News and Updates


By Lori Prause

All good stories have adventure, romance, and an unsolvable murder. This story is therefore disqualified as ‘good’, but don’t fret because randomness and humor often are great substitutes.

Our story begins with 16 dwarfs (geology students), three good fairies (very capable teaching assistants), and a Wizard (the wise Professor Sharp). Many of the dwarfs you already know from another classic story, such as Dopey, Sneezy, Grouchy, and Happy, but a few new characters join this tale—Farty , Belchy, Squirmy, Chatty….etc. The good fairies cook and clean, hovering around the dwarfs so they stay safe, have full tummies, and don’t squabble, but their greatest task is to make sure the dwarfs stay focused when they are supposed to be grinding out reports on the rented HP computers. The dwarfs have great respect for the Wizard and try constantly to learn the secrets that churn in his brain, but when they get close to figuring something out, he squints his eyes sideways and says, “Ah……ah………ah.”

Dwarfs naturally belong in the woods, so that is where their tents are pitched. There are tiny, “how-does-a-big-guy-like-you-fit-into-that?” type tents, dome tents that look like the cover to a sewage treatment plants, and a Queen of Sheba tent complete with beads in the doorway and musicians playing tambourines. Then there are the work tents that at night become four glowing oracles, with the soft hum of a Honda 2000 generator in the background. All is well and good until “cough... cough... sputter,” and the lights go out. The dwarfs close their eyes for a three minute nap while one of the good fairies fills the tank with carbon emitting fuel and the lights go back on.

There is a bit of natural selection between the work tents. No assignments were made as to who sits by whom, but like attracts like. There is the “Happy Tent,” filled with screams of Led Zeppelin, belching, and farting, followed by peals of laughter. There is the “Serious Student Tent,” where the dwarfs all have headphones, hunch over their computers with intense glares, and are startled into reality when called for dinner. Lastly, there is the “We Are All in This Together Tent,” where common phrases are heard like “how do you spell...?” and “please pass the white out... again.”

The dwarfs arise early to coffee and a cold breakfast, kindly provided by the good fairies. They pack their lunches, strap on their tool belts, and whistle off to work. Their days are filled with perilous adventures, such as losing a hammer while doing a triple axel into a swimming hole. At times they run into ticked off rattlesnakes that are out looking for a new girlfriend and are annoyed by the dwarfs traipsing around while they are making their moves. The dwarfs are ripped and torn when the evil spirit of Mirkwood Forest comes alive clawing and grabbing at every available body part. As they return to camp, weary and forlorn, the good fairies flutter and conjure up vital refreshing nourishment of Gatorade, pretzels, salsa, and chips.

All was well in the contented little camp until news came of an evil bear beast in the vicinity. Boot-legged snacks and horded delicacies hidden by the dwarfs in their tents were moved into the cars, as to not attract the beast. With trepidation, all went warily off to bed. The first voice heard in the morning was from Baldy, the eldest and wisest dwarf yelling, “Get! Get out of here!” He then stabbed the beast with his lethal laser pointer and it went crying and limping away. Not that no damage was done to Baldy’s tent. This is just one more proof to be added to the volumes of instances already documented that duct tape can fix anything.

The camp is filled with stations. There is the smoking section where art is made in the air with billowing smoke, the Jack and the Bean Stalk station where dwarfs hang from hammocks with stocking caps and wide grins on their faces, the eyebrow plucking station where female dwarfs are saved from the dreaded uni-brow, and the chill out, jam out, stinky feet out station.

The dwarfs have an affinity for rocks because dwarf bodies are composed of nearly 90 percent (by volume) of internal, magical, rock attracting magnetite. They were born that way, so as with all disabilities they should be treated with compassion and understanding. If they see a rock, they pick it up. If they don’t see it, it just jumps into their pockets, tool belt, or backpack. They surround themselves with these ornamental gems. There are rocks on the tables where they work, around the fire ring, in the kitchen, in their computer bags, and in their dreams. No rock is ugly to them. For some reason the pleasure taken in adoring a rock is increased when they hit it violently with a hammer. Then the dwarf smiles at the crumbled waste as the rock’s true beauty is revealed.

Well, all good (and bad) stories come to an end. The work got done at camp and none of the dwarfs were squashed, lost (permanently), eaten, or hung. The good fairies packed up the tents for another day, and the Wizard squinted his eyes sideways, smiled, and said, “Ah…ah……ah.”


For many science undergraduates, research experience can sometimes be difficult to achieve. A number of programs have become available to give undergraduate students much needed research experience, like NASA’s Space Grant program, and others such as the program offered by The Consortium for Undergraduate Research and Education in Astronomy (CUREA).

The CUREA program is run by Paula Turner (Kenyon College), and offered yearly. Designed to prepare undergraduate students for science research, the two-week program at the historic Mt. Wilson Observatory consists of a rigorous astronomy curriculum, combined with several field trips to locations such as NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology.

This year, two SESE undergrad students, Fran Pavlicko and Ray Sanders, were accepted to the CUREA program. Having access to facilities at Mt. WIlson Observatory, Pavlicko chose to perform solar research using the historic Snow Telescope. By performing detailed spectroscopic analysis, Pavlicko was able to show conclusive evidence for the differential rotation of our sun.

“The entire experience was absolutely incredible, especially for an undergraduate student seeking the necessary knowledge and practical skills needed to perform high quality research having the potential for publishable results. Every staff member involved in this program did an outstanding job teaching and assisting each student, and provided excellent personalized attention that is rarely matched in the traditional university campus setting,” says Pavlicko.

Opting to study the night skies, Sanders chose to perform detailed photometry on an understudied binary star system in the constellation Aquila. By utilizing different color filters, Sanders was able to map changes in the apparent color of the system to the orbital period. Additionally, by collecting data with different color filters, Sanders was able to establish magnitude values that had not been collected for the binary system.

While the program was centered on astronomy research, some time was set aside for fun. In addition to the tours of JPL and Caltech, CUREA participants received several behind-the-scenes tours of key facilities at Mt. WIlson, including the 100” and 60” telescopes, as well as the 60’ and 150’ solar telescope towers. During the program, students had two nights to observe the night skies with the 60” reflecting telescope. Being able to see color in objects like the Ring Nebula, and the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules was a breathtaking experience for the students. When looking at the Moon and Saturn, the views through the custom 4” diameter eyepiece made it feel like an approach in a space ship.

Aside from the workshops and facility tours, many of the CUREA volunteers are established astronomers and researchers, which provided students with valuable mentoring and project feedback. Given the scenic views on Mt. WIlson, highly knowledgeable instructors, and the incredible equipment available, one could find it difficult to leave at the end of the workshop.

"The CUREA program is a great way to gain hands-on experience in making astronomical observations and understanding the process of observational astrophysics research,” says Turner. “The schedule is packed with classes, tours, and observing time - day and night - to help participants make the most of the opportunity to live and work at this historic observatory. And the program is unique, to my knowledge, in its dual focus on solar and stellar astrophysics. Directing this program over the past decade has been the most fun I have doing astronomy."

If you’d like to learn more about the The Consortium for Undergraduate Research and Education in Astronomy (CUREA), visit:

(By Ray Sanders)

Photo of Sanders and Pavlicko


The landing on Mars of Curiosity – NASA's biggest, newest, and most capable rover – will wrap up a STEM learning conference for educators at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory by the Mars Education Program of Arizona State University. The Mars Education Program is at the Mars Space Flight Facility, part of the School of Earth and Space Exploration on the Tempe campus.

"Bring 'Curiosity' into your classroom!" is the theme of the conference to take place Aug. 3-5, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. The Curiosity rover is scheduled to land on Mars Sunday night, Aug. 5, at 10:30 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time/Mountain Standard Time.

"Landing on Mars is really hard. No one knows what will happen," says Sheri Klug Boonstra, director of the Mars Education Program and organizer of the conference. "Our goal in this conference is to bring educators to a place where they'll see planetary exploration history being made."

ASU's Mars Education Program, begun in 1992, has helped more than 40,000 students (grades K through early college) learn about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects. The program provides exciting STEM-based activities with a Mars focus; it also gives students authentic research opportunities using a camera orbiting Mars, through its Mars Student Imaging Project.

The program's activities, well-tested and national standards-aligned, key off the excitement of Mars exploration to engage students' interest and teach them scientific methods and thinking.

"We hope that educators who attend will carry back to their classrooms the thrill of exploring Mars," says Klug Boonstra. "And use the classroom activities we'll give them to build their students' skills in STEM subjects."

For more about the conference, go to

Image: ASU's Mars Education Program helps teachers develop STEM skills in their students by bringing the excitement of exploring Mars to the classroom. A conference for educators organized by the Mars Education Program will conclude on August 5 with the landing of NASA's new Mars rover, Curiosity. Photo by: NASA/JPL-Caltech

(Robert Burnham)


New publication includes essay by Professor Jim Bell

On July 19, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released a new volume of the journal Daedalus, titled “Science in the 21st Century,” in which 10 prominent scientists explore emerging advances in their fields and respond to the question, “What secrets will science unlock in the coming decades?”

Among the essays included in the volume is: “The Search for Habitable Worlds: Planetary Exploration in the 21st Century,” by Professor Jim Bell.

In “The Search for Habitable Worlds: Planetary Exploration in the 21st Century,” astronomer and planetary scientist Jim Bell foresees huge breakthroughs within the coming decades in the quest for life-supporting environments beyond Earth. He notes that recent discoveries of organisms able to thrive in environments previously believed too harsh to support life–miles below the ocean’s surface and deep in the Earth’s crust, for example–broaden the possibility that habitable environments exist on other planets. Planetary scientists, Bell writes, have “a list of the ‘greatest hits’ destinations” within our own solar system that will be observable through “more capable (and complex) human exploration.”

Print and Kindle copies of the Summer 2012 Daedalus can be ordered at:


ASU-led team to use cloud platform to deliver drought information to aid risk management

Droughts are more than simply climate phenomena. They can have profound social, environmental, and economic impacts and can also be a major threat to food security throughout the world. Though much progress has been made in monitoring droughts and understanding their causes, there is still a strong need for better precision in both the monitoring and forecasting of droughts. A team lead by Arizona State University researchers seeks to enable the move from a reactive to a more proactive approach to droughts by developing new capabilities to conduct global drought monitoring using satellite detection of water stress and hydrologic models applied at regional scales.

Under the direction of ASU hydrologist Enrique Vivoni, a contingent of ASU researchers is leading a group from NASA Ames, California State University at Monterey Bay and a non-profit research and development organization known as Planetary Skin Institute (PSI) in integrating multi-resolution, remote sensing-based drought indices into an online, cloud computing-based visualization platform.

Vivoni’s research group was selected for a NASA project in the Earth Science Applications: Water Resources competition, which specifically sought projects able to leverage NASA capabilities to advance their skill to monitor, identify, assess, predict, and respond to water resource deficits. The NASA project led by the ASU team will build on a concept prototype seeded by PSI.

“ASU’s portfolio of earth and space research has enabled us to compete at NASA for new efforts in the application of hydrologic remote sensing and informatics,” explains Vivoni, an associate professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. “We are really excited to be leading a multi-institutional project to develop drought monitoring tools. These will have applications in semiarid regions with large agricultural regions across the world, including in Arizona.

“We have selected to use a water stress index to conduct drought monitoring specifically in drought-prone areas of northwest Mexico and northeast Brazil given their critical importance,” adds Vivoni. “To do so, we will expand the capabilities of a cloud-based geospatial platform to incorporate drought products using remote sensing data and hydrologic model outputs. We hypothesize that the cloud-based platform will be a game-changing approach for drought monitoring, assessment and prediction at a range of scales.”

Teji Abraham, chief development officer for PSI considers “the drought products from this project very complementary and important for the Open Innovation program that PSI is partnering with Brazil's Ministry of Science, Technology, & Innovation – especially for timely risk management given the propensity of drought in northeast Brazil. In collaboration with this group of partners, PSI also intends to extend this new approach in the future to other countries in Asia and Africa that are particularly susceptible to drought.”

Drought Products
The drought products will be spatial maps provided approximately every two weeks that will show drought severity over the two countries of interest (Brazil and Mexico) at high resolution (4 to 8 kilometers) and over the globe at lower resolution (16 to 32 km). The drought maps will be derived from satellite remote sensing observations, specifically the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) sensor on board the Earth Observing System Aqua and Terra satellites. These will be complemented with auxiliary data such as irrigation sectors, river basins, stream networks, reservoirs, political boundaries, temperature and precipitation, among others.

This data will be integrated into a cloud-based platform, called Drought ALERTS (short for Automated Land change Evaluation, Reporting and Tracking System). This global visualization system will overlay standard maps with scientific products related to natural resources management for near real-time global detection of water stress at multiple resolutions.

Targeted at national water managers, irrigation districts, policymakers and scientific communities, Drought ALERTS is designed to engage stakeholders and decision-makers in local to regional problems concerned with natural resources and risk management and will provide timely detection of drought events on a global basis with a high degree of accuracy.

“This innovative platform will utilize remote sensing products from low-Earth orbiting satellites to produce drought indices. It will help form the basis for resource allocation decisions and it will be refined over time as we find ways to make it better reflect the needs of decision-makers and others who use the information,” says Vivoni.

“PSI sees this as an important step forward in globally scaling drought monitoring capabilities. In partnership with PSI’s regional partners, we expect this project to help bridge the gap between scientists and decision makers by integrating drought data products into a decision planning environment that enables the data to be analyzed in context for making holistic decisions,” adds Abraham.

Current drought monitors, such as the US drought monitor, rely on assembling precipitation data from rain gauges throughout a region about once every week. The US drought monitor is a great resource that has improved US-based efforts with respect to what was available even five years ago; however, this can lead to large errors in developing countries as instrument networks there are sparse or inconsistent. Remote sensing products provide an alternative view of drought by making inferences based on vegetation status and land surface temperature.

Drought ALERTS, and similar products, could serve as the backbone of national drought monitoring in many developing countries to improve drought detection, awareness and decision-making capabilities. For example, the study areas in northwest Mexico and northeast Brazil are currently undergoing severe multi-year droughts affecting agricultural production. These advances can yield significant cost savings through reduced risks across several water demand sectors including food production and security, hydropower generation, and natural ecosystem services.

End Users
The end users will range from local to country-level decision makers that are involved in water, land and natural resources management. Vivoni and his collaborators have partnered with a large irrigation district in Mexico and a federal emergency management agency in Brazil that are interested in drought forecasts.

“The Yaqui Valley Irrigation District in Sonora, Mexico is a major producer of wheat. The Center for Monitoring of Natural Disasters in Brazil is a new agency in charge of nation-wide alerts. Both of these institutions – and others that will join as the program develops – will have access to tailored scientific products related to drought,” explains Vivoni.

Users will be able to query, visualize and plot metrics that explore the different dimensions of drought, including the precipitation and temperature forcing and the vegetation response. Summary statistics, such as drought duration and intensity, will be provided to help them gauge the level of the threat.

Drought monitoring is but the first step in a larger vision. Vivoni intends to expand this drought effort into a hydrological risk monitoring platform that also deals with floods, landslides, erosion potential, etc. to provide a more complete picture of global water excess and water limitations.

“Eventually, the drought monitor will also help our undergraduate and graduate students interact, query and explore real-time remote sensing data that describe changes in the hydrological cycle over their regions of interest. By bringing research products into classroom activities, our student learning experiences will be enriched,” adds Vivoni.

For more information:
ASU Hydrology:
Planetary Skin Institute:
NASA Applied Sciences Program website:

Caption: PSI ALERTS, a platform for visualizing natural resources and aiding decisions. Here, ALERTS shows vegetation disturbances derived from 1-kilometer MODIS (gridded maps), the locations of identified disturbances (circles) and Enhanced Vegetation Index (EVI) time series at a disturbance location. Credit: Planetary Skin Institute


(Nikki Cassis)


The Arizona Daily Star's Centennial salute to science in Arizona runs all summer. Each day, for 100 days, they'll record a milestone in the state's scientific history. On July 19, Phil Christensen was highlighted for his remote sensing instruments that helped find proof that water once existed on Mars.


Read the full story here


Today, Fox news reporter Kristin Anderson interviewed Professor Jim Bell to discuss ASU's role with NASA's Mars Science Laboratory. You can watch the interview here:

If all goes according to plan, Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover, dubbed Curiosity, will land at Gale Crater on Mars August 5. Carrying an advanced suite of scientific instruments, the Mini-Cooper-size rover will explore a gigantic “history book” in the form of sedimentary deposits in Gale, seeking evidence of Mars’ past and present habitability.

ASU professors and researchers from the School of Earth and Space Exploration, as well as graduates, are involved in the mission. Professor Meenakshi Wadhwa is a co-investigator with the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, essentially an analytical chemistry system. Amy McAdam, an alumna, is also working on SAM. Professor Jack Farmer is a science team member for a different instrument, CheMin, designed to examine the chemical and mineralogical properties of rocks and soils. And professor Alberto Behar is an investigation scientist for the Russian Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons instrument.

Curiosity’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) also has ties to ASU. MAHLI is mounted on its robotic arm and will make close-up images of Mars rocks to help determine past environmental conditions. Kenneth Edgett, an ASU alumnus, is the principal investigator on the MAHLI team. MAHLI comes from Malin Space Science Systems, a company started and operated by former ASU geological sciences professor Malin. Malin is also the principal investigator for two other MSL cameras, the Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) and Mastcam. And ASU’s professor Jim Bell is an important player regarding the targeting and interpretation of images recovered from all of these camera systems.

Curiosity is scheduled to land on Mars the night of Sunday, August 5, 10:31pm PDT/11:31pm MDT/12:31am CDT/1:31am EDT. The landing will be shown on NASA TV and streamed live at


The SESE 2013 Public Outreach geology-oriented Raft Trip through Grand Canyon is scheduled for May 6-13. A flyer with brief information is at:

Details are at:


The Arizona Daily Star's Centennial salute to science in Arizona runs all summer. Each day, for 100 days, they'll record a milestone in the state's scientific history. On July 7, Ariel Anbar was highlighted for the analytical techniques he and his team developed that have already revealed the changing mix of elements in Earth's ancient past.

Read the full story here


"The discovery announced today in Geneva represents a quantum leap (literally) in our understanding of nature at its fundamental scale" writes ASU's Lawrence Krauss, ASU Foundation Professor in the School of Space and Earth Exploration and the Department of Physics, in a Future Tense article on Slate.

Krauss explains why scientists are hesitant to announce that they have discovered the Higgs boson, and instead say they’ve found a new particle that is "Higgs-like." Krauss also offers a set of questions that could be answered or deemed obsolete as a result of this discovery.

Krauss, author of “A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing,” shares a personal interest in this discovery. The role of a Higgs-like particle coincides with his argument that our current understanding of physics allows for the universe to have naturally evolved from nothing.

The article, titled "A Quantum Leap: The discovery of the Higgs boson particle puts our understanding of nature on a new firm footing," can be found at the link below.


Photo: The discovery of a new "Higgs-like" particle could have great implications for our understanding of the universe. Photo by: Flickr/ruba