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Don't space out: ASU business professor helps astronauts stay on task

ASU prof who studies focus & attention wins NASA grant to help astronauts
Having trouble paying attention at work? In space that could be life or death.
“It’s a mix of the transcendently magical and the deeply prosaic.”
October 8, 2015

You’d be hard-pressed to find a seasoned businessman or woman who hasn't sat through a mid-morning meeting, oblivious to the decisions being made or plans being hatched.

Often, that out-to-lunch incognizance exists because that person's mind is still kneading through a difficult problem left undone on his or her desk.

Such spacey discord — the occasional inability to completely disconnect ourselves from one chore to focus on the next — is something that happens to all of us, including those who actually go into space to perform various scientific and technical assignments.

That’s why NASA has commissioned Jeff LePine, a management professor at the W. P. Carey School of Business, to understand how astronauts aboard the International Space Station make transitions from task to task, particularly when they’re going from individual duties to team responsibilities, or from very important, engaging activities to those that are downright mundane.

LePine has teamed with management colleagues Ned Wellman, an assistant professor at business school, and Daniel Newton, a doctoral student, to conduct a three-year study for the U.S. space agency. In the end, the team hopes to walk away with a list of countermeasures they can provide mission planners and system developers to help ISS crews switch gears more effectively and avoid the risks of distraction.

About-face floundering

Why is task transition so important to NASA? Because the space station is a research facility designed to perform world-class science and research that only a microgravity environment can provide.

So, station crews spend their days working on science experiments that require their own input, as well as monitoring those that are controlled from the ground. But, they also have to maintain the facility, so flight crews are constantly checking support systems, cleaning filters, updating computers and handling basic housekeeping — tasks that often must be conducted in accordance with a schedule — not necessarily the astronaut’s preference.

“It’s a mix of the transcendently magical and the deeply prosaic,” said astronaut Marsha Ivins, who has completed five missions for NASA and spent 55 days off our planet.

And, while the maintenance chores may not be as engaging as the scientific experiments, they’re vitally important to crew survival. An error could bring harm or death. Likewise, working individually requires different demands and thinking than teamwork.

What’s more, performing the maintenance tasks may require astronauts to go from long periods of working autonomously to some interdependent task, which calls for different skills and ways of operating. According to a report produced by NASA, “such shifts are believed to create risks with regard to crew performance.”

“When you start working together with other people, you eventually get into this routine way of doing things,” LePine explained. That is, teams working together on interdependent tasks develop norms and shared processes and ways of thinking that are specific to their particular interdependent task. “This is referred to as routine performance,” he adds.

Along with routine, there’s engagement. LePine’s previous research has shown that individuals can become highly invested in their work physically, cognitively and emotionally. Engagement can vary with the completeness, complexity or consequentiality of the tasks. So, for example, LePine sees potential transition issues with a switch from a team task that is important and complex but incomplete to an individual task that is, perhaps, less important but still complex.

“The more complex, less complete and more consequential a prior task is, the more likely you are to have residual engagement that interferes with the transition to the subsequent task,” he said.

In his research, LePine is going to try to decouple these three facets of tasks to see which most impact residual engagement, which he likens to an after-image.

“When you look at something bright and then you look away, you have this sort of after-image that is in your brain or in your eyes,” he said. “It’s kind of the same thing with engagement. If you are working on something really intensely and then you have to turn your attention to something else, the first task stays with you.”

LePine and his colleagues will explore ways to mitigate residual engagement. This exploration will take place with lab-based experiments at the W. P. Carey School as well as four missions involving astronauts working in NASA’s Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA), formerly known as the Deep Space Habitat.

HERA is a three-story habitat designed to help scientists examine risks and gaps associated with human performance during spaceflight. Historically, the habitat was used for engineering systems demonstrations. Now, NASA uses it to simulate the isolation, confinement and remote conditions astronauts endure during space missions.

The findings from this research will culminate in three planned missions aboard the ISS in 2017-2018. These missions will last six months. During this time LePine and his team will collect additional data and begin to examine interventions designed to improve effectiveness during task transitions.

Playing with fire

Back at the W. P. Carey School, the lab research will have students playing with fire, literally.

“We’re running undergraduates through an experiment where the students are engaged in a firefighting task,” LePine said. “Each of the students has a different role: there is a fire chief, the person who delivers water to the different firefighters, the primary firefighter and a scout firefighter, who is sort of a first responder.”

Playing their roles, each student sits at a networked computer fighting a simulated forest fire. To manipulate the consequentiality of the fire, LePine and team may have some students fighting in brush and woodlands, while others are on the outskirts of suburbia, right next to people’s homes. The researchers also manipulate the complexity and completeness of the students’ fire fight.

Half-way through, the researchers stop the firefighting altogether.

“We say, ‘OK, now your job is to do some maintenance on your firetrucks,’ and then we give each of the students some Legos. As individuals, they have to put this Lego thing together. Then we cut them off and then put them back to the team task to finish fighting the fire,” LePine said.

Lessons learned from the lab simulations will be put to more vigorous testing in the HERA habitat. From there, the researchers hope to develop protocols to help ensure that residual engagement in task switching impacts productivity as little as possible.

Planning for disruption

Already, LePine and his team are thinking about possible ways to make task shifting less distracting.

“Given that astronauts don’t have much control over their schedules we’re looking for ways to plan for a transition,” he said.

So, for instance, if an astronaut is working on an experiment, part of the project planning could include a recommendation for how to put things away when called into another set of duties. Or, when transitioning to a team task, the researchers will examine whether pre-briefing — catching everyone up on the project — and de-briefing — such as a round-robin discussion where each player talks about things that went well and how things could go better — might be a way to help people ease into the next round of work.

The team also will look at checklists as a way to get people “thinking about the new task as opposed to the old task that they were doing,” LePine said.

Ultimately, he sees this work being of value in space and on earth.

“Most people’s jobs today are multifaceted, particularly professional jobs where people are working on a bunch of different teams and projects throughout the day,” he said. “People are always transitioning between different things, and we know very little about the factors that could enhance effectiveness during those transitions.”

And, it matters. “It’s during transitions when a lot of mistakes take place.”

Written by Betsy Loeff, W. P. Carey School of Business.

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Sustainability team studies how cities survive mega storms

Meteorologists are calling Hurricane Joaquin a 100-year storm.
50 researchers from ASU investigate how cities endure major storms like Joaquin.
mazing how fast storms of the century are happening,” said David Swindell
October 6, 2015

At least 15 people have been killed, 11 dams have collapsed and more than 70 miles of a major interstate highway closed as Hurricane Joaquin hit the Carolinas in what meteorologists are calling a 100-year storm.

“Amazing how fast storms of the century are happening,” said David Swindell, director of Arizona State University’s Center for Urban Innovation.

It has been 10 years since Katrina broke the levies of New Orleans and three years since Sandy flattened the coastlines of New York and New Jersey. With record-strength disasters becoming the new normal, scientists are digging into finding ways cities can survive them.

Swindell is part of a team of 50 researchers from 15 institutions led by ASU professors to investigate how cities can endure and bounce back from storms like Joaquin, Sandy and Katrina.

The Urban Resilience to Extreme Weather-Related Events Sustainability Research Network (UREx SRN) — a unit of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability — aims to find flexible solutions and educate officials about what gaps in their systems need to be filled.

This week, Charles Redman, professor in the School of Sustainability who leads the team, is visiting storm-lashed New York City; Syracuse, New York; and San Juan, Puerto Rico, to meet with civic officials.

“In New York in particular they’ve taken this seriously,” Redman said. “Our approach on this project is to transfer thinking from fail-safe to safe-to-fail.”

Six New York hospitals and nursing homes flooded during Sandy. They all had emergency generators, but the generators were in the basement. Moving them to an upper floor is a fairly simple and low-cost solution.

“The resilient part is when these things happen, make them not disasters,” Redman said.

Clark Miller, a senior sustainability scientist in the Global Institute of Sustainability, is co-leading a team tasked with producing bold new ways for changing how cities build to meet violent storms.

“Our job is to work with cities to help them think about strategies for taking the knowledge and insight and networks being built through the UREx project and putting them to work on behalf of making the city more resilient,” Miller said. “The challenge the cities are going to have is that they have a lot of infrastructure built already. They don’t have the money to rip that out and start again. … How do they live with infrastructure they’ve already got?”

Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana

Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana Photo By: US Air Force via Wikicommons

Nationally, hard infrastructure — dams, river levees, buildings, electrical grids and the like — has all been built with a climate model at the core of its design.

“That model is based on — generally speaking — 30-year averages of the weather,” Miller said. “When they designed the hurricane protection system in New Orleans, they built it based on 75 years of data, for a hurricane that would occur once every hundred years.”

New Orleans’ flood-protection system pre-Katrina was designed based on a 1955 study with outdated climate data.

“The city didn’t know its protection had been built around an outdated model,” Miller said. “As time passes, those stats will become more and more useless. … We’re going to have to shift climate from a static to a dynamic variable. Three 500-year storms have hit the Midwest in the past 20 years. That’s not normal.”

Green solutions will be one tool offered by UREx, but not the only tool, Redman said. Residents should benefit from solutions as well.

The project isn’t about telling people they can’t live in hazard zones. Oceanfront homes on eastern Long Island were rebuilt after Sandy, but not on the dunes where they used to be. They were rebuilt a few hundred yards in back of the dunes, with a lawn or a pool or tennis courts in front.

“I like that,” Redman said. “That open space is an amenity.”

Finance is a factor in the UREx project.

“It’s great to have good science, but if you can’t pay for it, you can’t implement it,” Swindell said.

When Sandy crushed lower Manhattan, it flooded nine subway tunnels. Only two of the lines have been fixed to date, according to Swindell.

“The problem they ran into was in not just fixing the infrastructure, but in building in some preventative measures,” he said.

Insurers wouldn’t cover the new infrastructure, so the City of New York created a reinsurance company — its own insurer, in effect. The reinsurer sold bonds. If water in certain locations exceeds a certain height, that triggers the spending of the bond money. Assuming there is no breach of the specified level, the bond buyers get their principal back and 4.5 percent over the Treasury rate. The bonds have a three-year lifespan.

“If you lose, you lose it all,” Swindell said. “You’re betting against Mother Nature. … There’s some risk, but it’s been a really popular tool. … You’re spreading the risk to the private sector.”

It’s the first time this has been done for public property, not private property, according to Swindell.

“It’s an old tool used in a new way,” he said. “The trick — and this is where it gets a little tricky — is calculating what that risk is. Am I buying catastrophe bonds on the San Andreas Fault? Or am I buying a catastrophe bond for a tornado in Phoenix?”

The UREx project, which comes the National Science Foundation awarded $12 million, will last for five years.

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News

Q&A: Sherry Towers on the contagion effect of mass shootings

October 5, 2015

When the media are calling Sherry Towers, it's often on a sad day.

Towers, a physicist at Arizona State University, has become a regular source for journalists since her paper on how the media coverage of mass shootings can inspire future mass shootings was published earlier this year. After last week's tragic shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, that left 10 people dead, Towers' phone was ringing once again. portrait of Arizona State University physicist Sherry Towers Arizona State University physicist Sherry Towers studies the statistics around mass shootings and how many are inspired by previous shootings. Download Full Image

The statistician, modeler and research professor spoke to about the recent tragedy and her study on the contagious nature of mass shootings.

Question: Does this recent incident seem to fall within the findings of your research?

Answer: Our research examined whether or not there was evidence that mass killings appear to inspire copycat killings. We found evidence that killings that receive national or international media attention do indeed inspire similar events a significant fraction of the time. In the case of this particular tragedy in Oregon, there have been reports that the killer apparently had a blog where he praised Vester Flanagan, the killer who shot two news reporters and a bystander on camera in August. If the reports are true, then indeed this recent killing may be an example of the contagion we have seen evident in so many other killings.

Q: So is conventional wisdom correct that some mass shootings are copycats?

A: Yes, we believe so. In fact, during the trial of the Aurora theater shooter, the father of one of the victims asked the media not to cover the trial, because he feared that the coverage would inspire copycat killings. Unfortunately, his prediction came true. A gunman opened fire in a Louisiana movie theater, and in a Tennessee movie theater a man attacked people with a hatchet. All within two weeks.
Q: How does just looking at numbers prove that?

A: The hallmark of contagion is seeing events unusually bunched together in time. The details of our analysis, where we fit a mathematical model of contagion to the data to quantify the level of contagion, are quite technical. But really, what it essentially amounts to is seeing if there are unusual groupings of events. In mass killings (four or more people killed), where the tragedies usually get national or international media attention, we saw significant evidence of this kind of unusual bunching. In mass shootings — with less than four people killed, but at least three people shot — we didn't see any evidence of unusual bunching. Interestingly, those events are so common in the U.S., happening once every few days, that they don't even make it past the local news. Because we saw evidence of contagion in high-profile events, and no evidence of contagion in events that mostly just got local news, we hypothesize that media attention may be the driver of the patterns we see. This kind of contagion has been suspected for a long time; our study is the first to quantify it.

Q: How does this compare to the probability of, say, a disease spreading, since we’re talking about a contagion phenomenon?

A: With a disease, you usually need close contact to spread it to someone else. In this case, the news media act as a "vector" that can transmit the infection across a very large area. The people who are susceptible to ideation to commit these terrible acts are quite rare in the population ... that's why it appears that it takes a lot of media coverage over a wide geographic area for this kind of contagion to take place.
Q: What is the news media’s role in this? Do they push up the numbers?

A: It appears that yes, national media coverage does end up increasing the frequency of these tragedies. However, the U.S. Constitution ensures freedom of the press ... we cannot legislate restrictions on the press to avoid this. It has to be a voluntary move. In fact, most press agencies will not report on suicides for exactly this reason ... suicides have been shown to be contagious. The sheriff in Oregon made the decision not to mention the killer's name. Perhaps his choice will be the beginning of a larger national conversation on how we can choose (or choose not) to cover these events.

Q: What is the next step in this research? What can you answer by taking it further?

A: It needs to be pointed out that we did this research without funding, because there has been a Congressional moratorium since the 1990s on funding for research into firearm violence. We had to do this study unpaid, in our spare time. This lack of funding is a huge barrier to better understanding of the dynamics that underlie these tragic events. No other developed country in the world expects its scientists to work for free, spending their evenings and weekends studying public-health problems as pressing as the out-of-control firearm violence in the U.S. Because of this moratorium on funding, there aren't even official statistics on these events. Given the amount of media attention that is paid to these tragedies, it always surprises me that the complete lack of federal funding for research into the problem is rarely mentioned. So yes, I and many other researchers would like to devote more of our time to studying this problem, but there are only so many hours available of our time that we can afford to work for free.

ASU's nursing college to study health leadership

October 4, 2015

As the field of health care grows and changes to meet the demands of an aging population, ASU will be at the forefront of training strong leaders to work in the industry.

ASU’s College of Nursing and Health Innovation announced today it has teamed up with the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, each in Boston, to form the Workforce Outcomes Research and Leadership Development Institute, also known as the WORLD-Institute. outside of ASU nursing building in Downtown Phoenix Arizona State University's College of Nursing and Health Innovation is partnering with Harvard-affiliated medical groups in Boston to research and implement improved methods of leadership in the health industry. Photo by: Dave Tevis Download Full Image

The consortium they will form will be a collaborative effort that will merge academic study with the everyday practice of medicine. The WORLD-Institute will research, develop and implement evidence-based approaches to leadership development for nurses and administrators in healthcare. 

The consortium will operate out of Boston and ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus.

“Nursing is pretty far along in understanding how supporting leadership can improve health care workforce and result in better patient outcomes. However, we don’t have quantifiable data to tell us that,” said Jeffrey M. Adams, professor of practice at ASU’s College of Nursing, and Visiting Scholar at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

“Every hospital spends so much money on leadership development programming and education within their own institution, but we really don’t know what works and doesn’t work. Our emphasis isn’t to say, ‘Hey, get rid of that educational program.’ What we do want to do is find a way to make it better.”

Adams believes by teaming ASU’s College of Nursing and Health Innovation with Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a 793-bed nonprofit teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School, and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, one of the leading cancer research and care centers in the United States, the three entities can identify, share and optimize resources to understand the most effective ways of developing health care leaders.

"We are very enthusiastic about the work of the consortium which will bring a fresh, data-driven understanding of mindful leadership approaches in nursing," said Teri Pipe, dean of the College of Nursing and Health Innovation.

The WORLD-Institute will also provide ASU students with access to the most up-to-date practices and concepts.

“What’s exciting about ASU being a co-founding partner in the institute is that we’ll be at the forefront of cutting edge information that will have an impact on the entire health care field,” said Craig Thatcher, senior associate dean and professor in ASU’s nursing college. “We want to help all ASU students in their career trajectory so they can eventually become nursing leaders.”

Institute members believe the future studies and research they conduct on new leadership development models will foster improved effectiveness, productivity and happiness in the workplace; healthy and supportive work environments for staff; and better outcomes for patients, families and their health care providers.

Making it better also means being inclusive, which is why the WORLD-Institute will welcome new members, partners and scholars who are dedicated to advancing evidence-based scholarly research and strengthening leadership potential in clinicians and health care providers.

“With the Affordable Health Care Act, more people are accessing health care and information is going to be critical,” Thatcher said. “And it will be even more critical to promote excellent leadership and a professional and happy work environment.”

ASU Exchange Zone provides safe space for online sales

October 4, 2015

This week, there have been more than 2,500 posts on Craigslist related to Arizona State University.

About 320 of those posts were regarding football tickets. There were 59 bicycles for sale. Six offers to design web pages. And at least one person looking to sell a Barbie doll dressed like an ASU cheerleader. ASU Police Department The ASU Police Department on the Tempe campus is providing an Online Exchange Zone in the lobby of the building at 325 E. Apache Blvd. Photo by: Arizona State University Download Full Image

Let’s say that you can’t live without the doll. You want to buy it, but don’t want to drive to a stranger’s house to complete the deal.

Now that transaction can be done in a safe place on the ASU campus.

The ASU Police Department has set up an “Online Exchange Zone” area in its lobby for students, faculty and others affiliated with the university to complete sales that are initiated through websites such as Craigslist. Either the buyer or the seller needs to be affiliated with ASU.

The zone, to the right of the lobby entrance to the ASU police station at 325 E. Apache Blvd. in Tempe, will be available while the lobby is under surveillance, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays.

Police officers will not screen items or supervise trades. And university policy bans the exchange of weapons, drugs or stolen property.  

An “Online Exchange Zone” log is available at the front desk. Sellers and buyers are required to provide an ASU ID number, names and phone numbers for both buyer and seller, date, time and items being sold.

Four visitor-parking stalls on the east side of the building are available for people using the exchange zone, and are under video surveillance.

ASU Police urges buyers and sellers to skip the sale if one person does not want to conduct the trade at the “Online Exchange Zone.”

Chief Michael Thompson said that safety is the top priority of the department.

“The Online Exchange Zone is one more way to allow our community to conduct business in a safe environment for the seller and the buyer to ensure the transaction is legitimate and where all parties feel comfortable,” he said.

Even if you just want to get that Barbie doll.

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter, ASU News


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ASU students focus on Latinos in fight against diabetes

Personal connections to diabetes inspire ASU students to fight obesity
October 4, 2015

According to researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost half of all post-Millennial youth will be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in their lifetime, with Latinos leading the way.

Although those numbers might startle some people, they don’t surprise Tatianna Alvarado and Jamie Karch, a pair of students enrolled in ASU’s College of Nursing and Health Innovation.

“Many of my family members have diabetes, and my mother is a type 2 diabetic. The last year of high school I took care of her,” said Alvarado, a 19-year-old sophomore. “I’d interact with her, told her what diabetes was, took her to the gym and tried to discipline her sometimes … but there was only so much I could do as a daughter.”

Now that she’s a bit older and better educated, Alvarado feels she can do much more. So does Karch, which is why the two undergrads are playing key roles in a community-based diabetes prevention program and study for obese Latino youth called “Every Little Step Counts.”

The five-year, $1.2 million study funded by the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities tests the effects and incremental cost-effectiveness of a culturally grounded community-based lifestyle intervention on obesity-related health outcomes among Latino adolescents.

To date, 160 obese Latino youth, ages 14-16 have been enrolled in the randomized control trial. Participants in the 12-week intervention and their families engage in weekly nutrition education sessions where they learn behavioral strategies to prevent chronic health conditions related to obesity and type 2 diabetes at the Lincoln Center Family YMCA in Phoenix. In addition to nutrition classes, youth participate in three, one-hour moderate-to-vigorous physical activity sessions led by certified trainers. At the end of the trial, youth in the control arm of the study receive a free, one-year membership to the YMCA, and participate in exercise sessions at the YMCA and nutrition classes at ASU’s Nutrition Kitchen at the Downtown Phoenix campus.

 Tatiana Alvarado, 19, and St. Vincent De Paul Family Wellness Program Health Education Coordinator Ricardo Reyes speak to community members

Arizona State University nursing and health innovation student Tatiana Alvarado, 19, and St. Vincent De Paul Family Wellness Program Health Education Coordinator Ricardo Reyes speak to community members as they examine their blood work during a nutrition course at the ASU state-of-the-art food lab at the downtown campus Wednesday afternoon, September 23rd 2015. According to researchers at the Centers for Disease Control, almost half of all post-Millennial Latino youth will be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU News

Gabriel Shaibi, an associate professor with the College of Nursing and Health Innovation and the principal investigator on the trial, said past community-embedded intervention programs have failed to reach its intended audience because it has been a “top down” approach from doctor/researcher to patients. And the reality is patients don’t always listen to their doctor.

That might be one reason why the past decade has seen Arizona experience the largest statewide increase in the number of children and adolescents who are obese. Shaibi said those numbers translate to a myriad of problems, including rising diabetes rates.

“Once you are diagnosed with diabetes, it becomes a management issue,” Shaibi said. “This is a relatively new phenomenon with kids, but it can ultimately lead to neuropathy, blindness, kidney disease and ultimately heart attacks. Those kids on average lose about 15 years on life.”

Latinos are genetically predisposed to having diabetes. But the problem is compounded by the fact that, culturally and historically, Latinos have often used food to express themselves, Alvarado said.

“Anything that happens in the Latino culture, be it positive or negative — birthdays, graduations, weddings, anniversaries, promotions, funerals — food plays a big part,” Alvarado said. “It’s interaction and eating, but you don’t really notice you’re overeating until after the fact. Moderation is the key, and that’s what we’re trying to teach the Latino community.”

Which is why Shaibi has pushed Alvarado and Karch to the forefront of the trial program, but at opposite ends of the spectrum — Alvarado interacting with the community and dispensing exercise and nutrition advice, and Karch in the lab gathering blood samples, data and reviewing medical information.

“I am closer in age to these kids and have gone what they’ve gone through,” Alvarado said. “Age is a big thing and they feel as if they can come to me for advice.”

Karch said she is content in her role in the lab because she understands her work is just as vital.

“I do more of the background work, but mine and Tatianna’s goals are the same in that we want to give back to the Latino community,” Karch said.

That is also the goal of the ASU Sun Devil Family Association, who awarded Alvarado and Karch with $5,000 scholarships each for the academic year. These scholarships are awarded to individuals who have demonstrated financial need, a record of community service and a commitment to their education despite challenging circumstances.

This semester Alvarado and Karch have plans to meet their donors, who are also in the nursing field.

“I cannot wait to meet her and hug her,” Alvarado said. “I cannot believe she gave money to someone she didn’t even know. She has made my life so much easier because of her help.”

And it’s not lost on Alvarado or Karch that the help they receive from the Sun Devil Family Association goes right back into the community.

“That’s what I love about nursing,” Alvarado said. “It’s the art of caring for people.”

Reporter , ASU News


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ASU alum and urban sociologist winner of MacArthur ‘Genius Grant’

ASU alum wins MacArthur 'Genius Grant'
ASU-trained sociologist one of 24 winners of MacArthur Foundation Fellowship
October 3, 2015

In the span of a dozen years, Matthew Desmond has made the academic leap from ASU undergrad to renowned researcher of entrenched poverty and social inequality.

On Monday, the Harvard sociology professor was announced as one of 24 winners of the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, commonly known as a “Genius Grant.” Each recipient of the grant earns $625,000 to further his or her work.

For Desmond, that means he can further his research on worldwide eviction and the impacts on the child-welfare system.

In 2009, he and a team of 10 scholars commenced research on the Milwaukee Area Renters Study, a groundbreaking work that culled court records, ethnographic fieldwork and collected questionnaires from approximately 1,000 households to design a portrait of the high rates of eviction and the ways in which it disrupts the lives of low-income families.

Desmond spoke to ASU News about his reaction to the award, his research and how ASU was the starting point for his life’s work.

Question: How did you react to the news of winning the Genius Grant?

Answer: I received a phone call from the MacArthur Foundation a few weeks ago and was sworn to secrecy. At first I was in disbelief and thought they were pulling my leg. Then I realized they were serious. The funny thing was I took my kids to lunch that day and I wanted to tell them about this great thing that happened. My daughter wanted to talk about “Star Wars,” and my son wanted to discuss Luke Skywalker. So that was the experience on the day we found out.

Q: How did Arizona State University prepare you for the work and research you conduct today?

A: I’m originally from Winslow, Arizona, and when I came to ASU I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. I started taking these classes in justice studies and communication, and some of the narratives of the stories I heard haunted me. The family I grew up in, the money was always tight but there was always social mobility that could be gained through education. What I learned in the classes at ASU unsettled me so much that I wanted to figure something out. I worked all through college, but when I wasn’t working I was studying in the library, trying to figure out the contours of poverty. I also got involved in community service at ASU and worked with outreaches that dealt with poverty like Habitat for Humanity. At the end of my four years, I even started an outreach organization that dealt with the homeless population around the Mill Avenue area so I could get to know them on a more personal level. I see ASU as fundamental in introducing me to those issues and shaping my work.

Q: You once stated that eviction is a “cause rather than a symptom” of poverty. Can you explain that?

A: A lot of times when you think about eviction, you think of it as a consequence of poverty. “You lose your job, you get evicted.” Eviction is this harshness that you encounter, but we don’t think of it as something that actually drives poverty. That’s a big thing we’re running into when examining the data. Getting evicted is a very stressful event — it causes you to miss work, it directly affects job performance and it can also result in being fired. This is just one example of how the outcome of eviction can actually make people poorer. People end up moving to poorer neighborhoods, even more dangerous neighborhoods and in worse housing than they were before. The reason for that is because eviction often ends up in civil court and comes with a record. Landlords are now using eviction records as a screening technique, and because of that many families are excluded from opportunities to get better housing.

Q: One of your other findings was that poor families used to turn to kin for help, and now poverty-stricken families are turning to strangers to form brief and intense relationships for assistance, creating a network of “disposable ties” to meet pressing needs.

A: The disposable-ties theory is that a half-century ago you might turn to your family for help and swapping money and goods daily to help try and make ends meet. I loan you $25 today and you feed me tomorrow … that’s how it worked. It didn’t end their poverty, but it allowed them to survive. During the study period I saw people reaching out to virtual strangers to meet their fundamental basic needs. There could have been family around to help, but I didn’t see it. I saw how people need the help of strangers and when they were helped, it accelerated their friendships. Often these friendships did burn out because of the trying conditions. Maybe incarceration or federal policies on family play a role in this and why things have changed, but it’s a very interesting question to pursue.

Q: What are some of the emotional issues that eviction can cause in a person that the public might not know or understand?

A: One thing that I think everyone should understand is that eviction affects the entire community. In the African-American areas of Milwaukee, one out of 14 people are evicted every year. That’s a lot of people, and there’s a constant turning over in neighborhoods. It dwarfs the opportunity to build strong community ties and affects civic engagement. It also affects crime. We’re just now starting to realize all of these issues, and municipalities are starting to understand this as well. On a personal level, eviction is a very traumatic event. You lose all of your possessions and then you’re out on the street. You are literally starting over. Then there’s the toll that it takes on one’s spirit. One thing we’ve found is that eviction is tied to depression, and it seems to have a real effect on mental health. The moment itself seems to leave a really deep impression on happiness, so it has these consequences that are multi-dimensional and sticky.

Reporter , ASU News


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The pharmaceutical ethics of stunning drug-price increases

ASU prof weighs in on the dramatic increase in the price of the drug Daraprim
What is too high a price for life-saving medications?
October 2, 2015

Last week Turing Pharmaceuticals, a startup run by a former hedge-fund manager, raised the price of Daraprim — the standard treatment for toxoplasmosisAccording to the Mayo Clinic, toxoplasmosis (tok-so-plaz-MOE-sis) is a disease that results from infection with a certain parasite. Toxoplasmosis may cause flu-like symptoms in some people, and is most dangerous for people with compromised immune systems. — from $13.50 to $750 a tablet soon after acquiring the drug from another company.

After several days of public outcry, including from several presidential candidates, Turing’s owner announced he was cutting the price, although he refused to say by how much.

This is not an isolated case. Nor is it the only one likely to spur continuing debate about the ethics and responsibilities of pharmaceutical companies.

Just days after the Turing episode, U.S.-based Alexion Pharmaceuticals filed a lawsuit in Canada challenging Canada’s Patented Medicine Prices Review Board and its authority to order drug-price reductions. Alexion’s drug Soliris, used to treat rare blood and genetic disorders, is reportedly priced at $500,000 to $700,000 per patient annually. Alexion’s suit, if successful, could put an end to Canada’s ability to control the price of patented drugs.

Offering some perspective on the responsibility of pharmaceutical companies and the changes needed in the health-care system is Dr. Victor Trastek, a former vice president of Mayo Clinic and CEO of Mayo Clinic in Arizona, and now director of the School for the Science of Health Care Delivery within ASU’s College of Health Solutions.

Question: How common is this practice of dramatically (and instantly) raising prices when a drug is acquired?

Answer: This is hard to know. But in the case of Turing Pharmaceuticals, the size of the change was remarkable. That particular medication has been around for a while, so raising the drug price to such a high level is, I believe, unreasonable — and hopefully rare. However, drug prices are always changing and vary depending on patent expirations, what country you live in or the type of health-care system you have. 

Q: Is there a responsibility that a pharmaceutical company has to keep prices reasonable? 

A: Yes. You would hope that is true of any company in any health-care sector. We are in a service industry and our profession is one of healing and caring, so we want medications to be reasonable for those of us trying to help patients. There are obviously going to be different levels of costs depending on how much research is being done with regard to individual medications, but we want them to be reasonable. 

"It would be nice to have a system that is more transparent, consistent and standardized."

Q: How often is one drug used to finance other research and development work, particularly to improve its therapeutic benefit?

A: In the pharmaceutical industry, there has to be a certain amount of revenue and profit to invest in research for the next newest drug, which can be a variation or improvement of an existing drug. It is the constant circle and business model for the industry. All drug makers are trying to improve drugs so that they are more efficacious. And, if they are used more often, they will sell more. In my mind, it is a stretch to expect that profits made from the sudden and dramatic rise of any given drug would all be funneled into researcher funding for that same drug [as Turing’s owner suggested]. Whether that really happens is hard to say.

Q: Does there need to be a change in the system? 

A: Yes. Pharmaceutical medications are part of the whole health-care system. It would be nice to have a system that is more transparent, consistent and standardized since different hospitals, countries and health systems pay different amounts for drugs. Health care is different from any other business; for example, a car dealership tends to be based more on a want than an actual need. At ASU, we are investing in our future health-care decision makers through our Science of Health Care Delivery program. We are working to develop a broad knowledge base for designing a better delivery system for future leaders, including pharmaceutical leaders, who can then create a better system and better care. If we educate others with this broader frame of reference in the science of health-care delivery, we can help change the system. It’s one way to bring about positive changes in this industry.

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The road to Paris: 9 things you can do to influence the UN climate talks

Can you influence climate talks from half a globe away? Yes, says one expert.
October 2, 2015

A climate-change advocate visits ASU to talk about what interested observers can do to contribute to global conference

In December, thousands of delegates from 196 countries will meet in Paris for the United Nations Climate Change Conference.

As evidence grows of glaciers and ice caps melting, oceans warming and sea levels rising, current commitments to greenhouse-gas emissions are slated to expire in 2020. The goal of the summit is to produce an agreement that will last for a decade beyond that, hopefully longer.

Previous climate summits have failed, for a variety of reasons. Though it may seem fruitless to hope to affect the outcome of a global summit from thousands of miles away, at least one person disagrees. A climate-change advocate who has attended every international summit since 2012 visited Arizona State University on Thursday morning to talk about what interested observers can do to contribute.

Natalie Lucas is executive director of Care About Climate, an organization that works on climate education, mitigation and adaptation projects around the world. She will be attending the negotiations in Paris from Nov. 30 through Dec. 11.

The Paris talks are expected to end in a universal and legally binding agreement — not a treaty — for all major countries that produce the most greenhouse gases. 

Lucas discussed nine things you can do to influence the summit.

1) Get your city, campus, business or community to commit support, whether in the form of a statement or by acting in some of the ways described below. Convincing your mayor to send a letter to the State Department can be a coup.

2) Talk about it. Be vocal on social media, talk about it with friends and family, let people know this is an important issue. “Write to your local newspaper,” Lucas said. “The work we do here is most important.”

3) Write to the State Department. Share stories about how climate change affects you. “They respond more to stories because they hear facts and figures all the time,” Lucas said. “Tell them about the awful storms we get here.”

4) Talk to your congressional representatives, even if they are climate-change doubters. Though they might not act on your suggestions, a significant volume of people speaking up sends a signal to them. “Let them know people out there care about this, and that they’ll eventually be voted out of office if they don’t act,” Lucas said.

5) March. On Nov. 29, a global march is scheduled to send a visible signal of concern.

6) A climate strike is scheduled for Nov. 30. Skipping classes or work isn’t always a great idea; Lucas said spending an afternoon volunteering for a local group like the Citizens’ Climate Lobby might be a more viable option.

7) March again. A second global march is slated for the day after the summit.

8) Vote in next year’s presidential election. “Put someone in the White House who cares about these things,” Lucas said.

9) Join groups such as the Sierra Club or the Citizens’ Climate Lobby. Next year the states will develop plans under President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan. Groups like those will play a role in influencing lawmakers.

Lucas' talk was sponsored by ASU's Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability.

ASU, national lab to develop solutions to global challenges

September 29, 2015

Arizona State University and the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland, Washington, will enter into an agreement to solidify the burgeoning collaboration between the two institutions on research projects related to energy security, climate science and sustainability, and other aspects of global security.  

The signing of the official memorandum of understanding took place at Sept. 29 in the Fulton Center on ASU's Tempe campus. Group photo after collaboration agreement Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan (left), senior vice president of research, entrepreneurship and economic development at ASU's Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development, and Doug Ray, director of strategic partnerships at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, sign an agreement to collaborate on research projects related to energy security, climate science and sustainability, and other aspects of global security, Sept. 29 in Tempe. Photo by: Charlie Leight/ASU Now Download Full Image

ASU and PNNL have collaborated successfully in the past on projects including power-grid resilience, climate change and environmental sustainability. The agreement paves the way for both ASU and PNNL to leverage their capabilities to achieve mutual objectives, which include attracting new funding in global security and complex systems science and developing immersive learning opportunities for students.

“ASU has already proven to be a great partner as both PNNL and the university strive to further solutions to global security and sustainability through better understanding of complex adaptive systems,” said Doug Ray, director of strategic partnerships at PNNL. “We are impressed with ASU’s commitment to innovation and are looking forward to creating opportunities to engage collaboratively on important research projects.”

Not only will the agreement foster innovative research between PNNL and ASU, but it will also open a pipeline for eventual joint appointments and extend national laboratory resources to students.

“PNNL and ASU share common goals for advancing research in key areas that will have an impact on our local and global communities,” said Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan, senior vice president of research, entrepreneurship and economic development at ASU's Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development. “We are delighted to build upon our existing collaborations that will further our efforts to create sustainable solutions to energy security, climate change, resiliency and more.”

Group photo after collaboration agreement

(From left) Betsy Cantwell, deputy vice president of the Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development at ASU; Nadya Bliss, director of the Global Security Initiative at ASU; Sethuraman Panchanathan, senior vice president of research, entrepreneurship and economic development at the Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development; Doug Ray, director of strategic partnerships at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory; Jamie Winterton, director of the strategy global security initiative at ASU; and Jill Brandenberger, manager of sustainability and national security at PNNL, on Sept. 29 in Tempe. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Nadya Bliss, director of ASU’s Global Security Initiative, agrees that the mutual interests of each organization will greatly benefit the collaborative research efforts of the newly signed agreement.  

"Given our existing ongoing efforts both in global security and sustainability as well as complimentary strength and expertise to address national and global wicked problems, it made sense to expand and formalize the collaboration between our two organizations,” Bliss said. “On a personal note, I have had the pleasure of working closely with PNNL’s Joint Global Change Research Institute (JGCRI) and have been thoroughly impressed by both the ongoing research at JGCRI and effectiveness of our two organizations working together.”

In announcing the agreement, both Ray and Panchanathan said PNNL and ASU are committed to discovery and innovation to address the complex problems facing the world today.