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The cost of science errors

Experts say the cost of irreproducible research is $28 billion a year.
Biodesign chief working to create comprehensive registry of research samples.
February 15, 2016

ASU faculty part of national summit tackling the lack of reproducibility in science research, a $28 billion problem in the U.S. alone

To err is human, even for one of the most number-crunching, rigorous and truth-seeking of all activities: science. The issue of errors in science — irreproducible research — was a focal point for a national discussion when the Global Biological Standards Institute (GBSI) hosted its 2016 BioPolicy Summit last week in Washington, D.C.

GBSI President Leonard Freedman and co-author Tim Simcoe, associate professor at Boston University, documented that up to 50 percent of published, pre-clinical research is irreproducible, with an estimated annual cost of $28 billion in the U.S. alone.

“These are big and troubling numbers,” said Freedman. “Over the long term, science is self-correcting. In the short term, the effects of irreproducible research include the cost of time and resources … and a growing mistrust in the biomedical research enterprise.”

There is also the untold human cost of delays in breakthrough discoveries, therapies or potentially new cures from the faulty data, reagents that don’t work as advertised or experiments that can’t be validated.

The 2016 GBSI Summit — “Research Reproducibility: Innovative Solutions to Drive Quality” welcomed premiere life science thought leaders, including Arizona State University biomarker researcher Joshua LaBaer and science correspondent and moderator Richard Harris (currently on leave from National Public Radio as a visiting scholar this spring at ASU), to explore the driving forces and profound impacts behind the issues.

LaBaerLaBaer is also the Virginia G. Piper Chair of Personalized Medicine and a professor of chemistry and biochemistry in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences., new interim director of ASU’s Biodesign Institute and national biomarker expert, outlined the issues when facing his own lab’s efforts to improve cancer survival rates through the power of early detection.

“One of our holy grails is a test for the early detection of cancer,” said LaBaer, an international leader in the area of proteomicsProteomics is the large-scale study of proteins, particularly their structures and functions. Proteins are vital parts of living organisms, as they are the main components of the physiological metabolic pathways of cells. — Wikipedia and an early enthusiastic proponent of big-data, open-science solutions.

“Despite tens of thousands of biomarker papers published, only about a half-dozen biomarkers have been FDA [Food and Drug Administration] approved,” he said. “That’s just a huge discrepancy in the number of papers published, and those that stood the test of time.”

A group of people sit on a stage at a conference.

Arizona State University biomarker researcher Joshua LaBaer (second from left) is partnering with the Global Biological Standards Institute to establish a pilot project creating a new gold standard and comprehensive registry of how each repository managed its sample collections.

To upend the scientific status quo and improve biomarker discovery and validation, LaBaer has led a massive effort to build fully sequence-verified clone sets for all human genes and other model organisms. The giant gene bank, called DNASU, is now managed in an automated repository with more than 250,000 samples, which are openly shared in more than 35 countries to benefit the worldwide scientific community.

Despite his pioneering efforts and countless other colleagues working hard to improve scientific reproducibility through cutting-edge, open-source solutions, the scale of the issue has required a system-wide re-examination of the current science climate.

“The problem of fixing reproducibility, $28 billion, is an amount that represents almost the entire annual NIH [National Institutes of Health] budget,” said keynote speaker Judith Kimble, Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. Kimble emphasized, “The elephant in the room is hyper-competition.” 

Never before has the U.S. produced so many Ph.D.s, nearly 80,000 annually, to compete for so few federal dollars (a threefold increase in the number of Ph.D.s compared with a generation ago, with a twofold increase in the number of NIH grant applications). And this is even after leaders in Washington have just voted to give the NIH a huge increase in funds ($2 billion). But in terms of constant dollars, the amount is still down about 30 percent since before the recession, leaving the new crop of researchers to fend for less, noted Kimble.

With a flat funding environment, there is a tendency for scientists to propose what they know will work, instead of riskier research, the type that often leads to truly groundbreaking discoveries.

“Competition arises only when fields exist,” said Arturo Casadevall, professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Whenever there is competition, competitors try to use existing methods to solve the problem. Therefore, competition tends to put an end to innovation. It’s the opposite of what people often think.”

Unintentionally, research competition has led to a “more cooks, worse soup” scenario for science, as more researchers than ever apply for shrinking federal funds, creating a lack of transparency in sharing data, and low morale, ultimately giving researchers pause to understand how the key ingredients went astray.

But as Richard Harris poignantly pointed out during the panel discussion, since securing federal awards and producing top scientific publications are based entirely on a peer-review system, “We have met the enemy, and it is us!”

When the stakes are so high to publish in the best journals, with entire research careers at stake against more and more competition, it’s no wonder that each research lab tends to act like a top chef, hoarding their secret sauces and recipes.

“What’s good for me as a practicing scientist is not necessarily good for science,” said Brian Nosek, professor at the University of Virginia and executive director of the Center for Open Science. “The current system rewards scientists for publishing often and getting tenure. Open data and transparency are the keys to improving reproducibility.”

“Over the long term, science is self-correcting. In the short term, the effects of irreproducible research include the cost of time and resources … and a growing mistrust in the biomedical research enterprise.”
— Leonard Freedman, president of the Global Biological Standards Institute

“There is need for all of us to get our assumptions out there for people to see, but we need better carrots and sticks,” said Amy Herr, professor, Department of Bioengineering at the University of California, Berkeley. She has witnessed the stress of competition as it has even trickled down to affect the attitudes heard from the next generation of scientists. “When students say only that they want to publish in a prestige journal instead making a new discovery, my heart just breaks.”

To solve the reproducibility issue, the GBSI announced at the BioPolicy Summit the Reproducibility2020 Challenge, to ensure that major solutions are in place to improve reproducibility by the year 2020.

The action plan of the challenge calls for the entire research community to improve in three critical areas: reagent standards and validation, shared protocols and data, and improved training.

“Why many of us are working so hard in this endeavor is that we start with an understanding that data is not accurate,” said Herr. “That's just how we work.”

It’s also a key reason why LaBaer has now been partnering with GBSI to establish a pilot project, called BioSpecimen Commons, to create a new gold standard and comprehensive registry of how each repository managed its sample collections.

“Translational research depends on clinical specimens,” LaBaer said. “Unfortunately, researchers are rarely told how those specimens were handled before they are used, which creates variables that can dramatically affect the research outcome. Without that critical information, you never know if you are comparing apples to apples or to some other fruit. We cannot currently dictate how samples are handled, and that may not even be advisable, but we can ask that everyone describe exactly what was done. The first step in all of this is transparency.”

For the BioSpecimen Commons, every sample will be labeled with ID number(s) that link it to the specific recipes used in its preparation (standard operating procedures, or SOPs). In this way, the handling of every sample will be publicly available. LaBaer envisions as more and more people submit SOPs, then other people can look at them and decide which one is best for them. There will be a comments section, similar to Amazon, where people can comment and let the community know which ones worked and why. Over time, different SOPs will grow in popularity as researchers comment on which one worked best for them.

“Now, we are getting the whole community involved in saying how they did it. And every bit of data needs to go up on the web. If we make it transparent, at least we can take a step forward, and potentially amplify it in any area of biomedical research where there are protocols to follow.”

If more researchers can adopt such big-data, validated open science, it will not only help shape tomorrow’s discoveries, but bring more value to the health and well-being of society.

To learn more, go to GBSI’s Reproducibility2020

Top photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Joe Caspermeyer

Manager (natural sciences) , Media Relations & Strategic Communications


Putting a price on nature, literally

Researchers figure out a way to put a price on untapped natural resources with the goal of trying to sustainably manage those assets

February 8, 2016

We know that nature is valuable, but how does this value compare with other assets? Not as lumber or drinking water or a fancy dinner, but as standing forests, healthy aquifers or living organisms — what is the dollar value of this natural capital?

Arizona State University economist and sustainability professor Joshua Abbott can calculate an answer. Abbott — with lead author Eli Fenichel of Yale and colleagues from California State University at Chico, Michigan State University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — published findings on such values Feb. 8 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Joshua Abbott Arizona State University economist and sustainability professor Joshua Abbott. Download Full Image

The research team developed an interdisciplinary equation to estimate the current monetary value of natural resources, like groundwater, before it is pumped to the surface and used.

To calculate the value of natural capital, you start with the same economic principles used to value traditional assets, then factor in changes in ecosystems and human behavior that influence the appreciation or depreciation of that natural resource, Abbott explained. The result is a figure that can be compared on a balance sheet with traditional assets like real estate, factory machinery and infrastructure.

“Without an apples-to-apples valuation approach, the value of natural capital cannot be measured against other assets and expenses,” Abbott said. “Our work can help governments and businesses track the sustainable use of natural resources.”

The authors’ quantitative framework enables the valuation of natural capital in a way that is grounded in economic theory, accounts for biophysical and economic feedbacks and can guide interdisciplinary efforts to measure sustainability.

To illustrate their framework, the authors applied it to the value of groundwater in the Kansas High Plains Aquifer. The aquifer is rapidly depleting as farmers use the water to support food production.

Over the decade of 1996 to 2005, according to the authors’ calculations, Kansas lost approximately $110 million per year (2005 USD) of capital value. By depleting groundwater and changing the way they managed the aquifer, Kansas created an annual loss in wealth approximately equal to the state’s 2005 budget surplus.

“Without a calculation like ours, policy makers would lack critical information about how food production impacts our water wealth,” said Abbott.

“Kansas can improve the sustainability of its agricultural system through careful groundwater management, such as policies that truly foster water-efficient agriculture, and investments in other natural and traditional assets to help offset its lost water wealth,” said Yale’s Eli Fenichel.

Globally, groundwater supports 40 percent of the world’s food production. Abbott says the framework they have published would apply to any groundwater supply, not just the Kansas aquifer. It can also be applied to other natural resources.

Previously, the authors calculated the value of fish in the water as compared to fish sold at market.

The authors’ framework can help policy makers develop better measures of local, regional or even national sustainability — a need expressed by prominent agencies such as the World Bank and United Nations Environment Programme. 

“Sustainability is ultimately about making sure that the portfolio of assets we give future generations — including natural capital, but also our knowledge and physical infrastructure — is at least as valuable as the one we inherited,” Abbott said. “Our research helps us do a better job of bringing nature into the balance sheet of society, so that policy makers and business leaders can do a better job of evaluating trade-offs.”  

Director, Media Relations and Strategic Communications


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Studying the silence of concussions

ASU researchers awarded a grant to study concussions.
Why dont athletes report concussions? ASU researchers are on the case.
February 7, 2016

ASU researchers awarded grant to study why athletes fail to report concussions

When helmets clacked together during Sunday’s Super Bowl 50, the echoes might have been heard differently than in years past. Call it the concussion awareness effect.

In the 12 months since the last Super Bowl, the ongoing debate about football and brain injuries has only increased, with the conversation reaching different audiences thanks to the film “Concussion,” starring Will Smith as the doctor who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — which is believed to be caused by repeated head trauma — and how it was prominent among retired football players.

The discussion flourished again last week during the Super Bowl buildup when researchers at Boston University said legendary Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler, who died in July, suffered from CTE.

As long as there’s football, there will be concussions. And as long as there’s football, the debate about whether to allow children to play the sometimes-violent sport will remain. Now researchers at Arizona State University are trying to add a layer of understanding to the broadening discussion. Specifically, they want to know why some athletes, who are becoming better educated about concussion symptoms and side effects, don’t self-report concussions during sporting events.

The Arizona State University Center for Strategic Communication has been awarded a $400,000 grant from the NCAA Mind Matters Research Challenge to study how vested interests and team culture influence concussion reporting among college athletes.

In some cases athletes may be unwilling to admit they have a concussion, said Steven Corman, principal investigator of the study, director of the Center for Strategic Communication and professor in the Hugh Downs School of Human CommunicationThe Hugh Downs School of Human Communication is part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences..

“There are circumstances like wanting a pro career or letting the team down,” Corman said. “If they get their bell rung in a game, there might be a pro scout in the stands and they might lose exposure to that person. ... It’s a really complex situation. This is one of the first studies to examine this issue in this context.”

A “suck it up” culture, the desire to be a hero, and winners-never-quit messages contribute to what Corman describes as an attitude, behavior and communication issue.

According to a recent study by researchers at the Center for Organization Research and Design, even when faced with a 100 percent chance of brain damage by age 50 to play in the NFL, 15 percent of survey respondents — overwhelmingly former players, and many medically diagnosed with concussions — said they would take the risk.

The driving forces, according to ASU professor Barry BozemanBarry Bozeman is Arizona Centennial Professor of Public Management and Technology Policy and director of the Center of Organizational Research and Design. and his colleagues, were: having played organized football at some level; level of fandom and knowledge of the game; percentage of friends who are football fans; and number of hours watching football.

The upcoming three-year study by Corman and colleagues will examine 500 Pac-12 athletes in football, wrestling, soccer, field hockey, lacrosse and basketball. Staff members will be interviewed about athlete narratives and team culture and values.

A targeted strategic messaging campaign to enhance athlete attitudes and behaviors about reporting concussions will be developed and tested in the third year. Strategies coaches and trainers can use to change team culture about head injuries will also be identified.

“We are excited about the project and think it will have a big impact on understanding and changing athlete attitudes toward concussion reporting, and enhancing team culture supporting those practices,” Corman said. “We can help make athletes safer and increase the long-term sustainability of popular contact sports.”

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News

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Rethinking minority youth development

Rethinking developmental competencies in minority children.
The context in which one lives is key in distilling the development process.
February 4, 2016

ASU conference celebrates landmark model of educational equality for minority children

To get an idea of how increasingly diversified the United States has become, all one has to do is look to the current occupants of the polestar of American iconography: the White House.

The Obamas represent a growing population of minorities in positions of power. And though minorities have come a long way in this country, they still face certain prejudices associated with belonging to underrepresented demographic groups.

Many of those prejudices were challenged for the first time in academia with the 1996 publication of “An Integrative Model for the Study of Developmental Competencies in Minority Children.” For the past 20 years, the groundbreaking paper has served as the foremost guide on research involving underprivileged youth.

To commemorate its 20th anniversary, faculty at Arizona State University’s T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics have convened a meeting to discuss advances in the field and to propose future directions for theory and empirical work. “Looking Back & Looking Forward” kicked off Thursday morning with a panel discussion that included remarks from Cynthia Garcia Coll and Foundation Professor of psychology Keith CrnicKeith Crnic also serves as chair of ASU’s Department of Psychology., both of whom are authorsThe authors of “An Integrative Model for the Study of Developmental Competencies in Minority Children” include Cynthia Garcia Coll; Gontran Lamberty; Renee Jenkins; Harriet Pipes McAdoo; Keith Crnic; Barbara Hanna Wasik; and Heidie Vazquez Garcia. of the paper.

Sponsored by the Latino Resilience Enterprise, the Sanford School and ASU’s Department of Psychology, the conference, which continues today, drew participants from universities across the country and as far away as Europe.

“We have such an incredible lineup of distinguished scholars serving as panelists, and we also have a really great list of attendees,” said Sanford School professor Adriana Umana-Taylor, one of the organizers of the event who also spoke on the day’s first panel.

Other panel discussions on Thursday included “Colorblindness in psychological sciences” and “The role of culture in development and adjustment,” on which fellow Sanford School professor, and the event’s other organizer, Jose Causadias spoke.

people speaking on panel at conference

Cynthia Garcia Coll (middle) speaks during
"Looking Back & Looking Forward" as Adrianna
Umana-Taylor (left) and Keith Crnic (right) look on.
Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

The reason the 1996 paper was so seminal, he explained, was because it presented the “first model to emphasize competence among minority children,” as opposed to disability.

Previous models of developmental competence among youth failed to take into account the context in which minority children live — which includes realities like a lack of educational resources — while comparing them to privileged white youth.

“My argument has always been that this is how to do good science ... asking you to think about how human beings live inside a context, and context is incredibly important in distilling the development process,” Garcia Coll said during a discussion following the first panel.

Participants of the conference will also be discussing ways in which the Garcia Coll model can be updated to include, for example, LGBT youth.

As Crnic explained, “[The conference] will provide an incredible opportunity to examine how our understanding has grown over the past 20 years, and identify new major directions for our efforts to address diverse experience in human development.”

Today’s panel discussions include “How Prejudice and Discrimination Shape Development and Adjustment in the United States”; “Do we need to expand the definition of ‘underrepresented’? Development and adjustment of LGBT, poor, and affluent White youth”; and “Looking ahead: Updating the map for a changing territory.”

“This is just one example of why ASU is number one in innovation,” Causadias said. “It shows how we are gathering people together and leading an effort to rethink the next 20 years of psychological research with minority children.”

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Husband and wife professors come to the middle on crime

Husband and wife criminologists don't agree on everything, but they like ASU.
Married professors have seen good and bad of police, and use it for research.
February 4, 2016

The dinner conversation at the Terrill-Pizarro household is often lively and robust, sometimes taking on the dynamic of good cop/bad cop. Sometimes literally.

William Terrill, who grew up in a working-class white suburban town in eastern Pennsylvania and was a member of the Military Police in the Air Force, saw the good side of police. Meanwhile, his wife Jesenia Pizarro, a self-proclaimed ‘Jersey girl’ who grew up in an inner city housing project, can share scenes of police brutality.

Together, they make an interesting couple.

The two ASU professors arrived from Michigan State University in January and study the flip side of criminal justice, often using their research to educate each other.

And sometimes not.

“When we first met in 2000 she told me that my dissertation on police restraint was essentially crap,” Terrill, a new professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, said with a laugh.

“I grew up where police were viewed mostly as positive and it took some time for us to see eye-to-eye. But often Jesenia demonstrates to me the other side based on her past experiences.”

That other side was an inner-city housing project in Newark, New Jersey, where Pizarro grew up. It was where she saw up close how crime, drugs and undue force — which was also displayed by police — ruled the neighborhood.

“I knew drug dealers. I knew people who got shot. I knew people who were homicide victims,” said Pizarro, an associate professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. “And interestingly enough, you always knew someone who were beat by the cops or allegedly mistreated by police.

“I wanted to do something and had this vision of getting the bad guys because I was surrounded by it all the time. As a kid I often wondered why people do what they do and what can we do to make it better?”

The two professors, who married in 2005, have made life better for their students, police departments and the public through their research.

"I don’t do research just to get my work published in a nice journal. I want my findings to have real meaning and do something for that community.” — Jesenia Pizarro, associate professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice 

Terrill’s research on police restraint and use of force is complex, insightful and timely in light of the crisis of confidence about the integrity of law enforcement over a string of shootings across the U.S. — some of which were captured by citizen video and viewed nationwide.

“A lot of my research, even dating back to the mid-1990s, shows that three out of every four police encounters with the public shows that they were using less force, not more. Police were often de-escalating as a citizen was trying to escalate at the verbal level,” Terrill said. “They were using persuasion, their voice commands and the very thing we ask officers to do. Police are very good at their jobs and use great restraint but it still leaves us with a percentage who aren’t doing those things and stepping over the boundaries, the legal lines, the policy side.”

Terrill said police work is ugly by nature and when it gets caught on camera in urban distressed areas, it raises uncertainty nationwide.

“People start to think, ‘I can’t believe what I’m seeing. Maybe my perception has been wrong all this time,' ” Terrill said. “There will be short term growing pains and with that I think the long term gains will be much more positive than we’re seeing now. Body cameras and dashboard cams will provide more transparency and then there will be a level playing field for citizens and police officers. Police who may have a tendency to go over the line now may say, ‘I may get caught now, so I won’t do that.’ ”

Pizarro mainly studies homicide and why people kill. She says most of homicide research focuses on the socioeconomic issues, but she is looking in a different direction.

“I’m much more practical and focus on the proximal causes; what will increase the likelihood of being killed,” Pizarro said. “What are the immediate odds that will increase the likelihood of homicide? Lifestyle, location, situational events, demographics, owning a gun — issues that help me get at the real problem. I don’t do research just to get my work published in a nice journal. I want my findings to have real meaning and do something for that community.”

Homicides are down and so is violent crime as a whole, Pizarro said, adding that crime is like an accordion and comes and goes in waves.

“If you look at the history of mankind as we’ve become more civilized, we’ve become less violent. If you look strictly at homicide rates, this is the safest the country has been compared to 10-15 years ago,” Pizarro said. “Having said that, certain areas, mostly in the inner cities, have not felt that decrease.”

These days Terrill and Pizarro say they have also become more civilized when it comes to their points of view, each one coming around to the other’s way of thinking.

“As I have grown older and gained more experience, I don’t discount the fact that there are still bad cops out there,” Pizarro said. “But I’ve also had the opportunity to learn there are far more good police officers than bad. I have seen homicide detectives put in many extra hours trying to crack a case and officers patrolling communities who have good interaction with the people in the neighborhoods.”

For his part, Terrill says he has seen police departments resist change and not so keen on taking advice from outsiders. However, he says the last two years have forced departments to change, or else.

“There’s plenty of progressive police departments prior to this current problem but the ones who are holding onto the old ways — paying lip service to trust and community policing — are now saying they can no longer avoid it anymore,” Terrill said. “A great local example is Sheriff Joe (Arpaio, Maricopa County Sheriff). He was dead set against body cameras and then all of a sudden he made a comment recently, pretending he wasn’t against it at all and that his department has been at the forefront of the issue. Even he’s saying without saying it, ‘I can’t resist this movement of accountability.’ ”

One thing Terrill and Pizarro can agree, ASU is a place where they can make a difference.

“I love the urban feel of the Downtown Phoenix campus and it’s a great place to be a criminal justice professor,” Terrill said. “It brings a lot of research opportunities because you have many mid-to-large sized law enforcement agencies here and I know it will yield a lot of great work.”

Pizarro echoed the sentiment.

“The name of the college alone makes me want to go out into the community and translate research into real life,” Pizarro said. “I’ve always wanted to make a difference and let’s face it, inner city girls like me who grow up in the hood rarely get to a professor at a top research university. It just doesn’t happen.”

Reporter , ASU News


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Mosquito 'kill switch" could eradicate Zika

ASU professor has ideas on how to stop Zika virus.
How to stop Zika virus? A mosquito "kill switch."
February 4, 2016

ASU’s Andrew Maynard describes 3 ways to annihilate the virus

Andrew Maynard

The World Health Organization has classified Zika as a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.” The governor of Florida has followed suit declaring a State of Emergency in four counties. As doctors are racing to stop this rapidly spreading virus, Arizona State University’s Andrew MaynardAndrew Maynard is a professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University, and Director of the Risk Innovation Lab — a unique center focused on transforming how we think about and act on risk, in the pursuit of increasing and maintaining “value." (pictured left) has some ideas about how Zika could be eradicated. 

Question: How would genetically engineered mosquitoes help in the case of Zika?

Answer: The key is a genetic kill switch programmed into the insects which is inherited by the mosquitoes' offspring. When genetically modified male mosquitoes are released, they breed with wild females and pass on the modification before dying, which guarantees that a large portion of the next generation of kill switch-enabled wild mosquitoes will die before reaching maturity.

Q: How could scientists develop vaccines rapidly enough to stave off the Zika virus?

A: Traditionally, vaccine development is a long and arduous process. However, now researchers are investigating how to digitize viral DNA and RNA sequences, and use them to quickly design and produce new vaccines that activate the immune system the same way the virus does, but without causing infection.

Q: What are gene drives and how would they help eradicate this virus?

A: It’s an ingenious biological hack that draws heavily from computer coding. Gene drives use a “search and replace” technique that allows scientists to find and switch out specific DNA sequences. The modification would be passed down through subsequent generations of mosquitoes, until all that remained was a human-designed species that is unable to host the Zika virus.

Q: Headlines today indicate that Zika could be sexually-transmitted given a rare case that was identified in the U.S. How does that factor into your ideas for eradication?

A: We need to know more about this potential route of exposure, but the more we can do to stop the infection at source, or to vaccinate people against it, the better people will be protected — however they become exposed. 

For more on Maynard’s analysis on how to annihilate Zika, read his recent article for The Conversation here

Communications coordinator , ASU Media Relations


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The key to improving education

Successful education = engaged and motivated students and teachers says ASU prof
ASU engineering prof aims to establish ways to keep students, teachers motivated
February 4, 2016

ASU professor says to build 'teaching and learning communities'

American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin expressed in characteristically concise and pithy fashion his view on effective education: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”

The statement could serve as an abbreviated description of Arizona State University professor Stephen Krause’s goal in his work to develop and implement teaching and learning practices that engage and motivate teachers and students alike.

"It is a no-brainer,” Krause said, that engaged and motivated students and teachers are essential to successful education. The big challenge is to come up with ways to effectively instill new attitudes and approaches necessary to ensure engagement and motivation can be achieved and sustained.

Krause teaches materials science and engineering in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, and for the past eight years has also been designing and refining an approach to education called Just-in-Time-Teaching with Interactive Frequent Formative Feedback.

That has meant providing a variety of meticulously detailed strategies and techniques aimed at realizing Ben Franklin’s educational ideal. It has also involved establishing evidence that results of using this method can be rigorously analyzed and objectively evaluated to gauge its success or expose any need to alter the blueprints.

The project has shown enough promise that the National Science Foundation recently awarded Krause a $1.5 million grant to expand the endeavor. In the next three years, he will work with more than 80 ASU engineering faculty members to put the Just-in-Time Teaching approach into action.

They are to be trained in how to establish productive “communication channels” between themselves and students, something that requires teachers to transition “from being the sage on the stage to being the guide on the side,” Krause explained. “It is about teaching teachers not just how to teach certain subject matter but how to teach students how to learn it.”

This requires knowing how to foster collaborative learning in the classroom, creating an environment in which students teach each other with guidance from the faculty member.

“The class becomes more than a transfer of technical knowledge from professor to students. It becomes a social activity that evolves into a learning community, and it’s this kind of cooperative environment that is motivating to students and teachers,” Krause said.

Seeing the relevance of classroom lessons

The social connectedness and collaborative spirit also extends to the relationships among teachers who will work to institute the change in approach.

For the project to be successful, “faculty support for each other is a big thing,” Krause said. “They have to talk to each other about issues and problems that come up, and work together on solutions.”

The overriding objective is not only to develop camaraderie that enhances teaching and learning. The foremost focus is on communicating to students the relevance of their classes.

“In all the equations, calculations, formulas, data, graphs, charts and the stuff in the textbooks, students must be made to see the possibilities of things they can get excited about doing,” Krause said. “They need to understand the social impact engineering and science can have and be able to envision their future being a part of it.”

The new style of teaching and learning emphasizes enabling students to frequently put to use the technical knowledge they’re being given in the classroom.

Teachers would encourage students to explore how they might be able to contribute valuable things to the world by using what they’re learning in class.

“Engaging in hands-on activities generates the kind of thinking you use in engineering design, and that is where motivation sets in and real learning happens,” Krause said.

Evaluating effectiveness of teaching methods

The project will include regular and stringent evaluations to determine if the new method is producing intended results.

How well faculty members adapt to the new approach will be assessed through classroom observations by graduate student researchers and through faculty surveys about changes in their motivation, attitude and social connectedness to other faculty members involved in the project.

In addition, an automated web-based system will give students the opportunity to provide feedback on their classes and how effectively they think teachers are boosting student learning.

Evaluations will also assess changes in students’ attitudes and motivation, and measure how the changes affect students’ persistence in completing courses.

These performance assessments will be used as a basis for formulating steps to improve course content, teaching techniques and materials.

Expecting significant progress

Krause said there is no getting around the fact that learning engineering and science is difficult, and that the demands of mastering the disciplines will always lead some students to abandon the pursuit. But he thinks the Just-in-Time-Teaching approach can help keep more students from dropping out of even the tougher courses.

His confidence is bolstered by studies of the outcomes of two classes at ASU and two at other universities that have employed Just-in-Time-Teaching strategies. Few students dropped out of the courses and their grades were notably higher than is typical for most classes. Grades for poor performance and failing grades dropped by half from what had been normal for those courses. Retention rates in the classes jumped from about 80 percent to 95 percent.

With the teaching and learning framework he has developed, Krause says, “I think we can hope to achieve similar success at ASU. I believe we can successfully scale it up, not just to involve more faculty in engineering but to transfer it into teaching in other disciplines.”

Project will be team effort

Helping him attempt to achieve that goal is a team of co-principal investigators for the project.

Fulton Schools faculty members on the team are James Middleton, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, Keith Hjelmstad, a professor of civil, environmental and sustainable engineering, and biomedical engineering lecturer Casey Ankeny.

Others ASU faculty involved are Robert Culbertson, an associate professor of physics in the College of Liberal Arts and Science, along with associate professor Eugene Judson and assistant professor Ying-Chih Chen, who teach and do research on science education in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

“Having this team of colleagues to work with has been critical to developing the project,” Krause said. “The range and depth of their expertise in what it takes to truly educate students is what made it possible to put together a comprehensive, high-quality proposal that was able to earn the support of the National Science Foundation.”

Top photo: Arizona State University professor Stephen Krause (second from right) is shown meeting with materials science and engineering students to help them develop strategies for making progress on their projects for a capstone engineering design course. Krause emphasizes a teamwork approach in his classes that encourages students to collaborate in acquiring the knowledge and solving the problems necessary to successfully complete assignments and projects. Photographer: Nora Skrodenis/ASU

Joe Kullman

Science writer , Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


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Real talk on rhetoric in a political year

Rhetoric does not have to be negative.
ASU prof: Rhetoric can be used for good.
January 29, 2016

ASU professor says rhetoric does not have to carry a negative connotation

In the age of the 24-hour news cycle, where quick soundbytes and images out of context dominate the online realm, rhetoric rules.

In an election year, this is especially so. And with the Iowa Caucus starting Monday, the political rhetoric around the 2016 presidential election is only going to grow.

To the general popular, “rhetoric” is seen as a negative entity; the kind of sentiment built on ignorance or passionate reaction — again, the kind of thing that flourishes in a viral news world. But Elenore Long, a professor in Arizona State University’s Department of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, says that "rhetoric" is more than just the slimy use of language and manipulation. Rhetoric at its best, she says, is the means by which people discover solutions to pressing, shared matters of concern. 

Long, along with English doctoral student Kayla A. Bruce, spoke to ASU Now on the eve of the caucus about the true dynamics of rhetoric, how it can foster understanding and what people should look for in a political candidate.

Women discussing things.

Associate professor Elenore Long discusses the use of rhetoric in accountable and dangerous forms, in her office with doctoral candidate Kayla Bruce, on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Question: How would you help voters identify what’s productive rhetoric and what’s manipulation?

Long: Productive rhetoric has some features, especially in relation to political discourse, as an approach to language. It doesn’t try to clobber difference or squash someone who might have another opinion or ideas. It’s also about a way of thinking about language in terms of the debate open for public discussion as much as the claims that the talk is driving. Another feature of productive political rhetoric is that it’s attentive to peoples’ experiences with policies and practices that come from public policy.

Rhetoric that’s manipulative tries to hide the means by which it attempts to persuade. It knows that that might feel like spin or manipulation if the audience understands how that argument was produced. Rhetoric that’s not manipulative isn’t afraid to open up the ways in which the argument is working.

Bruce: Most effective rhetoric speaks through action or change whereas manipulative rhetoric sort of speaks over groups and experiences and tries to wash everything into a clean, compact element, as opposed to speaking to the variety of the situation.

Q: When during the election process have you observed moments when the terms of the debate itself has opened up in some interesting and useful ways?

Long: During the election campaign public discourse itself has opened up in interesting ways — tragically, after the San Bernardino massacre. The shootings fostered some political candidates (to present a) discourse about Muslims that was overarching and hateful. Other politicians stepped in to interrogate the accuracy of those kinds of claims to think about the consequences of overstating identity politics and misrepresenting billions of people around the world and many patriotic Muslims in the country itself. Attention to the toxicity of the misuse of language, I think, when politicians have done that work, helped to enrich the dialogue.

One of my favorite instances during this political campaign was when two political reporters from MSNBC traded places. The Democratic reporter covered the Republican party and vice versa, and compared on what they saw and what surprised them. Interestingly, that comparison allowed them to try and find the logic of the two parties. It also opened up talk about what the parties care about and what drives voters.

Bruce: Rhetoric is best and works best as dialogue. The recent news of Donald Trump’s refusal to participate in the Republic GOP debate hosted by FOX News underscores the idea that, how can you be effective if you’re not participating in dialogue? I think that for me demonstrates what rhetoric does.

Q: What are some of the attributes we should we be looking for in a presidential candidate?

Long: I believe one of the most important attributes we should be looking at in a candidate is a stance toward problem solving. Someone who thinks about listening to other people as part of an imaginative team who is attentive to the ways that are important and particular in this moment in time. A recent NPR story covered why people are leery of voting — stalled economic progress, terrorism, demographic changes, immigration. Those are matters that goodwill alone isn’t going to solve, but we need rhetoric to employ new and imaginative ways to create different responses to perplexing issues.

Bruce: Attending to dialogues with different groups that might be overlooked or marginalized, I think, starts to get at the issues that Elenore has outlined.

Q: It appears people no longer debate or enter into a discourse; rather, they shout each other down and continue to make their point.

Long: I believe there is truth in that statement. A lot of the ways that the media and politicians structure press coverage, it can look more like a circus than a debate. What’s really exciting right now about the coverage is that there are various and creative ways that people are joining in the messy work of rhetoric. For example, in Chicago there’s a group of ministers who have gotten together to listen to a group of young men’s experiences about police officers; these ministers have started to theorize what’s been happening in these moments of altercation. Before that, the work would go under the radar. I think smart politicians are able to circle back around to those lively and untidy ways people are listening and learning from each other. Experimentation with town hall meetings and other forums are other ways we are benefitting from creative people who are trying to make word and policy work in their lives.

Bruce: That builds on the concept of rhetorical listening as opposed to persuasion, and is a very useful way of engaging.

Reporter , ASU News


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A new way to battle obesity

ASU program practices new way to battle obesity.
New way to fight obesity: Train the health pros to look at it differently.
January 27, 2016

ASU master's program trains health-care professionals to treat obesity by casting a wider net

Obesity rates in the United States continue to skyrocket from decade to decade. And while awareness for this issue has been growing in recent years, so have the waistlines of many Americans.

As part of the effort to combat this health epidemic, ASU has created a Master of Science in Obesity Prevention and Management program that aims to equip health professionals with a complex, holistic view of the causes of obesity.

Punam Ohri-Vachaspati

Punam Ohri-Vachaspati (pictured at left), who leads the program, describes the master's in obesity as an innovative, interdisciplinary degree that integrates perspectives from the social, applied, life and health sciences to provide students with the skills and knowledge necessary to develop effective obesity solutions for individuals and communities.

And, to be clear, this program doesn’t advocate any one particular method for weight loss. Rather, it stresses the complexities of obesity and how important it is to treat it with a multidisciplinary approach encompassing the social, cultural, health, environmental and psychological issues associated with obesity.

“Our students are risk takers — this is a new type of degree, and they are eager to be pioneers,” said Ohri-Vachaspati, an associate professor of nutrition in ASU’s School of Nutrition and Health Promotion in the College of Health Solutions.

Program graduate Libby Dachenhaus is one of these pioneers.

“The concept of the program is incredibly unique,” Dachenhaus said. “Its development reflects the demand for more professionals in multiple fields to become more competent in addressing obesity.”

Students delve into the complex factors underlying obesity throughout the program, starting with an introductory course that brings in ASU faculty members and external experts from many disciplines.

“In an introductory course, after learning some basics about obesity, students have the opportunity to learn about various perspectives on obesity from 15 to 20 experts in various areas from physical activity, nutrition, law, anthropology and psychology, among others,” Ohri-Vachaspati said. “This course then guides students to choose courses that align with their interests. Students also do a thesis or an applied project where they focus on designing an intervention or undertake research in a community setting in the area of obesity prevention and management.”

A major goal of the program is to help prepare a workforce that understands the complexity of obesity.

“Prevention is an approach that is being advocated. But with a large segment of the population already obese, new ways of thinking about solutions in a multidisciplinary ways is warranted,” Ohri-Vachaspati said. “It is important that the emerging health-related workforce understands the complex origins of obesity and appreciates why it is important to address this problem on multiple fronts.”

That’s why Theresa Hart enrolled in the program. As a nurse with 24 years of experience, Hart said she was left longing for a deeper understanding of the root causes of illness.

“I would take care of these patients but I felt that we, as a health-care team, were only treating symptoms and not getting to the underlying issues of why these patients were so sick,” Hart said. “I believe in prevention and would like to be a health-care professional who promotes health.”

The program, which began in 2014, is a joint effort of Mayo Clinic-ASU Obesity Solutions and the School of Nutrition and Health Promotion. It has graduated two students to date with 11 currently enrolled. For more information, visit

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Harvesting data: The impacts of increased urban farming

What are the effects of more urban gardens? ASU team to crunch the data.
ASU team looking at ecological, social and economic aspects of urban gardens.
High-precision agriculture offers a lot of information at a very local level.
January 22, 2016

ASU project to create physics-based model— accessible to anyone — to study the effects of establishing neighborhood gardens

What would happen if the vacant land around Phoenix were converted to urban farms? Could it bring sustainable, locally grown food closer to consumers?

Arizona State University is taking the lead on a collaborative national project to answer questions like these. Researchers in the university are developing a physics-based model utilizing weather and farming data to predict environmental, economic and socio-economic impacts of increased urban agriculture.

The community model will be public and accessible to everyone — scientists, researchers, farmers, city planners and policymakers.

Alex Mahalov, the Wilhoit Foundation Dean’s Distinguished Professor in ASU’s School of Mathematical and Statistical SciencesThe School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences is an academic unit of ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences., is the lead principal investigator of the national project.

“We want to collaborate with people in all different areas to find sustainable solutions," Mahalov said.

The interdisciplinary team from ASU, consisting of computational and climate scientists, mathematicians, statisticians, geoscientists and social scientists, will help predict the yields of crops and to study “what if” scenarios and optimize outcomes of future crops.

For example, the team will study what would happen if vacant lands around the Phoenix metropolitan area were converted to farms. The model will be able to take a future map of the city expansion and samplings based on current densities, and use that data to predict a future city scenario. Bringing food closer to consumers with less shipping means fresher, more nutritious food available at lower cost.

Alex Mahalov (left) and Stephen Shaffer

Alex Mahalov (left) and Stephen Shaffer discuss "what if" scenarios related to converting vacant lands around Phoenix into urban farms.

This is the first time ASU will be collaborating with the National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) on the same national project, which involves three separate grants over five years.

Researchers plan to study four distinct geographic and climate zones: the Arizona Sun Corridor, Detroit, central California (Fresno and surrounding area) and central Florida. Local data specific to each area, such as topography, solar energy and water table, will be applied to the physics-based model.

This model is being developed for the United States, but it can be applied to other areas to help determine how best to feed the growing global population — expected to grow to 9 billion by 2050, with more than 50 percent of the populace contained within cities.

Stephen Shaffer, postdoctoral scholar in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, received an additional grant for computational resources from the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s Computational and Information Systems Laboratory, sponsored by the NSF.

He’ll start by looking at select winter and summer periods, comparing high-resolution observations represented at a coarser resolution, and moving on to multi-season simulations.

To crunch all the big data, Mahalov’s group will be the first at ASU to be connected to the new fast Internet 2, which will link researchers with the Computational and Information Systems Laboratory at NCAR. The initial simulations require many hours of parallel processing and will generate upwards of 80 terabytes of data.

Shaffer’s idea is to improve the atmospheric models, which currently run best at one kilometer or three kilometers of horizontal resolution.

“How do you take data you’ve observed at one meter and represent it efficiently at one kilometer? It’s these spatial aggregations that I’m writing algorithms for,” he said.

Currently land is only identified in one by one-kilometer sections as a building or vegetation. An entire city, like Phoenix, would look like it is made up of only three kinds of land. Mahalov and Shaffer came up with different methods of how the end result can be more detailed.

“Modeling is a lot like cooking because you need very good ingredients. One ingredient is data. If you have better ingredients — better data and faster computing — you get more accurate representations,” Mahalov said.

This high-precision agriculture offers a lot of information at a very local level. Every point on an individual community garden or urban farm offers data on things like the water table, slope of the land and sun exposure.  Shaffer said that can help farmers make decisions on what to grow and when, and when to buy water credits.

“On a larger scale, if we were to convert all the current vacant integrated lands in Phoenix into crops, would we be able to irrigate them for the next 80 years, or would they just last for two or three years and we’d run out of water? We can start looking at these kinds of scenarios,” said Shaffer, adding that the model they’re developing is public and open to anyone’s ideas.

In addition to the linked agricultural and urban simulations, the researchers are partnering with experts in geography and social sciences who are interested in the social and economic aspects.

“We don’t specify how crops are going to be set up. We’re going to put some amount of vegetation and some amount of water or irrigation in the model, but how it’s implemented in reality could be community gardens, for example,” Shaffer said. “This drives social aspects, with neighbors speaking to each other about how to grow crops or how to deal with pests. I have a garden in my backyard, and my neighbors come over and learn about it.”

In addition to producing food, backyard and community gardens provide other benefits, such as small-scale jobs and economic activity for people who might not have sufficient resources. And there are other positives.

“Put a chicken coop in your yard and see what happens in the neighborhood. Everyone gets interested,” Shaffer said with a chuckle. “We haven’t put chickens in the model yet.”

“Having a garden to grow some food might make you happier. Happiness cannot be underestimated,” Mahalov said.

“And turning compost is very stress-relieving,” Shaffer said.

What excites the researchers about this joint national project is not just working with USDA and NSF to create a set of modeling tools that can be used to study future development scenarios, but also the multiscale nature of it.

“It’s different than climate change, where you have global scale forcing to the finer scale. This is fine scale forcing the larger scale — your own backyard, but many people acting in similar ways,” Shaffer said.

Mahalov agrees: “It is very important that we outreach to the public. If we all do smart and sustainable things collectively, we can have a big impact.”

The co-principal investigators on the project are Billie Turner II, distinguished sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and Gilbert F. White Professor of Environment and Society in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning; Mohamed Moustaoui, senior sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and associate professor in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences; Matei Georgescu, senior sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and assistant professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning; and Carola Grebitus, senior sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and assistant professor of Food Industry Management at the Morrison School of Agribusiness in the W. P. Carey School of Business.