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Supporting our military's mental health

September 1, 2022

ASU psychology professor's expertise tapped for US suicide prevention committee

Active-duty suicides are trending upward in all branches of the military, especially among women, and the U.S. secretary of defense wants to know why.

That’s why he’s called on a group of select individuals to dedicate a year of their lives to understanding this critical issue and report their findings to Congress.

Congress mandated the creation of an independent assessment of the issue, and on March 22, Lloyd J. Austin III, the secretary of defense, announced the formation of the Suicide Prevention and Response Independent Review Committee

The committee of 10 includes clinical psychologists, epidemiologists, social workers, doctors, retired military and a chaplain. The group has expertise in suicide ideation and mortality, mental health disorders, substance use, sexual assault and weapon safety.

One of the members is clinical psychologist Rebecca K. Blais, an associate professor of psychology at Arizona State University. Her research studies the link between military sexual violence and suicide and how to best support military service personnel after these experiences.

Since May, Blais and the nine other members of the committee have been traveling to various military installations to collect intelligence and gather information from key players. She has also been making monthly visits to the Pentagon where the committee has an office.

In December the committee will deliver a report to Austin that makes recommendations for policy changes for the military community at large. The findings and recommendations of the committee will be presented to Congress in February 2023 and will be implemented by the Office of Force Resiliency

ASU News spoke to Blais about her committee work in recognition of National Suicide Prevention Week, which is Sept. 4–10.

Woma in black dressing sitting down

Rebecca K. Blais

Question: Congratulations on being named to the Suicide Prevention and Response Independent Review Committee. What does it mean and how big of a deal is this to you?

Answer: As a civilian coming from a military family, it is a great honor. Having not served in the military myself, this is a pivotal way that I can give back even more directly to my family and my country. I’ve been fortunate because part of this designation means I’m able to go to these miliary installations and see things for myself, which helps make me a better researcher, psychologist, academic advisor and human.

While seeing these events unfold is heartbreaking and terrifying, it is a necessary view to make us all better at reducing death by suicide. To be selected by (U.S. Secretary of Defense) Austin was another honor. I had the privilege of meeting him and it was clear that his commitment to these individuals was as deep and strong as mine. Combined with our dedicated team, I have to believe we can make a difference and reverse these trends.

Q: I understand that this appointment took you away from ASU for a year to work for the Department of Defense. What have you done in that time?

A: I started in May and was traveling back and forth from Tempe to the Pentagon for a period of three to four months. I met with the secretary of defense and other entities to understand how Washington views what is happening. For the next few months, I’ll be traveling to military installations both nationally and internationally and meeting with other key players.

Our team just got back from Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada and we’re heading to North Carolina in about a week to meet with the NC National Guard and Camp Lejeune, the latter of which is a Marine installation. We will be conducting these site visits till the beginning of November. We have already completed a site visit to Fort Campbell and will also visit Camp Humphreys (South Korea), three installations in Alaska and Naval Air Station (San Diego).

In November and December, we’ll be tasked with writing our final report, which will be given directly to the secretary of defense and then on to Congress. The final four months of our term will be testifying before Congress to push our agenda forward in getting what we think needs to change to get these suicide trends moving in a different direction.

Q: What are some of your key observations?

A: In addition to active military suicides going up, the acceleration is particularly noteworthy among women. Men are still more likely to die by suicide, but when you look at how steeply risk is increasing, we’re seeing (women's) rate increase faster than men. There are several systemic reasons as to why, and we will address these in our recommendations. We are also seeing increased risk among those who identify as LGBTQ, with top risk factors including failing romantic relationships, job stressors and difficulties navigating post-war society.

And, paramount among these issues, we are seeing high rates of racial and sexual harassment. Unfortunately, harassment and assault are perceived to be pretty normative in the military. When I’ve gone on these site visits, I’m being told that it’s “part of the culture and you just have to accept it.” As a civilian, as a psychologist and as a woman, I push back against that and say, “No, we do not accept this.”

Q: What are going to be some recommendations from the committee?

A: We need to reconceptualize what suicide is and not frame it as an individual issue. I hear frequently, “Oh, this service member was depressed or had PTSD. That is why they died by suicide.” PTSD and depression are contributing factors but it’s not the thing that leads to suicide. We need to be thinking about this issue as having independent factors as well as systemic factors that include military culture. We need to be doing more than targeting prevention among specific groups. That’s an older way of approaching suicide prevention. This is not, “Oh, it's tragic this person died of suicide,” but, “This person died of suicide. How did our community fail them?”

Q: What can we as civilians do to help our service members in the military?

A: The thing we can do as civilians to best help someone we know in uniform is to support them. That is to show that we care, show that they matter, and to be there when they call.

Kimberlee D'Ardenne, who is a science writer for the Psychology Department, contributed to this story.

Top photo courtesy iStock

Reporter , ASU News

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Former Sun Devil makes strides against opioid epidemic

Sociology alum serves in community outreach at Phoenix nursery, advocates for addiction treatment options


August 31, 2022

Helping people isn’t something former Sun Devil Michael White only does when he’s feeling generous; for him, it’s a daily mission.

Having earned a sociology bachelor’s degree in 2011 and a criminal justice master’s degree in 2013, White is now the director of community programs at Hushabye Nursery, a Phoenix nonprofit assisting pregnant women with opioid use disorder. The organization specializes in treating neonatal abstinence syndrome, where a baby experiences opioid withdrawals due to exposure during pregnancy. Portrait of ASU alum Michael White. ASU alum Michael White.

Besides his work at the nursery, White is involved in numerous policy groups. He’s a member of the Harvard Medical School Policy Group, the Georgetown Recovery Policy Collaborative, Gov. Doug Ducey’s Substance Abuse Task Force and is also a technical assistant with the Department of Justice for the Comprehensive Opioid, Stimulant, and Substance Abuse Program grant. When he isn’t strategizing with government leaders to improve opioid treatment, he is educating local hospitals and other institutions on the services available to them.  

Throughout his career, White has advocated for Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT), an effective opioid addiction treatment method, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He has helped 14 states integrate the treatment into their correctional facilities so patients can choose it if they wish, and has helped the American Civil Liberties Union and Legal Action Center with several litigations regarding MAT. A big win for White and his colleagues occurred earlier this year when the Department of Justice issued protections for individuals seeking this form of treatment. 

White says he loves this work and rates it a 10 out of 10. “It does not feel like work; just helping people,” he says.

Uncertain beginnings

White’s journey began as a sociology major at ASU’s T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics, where he wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted to do. 

“I knew I wanted to help people, but that was about it,” White says. “I wanted to change the world for people that are usually not cared for or (are) treated poorly.”

White says sociology gave him a crucial foundation of skills such as empathy, active listening and open-mindedness. It has been especially helpful, he says, to understand models of social and human behavior in different settings and groups.

While pursuing his degree, White cultivated his passion through internships. He first interned at a juvenile facility where he interacted with young people navigating the criminal justice system, and then at Head Start, where he learned to work with families and children needing early childhood support. These experiences culminated in a full-time counseling position for an opioid treatment program, where he was able to act as both a nurturing force and an advocate for people struggling with drug use disorders.  

After completing his master’s degree in criminal justice from the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, he felt that significant, systemic change was possible in this field, but was amazed by how many people felt powerless to truly help others. 

Nearly 10 years after graduating from ASU, White knows that even one person can have a big impact. 

His advice to current students? “Go change the world,” he says. “It's messed up.”

Jennifer Moore

Communications Specialist Associate, T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics

Thunderbird student and physician combines technology, health care to improve lives


August 30, 2022

Dr. June Lau already has a successful career practicing medicine in her home country of Malaysia. She has spent the last eight years as a physician, administrator, mentor and educator, having gained experience working in clinical practice in the heart of an emergency department.

"The dynamic, highly charged and raw nature of the emergency medicine environment has cultivated a deep sense of passion and duty in me to see health care as a precursor to improving the lives of others," she said.  Master of Global Management student June Lau in front of Thunderbird's Global Headquarters. June Lau is a second-year student in Thunderbird's Master of Global Management program and a Thunderbird SHARE Fellowship recipient. Download Full Image

In the years before coming to Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University, Lau was based at the National Institutes of Health in Malaysia, where she worked on COVID-19-related research and national COVID-19 statistics for the Crisis Preparedness and Response Center. 

Now, Lau, a rising second-year student in Thunderbird's Master of Global Management (MGM) program, is looking to transition from her clinical practice into the global health and medical technology landscape. She believes in universal health care, and her dream is to contribute to making health care better for all.

"Technology can alleviate health care systems and delivery, thus improving care and ultimately the quality of life," she said. "I strongly believe that a better quality of life will eventually contribute to growth and productivity across the globe."

As a Thunderbird student, Lau saw an opportunity to create an alignment between her clinical background, technology and global management that will help her execute her aspirations in the next steps of her career and beyond.

"The MGM program has enhanced my view of the world," Lau said. "I see the next 10 years as perhaps one of the most crucial periods in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. With the knowledge I have already gained from this program and the potential brought about by the unification of technology with health care, I have the capacity to advance global health care and make it more equitable."

Wanting to help advance her understanding of medical and health technology, she took an internship with EdgeOne Medical. Co-founded by a Thunderbird alumnus, Jim McGough, EdgeOne is a U.S.-based contract development organization that specializes in supporting the development of drug-device combination products and regulating connected health care devices for five of the top 10 global biopharmaceutical firms. 

During her internship, Lau had the opportunity to experience being part of a regulatory team with a strategic focus on programs and regulatory content development.

"Regulatory affairs are an important and essential part of a larger ecosystem in a pharmaceuticals or medical device company," she said. "Every medical product prior to being marketed requires a detailed review and conversation with many stakeholders. Understanding what they do is an important aspect of medical affairs and marketing strategy." 

Thunderbird SHARE Fellows celebrating in front of the F. Francis and Dionne Najafi Thunderbird Global Headquarters in downtown Phoenix.

Lau is also a Thunderbird SHARE Fellowship recipient, a program founded by Thunderbird alumnus Marshall Parke '77 to develop changemakers from emerging and developing countries. The SHARE Fellowship awards merit-based scholarships to selected MGM students, empowering them to enact social change in their home regions. Typically, six students are chosen to join the program each year, and over the last 15 years, 87 fellowships have been awarded to students from 45 different countries. 

The scholarship covers full-time tuition costs as well as funds to cover most expenses, thereby lessening the financial burden that often comes with life as a college student and enabling them to fully participate in campus life, internships and academic programs. Since awarding its first scholarships in 2008, the SHARE program has also attracted countless volunteers to serve as mentors to the SHARE Fellow recipients.

To support his vision, Parke brought in Maria Houle '87, a fellow Thunderbird alum, to be the program's executive director. She helps connect students to mentors, many of which are Thunderbird alumni.

"When exceptional students are free from financial concerns, they can focus on achieving," she said. "Philanthropy is crucial for SHARE because it allows students to have the bandwidth to develop their skills and business plans in order to make an exciting impact. The story of SHARE is very much a story of generosity."

Lau is grateful for the fellowship, saying, "I am grateful to all the alumni who have supported this wonderful program over the years and to the people I have met here — professors, mentors and friends — who have enriched my life. Most of all, I am grateful for my family and friends back home in Malaysia who constantly keep me grounded throughout my life journey."

The considerable generosity of donors, alums and previous fellows enable the SHARE program to continue and succeed.

"This is not a modest, 'feel-good' program. We are asking alums and others to make a serious commitment to share their success, both financially and personally. We each have our own way of giving," Parke said when speaking about philanthropy's fundamental role in the program. 

To learn more about Thunderbird’s Master of Global Management program, visit thunderbird.asu.edu/mgm.

To learn more about the SHARE program and how you can help, visit asufoundation.org.

Dasi Danzig

Senior Media Relations Officer, Thunderbird School of Global Management

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'News addiction' can cause stress, anxiety, study says

August 30, 2022

ASU wellness expert says it's important to unplug from 24-hour news cycle

The news is everywhere.

On your cellphone.

On your Twitter account, Facebook feed and other social media accounts.

On TV, the radio and in newspapers.

Unless you completely unplug, you know what’s going on every second of every day.

That can be a good thing. As Thomas Jefferson once said, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”

But there’s also a downside. Think of the news we’ve been inundated with the last few years: COVID-19, the war between Russia and Ukraine, mass shootings, political upheaval, protests, drought conditions and more.

The obsessive urge to keep up with that news can lead to stress, anxiety and worsening physical health, according to a study in the journal Health Communication.

The study found that 16.5% of 1,100 people polled in an online survey showed signs of “severely problematic” news consumption, which led them to focus less on school, work and family, and contributed to an inability to sleep.

Just more than 73% said they experienced mental health issues “quite a bit” or “very much,” and 61% reported their physical health suffered.

A “news addiction,” the journal called it.

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Nika Gueci

ASU News talked to Nika Gueci, executive director for university engagement in the Center for Mindfulness, Compassion and Resilience at Arizona State University, about the consequences of a news addiction and how people can wean themselves off the 24-hour news cycle.

Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Question: How does an unending diet of news impact one’s physical and mental well-being?

Answer: We are being oversaturated with the news, and when that happens, we can become anxious. We can become stressed, we can become worried. And I think we’ve been living in this state for a couple of years now. So when we’re living in this constant state of constant anxiety, it can really lead to detrimental health outcomes. Our immune systems can suffer. Our digestion can suffer. We can experience colds and headaches more easily.

When we hear about negativity in the news, it can really affect our entire outlook on life. So being aware of what we consume — whether what we’re consuming is food, news, TV, social media — being aware of it is really the first important step in maintaining our balance and maintaining our mindfulness in our daily lives.

Q: It sounds easy. Just get off the phone and avoid social media. But those are at our fingertips every day. How do we do that?

A: I don’t think that the solution right now is to unplug completely. I don’t think that it’s a viable solution, and I don’t think anybody is going to stop being on their phone, watching the news or looking at social media. But mindfulness can help us provide that choice point. A lot of time, when we act on a daily basis, we do so habitually and automatically. We might not even think about picking up our phones, which are right in front of us. So I think the more that we practice being in the present moment … it presents us with an opportunity to make a choice. We can have a choice in what we engage in, who we engage with, what kind of news sources we look at and for how long. Just knowing that you have that choice is a really important step.

Q: Social media obviously plays a big role because of the constant availability. Twenty-five years ago, you watched the news at night and/or read the newspaper the next morning. That’s how you got your news. Would you advise that people set aside time every day where they don’t look at their phone or computer?

A: Of course. I think time limitations are really important. For example, having an alarm clock instead of your phone as an alarm clock, because it’s so easy to just use your phone as your alarm, pick it up and that’s what you’re doing for the next hour. Creating those habits throughout the day can lead to more informed decision-making. And if a news source or social media platform brings up feelings of great discomfort, try not to interact with those people and create that choice point as to who you want to engage with. There are so many choices.

The more you’re in tune with, “How is this affecting me, how is this affecting my mental and physical well-being, how do I feel after I wake up and I’m on my phone for two hours?” … If you don’t feel great, then that’s a time to implement new habits.

Q: This constant cycle of negative news seems like a car accident on the side of the road. You don’t want to look, but you can’t keep yourself from looking.

A: That’s a great point. I don’t think our brains are meant to process this amount of information in the amount of time that we’re taking it in. And when we’re constantly being flooded with it, no wonder we’re getting sick and no wonder we’re feeling anxious. We’re giving our system something that it’s really not intended to handle. I think there are good uses of technology. It can help us keep connected to family and friends. But again, it’s that knowing: Does this bring me joy? Does this bring me happiness? Or does it bring me terror and fear?

Top photo courtesy Pexels

Scott Bordow

Reporter , ASU News

 
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ASU, Los Angeles Community College District partner on transfer-pathways collaboration

August 26, 2022

MyPath2ASU tool minimizes credit loss, shortens the time for students to complete 4-year degree from ASU

The Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD) and Arizona State University have formed a new alliance that provides students at any of the district’s nine colleges with a seamless transfer experience using the unique MyPath2ASU program for student success in achieving a four-year degree from ASU.

MyPath2ASU is a set of customized online tools available to transfer students from accredited, U.S. regional institutions such as LACCD’s nine colleges. These tools not only ensure students a smooth transfer experience to ASU but can also shorten the time to completion for their four-year degree and help minimize credit loss.

“We look forward to working collaboratively with Arizona State University to bring this new and innovative online resource to our students who want to pursue a clear, educational transfer pathway to ASU,” LACCD Chancellor Francisco C. Rodriguez said. “The MyPath2ASU online toolkit makes it easier for our students and educational counselors to map out their transfer classes, so that they can obtain the four-year degree of their choice.”

Through this partnership, LACCD students using MyPath2ASU will find their transfer experience simplified. They will have access to personalized benefits to help them navigate the transfer experience, including: 

  • End-to-end learner navigation through more than 400 course-by-course guided pathways into immersion, local and online ASU degree programs.
  • Ensure course applicability by assisting students with taking courses that apply to their associate and ASU bachelor’s degree.
  • Guaranteed general admission to ASU and admission into MyPath2ASU major choice if all requirements are satisfied; some majors have additional or higher admission requirements.
  • Self-service, degree-progress tracking through My Transfer Guide to minimize loss of credit.
  • Connected experience through personalized ASU communications to prepare academically and build a connection to ASU.

“ASU is committed to student success,” said ASU Vice Provost for Academic Alliances Cheryl Hyman. “We understand transfer students all have unique learning journeys. Through our new partnership with the Los Angeles Community College District and our MyPath2ASU transfer tools, we encourage all transfer students to have a connected pathway experience that will enable students to shorten their time to degree completion with minimal credit loss.”

LACCD students will also have the opportunity to attend ASU in downtown Los Angeles through ASU Local, its new hybrid university experience. ASU Local empowers students to thrive in college and life while rooted in their communities. ASU Local students have access to 130-plus online bachelor’s degrees and receive personalized college and career success coaching through in-person programming at the ASU California Center in Los Angeles.

Students at any of the nine LACCD colleges The nine LACCD colleges are: Los Angeles City College, East Los Angeles College, Los Angeles Harbor College, Los Angeles Mission College, Los Angeles Pierce College, Los Angeles Southwest College, Los Angeles Trade-Technical College, Los Angeles Valley College and West Los Angeles College.are invited to explore the over 400 course-by-course transfer pathways available through the LACCD-MyPath2ASU transfer partnership by visiting asu.edu/mypath2asu.

This latest partnership with LACCD builds on a long history of ASU partnerships with California community colleges. ASU has partnered with all 116 California community colleges to deliver over 400 articulated guided pathways into ASU on campus, local and online degrees. Last year, about 3,600 California community college students transferred to ASU.

An infographic showing the four steps for MyPath2ASU: create MyPath2ASU, MyPath sign-up, track your progress, apply to ASU

Top photo of the Los Angeles skyline by Deanna Dent/ASU

Prison reform advocate talks about the justice system

Caroline Isaacs to speak at ASU as part of the Seeking Justice in Arizona lecture series


August 24, 2022

Caroline Isaacs, executive director of Just Communities Arizona, has advocated for decades to reimagine and improve the criminal justice system.

On Sept. 19, she will deliver a lecture titled "Creating Safety Outside of the Punishment System," which is the second of three webinars in the 18th annual Seeking Justice in Arizona Fall Lecture Series hosted by the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University. Portrait of Caroline Isaacs, executive director of Just Communities Arizona. Caroline Isaacs, executive director of Just Communities Arizona, is a guest speaker at the 18th annual Seeking Justice in Arizona Fall Lecture Series. Download Full Image

MORE: Reproductive rights, prison reform and voting equality take center stage in ASU lecture series

The school sat down with Isaacs to talk about abuse in the prisons, the criminalization of behavior and ways that the community can assist in reforming these systems.

Question: Please introduce yourself; where are you from?

Answer: I’m Caroline Isaacs, I’m originally from northeast Pennsylvania, a small town that is named Trucksville.

Q: What’s something you learned during your professional or academic journey that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: The most significant lesson — one I am constantly re-learning — is about the importance and power of human relationships. It’s easy to get mired in a viewpoint or ideology and start seeing people as allies or opponents. We also make the mistake of thinking that facts and data are what make people change their behavior. The extreme isolation in our culture, combined with COVID and the polarization of political issues, makes it very difficult to just relate to people as human beings. But when we can do this, it is transformational. One of our most overlooked basic needs is connection and belonging, and it is what we all have in common.

Q: What types of social problems do you work on? Why do you think they are important?

A: For the last 25 years, I have been dedicated to rethinking and reforming what we mistakenly call the "criminal justice system." The reality is that what we have is a punishment system. It is designed not to produce safety or justice but for social control of people and groups that those in power find threatening, distasteful or useful (i.e., surplus labor). This system is at the nexus of virtually all social problems — poverty, violence, mental health issues, addiction, racism and inequality of almost every kind. The default response is to criminalize behavior we don’t like, fear or don’t understand. This work is important because criminalization and punishment are not solutions to these problems, and function to exacerbate them. The punishment system drains resources, including people, away from communities and locks it into a perpetual cycle of failure. This impacts all of us.

Q: Why do you think these problems exist?

A: First, and most obviously, because of the institutionalization of racism and economic inequality in all government structures. But it also has its roots in our toxic culture of extreme individualism and normalization of violence to solve problems. The utter disregard of collective or social responsibility for creating conditions that foster poverty, substance use, behavioral health problems and other root causes of criminalized behavior means that the default is to view these behaviors as inherent flaws in the person, making them “less than” and therefore disposable. This label of criminal and the underlying assumption of their behavior as evidence of a personal deficit then justifies all manner of abusive treatment and absolves society of any responsibility to aid the person. Our culture equates justice with retribution. We hurt people who hurt people, "an eye for an eye." Increasingly, we also hurt people who have hurt no one but themselves. This state violence is believed to keep people in line out of fear of the harsh consequences of their actions, which reveals a complete lack of understanding of why people break the law.   

Q: How did you become involved in this type of work? What inspires you to continue working for social change?

A: When I moved to Arizona in 1995, I had a one-year internship with the American Friends Service Committee. At the time, one of their big projects was the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), which utilizes volunteers to conduct conflict resolution and communications skills workshops in prisons and in the community. I was told to go attend one such workshop over the course of a weekend at the Medium Security Federal Men’s Penitentiary in Tucson. I was terrified — a young woman walking into a prison to hang out with a bunch of incarcerated men for three days! I was absolutely blown away by the men I met there — some of the most brilliant, funny, insightful and fun people I had ever encountered. They schooled me on what prisons really are and do, and who is caught up in that system. It lit a fire for me — it was the one social justice issue that just made me the angriest. The incredible waste of these precious lives and the fallout on their families and communities is just staggering. I continue to believe that if we can confront what is broken about our punishment system, we can learn a new way of addressing people’s needs and our collective well-being.

Q: What do you like best about this work?

A: I love strategic thinking — struggling with complex problems and having the ability to be creative in thinking about ways to approach change. I also love being able to work with so many incredible people, learn their strengths, build community and dream together.

Q: What are a few concrete steps that people can take to address the justice issues you work on in the community?

A: Join our mailing list at justcommunitiesarizona.org. Elections matter: State legislators determine criminal sentencing laws and have the power to reform them. Prosecutors are elected at the county level. Judges are also elected in Arizona. But these are races that are largely ignored. Take the time to educate yourself on the record of people running, and do what you can as a constituent to make it clear to them that you want to see change.

On a personal level, begin questioning how individualism and normalization of punishment show up in your own life. If someone offends you, hurts your feelings or violates your boundaries, how do you respond? Do you distance or reject them, assuming that their motives were deliberately harmful? Or do you reach out, ask them why they did that, help them understand the impact of their actions, and give them the chance to make amends? Think about what makes you feel “safe.” Chances are, its relationships with other people, not punishment meted out by the government.

The Seeking Justice in Arizona Fall Lecture Series, now in its 18th year, brings in experts from our local communities to discuss critical national issues in an Arizona context. Each lecture is followed by a Q&A session and time to interact with the speaker informally. These events are free and open to the public, and are held virtually on Zoom from 3 to 4:15 p.m. Video recordings will be available on YouTube following each event.

Visit https://sst.asu.edu/seeking-justice for more information. Register here.

Marketing Content Specialist, Graduate College

 
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'ACES' up: Online students get cancer research experience

August 22, 2022

Mentoring program provides undergraduate students with hands-on research experience, career skills

For online students living far away from campus — more than 2,000 miles in Ryan Kilinski’s case — being able to participate in the research process can be tricky. 

So when Kilinski, an Arizona State University online student who lives in Oregon, learned about the ACE Scholars Program, he jumped on the opportunity.

The ACE Scholars Program is part of ASU’s Arizona Cancer Evolution (ACE) Center. It was created in 2021 to provide mentorship and undergraduate research experience on projects in the emerging field of cancer evolution. The program is open to students in any major, whether they attend ASU on campus or online.

Kilinski is a sophomore majoring in physics as well as astronomical and planetary sciences, but he was open to learning something new.

“I have an interest in science in general, but biology and even cancer wasn’t a specific passion of mine. But I knew that going into something that I might not be familiar with at all could prove to be even more beneficial,” he says.

Inclusive opportunities

The ACE Scholars Program began during the coronavirus pandemic, when most workplaces and schools were in a virtual, work-from-home format. The program still holds most of its meetings through Zoom so that students from Arizona and elsewhere can attend.

Cristina Baciu, a research program manager for the ACE Center, and Zachary Compton, a fourth-year PhD candidate studying evolutionary biology in the center, created the ACE Scholars Program as a way to give students hands-on research experience that many of them were missing out on. It has grown to become a 50-student program that provides rigorous training and a community of support.

“We both had really great experiences as undergrads that shaped us into who we are today,” Baciu says. “So a good part of it is us just wanting to help students who don’t have access to the same opportunities that we had.”

The ACE Scholars Program is open to both online and on-campus students in any degree program who have an interest in cancer and evolutionary biology research. It is supervised by Carlo Maley, director of the ACE Center, a researcher in the Biodesign Institute and a professor in the School of Life Sciences

Though the research at the ACE Center is rooted in evolutionary biology and oncology, the ACE Scholars’ projects span a variety of disciplines, from the psychology of cancer to modeling the life history of reproductive cancer risk. 

One commonality is that most of the projects require students to work closely with data. In some cases, this means developing code to assist in sifting through large data sets to determine the differences in cancer risk between different groups of animals. In other cases, it involves analyzing survey responses about preferred cancer terminology when it comes to doctor-patient interactions.

Since the projects have both clinical and social implications, any type of student can find an area of interest in the program.

“A student’s background — their CV, GPA, whether or not they’re in the honors college — has really had no predictive power in their success in our group,” Compton says. “Really, the only prerequisite to being in the group is having an interest in the group and the work we’re doing.” 

A student’s average week involves attending a lab-wide meeting and a professional development seminar, as well as working on the project at hand. Since the meetings can be attended virtually and the projects don’t require a physical laboratory, the structure of the program allows for seamless collaboration between in-person and online students.

For online students like HD Cross, a senior studying biological sciences with a concentration in genetics, cell and developmental biology, the program has made their experience feel less isolating.

“I love the research and being able to be published and all the great things that come from that and the experience, but the social connection has just been the best,” Cross said from their office in North Carolina. “You miss that as an online student sometimes.”

Level up leadership

In addition to working on research projects, students have a chance to prepare for their post-graduation careers through bi-weekly career and professional development courses taught by Baciu. On the off weeks, they can hone their coding skills in sessions taught by Compton.

“I think that positions students in a really great way for whatever their future goals are,” Baciu says. “That’s another purpose of ours, to help students build a really solid application for whatever it is that comes next for them.”

Students who have spent at least a semester in the program also have the opportunity to become mentors for the newer cohorts. 

Walker Mellon, a third-year economics and computer information systems major, says that the experience has encouraged him to think differently. 

“The way that the ACE Scholars Program is set up has really enabled me and a lot of other students to not only follow the lead, but also really take charge and answer the questions we might want to know,” he says. 

For Harshini Darapu, who graduated last spring with a degree in biological sciences with a concentration in neurobiology, physiology and behavior, the leadership experience was the most rewarding part of the program.

When she joined the center in spring 2020, she couldn’t picture herself leading and mentoring a group of her peers. After guiding her team through poster presentations and working with them on projects throughout the semester, the experience taught her how to delegate and check in with a team, but more importantly, it boosted her confidence to take on future leadership opportunities.

“I’ve definitely felt a lot more confident taking that leadership role,” Darapu says.

Next steps

After two successful years of the program and 10 awards at the 29th Annual SOLS Undergraduate Research Symposium, students are currently preparing six manuscripts for publication, something relatively uncommon at the undergraduate level.

But for the directors, the only thing that matters is making sure their students have a platform to get involved.

“If all we ever accomplish is providing undergraduate research opportunities, we’ve accomplished enough,” Compton says.

As the program expands, they hope to provide more in-person lab experiences in collaboration with the School of Life Sciences and SOLUR, the school’s undergraduate research program.

The ACE Scholars Program will be accepting applications for spring semester in November 2022. Fill out an interest form to be notified when applications open.

The ACE Center is a National Cancer Institute-funded research program housed in ASU’s Biodesign Institute. The ACE Scholars Program has received additional funding from the Online Undergraduate Research Scholars program in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Student science writer , Knowledge Enterprise

 
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These women are leading the charge for more diversity in STEM

August 19, 2022

Nancy Manley latest in series of women heading STEM-related units at ASU

As she grew up in Yugoslavia, Tijana Rajh knew men were OK with her becoming a scientist – as long as she understood there were limits to what she could accomplish.

“There was a feeling of, ‘OK, we’ll let you play with the ball.’ But there was this glass ceiling that existed,” said Rajh, director of Arizona State University’s School of Molecular Sciences.

Rajh’s experience isn’t unique. Women make up less than 30% of the world’s scientific researchers, according to UNESCO data, and a report by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources found that women hold the least senior administrative positions in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math).

Donatella Danielli

“It’s still an old boys club in many respects,” said Donatella Danielli, director of ASU’s School of Mathematical and Statistical sciences.

ASU is changing that dynamic.

Over the last 18 months, ASU has hired four women to head units in STEM-related areas: Rajh, Danielli, Patricia Rankin, chair of the Department of Physics, and, most recently, Nancy Manley as director of the School of Life Sciences (pictured above).

It’s important to note that ASU didn’t purposely seek female candidates for those positions. Patrick Kenney, dean of The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said all four women competed against men in the selection process and were hired, “because they’re all really big catches for us.”

“The first thing I think to stress is that ASU got the best possible people it could,” Rankin said. “I don’t think I was hired because I was a woman.”

That said, the four women recognize the importance of being in the positions they’re in. Although they have different backgrounds, they said they all experienced sexism in some way in their formative years as scientists and were told — sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly — that their voices and ideas were not valued.

“You can be in a room and nobody’s listening to you, or you can say something and then a male colleague will say something similar, and he will get acknowledged and credited for it,” Manley said. “It happens all the time. It’s just sort of pervasive. I have been called aggressive for speaking up where in other cases men would be called proactive. So you just sort of are having to constantly fight against that.

“That women were hired in these positions in fields that are considered to be primarily male is very important to me.”

Now that they are the heads of their departments, the four women can fight against that long-held bias. Just as important is the trickle-down effect their hires can create.

Woman's portrait

Tijana Rajh

Since Rajh was hired, for example, the number of tenure track female faculty in the School of Molecular Sciences has increased from 12 to 16, and the number of female non-tenure track faculty has increased from 11 to 16.

“We are paying so much more attention to try to develop a diverse faculty,” Rajh said. “We’re fighting to show that they can do the work the same as the big guns (men) could.”

Female undergraduate students also benefit. If, in ASU’s STEM leadership, all they saw was men, they’d question the university’s commitment to diversity and their chance to become a department director or chair.

“When they’re mentored by a female and see women in these roles they think, ‘OK, I can go this high in the science and math fields,’” Danielli said. “Maybe they didn’t get that message 30 years ago.”

“I’ve had female graduate and undergraduate students tell me that having female leadership matters to them,” Manley added. “So I know it makes a difference.”

Last January, Danielli organized a panel on women in math leadership at the American Mathematical Society meeting. Its purpose: build support groups among female mathematicians.

“We also want to encourage or at least have women think about the possibility of taking a leadership position,” Danielli said. “The women who have already gone down that path can give the perspective of what challenges we faced and why we chose to do it.”

These are all big-picture, societal changing issues. Sometimes, though, having women in leadership roles in traditionally male-dominated fields can be seen in small things.

Woman posing with coffee mug

Patricia Rankin

Rankin said one of the items on her to-do list after becoming chair of the Department of Physics and hearing from female students was making sure the women’s bathrooms were stocked with sanitary products.

“That may not seem a big deal, but, in fact, when you’re stuck in a department and you’re doing three-hour labs, having somewhere you can actually go nearby for things like that is important,” she said.

There’s still work to be done. According to the American Institute of Physics, just more than 2,000 female students earned bachelor’s degrees in 2020, compared to more than 9,000 male students. Rajh said 20–25% of the faculty in the School of Molecular Sciences is female while more than 50% of undergraduates are female.

ASU is out to change those numbers – and, as evidenced by the hirings of Rajh, Danielli, Rankin and Manley — in a meaningful way.

“Once a problem is found, there’s a big, sustained push to make a difference,” Rajh said. “I think this is the greatest thing about ASU.”

Top photo: Nancy Manley is the new director of the School of Life Sciences. She started her position on Aug. 1. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Scott Bordow

Reporter , ASU News

 
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ASU expert weighs in on FDA ruling about hearing aids

August 18, 2022

Audiologist Kristin Samuelson says ruling that allows hearing aids to be sold over the counter could have positive and negative outcomes

Need hearing aids? You’ll no longer be required to get a prescription from an audiologist.

The Food and Drug Administration announced Tuesday that hearing aids will be available over the counter as soon as October. The agency cited studies that showed more than 30 million Americans suffer from hearing loss, but only one-fifth of them get help.

Federal officials estimated the new ruling would result in an estimated $2,800 savings on a pair of hearing aids.

ASU News talked to Kristin Samuelson, a clinical assistant professor in the College of Health Solutions and the director of ASU’s Speech and Hearing Clinic, about the ruling and what it might mean for consumers.

Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Question: What was the process that led to this decision?

Answer: It really started in 2016. The FDA wanted to create a new category of what we call direct-to-consumer, over-the-counter hearing aids. The FDA started looking into the regulations, but then COVID hit and everything got stalled. So it kind of got put on the back burner with a bunch of other stuff. And then last year, it kind of got what I call resurrected and started becoming a reality.

Q: Should this ruling lower the cost of hearing aids?

A: Theoretically, that’s the talk, but because they’re (the hearing aids) not even available yet, we don’t exactly know what they’re going to be. We’ve been told they’ll (cost) anywhere from $100 to $1,000 … When people think of hearing aids, they immediately think of the really top-end, $3,000 or $4,000 hearing aids you get from an audiologist. What’s going to happen now is there’s going to be these two categories of hearing aids instead of just a category called hearing aids. There’s going to be over-the-counter and what they’ll call prescription hearing aids, and those are the ones that will still be fit by audiologists.

Q: Will anyone be able to buy the over-the-counter hearing aids?

A: Anyone under 18 is still going to have go to an audiologist. And these (over-the-counter) hearing aids are only supposed to be marketed to and fit to people with perceived mild and moderate loss. The big beef that we audiologists have with that is … I’ve been doing hearing tests and fitting hearing aids for over 30 years, and it’s my own personal experience that people are not a good judge of their own amount of hearing loss. I’ll have people walk in with a really severe loss and they think they have no loss at all. And people with no loss at all think they have a severe loss.

Q: Is that one of the potential downsides to the ruling, that people will buy hearing aids without the critical information and knowledge they would get from an audiologist?

A: You wouldn’t wear your friend’s glasses, right? Glasses are all prescription. Same thing with hearing aids. They’re all very specifically programmed for a person’s loss. Those are our big concerns. If you’re just going in and buying it off the shelf at a drugstore or something, it’s not going to be fitted for your loss. And you won’t even know if you have the right hearing loss for that kind of aid. The other thing is that the very first thing we (audiologists) do when we get a patient is look in their ears. A lot of times it’s just that their ears are plugged with wax or they have a medical condition, like an ear infection. And then we get them to the proper medical professional. With these over-the-counter hearing aids, nobody is looking in their ears. And then nobody is doing is verification testing, which is the gold standard for hearing aid fitting. That’s the concern.

Q: Is there also a fear that the over-the-counter aids will be inferior products?

A: There’s a huge fear of that. I guess using the word inferior will be relative because do we mean inferior in that they can’t be programmed and adjusted? Or are they truly going to be just for sound quality? I have a feeling there’s going to be some very good products out there, but they just have to be used right.

Q: What are the positives, besides a potential price drop, of having over-the-counter aids?

A: It will at least get people to start thinking about it earlier. Having people think about hearing loss and they walk into a CVS or Walgreens and see hearing aids, at least gets it in the forefront of their minds. And maybe people with what we call mild loss will jump in and try something until it gets worse, and then they can go and get a prescription, fitted hearing aid from an audiologist.

Q: Could we see more manufacturers getting into the hearing aid business, so to speak?

A: This is what we’re all waiting to find out. For instance, Bose was part of the initial snowball of getting this thing going, and they’ve already pulled out. We’ve heard rumors of Apple and various different manufacturers, so we’re all kind of waiting to see who’s going to jump in the fray.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who is considering buying an over-the-counter hearing aid?

A: In June, I gave a talk at Mirabella (ASU’s on-campus retirement community), and I said, “There’s definitely a place for these. They’re going to do some good in the world of hearing loss if they’re used properly. But we do recommend that they would at least go to an audiologist just to get a hearing test. And most hearing tests are covered by insurance. So, go get the hearing test.

Top photo courtesy iStock/Getty Images

Scott Bordow

Reporter , ASU News

ASU program receives national recognition for improving success for Latino students

College Assistance Migrant Program one of only 20 in US to be recognized by Excelencia in Education


August 18, 2022

This year, Excelencia in Education, the nation’s premier authority on efforts accelerating Latino student success in higher education, received 93 program submissions representing 17 states, D.C. and Puerto Rico.

Arizona State University’s College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) program and the other 19 finalists will be featured online as well as in Excelencia’s Growing What Works Database — the only national online, searchable database for institutional leaders, funders and policymakers interested in identifying working strategies for Latino students. Family of a CAMP student posing for picture with ASU-themed signs. Members of a CAMP family teach their grandmother how to throw the ASU pitchfork. Photo courtesy Seline Szkupinski Quiroga Download Full Image

“Arizona has one of the largest migrant student populations in the nation, and many students in migrant families make the decision to forgo a college education in order to financially support their families,” said Nancy Gonzales, executive vice president and university provost at ASU.

“I am incredibly proud of the faculty and staff who launched the CAMP program within the School of Transborder Studies. It is an innovative, comprehensive and culturally responsive approach that is creating impactful results for our ASU students participating in it. CAMP is well-deserving of this important national recognition,” she said.

“We are elated that this recognition has been given to CAMP, especially in light of the terrific barriers we have had to overcome over the past two years because of the impact of the pandemic,” said Carlos Vélez-Ibáñez, project principal investigator, Regents Professor and founding director emeritus of the ASU School of Transborder Studies.

“The program's recognition will only enhance our capacity to serve our students and community and bring even greater attention to the excellence of the university,” he said.

Examples of Excelencia was created in 2005 and is the country’s only national effort to identify, aggregate and promote evidence-based practices improving Latino students’ success in higher education.The ASU CAMP program was nominated as an exemplar, led by practitioners who work directly with students on their entire journey from enrollment to degree completion.

“This recognition will help with our motivation for continuing this difficult work, and will hopefully attract more migratory students who will realize that ASU is a place for them to pursue their education and succeed,” Program Director Seline Szkupinski Quiroga said. “I also hope that this recognition will bring more awareness to the migratory students of Arizona and the challenges they face, and that we find more supporters of our work.”

The ASU CAMP Scholars Project, which is federally funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Migrant Education, provides academic support to students from migrant and seasonal farmworker backgrounds during their first year in college. The project was created when Szkupinski Quiroga realized that Arizona had the seventh-largest population of migrant students in the country but ASU had no programs for them. 

“ASU CAMP’s programming and service delivery model was designed with the LatinxLatinx is the gender neutral term for a person from, or whose ancestors were from, a Spanish-speaking land or culture or from Latin America. student population in mind. We conducted extensive research into what is most effective for first-generation, low-income Latinx students and incorporated the most impactful components into our program,” Szkupinski Quiroga said. “We also kept ASU’s Charter in mind: that we as an institution are measured not by whom we exclude but by whom we include and how they succeed.” 

The CAMP project identifies, recruits and enrolls students from migrant and seasonal farmworker backgrounds to attend ASU and provides them with academic, financial and social support to help them be successful in their first year of college.

“We have a phrase in Spanish — ‘persona educada’ — which literally means an ‘educated person’ but in reality, means a learned, self-sufficient and socially and civilly responsible individual who thinks first of others’ well-being, rather than just their own,” Vélez-Ibáñez said. “This underlies all of our efforts.”

Students who have participated in the CAMP program say that it provided them with crucial financial, emotional and academic support, and through personal development workshops, internships and guidance on grad school applications, they developed the leadership and collaboration skills necessary to be successful.  

Young Latinos are one of the nation’s fastest-growing populations. ASU has recently been named a Hispanic-Serving Institution by the U.S. Department of Education and is committed to serving those individuals who wish to pursue a college degree regardless of their background or socioeconomic status, and to provide the support and resources for success.

Andrea Chatwood

Communications Specialist, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

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