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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.

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'Hybrid Law' shows what happens when the thin blue line goes green

Arkansas police trade in Crown Vics for Toyota hybrids in ASU documentary.
ASU short film examines an Arkansas police department that went green.
January 21, 2016

Film by ASU professor examines an Arkansas town's decision to buy hybrid police cars

When filmmakers dream of scoring prestigious screenings, the names that pop in their minds tend to be Cannes, Toronto or Sundance.

Not in Detroit. And not at a car show.

But an Arizona State University professor couldn’t be happier that his short film is being screened today at the 2016 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.                 

Peter Byck’s “Hybrid Law” is about a small-town police department in Arkansas, which awkwardly, but lovingly, embraced a new fleet of Toyota Camry hybrid patrol cars. It is being screened in Detroit by Toyota.

“We didn’t make this for Toyota,” Byck said. “We didn’t even know they were driving Toyotas.”

Byck, a professor of practice in both the School of Sustainability and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, is the director, writer and producer of “Carbon Nation,” an acclaimed 2010 documentary about climate-change solutions. “Hybrid Law” is part of a series of short films being created by Byck promoting a low-carbon economy. They are being produced in affiliation with ASU.

“Hybrid Law” paints a picture of a traditional small American town where the police love their traditions, but come to appreciate something very new.

Sergeant Don Cleek and Officer Kevin Yeagle of the Arkadelphia, Arkansas, Police Department, stand by their patrol cars — a Crown Victoria and a Camry hybrid — at the beginning of the film.

“He’s got the modern submachine gun, and the modern Toyota car,” Cleek said in his police uniform. “He carries a modern Glock. I drive a good old American V-8 with a rear wheel and a full frame like they were meant to be, (I carry) a wood and steel rifle, like they were meant to be, and a 1911 that was designed in 1911 by John Moses Browning. I’m old. He’s young.”

Yeagle, driving his hybrid, admits he enjoys it.

“I’ve gotten a few snickers, of course, when I tell friends at other departments what I’m driving,” he said. “I don’t want to make myself out to be a green energy person, either. About as far as I’ve gone with that is I hate littering.”

Asked by Byck if he’d go back to driving a Crown Vic, Yeagle simply said, “No.”

Byck was screening “Carbon Nation” in Fayetteville, Arkansas, when someone mentioned the small-town police department that embraced hybrid cars — and was doing a better job because of it.

“I thought, ‘Wow. What a story,’ ” Byck said.

After the police chief and city manager both agreed to the filming, Byck spent two days in the central Arkansas town, with a population of about 10,000.

“I knew when I was filming it, ‘This is really good. They have a good story,’ ” Byck said. “It’s a positive story, and it’s one of those stories we hunt for in our Carbon Nation work — show me good money-saving ways to be cleaner. Those are the stories we hunt for. We hunt for good characters.”

“The only noise you’re going to hear is the tires crunching on the gravel.”
— Arkadelphia Police Chief Al Harris

Initially the cars were not an easy sell to either the rank and file or management.

“When I first heard about the Camrys they were going to order, I was dead set against it,” Cleek said. “Police cars are supposed to be rear-wheel drive, and V-8s, and a lot of room, and be able to go through ditches and stuff.”

“I just dismissed it,” Police Chief Al Harris said. “All I thought was they’re small and don’t have any power.”

Then he and city manager Jimmy Bolt went for test drives.

“One, they’re not little, and two, the performance is a lot better than I’d given them credit for,” Harris said.

The effects of the switch were evident, too.

By replacing 10 Crown Victorias with 10 Toyota Camry hybrids, the department increased patrols, decreased maintenance and cut down so much on fuel that the entire city staff enjoyed a 3 percent wage increase. One officer said he has gone from filling up his gas tank twice per shift to once.

There was even a benefit no one saw coming, and that some still don’t.

“The only noise you’re going to hear is the tires crunching on the gravel,” Harris said. “We call it the stealth mode. You can literally be on top of something before the bad guys realize you’re there.”

The film shows that people are coming on board with green living outside of San Francisco or San Jose.

“This idea that early adoption is owned by the coasts is just wrong,” Byck said. “That’s why this story works so well — because it’s unexpected. I’m seeing innovation and early adoption everywhere. It’s just not known yet. … We’ve got to tell those stories more and more and more. It shouldn’t be thought of as a place of early adoption. It should be celebrated.”

And in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, it is.

“We all want to do right by our world we live in,” Bolt said. “Green is popular, but it also has to be practical.”

The image at the top of this page is a screen shot from Peter Byck's film "Hybrid Law."

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News

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Hot under the collar? Blame it on El Niño

January 20, 2016

2015 was the warmest year on record, and ASU's weather expert says 2016 will be hotter — but there's a silver lining

Scientists reported Wednesday that 2015 was by far the warmest year on record, breaking a record that was set the year before, which has some wondering whether global warming is taking root.

ASU climatologist Randy CervenyCerveny is a President's Professor in ASU's School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, which is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences., however, identified another culprit.

Question: Were you surprised that 2015 is the hottest year on record?

Answer: No. The primary reason for that warming is what we call is El Niño, a major warming on the Pacific Ocean. This El Niño is unprecedented in the last 50 years. The fact we are seeing such a warming globally is primarily attributable to the massive warming we are having in the Pacific Ocean.

The fact that we have had very warm temperatures over the past 20 years, particularly — we have had global warming happening at an accelerated rate — will make this more noticeable. But the primary cause is the warming we have in the Pacific Ocean.

Q: What is El Niño?

A: El Niño is a periodic variation of sea surface temperatures. Normally the Eastern Pacific is cold and the Western Pacific is warm. About every five to seven years there is a surge back from the West to the East of warm water, and it comes along the coast of South America. When it happens we get this change in the storm track and the weather patterns, and it is something that pretty much affects the entire world.

Satellite imagery of heat patterns over the Pacific Ocean.

NASA ocean surface topography comparing the 1997-1998 vs. 2015-2016 El Niño events. Image by NASA/JPL-Caltech

Q: Will 2016 be hotter than 2015?

A: Yes, 2016 will be an incredibly hot year. The primary reason for that is because we still have El Niño going on. El Niño is a massive warming that began last June and will go on until April or early May of this year; consequently the temperatures we will have globally this year will be marked by that massive warming in the Pacific Ocean.

Q: What will we see as a result?

A: The primary thing that El Niño is associated with is precipitation in the South and Southwestern parts of the U.S. Our forecast for the next few months here in the Southwest is we are going to have many more rains and we will start to fill up some of the reservoirs that have been emptied over the last few years. This is the perfect kind of rains to break droughts.

The full interview with Randy Cerveny is available here.

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The psychology behind failed resolutions

Already given up on your New Year's resolution? Here's the psychology of why.
ASU psychology professor explains why most resolutions fail.
January 15, 2016

ASU professor says best way to keep resolutions is to make them 'SMART'

It's the middle of January. How are those New Year's resolutions going?

If you're like most people, they're swiftly receding from memory. According to Forbes, 63 percent of Americans make resolutions, but only 8 percent keep them.

So why do we bother, year after year, if the failure rate is so high?

Paul Karoly, a psychology professor at Arizona State University, might know why. Karoly studies goals and motivation and claims a resolution is just a cultural function.

“What is a New Year's resolution? It’s a meme,” Karoly said. “It’s a culturally given thing. ‘Why don’t I lose weight, or get healthier?’ It has very little meaning besides that."

Karoly said the reason why we make them is because it's in line with Skinner’s Verbal Operant: where people enjoy praise — especially drunk people — and resolutions are an insincere way to get praise.

“You get drunk, you're with drunk people. You say something positive like ‘I am going to lose weight!’ and then everybody congratulates you for thinking that,” Karoly said. “Then you sober up and say, 'Tomorrow I’ll do that,' and you never do it.”

Even if you weren’t knocking a couple back when you made the resolution, adding onto a goal’s nearly inevitable failure is the abstinence violation effect, referring to a person's sense of loss of control over his or her behavior that has an overwhelming and demoralizing effect. For example, if you made a resolution to stop eating chips and you have one chip, you proceed to have the full bag because you already failed by eating one.

When applying it to other common resolutions like “go to the gym four times this week” or “quit smoking,” it becomes evident how easy it can seem to fail.

However, Karoly does think there is one way to make those resolutions stick: by making them “SMARTSpecific: It's not enough to say “I want to get a degree.” It’s vague, and changeable. Instead say something specific like, “I want to get my bachelor's in mass communications at ASU.” /// Measurable: A measurable statement would be “I’ll get my bachelor's by spring 2018.” /// Achievable/action-oriented: What are the specific steps? Try something like, “I will take this certain set of classes to get my associate's by the end of summer, leading into my degree at ASU.” /// Relevant: Ask yourself how important this is to you and your life. /// Time-related: Know the timetable for your goal; every goal needs a beginning, a middle and an end. .” Karoly is referring to the acronym for: Specific, Measurable, Attainable (or Action-oriented), Relevant (or Realistic) and Time-bound. It was created as a planning model to help realize goals that can be used year-round.

However, he still finds the process of New Year’s resolutions a bit misleading — and a waste of time.

“New Year’s resolutions are an example of weak intentions. Let's do something else,” Karoly said. “Make them lasting. If we were to make them last, if we had to, let's make it realistic. Let's make it smart.”

Reporter , ASU Now

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Trash talking at the wrestling meet

Sun Devils wrestling meet to highlight ASU's Zero Waste initiative.
January 15, 2016

Athletics event will use power of the fans to drive Zero Waste initiative

Wrestling is a minimalist sport, with no elaborate uniforms or equipment.

And the fans at Friday night's Sun Devils wrestling meetThe Sun Devils will host Iowa State at 8 p.m. at Wells Fargo Arena. will be asked to keep that sentiment in mind by keeping their trash to a minimum.

Arizona State University’s Zero Waste Initiative is partnering with the Sun Devils Athletic Department on a marketing campaign aimed at fans. Signs will remind them to “think before you throw” and volunteers will staff the bins for people who really aren’t sure where to toss that plastic fork.

Lucas Mariacher, program manager for Zero Waste at ASU and an alumnus of the wrestling team, said the meet is a big event and the partnership will raise the profile of both organizations.

Zero Waste has been working for years behind the scenes to cut ASU’s landfill stream two ways, according to Alana Levine, assistant director for Zero Waste. Aversion means the institution tries to produce less waste by buying items that can be reused, recycled or composted. Diversion means actually recycling or composting everything that can be.

The process is a loop, Levine said.

“We look at the life cycle of materials. If we’re going to be recycling our paper, we have to make sure we are buying back recycled paper so we have closed that economic loop,” she said.

One major way that trash is reduced at athletic events is by working with the concessionaire, Sodexo.

“A few years ago we really analyzed the packaging around the hot dog you’re going to buy,” Levine said. “Can they serve chips in a tray that’s recyclable instead of a bag that’s not recyclable?”

She said the Athletics Department has been eager to participate. “We stand side by side with Athletics; we’re not pulling them along,” she said.

Sparky visited the ASU staff barbeque in December, where waste diversion was more than 99 percent.

The initiative has been very successful. Mariacher said that waste is separated and weighed after events. More than 99 percent of the waste produced at the ASU staff barbeque in December was diverted, he said. The record for Wells Fargo Arena was a men’s basketball game last year in which 90 percent of the trash was diverted.

But now the fans are being invited to do their part.

“One of the shifts in our thinking in how we’re approaching Zero Waste is we really want the individual to be activated,” Levine said.

Each ASU team will feature the Zero Waste marketing campaign at one of its signature events this semester. Friday is the wrestling team’s “MMA Night,” featuring wrestling alumni who now participate in the Ultimate Fighting Championship competition.

“Our number one goal is that the behavior transfers to other venues and even to the fans’ personal lives,” Mariacher said. “Maybe you shouldn’t throw away all those recyclable things.”

The other Zero Waste promotional events this spring will be: women’s basketball, 7 p.m. Jan. 22 vs. the University of Arizona; gymnastics, 7 p.m. Feb. 22 vs. the University of Arizona; wrestling PAC-12 championship, 6 p.m. Feb. 27; men’s basketball, 6:30 p.m. March 5 vs. California; baseball, 7 p.m. April 12 vs. the University of Arizona; and softball, 7 p.m. April 23 vs. Oregon.

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


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Preaching the politics of food and nutrition

You really need to get involved in the political process of food.
USDA Under Secretary urges ASU students to consider the politics of food.
January 14, 2016

USDA Under Secretary Katie Wilson stops at ASU to talk about nutritional guidelines and food access

Few can fire up a crowd quite like Dr. Katie Wilson when it comes to talking people into eating their fruits and vegetables.

It may not sound like a sexy job, but it’s hers. And she does it well.

As the USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services under President Barack Obama, Wilson (pictured above, right) is responsible for improving the health and well-being of Americans by developing and promoting science-based dietary guidance and administering the USDA’s 15 nutrition assistance programs.

Prior to joining USDA, Wilson spent 23 years as a school nutrition director in several Wisconsin public school districts, served five years as the executive director for the National Food Service Management Institute, and was an assistant professor at the University of Mississippi.

On Thursday, Wilson visited with more than 50 students, faculty and researchers in ASU’s College of Health Solutions on the Downtown Phoenix campus to discuss how universities and educators helped shape the recently released USDA Dietary Guidelines — which are developed every five years.  

“School nutrition programs should be educational labs for children, and all of you need to be advocates for them,” Wilson said. “I encourage you all to get involved in the process because we need to hear your voice and we need your research and expertise.”

Wilson, who started her appointment on May 3, 2015, spoke to ASU Now about her surprise visit to ASU, how national nutritional policy is created and the role and function of the USDA.

Question: Your call to action for future teachers and researchers to get involved in the political process is interesting. Why is it so important for nutritional guidelines?

Answer: Writing regulation at the regulatory level means we’re only as good as what the scientists and researchers know and tell us. The field of nutrition in particular is evolving. We really don’t know a whole lot because it keeps changing, and that’s because the research keeps changing. We haven’t been dealing with nutrition as long as we have, specifically, with other kinds of issues. It’s also not a concrete issue. It’s very passionate, it’s very personal, it changes upon your demographic and age group, what your cultural preferences and experiences are. I think that if we can get people involved in the American process of writing these things, then we’re much further ahead.

Q: There are many issues behind food — social, economical, political — that go behind the making of policy. Is it the hardest aspect of your job, with so many voices and factors weighing in on the process?

A: That’s what makes it so difficult to deal with in this arena. It’s not cut and dry. It’s neither this nor that. Again, I think that’s why we have to go back to the American public and say, “That works. That doesn’t work.” What are we seeing? What are the trends? Then we have to listen to the scientists and how they have advanced nutrition to see how it reacts with the body and the whole medical aspect of it. We’ve made a lot of advances in the last 10 years, so we know a little more.

Q: There are differing opinions about funding free-meal programs. What are your thoughts on the issue?

A: I really and truly believe that anyone of us could fall on hardship tomorrow. We can’t get people back into the mainstream if they’re hungry. It just can’t be. We know that children don’t learn well if they’re hungry. The same with adults. You can’t function if you’re hungry and if you’re a single parent doing multiple jobs or managing children from multiple schools or having to figure out public transportation to get to your destination or job. If you’re hungry on top of all of that, there’s no way to figure it out. So how do we get people back on their feet and into the mainstream if they’re hungry? … We have the ability to feed everybody in this country and so we just have to figure out a way to make sure they get it.

Q: Most of your programs seem to be geared toward not only feeding children but also educating them about nutrition. We constantly hear about how America has become more obese as a nation, so when will we see that shift in behavior?

A: We have already started to see changes in schools regarding nutrition. Some of it is anecdotal; some of it is more research-based. There’s a brand-new article that just published in the American Medical Journal of Pediatrics. It shows that there’s a big difference in what they’re choosing and consuming. And they’re not being forced to. It’s a choice. We are seeing a shift. We’re seeing a difference because industry is saying, “Look, these healthy products are so popular that we’re going to put them in the commercial market.” We’re beginning to see a shift in the general population because they are asking for more information on food labels. They’re interested. The fact that we got tens of thousands of people giving their input and commenting on the USDA Dietary Guidelines for 2015 says people are paying attention. I believe people are beginning to relate good nutrition to a healthy lifestyle and longevity. We are beginning to see those changes in children, even though it takes time.

Q: It’s obvious you are passionate about what you do and teach.

A: I am. Every day I go home I know I’ve fought some battle somewhere that gave some kid access to food … and I’m OK with that.

Top photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Reporter , ASU News


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A new look at the 'affluenza' issue

"Affluenza" defense not complete nonsense, says ASU researcher.
Studies show drug/alcohol use higher among affluent teens than inner-city kids.
Anxiety/depression among affluent youth found to be 2-3 times national rates.
January 14, 2016

ASU researcher shares what her studies have revealed about America's affluent youth

Late Monday night it was announced that Tonya Couch, mother of the infamous “affluenza” teen Ethan CouchPictured above in a photo released by Mexican authorities with dyed-black hair after he has detained in Puerto Vallarta., had posted bail after her bond was lowered from $1 million to $75,000.

This, after the elder Couch was accused of aiding her son in fleeing to Mexico to avoid a probation hearing that might have led to jail time.

It all stemmed from a 2013 incident in which the younger Couch, 16 at the time, killed four people in a drunken driving accident. At the time of his trial, Couch’s lawyers cited a defense of “affluenza,” claiming the teen’s affluent lifestyle lead to an inability to understand the consequences of his actions.

Many in the media and general public balked at this claim, calling it “junk science” or an outright lie.

Recently, however, research from Arizona State University’s Suniya Luthar, a Foundation Professor in psychologyThe Department of Psychology is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. has been cited as appearing to support the idea that affluent youth do actually suffer from issues such as severe depression and anxiety that can lead to substance abuse and poor decision-making.

A recent blog post co-written by Luthar and Barry Schwartz for Reuters states that although Couch’s “affluenza” defense may just be “an absurd effort to minimize one teenager’s responsibility for a horrific tragedy,” it would be “foolish to allow [it] to obscure growing evidence that we have a significant and growing crisis on our hands."

“The children of the affluent are becoming increasingly troubled, reckless, and self-destructive," they wrote. "Perhaps we needn’t feel sorry for these ‘poor little rich kids.’ But if we don’t do something about their problems, they will become everyone’s problems.”

ASU Now sat down with Luthar to get to the root of this growing problem and talk about ways to deal with and — potentially — prevent it.

Question: Your research has received a great deal of national attention in the past few months, cited extensively in The Atlantic and more recently by NPR, CNN and The Washington Post. Why so much interest now?

Answer: These reports stem from two sets of events recently, one involving the tragic cluster of suicides in Palo Alto, California, and the other being the Ethan Couch “affluenza” case. Essentially, these events capture the types of problems that we’ve repeatedly documented in our research on kids in white-collar, professional families: high rates of depression, anxiety and self-harm on the one hand, and substance abuse and rule-breaking behaviors on the other.

Q: Why are we suddenly seeing so many troubled affluent children? Have they always had these issues, or is this a new phenomenon?

A: Well, we really don’t know what “used to be.” Until the turn of the century, there really wasn’t any research on this subgroup of children in particular.

That said, it is clear that the pressures on these kids have increased tremendously over the last several decades. Competition among affluent youth has become that much stiffer, so that instead of having 200 kids vying for a particular spot in a university, it’s more like 2,000. Between that and globalization, there is so very much more competition, not just for university admissions, but for jobs in prestigious white-collar settings. These factors, I believe, lead to an enormous sense of pressure and, in turn, to high levels of distress among upper-middle class children.

Q: Your research article “I can, therefore I must: Fragility among the middle classes” is among the most-read articles from ASU according to ResearchGate. Does this mean that many more scientists are now studying this population?

A: No, not necessarily. The interest is partly because of the recent media stories, and I think scientists now acknowledge that these problems are in fact real. We have replicated our findings several times across the country.

Despite this acknowledgement, we can’t assume that many more researchers are working with this population simply because these kids are very difficult to access. Most upper-middle class schools are extremely protective about the privacy of their students and families, so that asking to conduct research with them is unlikely to go anywhere. In our case, after our first couple of studies (that happened pretty much by chance), schools started to reach out and ask for assessments, usually after troubling incidents involving serious self-harm or substance use.

Q: What are the solutions to these problems? Are they at all preventable?

A: Yes, I do believe that they are preventable in many cases, but our interventions will have to be at many different levels, as Barry (Schwartz) and I wrote in our recent blog post. Starting with the parents, obviously; it’s critical to keep the channels of communication open with your kids. Teenagers can be notoriously difficult sometimes to get through to, but do keep trying, do make sure your children really do feel loved and cared for, and that you value them for the human beings they are, and not for the splendor of their accomplishments. Also, you have to set your limits and be firm in sticking to them.  Kids catch on very fast about whether or not testing the limits will lead to any real consequences from you.

Equally important, parents must understand that they are not machines who can just keep giving and performing; that they too need replenishment if they are to sustain “good enough parenting” in these extremely fast-paced, stressful communities. This is why my recent work is focused on mothers, who are usually the primary caregivers, in efforts to ensure that they too receive ongoing support and tending in their everyday lives.

At schools, teachers need to remember that they are only one of many teachers parceling out tons of homework (often in challenging AP classes). And schools in upper-middle class communities tend to push kids toward a very selective group of colleges — back off that approach. Focus more on conveying to kids that there are many ways in which they can get a splendid college education, show them real-life examples of the many very “successful” people who went to schools nowhere near the Ivy’s.

And there urgently need to be changes in higher education. In our blog article, we reiterated Barry’s terrific suggestion to introduce a lottery system for admissions in highly competitive schools. So essentially, if you have a good enough portfolio to make the top applicant pool, your name gets thrown into the pool but from there on, selection occurs by lottery. This can do much to reduce the enormous pressure kids feel that if they did just one more challenging course or activity, that would make or break their admission.

For more information visit

Emma Greguska

Editor , ASU News

(480) 965-9657

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Narrowing gap between man and machine

Future robots could help you assemble that IKEA chair.
January 12, 2016

ASU engineer exploring new frontiers in human-robot collaborations

Imagine an assembly robot that collaborates with a human to assemble a piece of IKEA furniture. The robot would need to analyze the movements of the human to avoid potentially hazardous collisions.

portrait of Heni Ben AmorHeni Ben Amor (pictured left) is trying to make that situation become closer to reality by helping robots better understand and respond to human behavior. For instance, the assembly robot may learn that it must hand over a screwdriver whenever a human is stretching out an arm.

Ben Amor, an assistant professor of computer science and engineering in Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, is working to make advances in human-robot collaboration and on identifying the importance of such collaborations.

“I develop new methods that allow a robot to work in close proximity with human partners,” he said. “To ensure safe interaction, autonomous robots need to include movements and actions of human partners into their decision-making process.”

There is a widespread misconception that robots will replace humans in all workplaces, Ben Amor said. While it is true that robots can perform mundane, repetitive tasks better than humans, there are still many tasks at which humans are way better than robots.

“For humans, opening a fridge is not a particularly difficult thing to do. For robots, however, this can be a daunting challenge.”
— Heni Ben Amor, ASU assistant professor of computer science and engineering

He believes in a combination of robotic strength and speed on one side, and human decision-making, creativity and dexterity on the other side of a symbiotic relationship between robot and human.

“A fascinating aspect of working with robots is discovering how challenging even presumably simple tasks can be for a machine,” he said. “For humans, opening a fridge is not a particularly difficult thing to do. For robots, however, this can be a daunting challenge.”

Even after having a human program all the steps involved, “it may actually take the robot more than five minutes to accomplish the task. It is therefore very inspiring to see how nature managed to find very elegant and versatile solutions to similarly difficult problems,” Ben Amor said.

“I am particularly intrigued by learning capabilities of biological systems,” he said. “Humans and animals often learn to adapt and change their behavior whenever faced with a new challenge.”

Human-robot collaboration has become an important aspect of many applications of robotic technologies, such as in the automotive industry.

There is a strong interest in bringing human and robot capabilities together. For many tasks, human skills remain important, but  other tasks could best be accomplished by the strength and agility of robots. Deploying robots to help humans in physically demanding tasks could, for instance, lead to a significant reduction in work-related injuries.

Ben Amor is intrigued by machine learning involving robots. He wants to find out if robots can learn how to solve tasks on its own, by employing a human-like trial-and-error strategy to acquire new motor skills or imitating observed human behaviors and learning to program themselves based on what they observe.

“One idea that I am particularly fascinated by is a robot that reads a manual to learn to program itself,” he said.

He expands on the idea of robot assembling IKEA furniture. All of the pieces of furniture come with a manual that is originally intended for humans. He hopes that in the future a robot could scan the manuals and extract the knowledge it needs to program itself to do the assembly.

“I think for the acceptance of robots in many application domains it is important to reduce the programming effort that is currently involved," he said. “Robot learning can help eliminate this effort and thereby enable even laymen to train or program a new robot.”

One area Ben Amor is looking to investigate further is bi-manual grasping and manipulation by robots. Typically, robotic technologies employed in manufacturing operations use only one arm to perform various tasks. He wants to develop methods that give robots increased dexterity so they can match the ability of humans in using two hands and arms.

Written by Erik Wirtanen, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

Top photo: Methods developed in Heni Ben Amor’s lab enable robot assistants to anticipate the actions of human co-workers and help whenever needed. Photo courtesy of ASU’s Interactive Robotics Lab.

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Putting a face on the nameless

Giving a face to a cold-case victim is a long but rewarding process.
Hands-on lab experience at ASU is essential for forensics students.
January 11, 2016

New ASU professor, his wife and a forensics student work to help identify one of the nation's missing and unidentified persons

Every couple has a “how we met” story. Sometimes it takes place at a party, sometimes it’s online, sometimes it’s at school.

Anthony and Catyana Falsetti met at a morgue in Broward County, Florida.

“She was working for the county sheriff’s office, I was a forensic anthropologist at the University of Florida, and I had been sent to the morgue to identify skeletons,” Anthony explained.

Today, things aren’t much different. Catyana is still working for the county, only now it’s the county of Maricopa, and Anthony is still working as a forensic anthropologistAnthony Falsetti serves as a Professor of Practice in ASU’s School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences, an academic unit of the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences on the West campus. for a university, only now it’s Arizona State University.

He and CatyanaCatyana Falsetti works as a forensic artist for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office. She is also a graduate student at Arizona State University and will be teaching the course “Documenting the Crime Scene” through ASU’s Criminology and Criminal Justice Program at the Downtown Phoenix campus for the fall 2016 semester. — a non-degree graduate student at ASU — are recent Valley transplants, having come to Arizona via the aforementioned “Sunshine State.” The fall 2015 semester was their first at ASU, but they’re already finding plenty to keep them busy.

Beginning with a request to help in the identification of the murder victim of a 1984 cold case from Wisconsin.

Two forensics experts look at a reconstructed skull.

Anthony and Catyana Falsetti — he an 

ASU professor, she a forensic artist who

will teach an ASU course this fall —
worked together on a skull (also shown
in the top photo) from a cold case.

Photos by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

The sheriff’s department in Wisconsin looked to Anthony because of his work in assisting with the creation of, a first-of-its-kind website launched in 2010 at the behest of the National Institute for Justice to more efficiently identify missing or unidentified persons.

Of which “there are about 50,000 that we know of in the U.S.,” Anthony said. uses a dual-sided system that allows for medical examiners, coroners and law enforcement officials to input information regarding missing or unidentified persons on one end, and the general public to input information regarding an individual on the other. Whatever information one side lacks, the other may be able to provide, increasing the chances of resolving cases.

Besides basic stats like age, sex and ethnicity, photos of an individual can also be uploaded to the site. However, in some cases — as with the 1984 Wisconsin homicide victim — because a person’s identity is unknown, so is what he or she looked like.

Thankfully, talented forensic artists like Catyana are able to create 3-D facial reconstructions using the victim’s skull as a basis for adding layers of muscle and skin. With nearly 80 facial reconstructions under her belt and a 10 percent identification success rate (the national average is about 1 percent), enlisting Catyana’s help was essential.

Before she could get started, it was Anthony’s job to prepare the skull, which was badly damaged due to the manner of death. With the help of ASU forensics junior Kori Dowell, Anthony began the first step: maceration, or removal of the remaining soft tissue, at their West campus lab.

Most skulls of individuals who have been deceased for 30-plus years do not have any remaining tissue because of the natural process of decay. However, in this case, the victim had been embalmed before burial, which preserved some of the soft tissue, though not enough to get an accurate idea of what she looked like. Thus, it had to be removed in order for Catyana to be able to build an accurate likeness, as extra tissue on the skull would provide inaccurate measurements of the bones.

The process of maceration consists of submersing the cranium in warm water for a number of days, then removing the tissue from the skull using the appropriate tools.

While the idea may cause some to squirm, Dowell was grateful for the opportunity to get real-life experience.

“I think it is extremely important for students to get hands-on experience so they can learn more about the field and the career in an up-close-and-personal setting,” she said. “Especially in science careers, there are a lot of things that can only be taught and practiced in labs and with experience.”

Removing the tissue also allowed for Anthony and Dowell to make observations about the underlying damage to the skull and evaluate the trauma, which becomes very important in the event a suspect is identified and the case goes to court.

“So [the trauma] noted in 1984, we can corroborate it with what we know now and just give a more clear picture of the level of injury,” Anthony explained, which could determine anything from the level and type of crime an individual is charged with to the length of his or her sentencing.

Anthony and Dowell’s observations of the skull upon removal of the soft tissue noted extensive trauma. So much so that large portions of it had to be superglued together in order for the reconstruction process to begin.

The first step in the reconstruction process was to photograph the skull and upload it to Photoshop. Then, Catyana used tissue depth-marker measurements to layer muscle and skin over the skull.

Tissue depth markers — which refer to the thickness of one’s skin at various points on the human face — vary depending on a person’s ancestry. So depending on the shape of the skull, which Anthony had evaluated and determined to be of European descent, Catyana layered more or less tissue.

The resulting image was the face of a woman in her mid-50s, a strong, thick nose dominating her square-ish face, offset by two downward-tilting eyes, deep smile lines and thin lips.

A woman's face is shown in a facial reconstruction from a skull.

The completed facial reconstruction of the victim, done by forensic artist Catyana Falsetti. The hairstyle was based on hair found at the scene, and the shirt used in the image was found at the scene as well, Falsetti said.

All that was left to do was to upload it to the unidentified victim’s NamUs profile in hopes that someone would recognize her.

“That’s why the NamUs system is so important, because people can sit on their computer online now and at least search what has been uploaded,” said Catyana.

“That’s what we’re hoping to do here at ASU,” Anthony said, “is to start [creating facial reconstructions] within our own state, then work regionally. We’ve reached out and we’ve got some cooperation from medical examiners. And we’re going to start digitizing actual skulls so that we can then produce 3-D reconstructions based on the new data.”

Using a 3-D laser scanner would not only make the facial reconstruction process more accurate, but would allow for the extraction of even more data “so that we can continue to learn more about the human face and variation,” Anthony said, “which is what all this gets back to, as an anthropologist, is studying human variability. And this is just the application of it.”