Phage Hunters: A course that advances the undergraduate research experience at ASU

Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences (CUREs) train, support undergrads during early research careers

November 14, 2022

Most students are drawn to STEM disciplines because of their passion for the sciences and strong drive to affect meaningful change in the world. However, the leap from passion to experienced researcher is not always a simple one. Many students don’t know where to start in gaining their own research experiences, and putting together resumes and applications for graduate schools or industry positions can often feel very intimidating.

Mentoring programs provide vital support as students navigate these challenges. Assistant Professor Susanne Pfeifer from the School of Life Sciences has developed a Course-based Undergraduate Research Experience (CURE) called Phage Hunters to give students the opportunity to gain hands-on experience in the laboratory and publish meaningful research.  ASU undergrad standing next to a poster at a conference. Undergraduate researcher Sarah Weiss presented her CURE program research at the Annual Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology. Photo courtesy Susanne Pfeifer Download Full Image

"As part of this CURE, students gain hands-on and marketable experience with genomic data generation and analysis, and they design science-outreach projects to share this work with the community, for example, at local grade schools," Pfeifer said.  

The CURE program is supported by the National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Program and by Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science Education Alliance-Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science.

Since it started in fall 2019, 71 undergraduate students with different backgrounds and experience levels have joined the CURE program. Students from various departments, including the School of Life Sciences, the School of Molecular Sciences, the School of Politics and Global Studies and the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, have participated. 

Pfeifer believes that diversity in research is vital. 

“I firmly believe that undergraduates play an important role in vibrant (and in our case interdisciplinary) research environments as research teams collectively benefit from the enriching differences in our experiences, perspectives and ways of thinking," she said. 

Phage Hunter Fall cohort

Students of the fall 2022 cohort investigating bacteriophage genomic diversity. Photo Courtesy Susanne Pfeifer

Pfeifer investigates genetic and evolutionary processes across different species, from single individuals to whole population dynamics. With this course, she has opened the doors of her laboratory to undergraduate students ready to step up their research careers. 

"Each semester, the topics may vary, but in general, students will learn computational genomics techniques to better understand the evolution and genetics of bacteria-infecting viruses (i.e., bacteriophages)," she said. 

Thanks to their experience in the Phage Hunters CURE, undergraduate students, in collaboration with graduate TAs, have published the results of their research in high-impact microbiology journals. Most recently, students published four articles from the spring 2022 session. 

Two articles characterize the genome sequences of the Gordonia bacteriophage BiggityBass and the mycobacteriophage Phegasus, and the other two perform phylogenomic analyses and predict host ranges for all Gordonia terrae cluster DR and cluster P mycobacteriophages known to date. 

For undergraduates, having the opportunity to publish and start building their credentials in academia so early in their careers is priceless. 

"The published research performed by the undergraduates trained and mentored by me in this CURE is just one example of the achievements of our dedicated and talented ASU undergraduates," Pfeifer said. 

The CURE program is open to all undergraduates seeking to advance their research careers. If you are a student interested in joining the CURE program, read more about the research performed in the Pfeifer Lab or contact Pfeifer directly via email. 

Pfeifer is affiliated with the School of Life Sciences, the Biodesign Center for Mechanisms of Evolution and the Center for Evolution and Medicine.

This article was prepared in collaboration with Susanne Pfeifer, School of Life Sciences Graduate Science Writer Anaissa Ruiz-Tejada and School of Life Sciences Manager of Marketing and Communications Dominique Perkins.

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ASU study shows full decarbonization of US aviation sector within grasp

November 14, 2022

Research demonstrates pathway to sustainably produce biojet fuel domestically, meet country’s growing aviation fuel demand

Every day, 45,000 planes fly across the United States, carrying some 1.7 million passengers. Aviation dominates a frequent traveler’s individual contribution to climate change, and yet it is one of the most challenging sectors to decarbonize. 

The United States is the largest contributor to aviation carbon dioxide emissions in the world and is responsible for more than a quarter of all carbon dioxide emitted from flying. 

But what if we could make all U.S. air travel nearly emissions free? What if we could replace carbon-intensive jet fossil fuels with a cleaner alternative: biojet fuels derived from rain-fed grass grown in the U.S.? 

New research published today in the journal Nature Sustainability shows a pathway toward full decarbonization of U.S. aviation fuel use by substituting conventional jet fuel with sustainably produced biofuels.

The study, led by a team of Arizona State University researchers, found that planting the grass miscanthus on 23.2 million hectares of existing marginal agricultural lands — land that often lies fallow or is poor in soil quality — across the United States would provide enough biomass feedstock to meet the liquid fuel demands of the U.S. aviation sector fully from biofuels, an amount expected to reach 30 billion gallons per year by 2040.

“We demonstrate that it is within reach for the United States to decarbonize the fuel used by commercial aviation, without having to wait for electrification of aircraft propulsion,” said Nazli Uludere Aragon, co-corresponding author on the study and a recent ASU geography PhD graduate.

“If we are serious about getting to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, we need to deal with emissions from air travel, which are expected to grow under a business-as-usual scenario. Finding alternative, more sustainable liquid fuel sources for aviation is key to this.”

The study found that planting the grass miscanthus on 23.2 million hectares of existing marginal agricultural lands — land that often lies fallow or is poor in soil quality — across the United States would provide enough biomass feedstock to meet the liquid fuel demands of the U.S. aviation sector fully from biofuels, an amount expected to reach 30 billion gallons per year by 2040. Graphic created by Alex Davis/ASU

Integrating ecosystem, atmospheric science and economic expertise 

In the study, the researchers used an integrated framework of land assessments, hydro-climate modeling, ecosystem modeling and economic modeling to assess where and under what conditions across the United States energy crops used for biojet fuels could be grown sustainably using criteria that evaluate both environmental and economic performance. 

The criteria were extensive. The team first identified and assessed where optimal marginal agriculture lands already existed in the U.S. They then assessed whether one could grow the right energy crops on the land without using additional water.

The team then analyzed whether growing energy-crop feedstocks on these lands would have detrimental effects on the surrounding climate or soil moisture and predicted the potential productivity of yields of two different grasses — miscanthus and switchgrass — as suitable biomass-energy feedstocks. Finally, the team quantified the amount and the cost of biojet fuel that would be produced and distributed nationwide at scale. 

“The current way we produce sustainable jet fuel is very land-inefficient and not on a large scale,” said Nathan Parker, an author on the study and an assistant professor in the School of Sustainability. “There are very limited ways that aviation could become low carbon emitting with a correspondingly low climate impact, and this is one way we've shown that is feasible and can get the aviation industry to be carbon neutral through agriculture.”

The scientists emphasized that this integrated systems perspective was critical to the study. In the past, research around the potential of biofuels has largely consisted of isolated assessments that have not been well integrated, for example, overlooking key data on how altering the crop cover influences the surrounding climate.

“When you plant crops over strategically designed areas, the planting of these crops has an impact on the climate,” said Matei Georgescu, co-corresponding author of the study and associate professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning and director of the Urban Climate Research Center at ASU. “If there is a change in the underlying landscape, for example an increase or decrease in the amount of vegetation, there may be implications for local- to regional-scale climate, including more or less precipitation, or warmer or cooler temperatures.”

To account for these land-atmosphere interactions, the research team took outputs from their hydroclimate model to inform their ecosystem model. The team then evaluated the economic feasibility for farmers to grow these grasses.

Real-world solutions

For any uptake of an alternative-energy pathway, solutions need to make economic sense. 

The researchers, in their analysis, benchmarked the financial returns of the existing uses for the lands they identified — some already are used for growing corn, soy or various other crops, and others are being used as pasture — against those from cultivating either miscanthus or switchgrass as biomass feedstock.

Growing miscanthus or switchgrass needed to be more profitable to replace the existing use of the land in each area. 

“These lands we identified are owned and operated by real people for different agricultural uses,” said Uludere Aragon, who is now a postdoctoral fellow at the Environmental Defense Fund. “The cost-effective biofuel potential from biomass feedstocks is influenced largely by the opportunity cost of alternative land uses.”  

In the end, researchers found miscanthus to be the more promising feedstock and that biojet fuels derived from miscanthus can meet the 30 billion gallons/year target at an average cost of $4.10/gallon. 

While this is higher than the average price for conventional jet fuel — typically about $2 per gallon — the team concluded it is reasonable when considering biojet’s potential to cut emissions. Notably, in 2022 jet fuel prices have varied from $2 to $5 per gallon (not to be confused with retail gasoline) due to changes in supply and demand, showing that prices above $4 per gallon are well within the range of possibility.

A template for the future

The researchers say that in finding further solutions to Earth's climate crisis, it is important that the scientific community bridges disciplines and moves past incremental reductions in emissions. Rather, the researchers emphasize the importance of realistic solutions that scale.

“This was an interdisciplinary team with expertise from ecosystems sciences, climate modeling and atmospheric sciences and economics,” said Georgescu, who acknowledged this research was a culmination of eight years of modeling work and collaboration. “To truly address sustainability concerns, you need the expert skills of a spectrum of domains.

“As academics, we should remember economics drives people’s decisions on the ground. It is vitally important to find the circumstances when these decisions are also aligned with desirable environmental outcomes.”

The research team consisted of Nazli Uludere Aragon, Nathan C. Parker, Meng Wang and Matei Georgescu (Arizona State University), Andy VanLoocke (Iowa State University) and Justin Bagley (Onpeak Energy). The research was funded by the National Science Foundation as part of the Water Sustainability and Climate initiative.

Top photo illustration courtesy of Alex Davis/ASU

David Rozul

Media Relations Officer , Media Relations and Strategic Communications


ASU Global Futures leader directs discussions of must-have transformations at COP27

November 10, 2022

Peter Schlosser, vice president and vice provost of Arizona State University's Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory, likens the planetary limits of Earth to that of a rubber band. Its boundaries are flexible and adaptable to change, but excess pressure can force even the strongest of bands to snap.

The idea that humanity is pushing the boundaries of what the planet can accommodate is at the core of the “10 Must Haves” initiative, a draft of which will be presented at the 2022 U.N. Climate Change Conference, or COP27, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.  Peter Schlosser, vice president and vice provost of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory, will present ASU's "10 Must Haves" initiative on Nov. 12 at COP27 in Egypt. Peter Schlosser will present the "10 Must Haves" initiative at the Pathways to 1.5 Pavilion at COP27 on Nov. 12. Download Full Image

The Must Haves initiative is the product from the 2022 Global Futures Conference in September, which brought a broad group of global stakeholders together to collaborate on actionable items in support of a more sustainable future. 

The initiative was created jointly between the Global Futures Laboratory and the Earth League. It provides guidelines for 10 “must-have” outcomes, which are accompanied by “must-do” actions, to ensure a thriving tomorrow on a currently overworked planet. 

Schlosser, together with Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, will present the initiative at the Pathways to 1.5 Pavilion at COP27 on Nov. 12.  

Question: How did the 10 Must Haves come to be and why was COP27 selected as the launching point for the initiative?

Answer: Both COP27 and the 10 Must Haves share the same goal of getting humankind and our global society more informed about what the global situation is right now, which made it an appropriate setting. 

At the center of the discussion at COP27 is the question of how nations can live up to the nationally determined commitments, because we are lagging behind them. What we are seeing is nations making these commitments and then making decisions that put them on a trajectory to miss the targets.

What we are asking with the 10 Must Haves is: What now? Is there room for another approach that would get us to the same or similar targets that would avoid severe problems for all life on the planet and its life supporting systems in an accelerated mode? 

The 10 Must Haves were conceived broadly to allow a holistic view of the present state of our planet and possible pathways into a future of opportunity. We created a set of 10 targets that we believe can actually lead us to where we have to be, and then we ask what we have to do in order to reach that goal. 

Q: The 10 Must Haves include climate, but climate is not the only challenge addressed. Why is it important to confront concerns beyond global warming?

A: I see climate as part of a larger picture. We do not just have a climate problem, and climate is not the root cause of our problems. Climate is one of the outcomes of our overuse of the planet’s resources to the point where we are crossing thresholds. In essence, we are asking for more than what the planet has to offer. 

The 10 Must Haves were not designed as a specific contribution to climate negotiations, but as goals and targets that have to be reached to prevent us from transitioning from a crisis to a catastrophe. 

Q: One of the “Must Haves” discusses the need for a global society ready to respond to planetary crises. How might policy makers go about uniting a global society, especially when we have seen political clashes in our own country and beyond regarding climate issues? 

A: Right now we are on a trajectory where policy makers polarize many critical issues such as, for example, climate solutions. One of the key questions we are asking is how we can get the message across to decision makers that polarizing these issues will be at a detriment to everybody. The response of our planet to pressure does not distinguish between parties. It will affect everyone — young, old, left, right, middle — although not equally distributed as the consequences of negative responses of our planet to our pressure will affect already disadvantaged communities to a significantly higher degree. 

We have seen here and there, under the right political conditions, movement in terms of legislation that would help these causes. However, all too often the political landscape is so polarized that between one government and the next the course of action can change very radically. The continuity of efforts is in danger. 

We have to find the thread that keeps going while different administrations are running a country. We have to think about the fact that what really drives everything is societal dynamics: the decisions we make, why we make them and to what extent we are thinking about the impact of these decisions for us and our life-supporting systems for the future. 

Q: The Must Haves initiative is targeted more at large-scale policy makers in government and business than it is at individuals. How do establishments of power impact individual decision making when it comes to acting on climate issues and beyond? 

A: That is the key question: What drives decision making on the individual level? Usually, there are incentives and value systems that drive that decision making, so we hope we can actually reach those in positions to offer incentives. 

For the initial launch at COP27, we are aiming the 10 Must Haves at larger segments of the stakeholder community: private sector, governments, regulatory agencies, governments, etc. This is something that we want a diverse group of stakeholder communities to pick up, think about and hopefully find appealing enough that they will act on them, and the initiative will trickle down and appeal to a much broader audience. 

We want the 10 Must Haves to show that there is a set of actions that can be envisioned to get us into a better place but, in order to do that, we need to make different choices. 

Katelyn Reinhart

Communications specialist, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory

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Writers envision the next 75 years of science policy

November 10, 2022

A new book of essays provides inspiring science, technology ideas that can transform society

Featured writers in a new book were given a major mission — to envision future science policies and share them with the world. 

Book cover for "The Next 75 Years of Science Policy"

“The Next 75 Years of Science Policy” presents a wide range of visions for how science might serve society in the coming years. Released in September, the book showcases a collection of nearly 50 powerful essays that authors hope will provide inspiring ideas that can transform society.

“The essays presented a kind of a kaleidoscope of how to use the resources of science over the coming century,” said Lisa Margonelli, editor-in-chief for Issues in Science and Technology, which originally published the essays. “Some writers wanted to change a basically successful system by giving it a few tweaks. Others had really revolutionary ideas.”

The volume has a forward-looking theme, with everyone from scientists and government officials to up-and-coming researchers and business leaders contributing their public policy ideas for the future. 

Lindy Elkins-Tanton, vice president of the Arizona State University Interplanetary Initiative, contributed the essay "Time to Say Goodbye to Our Heroes?" It makes the case for replacing the principal investigator research model with a more interdisciplinary approach. 

ASU President Michael Crow penned the foreword and introduction to the book, along with Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academies of Sciences, and Cynthia Friend, president of the Kavli Foundation. The foundation supported the book’s editing and publication. 

All of the essays were original published during the past two years in the journal Issues in Science and Technology, an engaging, intellectual platform where researchers, policymakers and business leaders share their ideas related to science and technology, creating a dialogue that has impacted U.S. and global public policy. The publication is a partnership between ASU and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

ASU News spoke with Margonelli about the new book.

Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Question: Where did the idea for the book come from? 

Answer: In 2020, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine and ASU were approached by the Kavli Foundation to look back at the last 75 years of science policy and get engaged thinkers to contemplate how we should set science policy for the next 75 years. 

The way we invest in science in this country all comes from a very influential report titled "Science, The Endless Frontier." It was written about 75 years ago — in 1945 — by the late Vannevar Bush, director of what was then the Office of Scientific Research and Development and sent to former President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The ideas in that memo set the pattern for how we invest in science and technology in this country. So with the book, we tried to imagine how the next 75 years could look. 

Q: How were contributors to the book selected?

A: Some are people who've been big players in science policy for a really long time — people like Norman R. Augustine and Neal Lane, who have put out highly influential white papers and really changed the focus of policy and competitiveness over the years — as well as leaders at the National Science Board such as astronaut Ellen Ochoa. And some thinkers who were influential scientists but hadn’t written much about science policy before — like ASU’s Lindy Elkins Tanton.

And then, some of the contributors are up-and-coming people with fresh ideas. We were looking for a diversity of thoughts and perspectives. We tried to build a really big tent to have the biggest possible discussion about what kind of future we want and how we might get there.

Q: What were some of the urgent or important issues that the book brought to light?

A: There is a really insightful piece called "Stuck in 1955, Engineering Education Needs a Revolution" by Sheryl Sorby, Norman L. Fortenberry and Gary Bertoline. They questioned the way engineers are educated, which is still based on a template developed in 1955 — a philosophy of winnowing out students through certain foundational classes. And so, the people who become engineers have to make it through that particular maze.

What that means is that you only have a certain kind of problem-solver and you won't have a diverse crowd there — and they may not be able to solve some of today’s complex socio-technical problems. That article generated a lot of conversation and led to a virtual conversation with hundreds of participants. 

And then we had an inspiring piece, "Creating a New Moral Imagination for Engineering," from ASU’s Darshan Karwat, a young scholar at ASU’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society, who wants engineering to develop a sense of moral imagination, which is really important for connecting the discipline with younger scientists and people who are interested in changing the world

Q: The essays in the book come from the publication Issues in Science and Technology. How and why was Issues created?

A: Issues was created by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in 1984. It was started as a way of bringing new perspectives and conversations to democratic decision-making. ASU became a full partner in the magazine in 2013.

The difference between us and an academic journal is pretty straightforward — academic journals really speak from one academic to another. They are a closed discussion within experts. We are having a wider, broader discussion. We bring lots and lots of different people to the discussion. We try to make our discussions interdisciplinary and very accessible. We also invite decision makers and business people into the conversation.

And we're not peer reviewed. This is a journal of opinion and we work with every author to make their argument as strong as possible.

We are not like other technology magazines, which are likely to have articles like "Six Technologies that are Going to Change the World." Instead we have something like seven big questions we should ask about virtual reality. Tech magazines tend to see technology as an inevitable force, whereas we see it as something that is continually shaped by policies and human values. 

And one of the things that's really key to our vision, which animates me and the whole incredible Issues team, is that we really believe that policies for science and technology need to be designed for the betterment of society. 

Q: The book is forward-looking. How do you hope it will direct the course of science and technology related policies over the next 75 years?

A: My big hope is that we stop talking about science and technology policies purely in the sense of where the money goes and start talking about the world we intend to create. We know that we can really help young scientists by supporting them better  and we can work with interdisciplinary teams to solve big problems, so we can build on some of the policies that were incredibly successful over the last 75 years and adopt new methods for even greater success in the future. 

And finally, we hope to inspire more conversation and vision about how to use the tools of science and technology to really create better lives for more people.

Top photo courtesy iStock

Dolores Tropiano

Reporter , ASU News

Psychology student wins prestigious travel research award

Kieran Andrew to present at the Emerging Researchers National Conference in Washington, D.C.

November 10, 2022

For one undergraduate student, major life decisions serendipitously happen around the dinner table. 

Kieran Andrew, a student at Arizona State University’s Barrett, The Honors College double majoring in psychology and neuroscience, began his research journey as a high school junior who happened to be sitting with his future mentor, President’s Professor Heather Bimonte-Nelson, at a graduation dinner gathering with mutual family friends. Kieran Andrew Kieran Andrew, a Barrett, The Honors College student double majoring in psychology and neuroscience. Photo by Robert Ewing Download Full Image

He began to talk with her about the research in her lab, Behavioral Neuroscience of Memory & Aging lab, and was offered a chance to participate as a volunteer researcher as a senior in high school. Four years later, while Andrew was once again seated at Bimonte-Nelson’s dinner table during a laboratory gathering, he completed an application for a travel scholarship right before the deadline. His mentor and peers from the lab pushed him to finish and offered support while celebrating.

He recently was announced as the recipient of one of the travel awards for the Emerging Researchers National (ERN) Conference in Washington, D.C. The ERN Conference in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics is hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Inclusive STEM Ecosystems for Equity & Diversity Programs and the National Science Foundation Division of Human Resource Development within the Directorate for Education and Human Resources.

At this conference, Andrew will present research that he has been working on since high school in the Bimonte-Nelson lab on sex differences in Alzheimer's disease in a transgenic animal model. 

“Being hands-on with the projects in the lab has been incredibly helpful, as well as the large breadth of experience I've been able to get from not just people in my life, but the people I've been able to meet through lab connections,” Andrew said.

The Bimonte-Nelson lab aims to characterize the cognitive and brain changes that occur during aging, as well as develop behavioral and pharmacological strategies to attenuate mnemonic and neurobiological age-related alterations. Andrew assists with conducting the memory tests in the lab, as well as performs complex data processing, scoring and analyses.

“I first met Kieran when he was a high school student, in a casual environment — even in this atmosphere, just from chatting with him informally about what our lab does, he showed an innate curiosity and asked insightful questions,” Bimonte-Nelson said. “Over the years working with him on a weekly basis, it has become clear to me that he has a deeply critical and intellectual mind — he is a born scientist. He has had valued contributions in the lab spanning performing experimental physiological procedures to cognitive testing, and he has also done an excellent job teaching other lab students, mentoring with both knowledge and patience. He especially excels at deciphering and analyzing complex data patterns.”

“I cannot wait to see what the future holds for Kieran. He has worked so hard. This is just the beginning of a wonderful journey for him,” Bimonte-Nelson said. “Whichever of his dreams he pursues — becoming a neurosurgeon or continuing his research in a doctoral program — he will excel and make the world a better place.”

Bimonte-Nelson also hosts brain fairs for the community and aims to expand access to neuroscience for all levels of learners.

“For me, it has been super helpful to have a mentor like Heather. I don’t think I would be able to receive awards without her — I'm generally the guy who's just quiet and gets the work done and then just waits until the next thing is ready to pop up. But with Heather, she’s a very proactive mentor and she definitely wants the best for her students, and that is more than I could ask for,” said Andrew.

Through a project with Bimonte-Nelson, he is also part of ASU’s NSF-funded Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation – Western Alliance to Expand Student Opportunities program, which aims to support undergraduate researchers that have been historically underrepresented in STEM. Andrew recently presented research at the Arizona Alzheimer’s Consortium as well, where he was an author on three posters, including one in collaboration with the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute.

“I was able to create a regression tree from the MRI data to see how well people performed in our tasks and what brain areas were associated with performance. This project analyzed the executive function of the brain. While it was an introductory study, I presented data on possible ways we can analyze this type of research,” Andrew said.

In addition to his presentations at AAC and in Washington, D.C., for ERN, Andrew is conducting an honors thesis.

“I’m leaning toward experimentally testing learning and memory interference as we age,” Andrew said. “A related study was done in our lab before I was in it, but there are many questions left. I am interested in revisiting that topic.”

In the future, he is deciding between pursuing an MD in neurosurgery or a PhD in computational neuroscience. 

Robert Ewing

Marketing and Communications Manager, Department of Psychology


ASU professor's work could help World Cup athletes stay on top of their game

November 9, 2022

When Floris Wardenaar tunes in to the upcoming World Cup soccer matches starting Nov. 20 in Qatar, his focus might be a little different than the average viewer, especially during the breaks in play.

Wardenaar, an assistant professor in the College of Health Solutions, will have an eye out for what goes on during stoppages when the matches get underway. Wardenaar is one of the authors of a new paper on hydration opportunities during the FIFA World Cup. College of Health Solutions assistant professor Floris Wardenaar in lab College of Health Solutions Assistant Professor Floris Wardenaar is one of the authors of a new paper looking at how players are staying hydrated during World Cup soccer matches. Download Full Image

The idea for the paper came from conversations with Josh Beaumont, a former athletic trainer with the ASU women's soccer team.

The researchers looked at recordings of the 2018 World Cup tournament in Russia to get an idea of what kind of opportunities players had to stay hydrated during games.

Wardenaar noted that the climate in Qatar is considerably warmer than Russia — which is why the tournament that is normally held in summer had been moved to late fall — but the difference in seasons could provide for similar conditions even as a result of this change.

“Even though that sounds nice, here in the Phoenix area we all know that even winter can be quite warm, especially when the sun shines,” Wardenaar said. “Looking at the situation with Qatar and this upcoming world championship, I figured out that the conditions could be pretty similar to the last World Cup.”

Wardenaar credits Jennifer Vanos, assistant professor in the School of Sustainability at the College of Global Futures, with help in pulling those calculations together.

Players don't take advantage of most breaks during World Cup play

Wardenaar and Vanos found that players took the opportunity to take a drink during roughly only a third of the stoppages in play due to substitutions, injury or video reviews by the officials. That behavior didn’t seem to increase much under hotter conditions.

What was somewhat encouraging, however, was that players sometimes took opportunities to take a drink without waiting for the play to stop.

Wardenaar said he hoped teams and officials would use the data from this study to develop strategies to keep players better hydrated during matches.

“What we, as the authors, suggested is that during the VAR (video assistant referee) breaks, for example, that they allow the medical staffs on the field,” Wardenaar said. “Those breaks normally take the longest. While the referees are going to watch the screens, allow the medical staffs on the field so everyone has the opportunity to take a drink.”

He said the limitations to that plan is that those VAR breaks only happen during some games. To offer more breaks in other games, officials could also stop play in matches held in hot weather to allow another opportunity to take in fluids.

He said the UEFA Women’s Euro 2022 championship in England was a good example of referees working in hydration breaks.

Teams could also make sure that water or other fluids were available along the sidelines or in the goals to allow players to get a quick drink during informal stops.

Recreational soccer players can benefit too

Adopting a hydration strategy isn’t just beneficial for World Cup teams.

Soccer is a popular sport in the Phoenix area, and players could encounter warm weather at almost any time of year, not just extreme conditions expected in the notoriously hot summer months.

“Especially recreational players in tournaments where you could play multiple games in one day,” Wardenaar said. “Starting out well hydrated is the important thing. Make sure to drink enough during the day before the actual tournament starts.”

Wardenaar said being well hydrated wasn’t the same as over-drinking, or chugging a gallon of water at a time.

“Try to be mindful,” he said. “Look at the color of urine, preferably at the start of the day. It should be light. And make sure to maintain a good fluid intake (during matches).”

Wardenaar and the other authors of the study hope their findings inspire the development of a strategy to stay better hydrated during physical activities such as soccer. And with the eyes of the world on the matches taking place in Qatar, it would be great to see some of the top athletes on the planet modeling that behavior.

“I shared this with one of the national team dietitians who will play at the (World Cup) championships, and she said she really liked this because it shows the importance of targeting drinking moments,” Wardenaar said. “She said she would bring it to the attention of the coaching staff so they could strategize better. That’s the reason I do this kind of work: to help colleagues in the field to gain more insight or new tools to do their work in a better way.”

Weldon B. Johnson

Communications Specialist, College of Health Solutions

Experts urge universal use of wastewater surveillance

ASU researchers advocate a new approach to protect public health

November 9, 2022

Wastewater epidemiology isn’t a profession a scriptwriter would likely give to a lead character in an action-adventure film.

In real life, however, experts in the emerging field may someday help protect and save more lives than a typical movie hero. What’s in wastewater can point the way to better protecting public health, What’s in wastewater can point the way to better protecting public health, say environmental engineers and scientists who have been advancing the field of wastewater epidemiology. Photo from Pixabay Download Full Image

The Rockefeller Foundation, a supporter of ambitious efforts to promote “the well-being of humanity throughout the world,” is already convinced of the potential for wastewater research, monitoring and analysis to make our future healthier and safer.

The philanthropic organization has kicked off a major advocacy campaign to help trumpet a recent call from top researchers to bring the growing benefits of wastewater surveillance to all of the planet’s population.

In a recently published commentary in the research journal Nature Medicine, the researchers explain how wastewater surveillance can aid the cause of public health. They describe how it can reveal the presence and track the accumulation and spread of pathogens — microorganisms like bacteria and viruses that can cause disease.

Among the authors are three Arizona State University researchers — Professor Rolf Halden and Assistant Professor Otakuye Conroy-Ben, both members of the faculty at the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, a part of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU, and Assistant Research Scientist Erin Driver with the Center for Environmental Heath Engineering, directed by Halden, in ASU’s Biodesign Institute. Driver earned a doctoral degree in civil, environmental and sustainable engineering from the Fulton Schools.

Events leading up to the commentary and the advocacy push are reported in a news release from the Rockefeller Foundation emphasizing how wastewater surveillance has advanced as a science and can “provide a powerful early warning system for outbreaks” of diseases by detecting a range of viral and bacterial threats. That information can then enable public health officials to formulate effective responses to help quell those outbreaks.

Tempe public service workers collect wastewater samples

City of Tempe public service workers are pictured collecting wastewater samples from the municipal sewer system. The city has been sharing samples with Arizona State University researchers in recent years for wastewater surveillance that has helped to track the spread of COVID-19 and other public health threats in local communities. Photo by Erin Driver/ASU

Putting emphasis on preventative health care

In the release, a co-lead author of the Nature Medicine commentary, along with the director of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Pandemic Prevention Institute, says wastewater surveillance has proven its value during the COVID-19 pandemic and needs to be elevated to “a fully effective part of our public health arsenal.”

"If we can implement this more robustly and in more places around the world, we can do much better at protecting public health and avoiding the worst possible impacts of pandemics,” says Halden, who has been recognized for pioneering contributions to detecting the early warning signs of disease outbreaks and other dangers to the health of local communities in wastewater.

“By making wastewater monitoring a priority, we could discover the emergence of disease outbreaks faster than they become evident through the diagnosis of new patients going into hospitals and clinics,” Halden says. “This has been demonstrated recently in the outbreaks of the COVID-19 Omicron variant.”

Beyond early disease detection, Halden and his colleagues see the possibility of broadening our approach to health care by promoting a stronger focus on prevention — in other words, taking steps to make the public aware of what to do to prevent sickness and disease, rather than relying heavily on treating people after they become ill or contract diseases.

“Much of what we do in health care now is to play catch up, trying to heal people who are already in advanced stages of health problems,” Halden says.

He sees hope for reversing that trend as researchers continue to add to the hundreds of already discovered biomarkers — indicators of the condition of the body’s various biological functions.

“This is allowing us to detect and measure more kinds of potential and existing chemical, biological and physical threats to people’s health,” Halden says. “So this presents significant opportunities for the ability of wastewater analysis to reveal problems in the very early stages.”

Accuracy in assessing health challenges

Driver’s work in Halden’s research center includes exploring applications of new tools and methodologies in health care and health science.

“One thing we are looking at doing even more is moving water monitoring beyond only wastewater treatment plants and into other places in communities,” Driver says. “That way we can make visible and track the success of interventions geared to particular health challenges among more specific and localized segments of a city’s population.”

Another of Driver’s goals is to learn from wastewater research what other kinds of technologies could be adapted or developed to provide environmental engineers with more accurate data relevant to their work.

“We’re looking for things that are easier to deploy and that provide the data and information we need more accurately and faster,” Driver says. “We need to make sure that all the various sampling and testing processes we use are giving us accurate pictures of the things we need to know.”

Removing threats to community well-being

Conroy-Ben, who teaches soil and groundwater remediation, and contaminant fate and transport, among other related courses, concentrates her research efforts on water pollution and its biological effects.

“I’ve been studying wastewater for over 20 years, mainly focused on pollutant removal through various wastewater treatment processes,” Conroy-Ben says. “I look at the efficiency of removal of pollutants in wastewater treatment plants, including the removal of organic pollutants, endocrine disrupting chemicals, microbes, such as bacteria and viruses, and antibiotic resistant genes.”

With support from the National Institutes of Health, Conroy-Ben and collaborators Halden and Driver are bringing the scientific advances resulting from work in Halden’s lab in wastewater epidemiology to Native American tribal communities.

“Each tribe is different in various ways. So I think what we learn from working with the tribes will lead to valuable insights into how to conduct health research in these diverse communities,” Conroy-Ben says. “I see a lot of progress being made as the tribes and other communities understand how discovering early signs of diseases and other health problems in wastewater can protect people’s lives by reducing harmful exposures.”

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


Pathways for the Future honors scholarship awardee during Salute to Service week

ASU transfer students, military service members find scholarship program provides more than just financial assistance

November 8, 2022

Editor's note: This story is part of our Salute to Service coverage, Nov. 1–11. Learn about the schedule of events.

For Gil Ruiz, the path to a college degree was not always straightforward. But thanks to Arizona State University’s Pathways for the Future program, the single father and military veteran is now one semester away from graduating with a Bachelor of Science in engineering (robotics) from the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. ASU student Gil Ruiz stands in front of a sign on ASU's Tempe campus that reads "Arizona State University." Pathways for the Future honors scholarship awardee Gil Ruiz. Download Full Image

Ruiz, an out-of-state transfer student, and other transfer students and former military service members like him are finding that ASU resources like the Pathways program and MyPath2ASU are helping them achieve academic success, not only by providing financial assistance, but also by allowing them to spend more time pursuing education and building professional networks.

“By helping me financially, that Pathways scholarship has allowed me to focus on my academics,” Ruiz said. “I'm a single father, and I work. Had it not been for the Pathways for the Future program, I’d probably have to get another part-time job. Now, I can just focus on hitting the books (and) on keeping my GPA up, which I'm super stoked about!”

Both Pathways for the Future and MyPath2ASU offer comprehensive support to students looking to transfer to ASU, wherever they may be in their academic journey. They also provide invaluable mentorship.

“Pathways is a resource for me not just financially, but for the mentorship they provide as well,” Ruiz said. “My current mentor has been very helpful with building my own professional network and helping me with building resumes the way that engineering companies want to see them.”

Pathways for the Future helps students develop connections between their peers, faculty, mentors and employers that enable lifelong learning and the skills needed to thrive in the workforce of the future. For qualified students, financial assistance is available while in the program, including help with any surprise costs or expenses.

“I even had a situation where I had to use emergency funding, and Pathways was right there to provide me with what I needed when I needed it,” Ruiz said. “I've never had any issues with anything that would keep me from continuing my education since day one, applying to ASU, until now, close to graduation.”

The Pathways for the Future scholarship and MyPath2ASU are designed to further ease the transition to ASU for transfer students like Ruiz.

“These days, people find it difficult to find the right resources for school, especially veterans,” said Ruiz. “At ASU, I've never had to struggle with that. That's made life so much easier.”

Adrian Mahlstede

Digital content specialist, ASU Academic Alliances

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ASU teams up with Phoenix Children’s and Valleywise Health to study vaccine effectiveness vs. influenza, COVID-19

November 8, 2022

Modern vaccines against infectious disease have saved hundreds of millions of lives around the world. Although they are the subject of enormous research, many puzzles remain.

Why do vaccines prevent illness in one individual while failing to provide the same level of protection in another? Which features of an individual’s medical history, immunological makeup, geographical location, age, gender and socioeconomic status contribute to vaccine effectiveness? What causes vaccine aversion in certain communities? How does post-vaccination protection evolve over time?

These are among the vital questions to be addressed in an ambitious, five-year, $12.5 million project undertaken by Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, in close collaboration with Phoenix Children’s, Valleywise Health and ASU Health Services.

The project builds on the ongoing, year-to-year efforts by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to evaluate how well influenza vaccines perform across populations and under a range of conditions. The new study will also include the evaluation of vaccine effectiveness against the SARS CoV-2 virus. 

“Phoenix is a very fast-growing area with a diverse population, which is changing economically and demographically every day,” says Vel Murugan, principal investigator on the new CDC project and associate director of research and associate research professor with the Biodesign Institute at ASU. “So, this is probably the perfect time and location to do the kinds of studies we are going to do.” 

A volunteer administers the COVID-19 vaccine at the Sun Devil Fitness Complex in Tempe on Feb. 2, 2021. Photo by Alex Gould for the State Press

Charting vaccine effectiveness

Researchers measure vaccine effectiveness to evaluate how well a particular vaccine protects a population against infection, symptomatic illness, hospitalization and death under real-world conditions. The current research project aims to accurately estimate the effectiveness of both influenza and COVID-19 vaccines against respiratory virus-associated illness in the context of varying social determinants and observed disparities in health outcome.

In the case of flu vaccines, effectiveness can vary considerably from season to season based on two critical factors: how closely the vaccine matches a circulating seasonal strain of the influenza virus and the characteristics of those vaccinated, including age and health status.

Seasonal flu vaccines are designed to protect against four main groups of flu viruses.

“When the Food and Drug Administration Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee makes the final decision about vaccine viruses for domestic flu vaccines, the committee uses a different combination of criteria, such as which flu viruses are making people sick prior to the upcoming season, which flu viruses are spreading prior to the upcoming season, ability of vaccine viruses to confer cross-species protection and how well the viruses in the previous season’s vaccines may protect. That means every year, we need to study how well the current year’s flu vaccine is doing,” says Murugan, who is also the technical and program director of the Biodesign Clinical Testing Laboratory

The CDC’s efforts are aimed at untangling the skein of data gathered to evaluate vaccine effectiveness over time and across populations of differing age, ethnicity, gender and other factors. To this end, Arizona has been selected as one of seven nationwide CDC-approved Influenza Vaccine Effectiveness Network Centers. 

“Biodesign’s strategic partnership with Phoenix Children’s and Valleywise Health will allow us to compile one of the most detailed and comprehensive portraits of vaccine effectiveness ever undertaken,” says Joshua LaBaer, executive director of the Biodesign Institute. “With this data in hand, we can better protect diverse communities at risk, design more effective vaccines and distribution strategies, and ultimately save many lives from the threat of infectious disease.”

A comprehensive approach

The new study has two primary components. The first is designed to measure the effectiveness of influenza and COVID-19 vaccines during the flu season in the U.S. More than 1,000 participants seeking care in ambulatory settings will be enrolled. This component will identify laboratory-confirmed cases of influenza and COVID-19 and estimate vaccine effectiveness.

The project will also collect social data on determinants. Here, the aim is to identify communities disproportionately affected by influenza and COVID-19 infections and plan for the implementation and evaluation of programs to monitor vaccine effectiveness.

Next, the researchers will identify and characterize influenza and SARS-CoV-2 genomic subtypes and variants. The project continues with the ongoing monitoring of annual SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 vaccine effectiveness outside of the influenza season, collecting and verifying vaccination data, and reporting the relative effectiveness of different COVID-19 vaccines to the CDC.

Another component of the project will investigate vaccine-induced immune responses over time. Some 250 participants will be enrolled for collection of longitudinal serum specimens, the first on or before vaccination, then months after receipt of influenza and COVID-19 vaccines.

Multiple COVID-19 vaccines and annual flu shots are recommended to mitigate waning immunity over time, though the impact of repeated vaccination on vaccine effectiveness is not yet well understood. To address this, researchers will collect paired blood samples before and after vaccination.

Power in numbers

Children and adults with acute respiratory infection seeking care in outpatient clinics managed by Phoenix Children’s, Valleywise Health Medical Center and ASU Student Health Services will be evaluated. The researchers will collect specimens along with relevant demographic and clinical data for laboratory-confirmed cases of influenza and COVID-19.

Both project components draw heavily on ASU’s close alliance with Phoenix Children’s and Valleywise Health, as well as ASU’s Health Services and the Mirabella on-campus retirement community, allowing for across-the-board testing of vaccine effectiveness on adults, pediatric and elderly patients, and underserved communities who have received influenza and COVID-19 vaccinations.

“This collaboration is an invaluable opportunity to get much-needed clarity on the presence of respiratory viruses circulating within our communities and the effectiveness of currently available vaccines against these viruses,” said Dr. Joanna Kramer, a Phoenix Children’s pediatrician and site principal investigator. “I look forward to sharing study findings with the medical community at large, so children and communities can be as protected as possible.”

Serological studies of collected blood from confirmed influenza and COVID-19 patients will be shared with network laboratories and used to estimate vaccine effectiveness against both diseases and evaluate the public health impact of vaccine programs.

Prior vaccination, infection and other medical health data will be gathered through interviews and electronic health records (EHR) extraction. To ensure reliable and timely monitoring, patients will be able to schedule follow-up testing at home and can even request a bilingual health care provider, as needed. 

“The close partnership involving ASU's leadership and technical expertise, and the experienced clinical partners at Valleywise Health and Phoenix Children’s, will make this ambitious project possible,” says Dr. Jeffrey Curtis of Valleywise Health. “We expect to learn more about biological and social factors that make some people respond better to vaccines and about defenses viruses can use to evade vaccine-mediated immunity. I believe this study will lead to better ways to prevent and respond to future epidemics.”

The CDC’s multidisciplinary program provides a comprehensive approach to study vaccine effectiveness and better understand social determinates that may account for health disparities. In addition to safeguarding human health, the findings will have important, long-lasting policy implications for future vaccination efforts.

“The new CDC project plays to many of ASU’s greatest strengths in the health care domain, from our broad expertise in vaccine science to our exceptional clinical testing capacities and the university’s passion for creativity, innovation and service to our communities,” says Sally C. Morton, executive vice president and professor of ASU Knowledge Enterprise. 

Multidisciplinary team

The scale and breadth of this project requires a multidisciplinary team of researchers. The team’s clinical experts include Drs. Joanna Kramer with Phoenix Children’s; Jeffrey Curtis with Valleywise Health; and Mario Islas with ASU Health Services. Additional team members include Primary Investigator Vel Murugan; Yunro (Roy) Chung, a biostatistician with ASU College of Health Solutions; Efrem Lim, a virologist with ASU School of Life Sciences; Matthew Scotch, a molecular epidemiologist with ASU College of Health Solutions; Leah Doane and Rick Cruz, health disparity experts from ASU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; Mitch Magee, an expert in clinical research from ASU School of Life Sciences; and Craig Woods, an expert in clinical site management from the Institute for Future Health. 

Top image: Researchers measure vaccine effectiveness to evaluate how well a particular vaccine protects a population against infection, symptomatic illness, hospitalization and death under real-world conditions. The current research project aims to accurately estimate the effectiveness of both influenza and COVID-19 vaccines against respiratory virus-associated illness in the context of varying social determinants and observed disparities in health outcome. Graphic by Shireen Dooling

Richard Harth

Science writer , Biodesign Institute at ASU


NIH grant allows comparison of midlife experiences across the world

ASU professor to study mechanisms contributing to poorer mental, physical health of middle-aged Americans

November 7, 2022

Many American adults aged 40 to 65 are struggling. 

The life expectancy of this group is declining, driven by disease and “deaths of despair” like drug overdoses and suicide. Research from Arizona State University has shown they are also less healthy, mentally and physically, than previous generations of Americans were in midlife. Portrait of Frank Infurna, ASU associate professor of psychology. Associate Professor of psychology Frank Infurna. Photo by Rob Ewing Download Full Image

Frank Infurna, associate professor of psychology at ASU, is determined to find out why this is happening and what can be done to mitigate or even prevent these phenomena.

“Our previous work has shown that middle-aged adults in Germany, Mexico and South Korea are thriving. People born in the 1960s in those countries are doing better than people born in the 1940s and 1950s. But in the U.S., the opposite is true. Middle-aged Americans are doing worse than their same-age peers in other countries and compared to other birth cohorts of Americans,” Infurna said. “We want to know if these trends exist in other high-income countries like the U.S. and quantify any differences.”

Infurna was recently awarded five years of funding from the National Institute of Aging to dig into how the experience of middle-aged Americans directly compares to middle-aged adults in other wealthy, industrialized nations across the world.

The power of harmonized data

To study middle-aged Americans, Infurna relies on large datasets that include information about mental and physical health, years of education and finances. 

These data sets are made up of nationally representative samples, which means that demographic characteristics like age, race, ethnicity, gender, marital status, income, education and employment of the participant group are matched to the country as a whole. Such data sets give researchers like Infurna a broad picture of what middle-aged adults experience.

When the information that makes up these data sets is collected in different ways — for example cognitive health might be measured using two distinct questionnaires — researchers can only make indirect comparisons based on general trends. Previous work from Infurna’s lab has compared middle-aged Americans to peers in other countries, such as Mexico, South Korea, Australia and Germany, in this way.

Infurna’s current work will leverage harmonized data, which means the contents of one large-scale data set can be directly compared to another. This project will use nationally representative data sets from the U.S., EnglandSouth KoreaChinaMexico and parts of Europe, including Germany, Spain, France, Greece and Italy. In summary, the researchers will compare middle-aged Americans to their peers located in 16 other countries.

“These data sets are big, which is important for the questions we want to answer. The U.S. data set — The (University of Michigan) Health and Retirement Study — includes over 30,000 Americans older than 50 years,” Infurna said. “We expect that in total, we will be analyzing data from over 100,000 people across the world.”

The harmonized data will let the research team trace the life trajectories that lead to mental and physical health differences between middle-aged Americans and the rest of the world. They will be able to examine finances (like the impact of overall household wealth, income and debt), including specifics about out-of-pocket health care expenses. Comparison of physical activity levels and how middle-aged adults across the world balance caring of aging parents with having children are also possible topics of study.

“This work is the first step in studying the extent to which differences exist and uncovering reasons why differences exist across countries,” Infurna said. “Any findings could also contribute to identifying factors that can promote resilience among adults in midlife and inform prevention and intervention efforts.”

Science writer, Psychology Department