image title

On Devils’ wings

ASU's Aviation Programs take students high in the sky, deep into engines.
Drones, air-traffic control, management: ASU aviation teaches it all.
April 28, 2016

A look inside ASU’s Aviation Programs, where students learn all aspects of flight, from physics to business to the sheer joy of flight

Arizona’s blue desert skies have long beckoned aviators.

Phoenix native Frank Luke shot down 14 German balloons and four airplanes in eight days in World War I. Now state-of-the-art F-35 fighters fly out of the base named after him. World War II legend Joe Foss (26 kills over Guadalcanal) spent his last years in Scottsdale. Ever drive along U.S. 60 and wonder what the giant white “PHOENIX” with a west-pointing arrow was for? It was to help British pilots training during World War II find their way back to airfields.

Out in that direction, on the edge of a former Air Force base, sits Arizona State University’s Polytechnic campus, home to the university’s Aviation Programs. The programs — part of the Polytechnic School, one of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering — has been around, in one form or another, since World War II. It celebrates its 20th anniversary in its current incarnation this year.

Kenny Armijo, a sophomore from Mesa majoring in aeronautical management technology/professional flight, checks a single-engine Cessna 172 on a nearly cloudless day in January. Thrumming propellers and jets clawing for altitude penetrate the air, awash with the tangy smell of avgas (aviation gasoline).

“Flying is amazing, especially out here in the Southwest,” Armijo said. “You have such a good view, as opposed to flying in a commercial aircraft.”

By the time Armijo graduates, he will have taken apart and put together an engine. He will know the two landing procedures for a crack on the outside of a window and a crack on the inside. He will know a good sound from a bad sound. He will be better trained than pilots put out by the military or commercial airlines.

Jet jockeys

“It’s a big deal when you do your first solo,” said Jimmy Kimberly. “It’s like getting married.”

Aviation students in a flight simulator.

ASU students Connor Hinz (left)
and Matt Archambault prepare
for approach and landing in the
King Air 200 flight simulator.

This and top photo by
Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Kimberly is a lecturer in the program. He was a line pilot for America West Airlines, retiring in 2005 after flying in the United States, Canada and Mexico. Prior to the airline, he flew different types of warplanes in the Air Force for 20 years. He was awarded the Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, and 12 Air Medals for combat service in Vietnam.

On the second floor of the Simulator building at Poly (the Aviation Programs’ headquarters, across the street from Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport), there’s a wall of photos of graduates in cockpits.

Compass Airlines. U.S. Navy. ExpressJet Airlines. Falcon Executive Aviation. Alaska Airlines. U.S. Air Force. There’s even one covert photo, no name, nolabel on the aircraft, no insignia on the grad’s fatigues, only a caption that reads “UAV pilot.”

Talk to the students and faculty out here, and you’ll discover they all have a story about being fascinated with planes and flying from an early age.

“Everyone can point to something that led down that path,” said faculty associate Mike Hampshire. “Once you’re in it, you don’t want to do anything else.”

Hampshire would know. He has spent his whole lifeUnited States Air Force Academy, 1971. Instructor/Jumpmaster U.S. Air Force Academy Parachute Team. Member 1970 National Collegiate Championship Parachute Team. Instructor Pilot/Flight Examiner F-106 Minot Air Force Base. Interceptor Weapons School Class 80B. F-106 Weapons School Instructor Tyndall Air Force Base. Instructor Pilot/Flight Examiner T-38 Williams Air Force Base. Instructor Pilot/Flight Examiner F-4E/G Clark Air Base, Republic of the Philippines. Retired as Lieutenant Colonel 1990. American Airlines Dallas Fort Worth Base Boeing 727 and DC-10 Flight Engineer. in planes, and a fair bit out of them too. He is what all these students want to grow up to be.

The maroon-and-gold baron goes into the wild blue

Armijo wants to pilot big commercial jets.

“That’d be great, but I have to start off small,” he said.

Ever since he was a kid, he always liked planes. He would come out to Gateway, press his face against the fence, and watch planes take off and land.

“Whenever we went on vacation, I almost enjoyed going to the airport more than the vacation itself, being able to see all the planes and talk to some of the pilots,” he said. “Once I found out ASU had a flight school, it seemed like a good way to follow the dream.”

He’s on the tarmac, doing a pre-flight check. The two-seater plane sports a pitchfork on the cowl. It’s one of 20 emblazoned with the ASU insignia. The planes don’t belong to the university; they belong to flight provider ATP. Although classroom training takes place on the Poly campus, official flight training must be done with a certified flight school provider, and faculty determined ATP to be the perfect choice.

“I also have to check the oil dipstick,” Armijo said. “It’s just like a car. That’s seven quarts; that’s good.”

It’s one item on his list of 50 pre-flight checks. There are slightly more than that in flight. He looks over the tires to make sure they’re not leaking brake fluid. He also checks the wings and nose for bird nests.

“They like to build nests in planes,” Armijo said.

He started from scratch at ASU. All classes are accredited by the Federal Aviation Administration. No class absences are allowed — at all.

“ASU has a really good program for developing pilots,” he said. “They have a class for every step of the way.”

His flight instructor walks out and meets him beside the plane. They hop in, strap on, taxi out and take off.

The fence between the little boy and the planes has disappeared.

What holds planes together

Aviation student Eamonn McIntyre adjusts a miniature wing in a wind tunnel.

Eamonn McIntyre demonstrates setting up a student-made wing profile for testing in the wind tunnel in the structures lab on the Polytechnic campus on Feb. 5. McIntyre speaks about the bonus of learning about aerodynamics and metallurgy that come with the ASU Aviation Programs. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Down in the structures lab in the basement of the Sim building, wing sections and aircraft blueprints cover the walls. Drill presses, table clamps and racks of tools are everywhere.

Eamonn McIntyre, currently a private pilot, is a senior earning an aviation management technology degree in professional aviation, with an emphasis on aviation business management. He has a passion for business and wants to work for an airline.

AMT 280: Aerospace Structures, Materials, and Systems introduces students to aerodynamics not covered in flight school. All aviation students take the class, even if they’re studying to become air-traffic controllers or airport managers. They learn about metals, but obviously not as much as a materials engineer. There are lessons and demonstrations about hydraulics.

“Here at ASU this class is amazing because you learn aerodynamics, structures and engineering,” McIntyre said. “As pilots, we’re not engineers. ... If you have good theory, good structural knowledge, and something happens while flying, you’ll have an idea of what’s happening. You don’t learn a lot of this stuff in-depth in flight training. ... You learn so much it’s amazing. You learn about what’s holding your airplane together.”

They study rivets, honeycomb structures and metal bending. There’s a wind tunnel in the lab. Wings with different profiles can be inserted in the tunnel.

“You can see how wind operates,” McIntyre said. “You can see how air reacts as you change the angle of the wing. You’re able to see the lift and drag components. ... There’s no better way to see aerodynamics than a wind tunnel.”

Students actually build a wing at the end of the semester, test it in the tunnel and write a full lab report on its performance.

It’s not just useful for pilots.

“If you’re an (air-traffic controller), you might know why a pilot is in trouble,” McIntyre said.

The difference between a good sound and a bad one

ASU aviation student Christian Hartwell

Air transportation management senior Christian Hartwell, talks about the power plant lab next to a cutaway Pratt & Whitney J-57 turbojet engine at the Polytechnic campus. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

When Christian Hartwell was 4, his father gave him a bright red toy plane. He has had his eyes on the sky ever since.

“I’m pursuing my passion,” he said. “Aviation is a bug you never get rid of.”

Hartwell is a senior earning a bachelor’s degree in air transportation management. (“You can’t fly your whole life.”) He has a private pilot’s license and is licensed to fly multi-engine aircraft.

Down in the power plant lab, he is surrounded by engines of all shapes, sizes and types. Models of hydraulics and cutaways of different systems crowd the rooms. Students learn about electricity and starters, gear boxes and fire suppressors.

“Your first project is to take an engine apart and put it back together,” Hartwell said of the class. They start with reciprocating engines like those in Cessnas. “You start looking at compressors and turbines. You have a real working knowledge. When you have a working knowledge of engines, you have an idea of what’s happening.”

Kimberly teaches the class. “Everybody has to take this class,” Kimberly said. “It’s part of our core curriculum.”

“He gives you an in-depth knowledge of engines,” Hartwell said. “Obviously we’re not going to be mechanics.”

“Professor Kimberly says, ‘You guys are going to know more than an airline pilot,’” Hartwell said. “He teaches us the difference between a good sound and a bad sound. ... When I hear wisdom and knowledge, I recognize it.”

The foot stomp

A third of the class failed to remember the horsepower equation on a recent exam.

“Foot stomp and everything — I told them,” Kimberly said.

The Kimberly foot stomp is legendary in the ASU Aviation Programs.

“When Professor Kimberly wants you to remember something important, he stomps his foot,” McIntyre said with a laugh.

“And when he stomps his foot, you know you’d better pay attention,” Hartwell said.

“That’s an airline (instructor’s) technique,” Kimberly said of the foot stomp. “You won’t see that in the Air Force. He’s giving you clues so you pass. I don’t think they foot-stomp when the FAA inspector is in class. I’m stomping my foot just about the whole class.”

Fireballs and compressor blasts

Aviation instructor Jimmy Kimberly walks in a lab.

Aviation lecturer Jimmy Kimberly has years of flying experience as both a military and a commercial pilot, and pushes the students to understand mechanical and aeronautical concepts in addition to piloting. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

“Like all places, the military and airlines spend more time driving the plane than learning this stuff,” Kimberly said. “At ASU we have a better idea. We teach them the fundamentals, and it makes them better pilots.”

The class goes on field trips to Southwest Airlines hangars and the Honeywell plant near Sky Harbor. What is the value of understanding power plants and aircraft structures to transportation managers?

“They speak the language,” Kimberly said. “They can talk to CEOs about mechanics.”

He demonstrates a riveter. “Nobody gets to rivet unless you’re a mechanic. Riveting is fun. ... When you understand what’s going on down in the hangar, it makes you a better manager.”

An air-traffic controller who understands power plants can tell the difference between a compressor blast — which emits a single fireball — and an engine on fire. With that knowledge he or she can reassure a panicky pilot that the plane is not in fact on fire.

“They can tell (pilots) what they’re lacking and how to get down out of the clouds,” Kimberly said. “They’re smart pilots when they leave here. They’re really competent in systems.”

Airlines and military trainers “don’t spend the time on this,” he said. “They want to get them up and start moving people around.”

Cracks and pops

Two cracked dual-pane windows sit in the back of the power plant lab. A crack on the outer pane calls for a different landing procedure than a crack on the inside pane.

“When it fractures, it gets your attention,” Kimberly said.

The students put metal into a machine that stresses it until it fractures.

“Metal makes a loud pop! when it breaks. Pop! Like that. I never heard it in flight.”

But he wants his students to know what it sounds like.

The airlines and military “don’t tell you much about aerodynamics. They’re not interested in it. ... We’re the only four-year school that does this. It’s all hands-on training. When they get there, it won’t be strange to them.”

“I didn’t get any of that in the Air Force,” he added.

His most recent acquisition was a 757 brake assembly donated by a Chandler aircraft parts company. How does he get all the parts, components and mechanisms in the labs?

“I go out and ask. Most places donate to ASU because they know we’ll use it in class,” Kimberly said.                  

Dawn flight over Honolulu

It’s a sunny late morning in Mesa, but in Honolulu it’s just after dawn and overcast. That’s where Matt Archambault, senior, and Connor Hinz, junior, are flying in the King Air 200 simulator as part of Air Navigation and Airline Instrument Procedure classes. It’s a multi-pilot class studying crew procedures.

 “We can put any kind of weather up there,” class instructor Mike Hampshire said. No rain today, but as the session continues, the overcast conditions clear up and the sun comes out.

“I’ve worked with lots of simulators over the years, and this is as good a picture as I’ve ever seen,” Hampshire said.

It’s high resolution, and the detail on the five-screen setup is incredible: warships in Pearl Harbor, the USS Arizona Memorial shining white below, waves breaking on Waikiki Beach, even the pink Royal Hawaiian hotel can be spotted below. It’s pretty quiet on the streets, though.

“If we had it hooked up the way I like, there’d be cars driving by underneath and sailboats and all kinds of nonsense,” Hampshire said.

The simulator can re-create airports in North and South America, Europe and Australia. The computers (one for each screen) are autonomous. They might send a fuel tanker or a baggage truck rolling nearby.

Archambault and Hinz take off, flying above the docks and gantries of the port of Honolulu. Clouds close in. Only the whirring props are visible. They’re flying on instruments now. In addition to the plane’s instruments, both student aviators have GPS on their iPads mounted near the yokes.

“That’s the way everyone flies now,” Hampshire said of the iPads. He acts as the air-traffic controller. “Turn 266. Maintain 3,000 feet.”

The visuals are so good sometimes Hampshire has to hold onto the simulator cowl or a table to stand steady.

“The goal is to have them work as a team,” Hampshire said. “Matt is feeding all kinds of information to Connor so he knows what’s coming up.”

“One of the advantages of a simulator is you can do a lot of things in a short time you couldn’t do in an airplane,” Hampshire said. For example, if you mess up a landing approach, you can simply reset the sim, as opposed to flying all the way around the airport and lining up again, wasting fuel and air time.

Archambault and Hinz swap off flying legs, one flying as captain, then the other, so they learn both duties.

“It’s fun,” Archambault said. “It’s so good. A big part of flying is practicing procedures, so being able to do that without risk is great.”

“It doesn’t mimic the feel, but in terms of control responsiveness it feels the same,” Hinz said. “There’s the same resistance.”

Both want to fly for commercial airlines. Archambault had a neighbor who went through ASU’s program. “It was a pretty easy choice for me,” he said.

Managing airports

Managing an airport is quite different from managing other places. For one, they use public money. For another, they change frequently — air transportation has been rocked quite severely twice this century, first by 9/11, and again in 2008 when the Great Recession laid waste to air travel.

“It’s not always routine,” said Juan Fonseca, a senior majoring in air transportation management. “You have to be able to adapt to your environment and the situation around you. It’s more analytical and problem-solving. ... You have an impact not only on your airport, but your community.”

Fonseca is learning the business side of commercial aviation, including accounting, financing and management. Airport planning — adding more gates and more capacity for passengers, for instance — is also part of the degree.

Fonseca has always been fascinated with airports.

“The first time I flew with Southwest to go visit my grandparents in Texas, I really liked the whole environment and the experience, the customer service, the feeling of jet engines,” he said. “It’s amazing how many people you see, from ticketing to the TSA to the flight crew, how they all work together and make your flying experience good, or bad.

“If you have a great experience with an airline, you might be more inclined to fly with them again, or become a frequent flier, or as you get older, strive to become an employee of that airline. Being a Southwest employee has always been a goal of mine since I was in elementary school.”

Fonseca enjoyed a 10-week internship at Southwest Airlines corporate headquarters in Dallas. He is slated to graduate in December.

Pushing tin

Planes land, take off and taxi to and from terminals. It sounds difficult, until you actually see air-traffic controllers at work. Then you realize how insanely hard it is. It’s like constantly fiddling with a Rubik’s Cube in your mind, changing, adapting, orchestrating the flow of traffic. There are no discernible patterns, it never stops, and it’s never the same.

It’s intense. Really intense. Restaurant kitchens, commodities trading floors and newsrooms are all high-stress, fast-paced environments, but control towers top them all. And if there’s a mistake in those first three environments, no one dies.

These are people who manage 12 planes simultaneously. It’s why they yell at coffeehouse employees who can’t coherently pull four coffees together.

On the air-traffic control simulator, it’s about three in the afternoon at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. The sun glints off the head of Camelback Mountain and the office towers in downtown Phoenix. Maintenance trucks are towing planes across the tarmac. Southwest, Alaska, United — they’re all taking off and landing.

“Southwest 2902, Phoenix tower, 25 right, cleared for takeoff,” said the air-traffic controller.

“It’s a lot of practice, a lot of repetition,” said lecturer Verne Latham. “You’ve got to learn what your priorities are.”

Latham is a tall, lanky guy with a brush moustache who worked from 1982 to 1987 as an air-traffic controller at the tower in El Cajon, California, then in the tower at Sky Harbor from 1987 to 2007. He has seen it all, including a car thief driving a pickup truck through a fence onto the Sky Harbor tarmac and underneath planes.

Military jets are coming in. They’re moving faster than the commercial jets, so Latham has his student clear them to land first.

“Raptor 22, turn left hotel four.”

“Let’s clear the next guy for takeoff,” Latham said.

The student wrestles with his flight strips, strips of paper with lines of numbers and codes on them that tell what airline, where they’re headed and how, and other information. The strips are organized on the desk in order of approach. Almost all towers use flight strips.

“See how confusing it gets if you don’t keep your strips up to date?” Latham said.

“Big boy heavy turn left hotel two.”

Voice recognition software on the computer forces the students to enunciate clearly and smoothly.

Sim time can cut training time by 25 to 30 percent. In the real world, you have to wait for situations to occur before you can learn to handle them.

“As opposed to someone waiting for three years to handle an accident, you can do it right here,” Latham said. Or fog, or an engine fire on the runway. “You can have it over and over and over, until you learn how to tackle it.”

“I can make it rain, or snow, or throw a kangaroo on the runway,” Latham said. “You can study all you want, but most people learn by doing.”

Someone to watch over me: Drone pilots

A student-made drone flies in an ASU hangar.

Experienced remote-control pilot Tyler Dears (right, background) flies his team’s hand-made drone inside the ASU hangar at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, adjacent to the Polytechnic campus, on April 23. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

It’s a Saturday morning in ASU’s cavernous hangar at Gateway Airport. For the 10 students assembled, it’s the final step in AMT 270 — the introductory class to unmanned aircraft systems.

The final course project is to design, develop and build an unmanned aircraft. Today they will test and fly the quad copters they’ve built. Because of new FAA regulations, they can’t fly outside.

Instructor James Linehan wants to see a variety of maneuvers: a hover 4 feet off the ground; a 360-degree right turn; a 360-degree left turn; a slide right; and a slide left.

The drones are cardboard boxes with balsa-wood legs and plastic propellers. Inside there’s a circuit board and a motor.

Sophomore Tyler Dears already has a pilot’s license. After graduation he wants to get a military contract job flying drones. Civilian contractors do a lot of reconnaissance for the military. It’s the aspect of drones people don’t hear about very much because it’s overshadowed by the exploits of the Predator and Reaper armed drones.

“The nice thing about flying UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] for contractors is it pays really well,” Dears said. “You get paid a lot more.”

Being deployed pays even more, and that’s what Dears wants to do; to go on a six- or nine-month deployment and pay off his student loans. “If the troops do it, I can too,” he said.

In addition to military work, there are dozens of other opportunities for drone pilots: law enforcement, search and rescue, land laser mapping, wildfire analysis, disaster assessment, pipeline and power-line inspection, movies and commercials, and agriculture. It makes more sense for a rancher to check his fences from the air than to spend two or three days riding around on an ATV.

“The uses are still growing,” Dears said.

Junior Matt Dunn flew drones for four and a half years for the Army. He searched for improvised explosive devices, provided overwatch surveillance for troops on patrol, and gave battlefield overviews for officers. For the latter, a drone’s-eye view saved them dozens of calls while still providing excellent situational awareness. After the Army, Dunn spent five years as a civilian contractor teaching soldiers how to fly and maintain drones at Fort Huachuca, the Army’s drone training center. He is earning an aviation management degree and has a pilot’s license.

“I’ve never flown these before,” Dunn said, looking at the class’ kit drones.

They prove to be pretty squirrelly. The students with pilot’s licenses are having trouble just hovering them. Dears, who works in a hobby shop, struggles to keep it upright. Dunn, with more than nine years of experience, barely gets it off the ground.

“Have you flown the hard one in the sim?” one student asks another. “That’s a lot easier than this.”

The kits are cheap; they have to be, because of lab fees and student budgets. Linehan said you can go out and buy an off-the-shelf drone that is much easier to fly right out of the box.

“These are much harder, which is good because they’re learning something,” he said. “It takes a lot to get it off the ground.”

After more than an hour of flips, slides and propeller-shattering crashes, Linehan adjusts his expectations for the day.

“Just get it off the ground,” he tells the class.

Sophomores — with jobs

Four commercial airlines — SkyWest, Air Wisconsin, ExpressJet and American Eagle — have agreements with the university guaranteeing job interviews to ASU grads.

“Our pathway agreements with regional carriers provide a seamless transition from graduating to employment,” program director Marc O’Brien said. “It’s truly a great connection to take you to a major carrier.”

American Airlines takes it farther. It gives a bonus at graduation and guarantees a path to fly big jets after two years with the regional carrier Envoy Air, a subsidiary. To qualify, students have to be instrument-rated, be a sophomore, have a 3.0 GPA in aviation and a 2.5 overall GPA.

“You can have your last job interview as a sophomore,” said senior Tyler Faber. “Essentially they give you a seat at the biggest airline in the world.”

Learning on a flight line

“The Polytechnic campus is perfect for a flight program,” said program director O’Brien. “There aren’t that many university flight programs that have an airport co-located. Our students can live here, take classes and walk to the flight line. It’s all right here; very aviation-centric.”

O’Brien holds FAA Airline Transport Pilot and Certified Flight Instructor-Gold Seal certificates. He was a line pilot for USAir Express, a regional air carrier flying in the northeastern United States. Before that, he was employed by American Trans Air as a flight instructor and finished his tenure as the company’s assistant chief instructor.

Arizona weather is a boon to the school. Students don’t have to wait for hours or days for the skies to brighten. They’re cleared hot 99 percent of the time.

Cross-training for pilots, air-traffic controllers, drone pilots, and airport managers — the program’s four degree offerings — is designed to benefit all of them.

“We feel that those courses are going to help in whichever career path they take in aviation,” O’Brien said. “Even management students need to know the technology. A lot of students who come to a program like this in aviation want to be a pilot. When they get here, they realize there are so many other careers in aviation. These are things pilots don’t necessarily get to see.”

Students who start out in professional flight might change majors, but they’ve taken the core courses and maximized their credits if they decide to switch.

“The logistics of being in a flight school associated with an airport, the laboratories we have here you don’t see in other aviation programs, that’s what sets us apart,” O’Brien said. “The faculty we have here are all from the industry, commercial, military, civilian sectors — we really cover all the different areas. There’s a wide variety of faculty expertise. Not only do we compete well with the other major aviation universities, but I’d say we’re probably a front-runner.”


ASU Insight: Are the baby boomers going to bust the health care system?

A Zocalo Public Square discussion

April 28, 2016

The healthcare system is rapidly reaching a point of insolvency, but if we fix it now the pain will be much less than if we wait until we're out of money. A photograph from the Zocalo Healthcare Event

That was one of the conclusions of a panel discussion Tuesday hosted by Zocalo Public Square and the Health Futures Council at Arizona State University that set out to answer the question: will the baby boomer generation bankrupt the healthcare system as we know it?

The panel was moderated by Wall Street Jounnal healthcare reporter Anna Wilde Mathews.

The panel included:

• G. Lawrence Atkins, PhD, Executive Director, Long-Term Quality Alliance and President, National Academy of Social Insurance
• Marjorie Baldwin, PhD, Professor, Department of Economics, W. P. Carey School of Business at ASU, Academic Director, Public Health Programs, College of Health Solutions at ASU
• Keith Dines, CEO, Arizona Integrated Physicians
• John Rother, President and CEO, National Coalition on Health Care

For more on the event, visit Zocalo Public Square.

image title

1 step closer in solving speech disorder

New research findings could someday help prevent speech disorder.
Identifying origin of speech disorder could lessen severity/future incidences.
April 27, 2016

ASU assistant professor's study finds new candidates for genetic cause of disorder; could mean much earlier diagnosis in infants

People take preventative measures every day. We use seat belts to prevent injury, wear sunscreen to prevent skin damage and lock our doors to prevent burglaries. Any way you look at it, preventing a disaster is preferable to dealing with its aftermath.

The same holds true for medical disorders; prevention is always better than attempting to treat after diagnosis. For a great number of disorders, that’s not always possible. But thanks to the research of ASU assistant professor Beate PeterBeate Peter is an assistant professor of speech and hearing in Arizona State University’s College of Health Solutions., we are one step closer to being able to do this for childhood apraxia of speech, or CAS.

In a study published today in the leading scientific journal PLOS ONE, Peter (pictured above) details how she was able to identify mutations in mainly two genes that may cause the disorder. Knowing more about the genetics of speech problems will allow parents with children at risk for the disorder to take action earlier than was previously possible.

CAS is a motor speech disorder that affects roughly one to two of every 1,000 childrenAccording to the American Speech-Language Hearing Association, . Children with CAS have problems saying certain sounds and words because they have trouble orchestrating all the different muscles in their speech system. This makes it extremely difficult for them to convey their thoughts and emotions. Peter calls the disorder “a great source of frustration” to the children it affects as well as their families, often causing children to act out or — worse — give up on speaking altogether.

“One mother once told me, ‘He doesn’t have any friends — none of the kids at preschool want to play with him,’ ” Peter said. “So there is a huge area of need … to do more than just wait until they have a diagnosis and then treat.”

A former school-based speech-language pathologist, Peter thought that perhaps the answer to filling that need lay in our genes. And so in this, her latest study, Peter chose two separate families in which incidences of CAS were very high to delve into the genetics of speech disorders.

After running a battery of tests on the family members and asking them lots of questions to determine who among them did and did not have speech problems came the “most crucial” step: obtaining a DNA sample from each member of each family. For each of these DNA samples, Peter obtained computer files with more than half a million genetic markers spread across all chromosomes (imagine a huge text file with the markers for one entire family: dozens of columns and more than 9 million lines), and for a few samples, she also obtained computer files with readouts of the entire exome, which consists of all pieces of DNA that contain the recipes for making proteins.

Using a program developed by researchers at her alma mater the University of Washington, Peter fed each family’s genetic marker files into a computer to look for parts of chromosomes that likely were inherited along with the speech problem. Once she found these chromosomal regions, she checked them for harmful exome variants that were inherited only by family members with the speech problem.

What she found was that members of each family who were previously determined to have a speech problem also shared a specific gene marker. Members of each family who were previously determined not to have a speech problem did not have that specific gene marker; an indication that most likely, the gene marker shared by members of the family who have a speech problem is indicative of a shared genetic anomaly that likely caused the speech disorder.

For the first family, Peter found one specific gene variant on one chromosome and several others on another chromosome that were shared by members of the family with a speech problem. For the second family, she found only one specific gene variant shared by members of the family with a speech problem.

Hence, these candidate variants may cause the disorder.

professor displaying binder of images

ASU assistant professor Beate
Peter flips through a binder of
images she uses to determine
the severity of speech disorders.

Photos by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

What is important to note is that each shared gene variant Peter found was located on a different chromosome — chromosomes 5 and 17 for the first family and chromosome 4 for the second family. Because of that, it cannot be definitively stated that one particular chromosome is responsible for CAS.

Rather, CAS can arise from a number of different genetic anomalies on a number of different chromosomes. This is not necessarily a new insight, as in the past, Peter and other researchers found a handful of candidate genes for CAS in different families. For example, a group in the United Kingdom discovered the first “speech” gene, called FOXP2, more than 15 years ago, and in the case of one boy Peter studied in 2014, a sporadic loss of a whole gene on chromosome 2 most likely caused him to have CAS. The discovery of the mutations found on chromosomes 4, 5 and 17, published today, adds new candidate genes to this short list. Peter’s project is the first since the discovery of the FOXP2 gene to study multigenerational families and land on mutations involving single DNA points.

“It’s like if you have a book with 6,000 pages and a crucial word is misspelled; the whole meaning of the book changes,” Peter said. “And so that’s what happened in these two families. This mutation affects the way that their speech motor system functions.”

Being able to identify the specific genetic variations that cause CAS and other severe speech disorders is a game-changer. In the very distant future it could allow for gene editing, wherein the genetic anomaly that causes the disorder is edited out of a person’s genomic makeup, thus eliminating the disorder. At present, it could mean much earlier diagnosis.

Right now, problems with speech development may be noticed around age 2, and an official CAS diagnosis can be made after age 3. Once the diagnosis is made, speech-language pathologists can set up a treatment plan. In families with prevalent CAS and a known genetic cause, parents can opt to have their new infants tested for the genetic change. Test results would tell parents whether to be extra vigilant and get professional help as early as possible, as opposed to waiting until the child is older and has already experienced detrimental delays in the development of their speech abilities.

One problem is that speech-language pathologists usually treat symptoms. What if they could provide approaches that prevent the speech problems from cropping up in the first place by working with tiny infants at genetic risk?

Peter hopes to begin clinical trials with just such infants as soon as 2017, collaborating with some of her colleagues who specialize in earliest phases of speech development. She is already in contact with local hospitals and clinics for patient referrals; the next step is to secure funding.

The kind of therapy Peter plans to employ in the trials would be a combination of reinforcement and operant conditioning, a learning principle in which environmental stimuli are controlled and manipulated to influence behavior.

Another “dream for the future,” as Peter describes it, is ultimately to incorporate brain imaging into the genetics research to be able “to study the pathway from the genetic variation, to the brain, to the observable speech output.”

She explains that the interdisciplinary nature of this type of work, even without the brain imaging, is extremely rare:

“There are very, very few people who study the genetics of speech disorders. There are more people who study the genetics of language disorders and the genetics of reading disorders (such as dyslexia). But speech sound disorders, there are few people who have the dual training for that. So ASU, with its focus on interdisciplinarity, is the perfect place [for this type of work].”

Top photo: Beate Peter holds an EEG net, a medical device used to produce images of brain activity. A device such as this may be used in further studies of hers looking at the pathway from genetic variations that cause speech disorders, to the brain, to the observable speech output.

image title

'Vehicle of Resistance'

ASU student on a two-wheeled mission through 15 Indian reservations.
Selfless acts, surprise friendships on the road part of the joys of the journey.
April 25, 2016

ASU master's student rides his bicycle around 15 Indian reservations to spread the word about indigenous history

Kenny Dyer-Redner is somewhere in the wilds of Nevada’s Indian country, and he’s spinning his wheels.

No, he’s not taking a break from his studies at Arizona State University. Dyer-Redner is on a two-wheeled mission.

The American Indian StudiesThe American Indian Studies Program is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. student is speaking about indigenous history as part of his master’s thesis and touring 15 Indian reservations in 34 days on a bike. He’s hoping to inspire youth and other community members to make their own history.

“As American Indian people, we are taught to think about history from a Western point of view. Too often American Indians accept this,” said Dyer-Redner, who is about three-quarters finished with his 34-day bike ride, which will encompass approximately 1,000 miles in and around northern Nevada.

“Most people think that stories and storytelling are powerful. I argue that stories have the power to shape our thoughts, consciousness and even our actions. I urge people to begin a process of engaging in physical activity and intellectual reflection.”

Dyer-Redner’s thesis, “Vehicle of Resistance: A Bicycle Ride for the Land, Culture and Community,” uses a theoretical framework that explores four concepts: history/land, storytelling, the physical body and political action.

ASU master's student Kenny Dyer Redner with a class of Native students

Kenny Dyer-Redner
visits students
on the reservations
he's biking through.

Photo courtesy
of Dyer-Redner

He’s putting to the test a theory he called “Active Indigenous Presence,” which argues that a presence of indigenous thought, voice and physical body disrupts and introduces the concept of decolonization and self-determination.

“At one time this country was all indigenous land, and right now we’re all separated on different reservations,” Dyer-Redner said. “We might be scattered, but there’s indigenous people everywhere and they’re very supportive. They are showing me that we are all one big community.”

Those kinds of life lessons are inspiring and the epitome of use-inspired research, said Bryan McKinley Jones Brayboy, director of the Center for Indian Education and ASU’s Special Advisor to the President on American Indian Affairs.

“Kenny’s thesis project is remarkable in that he is, quite literally, embodying his scholarship. I suspect he will learn a great deal about himself as he braves the elements and tells his story,” Brayboy said. “Young boys and girls in communities will see that Native peoples can be thoughtful and serious scholars, generous people and engaged community members.”

The 34-year-old master’s student is fully engaged at the moment; he rides his bike 50-70 miles a day and sleeps in a tent at night. He said it helps him to connect with the land and the people.

“I purposely chose a bike because it’s not as quick as a vehicle and it forces me to get to know the landscape more intimately,” said Dyer-Redner. “There’s no way I’d be able to do that driving by in a car really fast.”

Riding a bike at 4,000-feet elevation can have its drawbacks, said Dyer-Redner. He has endured rain, severe wind, snow, and on a couple of occasions, hail. But that’s nothing compared with the sacrifices he made before taking off for Nevada earlier this month. He quit his job as a stocker at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in west Phoenix and had to get the blessing of his wife and two kids, ages 15 and 2, to fulfill his thesis.

But Dyer-Redner is quickly acquiring a new support system while on the road, thanks to a social-media post by longtime pal Derek Hinkey, who announced Dyer-Redner’s academic sojourn. News of his arrival has caught on with the locals, as well as an Elko, Nevada, TV station, who recently filed a story.

“When I come to a reservation, people either have heard of me or know I’m coming,” said Dyer-Redner. “I’ve even had people pull me over on the side of the road and say, ‘Hey, you’re that guy!’ People feed me, have hosted me in their homes and are showing they care.”

In return, Dyer-Redner speaks to youth groups, high school and college students, community members and elders about his life on the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Indian Reservation. He speaks honestly about some of the obstacles he faced in his youth — racism, loneliness and some self-destructive behavior when he turned 12. He said athleticsDyer-Redner played football and basketball and was recruited by several colleges. He was a champion boxer on the club level at the University of Nevada, Reno. gave him the discipline to turn his life around and that education is helping to shape his future.

“Everybody can relate to my story because growing up I was very shy and passive, your typical res kid,” Dyer-Redner said. “I was a good athlete, and that gave me the confidence I needed to overcome my shyness. But some of these kids are dealing with challenges I didn’t face.”

Some of those challenges include poverty, substance abuse, isolation, unemployment and lack of basic resources, including law enforcement.

“There are some reservations that don’t even have their own police departments or rely on Bureau of Indian Affairs — but they don’t really enforce the law that much,” Dyer-Redner said. “Many drugs are being sold out of houses in plain sight but nothing’s being done. When that happens, things get skewed.”

Dyer-Redner said it’s not all gloom and doom. He’s also witnessing the other side of humanity — selfless acts, good deeds and surprise friendships on the road. They include: Bird from Lovelock, Nevada, who teaches underserved youth traditional Paiute songs; Pete, an 82-year-old man who is walking across the United States and who stopped to share his story; and Deb, who heard about Dyer-Redner through Facebook and posed for a selfie at a Native American landmark at Pyramid Lake, 40 miles northeast of Reno.

Dyer-Redner is keeping a daily journal and recording his trip using a GoPro camera. His thesis will include these mediums as well as the many lessons he is learning along the way.

“I feel like I’ve definitely changed,” said Dyer-Redner, who wants to host a weeklong creative writing workshop for youth in the area in the future. “I feel more humble and possess a stronger sense of community. I feel like I’ve achieved great things as an individual, but it’s no longer about that.

“I’m part of a community, and now I have a responsibility to them.”

image title

Will Boomers make the health-care system go bust?

Health experts will discuss solutions at public event April 26.
Health system isn't at crisis point yet, but it's on its way.
April 21, 2016

Public discussion to address America's aging population and what it means to nation's health infrastructure

Most Baby Boomers and Gen Xers have generally accepted the idea that Social Security might fold in their lifetime. Will our health-care system share the same fate if it isn’t properly addressed?

That’s a question a group of national and local experts will attempt to answer at an April 26 panel, “Will the Aging of America Bankrupt the Health Care System?” Sponsored by the Health Futures Council at ASUThe Health Futures Council at ASU serves the university through the Office of the President and is made up of experienced leaders across a broad continuum of health and business with a passion for improving health and access to care. They lend their expertise to provide context, advice and resources to further the work of ASU faculty and leadership. and produced by Zócalo Public SquareZócalo Public Square, an affiliate of Arizona State University, is a not-for-profit ideas exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism. , the free public event will start at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Arizona Science Center in Phoenix.

Moderated by Wall Street Journal health reporter Anna Wilde Matthews, the panel includes Marjorie Baldwin, a health economist in the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University; Keith Dines, CEO of Arizona Integrated Physicians; G. Lawrence Atkins, executive director of Long-Term Quality Alliance; and John Rother, CEO of the National Coalition on Health Care in Washington, D.C.

The provocatively titled panel was designed to provoke discussion and spur possible action, said the event’s organizer.

“The Health Futures Council feels a real passion to make a difference in that they see a lot that’s wrong with the health-care system and want to make it better,” said Dr. Mitzi Krockover, director of the Health Futures Council at ASU.

“We felt this was a very salient issue — one that affects everyone involved in the system including providers, payers and consumers — and will have repercussions for future generations. We hope that shining a light on this topic will lead to productive conversations and innovative solutions.”

A perfect storm of aging demographics, longer life expectancies, shortages of physicians and other health professionals, disease epidemics and dwindling resources is threatening our nation’s health-care infrastructure. And according to a recent U.S. Census Bureau report, the world is about to see a first — more older people than young children.

In the next five years, the proportion of people older than 65 will make up an estimated 15.6 percent of the U.S. population. The proportion of older adults will be more than double the proportion of children younger than 5.

A poorer and more diverse generation of Americans will be supporting the health of the Baby Boom generation who will be seeking more health care as they age. The trustees of Medicare predict a day of financial reckoning is coming and estimate that the trust fund will run out of assets by 2030.

This all leads to one simple question: How can the American health-care system continue to do business as usual as the nation’s demographics change so dramatically?

It simply cannot, say the experts.

“It’s not a crisis yet, but it’s easier to fix if it’s addressed early rather than wait until it becomes a crisis,” said Baldwin, who is also the academic director for Public Health Programs in the College of Health Solutions at ASU. “Running up the national debt even further is not a good plan. It’s better to find ways to fix the system now.”

Baldwin said one problem with our health-care system is that the American public is used to health-insurance coverage that pays almost all the costs of health care. Even though it sounds good, it could have detriments.

“I often give this example to my students — we have insurance on our cars in case there’s a bad accident and the car is totaled. We don’t have insurance for little things like oil changes or routine maintenance,” Baldwin said. “Insurance is designed to protect us from catastrophic events, not things that are routine events and predictable. We basically get all of our health care for free and so people don’t pay attention to what they’re consuming, what price they’re paying or if they’re getting good value.”

Baldwin suggests individual health savings accounts could not only cut down on overall health-care costs but could put consumers in the driver’s seat.

Rother said pharmaceutical companies currently are in the driver’s seat, and prescription drug costs are putting our nation’s health care on a collision course with insolvency.

“The inflation of drugs is creating the immediate crisis, and that’s because we are allowing the drug companies to charge whatever they want,” Rother said. “Companies like Pfizer raised its prices across the board by 20 percent this year. If that continues, it will drive the system into the ground.”

Rother believes Social Security is a fairly easy fix compared with Medicare, given the rising costs of health care. He said we need to invest more in health education — obesity and diabetes are at epidemic levels — and get Washington to start thinking big picture and long term.

“We have a system now where politicians are focused on the next two years, and the result is that we pass the buck onto our future generations instead of getting things under control now,” Rother said. “It’s hard to make long-term changes in an election cycle. It’s discouraging.”

Other factors are also at play, said panelist Atkins, including personal responsibility for one’s own health, the aging population putting stress on the system, and lack of discipline in the health-care profession.

“We run a very, very expensive health-care system in this country, and we run it very, very inefficiently,” said Atkins. “We’ve built up a very elaborate system in this country. Some of it is high tech. Some of it is fancy and expensive. Some of it is redundant. So we’re carrying a very expensive load.”

Atkins said some states are actually making aggressive changes on the legislative level to wipe out inefficiencies and rein in the costs. Other hard decisions need to be made by individuals, including difficult ones when the end is near.

“Hospice and palliative care is a covered benefit of Medicare, but often people in these circumstances need to have control over their lives and not become a victim of highly trained medical professionals who have a view of how things should be done,” Atkins said. “The more person-centric we can make our system, then it’s going to be easier all the way around with less costs.”

The experts agreed that taking a look at another health-care system would be a good idea, but certainly not the cure-all.

Rother pointed to Germany, Canada, Sweden, Denmark, Singapore and Japan as having excellent systems that serve their aging populations well.

“They have a range of different approaches, but all of their health-care systems are much less expensive, yet their results and outcomes are just as good or even better than the United States,” Rother said.

On the other hand, Baldwin said, “There are three things a health-care system should do: provide access, to quality care, at a reasonable cost.  It’s easy to get two of them but difficult to get all three. No health-care system in the world has solved that problem.”

Baldwin said there are trade-offs between the three objectives, and different countries make different trade-offs. What works in other countries may not work in the United States, where we have a large, diverse and fiercely independent population.

“If you buy into a one-payer system, then you will be giving up some sort of control to the government. Ultimately someone will be rationing your health care for you,” Baldwin said. “They might decide if they’re going to cover a particular Alzheimer’s drug or tell you what kind of surgery you can or can’t have. I cannot imagine Americans would be willing to live under a system like that.

“It’s far better to put the decision-making power in the hands of the consumers. Then they can decide what’s of value to them.”

If you go

What: “Will the Aging of America Bankrupt the Health Care System?” roundtable discussion.

Where: Arizona Science Center, 600 E. Washington St., Phoenix.

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 26.

Cost: Admission is free and open to the public; registration is required. RSVP here.


Reporter , ASU News


image title

Apocalypse now: Zombies as teachers

ASU researcher wants to use our love of zombies to understand disease spread.
April 21, 2016

Using their braaains, ASU researcher and colleagues use the undead to enliven the understanding of infectious-disease modeling

Ever since Bela Lugosi appeared in 1930s horror film “White Zombie,” members of the living dead have fascinated audiences.

Zombies have recently undergone a gruesome renaissance, with such television shows and films as “The Walking Dead,” “iZombie,” “World War Z,” “Pandemic” and “Pride and Prejudice with Zombies” presenting new twists on an old theme.

Now Reed Cartwright, a researcher at the Biodesign Institute, has brought zombie research to Arizona State University. The aim of his project, undertaken with colleagues from ASU, Washington State, Virginia Tech and Kent State University, is to use zombie epidemics to help health professionals, students and the general public gain a better understanding of mathematical modeling of infectious diseases and epidemiology.

“Zombies excite our brains as much as our brains excite zombies,” according to Cartwright, who is also an assistant professor in the School of Life Sciences. “By asking students to study zombie apocalypses, we hope to use familiar material to challenge students with difficult topics. At the end, they will be able to apply what they learn to biology, public health and epidemiology. Our students also learn that when a zombie outbreak occurs, there are two ways for humanity to survive: vaccination and extermination with extreme prejudice. Free hugs do not work.”

The spread of a communicable disease during an epidemic bears many similarities with the manner in which zombies would attack human communities. In each case, a virulent contagion is transmitted, giving rise to new carriers who in turn infect others, in a spreading wave of transmission.

The dynamics of such processes can be wildly complex and are best visualized and understood using sophisticated models in which various critical parameters — number of carriers, community size, rates of transmission, mortality figures, geographical landscape, etc. — can be modified and variant outcomes explored.

To this end, the group has created a simulation known as White Zed, a web-based application that can be used in classrooms to help students better understand and evaluate infectious-disease scenarios. A wide cultural familiarity with zombie epidemics makes them a highly useful analog for epidemics of real diseases affecting humans, providing an ideal learning tool.

Mathematical models of infectious diseases have provided science with invaluable insights into the dynamics of disease spread, recovery and, in some cases, reemergence. By representing conditions of an epidemic with a computer simulation, researchers can efficiently explore a variety of questions that might be impractical to examine in the course of an actual epidemic, due to financial, ethical, practical and other considerations.

In a recent paper appearing in the Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education, the authors describe how zombie epidemics have been incorporated into three introductory programs: a one-day workshop during a conference, a full-semester undergraduate course (taught by Cartwright), and a public outreach event.

“By asking students to study zombie apocalypses, we hope to use familiar material to challenge students with difficult topics."

— Reed Cartwright, ASU Biodesign Institute researcher


Long before the current explosion of zombie chic, these figures of the underworld appeared in ethnic folklore, particularly among voodoo practitioners in Haiti. Modern versions of zombies appearing in pop culture, however, have undergone a number of transformations. Unlike Haitian zombies, portrayed as the victims of spirit possession, zombies appearing in early films like “Night of the Living Dead” are deceased humans brought back to life.

Originally, these slow-moving zombies ambled around the countryside in search of their preferred meal: human flesh. More recently, fast-moving zombies have been introduced. These aggressive, violent creatures are not the classic reanimated dead, but rather, beings infected with some pathogen, variously described as a virus (“Walking Dead,” “World War Z,”), bacterium (“Deck Z,”), prion (“Zombieland”) or endo-parasitic fungus, such as those known to infect the nervous systems of insects, radically transforming their behavior (“The Last of Us”). Infection is commonly transmitted via bite, but can also be the result of water, bodily fluids or vectors. Times of incubation likewise vary widely.

Zombie models are in fashion!

As the authors note, the status of zombies in popular culture makes them an ideal vehicle for studying epidemiological issues and fundamentals of mathematical modeling. Using a fictional group like zombies encourages innovative thinking among students, rather than recourse to well-established concepts of transmission.

Instructors can use them to convey such principles as density-dependent transmission, frequency-dependent transmission, environmental transmission, latency periods, asymptomatic carriers, etc. The effects of various interventions — quarantine, culling, social distancing, etc. — can also be expored through advanced models.

First-author Eric Lofgren of Washington State University developed a one-day workshop, called “A Gentle Introduction to Mathematical Modeling: Real-life Lessons from the Living Dead.” The workshop was delivered to an audience of public-health professionals who may have had some familiarity with epidemiological models, but no hands-on experience with their design or analysis.

Each lecture featured one or more video clips highlighting specific concepts (for example, a segment from “Dawn of the Dead” bearing on incubation times). Subsequent discussion focused on models in the health literature, evaluating what assumptions given models used and what parameters were included.

The workshop progressed from a simple starting point in which a population is divided into S, Z and R categories, where S is susceptible, Z is zombie and R is removed. Later, more sophisticated models were explored in which survivors sought shelter or combatted their zombie attackers.

A hands-on portion of the workshop allowed students to independently implement two models: the basic zombie epidemic and a model extracted from the literature. So-called difference equation models enabled students to grasp many of the same insights provided by more challenging differential equation models, while only requiring high-school-level algebra.

“Zombies excite our brains as much as our brains excite zombies.”

A course in zombies

For those seeking the zombie total-immersion experience, Cartwright taught a class at Rice University on the biology of infectious diseases, which included a semester-long modeling project focusing on zombie invasions.

The class of 100 students was divided into five groups and tasked with assessing one of five zombie disasters. Students were asked to define the parameters of their models and design a mathematical model for zombie transmission. A subsequent draft refined the model and updated it to include natural birth and death of survivors as well as the hunting of zombies. In a final 15-page paper, students fitted their models to a data set provided by Cartwright and presented their results to the class.

Additional study materials for evaluating outbreaks were created by the Biocomplexity Institute of Virginia Tech in the form of a viral-transmission simulation activity known as Virus Tracker that includes visualization and analysis of an epidemic’s spread, highlighting the role of vaccination for thwarting viral disease outbreaks.

A more rigorous understanding of the fundamentals of mathematical disease modeling is important for students of biology, epidemiology and public health. A better appreciation of the use, interpretation and limitations of epidemiological models will help those in health-related fields more fully engage with medical literature and the multiple factors governing transmission events. As a carrier of contagion and cultural icon, zombies have much to teach us.

Top photo courtesy of [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Richard Harth

Science writer , Biodesign Institute at ASU


image title

Building a foundation for a better world

ASU prof wants to make composite concrete the next big thing in construction.
Fiber- and textile-reinforced concrete is better economically, environmentally.
April 20, 2016

ASU engineer's research aims to make more effective and efficient infrastructure

Substandard housing affects almost 2 billion people worldwide. Wood, often the American building material of choice for housing, isn’t always a global resource in developing nations and can be fraught with environmental and durability issues.

That's why Arizona State University professor Barzin Mobasher is developing fiber- and textile-reinforced concrete that is strong in compressionA simplified explanation of the difference between compressive and tensile strength is that compression is when a material is being squeezed inward, whereas tension is when it is being pulled outward. like traditional concrete but has the added capability to be strong in tension as well as flexible — a material more suitable for a wider range of infrastructure projects.

“I want to develop the next generation of the two-by-four that’s not wood, but acts like wood — it can be connected with screws and be used to build trusses — and would not contribute to cutting down forests,” said Mobasher, a professor of civil and environmental engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering who has spent more than 30 years researching composite concrete materials.

“The idea is that concrete by itself is very weak in tension and strong in compression,” Mobasher said. “You have to reinforce it to increase its tensile strength, such as with rebar and steel. But my work deals with using a smaller type of reinforcement in the context of fibers, the same technology of composite materials like carbon fiber composites replacing the aluminum in the structural components of airplanes.”

This concrete has the added ductility, or the ability to absorb energy, to withstand earthquakes and other stresses that would topple other structures thanks to tiny fibers or sheets of textile.

Mobasher says houses can be made out of 90 percent composite concrete that is structurally sound and energy-efficient.

“I want to show that we don’t have to do things the way they’ve always been done."

Barzin Mobasher, ASU professor of civil and environmental engineering 

These composite materials can be made into modular pieces using local materials and manufacturing plants near where materials would be used.

The problems of poor housing in Brazil’s favelas (slums) could be remedied with a small-scale concrete manufacturing plant that uses sisal- or coconut-fiber-reinforced concrete segments, Mobasher said. This in turn could build up the agriculture-based economy by having fibers supplied from local sources and local workers could manufacture it.

In other places, integration of this technology with 3-D printing could revolutionize how construction materials are made.

Before Mobasher’s dream can become a reality, a lot of other work needs to be done to go from idea to building code. Construction is a slow-moving and challenging industry to work in due to the critical need to prevent failures — but failure is what drives Mobasher’s research.

Learning to love failure

His interest in finding a better way for people to build infrastructure comes from his childhood when he watched his grandfather build and rebuild terraces on a mountainside in northern Iran. Every winter, snow and rain would lead to the terrace structure’s collapse, but his grandfather wouldn’t give up. He’d try different procedures and find a better design that would last longer. This also sparked Mobasher's motivation to understand how materials fail and an unfailing persistence in accomplishing his own goal to design better materials.

When he arrived at ASU in 1991 as an assistant professor, no one in Arizona was publishing in the areas of fiber- and textile-reinforced concrete, so he charted a course for this new area of materials research.

Since then, he has been developing and testing composite materials — and learning what makes them fail. The work Mobasher and his students are doing in his lab documents how the materials work and what their strengths, weaknesses and limits are. Understanding how they fail means failures can be prevented from happening when they’re put into use.

Mobasher uses the measurements from the testing to develop a core set of tools to document how materials behave under different circumstances.

Barzin Mobasher stands in front of equipment in the Structural Mechanics and Infrastructure Materials Laboratory.

Professor Barzin Mobasher in the Structural Mechanics and Infrastructure Materials Laboratory at ASU. Photo by Jessica Hochreiter/ASU

Getting new concrete materials out in the world

Mobasher doesn’t limit his efforts to his lab at ASU. He also works with the American Concrete Institute (ACI), an organization responsible for writing building codes for infrastructure ranging from skyscrapers to sidewalks. The ACI’s technical committees define various codes related to concrete material use. Mobasher chairs the Fiber-Reinforced Concrete Committee — a position he has held for six years — and is also a member ACI's Fracture Mechanics Committee and Thin Section Products Committee.

As a committee chair, it’s Mobasher’s job to get new technologies put into use by compiling research, figuring out how to reach a consensus among the various members of the committee, and converting it into international reports that can become building codes — not an easy feat to accomplish.

Builders use 10 billion tons of concrete per year around the world — that’s more than one ton of concrete per person — and it’s not the most effective concrete out there. The industry tends to stick with decades-old, tried-and-true materials and methods rather than switching to newer and better materials because failure is not an option in critical infrastructure.

“Infrastructure is made three or four times as strong as it needs to be, and tools and models belong in an era of 40 to 50 years ago,” Mobasher said. “I want to show that we don’t have to do things the way they’ve always been done.

While it’s understandable to want to avoid failure in the case of a high-rise apartment, for example, which could result in the loss of life, more isn’t always better. Instead of using a larger volume of concrete to achieve better strength, the new technologies of fiber- and textile-reinforced concretes can add that strength and added flexibility while taking up 10 times less space in volume.

The efficiency of these materials has big economic and sustainability benefits. When less volume is taken up by concrete support columns, that area can be used as more rentable space. Less material means construction is quicker so disruptions — which can add up to billions of dollars in cost — can be much shorter. And 10 billion tons of concrete per year comes with a hefty carbon footprint; using less concrete that can be made of materials that last 100 years in corrosive environments means a lower carbon footprint, and thus creates more sustainable infrastructure.

“My dream is to roll out this technology,” Mobasher said. “I want to tell people about the solutions, how they can use them and what they’re good for.”

He plans to continue to expand his efforts outside the lab with more outreach efforts, setting up collaborative efforts with groups like the Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU and focusing on marketing to get more people involved, interested and using these materials in real construction projects.

Award recognizes Mobasher’s achievements in the field

Mobasher’s work to take the field of composite concrete materials from its origins to where it is now — with its own textbooks, conferences, doctoral student theses and international reports — has not gone unnoticed. The ACI gave him its Delmar L. Bloem Distinguished Service Award at the ACI Spring 2016 Concrete Convention and Exposition in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The award recognizes his work as committee chair in publishing three international reports that detail new design procedures he has developed through his materials research at ASU.

The award is a great honor, but, above all, Mobasher hopes this will put the spotlight on sustainability and social justice issues about which he has been trying to raise awareness.

“We need to design concrete more efficiently,” Mobasher said. “I think people are listening and that’s important because each of us has a role, and we’re putting a solution on the table. If people acknowledge and use it, that’s the best reward.”


Monique Clement

Lead communications specialist , Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


image title
Seeing how news about Holocaust unfolded can shed light on history, and today.
ASU is crowdsourcing the finding of newspaper articles for US Holocaust exhibit.
'Research sprint' at ASU to focus on African-American newspapers' coverage.
April 19, 2016

ASU crowdsourcing event to gather articles showing how people talked about Holocaust as it was happening, for national project

The horror that was the Holocaust exists now in our collective consciousness as one of the darkest periods in human history.

However, as Arizona State University associate professor of history Matthew Delmont points out, knowing that it happened from reading about it in a history textbook and seeing firsthand how it played out on a day-to-day basis are two very different things.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s “History Unfolded: U.S. Newspapers and the Holocaust” project aims to do the latter and — in collaboration with ASU’s School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies and ASU Libraries — is inviting ASU students, faculty and staff to contribute.

This Thursday, April 21, from 1 to 4 p.m., Hayden Library on the Tempe campus will hold a “research sprint” to find historical newspaper articles about the Holocaust using the library’s digital database. The articles will be included in an upcoming exhibit at the Holocaust Museum and in a digital exhibit on the museum’s website.

ASU is the first institution to hold an event supporting this crowdsourced project, and it has set a goal of contributing 90 articles to it.

This particular event will focus on pulling articles from African-American newspapers across the U.S.

Delmont, who specializes in the area, was contacted by the museum’s digital project coordinator to contribute when she stumbled upon a similar project of his on Twitter.

Currently an underrepresented demographic in the project, the addition of African-American newspaper articles will ensure a more well-rounded representation of the average American’s perspective of the Holocaust as it was happening.

To learn more about it, ASU Now sat down with Delmont for a Q&A.

Question: Why did the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum ask ASU to specifically focus on African-American newspapers?

Answer: It’s my research specialty, and it’s an area that is underrepresented in their collection. They’ve crowdsourced just over 1,000 articles so far, and when the digital project coordinator reached out to me, they only had a tiny fraction, like 1 or 2 percent, from African-American newspapers. So they want to make sure that all different communities are represented.

As I started to look around a little bit, I found that the ways in which African-American newspapers were talking about the subject was different than other communities because [African-American newspapers] were often looking at it in relationship to what was going on in America [at the time]. They were sort of trying to draw connections and offer support as a group of people who were encountering some similar types of racial oppression and hatred in the United States. … Even some of the phrasing, talking about some of the murders of Jews in Russia being lynchings. That is a language that comes more from the American South, but they’re trying to get their readers to pay attention to what’s going on globally.

Q: This project relies a great deal on digitally sourced material. How is ASU uniquely capable of contributing to that?

A: They’re going to need as many people as possible to contribute as many articles as possible, and we have a great wealth of information here; we have great resources here. The particular way that ASU is going to be able to contribute is that we have libraries that have access to a digital newspaper database that has digital records of nine African-American newspapers; that’s where our research efforts are going to be dedicated to, primarily. ...

We have both our on-campus students and faculty participating, but also some of our online students because all you need for the project is to have access to ASU’s digital resources. We have a large online history master’s program, so 20 students have already signed up to participate in the event virtually, which will be kind of neat.

Q: What are some of the difficulties with crowdsourcing materials for a project like this, and what are some of the rewards?

A: The Holocaust Museum is calling it a “citizen historian project,” which I like. One of the things that I value as a professional historian is trying to get my students and people outside of the academy to understand what historical research is about. And I think one of the best ways to do that is to dive back into these historical newspapers, because they’re just fascinating.

" ... getting back to those primary sources is valuable for me as a professional historian."

But the research is messy, so in some cases you’ll spend an hour looking for stuff and you won’t find anything. That’s part of the research struggle; you spend a lot of time looking for things and sometimes you don’t find anything. But then when you do come across something, and you see the details with which they’re talking about things … it’s hard to recapture how these events mattered for people in 1935, 1937, 1940, and the kind of connections they were drawing.

One quick example that I found already is the debate about whether the U.S. should boycott the 1936 Olympics that were held in Germany. There were some interesting — and this is what gets into the African-American press — some interesting arguments about whether it was better to send the American athletes, particularly black athletes, to go and sort of demonstrate that America was a more democratic place than Germany, and try to sort of prove Adolf Hitler wrong, or whether it was better to boycott and not partake in that. Because there was some concern that he was going to put on this spectacle showing that Germany was somehow welcoming to all members of the world but in fact it was not. The detail there is just more nuanced than what shows up in our history textbooks today.

So I think getting back to those primary sources is valuable for me as a professional historian. It’s also valuable for students and for people who just have a casual interest in history. It’s just fascinating, the ways in which these things were talked about, and trying to imagine how people learned about these things, this horrible history that we now have a better understanding of but to see how they were learning about it at the time.

Q: Have you found anything surprising?

A: I’ll have a better answer to that after Thursday’s event, after we really dive in. The debates about the Olympic boycott were particularly interesting to me. There was one article about Jewish refugees coming to the United States, and the African-American writer was talking about how the United States might not be that much better of a place, with regards to race and ethnic politics, than what [the Jews] were leaving in Europe. [The U.S.] was certainly a better place compared to what was going on in Germany, but the writer way saying that we shouldn’t hold up the U.S. as a bastion of democracy in this era. So that was interesting.

Then I started looking beyond African-American newspapers to the Hartford Courant [in Connecticut]; we have some other digital newspapers that we have access to as well. What struck me there was how in the late 1930s at synagogues in Hartford, they had prayer services to commemorate what they saw going on in Europe. I can’t imagine there were more than a few hundred people, or maybe just a few dozen people, present. But those kind of events, organizing prayer services ... just reading about it and trying to get a sense of what this news meant to people as they were receiving it … that was valuable.

"Just imagining people opening up their newspapers on that day and reading about it, the kind of shock that must have been there."

And then the most tragic articles are the ones where the reports are coming back, in this case from African-American G.I.’s, about concentration camps and what they had witnessed firsthand. It’s horrific, just reading some of the stuff, even when you know it and you’ve seen the videos, you know the history of what happened. Just thinking back to when it was being reported in 1944 and 1945, for the first time. Just imagining people opening up their newspapers on that day and reading about it, the kind of shock that must have been there.

Q: Why is it important to have these kind of robust, accessible archives that don’t romanticize history?

A: Sometimes it’s easy when — if you think about how history is taught in textbooks — it’s easy to sort of move from one epic event to the next. So we have the Holocaust, we have the end of WWII, we have the Civil Rights Movement. And these things, they’re meaningful but there’s almost a sense that you know it already. I’ve encountered this with students sometimes when talking about the Civil Rights Movement; they’ll say, “Oh, I know this already because we covered it in high school.” Trying to break through that sense of being aware that something happened and being aware of what it meant to people at the time, or being aware of why it matters, or the number of different turning points at which things could have happened differently, are two different sets of ways of understanding history.

I think we are at a pretty good place in terms of awareness that the Holocaust happened. It’s widely taught in high schools, widely taught in colleges, people are aware that it happened. But I think this project has the ability to de-familiarize it in some way, to get people to see all of these different local reactions, including some people who were arguing for and against accepting refugees. That’s hard to read, but that’s the history. And I think that helps to present a fuller picture of the time period that can make it more accessible. ... Maybe it’s an anecdote, maybe it’s an editorial cartoon, maybe it’s someone’s description of this one particular thing and that’s what will help make that larger history more meaningful or resonate with you more.

Q: Some may find the fact that America knew about what was going on with Holocaust to be unsettling. What can we learn from that today?

A: There’s a sense that you think, 'Well, if people just had the information, they would have done something different.' And that’s just emphatically not true. There are reasons why people might not have taken the actions we would have wanted them to take. They had the information [about the Holocaust] as early as 1933. And I think probably what this project shows is that in all of the newspapers across the country, reports about things like the Nuremberg laws, taking Jews’ property, pushing them into ghettos at the start of the concentration camps ... all of that is there.

"People were trying to rally — both within and outside of the Jewish community — to do something about it."

There’s a gap between people being aware that it’s happening and the political motivation, the political will to do something about it. Which I think can help us make sense of our present. We see a lot of atrocities in the news … and that doesn’t necessarily lead to action to fix things, but I think it does help us to see that this was a complicated history that played out over a decade, and that America was very much involved. People were trying to rally — both within and outside of the Jewish community — to do something about it. And there were votes for and against accepting refugee children that echo so strongly with what’s going on in the present. Understanding how this played out on a day-to-day basis as opposed to a 10-page chapter in a history text book, I think that that’s one of the most valuable things we can learn from this.

Q: Do you think there’s a chance that this project will change people’s views about the refugee crisis in Europe today?

A: I think there’s a chance. I mean, I think that the Holocaust is a unique historical event, but there are some lines of continuity we can draw. I think the issues about refugees, both in the U.S. but also in Europe is probably the most direct example. I think most people probably don’t realize that the refugees from Europe during WWII who were fleeing Nazis and fascism were not welcome with open arms in the United States.

I don’t know if that’s going to change people’s minds about the present, but as a historian, I always think if people are at least are aware of what the history actually was, that gives us a fighting chance of doing things better the second time. So I would be hopeful in that regard, but I wouldn’t bet money on it.

Flier for a library event.

Top photo: A collage of news clippings related to the Holocaust.

Emma Greguska

Editor , ASU News

(480) 965-9657

image title

Standing up and demanding change

Tribes becoming stronger, buying back land, Native activist Bellecourt says.
American Indian Movement co-founder to speak at ASU about tribes' past, future.
April 18, 2016

Co-founder of American Indian Movement Clyde Bellecourt — who challenged Bernie Sanders at rights forum — to speak at ASU

Clyde Bellecourt hasn’t mellowed much with age — just ask Bernie Sanders.

In February, the 79-year-old activist put the Democratic presidential candidate on blast at a race forum in Minneapolis, chiding Sanders for not muttering “a single word about Native people.”

Bellecourt’s constant grilling, asking Sanders how he would honor the treaties between the federal government and the Native American people, practically had Sanders running for the exit. The incident drew national headlines and set social media ablaze.

The Anishinaabe elder is used to grabbing headlines. As the co-founder of the American Indian Movement, he drew international attention in February 1973 for his role in leading Native American people to Wounded Knee in an armed takeover of the South Dakota town on the Pine Ridge reservation, site of the infamous 1890 massacre of Lakota men, women and children.

The 71-day siege was an inspiration to all indigenous people, though it did not bring about immediate reforms sought by AIM activists. It did, however, succeed in bringing attention to the plight of American Indians.

Bellecourt recently spoke to ASU Now to promote American Indian Week at ASU, and he will deliver a keynote address April 20 on behalf of Project Humanities.

Question: What were the original goals of American Indian Movement when you formed in 1968?

Answer: Absolutely nothing was being done by the U.S. government to abide by treaty obligations to address the grave conditions of indigenous people. Human rights was strictly a black-and-white issue back then, and Native Americans simply didn’t matter. The worst thing the government ever did was to ostracize us, and the only time we were every thought of was in the movies and television — the Lone Ranger, Tonto and John Wayne.

J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI had us on a watch list and targeted us. He ordered agents to demand, disrupt and discredit us and portrayed us as savages, heathens, terrorists and communists. The conditions for our people at that time were deplorable. Our houses were substandard. A majority of them didn’t have running water or electricity. Unemployment was as high as 80 to 90 percent. Only 15 percent of our children were going to college. These were the worst measurements of any ethnic group in America at that time, so if we didn’t stand up and demand change we were going to perish as a people.

Activist Clyde Bellecourt

Native-rights activist Clyde Bellecourt, co-founder of the American Indian Movement, will speak Wednesday on ASU’s about the past, present and future for tribes. "Tribes are becoming stronger, wealthier and buying back the land that was taken from us," he says. "We’re now starting to exercise our treaty rights, our self-determination and our sovereignty." Photos courtesy of Clyde Bellecourt

Q: Let’s go back to the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973, which received worldwide attention. Did you anticipate it would bring that much attention to the your cause?

A: We called it the Liberation of Wounded Knee because how do you occupy your own land? No, we didn’t anticipate it but am glad we received the attention. It was the start of something big and got the ball rolling on a lot of issues that were finally being investigated and addressed.

Q: You recently made national headlines when you confronted Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at a campaign stop in Minnesota, asking him if he were elected president, would he honor American Indian treaties.

A: He was talking at a forum about disparity, and he was only talking about African-Americans. Well, Native Americans are people of color, too, and we were never even mentioned. I asked to be put on the agenda and wasn’t. So I went down there and put myself on the agenda, and took the microphone. I point-blank asked him what if he was going to honor the American Indian treaties. He said he’d do what he could to redress it but he still didn’t answer my question, and then ran off into the parking lot.

I stayed behind and talk to people and the media. Twenty minutes later Bernie Sanders’ bus was still parked in the back, so he just wanted to get the hell out of there. I don’t care if a candidate is Democrat, Republic, left wing or right wing, socialist — I want to know what that person is going to do for us. Period.

Q: What are your thoughts on the Indian Nation today? Have things improved?

A: There are a lot of things that are happening, and tribes are becoming stronger, wealthier and buying back the land that was taken from us. We’re now starting to exercise our treaty rights, our self-determination and our sovereignty. We have a lot of casinos that are powerful and thriving, and they’d have nothing if it weren’t for the American Indian Movement.

Q: What will you be discussing at your upcoming lecture at ASU?

A: I’ll be encouraging our young people to go to school, get a good education, study issues like Indian law, history, science and our land.

When I talk about history, I talk a lot about our prophecies and our eighth generation, our grandchildren, who will be educated and return to our language and culture. But they’ll also have computers in their hand and learn all they can about technology because that’s the world we live in. That’s where our survival will come from.

If you go

What: “American Indian Movement: Past, Present and Future” by Clyde Bellecourt.

When: 6 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 20.

Where: Memorial Union, Arizona Ballroom, Tempe campus.

Cost: Free.

Details: 480-727-7030 or

Reporter , ASU News


Team chemistry is key ingredient in formula for research success

Spirit of collaboration critical to solving today’s complex science and engineering problems

April 18, 2016

In many action-adventure, science fiction or disaster movies, a lone hero steps up front and center to vanquish the villains, rescue those in harm’s way or just outright save civilization from impending doom.

Even when the story requires science, engineering, medical or technological solutions to fend off looming catastrophe, it’s often a single genius who emerges to crack the code, devise the formula or make the machine that averts tragedy. ASU Professor Nancy Cooke studies team cognition and dynamics Arizona State University Professor Nancy Cooke (left) led a committee of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine assigned to identify the factors critical to ensuring the success of collaborative science and engineering research teams. Photo by: Jessica Hochreiter/ASU Download Full Image

In real life, of course, it never happens that way.

For a more accurate look particularly at how scientists and engineers solve big problems and confront critical challenges, Nancy Cooke, a professor in Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, suggests the sports movie “Miracle.”

The film portrays the story of the squad of amateur hockey players that in the 1980 Olympics pulled off the so-called “Miracle on Ice” by defeating the world-dominant Russian team and going on to win the Gold Medal.

Cooke points to the movie’s focus on the coach and the intense training he inflicted on players to test their physical and mental willpower — all done with the goal of building camaraderie and a shared sense of high purpose.

The lesson: Victory over the indomitable foe wasn’t the result of raw, spontaneous, emotion-fueled heroics. It was more about calculated, committed teamwork.

Guidelines for effective team research

Cooke said the increasing complexity of the technological solutions that scientists and engineers are chasing today is making it clear that progress demands not only the most talented researchers but also those with the best teamwork skills.

That realization prompted the National Science Foundation to ask the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine to assemble a group of experts to seek ways to improve the effectiveness of research teams.

The 13-member Committee on the Science of Team Science was led by Cooke, a psychologist and chair of the Fulton Schools of Engineering human systems engineering program.

The committee’s report, “Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science,” completed in 2015 emphasizes that successful science and engineering collaborations hinge not just on a high level of research expertise but also on organization, planning, management and communications skills — and on leadership that can instill a shared vision of the significance of the project goal.

book cover for "Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science"Avoiding communication breakdown

Beyond that, the report describes some of the major pitfalls that keep collaborative projects from meeting those requirements and makes recommendations on how to overcome such hurdles.

“Role clarity is a big issue. There must be clear understanding about who is responsible and accountable for what,” said Cooke, whose research interests include interactive team cognition and team dynamics.

Problems can arise when team members are geographically dispersed, come from different cultures and work in different disciplines that don’t always speak in the same technical parlance.

“People in a particular field may use technical language in a way that means one thing to them but something different to experts in other areas,” Cooke said.

Missteps are particularly prone to happen when a project involves a “virtual team,” one that communicates remotely, mostly – and often only – by e-mail, conference calls, or video-conferencing.

Despite the convenience and other advantages of modern communication technologies, there is a bit of a cognitive disconnect when people engage remotely.

“We are programmed for face-to-face communication,” Cooke said, “and there is no reliable, surefire substitute for it yet.”

Developing the rules of engagement

In their National Academies committee report, Cooke and her colleagues say public agencies and private organizations funding research should consider more than the capabilities of the engineers and scientists involved. Funders should give equal attention to researchers’ strategies for collaboration throughout the entire time period that grants are supporting the projects.

More than that, the committee advises funders to provide support for researchers to learn the leadership, communication and management skills necessary to doing productive team science.

For team chemistry to develop, Cooke advises research leaders to look at the collaboration as a kind of marriage.

“You need a sort of dating period first,” she said, for team members to test their compatibility, and focus on how to initiate and manage their interactions, share knowledge and maintain communications.

And then comes the “prenuptial” agreement, in which all parties map out a game plan for long-term collaboration throughout the course of a project, she added.

Working with varied arrays of experts

Relationship building is the foundation of successful collaborative research, said Nadya Bliss, director of ASU’s Global Security Initiative and a professor of practice in the Fulton Schools of Engineering computer science program.

Before coming to ASU, Bliss spent a decade at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Lincoln Laboratory, a Department of Defense Research and Development Laboratory operation that puts advanced technologies to work in support of national security goals.

portrait of ASU director Nadya Bliss

Nadya Bliss, director of ASU’s
Global Security Initiative,
has had years of experience
overseeing research efforts
that involve teams of experts
in diverse fields within and
outside of engineering and

In her most recent position there, she was the leader of the Computing and Analytics Group. In that role she provided technical leadership, personnel management and program development for a group of about 35 physicists, mathematicians, electrical engineers and experts in data analysis and information technology.

With the Global Security Initiative, she has been in charge of developing and leading the ASU’s security-related research. The institute-level activity at present consists of about 15 core team members with an overall roster of close to 100 faculty researchers from at least a dozen schools and colleges within ASU.

The initiative’s focus spans across the challenges of cyber security, climate security, pandemics and diseases, the impact of urbanization on global security, threats to vital resources, threats posed by ideological conflicts and more.

It is work that requires combining the efforts of experts in multiple branches of science and engineering, as well as sociology, political science, business, law, ethics, public policy and education.

Tapping into what motivates people

“You have to embrace the complexity when you have interconnected teams of people coming at problems from different spheres of knowledge,” Bliss said. “Some people think you just bring a bunch of brilliant people together and the magic just happens. But that doesn’t just happen.”

First, you have to recognize that an authoritarian style of leadership won’t work.

“What makes it work is to really understand what drives people,” Bliss said. “Most people are there because they really want to achieve something important that makes the world a better place, so you have to articulate a broad vision of your goals that everyone can buy into.”

Beyond a shared grand vision to create a bond between researchers, project leaders must foster a positive relational environment among team members.

“We simply accomplish more when we are collaborating with people who enjoy working together. It’s easy to work really hard on important problems with great people,” Bliss said. “I’d rather have the second best expert in a field than the top expert if the top person is going to be toxic. I’ve seen projects fall apart because of poor interpersonal dynamics.”

Connectivity critical to joint efforts

Even when researchers are in the same or closely related fields, good communication and strong working relationships are crucial to fully achieving project goals, said Marc Mignolet, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering in the Fulton Schools.

He has decades of experiences in collaborative research and is now involved into two separate multi-year Air Force-funded projects in his primary area of expertise — the structural dynamics of aircraft.

portrait of ASU professor Marc Mignolet

Professor of mechanical and
aerospace engineering Marc
Mignolet is collaborating with
colleagues at leading research
universities across the country
on two major multiyear
projects for the Air Force.
Photo by: Jessica Hochreiter/ASU

A project recently funded by one of the highly sought after Multi-University Research Initiative (MURI) grants pairs him with scientists and engineers at MIT, Texas A&M University, the University of Michigan and the Santa Fe Institute research center.

A second, older group project is led by the Collaborative Center in Structural Sciences at Ohio State University, with other team members at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in addition to ASU.

He agrees with Cooke that meticulous communication and collaboration plans should be among preliminary steps for initiating complex research projects that will involve large teams.

“Even when people share a common goal, the result will not be as good as it could be if they do not have the desire and ability to work closely together,” he said.

Members of Collaborative Center in Structural Sciences team had the advantage of having known each other and worked together before.

“We have connectivity,” Mignolet said. “We selected ourselves to be the group to do this project. We knew each other’s capabilities and how each of us would interact. We have clear long-term plans for the seven years of the project. On the other hand, my interactions with colleagues in the MURI project are less established and synergy is still developing.”

Valuing different perspectives

Associate professor Robert Atkinson said his success as a researcher “would not be possible without collaborating outside of my discipline.”

Atkinson is on the faculty of the Fulton School of Engineering and ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. His expertise stretches across the fields of cognitive science, computer science, informatics, human-computer interaction and educational technology. He leads labs that focus on developing more effective methods of teaching and learning.

His faculty research partners and the graduate students working in his labs are in multiple fields — industrial engineering, social sciences, education, computer software development and learning technologies, among others.

two students and professor working in lab

Associate professor Robert Atkinson (center) directs research in the Advancing Next Generation Learning Environments lab and the Innovative Learner and User Experience lab. He says students working in the labs realize the benefits of teaming with others who have expertise in a different areas. Photo by: Jessica Hochreiter/ASU

“The students aren’t bothered by working with people outside their majors. They embrace it,” Atkinson said. “They value getting people with different perspectives around the same table. I think we have a richer landscape of ideas because of it.”

The big questions troubling today’s world “just cannot be answered by relying solely on experts in any one discipline looking at things from the same point of view,” he said.

Research in his field could yield better methods for productive collaboration.

Atkinson said studies aimed at deeper understanding of humans’ “cognitive architecture” and “neural synchrony” indicates ways of “optimizing levels of engagement” and “getting people on the same wavelength” in collaborative endeavors.

Grasping importance of cooperative mindset

Researchers and the government agencies, foundations and other institutions that fund them are becoming more acutely aware of the need for successful team science efforts. In fact, the term “collaboratory” is becoming a more widely used term in the research community to describe — and emphasize — the cooperative nature of projects intended to meld the talents of experts in diverse fields of expertise.

A Science of Team Science Conference May 16-19 in Phoenix will bring institutional research leaders, policy makers, representatives of federal agency representatives and research funding organizations together to will explore issues and challenges involved in multidisciplinary research.

It’s critical for the global science community and the public to grasp the importance of fixing the things that are hindering team research, Cooke said.

When projects come up short of expectations or fail, “it’s a big concern because it wastes the valuable time and efforts of our best minds, and wastes our research funding,” she said.

Not to mention undermining opportunities to produce miracles in the lab that might help save the world — just like in the movies.

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering