Everything from fleeting to grandiose: ASU researchers talk up science at AAAS


Skip Derra

By Margaret Coulombe, Skip Derra, Jenny Green, Richard Harth and Carol Hughes

From detecting material phenomena at the microscale via femotsecond laser pulses, to applying the laws of physics to intergalactic travel, Arizona State University researchers talked up science and research advances at the 2012 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). This year’s meeting took place Feb. 16-20, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.  

The annual meeting is the premier meeting for scientists and researchers to gather to discuss their latest findings. Below are the topics that ASU researchers covered.

Battling bugs with a bite
Noroviruses are believed to make up half of all food-borne disease outbreaks in the United States, causing an incapacitating (and often violent) stomach flu. These notorious human pathogens are responsible for 90 percent of epidemic nonbacterial outbreaks of gastroenteritis around the world.

Charles Arntzen, a Regents’ Professor in ASU’s Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology at the Biodesign Institut­e, talked about a norovirus vaccine.

Arntzen detailed the prospects for a successful vaccine to prevent norovirus infection, based on virus-like particles (VLPs), which are able to mimic actual noroviruses, stimulating a robust immune response without producing disease symptoms. Due to the frequent mutation of noroviruses, vaccine candidates will need to be adaptable for alternate strains of the pathogen – much the way current vaccines for influenza are modified to keep pace with viral evolution. New strategies for formulating and biomanufacturing such vaccines offer renewed hope for norovirus vaccine development in the near future.

Brightening solar
Solar energy is abundant. Photosynthesis, the process that captures solar and converts it into various forms of energy, has been around for ages. Unfortunately, the photosynthesis process is inefficient. That may now change.

A limiting factor in photosynthesis efficiency has been that under high-light conditions, a chemical reaction takes place where the enzyme that catalyzes the rate-limiting step in carbon dioxide fixation becomes saturated; the process of producing carbohydrates slows down; and the majority of absorbed light energy is lost as heat, said Anne Jones, an assistant professor in ASU’s chemistry and biochemistry department.

In essence, Jones explained at AAAS that the organism has access to substantial light energy but does not have the catalytic capacity to convert this energy to stored fuels. Jones then described a novel idea to harness this excess solar energy and substantially enhance the efficiency of photosynthesis by using biological nanowires to transfer energy absorbed in a photosynthetic, light-harvesting cell to a second, fuel-producing cell. The project represents a radical approach to augment and surpass photosynthetic strategies observed in nature by engineering modular division of labor through electrical connectivity.

Outrunning X-ray damage
X-ray crystallography is a powerful imaging method that can reveal structure and function of many biological molecules, including drugs, proteins and nucleic acids. The problems have been growing large enough crystals to use and sample damage caused by the X-rays.

John C.H. Spence, a Regents Professor in ASU’s Department of Physics, reported on progress made in efforts to “outrun” the X-ray damage by demonstrating a serial snapshot femtosecond (10-15 second) diffraction (SFX) from nanocrystals using the world’s first hard X-ray laser. He reported on using the technique on photosystem I nanocrystals.

“These are early days for femtosecond diffractive imaging,” noted Spence, who provided the theory and much of the data analysis, and has worked with a list of collaborators including Henry Chapman at University of California-Davis.

“But first indications are that high-resolution data can now be obtained at the nanoscale by this method,” Spence said. “If we can indeed ‘outrun’ the many radiation-damage processes in this way, it will open the way to future experiments on laser-excited samples, 3-D image reconstruction and a host of other experiments on fast imaging, all directed to the grand challenge of obtaining movies showing molecules at work.”

'Star Trek' meets today’s physics
Using an iconic television and movie series such as “Star Trek” to spur interest in science is kind of a no brainer for Lawrence Krauss, ASU Foundation Professor and director of the Origins Project at ASU. Talking during a session on “Using Pop Culture to Slip Science into the Mainstream,” Krauss said: “A lot of people are interested in science, but they don’t know they are interested in science, and this was a great way to get them started. I’ve used the fun of ‘Star Trek’ to pique their interest in physics.”

Krauss’s presentation played off of his best-selling book “The Physics of Star Trek,” which examined some of the advanced technologies proposed in the show and puts them in context to our current understanding of physics. For example, considering the Enterprise’s inertial dampers leads to a discussion of the forces of gravity and acceleration and then moves on to more complex ideas, such as time travel, warp drives and alternate universes.

While discussing the current state of knowledge in cosmology, and the limits of our knowledge, Krauss summarized some of the arguments from his new book, “A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing.” Krauss states in the book that the current understanding of physics suggests that the Universe could have naturally evolved from nothing.

“Everything we know about the Universe allows for it to come from nothing, and moreover, all of the data are consistent with this possibility,” Krauss said. “That this is even plausible is truly remarkable, and worth sharing.”

Why it’s a dry heat
Phoenix, the sixth largest U.S. city, is vulnerable to water shortages even without climate change, but climate change could help the sprawling Valley rein in its water demand, according to research conducted at the Decision Center for a Desert City (DCDC) at Arizona State University.

“Scientists, decision-makers and the general public have different perceptions of Phoenix’s water problems,” said Patricia Gober, a geographer and senior sustainability scientist at ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability. “Scientists see a demand problem, decision-makers see a supply problem, and residents see someone else’s problem,” said Gober.

Gober presented her findings from simulation modeling during an AAAS session on water security. Using WaterSim 4.0, an integrated simulation model, DCDC researchers explored decision tradeoffs for a range of climate and policy futures.

Results indicated that business-as-usual growth and current lifestyles will stress regional water supplies even without climate change, she said. But climate change, according to Gober, “offers us the opportunity to think seriously about what kind of future we want and what we are willing to do to get there. We can build a less climate-sensitive city than we now have.”

Societal survival lessons
Today’s society struggles with becoming more ecologically sustainable. How can we plan sustainably for an unknowable future outcome? ASU anthropologist Michelle Hegmon says, look back to simpler times.

Hegmon, a professor in ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change, believes that there is power in human history and experience.

“Understanding how different societies adapted to change and what it was like to live in those societies reveals ways to approach our own modern social dilemmas,” she said.

Hegmon investigates these issues by drawing on seven dimensions of human security. She has developed methods of applying these dimensions – originally intended for today’s world – to understand human experience in the archaeologically known past. Hegmon’s research focuses on decades of work she and ASU colleague Margaret Nelson have done in the Mimbres region of southwest New Mexico. The two demonstrated that what had been perceived as the end of the Mimbres culture (the disappearance of a spectacular style of pottery) was actually a reorganization, in which people left their large villages, relocated to smaller hamlets scattered across the region, and began to make and use new styles.

Hegmon’s study of this transition offers lessons about the pressures that face societies in times of changing climate. She notes that “there are always tradeoffs. With the right methods and questions, these new methods can humanize our understanding of what it was like to live in other times and places,” Hegmon added. “That knowledge, even if it isn’t always rosy, is critical to thinking about and developing solutions for our choices during a time of climactic change.”

The road to modernization
The modernization of isolated villages brings about a change in human information flow patterns that not only destroys the social fabric of the community, but also the economy and the landscape, according to Sander van der Leeuw, a Senior Sustainability Scientist at ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability.

Van der Leeuw, an archaeologist and anthropologist specializing in the long-term impacts of human activity on the landscape, studied the consequences of the construction of roads after World War II in Epirus, a region dotted with rural villages shared by Greece and Albania. He looked at how information flow patterns were changed by the building of roads and how the mindset of the people in the villages was transformed as a consequence.

“The roads brought the villages into the modern world, which is essentially a globalization process,” said van der Leeuw. “Initially, the information network in those very close-knit communities was centered on the village, leading to a very homogeneous ‘information pool.’ Once there were roads, little by little, new connections were made between people in the villages and people in the nearby larger town. Once the roads were built each village was confronted by a choice: ‘Do I go the urban way or do I stay rural?’ and that had an impact on the choices people made in how the inhabitants managed the landscape,” he said.

“What you see here is how tiny things, and in particular the opening up of a rural isolated community to the world’s system, completely changes the society, the subsistence, the vegetation, other aspects of the environment. You can see how a whole system completely shifts simply by tying it into the world system,” said van der Leeuw, who also is dean of the School of Sustainability and a professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change.

Global vs. local
Think globally, act locally is easy to say, but not as easy to do. Ann Kinzig, a professor in ASU’s School of Life Sciences, said achieving the right balance is key.

The global nature of drivers and impacts of climate change dictate global collective action for mitigation, Kinzig said. Distinctive local economic, social, cultural and ecological contexts limit the capacity for “one size fits all” approaches. How much of a local perspective needs to be incorporated? If too little, the solutions will fail. If too much, the solutions may never be reached. This is why the right balance must be struck to create global resolve that can translate into local action.

Expanding the model of a modern major scientist
Science traditionally has been the bastion of specific disciplines, but now the accent is on collaboration and transdisciplinary practice to address complex, cross-cutting problems in health, energy, agriculture, education and conservation.

So how does an agency, a foundation, a policymaker or an institution judge individual contributions in collaborative efforts? Should existing evaluation tools still,  in fact, be centered on traditional individual reward mechanisms? 

James Collins, a professor of in ASU’s School of Life Sciences, examined how the transformation in scientific practice affects the business of how science is done.

“Thinking about the goals of science and how interdisciplinary, collaborative approaches can help to achieve them is an important challenge to the standard independent investigator model of scientific practice,” Collins said. “The challenge going forward is creating environments for individuals and institutions that foster interdisciplinary innovation within cultures adapted to reward disciplinary excellence. One outcome of this session would be examples of what makes for successful collaborations and how we might use such things as electronic communication and information resources to tackle the complex problems of the 21st century on a global scale through international, interdisciplinary efforts.”

Salomon’s House
Salomon’s House, a fictional institution in Sir Francis Bacon’s utopian work “New Atlantis” (published in 1627), stood as an exemplar of interdisciplinary inquiry undertaken for the benefit of all societies. As scientists, administrators and policymakers today struggle with enacting effective interdisciplinary research, maybe they can learn something from the ideals of Salomon’s House, said Edward Hackett, a professor in ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change.

In his presentation, Hackett outlined a theory of intellectual fusion in collaborative research, illustrated with empirical examples, and he discussed its implications for the design and operation of research organizations. At the heart is a model of group interaction that achieves intellectual fusion through a combination of capital, diversity, intensity and duration. Hackett then talked about how that model might work with new forms of research organization (such as synthesis centers), and he imagined how Salomon’s House might now look in order to meet today’s challenges.