ASU geographers and urban planners support one another in the face of anti-Asian hate

Listening session, community research among ways the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning community leverages strengths in pursuit of a more equitable and inclusive future

April 16, 2021

As reports of anti-Asian hate crimes have escalated across the country in recent months, nearly two dozen students, faculty and staff in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning at Arizona State University gathered virtually to share their experiences facing anti-Asian discrimination and to provide support to one another.

Hosted by the school’s Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI) committee, the “Stop Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) Hate” listening session was created to provide a safe space for students, faculty and staff in the wake of violence against Asian and Asian American minorities, including the Atlanta mass shooting in which a gunman killed eight people, six of whom were women of Asian descent. The School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning recently held a “Stop Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) Hate” listening session to provide a safe space for students, faculty and staff. Download Full Image

“For a particular unit like our school, our JEDI committee felt a statement alone wouldn’t help people take a stance,” said Wei Li, professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning and the associate director of JEDI. “We need to hear from people, their own voices, what they’ve experienced, what they think we should do in terms of anti-racism and also how we can help each other to make a safe environment and the people in it feel comfortable to share what they think and what they experience.”

Siqiao Xie, a geography PhD student in the school, attended the session.

“I've been living in rather isolated conditions during the pandemic, and the recent rise of anti-Asian hate crimes and my own experience gave me a lot of mental pressure,” Xie said. “I really needed some support from my peers and an outlet for my emotions. I think this listening session was a very good opportunity.” 

The listening session opened with a brief introduction by Li around the historical and contemporary context of anti-Asian racism in the U.S., then gave way to an open floor in which individuals spoke about their personal experiences with racial discrimination, anecdotes of hope, and stories of peers stepping in when confronted with racial hate. Together, the community of participants asked and addressed how they best could support one another.

“I was angry and saddened to hear about some of the experiences our students have had. At the same time, I was uplifted by stories of support and love in the face of hateful words and actions,” said Rebecca Reining, who attended the session and is a staff member in the school. “These spaces are important because they allow for an open sharing of ideas, without judgment. I think it’s important to offer these spaces without expectation. It isn’t the responsibility of Asian, Black or Latino individuals to do the emotional labor of educating the rest of us.” 

As anti-Asian hate crimes rise, researchers act 

Wei Li

In the past year, hate crimes against Asians and Asian-Americans have risen exponentially, in part because of widely used harmful and inaccurate rhetoric blaming Asians for the spread of COVID-19. More than 3,700 anti-Asian hate incidents in the U.S. were reported between March 2020 and February 2021, and in Phoenix alone, reported anti-Asian hate crimes rose by 50%

Over that time, researchers across ASU’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning have been leveraging their academic expertise to examine whether and how Asian Americans are disproportionately under more risk during COVID-19 through a spatial and social science lens. 

In a recently accepted research chapter co-authored by Xie, Li and Yining Tan, a geography PhD student in the School, the team analyzed Asian American social vulnerability, COVID-19 infections and deaths, and increased records of anti-Asian hate crimes across the U.S. during the pandemic to reveal and visualize associations and geographical patterns.

Additionally, in a separate study, Li, who also has a joint academic appointment in the School of Social Transformation, is collaborating with ASU researchers Angela Chia-Chen Chen, associate professor in the Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation, and Karen Leong, associate professor in the School of Social Transformation, to conduct a series of studies that shed light into individual Asian experiences locally in the Phoenix metro during the pandemic. 

In the group’s research, they interviewed and surveyed Asian and Asian Americans in three key constituent groups — minority nurses, college students and metro Phoenix community leaders — to better understand how individuals have been impacted by COVID-19 while simultaneously fighting stereotypes and negative stigmas within their daily lives. 

By bringing these discrepancies and social vulnerabilities of Asian and Asian Americans to light, Li hopes to provide information to government and community stakeholders that can help guide resource allocation efforts for future planning. 

“We hope to have these policy implications, so government agencies know where exactly a particular group of the vulnerable population need resources to prepare for a future pandemic and also to curb the spread of COVID-19 at present,” Li said. 

A community moving forward together 

The School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning is continuing to build on its efforts to strengthen its culture dedicated to inclusivity and equity by standing by its students, its faculty and its staff in meaningful ways. 

The school recently was selected as a recipient of ASU’s Presidential Postdoctoral Fellowship Program and the university’s newly established Doctoral Student Cluster in Race, Place and Equitable Communities program, which together starting in fall 2021 will fund a total of four scholars of color — two postdoctoral fellows and two graduate students — in geography or urban planning over two years to help increase the diversity of the faculty and student body in the school.

Additionally, the school’s JEDI committee is working to implement actions to create an environment in which Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) students, faculty and staff can feel supported and thrive. The JEDI committee is evaluating potential future training on implicit bias and anti-racism. 

“Yes, we got this funding, we have the first cohort of BIPOC postdocs and graduate students coming together, but the work doesn’t stop there,” Li said. “If we don't continue to talk about race, if we don't do anti-racism work, when they come can we guarantee their success? Can they feel like they are truly welcome? Their experience matters. Their voice matters.” 

In the immediate future, Li says that the school’s Stop AAPI hate listening session’s success is encouraging for the JEDI committee as they plan to host periodical “JEDI coffee hours” where the school’s community can openly and freely chat with peers in a safe space. 

“We’re pleased about our listening session. It reinforced the JEDI committee’s thoughts that we need a safe space to allow people to be able to just speak up, just say what they feel, and for the rest of us to listen,” Li said. “That way we can better understand other people's experiences, be it individual or in a group, and collectively we can do something to keep making our school better.” 

David Rozul

Communications Specialist, School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning


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ASU doctoral grad seeks to improve education for marginalized students

April 16, 2021

Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College graduate Dawn Demps will focus on justice, equity and humanity

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2021 graduates.

Dawn Demps always knew she was going to be a teacher.

At 9 years old, she gathered up younger kids from her neighborhood in Flint, Michigan, cutting peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and doling them out on her front porch.

Next month she’ll be doling out scholarly expertise as a college professor at another university. But not before she collects her PhD in education policy and evaluation from Arizona State University on May 3.

Demps, who once dropped out of high school, is a first-generation college student and a single mother. She's also the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College Outstanding Graduate student this semester.

“It was a tremendous amount of work and it took a lot of focus to complete my education,” said Demps, who is the mother of three children ranging in ages from 8 to 18. “There were a lot of things in my personal life that could have been barriers but weren’t because of the support I received at ASU, my family and family and friends back in Flint.”

Her dissertation research focuses on an organization of Black mothers in Arizona and explores their strategies of resistance to the exclusion of Black children in schools. Demps is also the recipient of a completion fellowship from ASU’s Graduate College and the American Association of University Women Dissertation Completion Fellowship.

After Demps graduates, she is moving to Tucson, where she will become an assistant professor for the educational leadership and policy program in the Department of Educational Policy Studies and Practice in the College of Education at the University of Arizona.

ASU Now spoke with Demps about receiving her doctorate and the next chapter of her life.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study teaching?

Answer: I always knew I wanted to be involved in education. Once I got into college and became exposed to political science and sociology, things like that, I shifted slightly towards wanting to study how school systems work or don’t work and how to make education better for all students. As a high school dropout and first-gen college student, I knew all too well the ways that the educational system shortchanges its most marginalized students. So, I would not say it was a singular moment. I feel like my current trajectory is the culmination of all my life experiences and lessons.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU?

A: I came in with a youth programming and community organizing background. While at ASU, my mentors helped me see how I could pour my experiential knowledge into my research, then use my research in service of the communities I work with. I can’t speak highly enough of my committee and the other mentors I have had while here. I would say that was another thing I learned — how to be a good and supportive mentor, especially in the academy.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: Well, I investigated coming here initially because a lot of my family had moved to the Phoenix area from Flint, Michigan – my brothers, my sister and my mother were all either here or in Los Angeles. So, when I began investigating my PhD options, I of course looked here first. Then the weather doesn’t hurt. But, in terms of the substantive qualities of the school, I liked the scholars that I saw doing some groundbreaking work in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. Especially some of the critical work they were doing around historically disenfranchised populations and community and youth voice. I was additionally attracted to the fact that ASU had a School of Social Transformation, as my MA was in social justice studies. So, to be able to merge education and social transformation in my program was very appealing to me. Additionally, the scholars here were very receptive when I reached out to them to speak about the program before I applied. All PhD programs are not like that. I believe that was the thing that let me know ASU would be the place for me. I didn’t apply to multiple PhD programs, like most people are advised to do. ASU was the only school I applied for because it was the only one I wanted to attend.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: When I first came here, I was very overwhelmed by what I perceived other grad students were accomplishing. How I believed they knew things that I did not, or they were further ahead or publishing more or on more research teams. And as a single mother of three kids, I always felt like I was so far behind and could never catch up because there are more important things that I can’t trade my time in for. In the end, I learned that you have to run your own race. Don’t be intimidated by what you believe others are doing. Just do what you need to do well. Another piece of connected advice would be to make sure you have a tight team of support around you. They will keep it real with you and support you in the ways you need to be supported. I believe my committee to be absolutely wonderful scholars in their own right. But I chose each of my committee members because I believe they were genuinely invested in my success. That is way more valuable than having prestigious, nationally renowned people on your committee who aren’t readily available to you and cheering and guiding you along the way.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus?

A: I absolutely loved Engrained Café. The food was delicious. I could enjoy noshing and studying inside or outside, and I liked the ambience and endless coffee. It was also a good spot to people watch. That is the ethnographer in me!

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I will be an assistant professor for the educational leadership and policy program in the Department of Educational Policy Studies and Practice in the College of Education at the University of Arizona. I am very excited to be making the move down the road to Tucson.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I am pretty sure $40 million is not enough to change the hearts and minds of people — and that is what we need to actually solve any problem. I believe we already have the resources at our beck and call to make any of the real changes we seek in the world, no matter the concern. That money would just fund some short-term program or treatment for a very limited time. It may yield impressive results and then fall to the wayside as interest wanes or the intervention crumbles under political pressure. What we need is an ethically informed commitment to totally transform the way we approach justice, equity and humanity. Especially in education. Unfortunately, too many are invested in the status quo, or fear what change could mean to them. So, Band-Aid remedies will continue to be funded under the guise of progress, only to slide back to business as usual. I am not sure any amount of money can remedy that. But, as community members, advocates and scholars, we must keep doing the work of presenting the evidence and convincing. I think that is our main job as scholars.

Top photo: Dawn Demps is an outstanding graduate of the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College for spring 2021. She is receiving her PhD for her work in educational policy and evaluation. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

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New book explores fraught history of Arizona immigration

April 15, 2021

Co-authors of narrative nonfiction book that looks at former Sheriff Joe Arpaio will speak at Cronkite School

Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio was voted out of office in 2016, after 24 years as the county’s top cop. The following year he was found to have committed criminal contempt of court and received former President Donald Trump’s first pardon. Arpaio lost two subsequent primary elections — a bid for the Senate nomination in 2018 and a race to regain his old sheriff’s seat in 2020.

The life of the man once known as “America’s Toughest Sheriff” takes a literary turn in the spotlight in a new book called “Driving While Brown: Sheriff Joe Arpaio versus the Latino Resistance,” which explores this fraught chapter in Arizona’s immigration history. Written by Terry Greene Sterling and Jude Joffe-Block, the character-driven narrative nonfiction examines how Arpaio’s relentless immigration enforcement catalyzed a generation of young Latinos to become activists, run for office and make meaningful systematic change.

Greene Sterling, a longtime Arizona journalist, is the writer-in-residence at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the editor-at-large for the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting. Joffe-Block, a veteran journalist who currently works for the Associated Press, has previously reported for public radio, print and podcasts.

The book is garnering national media attention and will be discussed on "Arizona Horizon" on Arizona PBS on April 16.

Southwest Borderlands Initiative Professor Rick Rodriguez also will lead a discussion with the co-authors on April 19 during the Cronkite School’s virtual “Must See Mondays” lecture series. Register for the Must See Mondays presentation.

Greene Sterling and Joffe-Block recently spoke to ASU News about Arpaio's legacy and the state’s hard-fought immigration battles.

Two women writers

Authors Terry Greene Sterling (left) and Jude Joffe-Block

Question: Given that you’ve covered this issue so extensively as a journalist, why did you think it would make for a compelling book, and why did you feel as if you needed a collaborator for this project?

Terry Greene Sterling: You’re right. I have reported and written Arizona immigration stories off and on for three decades. As a staff writer at Phoenix New Times, I reported on Afghan refugees in downtown Phoenix, a man from El Salvador with crippling PTSD and Latino immigrants living in citrus orchard communities. My first book, "Illegal," published in 2010, profiles several Maricopa County immigrants, including a gay man who crossed the border after being pelted with rocks in his socially conservative Mexican village and a poorly compensated dairy-farm worker who could doctor a cow as well as a vet. I also devoted a chapter to then-Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose deputies swept neighborhoods and raided workplaces in search of unauthorized immigrants.

All of the above, along with increased awareness of an ongoing federal class action civil rights case, Melendres v. Arpaio, in which Latino motorists alleged they were the targets of Arpaio’s unconstitutional policing in immigration-themed traffic stops, made me want to write a political biography of Arpaio. In 2011 and 2012, two New York agents tried but could not sell the book idea to publishers. I was still hooked, regardless of the rejections.

While in the federal courthouse covering the Melendres case for National Journal Magazine in 2012, I met a delightful KJZZ reporter named Jude Joffe-Block. She shared my unbridled enthusiasm for a book that would chronicle this moment in history and what it meant not only to Arizona, but to the nation. And that’s why we decided to become co-authors!

 Q: Jude, given that you were essentially in competition with Terry, what were the reasons you joined forces with her, and what storytelling aspects or perspective did you feel that you could bring to the book?

Jude Joffe-Block: Terry and I were both covering the Melendres racial profiling lawsuit against Arpaio in federal court, but I was covering it as a public radio journalist — sometimes in a daily, breaking-news capacity — while she was popping in and out and writing longer-form pieces. I think many of us who were reporting on that case felt a sense of solidarity; we were in a way all on the same team in the back bench of the courtroom — trying to understand and get to the truth of what was going on. There were times that a few of us from different outlets banded together to get access to certain court hearings or documents. 

As Terry mentioned, we both believed in a book that detailed the history we were witnessing in the courtroom, and the larger historical context that had shaped the moment. So I was very excited when we started discussing co-authoring a book together. Terry and I have different styles and strengths as journalists, and we found our skill sets complemented each other. 

I was able to attend almost every court hearing in the Melendres case and the criminal contempt case against Arpaio that spun out of it, for five years, between 2012 and 2017. I brought that perspective to the book project, along with years of covering other lawsuits named in the book, such as the litigation over (Arizona) Senate Bill 1070 and Arpaio’s worksite raids. 

Q: Your book goes out of its way to explain what shaped Arpaio. His mother died at a young age, and his father was distant. It appeared as if he had no nurturing growing up, which gave him a real “I’ll show you” chip on his shoulder. Why was it important to show this side of the man?

Greene Sterling: Arpaio was a lonely kid. Praise didn’t come easily from his father, who eventually remarried and had another son. Amid the stepfamily complications, Arpaio struggled in school. He joined the Army when he graduated from high school, further disappointing his father by not attending college. Later, Arpaio chose a career in federal drug enforcement. In 1963 Arpaio was quoted in newspapers for his role in a big drug bust in Turkey. This media mention pleased Arpaio’s father, who uncharacteristically praised his firstborn son. From then on Arpaio sought validation in the press. Once, when he was getting a lot of media attention at the Arizona GOP headquarters, and I was standing by taking notes for the book, he told me wistfully he only wished his dad could see him now.

Arpaio’s dad, an Italian immigrant, came to the United States in 1923 — during a cycle of anti-immigrant animus perpetuated by the eugenics movement. Eugenicists were white supremacists and believed northern European immigrants were the most desirable immigrants of all. In their view, southern European immigrants, including Italians like Arpaio’s dad, were undesirables. As a kid, Arpaio was teased and taunted for his Italian DNA. 

Many decades later, Arpaio began apprehending unauthorized immigrants after it became politically popular in Maricopa County. He did this despite his early childhood experiences as the son of an immigrant. The tables had  turned. The son of an unwanted immigrant now hunted unwanted immigrants. I have always found this sadly fascinating.

Q: Another surprising revelation in the book was the fact that Arpaio was not only embraced by voters when he initially ran for sheriff, but received a warm reception from Hispanic leaders and a ringing endorsement from The Arizona Republic. When did his focus shift to making immigration his chief priority?

Joffe-Block: As we document in the book, for the first half of Arpaio’s tenure, he was famous for his tough treatment of jail inmates — not immigration enforcement. There were countless news stories about the unappealing food he served inmates, the pink boxer shorts he made them wear and the outdoor tents they slept in. He had a very friendly relationship with Mary Rose Wilcox, who for years served as the sole Latina and Democrat on the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. She thought of him as an ally and invited him to community events with kids in her district. In 2005, as the movement of Arizonans interested in cracking down on unauthorized immigration was growing, Arpaio did not instantly join the cause. Instead, he made a few high-profile decisions that year that put him on the opposite side of that growing movement and caused Latino leaders to thank him. 

But in 2006, after a new state law took effect that made smuggling migrants into Arizona a state felony, Arpaio partnered with the county attorney at the time, Andrew Thomas, to enforce an even stricter interpretation of the new law. That interpretation, which was later found unconstitutional, meant Arpaio instructed his deputies to arrest migrants for conspiracy to smuggle themselves — also a felony. That was the beginning of Arpaio’s pivot on immigration, and he kept ramping up from there: a federal partnership that allowed his deputies to enforce federal immigration laws, roundups of day laborers, neighborhood sweeps that led to arrests of undocumented drivers and passengers discovered in traffic stops, and worksite raids to arrest unauthorized immigrant workers. Arpaio says he changed course because he had a duty to enforce Arizona’s laws. It is worth noting though, that Arpaio used the immigration enforcement tools that were available to him more exuberantly than any other law enforcement agency in the state. For many years he was rewarded politically for his stance on immigration, since a powerful faction of his party demanded it. The issue also got Arpaio on national news shows and helped him fundraise from a national base. 

Q: What was Joe Arpaio’s ultimate downfall, and what can we learn from this?

Greene Sterling: Joe Arpaio is approaching his 89th birthday, and he will tell you he’s not had a “downfall.” He believes this even though he was voted out of the sheriff’s office in 2016, lost a 2018 primary race for the U.S. Senate and lost a 2020 primary bid for his former post as Maricopa County sheriff.  He was also found in the courts to have racially profiled Latino drivers and passengers, and to have engaged in criminal contempt of court. He was spared the remote possibility of a short jail sentence by a pardon from a guy he deeply admires — former President Donald Trump. 

It’s hard to square all this with the fact that Arpaio was once an exceedingly popular and powerful Arizona politician. To  many he was a hero, or at the very least, an amusing guy who humiliated jailhouse inmates by forcing them to wear pink underwear or sleep in tents. To his foes, though, he was a vindictive bully who cemented his power by unleashing his law enforcement agency on his critics, including judges, lawyers, journalists and civil rights activists. 

Few wanted to take on Arpaio at the height of his power. But a fearless and relentless Latino resistance stood up to him for years in the streets, in the courts and in the public square. From a macro level, this led to Arpaio’s fall from grace. On a micro level, Arpaio’s deep need for approbation, that hole inside him that seemed never to be filled, contributed to what many see as the unraveling of “America’s Toughest Sheriff.”

Q: Does the current situation at the Arizona-Mexico border give your book added relevance given that the issue of immigration has reared its head again in this state?

Joffe-Block: In the 1990s and 2000s, the number of migrants attempting to cross the Mexico-Arizona border increased, and a growing number of Arizonans felt the federal government had failed to secure the border. That helped fuel hardline state policies and (caused) local politicians like Arpaio to focus on immigration. 

While some of the rhetoric we are hearing today about the state of the border is the same, the details are different. Now we are seeing families and children arriving from Central America, many of whom are fleeing violence and natural disasters. Many are turning themselves in to border officials to ask for asylum. But nevertheless, history has taught us that migrants arriving at the border can breed fear, resentment and outrage among the American public, and some politicians will seize on the issue. Such a dynamic can drive new cycles of hardline immigration enforcement tactics, and those tactics could lead to constitutional violations — as we saw happen in Maricopa County.

As the Biden administration grapples with how to handle the current situation at the border and deliver its promise of long-awaited comprehensive immigration reform, our book gives readers the historical context to understand what led up to this moment. 

Top photo courtesty of Pixabay

ASU engineering students tackle real-world challenges

Each semester, more than 100 students conduct innovative research with a faculty mentor and present their findings at the FURI/MORE symposium

April 14, 2021

Improving solar power load management systems, turning waste into valuable products and teaching robotic swarms to coordinate are just a few of the areas students in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University are researching to gain new ways of thinking.

Conducting research is an excellent way for students to understand how the theoretical knowledge they learn in engineering classes relates to real-world applications. Students can also make an impact in people’s lives with the innovative solutions yielded by scientific research they conduct — even before they start their careers. Smith Pittman conducts research in the lab. Arizona State University engineering students, like environmental engineering junior Smith Pittman, conduct innovative research each semester under the guidance of a faculty mentor. They present their research findings related to real-world challenges in health, sustainability, energy, security, education and data science at the FURI/MORE symposium, held virtually this semester in a poster session open to the public. Photo by Erika Gronek/ASU Download Full Image

There are multiple opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students in the Fulton Schools to address challenges in data science, education, energy, health, security and sustainability.

Students in the Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative, or FURI, and the Master’s Opportunity for Research in Engineering, or MORE, programs conceptualize an idea, develop a plan and investigate their research question with a faculty mentor over the course of a semester.

Fulton Schools students in the Grand Challenges Scholars Program, or GCSP, can also conduct research for one of the competencies required by the program.

All three opportunities develop students’ skills in innovation, independent thinking and problem-solving to support their future pursuits and careers. And all are invited to participate in the FURI/MORE symposium, an event near the end of each semester in which students present their research findings in a poster session.

Learn about four Fulton Schools students and one faculty mentor participating in the spring 2021 FURI/MORE virtual symposium. Meet these students and more than 110 other student investigators at the virtual event, open to the public from 1 to 3 p.m. MST, Friday, April 16.

Kelvin Tan works in the lab

Kelvin Tan, an electrical engineering senior, is working on a FURI research project to improve photovoltaic load management systems through the development of a new, efficient algorithm. He conducts research in Professor Meng Tao’s lab. Photo by Erika Gronek/ASU

Designing new algorithms for solar power

Kelvin Tan is an electrical engineering senior in the FURI program. He is developing an efficient algorithm for load management to accelerate the development of photovoltaics for the energy sector with his mentor, Professor Meng Tao.

Question: What made you want to get involved in FURI?

Answer: My aspiration to get involved in this program was to explore and evaluate my future decisions as a graduate student. I have always wanted to make an impact in the sustainability movement and this was a great opportunity for me to see which sector I should dedicate myself to — either research or industry. The project and this program was the perfect opportunity for me to involve myself in research that quickly answered my uncertainty from before.

Q: Why did you choose the project you’re working on?

A: Research on renewable systems, like solar, is a great way for me to be as impactful as possible for the clean energy movement. Designing and improving the technology to increase the incentives will drive the integration of clean energy. The project I am working on directly relates to this.

Q: What has been your most memorable experience as a student researcher in this program? 

A: My most memorable experience as a student researcher would have to be when my professor requested that I publish a paper for the 48th IEEE Photovoltaic Specialists Conference. Professor Meng Tao put me in an open-ended project where I could choose how much and what direction I planned to take in the project. This really pushed me to learn about the system and to make the project my own. After a lot of dedication, I felt that my work is on par with my colleagues and I am doing impactful research.

Q: Have there been any surprises in your research?

A: There have been many surprises in my research. For all of the variables I analyze, I will always have an educated guess on what the results are going to be. As the project escalated and I got to look more into sophisticated processes, these results began to be unpredictable at times. They were always welcome surprises.

Q: How will your engineering research project impact the world?

A: My research project will increase the opportunities in solar photovoltaic systems. The proposed system will be able to reduce the overall cost while increasing the efficiency of direct-coupled photovoltaics. Promoting renewables and energy storage is the gateway to a sustainable future. There are many roadblocks to clean technology. The goal of this project is to eliminate these obstacles and pave the way for a future society powered by clean energy.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve gotten from your faculty mentor?

A: Take a step back and organize my efforts. I have a habit of rushing through all of my tasks as most academic projects have directions and end goals with just enough time in between the two. My faculty mentor made me truly analyze the basics and take a procedural approach to everything. In the end, this approach saved more time and will help improve the quality of my research findings.

Q: Why should other students get involved in FURI?

A: There are so many opportunities in engineering today, and I feel as if most students will never be able to experience everything before they enter the industry. This program will help students better understand the different pathways out there and allow us to make decisions without regret. The experience and mentorship are things that cannot be taught in classes and so this is definitely an experience I would advise students to take.

FURI has been very impactful for me as a senior, but I would have liked to have experienced it earlier in my degree program. I appreciate the opportunity because I had trouble finding an activity I was passionate about until I joined the FURI program under Professor Tao.

Read more about Tan’s spring 2021 research project.

Smith Pittman works with Michelle Young on a research project.

Environmental engineering major Smith Pittman (left) works with Assistant Research Scientist Michelle Young on a project to use waste biomass from industrial processes to produce valuable products. Pittman, who is conducting research as part of the Grand Challenges Scholars Program, also worked with faculty mentor Regents Professor Bruce Rittmann. Photo by Erika Gronek/ASU 

Transforming one industry's waste into another's product

Smith Pittman is an environmental engineering junior in the Grand Challenges Scholars Program. For the research or talent competency of the GCSP, she conducted research with Regents Professor Bruce Rittmann and Assistant Research Scientist Michelle Young to study whether cellulose predigested by microbes can recover valuable products from anaerobic digesters at wastewater facilities.

Question: What made you want to get involved in the Grand Challenges Scholars Program?

Answer: I wanted to get involved with GCSP because as an engineer it is really important to understand the social impacts of the work you do.

Q: Why did you choose the project you’re presenting at the FURI Symposium?

A: This is a relatively novel research topic, and so I think there will be potential for continued research after this project.

Q: How will your engineering research project impact the world?

A: Lignocellulose is an abundant untapped resource, as it is mainly considered waste biomass from industrial processes. Finding ways to degrade it, and thereby produce valuable products, will create more sustainable processes. 

In general, my mentor and I have been pleasantly surprised with the results we are getting from the experiment.

Q: What has been your most memorable experience as a student researcher?

A: This is a little gross, but sometimes when feeding the reactors, which take waste materials and turn them into valuable byproducts, they will spit sludge back up. The first time this happened I was not prepared and it got everywhere. I was later able to figure out that it was due to gas buildup, and I could prevent this from happening by keeping the gas bags attached.

Q: How do you see this experience helping with your career or advanced degree goals?

A: I would like to continue researching, so I am looking at graduate schools. This experience has been incredibly helpful for me because it has helped me find something that I enjoy.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve gotten from your faculty mentor?

A: My mentor has really encouraged me to pursue my interests, which has helped me inside and outside the research lab.

I am very grateful for the support I receive from Dr. (Bruce) Rittmann, Dr. Michelle Young and GCSP.

Q: Why should other students get involved in GCSP?

A: GCSP is a wonderful program for students who want to have a positive impact on the world around them, and want to know about the future of engineering. I think students should also get involved in undergraduate research because it helps you to understand the application of what you are learning in your classes.

Learn more about Pittman’s spring 2021 research project.

Parth Khopkar works with small autonomous vehicles in the lab

Computer science graduate student Parth Khopkar studies multirobot swarms in the Master’s Opportunity for Research in Engineering program, known as MORE, with his mentor, Assistant Professor Heni Ben Amor. Photo by Erika Gronek/ASU

Helping robots learn to coordinate

Parth Khopkar is a computer science graduate student in the MORE program, which presents at the FURI symposium. Khopkar is teaching multirobot swarms to better coordinate using reinforcement learning techniques. He was inspired by search and rescue officials saying how this sort of technology could help them better perform their jobs.

Question: What made you want to get involved in MORE?

Answer: A couple of my friends were a part of MORE in previous semesters. When I attended their poster presentations at the symposium, I realized that this is something I would love to be a part of.

Q: Why did you choose the project you’re working on?

A: I have always been fascinated by the promise of robots working together in the future, similar to how humans do now. Coordination with fellow human beings has been the bedrock of human society since the earliest times. This is why I decided to focus on a project in the field of multirobot coordination.

Another inspiration for my project was an event held at ASU’s Drone Studio in January 2020 where officials from the Arizona Search and Rescue Coordinators Association talked about how having unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the loop would enable them to get feedback immediately during search and rescue operations and cover more ground than humans can.

Q: What has been your most memorable experience as a student researcher?

A: One of my most memorable experiences has been presenting in last semester’s symposium. Because it was virtual, my friends and family halfway across the world were also able to attend.

Q: How will your engineering research project impact the world?

A: My research on multirobot coordination has a chance to impact many aspects of the world we live in, from underwater robotics to planetary exploration. Something a little closer to home is the use of drones in autonomous search and rescue missions.

Q: How do you see this experience helping with your goals?

A: The research I do for MORE is also a part of my master’s thesis, so it is already helping my career by supporting my research interests.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve gotten from your mentor, Assistant Professor Heni Ben Amor?

A: My mentor always says that if you can’t get something to work, just keep reducing the complexity until it does. I have applied this to my work and found that the reduced complexity allows me to better understand the techniques being used and then scale up from there.

Q: Why should other students get involved in MORE?

A: If you are interested in research or want to know whether research is something that you would like to do for a career, this program is an excellent opportunity to gain research experience. Here, you set the bounds on what you would like to accomplish while being supported by a faculty mentor.

Learn more about Khopkar’s spring 2021 research project.

Monique Clement

Communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


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ASU Staff Council sponsors 1st Diversity and Inclusion Conference

April 13, 2021

Two-day virtual event examines the myriad efforts underway at the university to combat social injustice

In fall 2020, after a renewed cry for social justice in America, Arizona State University President Michael Crow announced the university’s commitment to address social transformation by implementing 25 actions designed to support Black faculty, staff and students.

The LIFT Initiative, which aims to Listen, Invest, Facilitate and Teach, is a universitywide effort to support equity and inclusion and to advance the national conversation about social justice. Those efforts are being led by ASU’s new Advisory Council on African American Affairs, which is co-chaired by Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, vice president of ASU Cultural Affairs, and Jeffrey Wilson, a professor of economics in the W. P. Carey School of Business.

As part of those collective efforts to “accelerate meaningful change,” the ASU Staff Council sponsored its first Diversity and Inclusion Conference on April 8–9. The event, which was held virtually on Zoom, created a space for reflection, collaboration and action.

In a prerecorded message, Crow thanked participants and attendees for their efforts to make ASU a comprehensively diverse and inclusive institution that lives up to its charter — and emphasized the hard work that’s still ahead.

Diversity and Inclusion Conference 2021

ASU President Michael Crow posed some of the difficult questions that ASU students, staff and faculty are facing regarding how best to achieve inclusion and diversity.

“It’s not just about the diversity of our student body or the inclusivity of our student body,” said Crow. “It’s about our workforce. It’s about our environment. It’s about our culture. It’s about how we’re thinking, how we’re moving forward.

“What you have to ask yourself is: How do we do better? How do we create an environment where everyone feels welcome and comfortable and culturally expressive, culturally creative? How do we make that all happen?”

The inaugural conference’s many voices helped shape some of those conversations. Valencia Clement, a doctoral student in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College who is studying educational policy, shared her perspective on social justice through an enlightening poem called “Parasites of the Planet.” The Haitian American artist, scholar, activist and entrepreneur from Queens, New York, said she wrote the poem after working with the city of Tempe and the ASU Office of Sustainability.

Clement explained, “It’s not just about justice for the planet, it’s also about justice for the people — especially for the people who are disproportionately impacted by climate change — like unsheltered populations, people in developing countries, etc.”

Although the LIFT Initiative was born from ideas and feedback from ASU’s students, faculty and staff, this conference leaned on perspectives from community partners and leaders who advocate for social justice on a daily basis.

The conference’s keynote speaker was Danielle Shoots, the founder and CEO of the Daily Boss Up, a digital startup focused on professional development, and vice president and CFO for the Colorado Trust, a private health equity foundation. She said she’s optimistic about the collective leadership taking place in our nation right now.

Danielle Shoots keynote speaker

Danielle Shoots, founder and CEO of digital startup the Daily Boss Up and vice president and CFO for health equity foundation the Colorado Trust, offered the keynote address at the ASU Staff Council Diversity and Inclusion Conference.

“I think that people really are learning this work and engaging in this work in such a way that is profoundly exciting and gives me so much hope to be a part of it, and to watch where we’re moving as a country and as people in this space," she said. "All the things that we do and who we influence and who we interact with in our environments, in our cultures, require us to lead, especially this conversation.”

Leadership is a key component to inclusion, as expressed by Grace O’Sullivan, vice president of corporate engagement and strategic partnerships at ASU’s Knowledge Enterprise, and Minu Ipe, managing director and vice chair of the University Design Institute at ASU, whose presentation was titled “How Do We Create a Level Playing Field for Women?”

In order to create an inclusive university — to benefit all underrepresented groups and individuals — everyone must be a leader, no matter where they sit, explained O’Sullivan and Ipe. They shared the importance of developing an intentional “personal board of directors” — the advocates who can help make the work visible to others — and the importance of speaking up, especially within “spheres of influence.” They believe everyone is a part of the solution.

“There have been times in my career at ASU where I didn’t know I could speak up and change things,” said O’Sullivan. “I thought I just had to make it work — nose to the grindstone, take what was given to me and just make that work. Anything is possible, as long as you’ve thought about it, you have a good proposal, you have some data and experience to support it.”

Ipe points out that ASU has momentum right now, with the university’s recent shift at the top: the hiring of three women to lead the university’s three enterprises. But more must be done.

“This is an invitation to all of us to say, we are all in it together and what we do may not always be visibly moving the needle, but if enough of us are involved, there will be momentum that propels the institution forward, especially when it comes to leveling the playing field,” said Ipe.

The conference hit on key topics, like cultivating an equitable and inclusive educational and working environment, creating inclusive events, making mentorship opportunities available and designing inclusive online courses.

“What I think is really important about what President Crow is doing with the 25-point plan he put together is really helping to lift all of ASU, to look at our charter as our aspirational selves,” said Jennings-Roggensack. “We will be valued and measured by whom we include, not whom we exclude, and the success of those we include.”

Jennings-Roggensack provided a detailed update of the progress of the Advisory Council on African American Affairs, including plans for a multicultural center at all of ASU's campuses and the locations in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. By July, she says, the council should have the designs and timelines ready for review.

ASU Diversity and Inclusion Conference 2021

Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, vice president of ASU Cultural Affairs and co-chair of ASU’s new Advisory Council on African American Affairs, gave an update on the plan to create multicultural centers on every ASU campus.

To understand where ASU stands, and where the university needs to go, the council put together a report on the history of African Americans at the university. The council has also been conducting “stay interviews,” asking those who are part of the ASU community what’s working and what’s not, especially those in staff positions. ASU is also reimagining campus security, exploring what policing means at the university and what other resources are needed to keep the community safe.  

The goal of the two-day conference was to raise awareness about social issues and to help attendees apply practical steps to shift culture and to create more inclusive institutions by giving everyone a voice, especially those who are underrepresented in various facets of society.

Top photo by ASU News. Conference screen grabs by Jimena Garrison/ASU News

Jimena Garrison

Copywriter , Media Relations and Strategic Communications

Rev. William J. Barber II featured at Delivering Democracy 2021

Civil rights and social justice champion will be featured at the annual ASU community dialogue

April 9, 2021

Arizona State University's Center for the Study of Race and Democracy will feature influential civil rights and social justice leader Rev. William J. Barber II at its annual Delivering Democracy program on Saturday, April 17.

Barber, a courageous champion of social justice and human rights, is known and deeply respected for his unwavering intentional and deeply collaborative advocacy for underserved and marginalized populations across the nation. His work and example have done much to model purposeful engagement and to demonstrate the deep power of purposeful collaboration and partnerships. His calls for a moral democracy underscore the attention to humanity that should transcend partisanship and that can lead to justice for all. Download Full Image

The center's annual Delivering Democracy program creates a powerful forum for visionary speakers to discuss critical issues of race and democracy with the local community as well as with a national and global audience. The program will feature a dialogue with  Barber facilitated by Lois Brown, director of the center.

In advance of the program with Barber, the center will host a weeklong virtual community resource fair, which will enable direct engagement with community organizations in and beyond Arizona.  

Visit to learn more and to register for the Delivering Democracy program and for the virtual community resource fair sessions.  

Delivering Democracy 2021 with Rev. William J. Barber II

Saturday, April 17

• 1:15 p.m. Online check-in begins.

• 1:45 p.m. Mini concert, Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church Choir.

• 2–3:15 p.m. Dialogue with Rev. Barber and Lois Brown.

Livestream and interactive Zoom broadcast. Register.

Delivering Democracy virtual community resource fair 

Monday, April 12–Friday, April 16

Livestream and interactive Zoom sessions with community organizations. Register.

Media is invited to attend. Brown will be available for interviews in the days prior to the event. Based on availability and space is limited. To request full event access and/or an interview, RSVP with Suzanne Wilson at

Sr. Media Relations Officer, Media Relations & Strategic Communications


Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones to deliver annual lecture on race relations at ASU

April 8, 2021

Editor's note: This event has been canceled due to unforeseen circumstances.   Nikole Hannah-Jones Award-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones will be the featured speaker at the A. Wade Smith Memorial Lecture on Race Relations on April 20. Download Full Image

Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and creator of the landmark 1619 Project, will be the featured speaker at Arizona State University’s 26th annual A. Wade Smith Memorial Lecture on Race Relations.

Hannah-Jones covers racial injustice for The New York Times Magazine and has spent years chronicling the way official policy has created and maintains racial segregation in housing and schools. She has written extensively on the history of racism, school resegregation and the disarray of hundreds of desegregation orders, as well as the decadeslong failure of the federal government to enforce the landmark 1968 Fair Housing Act.

The award-winning reporter — who has been honored with a MacArthur Genius Grant, a Peabody, a Polk and a National Magazine Award — will deliver her lecture at The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ virtual event at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 20.

The A. Wade Smith Memorial Lecture on Race Relations was created in 1995 to perpetuate the work of a man who had devoted his life to the idea of racial parity. As professor and chair of sociology at Arizona State University, A. Wade Smith worked tirelessly to improve race relations on the ASU campus and within the greater community. When he died of cancer at the age of 43, his wife, family members and friends made memorial gifts to establish and fund this lecture series.

“Last fall, Arizona State University President Michael Crow committed the university to increase the support of The College’s annual A. Wade Smith Lecture series,” said Patrick Kenney, dean of The College. “For more than two decades, this featured event has welcomed a distinguished guest to our ASU community to discuss important issues of race and society. We are grateful for the additional support and the opportunity to welcome Nikole Hannah-Jones as this year’s featured speaker.”

26th annual A. Wade Smith Memorial Lecture on Race Relations

Who: Nikole Hannah-Jones

When: 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 20

Where: Online. Register for the virtual event here.

The event is free and open to the public.

Kirsten Kraklio

Content Strategist and Writer, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences


Meet the new director of ASU's School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences

Donatella Danielli, who has a strong commitment to cultivating diversity and broadening representation in the mathematical sciences, began duties Jan. 1

April 7, 2021

Donatella Danielli became the new director of Arizona State Univesity's School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences on Jan. 1. Before coming to ASU, she was a professor of mathematics at Purdue University, where she spent most of her career. She earned her PhD in mathematics from Purdue in 1999 and laurea cum laude from the University of Bologna in 1989.

“We were thrilled to bring Donatella to ASU. She brings a wonderful blend of qualities as a leader for the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences,” said Nancy Gonzales, provost pro tempore. “She is a highly accomplished mathematician, a dedicated educator with a lifelong commitment to student success, and she pushes boundaries in pursuit of excellence and inclusion as linked goals. She is founder and co-editor of the newly launched, flagship journal of the Association for Women in Mathematics. She is exactly what we need to take the school to the next level.” Donatella Danielli Donatella Danielli is the new director of the ASU School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences as of Jan. 1. Download Full Image

Danielli has earned many honors and awards including being named a fellow of the Association for Women in Mathematics, the American Mathematical Society and the Simons Foundation. Her research focuses on the study of analytic and geometric properties of partial differential equations and variational inequalities.

She currently serves as co-editor-in-chief of La Matematica, the official Journal of the Association for Women in Mathematics. La Matematica is a high-quality mathematics research journal, the processes of which reflect current research on equitable practices in STEM publishing and in promoting the flourishing of all mathematicians. The journal seeks to publish a variety of article types in all fields of mathematics: pure, applied and computational. 

During her initial visit to ASU in February 2020, Danielli loved the sunny weather and nature, especially coming from Indiana in the middle of winter. She was drawn to the school by the dynamic environment, the wide range of scientific interests of its faculty, and its excellence in both research and teaching activities.

“I see the role of director as the one of a facilitator, who through core characteristics, such as accountability, authenticity, cooperation, communication, fairness, integrity and support, allows the school members to perform at the best of their abilities and to achieve their professional goals,” Danielli said.

Irina Mitrea, the L.H. Carnell Professor and chair of the mathematics department at Temple University, has known Danielli since 1996.

“Since then our professional paths have intersected periodically and in the last five years we joined forces in spearheading a number of initiatives aimed at building a national and international professional network of women researchers in analysis, including organizing special sessions at regional American Mathematical Society meetings and at the Joint Mathematics Meetings, creating the Women in Analysis Research Network, and editing special volumes in Analysis and Partial Differential Equations. It's always fun and gratifying to work with Donatella — we get a lot done,” Mitrea said.

When asked what she admires most about Danielli, Mitrea said, “Where do I begin? She is truly an inspiration and a role model for many women mathematicians. Her ability to listen, willingness to help, and capacity to lead top my list. Oh, along with her impeccable sense of fashion!”

Here, Danielli talks about her vision for the school, her research and her family.

Question: What is your vision for the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences?

Answer: My goals are inspired by the ASU Charter. I wish to support the teaching mission of the school, enhancing the quality of our offerings with curriculum developments designed with the students’ learning needs in mind. I intend to elevate the national recognition of our school’s research activities by recruiting and retaining exceptional faculty, as well as expanding and strengthening our graduate program. I hope to promote interdisciplinary activities within the school, and to reinforce or build collaborations with other units at ASU and beyond. Finally, I will continue to facilitate outreach activities and engagement with the local community.

Q: The school has theoretical mathematics, applied mathematics, mathematics education and statistics/data science all under one roof here at ASU. Is this unusual for large public universities? Why do you think it is advantageous?

A: I do not think that it is so unusual anymore for large public universities, but ASU has been a precursor in this respect. Mathematics has become more and more interdisciplinary, and the boundaries between different areas have been blurred over time. Mathematical problems arising in “real-life” applications increasingly require a synergy of methods developed in different contexts. Having many groups represented under one roof facilitates the exchange and development of new ideas. I think that ASU exemplifies the concept that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Q: Briefly describe your research.

A: My research is concerned with the study of partial differential equations (PDEs) in general, and of free boundary problems in particular. PDEs are equations which impose relations between the partial derivatives of a multivariable function. They are used to formulate problems such as the propagation of sound or heat, electrostatics, electrodynamics, fluid flow and elasticity. I have always found fascinating that seemingly distinct physical phenomena have identical mathematical formulations, and thus are governed by the same underlying dynamic. Free boundary problems naturally arise in physics and engineering when a conserved quantity or relation changes discontinuously across some value of the variables under consideration. The free boundary appears, for instance, as the interface between a fluid and the air, or between water and ice. The models I am interested appear in the study of flame propagation, fluid filtration, optimal control, elastoplasticity and financial mathematics.

Q: You spent nearly your entire career at Purdue. Why did you feel it was time for a change?

A: I very much enjoyed my time at Purdue, both as a student and as a faculty member — or I would have not stayed as long as I did — but I started to feel as I was reaching a plateau in my career. Once my children were all gone, it was the perfect time to seek a new environment and new challenges.

Q: What are some of the challenges that mathematics departments across the country face today? And how do you plan to address them here at the school?

A: We are in the midst of a pandemic, which has altered almost every aspect of our personal and professional lives. Although we have learned how to function under these incredibly difficult circumstances, and there is light at the end of the tunnel with the vaccine becoming available, the repercussions will be felt for quite some time. For instance, we have to be even more proactive in recruiting and retaining our undergraduate student population, and we have to operate under tighter financial constraints. I am confident that we will push through this phase, thanks especially to the amazing dedication of the faculty and staff, and a careful use of our resources. We are also going through a moment of social reckoning. We have to address the systemic inequities by thinking carefully about our teaching, mentoring and hiring practices. Diversity and inclusion issues will be on the agenda more or less explicitly in many of the school’s activities.

Q: How important is a diverse, equitable and inclusive environment for the school?

A: Cultivating diversity and broadening representation in the mathematical sciences are ”essential components of the innovation engine that drives the nation’s economy” (as identified by the National Science Foundation). Personally, I believe that willful or accidental discrimination of any group deprives the institution, the mathematical community and ultimately all of society of the talents and potential accomplishments of that group.

Q: Describe any specific diversity, equity and inclusion goals you have for the school.

A: Encourage young women and members of underrepresented groups to follow their dreams of pursuing a career in mathematics; present them with positive role models; provide mentoring, as well as moral and financial support, to encourage retention and facilitate success.

Q: Do you identify as part of any underrepresented groups in mathematics? Do you feel you have been supported by those around you?

A: As a woman, I identify as part of an underrepresented group in mathematics. I must say that this was not the case as a student. The majority of my fellow students in Bologna were indeed women. In the math department at Purdue there were both a group of women graduate students and a small number of women faculty, including senior ones, so I did not suffer from a lack of peers or role models. My husband was the first one to encourage me to go to grad school, and has always been extremely supportive. I had a terrific adviser, who always encouraged me even when progress was slow. Still, I did not feel as I belonged, since I was raising a family while working towards a PhD, and I did not know anyone in the same predicament. Being a student member of AWM opened my eyes to the struggles women were facing while pursuing a career in mathematics, and provided networking opportunities which gave me the sense of community I was lacking at Purdue. Because of this, since the beginning of my career I have been deeply committed to create activities aimed at recruiting and retaining women and minorities into the profession. Active mentoring is one of them.

Q: What advice would you give to incoming college students thinking of possibly majoring in mathematics?

A: Mathematics nowadays open many more doors than it used to do in the past. Employers in all sorts of different fields seek mathematicians for their creative and analytical skills. There are great resources on the internet to familiarize yourself with the various math programs, and with the highly ranked careers that are available to math graduates.

Q: Where were you born and where did you grow up?

A: Born and raised in Bologna, Italy.

Q: Briefly tell us about your family when you were growing up in Italy.

A: My father was the CFO in a pharmaceutical company, and my mother was a stay-at-home mom. Neither one of them went to college, but education was extremely important to them and they always encouraged me to do well in school. I liked many subjects in school, but mathematics had always been my favorite. When it was time to go to college, I considered other majors, mostly because the job prospect for math majors were more limited at the time, but in the end I decided to follow my passion. I will be forever grateful to my parents because they supported my choice. Since the University of Bologna is the oldest university in the world, and it had an excellent program in mathematics, I did not even consider going somewhere else. I came to the U.S. for my PhD to follow my husband, who is also a mathematician and had a position at Purdue.

Q: Tell us a little bit about your life and family now.

A: My husband and I have four boys. Our eldest lives in Palo Alto, California, and is pursuing an MD/PhD degree at Stanford University. Our second one lives in San Francisco and is an associate in a financial firm. The third one just graduated from Purdue with a degree in industrial engineering, and the youngest one is a sophomore at Indiana University. No grandchildren yet. Of course my husband is supportive of this adventure, or I would not be here! We were not very familiar with this part of the country before moving here, but we are now captivated by it. We are also happy to be closer to our two oldest sons, although it has been difficult to put so many miles between us and the two younger ones. We are a very close-knit family.

Q: What do you like to do in your spare time for fun?

A: Until recently, with a demanding job and a family, spare time was a rare commodity! I enjoy simple things to relax, like biking and walking, reading a book, watching a movie or a nice dinner.

Rhonda Olson

Manager of Marketing and Communication, School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences


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Students elevating Black cultural awareness through LIFT initiative at ASU

April 7, 2021

George Floyd, the man whose death in police custody launched a thousand protests in 2020, has reignited a critical conversation about systemic racism and social injustice around the world. In 2021, almost one year after Floyd’s death, change is starting to happen.

From conversation to activation, constitution to evolution, ASU is among the global institutions rising to the challenge of change for the betterment of its community and society as whole. The voices of some determined and persistent members of the community underscored the urgency of this challenge and helped bring a new initiative to life. 

In the days and weeks following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, advocates and allies of ASU’s Black student community joined the front lines of a global movement —  in the midst of a pandemic —  to speak up and speak out on long-standing inequalities reawakened by Floyd’s death.

ASU President Michael Crow listened. His response: a 25-point action plan to address issues of bias, discrimination and underrepresentation at ASU. Students at the front lines of the movement soon found themselves at the forefront of a new initiative —  the LIFT initiative — and began work on the complex task of implementing the 25 actions alongside experienced members of ASU’s faculty and staff.

As members of the newly formed Advisory Council on African American Affairs (ACAAA), student members have taken part in meetings, created programming and carried full course loads all while answering the call for transformation at ASU.

Kiara Kennedy 

ACAAA member Kiara Kennedy is a senior studying health sciences in ASU’s College of Health Solutions and a student-athlete on ASU’s softball team. She co-created the group Sun Devils United and the Black Student Athlete Association with other student athletes in response to the mass demonstrations for social justice in 2020. Kennedy says being selected to join the ACAAA and help carry out the actions of the LIFT initiative has been an empowering experience in advocacy and leadership development.

“My hopes for the 25 points are to see these points continually move in the right direction for the future and see a change within ASU,” Kennedy said. “I am truly grateful for this opportunity and so glad I've gotten the chance to work with these wonderful individuals.”

Among the LIFT action items elevated to high priority for student members of the ACAAA is the creation of a multicultural space on ASU’s campus. Cornelius Foxworth II, an ACAAA member and a senior studying psychology, business and criminology is looking forward to seeing the multicultural center come into being.

“Minority students at (predominantly) white institutions often get lost in the crowd or looked at as this token item of diversity and inclusion,” Foxworth said. “If we are going to have minority students at this campus feel comfortable and protected, it’s really important that we have those resources for them.”

The working group leading the efforts on the multicultural center are assessing design options for the proposed space and will be sharing recommendations in the months ahead. 

Keeping in step with the LIFT action item to support student organizations and their initiatives on behalf of Black students, Foxworth and other members of the Black African Coalition student organization, for which he serves as vice president, recently unveiled a new guidebook for current and incoming students. The BAC Guidebook is a virtual pamphlet that shares resources and programming available through the 33 member organizations that compose the BAC. In March, the group also launched its first Black Excellence Experience Tour (BEET) for prospective Black students considering ASU as the next stepping stone in their education, and will be hosting another virtual BEET event in late April.

Cornelius Foxworth II 

Through the LIFT Initiative, the student members of the advisory council are also putting work into promoting the success and well-being of students of color; helping to create graduate assistantships for underrepresented students; and organizing recruitment fairs for undergraduates of color across all disciplines.

Another high priority for the students of the advisory council is the effort to reimagine and enhance the efforts of the campus police force to meet the overall needs of the ASU community. The effort is a direct response to criticism that has been leveled against policing practices across the nation in the aftermath of the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and many others.

Kennedy says this action item in the LIFT initiative is necessary, especially in the current social climate. She says students need to be assured that campus police are here to protect all students equally regardless of race, and that starts with making sure that police have the right training and tools to do just that.

“This is how students feel personally,” Kennedy said, “and (the police) need to be able to hear how students feel because it’s really us that are keeping the campus going, which is why this initiative is super important.”

The efforts of the ACAAA’s student members have left a big impression on other council members including co-chairs Colleen Jennings-Roggensack and Jeffrey Wilson. 

“The passion that the students bring is exciting,” said Jennings-Roggensack, vice president of ASU’s cultural affairs.

Wilson, a senior faculty member in the W. P. Carey School of Business, added that the students are honing their negotiation skills through their work in the council.

Jennings-Roggensack and Wilson both agree that everyone is learning lessons from each other in the process. They say having the students as part of the council has helped fuel the commitment that all the LIFT committee members have for the initiative.

Learn more about the LIFT initiative and the Advisory Council on African American Affairs.

Sr. Media Relations Officer , Media Relations & Strategic Communications


Cox Collaboratory creates smart solutions to improve on-campus transportation

April 7, 2021

This academic year alone, Arizona State University's Student Accessibility and Inclusive Learning Services (SAILS) has served more than 7,000 on-campus and online students and faculty, with about 10 to 20 new registration forms coming in daily.

SAILS, formerly the Disability Resource Center, provides accommodations like testing assistance, note-taking services and alternative format services, receiving text materials in audio text, Braille, large print and more. DART Cart DART carts provide on-campus transportation for students, faculty and staff. Download Full Image

Another key service SAILS provides is on-campus transportation to students, faculty and staff through DART Transportation Services. However, the process for students to register for the DART program and track their rides was outdated.

To improve user experience for students and create efficiencies for their staff, they partnered with the Cox Connected Environments Collaboratory to explore new processes and technologies.

Today, SAILS and the Cox Collaboratory are working together to tackle two projects: a system to better track the transportation used in the DART programs and an interface and mobile app that improves the experience — for example, making it easier to request, track and cancel rides — for students, faculty and staff.

Here, Chad Price, ASU director of education development and disability resources, shares more about SAILS and the process of working with the Cox Collaboratory, as well as their hopes for the project and advice for others who are in need of tech solutions.

Chad Price

Question: Introduce us to SAILS and how you support the Sun Devil community.

Answer: Our big focus is ensuring students have access to their educational experience at ASU. We are a resource for students who have disabilities. After meeting with students to determine the impact of their disability, we are able to ascertain the kind of accommodations that will ensure that they have the right kinds of access to succeed.

One of those accommodations is through DART, which helps transport Sun Devils with a permanent or temporary physical disability that prevents them from getting around campus in a reasonable amount of time.

Q: What are the challenges that SAILS is exploring with the Cox Collaboratory?

A: Our challenge was identifying a product to help manage scheduling and tracking rides, for both staff and students, that was specific to a college environment. We envisioned something like Lyft or Uber geared towards a campus.

We wanted to find a way that we can help track our carts to know where they were at any given time, which would ultimately improve our scheduling. What was important to us was making sure that students were more informed about their upcoming rides.

Q: How has your process been working with Cox and what is the current status of the project?

A: In the beginning, they sat down with us and really heard what we were looking for and what we're trying to accomplish. 

After building out a course of action together, they started to develop prototypes and models for us to begin testing. One of the things that we were looking at was a GPS-like system that we started testing using our LoRA network — which is a wireless technology that offers long range, low-power and secure data transmission. We tested the system on an Android device, a tablet, a cell phone to understand how different devices would function in the environment. At the same time, they put together programs to help track data. 

We’ve continued to meet regularly for them to give us feedback and updates, and with ASU’s University Technology Office, who is also working on user interface aspects for us. The Cox Collaboratory team even talked to some of our riders to get input from them to see what their experience was and where we could improve. 

It’s been fun to see the design process of what the Cox team is trying to accomplish based on the input from us, the customer, and to look at all of the stakeholders that would be involved.

Q: What have been some of the challenges or successes throughout the project?

A: Working through the technical aspects of it from our side, like the LoRA system, has been most challenging. Some of our staff aren't as familiar with the technology that is being used, so it’s a learning curve. Technical challenges include making sure that sensors are placed properly on the carts to be able to track them and how it might be beneficial for us to understand that.

But, overall, I can't think of a lot of challenges that have come up because everybody's been so good at communicating and keeping us up to up to date on what's happening.

For successes, I am seeing some of the things that are being done to create this product — using these sensors within the larger system and developing the online interface — and they’re pretty amazing. The ultimate goal is to make things more accessible.

Q: How can this tech solution help others?

A: Even though we're a small-scale operation of DART services, what we're working on could have value in lots of different places from a city — maybe paratransit, for example — and other universities facing similar challenges. There's a lot of potential available going through the process, and it's just finding where those needs are and using this solution.

Q: What advice would you give to others who on campus may have a tech problem that could benefit from the Cox Collaboratory?

A: Ask questions and share your challenges. It was validating to have people hear what we're saying and realize there’s definitely an opportunity. We rely on the Collaboratory to work on a solution.

Everybody that we’ve had an opportunity to work with through the Collaboratory — that’s both Cox and UTO — they’ve been fantastic. Having our team be hands-on by asking questions and getting us involved, leading us through the process, that has made our experience very positive. We can't wait to get our hands on the product and run with it.

Do you have a big idea on how to solve a problem through smart tech? Share it here.

Stephanie King

Content Strategist, University Technology Office