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ASU KEDtalks: Tales of passion and perseverance

Helping humans and robots work as teams, disarming disinformation, fighting cancer with our own immune systems — these are just a few of the big ideas that ASU researchers are exploring. Learn about their work and what drives them in our latest season of ASU KEDtalks.

Through our final season of ASU KEDtalks, we dove into ocean microplastics, explored insights from our poop and shed light on our shadow selves. From searching for answers across the world to finding them within ourselves, Arizona State University researchers shared their passions and inspirations throughout this season.

Can innovation exist without soul work?

How have Christian individualism and Eastern metaphysics impacted the way we innovate, learn and grow? 

Gaymon Bennett, associate professor of religion, science and technology, studies modernity and contemporary religion and biotechnology. He explores the connection between innovation and knowing our inner selves. 

Bennett takes us on a journey of what ifs, asking deep questions about how the darkest parts of ourselves can influence how we create. “This countercultural mix posits that when we experience the truest forms of ourselves, we discover a transcendent connection to all of reality, an oceanic experience of self and world,” he says. 

Preventing predictable disasters

Living in New Orleans for a decade, and in Phoenix for almost two, Duke Reiter witnessed a dichotomy of disasters occurring along the same road, the I-10. 

Reiter, senior advisor to the president at ASU, started the Ten Across Project to address the spectrum of social and environmental issues that span the 2,400-mile stretch from the Pacific to the Atlantic. From water and energy to global trade and immigration, major challenges face the major cities along the I-10. 

What poop says about your health

Have you ever wondered what your poop says about you? Meli’sa Crawford has. Crawford is an ASU PhD candidate in biology, and she studies poop to understand the microbes that live in our guts. Her story starts in South Phoenix, a food desert where quality groceries like fresh fruits and vegetables weren’t always available.

Food has a big impact on the gut microbiome, which in turn plays a big role in a person’s health. The more diverse it is, the healthier that person is likely to be. With diseases like obesity and type 2 diabetes widely spread through our society, it pays off to pay attention to your poop. 

Luminosity — where creative genius works

From Silicon Valley to ASU, moonshot ideas have always been a part of Mark Naufel’s wheelhouse. Just a few years ago when Naufel was 23, ASU President Michael Crow selected him to lead an interdisciplinary team of students to pursue big ideas to make the world a better place. 

They work on projects like AI companions to help people learn, autonomous safety drone systems, and recently, developing a system to rapidly produce personal protective equipment for health care workers on the front lines of COVID-19. 

The Luminosity Lab at ASU encourages students to step outside of the box in a very real way. Naufel tells his students, “You are being asked to do something that no one’s ever done before. There’s no playbook to innovation. You’re here to use your creative genius to find a solution to this problem.”

A ‘living drug’ that beats cancer

Karen Anderson, a researcher at ASU’s Biodesign Institute and a clinician at Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona, spends her time out of the clinic studying immunotherapy, a new cancer treatment. 

Immunotherapy increases the antibodies in a cancer patient’s system to give them a better chance at fighting the cancer. This treatment has only become common practice in the last few years and can treat patients with different forms of cancer.

“It’s sort of like the immune system sees it, the cancer’s there, but neither of them are winning. You are at a truce, but a truce means the cancer is not growing and that is a win,” she said. 

How to defend against fake news

Beginning graduate school on September 11, 2001 influenced the direction of Scott Ruston’s career. The ASU research scientist studies weaponized narrative, also known as disinformation — sometimes called fake news. He looks at ways to counter those narratives within ASU’s Global Security Initiative. 

His goal is to understand what makes people believe fake news and help to develop better technologies to identify and combat disinformation.

“Rumors, propaganda, all of these things serve to divide us. They serve to undermine our faith in democratic institutions and fundamental American values. And in that way, I see rumors and disinformation as insidious, as dangerous as those 9/11 attacks, and that’s what keeps me up at night. But it also keeps me in the lab looking for new ways to defend against it,” Ruston said. 

Autonomy isn’t autonomous

Nancy Cooke, an ASU professor of human systems engineering, is happy to not be independent. She’s glad she’s part of an interdependent system that thrives on human connection and collaboration with others. In her work, she studies how humans connect and collaborate with some very different teammates — robots and artificial intelligence.

Humans and AI will only work with each other more as the world grows increasingly digital. Whether you’re having Amazon bring you the latest Alexa remote, or getting radiation to treat cancer, artificial intelligence is working alongside humans in most facets of our lives. 

Resilience in materials and in life

Regents’ Professor Aditi Chattopadhyay’s career has been defined by resistance, both in terms of personal obstacles and professional research. An aerospace engineer and interdisciplinary problem solver, Aditi examines the stresses placed on materials and why they fail on multiple length scales, in pursuit of stronger, more resilient materials. 

Her tenacity has informed not only novel materials, but her teaching ethos and the culture of her lab, the Adaptive Intelligent Materials and Systems Center. “There is no preset boundary in research,” she says. 

Learn more about Aditi’s story and how she has solved problems and advanced aerospace engineering by not taking “no” for an answer.

Swimming in plastic

We have all heard that straws are bad for the ocean, recycling is good for the environment and you should bring your own bags to the grocery store. But, why? ASU PhD student Charlie Rolsky can tell us. He studies microplastics in the ocean, and he does so through examining large marine mammals’ poop. 

Microplastics from the clothes we wear, the plastic we throw away and many other sources exist in pretty much every ocean ecosystem. Fish eat small organisms that have ingested these microplastics. Larger fish eat these fish, and so do marine mammals. These are the same fish we eat, too. 

“Our oceans are the food we eat, the air we breathe, and places we associate with happiness. As long as those facts remain, so should our fight to protect them,” he says.