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Help save a species: Harlequin frog

Hop to it: The chance to help save harlequin frog from extinction won't last.
October 3, 2016

ASU School of Life Sciences' campaign aims to revive animal thought extinct until recently

Stories about species becoming extinct are all too common in the news.

This isn’t one of those stories.

What’s different this time is that this species, a gorgeous frog living in Costa Rica, has a chance to be saved.


With your help.

A tiny population of harlequin frogs (pictured above) was recently rediscovered along a riverbank in Costa Rica when a local kid walked into a biology field station with one in his hand. The researcher on duty immediately recognized what the boy held.

“Not only was it not supposed to be there, it was supposed to be gone,” said Jan Schipper.

Schipper, a conservation and wildlife biologist in the School of Life SciencesThe School of Life Sciences is an academic unit of the ASU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. at Arizona State University, is leading the campaign to save the frogs, which are estimated to number in the hundreds.

The harlequin frogs were thought to have gone extinct after populations were wiped out by a fungal disorder. Young frogs aren’t living to the age they can reproduce.

“The population is aging out of reproduction,” Schipper said. “If there is no reproduction, there is no frogs.”

There is time to save them.

But not much time.

This is an extremely rare opportunity. Usually we hear that something is extinct when it’s extinct, and by then it’s too late, Schipper said.

“It’s not too often we know of a population with numbers of less than 1,000 individuals,” he said. “They’re well below 1,000 for this one. ... The real challenge is actually doing something about the situation.”

The frogs begin their breeding season in October and November.

“If next year comes around and we don’t have any breeding, then the clock stops ticking and time is up,” Schipper said.

Schipper and his colleagues are looking for small funds to start a biosecurity protocol on site. What that means is essentially quarantining the area against outside contamination. The frogs live on a ranch, and the ranch manager supports conservation. If all vehicles entering the ranch and all people who visit the frog’s habitat are decontaminated, the frog stands a good fighting chance of surviving.

“We really need to step up this project,” Schipper said. “We need to improve the research, we need to increase the testing that we’re doing for (the fungus) on the ground, and finish the surveys of the population on the ground this season, or it may the last chance we have.”

The Phoenix Zoo has donated $5,000 in seed money.

“The urgency around this particular ask is around the breeding season,” Schipper said. “We need more than $5,000 to save this species, but this is a small step in that direction.”

To learn more, visit

Top photo by Sandra Leander/ASU

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News

A partnership in plant biology and conservation

New ASU master’s degree joins forces with Desert Botanical Garden to grow the pool of plant experts

September 30, 2016

Quick — without thinking about it, name an endangered animal. Name two, three or even four. Easy?

Now, name an endangered plant. Two? Three? For many people, that’s not as easy. New ASU Plant Biology and Conservation MS degree Kimberly McCue (left) and Tyna Yost discuss a research project at the Desert Botanical Garden. Photo by Sandra Leander/ASU Download Full Image

These basal organisms on the tree of life provide us with practically everything we need to survive in some way or another. However, in the field of biology, the importance of a particular topic doesn’t necessarily mean the general public will pay much attention.

Plants and their conservation lack a certain “sex appeal” in the mainstream. Over the past several decades, this has been reflected at many universities as botany degrees have declined and interest has shifted to the study of plants at a molecular level.

But the demand for botanists and experts in endangered plant species has not waned. Indeed, there is an even greater need as the world faces the effects of global warming.

“Plants are an incredibly important part of the ecosystem,” said Julie Stromberg, professor with Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences. “Unfortunately, people don’t really think about the fact that plants contribute oxygen, the food we eat, the materials and fibers we use, as well as medicines. As a society, we need to look at plants as the key elements that sustain us, spiritually as well as in more tangible ways.”

To address the shortage of plant experts, the school recently launched a new master’s degree program in plant biology and conservation. The program is part of a national trend, where a leading botanical garden partners with a university’s biology department to offer unique teaching and hands-on research experiences.

ASU is on the cutting edge of that trend, joining forces with the Desert Botanical Garden to offer the new degree. Now, plant conservation may find some revitalized support.

“This seems like a real ‘win-win,’” said Kim McCue, co-director of the degree program and program director of Conservation of Threatened Species and Habitats at Desert Botanical Garden. “By having a university collaborate with a botanical garden, we have greater ability to train people in the botanical sciences, and we know firsthand that these people are worth training. We live in a unique ecosystem in the Southwest — the Sonoran Desert. It makes sense to offer a master’s degree in plant science in a place that has such value,” she added.

endangered plant species

Many endangered plant species are studied and cared for through the ASU/Desert Botanical Garden master's degree program partnership. Photo by Sandra Leander/ASU

Botanical garden researchers can share their knowledge through guest lectures, lab experiences and graduate committees. These resources are unique and would be difficult to obtain anywhere else. The students can obtain practical experience while getting their feet wet in real-world research projects.

Tyna Yost, a recent graduate of the program, has already secured a position with the U.S. Forest Service, focusing on aspects of the National Environmental Policy Act.

“I started taking classes for the nursing program and quickly discovered that plants are much better patients. I like to say that they’re smarter than us,” said Yost. “They can make their own food, depending only on light and carbon dioxide. Their chemical defenses and rate of adapting to different environments is just amazing. So I call them the higher species.”

Stromberg, ASU’S director of the program, stresses the importance of offering a master’s degree in the field of plant biology and conservation. While doctorate degrees are important, she said master’s programs like these are excellent options to gain experience and move into the workforce more quickly. Many jobs in the plant world are fit for graduates of master’s programs, such as those offered by state and federal agencies.

“There are several strengths to our master’s program,” said Stromberg. “First is our focus on endangered plant species. If you look at the IUCN Red List of threatened species, you will find that most plant species have yet to be assessed. Many are declining, but few are being tracked.

“Second, we focus on restoring plants and habitats — in particular, endangered ecosystems. The Desert Botanical Garden can participate by providing seeds, propagated plants and botanical expertise.

“Third, our program is strong in systematics and understanding phylogenetic relationships, as well as in ecophysiological studies — examining the roles plants play in their ecosystems and the mechanisms that adapt them to their environments. We also focus on ethnobotanical studies — understanding how people and plants are co-evolving through time.” 

Degrees like this are good news in the world of plant conservation. They provide companies and organizations with more knowledgeable people who care about securing the future of plants.

Also, Stromberg and Yost agree that too much conservation attention is focused on issues such as invasive species. They argue that endangered species as well as dominant plants that do most of the work” in ecosystems should have more of the botanical limelight.

“It’s easy to point the finger at certain plant species and say they are the cause of adverse changes, when instead, they might simply be a reflection of broader environmental changes such as climate shifts or increasing urbanization,” Stromberg said. “It’s time to move beyond eradicating so-called ‘bad’ plants and preserving ‘good’ ones. We need to recognize the value of all plant species and embrace the complexity of the ecological relationship between plants and people.”

Yost specializes in endangered plant species. She hopes that with the knowledge she gains from the new master’s degree, she will be able to help maintain these life-forms that selflessly provide for us and help cultivate greater attention to the fact that we must work harder to conserve these valuable resources.

“I think it goes back to that awareness and where our priorities are,” said Yost. “Even with all our technology, when it comes down to it, as a species we need certain things to survive. Food, water, medicine. Plants are a part of all that. We have to keep that in mind.”

McCue agrees.

“We can do all the great science in the world, but if the greater public doesn’t know why it’s important or how amazing these plants are, they won’t care. And if they don’t care, you’re not going to get anywhere,” McCue said. “Our partnership with ASU is a major component of that, and I’m just thrilled by it.”

Written by Devin Phillips

For more stories like this one, see the ASU School of LIfe Sciences Magazine.

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Getting a grasp on violence

ASU psychology professor talks about how we can prevent violence.
September 27, 2016

ASU psychologist says violence can be prevented with key steps at home, at school

On a Monday evening in June 2015, 12 individuals gathered in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. It was supposed to be a typical Bible study meeting, but it turned out to be anything but typical.

As the meeting began, an unfamiliar man arrived and was quickly welcomed into the group. After an hour, the new young man stood up, pulled out a gun and killed nine of the participants.

Massacres like this one have become common in the U.S. Since 2013, every American city with a population of 400,000 or more except Austin, Texas, has experienced at least one mass shooting, defined as a shooting with four or more people killed or injured.

Since the start of this year alone, the crowdsourced Mass Shooting Tracker has reported 250 mass shootings in the United States. And between 2010 and 2015, the number of gangs across the U.S. increased by 8 percent and the number of new gang members increased by 11 percent, according to the National Gang Center.

Reading about these incidents in the news, it’s easy to assume that violence is inevitable. However, after 33 years of studying antisocial behavior, Arizona State University researcher Thomas Dishion has come to believe that violence can be prevented.

“Violence and terror come from a process that is predictable and can be reduced,” he said. 

Dishion began his career as a student worker in a preschool. He quickly became aware of unhealthy aggression in children and the challenge of stopping it. He recalls watching a student aide struggle to break up a sand fight between 5-year-olds on the playground. He was shocked to see a child attempting to hit another child over the head with a hard plastic chair.

It was apparent to Dishion that educators were not provided with proper training on how to manage and reduce child aggression. He decided he wanted to change this. 

“I realized adults need to have a better tool set for handling those aggressive exchanges but also for helping all the kids feel safe and happy in school,” Dishion said.

Today, Dishion is a professor of psychology and the founding director of the ASU REACH Institute. The institute is dedicated to improving the well-being of children and families by using scientifically supported interventions.

“Violence and terror come from a process that is predictable and can be reduced.”
— Thomas Dishion, ASU psychology professor

One of Dishion’s first research projects involved studying adolescent aggression in peer groups. This was an intervention study that delivered cognitive behavioral therapy to peer groups in the hopes of reducing problem behaviors. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of talk therapy that addresses the way an individual thinks and behaves. Much to Dishion’s dismay, this technique failed and ended up making the children more antisocial and more likely to smoke cigarettes after the intervention ended.

“That idea backfired, and it turned out that interventions that aggregate high-risk children at a large scale often make them worse and more aggressive over time,” Dishion said.

Dangerous bonds

This finding led Dishion to wonder how adolescents find friends and interact in a way that increases aggression. With funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Dishion and his team have been studying how aggression can escalate into violence among a group of 800 ethnically diverse 11- to 30-year-olds. Starting in 1996, the researchers have been monitoring the individuals every two years.

At age 16, subjects were asked to bring in their best friends and were videotaped talking about problem-solving issues in their lives. Surprisingly, Dishion found that some friendships were actually organized around violence.

“We found a sub-group of those adolescents actually connected by talking about hurting other people,” he said.

"You can get online and brandish a weapon or talk hate and you have an audience. If you perceive an approving audience ... that strengthens that attitude and behavior.”
— Dishion

He calls this process coercive joining. Coercion is the use of tactics such as fear mongering, name-calling, bullying and emotional manipulation to force others into complying. When two or more people bond over this kind of harmful behavior, they are engaging in coercive joining.

Long-term follow-up studies of these participants revealed that those who engaged in coercive joining as adolescents have a higher tendency to commit violent crimes as adults.

“If the adolescents, both males and females, were doing coercive joining with their friends on that videotape, five years later they are more likely to be arrested for assaults, carrying weapons and doing dangerous aggressive things,” Dishion said.

From analyzing the group, Dishion has found three well-defined predictors in childhood for why some individuals are more aggressive and more likely to pursue coercive joining than others. One predictor is being marginalized in schools. This includes having poor grades and poor relationships with peers or teachers. The other two predictors are having weak family relationships and low family socioeconomic status. These three predictors increase the likelihood of kids joining violent groups such as gangs by age 14.

Another factor that can encourage coercive joining in society is the internet, where people can openly show hatred toward others and be cheered on for it.

“What is happening with the media is that you can get online and brandish a weapon or talk hate and you have an audience. If you perceive an approving audience, even online, that strengthens that attitude and behavior,” Dishion said.

Even in cases where only one person approves of a hateful comment, that commenter can feel justified and invigorated to be hateful in the future. That individual is also less likely to face any consequences on the internet. Insulting a person face-to-face could result in social embarrassment or injury, but posting hate online might result in likes or new followers.

Before the Charleston Church shooting, for example, the shooter created a website and regularly posted white supremacist messages. These included more than 60 photos with confederate flags and guns and a detailed manifesto describing black people as “lower beings.” He wrote about Googling his views and finding others who agreed. He even stated that he was going to do something in Charleston to start a race riot.

Another influence Dishion points to is leaders’ rhetoric. Politicians who employ aggressive tactics such as personal attacks inspire followers to be aggressive, as well. This can introduce new people to coercive relationships and lead to violence.

“Debates are healthy. Personal attacks are unhealthy. Not just for the people involved, but also for the large audience that quickly adopts those norms. You are actually encouraging folks to buy into aggressive values, especially if leaders name call or suggest one group is worse than another or that attacking another group is warranted,” he said.

It is important to remember that people want to feel like they belong, as well. This is an inherent, evolutionary need. When individuals feel ostracized, they become vulnerable and could seek acceptance in dangerous groups such as gangs or terrorist organizations. These dangerous groups target marginalized people and engage them in coercive joining.

“We all need a group, and if you don’t have a group, you are more easily recruited in these types of groups,” Dishion said.

How to reduce violence

Fortunately, there are steps we can all take to reduce violence. In schools, educators can reduce coercion by creating systems that reward only non-aggressive behaviors. This could include having contests to win pizza parties or giving out awards for good behaviors.

“Just increasing the level of positive reinforcement to kids in school settings for positive behaviors can dramatically decrease aggression, and not only decrease at that point in time, but reduce the likelihood that those individual children will grow up and be aggressive as adolescents and adults,” Dishion said.

Recognizing bullying and stopping children from taking part in it is also essential. Educators need to speak up and stop aggressive groups from forming, to ensure each student feels welcomed and accepted.

“We have a responsibility to create new policies and procedures that would reduce the need for coercion."
— Dishion

For parents, Dishion advises making sure children receive adult supervision and recognition for positive behaviors. It is important to use positive reinforcement for good behaviors, such as congratulating children for doing well in school and telling them you appreciate their help.

Encourage your children to pursue healthy activities and enroll them in adult-supervised programs. If you work multiple jobs or do not get to spend much time with your children, Dishion advises asking extended family or friends to help ensure your children are not alone. The more time a child spends with peers and without adults around, the more likely they are to engage in anti-social behaviors. 

“We found the number of hours children spend with friends without an adult around is the best predictor for escalating anti-social behavior,” Dishion said.

Also, Dishion recommends paying close attention your children so that you can recognize changes in behavior, such as how they talk or dress, and intervene early.

For all individuals, Dishion advises we help shape our society to one where hard work is rewarded and families are supported. This includes policies that support parenting such as providing better wages and more opportunities for people of all socioeconomic backgrounds. When parents have to work multiple jobs to pay the bills, they miss out on getting to know their children.

“It is getting increasingly hard to be an involved, compassionate, mindful parent when there are so many stretches to making a living,” Dishion said.

He added that we need to increase access to quality mental-health and health-care services for everyone and ensure we have good leadership from the president down to school principals — leaders who use nonaggressive communication help de-escalate violence and coercive joining.

Dishion and his team are continuing their long-term study and plan to check up on the subjects at least one more time in the next two years. He then hopes to conduct a larger-scale study on terror and come up with recommendations for governments around the globe.

Dishion and his colleague James Snyder recently compiled a comprehensive analysis of coercive joining in families, peers, friendships, romantic relationships, schools and other institutions in their book, "The Oxford Handbook of Coercive Relationship Dynamics" (Oxford University Press, 2016). This book examines coercion in each of these dynamics and provides well-tested intervention techniques for reducing coercion.

It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of violence like the Charleston church shooting, gang activities and terrorist attacks, but by understanding factors that increase or decrease aggression, we can all help make a change.

“We have a responsibility to create new policies and procedures that would reduce the need for coercion,” Dishion said.

Written by Cheyenne Howard, Knowledge Enterprise Development

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Sparking new ideas on sustainable phosphorous

September 21, 2016

ASU initiative making progress toward better ways to collect, recycle this vital mineral before it reaches waterways

Nestled between silicon and sulfur on the periodic table of elements is a mineral that spontaneously combusts when it comes in contact with air and can be found on the tip of a match. Without it, we would die.

“Phosphorus is essential to life,” said Matt Scholz, program manager for the Sustainable Phosphorus Alliance, an organization that promotes phosphorus recycling in the food system. “It’s in your bones and it’s in your DNA, and it’s the energy currency for the cell.”

What is unknown to most people, is that the way we use this element — abbreviated as "P" on the periodic table of elements — is the cause of growing environmental and economic concern. Environmental because a large percentage of annual mined phosphorus ends up in fertilizers for farms; then the runoff leaches from fields and ends up polluting water. Economic because global agriculture is dependant on phosphorus to feed the more than 7 billion people on Earth; however, most of the world’s mineable phosphorus is located in Morocco.

“One of the issues is that it is really essential for agriculture,” Scholz said, who is also a senior sustainability scientist with ASU’s Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability. “But phosphorus wastes can contaminate waterways and create water pollution and algal blooms.”

Algae blooms can occur when there is an increase in nutrients in water that cause algae to grow to a large quantity, taking over large areas of lakes, rivers and the ocean. These blooms can cause fish to die due to toxins that some algae species produce, due to the depletion of dissolved oxygen that can suffocate fish.

The Sustainable Phosphorus Alliance is trying to tackle this problem by working with stakeholders to develop or implement better ways to collect and recycle phosphorus from the food system before it has a chance to reach waterways.

Matthew Scholz program manager for the Sustainable Phosphorus Alliance

Matthew Scholz is program manager for the Sustainable Phosphorus Alliance, an organization housed at the Biodesign Institute. Photo by Ally Carr


Origins of the alliance

The idea for the Sustainable Phosphorus Alliance grew out of a five-year ASU National Science Foundation grant to create a phosphorus sustainability research coordination network (RCN). The goal was first to build a network of scientists, fertilizer and agricultural representatives, policy makers and farmers. Then the stakeholder network could work together to advance research that would highlight the most promising ways to improve how phosphorus is used in agriculture and discover new methods to recycle it.

Jim Elser, a lake ecologist, is the principal investigator for the phosphorus network, which includes over 40 scientists, engineers and many other stakeholders. They have made substantial progress over the past four years highlighting emerging solutions, like plants that require less phosphorus to grow, and methods to recover phosphorus at wastewater treatment plants.

“There’s hope on the horizon,” said Elser, an ASU Regents' Professor who recently became director of the University of Montana’s century-old Flathead Lake Biological Station. “People are getting mobilized and focused and interested in these issues. There are a set of technologies and innovations and policy approaches that are starting to emerge that will help address the problem.”

The eventual ideal future that Elser envisions is one where phosphorus is intensively recycled. Where smarter fertilizers and smarter plants don’t allow phosphorus to flow into waterways, but stay in the land until needed by the crop. Where the phosphorus from wastes like unused food, animal manure and human waste are not thrown in landfills, but collected and turned into recycled fertilizer.

“The good news is, when all those things are taken care of, then part of the food system will be secure,” Elser said. “We’ll have a long-term fertilizer supply for the future, and then also we’ll have clean lakes and rivers and oceans.”

James Elser, lake ecologist with the sustainable phosphorus initative

James Elser, lake ecologist and ASU Regents Professor who recently became director of the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station.


Now in the last year of the funded research coordination network, Elser and the other stakeholders are looking toward that future and how to implement what they have learned these past four years to make it a reality.

“In a lot of ways, what this Sustainable Phosphorus Alliance activity is, is a way for the RCN to continue having impact,” Elser said.

And it won't happen overnight.

“Recycled fertilizers are still a long way off,” he said. “There are technologies that are coming and getting started, but it’s going to be some time before we have any impact in the market.”

From waste to resource

Once we flush waste down the toilet or down the garbage disposal, it heads to a wastewater treatment plant. There, it is whisked with air and bacteria that break down organic wastes and remove inorganic compounds, like phosphorus, from the water.

“Current wastewater treatment has been around 100 years or so,” said Bruce Rittmann, who directs ASU’s Swette Center for Biotechnology at the Biodesign Institute. “It works really well, but it costs a lot of money and it costs a lot of energy.”

In a recent review article in Nature, Rittmann and his co-authors calculated that a conventional wastewater treatment plant in China serving a city of nearly half a million people would cost $4.6 million per year to operate and would consume 50,000kWh of electricity. That is enough energy to run five average American households for nearly a year, according to information from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“My philosophy is to transform wastewater treatment,” Bruce Rittmann said. “We have to stop doing what we’re doing and completely change.”

Bruce Rittmann in the lab Biodesign Institute phosphorus

Bruce Rittmann, director of ASU’s Swette Center for Biotechnology at the Biodesign Institute, in his lab. Photo by Ally Carr


To do so, Rittmann likes to partner with microbes to engineer solutions. What we consider as societal problems, microbes consider as food. Rather than break down waste aerobically, with bacteria and oxygen, he suggests breaking down the waste anaerobically, with bacteria, but no oxygen — similar to the way beer and bread ferment. This new system would produce energy and collect nutrients that could be recycled.

“We’re now technologically at a point where where we can break away from 100 years of our profession and start over,” Rittmann said. “But if we went to anaerobic treatment, we can then make it an energy-output system instead of an energy-input system. Now, with some new technology developments that are just coming along, the treatment can be equally as good as it was with aerobic treatment.” With anaerobic treatment, wastewater treatment plants that produce methane gas that can be electricity producers rather than consumers.

Phosphorus can be collected and sold to fertilizer companies instead of being buried in landfills. This way, farmers don’t have to rely on the phosphate supply of other countries. By making the phosphorus system cyclical, phosphorus can be used in food without polluting waterways.

And phosphorous recycling can begin to have a lasting impact.

“Resources in the wrong place are pollution, but resources in the right place truly are resources,” Rittmann said. “We want to take these huge environmental risks, and turn them into environmental benefits.”

Ally Carr

Assistant science writer , Biodesign Institute


Human brain inspires self-learning microchip

September 21, 2016

Neuroscience, microelectronics and computing — seemingly varied disciplines — have found a common intersection in the form of neuro-inspired computing.

This evolving field in computer engineering aims to emulate the human brain’s abilities for perception, action and cognition in our computer systems. circuit,microchip,asu,neuro,computing As part of his National Science Foundation CAREER award, Shimeng Yu (right) is providing interdisciplinary educational opportunities in neuro-inspired computing research for students in his lab. Pictured Rui Liu (center), an electrical engineering student, and Ligang Gao, an assistant research scientist. Photo by Pete Zrioka/ASU Download Full Image

Neural systems provided inspiration for some of the earliest computing systems, but as the technology evolved it began to follow a different approach.

Assistant professor Shimeng Yu is convinced that a radical shift back toward neuro-inspired architecture is needed in computer engineering.

This shift would break path with conventional methods — namely the von-Neumann architecture that has been used for the past 70 years — in order to offer faster processing and increased battery life.

Specifically, Yu aims to advance neuro-inspired computing by utilizing emerging nano-device technologies to create a self-learning microchip.

His research efforts are supported in part by a prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER award, which recognizes emerging education and research leaders in engineering and science.

A self-learning microchip

Yu’s microchip (a packaged unit of computer circuitry) boasts the capacity to learn things in near real time, adapt to its environment and make its own informed decisions, all while consuming much less power.

It can be embedded into mobile phones and sensor devices to perform certain intelligent tasks, making it useful in “a wide range of applications with profound consequences to our society,” said Yu.

The intelligent information processing paired with power-efficient mobile platforms could boost new markets in facial recognition software and self-driving cars.

It could also be used for security and defense applications, such as surveillance and identification of people and objects in real time.

If attached to front-end sensors, it could have “a groundbreaking impact on the Internet of Things from chemical and gas sensors to smart wearable systems used in social networks to personalized health-care applications,” said Yu, adding that the battery lifetime of these devices can also be greatly extended.

Yu’s unique technical contribution involves pairing a crossbar array with resistive synaptic devices. In this system, orthogonal metal wires crisscross to form a crossbar array, and at each cross-point there is a resistive synaptic device, which is a resistor whose conductance (the degree to which it conducts electricity) changes by programming voltage pulses.

The change in conductance is what spurs learning in the chip, similar to how the human brain acquires and processes new neural information.

The resistive synaptic device emulates the properties of the synapses in a human’s brain. Synapses are small gaps at the end of neurons (nerve cells) that allow the neuron to pass an electrical or chemical signal to another neuron. When two connected neurons fire (become active), the conductance of their synapses changes, which causes new information to be learned.

Contributing to a radical shift

Yu’s discoveries are representative of a shift in the computing paradigm from von-Neumann computer architecture to neuro-inspired architecture. In today’s von-Neumann computer architecture, the processor and the memory is separate, and the processor fetches data from the memory through the data bus for processing.

However, in this method there is a memory wall problem for data-intensive applications due to limited bandwidth.

“The back-and-forth data transfer causes a bottleneck in performance and consumes the most energy in the system,” said Yu.

On the other hand, neuro-inspired architecture emulates the human brain by better localizing the process.

The human brain is its own distributed computing system with billions of neurons and synapses.

“Neurons are simple computing units and synapses are local memories, and they are massively connected in a neural network through communication channels,” explained Yu.

The neural data is stored in the synapses, which are close to the neuron units, making it easy for data to be locally fetched and processed by the neurons.

Simulating this neural process in computer architecture can eliminate the memory wall problem, or the data traffic jam, faced in the von-Neumann computer architecture.

As part of his CAREER award Yu is also integrating educational opportunities for students in his research efforts. He sees it as a perfect opportunity to train undergraduate and graduate students in interdisciplinary skills.

“The cross-layer nature of this research, ranging from semiconductor device and circuit design to electronic design automation and neuro-inspired machine learning, provides an ideal platform for preparing interdisciplinary students,” said Yu.

“The beautiful analogy between artificially fabricated synaptic devices and biological synapses in our neural systems has always fascinated me,” he said. This parallel will continue to drive Yu’s research and teaching efforts as he ushers in the next phase of computing architecture.

Rose Gochnour Serago

Communications Program Coordinator, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

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Science and the human brain: How far is too far?

Think-tank brings together leaders for two days of talks in Washington, DC
ASU professor Diana Bowman talks brain ethics
September 15, 2016

ASU professor helps international think-tank organize event to tackle this and other ethical questions

Important ethical and legal questions are coming up with the rapid expansion of neuroscience and neurotechnology: Among them, how far is too far when it comes to science and the human brain?  

New developments could lead to cures and treatments for diseases such as Alzheimer’s, but what about technology that could limit individual freedom by controlling behavior? Then there’s the matter of who will have access to brain-enhancement technologies and who owns data connected to brain-computer interfaces?

To dig into these and other issues, the international think-tank Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, is bringing together leaders for a two-day conference in Washington, D.C., starting today.

Arizona State University professor Diana Bowman has been involved as a member of the steering committee for “Neurotechnology and Society: Strengthening Responsible Innovation in Brain Science,” which organizers say intends to advance the understanding and development of innovations in brain science and technology.

Bowman, associate professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, and other leaders hope the discussion will provide clarity regarding the direction of research, its social and economic influence and the regulatory frameworks that will develop.

She spoke with ASU Now about what she expects from the conference.


Diana Bowman

Question: What could go wrong if research and development in brain science goes unchecked?

Answer: The human brain is considered the last frontier for medical research; its complexity, and importance to defining the individual self, has ensured that the brain has received substantial attention from scientists, physicians, philosophers and ethicists alike.

Large-scale investment into brain research by the public and private sectors promises to unlock new therapies and novel approaches for treating costly illnesses and disease including, for example, dementia, Alzheimer’s and traumatic brain injuries.

But as we begin to unlock, and better understand, how the human brain functions there is the potential for abuse, or for ethical and legal concerns to go unchecked. Think Minority Report. Think functional magnetic resonance imaging of criminals, in an effort to predict impulsivity and recidivism and where such approaches to preventing criminal activities, and potentially limiting freedom in order to prevent crime, could infringe fundamental human rights.  

Q: How have we gotten to this point? And what ethical dilemmas have come up, so far?

A: Different technologies and their applications are already giving rise to a myriad of ethical and moral dilemmas.

Of these, some of the most pressing related to human enhancement and the ways and extent to which we should pursue human enhancement technologies: Do the benefits of invasive neuromodulation outweigh potential risks? And what are the privacy and data security risks associated with innovations with brain-computer interface? And what does this convergence mean for ‘the self’?

Theses types of questions are being considered by different groups and individuals around the world. Greater coordination is needed and we need to speed up the pace at which these types of questions are considered and acted upon.

Q: How quickly has the technology advanced?  

A: Research on the human brain is not, in itself, new. Brain science research and advances in neurotechnology has already resulted in numerous medical devices already entering the market.

However, the convergence of other technologies such as nanotechnology, synthetic biology and additive manufacturing, combined with enhanced imaging technologies and more powerful infrastructure, will accelerate the pace at which new neurotechnologies evolve, and the entry of new drugs and products into the market.

So too will the aging population, and the pressures that meeting their physical and mental health needs place on governments and other stakeholders.    

Q: Do we expect regulations to be put in place? Are there any now? Should there be?

A: Existing regulatory regimes will capture the types of research being undertaken by scientists involved in these large-scale brain projects, and the products that the projects give rise to — whether that is in the United States, Australia or Israel to name just a few.

The more important question, though, is whether these existing regimes and instruments shall be adequate and effective for the types of technologies and products that they give rise to? And this question we cannot answer at this time given that we simply do not know what this exciting field or research shall give rise to.

The fact that we cannot answer this question makes an event such as the Neurotechnology and Society workshop all the more important.

Bringing together key stakeholders across all relevant fields in order to better understand the trajectory of the research and technologies shall allow us to begin the process of evaluating the effectiveness of the current regimes, and, where necessary, to proactively explore other regulatory and governance models so as to ensure that the potential benefits outweigh potential risks.

Q: Who is this science for? 

A: One can reasonably assume that the therapies and products that are initially developed as a result of this fundamental research will, at least in the first instance, benefit a small segment of the population (i.e., those who are most able to afford them), the majority of whom are likely to reside in developed economies.

This alone presents a myriad of social and ethical challenges, and while not new in themselves, need to be incorporated into funding decisions including the prioritization of research.

For this to be meaningful, different stakeholders need to be at the table and difficult conversations will need to take place. Such conversations need to take place now, ahead of the science, and alongside the development of the science and technologies.  

Q: What would be going too far?

A: Going too far, in my view, can be simply described as follows: not learning the lessons from previous technologies, including their entry into the market and consumer acceptance thereof. For society to be able to take full advantage of the benefits offered by neurotechnologies, we need to ensure that broader ethical, social and legal questions are addressed in real time, and that society is actively engaged in the development, and deployment, of the technologies.     

ASU Law graduate discusses Indian Country energy potential

Christopher Deschene, director of U.S. Department of Energy Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs, visits Beus Center for Law and Society on Downtown Phoenix Campus, emphasizes need for lawyers who understand his field

September 15, 2016

The possibilities at Arizona State University are endless, just ask Christopher Deschene.

Deschene, director of the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs, grew up in near Page, Arizona, and is from the Navajo Nation. This month he visited with budding Indian Legal Program students at ASU's Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law in downtown Phoenix to talk about the Office of Indian Energy as students start thinking about developing their careers in law. Chris Deschene Download Full Image

Deschene graduated from ASU in 2005 with a Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering and concurrent with his master’s studies, he earned a Juris Doctor (JD) through the Indian Legal Program with a focus on federal Indian law and energy and natural resources.

The Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at ASU established the Indian Legal Program in 1988, providing a unique set of academic and clinical opportunities for students to understand the differences between the legal systems of Indian Nations and state and federal governments.

He recalled how little focus there was on energy.

“When I came here, people said you’re crazy because you want to stick to energy. Why are you doing that? We need lawyers and anything else but energy. I said, no one is focusing on energy,” Deschene said.

“When I first came to ASU they had offered energy as an elective. It wasn’t a mainstay discussion, and it wasn’t offered, Indian energy. We were talking more about natural resources and water.”

Licensed to practice law in Arizona and the Navajo Nation, he focused in business and energy development, natural resources and environmental policies. The goal: to strengthen tribal communities and sustain future generations.

Christopher Deschene

Christopher Deschene, director of the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs.

Deschene described the Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs as a progression of Indian energy and Indian energy policies. Among their goals for Indian Country is to promote energy development, efficiency and use and bring electrical power and service to Indian lands and the homes of tribal members.

There are 567 federally recognized tribes and there are staggering gaps between Indian Country and the rest of the U.S., including basic infrastructure needs like having ready access to electricity.

This is a consistent problem across Indian Country and an important problem Deschene and his office are trying to fix. He strongly believes tribes have potential, stating that American Indian lands consist of 2 percent of the land base, but tribes can provide up to 5 percent of the country’s renewable energy generation.

“There is potential in Indian Country, and it hasn’t been developed in a way to help national and administrative goals for energy security, resiliency, climate change. And Indian Country can be part of that,” Deschene said.

Deschene smiled and said people thought he was crazy because he pursued his graduate engineering degree with a focus on renewable energy while working on his JD.

Focused and determined, he knew where he was going.

“I’ve been to a number of schools, you guys are in the best program in the country. I will say that without any reservations,” he said, crediting Kate Rosier, executive director of the Indian Legal Program, for her support during his time at ASU.

He emphasized that there is a need for practitioners, lawyers, tribal and federal law practitioners who have are well-versed in energy.

Deschene had a vison and took the road less traveled, taking a dual-discipline approach, much like the interdisciplinary degrees offered at ASU today, fulfilling the mission of the New American University: solving for the problems of today and those of the future.

Meenah Rincon

Public Relations Manager, ASU Online

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ASU online education efforts click into focus

Organizers seek momentum for first National Online Learning Day on social media
ASU No. 1 for innovation, school officials say web learning programs were factor
September 14, 2016

Reflect on internet progress of nation's most innovative school as education groups push National Online Learning Day

A cluster of education groups and nonprofits are working to create momentum for a day to celebrate the advance of computer classes into the mainstream, carving out Sept. 15 as “National Online Learning Day.”

The first push consists primarily of a social media campaign supported by parenting magazines and organizations that back charter education and homeschools, touting the “convenience and personalization for every learner” that online classes provide.

Arizona State University isn’t connected to the nascent effort, but it’s an opportunity to examine and highlight how the nation’s most innovative school has played a pioneering role in bringing accredited online classes to higher education.

Online degree programs

ASU has been named the nation’s most innovative school for the second consecutive year — ahead of Nos. 2 and 3 Stanford and MIT — and university officials say advances in online learning factored into the ranking from U.S. News & World Report.

Starting with the question “what if you could earn your degree from a world-renowned university, at any time, from anywhere online?” ASU has mapped out over 100 degree programs available completely on the web.

ASU President Michael Crow has said the programs remove the barriers of location and time an expand “access to the educational opportunities of a great research university and all of the faculty that we have assembled.”

Global Freshman Academy 

When the Global Freshman Academy launched in 2015 with Intro to Solar Systems Astronomy, more than 12,000 students from more than 160 nations logged in.

The academy — a partnership with edX, which provides free internet classes — has since expanded giving students anywhere the opportunity to take college-level courses. There are no applications or transcripts required and enrollment is instant. Also, students don’t have to pay for credit until they’re sure they’ll pass the course.

It’s an initiative aimed at access. Phil Regier, head of ASU’s education innovation efforts, said at launch that the academy represented a “new model, showing that a university does not have to be marked by exclusivity.”


ASU has partnered with Starbuck to provide 100 percent tuition reimbursement to each one of the coffee-giant’s eligible U.S. employees.

Thousands of Starbucks workers have enrolled in the program since it launched last year. The company said it planned to invest $250 million to help at least 25,000 employees graduate by 2025.

KED Talks

From the university’s Knowledge Enterprise Development, KEDtalks are billed as "conversations for the curious," which create opportunities for university experts to share ideas through discussions with a wider audience.  

The planned series begins with Sethuraman Panchanathan, executive vice president of ASU’s Knowledge Enterprise Development wing and chief research and innovation officer, defining “knowledge enterprise” as the production of “people, ideas and things.” He then expands on the impact this model of thinking has created in areas from education to cybersecurity. 

Top photo by Andy DeLisle/ASU 

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Vilsack: Universities vital to helping farmers survive climate change

Research on assessing climate change called vital for food security.
September 14, 2016

US secretary of agriculture tells ASU audience that research, partnerships are key

Food security is vital to America’s freedom, and protecting farmers from the effects of climate change will require the collaboration of universities, the U.S. secretary of agriculture said.

Tom Vilsack, who has been the nation’s ag chief for the entirety of the Obama administration, spoke at Arizona State University on Wednesday about the impact of climate change on farming and ranching. The Fall Forum event was sponsored by the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU.

“In my lifetime, we’ve seen a 170 percent increase in agricultural productivity,” Vilsack said, noting that Americans spend about 10 percent of their paychecks on food, compared with 25 to 50 percent in other countries.

“We are a food-secure nation,” Vilsack said. “China can’t say that. Russia can’t say that.

“That’s why it’s important to talk about the future that will exist with a changing climate.”

Besides drought, other possible effects of climate change could be increases in pests and livestock diseases, more frequent and severe storms and more firesThe U.S. Forest Service, overseen by the USDA, has seen the money it spends on fire suppression mushroom from 16 percent of its budget a decade ago to 56 percent now, which means less money for restoration and resiliency efforts in forests, Vilsack said..

Vilsack said the Obama administration has charged universities with doing more research on climate and water issues as well as specific solutions such as grazing patterns and drought-resistant crops.

“Arizona State is working with our ‘climate hub’ in New Mexico, looking at every aspect of climate change and doing assessments” to give technical support to farmers, ranchers and forest landowners, he said.

The Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability has several projects that address climate change and agriculture, including the “One Million Tons” project, which is creating data on the use of adaptive multi-paddock grazing for carbon sequestration, water retention and plant and microbial biodiversity. That project also includes outreach to ranchers and farmers and agricultural policy development.

Osvaldo Sala

Osvaldo Sala, a professor in the School of Sustainability, said during the panel discussion that universities should help find evidence-based solutions. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

After his speech, Vilsack moderated a forum on sustainability that focused on the importance of collaboration among governments, corporations, conservationists and universities. The panel featured Osvaldo Sala, the Foundation Professor and Julie A. Wrigley Chair at ASU, where he contributes to both the School of Life Sciences and the School of Sustainability. His research has predicted that climate change will result in big variations from year to year, with very dry periods alternating with very wet periods.

Sala said that climate researchers used to think their stakeholders were primarily ranchers, but now they realize their work is important to people who are interested in conservation, recreation, job creation and other issues.

“We hope the universities would provide the knowledge to shift from the emotion-driven confrontations that we’re seeing in the news every day to an evidence-based negotiation,” he said, citing the ongoing conflict over the Dakota Access pipeline in North Dakota, which is conflicting the interests of Native Americans, conservationists, an oil company and a local community.

Mark Killian

Mark Killian, director of the Arizona Department of Agriculture, said that universities have made huge contributions to the advancement of agriculture. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Mark KillianKillian also is a former member of the Board of Regents, a state legislator and director of the Arizona Department of Revenue. His family has been in farming and ranching in Arizona for more than 100 years. He graduated from ASU in 1981., director of the Arizona Department of Agriculture, said that the knowledge produced at universities has helped keep America free.

“That creation of knowledge on the ground has transformed American agriculture from subsistence levels to the greatest producer in the world today. To my mind, agriculture is the most important strategic industry we have.

“The countries that can feed themselves are free.”

Killian said that universities have created improvements in everything from water-saving irrigation nozzles to crop genetics.


Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack speaks briefly with BioDesign PhD student Thiago Barbosa on Wednesday, Sept. 14, at the Memorial Union.

Vilsack said that young people today have the opportunity to redefine the American economy.

“We talk about bringing manufacturing back. We have the capacity to have a plant-based economy. We already have a $360 billion industry of making chemicals and fibers that are plant based. There’s unlimited possibility to convert an economy that has for too long been dependent on fossil fuels.”

Killian said that the challenge for today’s university students is to avoid partisanship and work together.

“We have people who go to bed hungry. How can anyone in America today go to bed hungry? Feeding people, from a moral standpoint, is one of the most important things we do in the world.

“If you focus on that, solutions will come together quickly.”

Top photo: U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack spoke at the Fall Forum, sponsored by the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now.

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


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ASU students strive for positive change through summer research

September 12, 2016

Summer is often a time to take a break from academic studies. But many scholars at Arizona State University would rather trade their summer vacations for a chance to get ahead and make an impact in fields ranging from philosophy to chemistry.

More than 40 high-achieving undergraduate students in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences spent the summer conducting research in their degree field, as recipients of the Undergraduate Summer Enrichment Awards.

"We're trying to solve problems no one knows the answer to," said Chloe Warpinski, an award recipient. "It's not often you get to work in something that has the opportunity to make meaningful change in your community."

Warpinski, a senior who studies global health in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, saw an opportunity to solve problems without a set solution.

Warpinski’s research focuses on the homeless population in the Phoenix metro area, specifically the intersection of ecosystem services, homelessness and water insecurity. She is working on the project with her partner, Christine Demyers, a graduate anthropology student and previous teaching assistant in one of Warpinski’s classes.

“These are issues that affect not just one person or one community, but the entire world,” she said.

Through extensive interviews, mapping and other research tactics, Warpinski hopes to create a database of resources for the homeless in the area, many of whom are families and children. Warpinski was inspired after a semester abroad in Chile, where a lack of water affected not only her daily living situation, but her emotional health as well.

“It’s a chance to turn statistics into stories,” Warpinski said. “It’s been very interesting to listen to people tell their story from their point of view, and really empower them to be a person and not just a figure or a fact, which is awesome.”

Warpinski and Demyers hope to present at different anthropological conferences, with the goal of having similar research replicated in other urban cities or countries.

Economics and political science major Tyler Helms is taking a hard look at physical disability and accessibility concerns to solve another issue affecting major cities.

Helms, whose brother is physically disabled, has always been interested in disabilities and the policy activism that surrounds the issue.

For his project, Helms hopes to craft an “accessibility score” for cities, based on factors such as walkability or the average age of buildings. He is also looking at other socioeconomic factors that often affect disability, like employment and poverty rates.

Although the Americans with Disabilities Act has been in place since 1990, many public places like doctor’s offices or restaurants have been found violating the ADA laws. Alongside traditional research, Helms is interviewing lawmakers, policy advocates and disability lawyers to get a sense of why there is still noncompliance.

“As long as anything would help the disabled community, whether it’s awareness, or even just finding out what problems there might be systematically and offering a way of fixing it,” he said. “And even if it doesn't, it says 'hey' and gets some attention.”

Aaron Flegenheimer, a biological science major with an interest in psychology, is studying chronic stress to shed more light on post-traumatic stress disorder, which affects nearly eight million adults every year according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Partnered with graduate student J. Bryce Ortiz in professor Cheryl Conrad’s lab, Flegenheimer will induce the effects of chronic stress on rats and mice to determine how certain brain processes, specifically in the hippocampus, aid and assist in recovery.

Flegenheimer hopes this research will give scientists a better understanding of how chronic stress affects the human brain, offering more insight into the discovery, treatment and recovery from PTSD.

The Summer Enrichment Award winners are broadening their horizons and helping bring about positive change in the world. Their commitment to research, ranging from domestic violence and sexual trauma to climate change and cancer, will be instrumental in finding innovative solutions to pressing concerns across the globe.  

Students have the potential to earn $2,000 by completing three different phases of the program. Over the summer, they’ll partner with a faculty mentor to complete a unique research project of their choice. In the spring of 2017, students will present their research at a poster symposium and receive another portion of the award.

“The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences is providing a number of opportunities for students to enrich their experiences and one area we have been dedicating resources is to facilitate a research experience,” said Patrick Kenney, dean of the college.

The final goal for the students is to have their work published, speak at a regional or national-level conference or sponsor an activity submission connected to the college’s project. Many students who received the Summer Enrichment Award were also given assistance with summer housing, which allowed them to focus more on their research and undergraduate work.

“These opportunities allow students to receive a first-hand and up-close look at the process that leads to discovery and publications,” said Kenney. “These experiences improve their resumes for seeking admissions to professional schools and when searching for employment.”

Written by Sarah Edwards

Amanda Stoneman

Senior Marketing Content Specialist , EdPlus