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Fracturing bones — and traditional views of civil engineering

October 3, 2022

Fulton Schools of Engineering researchers and graduate students assist Mayo Clinic in studying fracture patterns in human femurs

When most people think of civil engineering, images of construction sites, bridges and tunnels will likely come to mind. However, a recent collaboration between Arizona State University and Mayo Clinic is placing civil engineers in a new light.

“There is a huge world out there where engineers can use their skills in areas that are traditionally not associated with civil engineering,” says Subramaniam “Subby” Rajan, a civil engineering professor in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU.

Putting that concept to the test, Rajan has spearheaded a number of projects in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, part of the Fulton Schools, with private companies such as Honeywell and Raytheon and government organizations such as the Federal Aviation Administration and NASA. He has aided in the materials testing of everything from jet engines to bulletproof vests —  efforts that have not only expanded his knowledge of civil engineering, but also that of his students and research assistants who get to participate in the studies as well.

“If you ask a person on the street or even a practicing civil engineer whether civil engineering skills can be used in answering questions dealing with bone fractures, the answer will inevitably be 'no'; there is not a connection between the two. However, there are a lot of connections,” Rajan says.

In his latest research project, Rajan is using his civil engineering expertise to help forensic researchers draw more accurate conclusions about the impact of trauma made on the human body.

Video by Steve Filmer/ASU Media Relations

Interdisciplinary research

Portrait of , a civil engineering professor at ASU.

Subramaniam “Subby” Rajan

With a long track record of applying civil engineering mechanics to diverse research projects, Rajan was contacted by researchers at Mayo Clinic in Arizona. The team is actively working on a project that could redefine the process for identifying trauma made to human remains. More specifically, the research could allow forensic anthropologists to determine the time at which blunt-force trauma may have occurred to a human body with greater precision and, ultimately, if the trauma played a role in a person's death.

“This work is important to forensic scientists because knowing whether a fracture occurred perimortem — at or around the time of death — versus postmortem can give us important information about the cause and manner of death with crime scene investigations,” says Natalie Langley, a consultant in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at Mayo Clinic in Arizona and president of the American Board of Forensic Anthropology.

The collaborative team at Mayo Clinic also includes researchers from the Center for Regenerative Medicine in Arizona, the Biomaterials and Histomorphometry Core Laboratory at Mayo Clinic Rochester, Mayo Clinic postdoctoral research fellow Jessica Skinner and ASU's Barrett, The Honors College graduate intern Yuktha Shanavas.

Langley explains that femur bones are sourced from males between the ages of 50 and 80 who donated their bodies to scientific research. Those demographic variables were chosen to control for sex- and age-related compositional differences in bone. The bones are then heated at controlled temperature and humidity for varying amounts of time to simulate the loss of elasticity that bones experience during the postmortem interval.

“Bone is an elastic material, and it maintains elasticity for some time after death,” Langley says. “By heating the bone, we are able to replicate longer periods of time after death that commonly lead to a bone losing some elasticity, leaving different fracture patterns than if it were broken while still elastic.”

A layer of spray paint is also applied to the surface of the bones so high-speed cameras can detect deformation and surface strain that occur during the impact testing.

Controlling the variables

Femur bones coated in black-and-white speckled spray paint laid out on a table.

Donated femur bones are coated in a black-and-white speckled spray paint that allows high-speed cameras to capture the deformations on the surface of the sample during fracture testing. Photo by Monica Williams/ASU

Langley says her team needed help minimizing the unknowns in their research.

“I contacted ASU initially because we needed an impact tester to induce fractures in a controlled manner,” she says.

Rajan’s team and Mayo Clinic researchers created a special apparatus to hold a fragment of femur bone to allow for an impactor to drop at a controlled and monitored rate.

“These are impacts that are strong enough to break a bone, but they are not as high velocity as a gunshot wound,” Langley says. “We even take it one step further and use high-speed photography to measure, or track, the movement of the bone during the fracture process.”

This allows her team to consider what forces are being distributed across the bone.

Once the bone is fractured, it is handed back over to Langley and her team for a thorough review and documentation of the fracture characteristics.

“One of the things we look at is the pattern of the fracture,” Langley says. “Fractures that occur at or around the time of death have a certain appearance; and those that occur much longer after death, when the bone is not as elastic, have a different appearance.”

“We captured 5,000 frames per second and were able to tell where the weight struck the bone and where the cracks were propagating in the bone,” says Ashutosh Maurya, a graduate research associate who volunteered to participate in the bone testing.

Maurya is completing his doctorate in civil, sustainable and environmental engineering in the Fulton Schools. Despite the bone testing research having a different focus from his dissertation work, he felt it was a great opportunity to expand his skills as he explores impact dynamics problems connected to aircraft structures.

“If you look at almost any research, you will see people from different areas working together,” Maurya says. “This will definitely help me in my future career as I collaborate with non-engineering background professionals and manage projects across disciplines.”

Ashutosh Maurya, a doctoral student at ASU, wears protective goggles and a jumpsuit while using imaging technology in a lab.

Ashutosh Maurya, a doctoral student of civil, sustainable and environmental engineering, volunteered to participate in the collaboration with Mayo Clinic in hopes of expanding his experience working with individuals in different research fields. Photo by Monica Williams/ASU

It is a philosophy Maurya’s mentor Rajan has tried to instill in all of the students that pass through his classroom.

“It's only when you start looking at the fundamental tools that are used across all these different problems, that you find there are a lot of commonalities,” Rajan says. “For this specific project, we are able to make an impact beyond what is commonly expected of civil engineers.”

In the coming months, Langley and her team will be compiling data from the fracture testing, tracking formations and markings left in the bones at different intervals of drying. The results will then be used to create a new standard for determining when trauma was inflicted on a crime victim.

“Working with Rajan and his team allowed us to think outside of the box of our own work,” Langley says. “Their knowledge in controlling the variables with forcefully creating fractures gives validity to our work, ultimately changing the process for solving crimes and giving closure to families.”

Top photo: Natalie Langley, a consultant in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at Mayo Clinic in Arizona, applies fingerprint powder to a fractured bone to help see fracture surface markings left by an impact. These markings are then documented to help create a new set of criteria for determining the timing of fracture events (e.g., perimortem versus postmortem). Photo by Monica Williams/ASU

Monica Williams

Communications Specialist , Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


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ASU celebrates opening of California Center with series of events

October 3, 2022

Policymakers, educators, experts come together to explore some of the pressing issues facing our communities

Editor’s note: This story is featured in the 2022 year in review.

Editor's note: Follow along with us this week as we highlight a series of events to mark ASU's expansion in California at the ASU California Center in downtown Los Angeles.

Arizona State University is marking its expansion in California with a weeklong series of events at the ASU California Center, located at the historic Herald Examiner Building in downtown Los Angeles.

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU News

From diversity in media to opportunities in space commerce to the future of film education, the panels and discussions will explore a range of issues facing our communities. Learn more about the week's events and follow along on livestream.

ASU News is there to capture the insights and expertise shared; this blog will be updated throughout the week.

'Global Leadership in the Fourth Industrial Revolution'

5–5:45 p.m. Friday, Oct. 7

A man speaking on a stage is seen in large video screens above

Thunderbird School of International Management alumnus Robert Grant — entrepreneur, bestselling author, prolific inventor, holder of numerous patents and founder of several corporate enterprises — talks with Thunderbird's Director General and Dean Sanjeev Khagram during the keynote address Friday, concluding the grand-opening week of the ASU California Center in downtown Los Angeles. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Robert Grant, a Thunderbird School of Global Management alumnus and the founder, chairman and managing partner of Strathspey Crown, a private equity company, said he decided to attend the Thunderbird School in the 1990s because he liked the people.

“It was very different from the Ivy League schools I visited,” Grant said Thursday evening at "Global Leadership in the Fourth Industrial Revolution," the closing keynote for the California Center's grand-opening week.

“The people were more socially aware, and that’s a distinguishing factor and why so many Thunderbird alums have ascended in organizations because they’re people you want to hang out with.”

Grant, who has lived in nine countries and learned eight languages, was drawn to a globalized experience.

“One of the things that differentiates the Thunderbird alum is that they realize that not everything they believe is the only way to see the truth,” he said.

Grant worked at several technology companies and often would start at a far-flung outpost, where he had autonomy. Then when promotion brought him back to headquarters, he was in shock at the loss of control.

“That’s when I leaned on what I learned at Thunderbird,” he said. “I had to realize that there’s another form of leadership that can be more powerful, and that’s influence.”

In a wide-ranging talk, Grant discussed how he discovered a new pattern of prime numbers, his meeting with the Dalai Lama and whether the metaverse will be an extension of human consciousness.

“Every time we have a new technology, there will an equal amount of good associated with it and an equal amount of evil,” he said.

“Maybe a core aspect of this is recognizing that the hurt of any man causes the hurt of all. It’s such an important moment right now.”

'Global and Local Sustainability: The SDGs, ESG, Climate Action and Beyond'

Noon–1:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 7

Two men and a woman sit on a stage with mics and a sign behind them that says ASU California Center

Erin Bromaghim (center), deputy mayor of international affairs for the city of Los Angeles, speaks as Thunderbird School of International Management Director General and Dean Sanjeev Khagram (left) leads a lunchtime panel about cities and sustainability with Bromaghim and Anupam Govil,  managing partner and global head of sales and strategic partnerships at Avasant, on Friday at the ASU California Center. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Cities have become major drivers toward greater sustainability, with Los Angeles among the most progressive in adopting the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, according to Erin Bromaghim, deputy mayor of international affairs for the city of Los Angeles. She spoke at a panel Friday held by the Thunderbird School of Global Development at ASU.

“We started by trying to understand how a city can align itself and implement the goals,” she said.

Graduate students from Thunderbird helped city staff assess the city’s policies and programs and how they aligned with the goals, which aim to make communities more sustainable and equitable.

“We disaggregated the data geographically and demographically to point to specific needs in communities,” she said. “If you want an agenda where no one is left behind, you need to know where those left behind are.”

Sanjeev Khagram, director general and dean of the Thunderbird School of Global Management, said that sustainability is integrated into everything Thunderbird students do.

“It’s core to the program,” he said.

Thunderbird has partnered with the city of Phoenix on the Global Phoenix Rising initiative to help the city become more sustainable and inclusive. And in January, Thunderbird launched the Francis and Dionne Najafi 100 Million Learners Global Initiative.

“It’s 100% digital and self-paced, and it will be translated into 40 languages,” he said. “We’re building out the world’s first academic translation factory with Google, and most importantly, it’s all at no cost to the learner.”

'The Future of Film Education'

3–6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 6

View of woman on stage through camera

Cheryl Boone Isaacs, director and professor of practice at The Sidney Poitier New American Film School, listens during her discussion with the school's Deputy Director Peter Murrieta, which was part of "The Future of Education" event on Thursday, Oct. 6. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

When Arizona State University decided to name its film school after Sidney Poitier, it was a perfect fit because the legendary actor was outspoken about the need for representation in Hollywood, and that is the mission of the The Sidney Poitier New American Film School.

“We are supporting filmmakers in front of and behind the camera,” said Cheryl Boone Isaacs, founding director of the school. She spoke at an event Thursday titled “The Future of Film Education” at the ASU California Center in downtown Los Angeles.

“Our goal at the Poitier Film School is to create as much opportunity for our students to participate in every single facet of the entertainment business, whether around production or the team that supports production, which is a vast field," she said.

Steven Tepper, dean of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, said that when ASU was considering naming the film school, he approached the Poitier family, telling them that ASU’s law school is named for Sandra Day O’Connor and ASU's journalism school is named for Walter Cronkite.

“Sandra Day O’Connor, Walter Cronkite and Sidney Poitier — those are three American heroes,” he said.

“Those are three people who embody dignity, statesmanship and excellence at the highest levels.”

>> MORE: Read the full story

'Space Exploration, Commerce and Stewardship'

8:30 a.m.–noon Thursday, Oct. 6

Woman speaking to moderator on stage

Professor of Practice Cady Coleman, ASU’s global explorer-in-residence, chats with fellow former NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman during a session on “Space Exploration, Commerce and Stewardship” on Oct. 6 at the ASU California Center. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Former NASA astronaut Cady Coleman said that space travel and the space industry need diversity to succeed.

“We’re not going to be successful if we only have people who look and think alike,” said Coleman, who is the ASU global explorer-in-residence at the School at Earth and Space Exploration.

She’s been working with a group that is seeking to make space accessible to people with disabilities.

“It was eye opening to realize that I’ve been leaving a slew of the population out of my thoughts and ideas,” she said.

“These people are problem-solvers before they get out of bed in the morning. I want to go to space with a problem-solver.”

Coleman's remarks were followed by a panel discussion on industry outlooks for our future in space.

The nature of the public-private partnerships and the increase in commercial space travel has changed the industry, according to Jim Bell, professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and director of the Space Technology and Science (NewSpace) Initiative.

“Our traditional aerospace partners are still there and still involved,” such as Lockheed Martin, he said. “But the new landscape is chock full of entrepreneurial, disruptive small companies that have great ambition and are being seeded with funding by the government.”

Instead of once-in-a-decade, billion-dollar missions, several smaller missions to the moon, Earth orbit and commercial space stations are planned, Bell said.

>> MORE: Read the full story

'From Ground to Galaxy: How Universities Are Reinventing the World at Large'

Noon–1 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 4

Panel of women on stage at ASU California Center

ASU Provost Nancy Gonzales (center) speaks at the "From Ground to Galaxy" panel on Tuesday, Oct. 4. The panel discussion was moderated by Moira Shourie (left), executive director of ASU’s Zócalo Public Square. Also pictured: Lina Calderon-Morin, deputy director of the Southern California College Access Network; Maria Anguiano, executive vice president of ASU’s Learning Enterprise; Elizabeth González, chief program and strategy officer of California’s College Futures Foundation; and Lindy Elkins-Tanton, Foundation Professor and Regents Professor with ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and vice president of the ASU Interplanetary Initiative. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

To serve everyone in their communities — from pre-school students to retirees — universities must evolve into new kinds of institutions, a goal that Arizona State University has been pursuing, according to Nancy Gonzales, provost and executive vice president of the ASU Academic Enterprise.

“We’ve redesigned ourselves to take advantage of many opportunities, and it’s done in nontraditional ways — in partnership with other universities and in partnership with industry, government and private philanthropy,” she said.

Maria Anguiano, executive vice president of the ASU Learning Enterprise, said that ASU wants to impact people across the life span.

“The Learning Enterprise was created to plug into learning as early as possible and work with community partners and K–12 to figure out those gaps,” she said.

“The idea of continuous knowledge is important,” she said. “How do we get people to have educational pathways to thrive in life?”

One innovation is ASU’s degree in technological leadership, which can be earned in three years, according to Lindy Elkins-Tanton, Foundation Professor and Regents Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and vice president of the ASU Interplanetary Initiative.

“We have a way to train people to ask better questions. We want them to notice the things unsolved and have the skills to solve them,” she said.

'Beyond State Lines: Creating a Culture of Transfer'

11–11:45 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 4

Group of people on panel on stage

Moderator Cheryl Hyman (left), vice provost of Academic Alliances at ASU, poses a question to panelists on Tuesday, Oct. 4, during the “Beyond State Lines: Creating a Culture of Transfer” panel. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Higher education institutions need to think beyond expanding access to college and focus on success throughout the journey toward graduation and a good job, according to a panel of experts who spoke Tuesday morning.

“Most learners don’t follow a linear path,” said Cheryl Hyman, vice provost for academic alliances at ASU, who moderated the discussion titled “Beyond State Lines: Creating a Culture of Transfer.”

“Many attend more than one academic institution, and 40% start at community colleges,” she said.

Technology is one way to help facilitate transfer.

“It’s difficult for individual students to understand how their credits apply to any particular program in a particular institution,” said Rasmus Lynnerup, assistant vice provost for Academic Alliances at ASU. “The only way forward is to develop technology that allows for reduced complexity and opacity, and puts the agency back with the learner."

Creating a common course-numbering system is the “holy grail” of higher education, according to Erika Endrijonas, superintendent-president of Pasadena City College. But in California, courses are the purview of faculty, who have resisted attempts to unify numbers, so the same course has different numbers at colleges in the same district.

Common course numbering “would be one of the most impactful ways for us to facilitate ease of transfer to ASU and other places,” she said.

'The Next Normal: Galvanizing Educators, Communities and Technology Around P–12 Learners'

9–10:30 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 4

ASU has created a new kind of team-teaching model that’s intended to improve student learning but also empower teachers to leverage their expertise.

“A lot of people say there’s a teacher shortage,” said Lisa Cannon, senior program manager for the Next Education Workforce Initiatives at ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

“That isn’t new. But what if we don’t look at it as a teacher shortage but as a workforce design model problem?”

Cannon spoke at a panel discussion Tuesday morning titled “The Next Normal: Galvanizing Educators, Communities and Technology Around P–12 Learners."

“If you think about one teacher and one classroom, it’s all the expectations we have for that one human being. We expect them to know all the latest and greatest and have all the pedagogical skills and meet the needs of all students,” she said.

In the team model, educators of varying levels of experience, background and expertise work with larger groups of students. A longtime, National Board Certified teacher who’s good at teaching reading might work with a new teacher whose background is in social media and a math specialist who used to be an engineer.

“So we look at a team-based model to provide deeper, personalized learning, so kids have access to multiple adults and learn off multiple kinds of expertise,” Cannon said.

>> MORE: Read the full story

'Diversity, Culture and Media'

6–8 p.m. Monday, Oct. 3

One man speaks as part of a panel while the other three panelists listen

Malcolm Venable, a senior staff writer at Shondaland, speaks during the “Diversity, Culture and the Media” panel Monday at the ASU California Center in Los Angeles. The event also featured (from left) Cronkite School Dean Battinto Batts Jr.; Nonny de la Peña, a Peabody winner and ASU faculty member; and Ron Kellum, a Cronkite School alum and producer and director. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

In a discussion on “Diversity, Culture and the Media” on Monday evening at the Herald Examiner Building, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication Dean and event moderator Battinto Batts Jr. noted that newsrooms have not become significantly more representative since he started in the business decades ago.

“I would not be here if it was not for efforts at diversity. But since then, we’re running in place,” he said.

The lack of diversity has meant a lack of role models, according to Nonny de la Peña, the founding director of the Narrative and Emerging Media Program at ASU. She is the founder and CEO of Emblematic Group, a digital media company focused on immersive virtual, mixed and augmented reality.

“In technology, it’s a monoculture,” she said. “It’s one of the reasons I’m here (at ASU). I was running my company, and I would pull in an intern here or there and I was never going to really disrupt that monoculture.”

All three panelists — de la Peña; Malcolm Venable, an entertainment journalist and currently a senior writer for; and ASU alum Ron Kellum, a producer and director who was the the first African American artistic director for Cirque du Soleil — noted the burden that is inherent with being the “first” or the “only” in the room.

“Being first is framed as an achievement, but we should reframe it as a failure of the organization,” Venable said. “What happened to eliminate all the other qualified people?”

>> MORE: Read the full story

'Mission + City + Architecture: ASU and the Revitalized Herald Examiner Building'

Noon–2 p.m. Monday, Oct. 3

View of panel on stage for event at ASU California Center

Linda Dishman (second from right), president and CEO of the Los Angeles Conservancy, speaks during the panel “Transition: Mission + City + Architecture” panel on Monday, Oct. 3, held in the historic Herald Examiner Building, now home to the ASU California Center. Also pictured, from left to right: panel moderator Duke Reiter, American Institute of Architects fellow, senior advisor to the president at ASU and executive director of ASU's University City Exchange; Melanie McArtor, senior associate with design and architecture firm Gensler; Barbara Bouza, American Institute of Architects fellow and president of Walt Disney Imagineering; and Karen McNeill, a Julia Morgan scholar and member of the Board of Trustees of the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

A newspaper story announcing the completion of the new Herald Examiner Building in 1914 noted that it was designed by Julia Morgan, “who, although a woman, stands in the front ranks of architects in the country.”

Karen McNeill, a historian, discussed Morgan at a program Monday titled “Mission + City + Architecture: ASU and the Revitalized Herald Examiner Building.” The program was organized, hosted and moderated by Duke Reiter, senior advisor to the president at ASU and executive director of University City Exchange.

Morgan was the first woman licensed as an architect in California, in 1904. Nine years later, William Randolph Hearst hired her to design and build the largest newspaper building in the country.

“It was a massive project that she managed from 340 miles away,” McNeill said.

The Herald Examiner closed in 1989, and the building sat vacant. In 1991, the building was threatened with demolition, according to Linda Dishman, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Conservancy, which helped to acquire protections for the site, paving the way for renovation.

“The Hearst family decided to see how hard it would be to get a demolition permit,” Dishman said. “It was hard because the city told everybody.

“We had to do a lot of explanation of why it was important to save the original McDonald’s, but on the Herald Examiner Building, people got it.”

The Hearst Corp. decided to put the demolition on hold, using the building as a filming location to generate some income.

Chris Hawthorne, chief design officer for the city of Los Angeles, once wrote that the building was the most important shuttered building in LA.

“It’s important to think of this building and Julia Morgan in the context of the LA architecture that followed, particularly the civic monuments that looked to this building as an early example of a quintessentially Los Angeles skill of achieving a kind of eclecticism or marriage of styles and period influences,” he said. Other examples include the Central Library and Union Station.

Melanie McArtor, a senior associate for Gensler and project manager for the renovation of the building, began work in 2015. All the skylights had been painted over after Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941, and all the arched windows were cemented over after labor riots in the 1960s. The building had been vacant since the 1989 shuttering of the newspaper.

“Because it was used as a filming location, there were many layers that needed to be peeled back,” she said.

“Having ASU as the lead tenant is so exciting because it brings journalism back to the buildingThe Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication is one of the ASU units with a presence in the building, including a Cronkite News bureau.,” Dishman said. “But it also opens it to the community, and there’s so much affection for this building, especially the lobby, that it comes with a lot of good will.”

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU News

'Is LA Still a Global City?' 

8:30–10 a.m. Monday, Oct. 3

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti spoke at an event on Monday morning called “Is LA Still a Global City?” Garcetti said that the important question for Los Angeles is: "What kind of global city are we?"

“Nothing about being global inherently makes you a fair city or a just city. It just makes you big,” he said.

Los Angeles, where 63% of the residents are immigrants or the children of immigrants, is at the crossroads of many of the world’s biggest industries, including not only the entertainment industry but also fashion, fine arts and new media, he said.

“We are the shot callers, the investors, the storytellers. Part of that is our universities, like ASU, which we welcome as an LA university joining the other great institutions,” Garcetti said.

A panel discussion followed Garcetti’s talk, in which ASU President Michael Crow emphasized the need for cities to maintain a vibrant urban core.

“We’re here because this is the place where the future is being outlined,” he said.

>> MORE: Read the full story

Using Hollywood storytelling in education

Fireside chat, the evening of Sunday, Oct. 2

Three people talking on stage at ASU California Center.

Following a cocktail reception and dinner, Fox 11 Los Angeles news anchor and ASU alumna Christine Devine moderates a discussion with ASU President Michael Crow (right) and Walter Parkes, co-founder and CEO of Dreamscape Immersive, on Sunday, Oct. 2, at the launch of the ASU California Center in Los Angeles. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

ASU kicked off a week of events celebrating the new ASU California Center in downtown Los Angeles with a discussion about how ASU is using the storytelling expertise of Hollywood to change the nature of education.

ASU President Michael Crow and Hollywood producer, screenwriter and media executive Walter Parkes described the Dreamscape Learn technology platform to a group of ASU alumni who gathered for a dinner at the Herald Examiner Building — the new home of the ASU California Center — on Oct. 2.

“One reason for being in California is that there are so many geniuses and so much creativity, and part of being innovative is accepting that we can’t do everything,” Crow said. “We should focus on people who can do the things we can’t do.”

Crow asked the crowd if they’ve every cried in a movie.

“How is this possible? You don’t even know these people,” he said. “Who’s cried in a biology class? Nobody.

“Hollywood is genius storytelling that connects you to your emotions.”

Parkes, co-founder and CEO of Dreamscape Learn, said that after a long career of engaging people in entertainment, he realized those capabilities should be transferrable to education.

About 3,000 ASU students are learning biology with Dreamscape Learn this semester, in which they have virtual reality experiences with a headset, hand sensors and desktop controls. They feel vibrations in their chairs as they “travel” to an intergalactic wildlife sanctuary and use the joystick to control actions such as a creature dissection.

“We said maybe we can use this narrative approach and technology to transform students into scientists and allow them to go into the interstellar wildlife sanctuary and actually solve problems with others,” Parkes said.

Top photo: Guests mingle in the lobby of the Herald Examiner Building in downtown Los Angeles on Sunday, Oct. 2, at the grand opening of the ASU California Center. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


Families, ASU faculty shed light on cold case crisis at ASU symposium

September 30, 2022

In the United States, there are over 270,000 cold cases — unsolved criminal cases of homicide or missing persons that remain open pending the discovery of new evidence. Behind each of these cold cases there are thousands of families, friends and loved ones that are left without answers.

This topic and more were discussed last week at the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences’ first-ever Cold Case Symposium. At the event, over 300 community members, faculty, experts, students and staff came together, both in-person and virtually, to better understand this crisis, bring awareness to local cold cases and explore some of the work being done to address this growing problem.  People seated on a stage. One of them speaks into a microphone. Krystal Hans (left), an assistant professor of forensic entomology at Purdue University, leads a Q&A panel discussion with speakers (left to right) David Robinson II, Ethan A. Ristow, Kelsi German and Sarah Turney at the first-ever Cold Case Symposium at ASU's West campus on Sept. 23. Download Full Image

The event, co-hosted with the Purdue University College of Agriculture’s Department of Entomology, took place at Arizona State University’s West campus in recognition of National Forensic Science Week.

“This event is the first of its kind where it's bringing together academics, students, family members, advocates and organizations to build a collective community of people that have the same goal and the same interest,” said Krystal Hans, an assistant professor of forensic entomology at Purdue University.

“We are talking about ways that we can build this network, support these cases and aid in these investigations, whether it's from a student that wants to find out how they can get involved, or a community member that wants to hear more about a case and wants to share that in their community. We’re just looking to bring all of these people together to help support cases that are in need.”

Disparities in cold cases

Although cold cases are a topic that many are familiar with, one of the goals of the event was to encourage attendees to go beyond entertainment and gain a deeper understanding of the lives that are impacted by cold cases.

The event began with an introduction from the organizers Hans and Lauren Weidner, an assistant professor in the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences

In their overview of cold cases, they shared that one of the reasons cases go cold is the lack of resources and a centralized location to access information. In the U.S., only 7% of police departments have a dedicated cold case unit, and only 20% have a protocol for initiating cold case investigations.

Hans and Weidner also touched on the racial disparities seen in media coverage of missing persons. Although nearly 40% of missing persons are people of color, experts agree that the coverage of white and minority victims is disproportionate.

“One thing that we see is very striking is that vulnerable communities are impacted the most,” Hans said. “Every case deserves as much attention as the Gabby Petito case received. Daniel Robinson and Lauren Cho should be names that we all know well. It's unfortunate how many cases don't get that kind of attention and community support.”

Families seeking justice

During the event, attendees first heard from David Robinson II, the father of Daniel Robinson, who went missing in June 2021. Daniel Robinson, a 24-year-old geologist, was last seen leaving his work site in Buckeye, Arizona. In July 2021, his vehicle was found about two and a half miles from the work site in a remote part of the desert. Although his vehicle was recovered, he has still not been found.

David Robinson II, an Army veteran, spoke about how he moved from South Carolina to Arizona to search for his son and has continued his unwavering fight for answers over one year later. He founded the Daniel Robinson Foundation to provide help for families who are experiencing a similar situation.

Kelsi German took the stage next to speak about the murder of her sister, Liberty German and her best friend Abigail Williams. Liberty German and Williams were murdered in February of 2017 in Delphi, Indiana. The crime remains unsolved to this day, despite video evidence found on Liberty German’s cell phone. 

Since 2017, Kelsi German has become an advocate for her sister and other family members fighting for answers. She is a recent graduate of Purdue University with degrees in forensic science and psychology.

Ethan A. Ristow went on to speak about his son, Ethan B. Ristow, a 38-year-old man who has been missing since August 2021. He was last seen in the desert near the border of Fountain Hills, Arizona. At the time of his disappearance, he was with his wife and two sons and became separated from his family and has not been seen since. Ethan A. Ristow continues his tireless searches for his son, and has started a YouTube channel in an effort to bring greater public awareness.

New College alumna Sarah Turney was the final speaker during the morning session. Sarah is the sister of Alissa Turney, a 17-year-old woman who went missing in May 2001. Sarah, the host of podcasts Voices for Justice and Disappearances, spoke about the power of social media in missing persons cases.

After searching for answers in her sister's case for years, Sarah took to TikTok in the hopes that the case would gain media exposure. Her videos began going viral and with a renewed public interest in Alissa’s case, an arrest was made in August of 2020.

Following the individual speakers, attendees had the opportunity to ask questions during a live Q&A panel discussion.

Students and organizations dedicated to finding answers

In addition to hearing directly from families impacted by cold cases, attendees also heard from students and organizations working on cold cases.

Brayden Johnson, an undergraduate student from Purdue University, shared work he had done on a cold case and what he learned from the experience via Zoom. In a course taught by Hans, Johnson researched the cold case of Janet Shirar, the great aunt of his fiancée who was murdered in 1980. Through this experience, Johnson was able to uncover new details in the case 

“It wasn't just about finding any information. It was about finding information that had been overlooked or needed a new pair of eyes — something that could push the investigation even an inch toward a solution,” Johnson said.

The final speaker of the day was Ryan Backmann, the founder of Project: Cold Case, an organization based out of Jacksonville, Florida. Project: Cold Case was founded in 2015, after Backmann’s father was murdered in 2009. The organization works with families around the U.S. who have lost loved ones in a cold case to provide resources and support. Over 1,000 cases have been submitted by families and law enforcement to be featured on the Project: Cold Case website.

Continued collaboration to heighten awareness

Moving forward, the event organizers said they plan to hold the Cold Case Symposium annually as part of New College’s commitment to leading the way in the forensic sciences. 

“The first Cold Case Symposium hosted here at ASU’s West campus was an incredible experience and I am proud that I was able to host this event with friends and colleagues,” Weidner said. “This event was an opportunity to share knowledge and experience with attendees who had a common goal — supporting these cases and raising awareness. I am looking forward to growing this event and seeing the positive impact that can come from it.”

New College currently offers several degrees in forensic sciences that take an interdisciplinary and practical approach, including bachelor’s degrees in forensic science, forensic psychology and computational forensics as well as master’s degrees in forensic science and forensic psychology

Since 2016, New College has granted nearly 900 degrees in forensic science, forensic psychology and computational forensics.

Emily Balli

Manager of marketing and communications, New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences

New Center for American Institutions aims to help Americans regain confidence in their institutions

ASU center’s Oct. 14 launch event to feature local leaders, keynote on academic freedom on college campuses

September 23, 2022

The new Center for American Institutions, housed in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University and established in summer 2022, has a single mission: to foster and renew respect for foundational American institutions through undergraduate education and public outreach. 

Surveys show that many Americans have lost confidence in their institutions. The Center for American Institutions seeks to restore that confidence, especially in college-aged audiences, who may not understand how these institutions work within a constitutional framework. American flags fly at the Washington Monument American flags fly at the Washington Monument. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now Download Full Image

“There are many common questions I’ve heard from students about our institutions, such as: Why are Supreme Court justices appointed without term limits? Why was the Federal Reserve Bank created and how are interest rates set? What role does organized religion play in maintaining a well-ordered society? What is religious liberty and why did the framers of the Constitution guarantee religious freedom? What role should the media play in society?” said Donald Critchlow, professor of American political history at the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies and director of the center.

“We want to answer these questions and help foster respect for our institutions through public forums, discussions and research.”

The newly designated center aligns with ASU's New American University enterprise of transdisciplinary study, academic rigor, broad accessibility and social embeddedness through meaningful engagement with local and national communities.

“Over the course of the next five years, the Center for American Institutions will form national panels composed of leading public officials to examine key institutions," Critchlow said. "These panels are charged with issuing national reports based on objective data and prescriptive remedies to improve these institutions. These reports will be widely distributed to the media, public officials and the public. These panel reports will present an opportunity for ASU to have a national impact on these discussions.”

ASU students will serve as research assistants for these panels and will have the opportunity to meet national public figures. Additionally, the center will provide opportunities for students to participate in education forums sponsored by the center.

“For example, the center is facilitating a Reagan Ranch Retreat in Santa Barbara, (California), this year where 15 ASU students will participate in a moot Supreme Court case about free speech,” Critchlow said. “The center is funding travel and lodging expenses for students participating in this three-day workshop. This is the first of many such workshops that the new center will sponsor.” 

In addition, the center will continue offering the ASU High School Leadership Academy, which attracts hundreds of high school students from the area each year. The center plans on expanding this program statewide by sponsoring one-day workshops in cities and towns across the state. 

The official launch event is planned for 6 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 14, in Armstrong Hall on ASU's Tempe campus, and event RSVPs are now being accepted. It will feature comments by Arizona Board of Regents’ Jessica Pacheco, Arizona Supreme Court Justice Bill Montgomery, Ingrid Gregg, center Director Donald Critchlow and Associate Director Jonathan Barth, and will include a keynote by author Bret Weinstein.

Andrea Chatwood

Communications Specialist, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Collaboration is key to future of health care workforce, panel says

September 22, 2022

Collaboration is the key to shaping the future health care workforce, said health leaders at a recent panel discussion.

That was the overwhelming consensus among experts and attendees alike at “The Future Health Workforce: Insights and Solutions” discussion. The event, hosted by Arizona State University's College of Health Solutions, took place at the ASU California Center, located in the historic Herald Examiner building in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. Woman speaking into microphone behind a lectern on a stage on which two other people are seated behind a table. A sign behind them reads "ASU California Center." College of Health Solutions Dean Deborah Helitzer (left) introduces Dr. Donna Elliott and Dr. Michael Kanter at the panel discussion "The Future Health Workforce: Insights and Solutions" at the ASU California Center in Los Angeles on Sept. 16. Photo by Carl Jimenez/ASU Download Full Image

Moderated by College of Health Solutions Dean and Professor Deborah Helitzer, panelists Dr. Donna Elliott, vice dean and professor of the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, and Dr. Michael Kanter, professor and chair of the Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine, responded to the question of how colleges and universities can prepare students to meet the challenges presented by our health care system.

Both noted physicians and educators said future doctors and other health care providers must learn how to work with others in order to deliver better health outcomes.

High test scores won’t be enough

Elliott said high MCAT scores and grade point averages won’t be the most valuable assets for people applying to medical schools.

“As medical schools go about screening the large number of applicants for those who can succeed in their institutions and medicine in general, they are looking for students who have evidence of ability to function as a team,” Elliott said.

Kanter said that modern medicine offers health care providers the opportunity to consume large amounts of data about conditions and patients. But he said finding solutions to those concerns requires more than just being able to sift through raw data.

“Data by itself is useless, and I would argue that the information, by itself, is almost as useless,” Kanter said. “It’s really the implementation of that information that needs to happen. Students need to learn how to convert data to information and information into change. It involves leadership, thinking, how to work in teams and how to educate. I think those are general skills that will move that learning cycle along.”

Future doctors need a broad-based curriculum

Following the discussion, the health leaders took questions from the audience about what they have learned, what they are challenged by and how we must reenvision health education and the workforce to reduce disparities and prepare for a better future through collaboration, transformation and innovation. Helitzer then closed the discussion by asking what schools such as the College of Health Solutions at ASU could do to better prepare students for medical school.

Elliott said that of the traditional pre-med training that was in place when she went to medical school — subjects such as biology, chemistry, physics, calculus and English it is the language skills that were most useful.

She said that today’s medical students need a broader-based curriculum.

“It’s the breadth of education now,” Elliott said. “We need students who are thinkers, not memorizers. Students who can think and imagine and apply what they learn.The more opportunities they have to do that before we get them, as well as after we get them, is what’s most important.”

The complete recording of the live discussion is available on the College of Health Solutions' Youtube channel.

This panel on "The Future Health Workforce" was part of a series of events to mark the ASU expansion in California at the ASU California Center in downtown Los Angeles. The events are open to the public and designed to share ideas and explore collaborations on issues facing our communities.

Weldon B. Johnson

Communications Specialist, College of Health Solutions

Setting the course in electrical engineering

Coast Guard officer Mike Freeman advocated for, graduated from online delivery of accelerated program

September 19, 2022

​When he received his first bachelor’s degree in management from the United States Coast Guard Academy, Mike Freeman had every intention to become a businessman after his five years of Coast Guard service were completed. But all of that changed when Freeman reported to his first assignment.

“Working with aviators landing their helicopters on the tiny flight deck of the Coast Guard’s USCGC Confidence ship convinced me that aviation was the path for me,” he says. “Once accepted into flight school, I became a fanatic and learned as much about aviation and aerospace as possible.” Coast Guard helicopter with a person standing next to it. Download Full Image

With his newfound passion, Freeman didn’t wait to leave service to pursue his next goal and started his journey to earn a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, part of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University. The field has many applications in aviation and aerospace technology, such as designing sensors and aircraft instrumentation. Because his military assignments had him moving around the country, Freeman chose the program’s online delivery method, which shares the same course path and ABET accreditation as the in-person offering.

Freeman also knew he wanted to earn an advanced degree and became interested in pursuing the accelerated master’s degree program, enabling him to complete both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in five years.

“I first heard of the accelerated degree program when I was applying for school in 2017 and knew that it would be a great option for me with my full-time career and family commitments,” he says.

In ASU’s accelerated master’s degree programs, students can use master’s degree courses to fulfill elective credits at the bachelor’s level, reducing the length of time it takes to fulfill the requirements for both degree programs.

However, the accelerated electrical engineering master’s degree program was only offered on campus when Freeman started at ASU. Yet, he was determined to complete it as an online student.

Freeman was persistent throughout his studies in advocating for an online delivery method of the accelerated program to benefit nontraditional students. He worked with the electrical engineering advising team to get an online delivery method of the accelerated program set up and became the first student to enroll once it was approved.

This summer, Freeman became the second student to graduate from the accelerated program’s online delivery method. (The first graduate, Trang Dunham, graduated in spring 2022.)

“Our success in online deployment of our undergraduate, master’s and accelerated degrees has greatly expanded our reach to students who would otherwise not have access to our programs,” says Stephen Phillips, director of the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering. “Graduates like Mike Freeman demonstrate what our highly motivated students can accomplish.”

The accelerated program’s online delivery method follows the same curriculum as its in-person counterpart, including the same rigorous expectations for students to gain hands-on engineering experience. Freeman’s favorite part of the program was the undergraduate senior capstone project.

“My capstone team had a fantastic mentor, David Ramirez, who at the time worked at General Dynamics Mission Systems. He helped us get a home-built radar set off the ground and running,” Freeman says. “It was really enjoyable figuring that challenge out.”

Portrait of ASU Online student Mike Freeman in his Coast Guard uniform.

Coast Guard MH-65E Dolphin Helicopter Instructor Pilot and Flight Examiner Mike Freeman. Photo courtesy of Mike Freeman

As an online student, Freeman says communication was key. He informed his instructors early on that his schedule as an active duty service member could be unpredictable at times, and with tasks like hurricane response deployments, he might need flexible deadlines to complete his assignments.

“It’s gotten much easier to connect with professors and other students during my time at ASU, and that will hopefully continue to improve,” Freeman says.

He credits a large part of his success in the program to School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering academic advising staff members Robert Monahan and Lynn Pratte.

Monahan sought authorization of the online delivery method for the accelerated electrical engineering master’s program and Pratte served as Freeman’s academic advisor for the graduate portion of the program. Freeman praises Pratte as being highly invested in her students’ success.

“Working with Mike has been awesome,” Pratte says. “He advocated for himself and other students who are interested in this program. Actions like his are what make ASU No. 1 in innovation.”

Freeman took two courses in electronic materials and quantum mechanics with Michael Goryll, an associate professor of electrical engineering who remembers Freeman as a standout student.

Goryll helped Freeman prepare for his comprehensive exam, a requirement to receive his master’s degree, and was so impressed with Freeman’s achievements that he nominated him to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Eta Kappa Nu honor society.

“My experience working with Mike has been great,” Goryll says. “While the quantum mechanics course is very mathematical, Mike was very enthusiastic about it and never lost his motivation.”

Now a lieutenant commander, Freeman works as a helicopter flight examiner and instructor pilot at the Coast Guard’s Air Station Houston in Texas.

He hopes to use his new degree to seek further technical leadership roles in the Coast Guard. After his military service is up, Freeman will pursue work in technical roles in the aerospace industry.

“I’m a total space nerd and look forward to advancing humanity’s presence in space,” he says.

TJ Triolo

Communications Specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


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A bold cure for the irrelevant university?

September 19, 2022

Beyond the Academy's 'Guidebook for the Engaged University' highlights how universities can help solve defining problems of our age

Today's students increasingly demand engaged scholarship — curricula and research opportunities directly relevant to addressing climate change, misinformation, widespread social unrest and other sustainability, environmental and social challenges. But they often find the traditional university model ill-equipped to deliver that worldly engagement.

This lack of engagement by academia is a traditional narrative Arizona State University has dramatically upended in serving the nation, state and community, as evidenced in its charter, mission and vision of a New American University, and most recently, as the most innovative university in the nation eight years in a row.

Now, ASU professors Leah Gerber and Nancy Grimm have taken some of the best lessons learned to help share their knowledge by contributing to a new guidebook for academia.

They’ve contributed to a new book — "The Guidebook for the Engaged University" — that provides a comprehensive roadmap for administrators, faculty and students who want to make their institutions of higher education systematically more welcoming to engaged research — and avoid accusations of ivory-tower irrelevance.

Grimm and Gerber are part of an an international network of hundreds of researchers working to make universities more supportive of engaged scholarship with real-world impact. Written and published by Beyond the Academy, the new guidebook highlights university best practices to foster and support engaged scholarship — aligning their structures, incentives and outcomes with solving the defining problems of our generation.

"Business-as-usual approaches to academic research and teaching aren't enough to solve these challenges," says Bonnie Keeler, director of Beyond the Academy and faculty member at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

"We hope the guidebook encourages others to advocate for reforms in their own institutions and serves as a reminder that change is not only possible, but happening at universities all across the globe."

Tackling the greatest challenges

One of the greatest challenges ASU has undertaken for the benefit of the community it serves is the future health and sustainability of our planet. After launching the very first School of Sustainability a decade ago, ASU’s commitment to sustainability has evolved to now become the Rob and Melani and Walton Center for Planetary Health, which treats the Earth in a new emergency health-care model to help cure the effects of climate change.

Gerber is enthusiastic about what the guidebook’s publication could catalyze, particularly to meet the global challenge of biodiversity in an age of human-caused climate change:

"There is nothing more inspiring than conducting cutting-edge research with real-world applications. At the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes, we not only produce actionable science, we share it with organizations outside academia who are making a difference both on the ground and in the real world,” she said.

“We look forward to a broad dissemination of the guidebook to encourage other institutions, particularly STEM departments, to value actionable science in equal measure with conventional data-driven science. This is not just about changing institutional norms in science production; it is about increasing applicable knowledge that will help ensure our planet’s future."

Gerber’s students are also excited about the guidebook.

"In being a part of an interdisciplinary program like Biology and Society at ASU, I know firsthand that the need for resources like this is there,” said graduate student Olivia Davis. “Our science cannot exist in a vacuum — it impacts so many people in so many different fields. Having a resource like this guidebook is a great starting point for reform that aligns with today's reality."

The guidebook is also aligned with ASU's Earth Systems Science for the Anthropocene (ESSA) Graduate Scholars Network, directed by Grimm and Professor Abigail York.

"This guidebook touches on many elements that are needed to transform academia to meet the challenges that humanity faces in this age of rapid change that we call the Anthropocene,” Grimm said.

The network has been supported by ASU President Michael Crow’s office since 2020 and is affiliated with ASU’s Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory.

“At ASU, our ESSA scholars network emphasizes team science, co-production and a solutions focus; centering justice, equity, diversity and inclusion in our work and in our community; and openness to diverse ways of knowing — inclusive of non-academic perspectives that we can gain from engagement outside the academy," Grimm said.

This past summer, Grimm and colleagues Michelle Hale, Michele Clark and Liliana Caughman mentored students who worked on the Rio ReImagined project, which helps realize community visions for the future of the Salt River and Gila River watershed. There, a team of graduate students across multiple disciplines are working together in their cohort to co-design solutions-oriented research focused on the Rio Reimagined project.

The ESSA initiative supports graduate students interested in developing a collaborative research and action project that explores several interconnected aspects of community development and ecological restoration on the Rio Salado (Salt River) and Gila River watershed. Their aims are to work with Indigenous and urban communities living along the river to co-create a collaborative, culturally affirming and solutions-oriented project that centers diverse knowledge systems to respond to community needs.

A first of its kind, 3 years in the making 

The guidebook is the first blueprint of its kind to building “the engaged university,” an institution that systematically supports engaged scholarship and service. To write it, members of the Beyond the Academy network spent the last three years exploring how universities are already reforming their systems and structures in ways that promote action-oriented research and practices that respond to society's needs. Academic leaders from across the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom shared ideas, research, resources and examples.

Chapters of the guidebook cover solutions for some of the major challenges to engaged scholarship at scale, from the way research impact is measured to promotion and tenure practices, graduate training, and recruitment and retention of engaged scholars.

The guidebook also showcases dozens of examples from universities around the world of how these solutions have been put into practice. For instance, The Office of Public Engagement at the University of Minnesota provides grants for academic departments that wish to develop or strengthen community engagement initiatives, offers training to promotion and tenure committee members about standards for high quality, community-engaged scholarship, and supports graduate students in developing projects with neighborhood organizations. 

The next step: Broader institutionalization of engaged scholarship

Keeler says the next phase of academic reforms must build on these experiments and best practices toward broader institutionalization of engaged scholarship in academia.

“Universities today risk global irrelevance unless they adopt an 'engaged university' approach as we’ve outlined — one that systematically supports and encourages scholar and staff engagement with society,” she said. 

“Shifting to that model will require deep transformation in universities. They must better align their structures, incentives and outcomes to acknowledge, value and incentivize scholarly and staff engagement with these issues. But examples of positive steps exist in nearly every institution. We must scale and share these steps as quickly and widely as possible.”  

The entire guidebook is available for free on the Beyond the Academy website.

Joe Caspermeyer

Manager (natural sciences) , Media Relations & Strategic Communications


Helping maltreated children in foster care

Psychology graduate student named NRSA Fellow to study child and parent separation

September 19, 2022

Each year, approximately 250,000 children enter the foster care system, and at any given time, upwards of 400,000 children are in the system. Additionally, according to the Arizona Department of Child Safety, there are nearly five children in care for every licensed foster family. 

A graduate in Arizona State University's clinical psychology training program hopes to find new ways to help those children and families at the most pivotal time. Portrait of ASU doctoral student Austin Blake. Austin Blake, a doctoral student in the ASU Department of Psychology, was recently named a National Research Service Award Fellow by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development for her project "Estimating the Impact of Out-of-Home Placement on Health Risk Behavior in Adolescents Exposed to Maltreatment: An Advanced Causal Inference Approach." Photo by Robert Ewing Download Full Image

Austin Blake, a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology, was recently named a National Research Service Award Fellow by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development for her project "Estimating the Impact of Out-of-Home Placement on Health Risk Behavior in Adolescents Exposed to Maltreatment: An Advanced Causal Inference Approach."

The award provides funding for her research and allows Blake to receive additional training necessary for her research career, including in the areas of child welfare research and advanced statistical methods.

“I study the link between parent and child separation and health risk behaviors. One context in which separation occurs frequently is through maltreatment — both abuse and neglect,” Blake said. “Prior to coming to ASU, I studied kids who were adopted from foster care, and oftentimes they entered foster care because of parental addiction and other things like that. Once coming here, I became really interested in just how substance use and other health risk behaviors develop across adolescence and adulthood.”

Blake wants to find out if removing the child from the home increases or decreases the risk for later adverse health risks behaviors. 

“The time period when a child is removed from the home and their guardians is a crucial window of time. I believe that future interventions should target that time period in order to reduce the long-term impacts of the experience,” Blake said. 

Using a public data set of maltreated children, Blake will be using an advanced causal inference statistical method to determine more specific differences between children who are removed from the home versus those that remain. 

“We're looking at what mechanisms might underlie the effect of out-of-home placement on later health risk behavior. Through this research, we can identify factors that we can target for that population. For instance, we might want to focus on adolescents’ increases in depression or anxiety, or perhaps their relationships with parents. Being able to identify causes at this stage can prevent those increases in health risk behavior while in foster care,” Blake said. 

What makes Blake’s research different from what has been done before is that she is using advanced statistical methods to account for confounding variables so that she can most accurately estimate the effect of out-of-home placement on health risk behaviors. In populations like this, it is impossible and unethical to run randomized research on placing children in foster care, so being able to identify potential areas for intervention can be difficult.

Additionally, rather than looking at younger children, her research is focusing on adolescents. The adolescent period between ages 13–18 is a turning point that redirects developmental trajectories of health risk behavior, such as initiating substance use and sexual behavior. Blake wanted to focus on this age group as well because when compared with younger children, teenagers placed in foster homes experience greater placement instability and greater difficulty adjusting to new caregivers or guardians. 

Blake’s two primary co-sponsors at ASU are Regents Professors Laurie Chassin and David MacKinnon, considered leaders in the fields of health risk behaviors and statistical mediation, respectively. Their mentorship has helped shape how Blake looks at statistical data and applies it to real-life situations, such as improving the foster care system. 

“Throughout my academic career, I've been working with Dr. Chassin on projects that broadly look at how substance use develops and the etiology where it comes from. Specifically, I've been looking at how parent-child separation may impact those trajectories,” Blake said. “This is such important research because there are really far-reaching impacts, such as the intergenerational risk for substance use.”

Data are from the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Wellbeing I (NSCAW-I), a large longitudinal, national probability sample of 6,228 children (ages 0–14 at baseline) who were investigated for child maltreatment between October 1999 and December 2000.

Robert Ewing

Marketing and Communications Manager, Department of Psychology


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Alzheimer's conference at ASU to highlight advances in fight against disease

September 16, 2022

Event brings together some of the nation’s top scientists, physicians

The Arizona Alzheimer’s Consortium Conference, which brings together some of the nation’s top scientists and physicians to discuss advances in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease, will be held Sept. 22 at Arizona State University’s Tempe campus.

The one-day conference will include more than 100 interactive scientific presentations, 10 Q&A sessions with neurological research leaders and a keynote address by Sterling Johnson, the associate director for the Wisconsin Alzheimer Disease Research Center and the principal investigator for one of the world’s largest and longest-running studies of individuals at risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

“It’s an amazing opportunity for researchers to come together, but it’s also an amazing opportunity for students to come and rub elbows at a one-on-one level,” said David Coon, the director of ASU’s Center for Innovation in Healthy and Resilient Aging.

ASU News talked to Coon and ASU University Professor Eric Reiman, who is also the executive director of the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute and director of the Arizona Alzheimer’s Consortium, about the conference and the latest advances in Alzheimer’s research.

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

Question: What advances in Alzheimer’s research will be talked about at this conference?

Reiman: One of the areas that there’s tremendous excitement about is the emerging role of potentially blood-based biomarkers. We now have brain imaging techniques and cerebral spinal fluid biomarker measurements that require you to put a needle in somebody’s back, and not a lot of people volunteer to do that. So, with the emerging development of potentially affordable, repeatable and widely accessible blood tests, you can imagine the chance to galvanize research and support drug development.

One of the real challenges to Alzheimer’s research has been the inclusion of individuals from underrepresented and underserved minority groups, an area that David has spent an awful lot of time thinking about. (Having blood tests) would help us know how these biological measurements or treatments that were investigated behave in these underrepresented groups.

Q: Would these blood tests be as simple as scheduling an appointment at your doctor’s office?

Reiman: We’re not really where we need to be yet in this space, but it has the potential to transform research, treatment development and clinical care.

I’ll give you an example in the clinical care space. There was a treatment that was approved by the FDA last year called aducanumab, which can help reduce amyloid beta plaque in the brain, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. But you would need an amyloid PET scan to know who has plaque in the brain, and the test would be expensive and it’s not going to be feasible to do an expensive PET scan every two years. So instead of doing a $5,000 PET scan, what if you could do a $75 blood test to either reduce or eliminate the need for those PET scans? It could be helpful in reaching out to people who aren’t close to specialty centers and imaging centers.

Q: How close are we to those blood tests becoming a reality?

Reiman: These blood tests look very promising, but there’s more work that needs to be done. But I think they could be available in the next year or two.

Q: David, Eric mentioned underserved communities. What is known about the preponderance of Alzheimer’s in these communities?

Coon: There may be risk factors that increase the proportion of folks that are impacted in these communities. We really have to continue to establish ongoing relationships with these communities. I think there’s some myth that everything has to be hand-in-hand. The bottom line is there are a growing number of folks from underserved communities, from minority communities, that do engage in social media and utilize smartphones to help them stay connected, not only to providers but also to what’s happening in the research world. So, how do we provide ongoing education? How do we provide opportunities to help serve these families that are already impacted by Alzheimer’s disease?

Q: What are those risk factors you mentioned?

Coon: Diet, sleep issues, exercise issues, access to health care across their lifespan.

Reiman: We believe that genetic factors account for about 70% of a person’s risk in developing Alzheimer’s disease, leaving 30% which you could potentially intervene with to promote cognitive health and slow or delay the onset of symptoms. Also, we see a number of factors that promote a healthy heart that have been suggested to promote a healthy brain, like a heart-healthy diet, like the Mediterranean diet.

In the meantime, we are waiting to see what happens with some disease-modifying treatments. We’ve seen so much progress on Alzheimer’s research, understanding risk factors … but the glaring exception to this progress has been finding effective treatments. Once we have treatments that work, we’ll be able to know what biological changes are associated with the clinical benefit, further inform the development of treatments and speed up the evaluation of prevention therapies.

We’ll see what happens in the next year, but we have a 50-50 chance that these treatments (being currently tested) will demonstrate a benefit in the next few months in cognitively impaired individuals. And if they do, we’ll have a great chance in supporting and finding the approval of prevention therapies potentially in the next five years. There’s no guarantee, but we’ll know soon.

Q: That’s incredible news.

Reiman: We’ve just completed the world’s first trial of an investigational drug to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. We did a five-to-eight-year trial for which we were disappointed that we did not see a statistically significant benefit. But what this study did was show that prevention trials were possible, and it led to ways to accelerate the evaluation and approval of prevention therapy.

We have other prevention trials going on right now. And if those treatments work in the next few months, we’ll have an outstanding chance to find and support the ... prevention of clinical onset of Alzheimer’s disease by 2025. So there’s a lot of work happening in this space.

Top photo courtesy iStock

Scott Bordow

Reporter , ASU News

ASU partners with Purdue to co-host inaugural Cold Case Symposium

September 15, 2022

For years, America's consumption of true crime documentaries, books, podcasts, movies and TV shows has steadily grown, with the category easily becoming one of the most popular among all genres. 

A new event co-hosted by Arizona State University’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences and the Purdue University College of Agriculture’s Department of Entomology seeks to go beyond entertainment and bring awareness to the cold case crisis in the United States. Yellow police caution tape that reads "Crime scene do not cross." Download Full Image

With over 200,000 unsolved murder and missing persons cases in the U.S., increased visibility and advocacy is more important than ever, said Lauren Weidner, assistant professor in the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences.

“​​I am excited to share this information not only with the ASU and local community but also on a national scale, thanks to our collaboration with Purdue University,” Weidner said. “Through the symposium, we hope to shed light on the cold case crisis in the U.S. while also sharing how we can all be advocates for this important cause.”

The inaugural Cold Case Symposium is open to community members, students, faculty and staff, and will be hosted from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 23, at ASU’s West campus and online via Zoom in recognition of National Forensic Science Week. The event will feature three speakers who will share their personal experiences working with cold cases, including:

  • Kelsi Germanadvocate and sister of Liberty German, who will speak about the 2017 unsolved double murder of Abigail Williams and Liberty German and the experiences and challenges her family faced in their pursuit of justice.
  • David Robinson II, advocate and father of missing geologist Daniel Robinson, who will speak about his son’s case, the evidence recovered and his continued search to locate his son.
  • Sarah Turney, advocate and host of the true crime podcast "Voices for Justice," who will speak about the power of social media and her experience with propelling missing persons cases into the spotlight.

Attendees of the symposium will also learn about cold case resources and hear about student work being conducted at New College and Purdue University. Last spring, New College launched FOR 496 - Forensic Science Service Learning, a new course created by Weidner in collaboration with Krystal Hans, an assistant professor of forensic entomology at Purdue University. In the course, students use their knowledge of forensic science to work on various service learning opportunities that include working on cold cases, lesson planning and activity design with high school educators and educating the general public.

“This year, we’ll be focusing on a lot of Arizona cases, particularly ones in the Phoenix area, with the hope that families that are local can attend in person to better network with people who have shared experiences and to understand the resources that are available to them,” Hans said. “We will have counselors on site as well, as we realize the nature of this topic and its accompanying material is triggering. We want to support families and our participants as much as we can.”

Registration for the event is open to ASU students, faculty, staff and community members. Learn more or register at

Emily Balli

Manager of marketing and communications, New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences