evidence of an individual's credentials inside the network. Students can then access their full evidence of achievements from across their lifetimes in one, easy-to-access portal.  

Tools like the Interactive Degree Planner (IDP) and ASU Pocket — which can operate within the TLN and as stand-alone products — allow students to apply their credentials to better navigate the lifelong learner journey. 

ASU Pocket is a digital wallet for students to carry evidence of their earned credentials. The digital wallet uses a self-sovereign identity model that gives individuals full ownership and control of their digital identities and associated credentials — such as degrees, digital badges or certificates. Individuals can directly share verified credentials with institutions and organizations using their digital wallet. 

Interactive Degree Planner is the most recent development. The service, which is still in the design phase, will provide prospective and current students with a portal to map out their academic journey. The planner helps students explore up to five academic plans, track progress toward their degree, plan their courses each semester and ensure they meet the requirements for graduation. 

“These critical mobility initiatives are designed to reduce friction for all of our learners and students, recognizing that they come to us from completely different pathways, backgrounds and experiences,” Giovacchini said. 

3. Bridging educational gaps with Study Hall

Presented by Wayne Anderson and Sean Hobson

EdPlus Chief Design Officer Sean Hobson and Wayne Anderson, director of strategic design and development, took the stage next to share about one of the university’s most recent initiatives. 

Study Hall is a collaboration between ASU, Crash Course and YouTube to offer accessible educational content for millions of viewers and learners for transferable college credits. The project focuses on three main areas: a series on “how to college,” a series on fields of study and majors called Fast Guides, and a first-of-its-kind pathway from curiosity on YouTube to college credit.

“By leveraging the technology and access on YouTube, we're pushing new bounds in our learning architecture, ultimately bridging the gap between informal and formal education and making enriched and scalable experiences for our learners,” Hobson said.

ASU faculty worked closely with the Crash Course team, led by Hank and John Green, to develop the Study Hall series, which has garnered over 3.4 million views. The seven-week courses include subjects such as English composition, college math, U.S. history and human communication. This innovative method is meeting learners where they are and providing new ways to engage with the university experience, thus expanding the university's mission to democratize learning online.

4. Empowering ‘100 Million Learners’ around the world

Presented by Laura Polk

The Francis and Dionne Najafi 100 Million Learners Global Initiative, led by the Thunderbird School of Global Management, aims to offer online, global education in 40 languages at no cost to the learner. With the aim of being the boldest and most ambitious global education initiative in higher education history, this program was designed to provide world-class education to individuals who might not have access to traditional learning resources. 

The program offers three pathways to help advance the learner’s personal and professional development — a foundational entrepreneurship boot camp course (for learners at any level of education) and intermediate and advanced pathways for learners at the high school, undergraduate or graduate levels. In order to reduce language barriers, the program's content has been translated into 20 languages, prioritized based on the number of native speakers and greatest areas of educational need. 

Future plans include adding another 20 unique languages in order to reach all learners — no matter where they live — across the globe. Participants who satisfactorily complete the intermediate or advanced programs can apply for academic credit, which can be used toward degrees at ASU and universities around the world. 

“Our focus is on delivering transformative learning experiences that not only cater to the unique needs of our learners but also continually adapt and evolve in this ever-changing educational landscape,” said Laura Polk, executive director of digital initiatives and learning experience at the Thunderbird School of Global Management. “Through this commitment, we're reshaping the boundaries of global education, ensuring that every learner, regardless of their location or native language, has access to an empowering educational journey.”

5. Bridging the AI knowledge gap with Simpli-fAI

Presented by Mickey Mancenido

The Simpl-fAI project aims to make artificial intelligence more accessible and understandable to a broader audience. Mickey Mancenido, an AI researcher and assistant professor at the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences, highlighted the need for simplifying AI education.

Mancenido, who is also a graduate of Enterprise Technology’s T4 Leadership Academy, proposes using social media as a tool for AI education, using short, engaging informational videos and leveraging social media’s popularity among younger generations to dispel misconceptions surrounding the new generative technology. At Empower, he emphasized the importance of a well-informed society in our increasingly technology-driven world, highlighting the Simpl-fAI project's commitment to bridging the gap between AI and the general public.

“One approach we can take as educators is to use social media as a platform to educate learners and the broader public on artificial intelligence technologies,” Mancenido said. “We can simplify AI concepts and counteract the fear and sensationalism that often surround them.”

Read more about the annual Empower event here.

Kevin Pirehpour

Editorial Specialist, Enterprise Technology

$4.5M grant to explore link between exercise, slowing down Alzheimer’s

May 25, 2023

A $4.5 million groundbreaking grant will fund research to explore a promising link between aerobic exercise and slowing the progression of Alzheimer's disease in a study led by an Arizona State University researcher.

An estimated 6.7 million Americans age 65 and older are living with Alzheimer's disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association's 2023 report An older couple are side by side working out on stationary bikes in a gym A $4.5 million groundbreaking grant from the National Institute on Aging will fund research exploring a promising link between aerobic exercise and slowing the progression of Alzheimer's. Photo courtesy Shutterstock Download Full Image

“Alzheimer’s is a complex disease with many factors contributing to it, which is part of the reason we haven’t found a single cure. Recently though, we’ve found that modifying lifestyle factors may contribute to slowing the progression of the disease,” said Professor Fang Yu, Edson Chair in Dementia Translational Nursing Science at the Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation.

The grant comes from the National Institute on Aging, a division of the National Institutes of Health. Yu and her team will conduct the first-ever sequential, multiple assignment, randomized trial, or SMART, for Alzheimer’s disease.

“I think this grant shows what Professor Yu and her team are doing is really cutting edge. This research could impact millions of people, potentially giving them some hope of relief from a terrible disease that steals their very essence. I’m looking forward to the findings and seeing how they develop into real-world interventions,” said Edson College Dean Judith Karshmer.

This area of research builds on Yu’s previous work, which found that a six-month exercise program significantly reduced cognitive decline in comparison to the natural course of changes for Alzheimer’s dementia. Specifically, aerobic exercise is effective in reducing white matter hyperintensities progression, which is associated with cognitive decline and the development of dementia.

The new Phase 2 clinical trial will examine the best exercises to improve aerobic fitness in older adults with early Alzheimer’s disease and examine how those exercises impact their memory.

“The most exciting part of this is trying to reduce the variations in responses to exercise among participants. To this point, we’ve seen some people improve, while some decline. So, what we’re trying to do is to reduce the variability to help people respond positively in some way so we can truly understand if exercise has an impact and for who,” Yu said.

The team is planning to recruit more than 100 participants in Arizona to enroll in the study. They’re looking for people who are 65 and older, who have noticed changes in their memory and have someone who knows them to serve as their study partner.

To learn more about the study and eligibility, email or call 602-496-2292.

Amanda Goodman

Senior communications specialist, Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation


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Meet the world's 1st outdoor sweating, breathing and walking manikin

May 25, 2023

ASU researchers to use ANDI and heat chamber to better understand human body's response to extreme heat

Behind a 4-inch-thick metal door with a small glass window in the far northeast corner of Arizona State University’s Tempe Campus lives ANDI, the world’s first indoor-outdoor breathing, sweating and walking thermal manikin. 

ANDI is funded by an NSF Major Research Instrumentation Grant and is custom-built for ASU by the company Thermetrics. He can mimic the thermal functions of the human body and has 35 different surface areas that are all individually controlled with temperature sensors, heat flux sensors and pores that bead sweat. 

“ANDI sweats; he generates heat, shivers, walks and breathes,” said Konrad Rykaczewski, associate professor in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy and principal investigator for a new ASU research project aimed to measure the effects of extreme heat on human health. 

“There's a lot of great work out there for extreme heat, but there's also a lot missing. We're trying to develop a very good understanding (of how heat impacts the human body) so we can quantitatively design things to address it.” 

Around the globe, 10 ANDI manikins currently exist, mostly owned and used by athletic clothing companies for garment testing, but ASU’s ANDI is only one of two used by research institutions and it's the first thermal manikin in existence that can be used outdoors, enabled by a unique internal cooling channel.

In the coming decades, every region in the U.S. is expected to experience higher temperatures and more intense heat waves. Thousands of people around the country die from heat-related illnesses each year, and in Maricopa County alone in 2022 there were 425 heat-related fatalities, a 25% increase from the previous year. 

ASU researchers aim to better understand heat stress on the human body and what makes hot weather so deadly.  

Using both ANDI and a heat chamber in which ANDI lives, Rykaczewski, Jenni Vanos, associate professor in the School of Sustainability, and Ariane Middel, assistant professor in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering, are working together to better understand how our human bodies are impacted by heat stress and quantify the risk different environments pose to health. 

“You can’t put humans in dangerous extreme heat situations and test what would happen,” said Vanos, whose research connects extreme heat to human health, specifically for active populations, like children, outdoor workers and athletes. “But there are situations we know of in the Valley where people are dying of heat and we still don't fully understand what happened. ANDI can help us figure that out.” 

Built for the outdoors  

Inside ANDI’s current home, ASU’s newly developed heat chamber, researchers can simulate heat-exposure scenarios from different places around the globe. 

Dubbed the “Warm Room,” the heat chamber is outfitted with advanced technologies that control the wind, temperature up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit and solar radiation. 

But in addition to being studied indoors, ASU’s ANDI is the only thermal manikin in the world that is able to be used outside.

ANDI is built with internal cooling channels that circulate cool water throughout its body, which enable him to stay cool enough to withstand extreme heat while measuring complex variables that contribute to our perception of heat in different environments — solar radiation from the sun, infrared radiation from the ground and convection from the surrounding air.

This summer, researchers will pair ANDI with MaRTy, ASU’s biometeorological heat robot, to work together and better understand human sweating mechanisms, like changing skin temperature and changing core temperature, and identify how specific environments may enhance heat risk. 

“MaRTy can tell us how the built environment modifies the amount of heat that hits the body, but MaRTy doesn't know what happens inside the body,” said Middel, who studies urban climate and how urban environments influence weather hazards. “MaRTy measures the environment, and then ANDI can then tell us how the body can react.”

The ANDI and MaRTy duo will first be walking around ASU’s Tempe campus together and eventually make trips around the greater Phoenix area to be tested in heat-vulnerable environments, like exposed streets and old mobile homes where the AC went off. 

People experience heat differently

Outside in 115-degree Fahrenheit temperature, an elderly man with diabetes will experience heat stress differently from an active woman in her mid-30s, and differently from a child in elementary school. Age, body size and other characteristics of overall health play critical roles in how people respond to extreme heat. 

ASU researchers can account for variations in body type and health characteristics to create and input into ANDI different customized thermal regulation models for almost anyone in the U.S.   

“We can move different BMI models, different age characteristics and different medical conditions (into ANDI),” said Ankit Joshi, an ASU research scientist leading the modeling work and the lead operator of ANDI. “A diabetes patient has different thermal regulation from a healthy person. So we can account for all this modification with our customized models.” 

Solution forward 

With the data and information collected, researchers hope to design interventions, such as cooling clothes or exoskeletons for backpacks that are designed for cooling support. 

“We're trying to approach this from a very holistic point, but there's not going to be a silver bullet for anything,” Rykaczewski said. “This project very much involves students from engineering, sustainability, in addition to people with backgrounds in weather and even fashion.”

The team is actively recruitingIf interested, email Konrad Rykaczewski at undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students to participate in this project. And as the team says, ANDI could always use more friends. 

This project is funded by the National Science Foundation's Leading Engineering for America’s Prosperity, Health and Infrastructure (LEAP HI) program. 

Top photo: (From left) Associate Professor Konrad Rykaczewski, research scientist Ankit Joshi, ANDI the thermal manikin, Associate Professor Jenni Vanos and Assistant Professor Ariane Middel in the lab. Photo by Christopher Goulet/ASU 

David Rozul

Media Relations Officer , Media Relations and Strategic Communications


Words matter: How researchers can avoid stigmatizing language

May 24, 2023

Word choice matters a lot when it comes to research. That’s the main takeaway from a new article co-authored by Arizona State University Assistant Professor Angel Algarin and published in Health Communication.

“Researchers in any field should be cognizant of the language they’re using to describe the people they study so they don’t inadvertently add to the use of stigmatizing language,” said Algarin, who teaches in the Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation. A man in a white doctors coat types on a laptop. Only his hands and part of his arms are visible. There is a stethoscope visible in the foreground. A content analysis of HIV-related stigmatizing language found more than 26,000 uses across publications in a 10-year period. Photo courtesy Shutterstock Download Full Image

For the article, Algarin and his co-authors performed a content analysis of HIV-related stigmatizing language published in scientific literature from 2010 to 2020. 

They found 26,476 peer-reviewed articles that used variations of the stigmatizing term “HIV/AIDS-infected.” More than a third of these articles came from the United States. And the journal that used the stigmatizing language the most was one that focused on general science and medicine. 

“The use of stigmatizing language in science is concerning, as the words we use are read by health care professionals, policymakers and journalists, who in turn use this same language when discussing topics surrounding HIV because they trust that we are the experts,” Algarin said.

The consequences of using terms that stigmatize entire groups of people are well documented. As a social epidemiologist and interventionist, Algarin’s previous work has focused on the impact of stigma on people living with HIV. 

In his 2020 articles published in AIDS and Behavior and AIDS patient care and STDs, he found that people living with HIV who experienced higher levels of stigma experienced poorer mental health and HIV care outcomes. 

Elijah Palles has experienced stigmatizing language firsthand in peer-to-peer conversations and in health care settings. Shortly after he was diagnosed with HIV, he said he encountered a case manager who was “shocked” that someone “like him” with a job, car and house could be living with HIV.

“I felt stupid because I do have resources and I do know better, but I beat myself up for a while thinking she’s right, I’m not the typical person who would contract this, and then I had to say, 'Well no, I’m just like every other person who contracts this.' So, that interaction fed into my own internalized stigma for a while,” Palles said.

As a Valleywise Health Voices of Hope Speakers Bureau member and Maricopa County Department of Public Health Positively You! Ambassador, Palles regularly shares his story to help raise awareness about available resources, combat misinformation and reduce HIV-related stigma. Recently, he spoke with students at Edson College as part of a public health presentation by the county.

He said Algarin’s work on this issue is important and much needed.

“They are in the driver’s seat of the conversation, and if you’re using a term like 'HIV-infected,' that is very stigmatizing because you’re saying someone is infected and that goes back to this idea of clean versus dirty,” Palles said.

The point of Algarin’s article wasn’t to call anyone out, but instead to highlight the real-world impact of researchers’ work and more specifically how the words they use affect people.

“I understand that people engaged in research may not intentionally be using stigmatizing language, but we should see this as an opportunity to do better,” Algarin said.

David Coon, Edson College associate dean of research initiatives, support and engagement, said there is always room for improvement. And one of the key ways to avoid harmful terminology is to connect with the community.

“At ASU and Edson College, we take our commitment to social embeddedness seriously. So, it’s imperative that we listen to the voices of the communities we work with and do our best at every step in terms of the language we use in how we communicate with them and about them. In doing so, we respect their choices about how they self-identify and want to be represented in research,” Coon said.

Raising the issue has resulted in some positive changes. According to the article, the use of stigmatizing language specific to HIV/AIDS started to decrease after the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS released an update to HIV terminology guidelines

In addition to referencing language guides on appropriate terms to use, Algarin said there are three specific actions researchers can take to reduce the stigma in scientific literature:

  • Ensure the use of appropriate terms in the manuscripts you’re writing.

  • Suggest the use of non-stigmatizing terms when serving as a peer reviewer.

  • If you are an editor, implement a non-stigmatizing terminology policy in the instructions for authors.

“Implementing these practices can show the communities that we work with that we are not only listening, but we are actively making changes to respect preferred, non-stigmatizing terminology. It is my hope that making these changes brings us one step closer to ending the perpetuation of stigma in science,” Algarin said.

Amanda Goodman

Senior communications specialist, Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation


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ASU-designed fiber-reinforced concrete speeds up Phoenix rapid transit construction

May 22, 2023

Removing rebar from Valley Metro light rail cuts construction time, costs; increases worker safety

Using fiber-reinforced concrete instead of rebar-supported slabs for constructing Metro Phoenix light rail extensions is giving new meaning to rapid transit. Months of construction time are being reduced to weeks, adding cost savings, sustainability and worker safety to the mix.

A collaboration between Arizona State University, the Phoenix Valley Metro Regional Transportation Authority and Kiewit-McCarthy, the project’s construction firm, began with a materials upgrade proposal from Barzin Mobasher, an ASU professor of structural engineering in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment.

The project, which extended the light rail by 1.5 miles, incorporated the fiber-reinforced concrete design and was completed in early May.

Video by Stephen Filmer/ASU

Reinforcing bar, or rebar, is made of steel and embedded in concrete to strengthen structures. According to Mobasher, more than 60% of the volume of concrete used throughout the world has zero tensile efficiency and is unable to carry load. This makes concrete used in load-bearing structures like the light rail susceptible to cracks, which begin very small and grow unhindered until there is a fault in the structure.

Incorporating rebar provides the loadbearing strength required for most concrete-based construction. However, laying rebar is costly, leaves a dramatic carbon footprint, presents worker safety risks and above all, takes a great deal of time. As the inevitable concrete cracking escalates and the rebar corrodes, additional maintenance, repair and rehabilitation are required, further adding to costs and neighborhood disruption.

Mobasher’s proposal simplified challenges for the light rail extension project and delivered a successful new system “just by making one change in the design criteria – using fibers in the concrete mix instead of reinforcing with rebar,” he said.

Instead of using two layers of rebar in cross directions to support the light rail's electrified track in the extensions, Mobasher’s design and validation approach considered both steel and polymeric fibers added directly into the concrete, completely eliminating the need for rebar reinforcement. Finally, steel fibers were chosen by Valley Metro for the northwest extension project.

To validate the proposal, a series of serviceability tests were conducted in ASU’s Structural and Materials Lab. Testing involved creating full-size mock-ups for both rebar-reinforced concrete and fiber-reinforced concrete, in the same ratios as full-size sections. Side-by-side testing allowed comparisons of strength and flexibility as well as documentation of concrete cracking and fatigue susceptibility.

The testing process also projected cost and construction time savings. For example, the per mile construction of the extension using rebar was projected at 231 days, while using fiber-reinforced concrete reduced it to 121 days, with a cost savings of more than $12 million.

“The idea of taking several long rebars that are half an inch in diameter, separated by 12 to 18 inches and built into a cage that is 12 inches above ground and replacing them with a fiber material, which is 2 inches long and only 1/32nd of an inch in diameter and mixed in with the concrete, might seem on scale non-competitive,” Mobasher said.

“But if you have thousands of those small fibers distributed in there, they become much more effective in arresting the cracks — working as small Band-Aids to keep the cracks closed and transfer the load. (Fiber-reinforced concrete) can be designed to bear up to an unprecedented 40% of the tensile load capacity of concrete.”

“We did the fatigue tests to simulate conditions for up to 45 years of service at much higher expected loads as proof of concept, and they accepted the proposed approach,” said Mobasher of the approvals from Valley Metro and the city of Phoenix. “It’s been a tremendous experience for them to save the amount of materials used and, at the same time, to be able to meet the project at costs much lower than the original budget and in a much faster time frame.”

The Valley Metro project is expected serve as a prototype for similar light rail upgrades nationally and will be presented at an international Fiber-Reinforced Concrete Workshop hosted by ASU in September.

Construction time

A major obstacle for community approval of light rail transit is months of neighborhood disruption during construction. Using fiber-reinforced concrete instead of rebar-supported designs significantly reduces disruption to weeks or, in some cases, days.

Andrew Haines, project manager for Jacobs Engineering in Tempe, attributed the success of the materials change to “challenging the accepted.”

“There’s an accepted way of doing reinforced concrete in the United States, especially with regard to light rail,” Haines said. “I think engineers get into this track of just, ‘We’ve got to do it a certain way, that’s how it’s always been done,’ and it’s been very difficult to change that — to accept something new.

“The placement of the concrete with the fibers has been very simple,” Haines said. “There’s no reinforcement — there’s no bars in the track slab for workers to try to walk on and perhaps slip on. So, it’s just the prepared earth and the rails are in place and the concrete gets placed around it — the reinforcement is integral with the concrete.”

The ability to develop material samples and test them in the ASU labs was a major component of implementing the change, according to Haines.

“We did all the right things to get this implemented in the field,” he said. “And the result seems to be phenomenal.”

According to Mobasher, the fibers are added into the concrete mix at the plant before being transported by the ready-mix trucks to the construction site. The entire mix is then discharged and self-consolidates, leaving a smooth, finished concrete surface.

“The work that used to take weeks to be done is finished in a matter of hours because we don’t need a crew laying up the steel rebars, connecting them, making sure they are all adequately welded together and that the components are all grounded,” Mobasher said.

Construction and materials costs

In addition to cutting worker and equipment costs, there are savings associated with shorter security requirements at construction sites and lower shipping and concrete production costs. Also, the traffic delays and lost productivity due to lane closures are significantly reduced.

And while there are significant cost savings due to switching from rebar to steel fibers, additional savings are realized by the different types of fibers as well.

“With steel versus polymetric fiber there’s a tremendous difference in weight,” Haines said.

With rebar, “we’re using 65 pounds of steel,” Haines said. “The production of steel produces a lot of greenhouse gasses — and a lot of energy to produce steel. There’s a lot less energy in using polymeric and synthetic fibers. We’re only using 12 pounds of polypropylene fibers vs. 65 pounds of steel, so there’s a savings there.” 

The project also uses thinner sections of concrete than required to support and protect rebar.

“We’re using about 20% less concrete, which means we’re using 20% less cement,” Haines said.

A not-insignificant side benefit of eliminating rebar is a reduction of associated potential corrosion from the stray currents in an electrified transit system.

Worker safety

Walking on unstable rebars buried in fresh concrete is a challenging task. 

“Imagine walking on shredded glass in a dark room while shoveling wet mud that weighs about 80 pounds. That is how the previous 25 miles or so was built,” Mobasher said.

“All we did was take out the rebar cage out so workers are finishing the slab without tripping as they navigate rebar in a 12-inch layer that can’t support their weight. Now, they are standing on solid ground as they pour the concrete around the rails.”

“The type of concrete we are using here is fiber-reinforced concrete,” said Farhad Rahimi, quality assurance manager for the city of Phoenix. “There is no rebar in this. It’s fiber inside the concrete, which makes the constructability much easier than rebar, and much faster. As for the quality, we get the same quality as we get from (standard) concrete. And, we got the tensile strength we need.”

Laying the concrete is “still very hard, labor-intensive work," Mobasher said, “but definitely more humane. I have so much respect for these construction workers.

“The mission of sustainable engineering is to focus on long-lasting improvements of the human conditions, which includes both worker and environmental safety,” he said.

Sustainability benefits

“What we have learned in the last 50 years in materials science is that the closer we look at a microstructure, the better we can understand materials at a macro level,” Mobasher said. 

The whole purpose of sustainable engineering is to design the material at a different level that may not sound intuitive, but that has load-bearing qualities that enhance longevity while reducing the carbon footprint.

“When we look at the carbon footprint of the construction materials, when we consider concrete and steel, we realize that we use about 30 billion tons of concrete every year throughout the world. We also use about 500 million tons of rebar for reinforcing that concrete to carry the load.

“That is a significant amount of carbon footprint because of just these two ingredients, because you cannot use concrete without providing reinforcement for it.”

Additionally, the testing validates stability for more than 45 years, with a likely service life under Phoenix climate conditions of more than 100 years, according to Mobasher.

One of Mobasher’s missions is to make these sustainable concrete technologies available to other cities and communities. Similar concrete formulas have been employed around the world, but they often come with proprietary constraints.

“In our laboratory, we provide a scientific basis for the design validation of structural components by combining the design codes, analytical and computer simulation design tools,” Mobasher said.

“Then we go a step further to verify the results with full-scale tests under the same loads the designers are concerned about. This approach gives us the ability to dial in the level of over-strength and conservativeness the engineers are comfortable with for the service life.”

ASU structural research labs have been involved with many such challenges – dealing with mining applications, environmental structures, canals, bridge design and steel structures – and have been an ongoing resource for testing new technologies in for both industry and communities.

“We want to show that the (fiber-reinforced concrete) construction process can be a do-it-yourself project for local communities working with local construction companies,” Mobasher said. “We can show that collaboration between municipalities, industry, government agencies and universities can come together to share resources, cut costs and increase sustainability.”

Top photo: Workers from Kiewit-McCarthy Joint Venture, Arizona Materials, Fleming and Sons Concrete Pumping and Valley Metro prepare to pour the last section of the northern spur extension of the Phoenix Valley Metro light rail line north of Dunlap Avenue on 25th Avenue on May 5. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

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ASU hosts first-ever tri-nation North America Semiconductor Conference

May 18, 2023

Government officials from US, Mexico and Canada join industry, academia leaders in nation's capital

Arizona State University is hosting government and industry leaders from the U.S., Canada and Mexico at a high-level conference in Washington, D.C., this week to ensure North America’s future in the semiconductor industry.

ASU, in partnership with the Semiconductor Industry Association, is holding the first-ever North America Semiconductor Conference, where representatives from government, academia and industry will focus on aligning policy, expanding manufacturing, strengthening the supply chain and growing the workforce across the continent. Thursday’s events lean into industry and university representatives from the U.S., Canada and Mexico — including ASU faculty — and the government-focused Friday talks include cabinet members from all three countries.

“The logic of all this is that by working together, we can make products better and faster and at lower cost and this will help all three countries create the jobs of the future and build our economies from the bottom out,” said Max Hamilton, director for North American affairs at the National Security Council. He spoke during a press briefing about the conference on Wednesday.

“We’re including academia because we recognize that building a resilient supply chain is not something that government can do alone. Working together, we can build a more robust research ecosystem.”

People in suits sitting at a conference table speak

Industry, academic and government leaders from Mexico, Canada and the U.S. convened in Washington, D.C., on Thursday for the North America Semiconductor Conference. Photo by Samantha Chow/ASU

Semiconductors are vital components of technology, in everything from phones to cars to defense weapons. The U.S. dominated semiconductor research and manufacturing until the 1980s, when most of it moved to Asia.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the world’s dependency on Asia when supply chain disruptions led to critical shortages.

In 2022, the bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act was signed into law, releasing $52 billion over five years to help the U.S. regain its superiority in semiconductor research, manufacturing and supply chain logistics.

Arizona is going to be a major player in the initiative, thanks to big investments by companies such as Intel and the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, which is building two gigantic chip-fabricating centers in north Phoenix that will create 4,500 jobs, including 3,000 engineers. Several smaller companies are growing and relocating to the state as well.

ASU is an important factor not only for its location in a border state but also because it has the largest engineering school in the country, according to Kevin McGinnis, managing director for strategic technology initiatives at ASU.

“The challenges the industry faces are a significant shortage of workers and intense global competition,” he said.

A workshop on Thursday focused on workforce strategies.

“Our goal is to share lessons learned and best practices and identify concrete skills, and the specific types of skills, that the industry needs to fill to be competitive,” McGinnis said.

“We’ll think about how to fill gaps across all three countries, who’s doing it, who needs help and how we can expand those programs together.”

ASU has already been working on the issue, he said, including signing a memorandum of understanding with Mexico in November to expand workforce development there.

“We look at it very holistically,” he said, noting that many of the semiconductor jobs will be for technicians, and ASU has been working with the community colleges on job training for that. In addition, ASU established the New Economy Initiative Council — made of industry partners, academic experts and civic leaders — to address workforce development. ASU also provides hands-on training and access to leading-edge equipment at the MacroTechnology Works facility.

People in suits sitting at a conference table speak

Jose Quiroga, director of global development for the Office of Global Outreach and Extended Education in ASU's Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, moderates the discussion during the Future of North America’s Semiconductor Workforce (via Industry-Government-University Partnerships) session Thursday. Photo by Samantha Chow/ASU

The conference has a session on pinpointing the strengths and challenges of the U.S., Canada and Mexico all along the semiconductor supply chain.

That kind of mapping is important, according to Roberto Velasco Álvarez, chief officer for the North America unit at the Mexican Secretariat of Foreign Affairs.

“We need to understand exactly what each country is doing and how we can complement each other and not compete with each other,” he said.

“In the end, if we want to view this as a regional effort, the important thing is to think how we can be more competitive with other regions in the world and build on our strengths.

“Mexico believes that development of this industry is one of the most critical things we can do for our future.”

Michael Grant, assistant deputy minister for the Americas at Global Affairs Canada, said the conference focus will be on hard work.

“I think on the one hand it's really demonstrating North America as a cohesive competitive bloc in this particular and vital industry, but also it's about the practical,” he said.

“It's about bringing all of the stakeholders together and really rolling up your sleeves and getting practical about moving forward. It's about really getting down to business.”

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo is leading the U.S. delegation at the conference, which will include representatives from Intel, Skyworks, IBM, IQE and TSMC, as well as officials from the governments, universities and technology industries in Canada and Mexico.

The Milken Institute will publish a Summary of Conclusions and Joint Action Plan as a follow-up to the conference.

Top photo: Industry, government and academic leaders from Canada, Mexico and the United States — including ASU faculty and staff — gather Thursday to discuss supply chain solutions and workforce development. Photo by Samantha Chow/ASU

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


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Empowering the Pacific

Project aims to expand access to reliable electricity in rural areas of Fiji.
May 18, 2023

ASU chosen to lead clean energy project in Fiji; island nation aims to generate all power from renewable sources by 2030

Millions of people across the Pacific region lack access to electricity, and existing power provision is heavily reliant on expensive petroleum imports. Relieving these burdens to quality of life and development requires significant investment in renewable energy infrastructure and new approaches to technology design, project financing, and ownership and operation models. 

Toward that end, the U.S. Trade and Development Agency (USTDA) has announced the launch of a new project in Fiji to help advance that country’s plan to provide electricity for all rural residents and to generate all power from renewable sources by 2030.

The $1.5 million initiative is called Accelerating Solar Mini-Grid Deployment in Fiji, and the initial feasibility study will be led by the Laboratory for Energy and Power Solutions (LEAPS), part of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University.

For the next 18 months, that feasibility study will set up to assess 300 remote communities that lack access to reliable and affordable electricity, and then prioritize 75 sites for $40 million in capital investment for new solar-powered mini grids with energy storage capacity. These installations will displace diesel-powered generators and enhance power access and equity for Indigenous peoples.

Initial project work will include the development of technical models, geospatial site planning, sustainable business models, climate change impact assessments as well as ownership and operation options. It will also include the preparation of public tender documents for the construction, operation and maintenance of the mini grids.

LEAPS has conducted more than 100 mini grid and micro grid assessments in different countries, and the experience has demonstrated that conventional approaches to power system development may limit the electrification of communities now lacking adequate provision.

“We’ve developed innovative approaches to engineering, and even to levels of ownership and financing models, through previous work,” said Nathan Johnson, director of LEAPS, an associate professor of engineering at ASU and a senior global futures scientist. “Our methods reduce the time necessary to complete feasibility assessments and increase the accuracy of results that enable right-sizing the system and ensuring long-term sustainability.”

Johnson said their work enables identification of the best configuration and funding for each mini grid deployment. Additionally, he said the proximity of some sites should open opportunities to bundle mini grids into single procurements — or combine community mini grids with anchor clients such as cell towers, health-care services and local industry — with notable efficiency benefits.

A group photo of people holding signed paperwork in front of an official seal

Representatives of the U.S. Trade and Development Agency, the Global Green Growth Institute and the government of Fiji were joined by Nathan Johnson (second from right) and Elena van Hove (far right) from Arizona State University’s Laboratory for Energy and Power Solutions at a signing ceremony in Suva, Fiji, on May 17. The event marked the launch of an ASU-led solar energy project to expand access to reliable and affordable electricity among rural communities across that Pacific Island nation. Photo by U.S. Department of State

This kind of effort is complex and requires broad support. Deployed by Fiji’s Ministry of Finance, Strategic Planning, National Development and Statistics, the consortium led by ASU includes the Global Green Growth Institute, an intergovernmental organization devoted to sustainable growth, and the Xendee Corporation, a micro grid technology support business.

According to Enoh T. Ebong, director of USTDA, the partnership represents concrete action toward deepening engagement on infrastructure development within Pacific Island nations.

“Fiji has ambitious goals to connect its citizens to clean sources of power and address the impacts of climate change,” Ebong said. “USTDA is proud to partner with the (Fijian) Ministry of Finance and to bring U.S. solutions in support of their vision.”

The Fijian Ministry of Finance is also excited to see this effort move forward. Shiri Gounder, the permanent secretary of the ministry, said they are “confident that USTDA’s feasibility study, together with the consortium’s contributions, will bring successful outcomes and clean, sustainable growth.”

Project work begins immediately as Elena van Hove, the director of global energy access for LEAPS at ASU, initiates geospatial analysis of all the prospective sites followed by four months of in-person assessments for those locations prioritized for mini grid deployment.

Top photo of the Northern Yasawa Islands in Fiji by Rani Zerafa/iStock

Gary Werner

Senior Media Relations Officer , Media Relations and Strategic Communications


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Practicing mindfulness can help climate scientists

May 16, 2023

Paper from ASU faculty illustrates how mindfulness can relieve anxiety, stress, despair

Imagine being a scientist working on climate change.

The problems in front of you are enormous. Solutions seem inadequate and, perhaps, too late.

To make matters worse, the politicization of climate change has made you a target — on talk shows, in newspapers and across social media.

How do you cope?

With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, ASU News talked to Zachary Reeves-Blurton, assistant director of the Arizona State University Center for Mindfulness, Compassion and Resilience.

Reeves-Blurton co-authored a paper in the Society for Conservation Biology titled “Practicing Mindfulness in Addressing the Biodiversity Crisis.”

The paper was also co-authored by Leah Gerber, a professor of conservation science in the School of Life Sciences and founding director of the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes; Nika Gueci, the inaugural executive director of the Center for Mindfulness, Compassion and Resilience; Gwen Iacona, program lead for conservation investment in the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes, part of Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation; Jessica Beaudette, a research associate at the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes; and Teri Pipe, the founding director of the Center of Mindfulness, Compassion and Resilience.

Here, Reeves-Blurton talks about the results of the study, and how these practices can help anyone dealing with these feelings.

Note: The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Question: What prompted you and your co-authors to write the article?

Answer: Here at the Center for Mindfulness, we were approached by the faculty at the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes. They noted that climate scientists, conservationists, sustainability scientists, etc., were facing a lot of burnout, workplace fatigue and morale issues. We wanted to kind of dig into not only why this is happening but look at practices that these scientists can use to re-energize and be able to refocus on the work that they’re doing.

Q: Is this stress, anxiety and despair a recent phenomenon?

A: It’s not. Climate scientists have known for decades that there are systemic challenges that our world is facing without simple answers. But I think what has changed over the past decade or so is we’ve seen an increased politicization of climate science and global warming. Between that and the advent of social media, the 24/7 news cycle and the polarization of issues like this, we’re really seeing climate scientists who went into this for the sake of helping humanity and helping the planet suddenly, to some people, they’re the opponent. That’s what we’re really seeing taking a toll right now.

Q: I want to get back to that politicization in a minute, but given the scope of the problem, is there a sense of hopelessness among these scientists?

A: That really seems to be what we’re seeing right now. These scientists come into the field wanting to do good, wanting to make a difference, and it’s a form of grief that they are suffering. There’s a sense of ineffectiveness of the work at times. Sometimes, scientists are ill-equipped to deal with what they’re getting as far as pushback.

Q: Do they feel like they’re under attack?

A: Many climate scientists do feel that not only are they maybe under attack as field, but there’s push to misconstrue the work or to disguise the level of trouble, that is to minimize the nature of the problem itself.

Q: Can you elaborate on some the ways these scientists – or anyone – can practice mindfulness?

A: Some of them simply come back to what they call the attitudinal foundations of mindfulness. For instance, the ability to be patient not only with the arc of history and sometimes the slow sense of progress that we’re seeing, but also patience with themselves, understanding that they are doing what they can. We also talk a great deal in the article about rediscovering and/or reconnecting with their passion and their motivation for doing the work, and a sense of really refining that wonder of, “Wow, this is what we’re fighting for. This is what we’re trying to preserve or change.”

Q: What else can they do?

A: Within mindfulness there are a variety of practices, whether they’re simple things, like sitting and breathing, taking a few moments to be reflective and really examining what we’re feeling in the moment. That’s really one of the tenets of mindfulness. It allows us to really take a close examination of, “OK, I’m feeling anxiety, I’m feeling frustration. What is the source of that? What can I do with it?”

It’s so easy for all of us right now to be in this generalized sense of ongoing anxiety. And in our fast-paced world, we just have to push through anxiety and issue after issue without really taking the time to pause, breathe and say, “OK, so what is bothering me right now?” It’s just a constant focus on the present moment.

You can do mediation, you can do a reflective writing exercise, you can simply breathe. Anything that allows you to really be conscious about what you’re doing, what your movement is, how your body and mind are relating. Anything that brings your mind just to the task at hand has a biochemical effect on our brains, bodies and nervous system. That really calms the nervous system itself and allows us to regain the capacity for critical thinking and reasoning.

Q: This has to be a continual practice, right?

A: Absolutely. We look at mindfulness like any other exercise. If you do it once, if you and I were to sit down and say, “OK, we’re going to do a focused breathing exercise for three minutes” – and we see this in our workshops all the time – people will immediately say, “Oh yeah, I feel really calm right now. I feel really relaxed.” Five minutes later into their day, that’s all gone.

The more we exercise that mindfulness muscle, just like any other system of the body, not only does that allow us with time to reach a deeper level of that mental or that emotional equanimity and calm, but it allows that feeling to linger longer. It has to become a lifetime practice. The more we do it and the more we weave it into our everyday lives, the better the results for us are.

Top photo courtesy Shutterstock.

Scott Bordow

Reporter , ASU News

ASU students explore mental health in engineering education

May 16, 2023

According to a study, half of all undergraduate engineering students in the United States screen positive for a major mental health condition or significant distress. The rates can be even higher among high-achieving students and populations underrepresented in engineering fields.

“Most people I know in engineering either suffered from anxiety or depression, or saw their peers suffer from it,” said Daniella Pautz, who graduated in May with a master’s degree in biomedical engineering from the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University. ASU biomedical engineering students Ruhi Dharan, Daniella Pautz and Maxwell Johnson write on a dry erase board. Arizona State University biomedical engineering students (left to right) Ruhi Dharan, Daniella Pautz and Maxwell Johnson are studying the effects of teaching methods on engineering students’ well-being as well as faculty mental health. Photo by Erika Gronek/ASU Download Full Image

“Especially because we completed half of our degree online through COVID, loneliness and stress levels were higher than ever,” she said. “College is difficult enough, but seeing my friends suffer the way they did made me realize a change was needed.”

This desire to help led Pautz to set a new course of student-led research at ASU alongside Claire Honeycutt, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering, and undergraduate biomedical engineering students Ruhi Dharan and Maxwell Johnson to explore mental health in engineering higher education.

An opportunity to make a difference

Pautz has always loved math and science and wanted to become an engineer. She also gained a passion for teaching in high school by tutoring her peers.

As an undergraduate student at ASU, Pautz found Honeycutt to be a particularly effective and inspiring teacher after taking one of her classes and working in her lab. As an honors student in Barrett, The Honors College, Pautz needed to complete a thesis research project, and she chose Honeycutt as her advisor.

Honeycutt’s research typically focuses on clinical biomechanics, motor control, stroke, falls and orthotics. However, the timing of Pautz’s honors thesis work lined up with the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, providing a unique opportunity to explore Pautz’s interest in education.

“I had been increasingly interested in psychology-based techniques to increase student outcomes such as grades, well-being and community,” Honeycutt said. “I had been using these techniques in my classroom for several years and wanted to quantify their success. As my lab was shut down, COVID allowed us the opportunity to do just that.”

Honeycutt and Pautz specifically looked into Robert B. Cialdini’s six methods of persuasion: liking, reciprocation, consistency, scarcity, social proof and authority. He defined these methods without education in mind. However, they can be used to help build relationships, manage decisions and increase motivation, which are also important in the classroom.

In her honors thesis, Pautz investigated how ASU engineering professors’ use of these persuasion methods in their teaching affected students’ stress and performance.

“The data from her honors thesis was preliminary, but something quite striking came out of it,” Honeycutt said. “I thought that these psychological principles would influence grades, but her work suggested that it might do something much more significant than that. They might decrease anxiety and improve mental health in the classroom.”

Honeycutt said Pautz was a pioneer in the lab for this type of research. To help realize its potential, Honeycutt helped Pautz further refine the project for her master’s degree thesis and recruited Dharan and Johnson to contribute to further research. In addition to Honeycutt’s mentorship, their work was supported by the Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative, or FURI, and Master’s Opportunity for Research in Engineering, or MORE, programs.

A closer look at student mental health

Pautz’s next phase of research for her master's degree thesis focused more closely on how inclusive versus authoritarian persuasion methods affect mental health in addition to stress and academic outcomes.

She developed a survey, taken by more than 300 engineering and technology students at ASU, to evaluate students’ perceptions of their professors’ use of persuasion techniques. The surveyed students also rated their own academic and mental health outcomes.

Pautz’s research concluded that professors who use persuasion methods that focus on enhancing community, relationship building and improving students’ sense of belonging were perceived as the most effective teachers.

“Their students have better mental health, decreased stress and better grades,” Pautz said.

Conversely, professors who used rules and punishments — such as requiring class attendance and restricting computer or smartphone use — had a negative impact on students, including increased stress, worse grades and worse mental health.

Pautz’s work was supplemented by Dharan’s research to screen students for mental health conditions and analyze whether certain persuasion techniques are more or less effective for students who screened positive.

“I hope to help professors understand what their students are going through and how their tactics affect their students' health,” Dharan said.

Dharan found her sophomore year to be particularly difficult. The course load of her engineering degree and the difficulty of finding internships have at times caused her to want to change majors. She said she has noticed many of her peers share her experiences.

Similar to other published research about engineering students’ mental health, Dharan’s survey results indicated that 47% of the ASU engineering and technology students who responded screened positive for mental health conditions. The survey included assessments used in clinical diagnoses of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder and asked if students had been diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.

However, Dharan’s findings related to persuasion methods were less clear. In her research so far, none of the persuasion techniques showed a significant difference in effectiveness for students who screened positive or negative for mental health conditions.

“This is not necessarily a bad thing,” Dharan said. “It could just mean both groups have the same feelings for their professors regardless of their mental state. I am planning to dive deeper into analysis to see if I can find anything that will be significantly impactful for students in the long run.”

How are the professors feeling?

When biomedical engineering junior Maxwell Johnson learned about Pautz’s research from Honeycutt, he started thinking about the faculty side of the equation.

“The main motivation for my research was the apparent necessity of investigating faculty mental health,” Johnson said. “No statistics are known about the mental health rates of professors in higher education. Since the metric for student rates of depression and anxiety is shockingly one in every two students over a four-year degree duration, I wanted to peel back the cover on what these numbers looked like for teachers and see how they compared.”

Johnson’s research assessed the prevalence of mental health disorders in ASU engineering and technology faculty members and how that affected the professors’ teaching styles, student outcomes, job satisfaction and other factors.

He found that more than a third of faculty members surveyed experienced symptoms of one or more mental health conditions, which included depression, anxiety and PTSD. Johnson also found a correlation between screening positive for mental health disorders and a lower sense of professional satisfaction, working longer hours, feeling less supported and not using resources available to help them.

However, he found that faculty members’ mental health did not seem to impact the teaching and persuasive techniques they use, how effective they thought they were at teaching or their students' grades or attendance.

“One thing I think students forget is that teachers are people, too, and face the same issues and struggles as everyone else,” Johnson said. “This data advocates for better support for mental health, especially in schools with STEM connections.”

Actionable results and future work

Pautz’s research efforts have uncovered new ways that professors can help improve the performance and mental health of students pursuing careers in engineering and technology.

“Many of the principles that Daniella is evaluating have the potential to be added to the classroom with low faculty effort, such as five- to 10-minute exercises, or policy-level changes like flexible deadlines,” Honeycutt said. “Our goal is to provide a list of evidence-based techniques to assist our students with mental health disorders.”

Pautz’s work has also inspired her collaborators to continue to look for ways to address this important issue in higher education. Dharan plans to continue investigating this topic and publish the findings in a research journal to inspire educators to implement positive techniques in their classrooms.

“The data collected through this project will inform not only ASU but could be expanded to inform any higher education institution,” Honeycutt said.

Johnson has been working closely with the Fulton Schools Learning and Teaching Hub during the design and execution of his experiment. The hub was created in 2021 to provide faculty with professional development opportunities, teaching strategy resources and tools for effective education. He is also sharing his findings with them to provide a clearer picture of faculty resource needs.

Kristen Peña, program manager for the hub, said she and her colleagues learned valuable information from Johnson’s work about how the faculty used or didn’t use the resources they provide.

“We want to raise awareness of the many resources and services available to faculty and to also think holistically about how to embed those resources in our professional development offerings,” Peña said.

The hub is developing quick reference guides and asynchronous learning materials for faculty to learn the techniques that Honeycutt and Pautz found increased student motivation and performance.

“Our goal in embedding these topics is so that it doesn’t feel like there is a barrier to access or confusion navigating what’s out there,” Peña said.

Peña said hub staff is also thinking about how they can help create safe spaces for faculty members to share their struggles.

Johnson plans to expand his research with Honeycutt to explore faculty mental health in a larger population, including faculty members at other universities, and start a new project to generate specific recommendations for university administrators based on his results.

With a fresh degree in hand, Pautz is beginning a systems engineering position at Sandia National Laboratories. One day, she wants to be a teacher or professor, and she can draw upon her research findings and her own experiences with different teaching methods throughout her education.

“Engineering is a difficult major, and the effectiveness of a professor has a huge impact on your success,” Pautz said. “It doesn’t matter how much knowledge a professor has if they can’t keep their students motivated, build a relationship with them and help them learn.”

Monique Clement

Lead communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


First sea turtle exploitation assessment wins ASU graduate award at international conference

May 15, 2023

Arizona State University PhD candidate Kayla Burgher recently won two prestigious awards for her research at international conferences.

Burgher was awarded first place in the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) competition for best graduate student poster in environment and ecology.  Kayla Burgher holds award in front of a sea turtle mural. Kayla Burgher won the Archie Carr Student Award for her presentation "Global patterns of illegal marine turtle exploitation" at the 41st International Sea Turtle Symposium in Cartagena, Colombia. Photo courtesy Kayla Burgher Download Full Image

She presented her research poster, titled "Assessing net illumination using four light types on a diverse array of fish species," at the AAAS 2023 annual meeting held in Washington, D.C. 

For this project, she synthesized seven years' worth of data from paired net illumination trials in Mexico. She found that putting LED lights on fishing nets significantly reduced the bycatch, or accidental capture, of sharks and rays with no effects on target fish catch. 

Burgher was also awarded the Archie Carr Student Award for best conservation oral presentation at the 41st International Sea Turtle Symposium (ISTS). The symposium was held in Cartagena, Colombia. 

Burgher delivered a research presentation, "Global patterns of illegal marine turtle exploitation," which detailed findings from a lengthy project synthesizing data from an array of sources to evaluate illegal sea turtle exploitation at the global scale from 1990 through 2020. 

She found that, during three decades, over 1.1 million turtles were exploited in 65 countries and in 44 out of 58 of the world’s major sea turtle populations. 

"I have had the pleasure of working with Kayla since she was an undergraduate student here at ASU. Her PhD research on sea turtles and fisheries bycatch is innovative and combines field and laboratory work in both the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean basins, where she is collaborating with NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) scientists and local fishers to develop new solutions to reduce sea turtle bycatch while maintaining fisheries production,” said Jesse Senko, assistant research professor.

“To work with such diverse stakeholders in multiple ocean basins as a PhD student is exceedingly rare and epitomizes how Kayla represents the next generation of ocean conservation leaders,” he said. 

Burgher is pursuing her PhD in environmental life sciences from the School of Life Sciences. We talked with her about the recent conference awards, her time at ASU and her passion for sea turtles and marine conservation.

Question: Could you tell us a little bit about your journey before you came to ASU? What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in? 

Answer: While I’ve always had a fascination with the ocean and science, the moment I truly knew that I wanted to devote my life to marine conservation came while on a study-abroad program in my sophomore year of undergrad. I had traveled to Mexico to take part in a study abroad called “Sea Turtles, Sharks, and Fisheries of Baja California: Emerging Topics in Marine Conservation." There, I assisted with a sea turtle monitoring program where I had my first experience up close and personal with a sea turtle. 

One evening, I sat anxiously in a small boat as the captain, a local fisher, piloted us towards the turtle nets we had set earlier that day. Once we arrived, we scoured the nets, hoping to see at least one turtle. We had just about given up hope, but as we neared the end of the net when we heard a splash. “¡Tortuga!” the captain shouted. We began the process of hauling the 350-pound turtle onto the boat. After almost falling overboard and getting splashed quite a bit more than I had anticipated, a beautiful green turtle laid next to me. My anxiety melted away as I gazed into the prehistoric eyes of a turtle taking a massive cavernous breath; my breath was taken and my soul shook. 

At that moment I knew I needed to dedicate my career to saving these majestic, prehistoric creatures, along with the ocean that they call home.

Q: Could you tell us more about your research assessing net illumination and your experience presenting at the AAAS meeting?

A: AAAS was the first in-person conference I had the opportunity to attend as a graduate student, so it was a great experience to help prepare me for ISTS later that month. I really enjoyed exploring the wide range of topics and learning new perspectives from scientists in diverse fields. At the conference, I was very intrigued by the heavy focus on scientific communication. Since my field relies so heavily on effective communication for positive outcomes, it was really eye-opening to hear about which communication techniques were effective and which were not. 

My presentation was on a project I’ve been working on for a few years now. For this project, I am assessing how attaching four types of lights to fishing nets affects the catch of fish, sharks and rays. Prior research has shown that net illumination is successful at reducing the bycatch of sea turtles and other marine megafauna. However, my project is the first to investigate how fish are affected, giving researchers and conservation managers a more complete picture of how net illumination would impact catch rates in specific fisheries. I found that elasmobranch (sharks, rays and skates) bycatch was reduced using net illumination, with orange light being the most effective. These are exciting results given that elasmobranchs are a group of conservation concern that are very often caught as bycatch in small-scale fisheries. On the other hand, bony fish catch and target catch was not impacted by net illumination, suggesting that fishers’ livelihoods would not be negatively affected by net illumination.

Q: Could you describe your research assessing global patterns of illegal marine turtle exploitation, and your experience presenting at the International Sea Turtle Symposium? 

A: Attending ISTS this year was a culmination of many years of hard work and waiting. I began working on the project exploring global illegal marine turtle exploitation during my undergraduate years and had planned to present on the subject at ISTS in 2020. However, the symposium was cancelled due to COVID. Fast-forward a few years, and I have finally finished the project on illegal sea turtle exploitation and have since gotten the work published in Global Change Biology. Additionally, I finally got the chance to present this work at this year’s ISTS. 

Presenting such an impactful global study really got my name out into the sea turtle community. After my presentation, several researchers I look up to came up to congratulate me and talk to me more about my work. My presentation also got the attention of Larry Crowder, a professor at Stanford who I’ve been wanting to work with for years. I now have plans to go visit him in the fall to discuss potential collaborations and projects. Ultimately, this presentation has allowed me to get my foot in the door of my field and has opened up many additional opportunities for projects and potential postdoc positions.

As for the project itself, I collated data from peer-reviewed literature, grey reports, media articles and expert surveys to assess global illegal sea turtle exploitation from 1990 to 2020. I found over 1.1 million turtles were exploited across the three decades in 65 countries. The majority of turtles exploited were either green or hawksbill turtles. 

Our assessment suggests that illegal exploitation appears to have declined over the past decade and, with some exceptions, is primarily occurring in large, stable and genetically diverse marine turtle populations. While the global legal take of sea turtles has been quantified, this is the first assessment of illegal global exploitation. 

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective? Or a professor that taught you an important lesson while at ASU?

A: While at ASU, my perspective about how research is used to create real-world change has shifted. Before beginning my PhD, I had the assumption that any published research could easily be viewed and utilized by decision-makers, with the scientists staying in their corner and decision-makers in theirs. However, after being involved in several conservation projects, I now see how important it is to establish effective networks of communication between researchers, decision-makers and those who the decisions will affect. Transdisciplinary collaboration has the potential to make the translation of research into outcomes more efficient, effective and just. 

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school, particularly those in STEM considering a graduate degree?

A: Say "yes" to any opportunity that interests you, whether that’s a research experience, a chance to meet with scientists whose work interests you or even a volunteer position within your field of interest. You never know who you are going to meet that will be influential for your career. Many of the opportunities I’ve had simply came from being present and running into the right people.

Q: What is your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: I love spending time in the social sciences building surrounded by all the plants. It’s a great space for me to decompress after working for too long in my office or chat with fellow grad students about life that also provides reprieve from the Arizona heat. 

Q: What are your plans after you complete your degree in a few years?

A: After graduation, I would like to continue my research in fisheries management either as a professor or working at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. However, I’m keeping my options open, as one thing I’ve learned during my PhD is that you never know what opportunities will come your way.

Dominique Perkins

Manager of marketing and communications, School of Life Sciences