News and Updates


Adaptive online science course uses rich content and game-like simulations to explore one question: Are we alone?

Smart Sparrow, a platform that lets educators create rich, interactive and adaptive learning experiences, recently announced in collaboration with ASU Online the launch of HabWorlds Beyond, a new type of online course. HabWorlds Beyond teaches students about space exploration, climate science, and the search for life on other planets. Centered on one of the most profound questions in science -- does life exist elsewhere in the Universe? HabWorlds Beyond uses game-like simulations to expose students to the thought processes and practice of science in a fun and engaging way.

HabWorlds Beyond is derived from the fully online class Habitable Worlds (SES 106/GLG 106) – ASU Online’s successful adaptive course that was developed over three years of collaboration between education technology company Smart Sparrow, ASU Online, and Professor Ariel Anbar of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. Beginning in fall 2014, college professors from any university will be able to teach HabWorlds Beyond in their classrooms, using the Smart Sparrow platform.

“With all the problems facing our planet, we want people to understand the power and limitations of science,” says Anbar. “Large lecture courses can describe scientific results but they can’t teach how science really works. “We wanted to create a new way of teaching science to people who aren’t necessarily science majors, so that they can be smarter voters and decision-makers about the future of our planet.”

Anbar and course designer Lev Horodyskyj hypothesized that the right online course could do more than a large university lecture-lab course in giving students a taste of the scientific process. To that end, HabWorlds Beyond is not a collection of taped lectures, multiple choice questions and PowerPoints. Instead, just like Habitable Worlds, it features game-like simulations, immersive virtual field trips, and a semester-long individualized quest. Students create and destroy stars, hunt for planets, search for signs of life, and travel around the world and back in time, to explore the limits of Earth’s habitability. As of today, 1,500 ASU students have taken the course, and its popularity continues to grow.

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Jordan Okie, a NASA Astrobiology Institute Postdoctoral Fellow and former Exploration Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at ASU, has been awarded the American Naturalist 2014 Student Paper Award for his paper titled “General models for the spectra of surface area scaling strategies of cells and organisms: fractality, geometric dissimilitude, and internalization.”

This annual award was instituted in 2009 by the American Society of Naturalists to honor student work published in the American Naturalist that best represents the goals of the society. To be eligible for the award, the work presented in the paper must have been performed primarily by the first author and primarily while she/he was an undergraduate or graduate student. The editors of the American Naturalist form the committee to consider the papers published in the year before.

Organisms alter the geometric organization and surface area of their metabolic structures in order to circumvent surface-related constraints on large size, adapt to particular environments, and optimize structures for particular functions. Employing the mathematics of fractal geometry and dimensional analysis, Okie’s paper develops general unifying theory that quantitatively elucidates the impact of these adaptations on biological form and function. Synthesizing data compiled from the literature and empirical observations, the paper applies the theory to cells and other levels of biological organization, showing how these geometric adaptations play crucial roles in cell physiology, energetics, and evolution and allowed for the evolution of life’s extraordinary complexity, diversity, and resilience.

In making the award, the editors said:

In extending biological scaling theory to cells and organelles, Dr. Okie is working at a new intersection of theoretical and empirical biology that has exciting implications for ecology, evolution, and physiology. As a broad and novel conceptual contribution on a topic of wide interest, we felt that his paper truly exemplified Am Nat's mission.

(Nikki Cassis)



With two rovers currently operating on Mars, NASA has begun the search for where its next Mars rover will go. And a lot is riding on the site selection because this rover, unlike previous ones, will collect and store samples of rock and soil for eventual return to Earth.

"The next 20 years of Mars exploration hinges on where this rover goes," says Philip Christensen, planetary scientist in Arizona State University's School of Earth and Space Exploration on the Tempe campus. "It has to tell us something fundamental about the broader history of Mars." He was quoted in a story in Nature about the new landing site search.

NASA's goals for the new mission require a landing site that contains an environment where life could have existed. The site must also have a geology that could preserve potential "biosignatures" – unmistakable traces of life. And the site must be trafficable to let the rover land safely and drive to the relevant rocks and soils to collect samples.

The new rover, which will join working rovers Opportunity (which landed in 2004) and Curiosity (2012), has not yet been given a name. Scientists are just calling it Mars 2020, or M2020 for short. The plan is to build a machine nearly identical to Curiosity and equip it with fresh instruments to probe the Martian surface.

To begin the process of sifting through candidate landing sites, more than 100 planetary geologists gathered May 14-16 in Arlington, Virginia. Launch for the new rover is set for July-August 2020, with arrival on Mars in February 2021. The rover's baseline mission will last one Martian year, or 1.9 Earth years.

At the workshop, a total of 27 candidate sites were presented, discussed, and critiqued. At the end of the meeting, the scientists ranked the candidate sites according to their scientific value for reaching the mission goals.

But this ranking won't be the last word by any means. The choice of Gale Crater for the Curiosity rover came only after more than 65 sites had been examined during five workshops held from 2006 to 2011. The next M2020 site workshop will be in summer 2015, but the final site for may not be selected until 2019. Meanwhile, scientists are collecting more data and images on the sites proposed at this meeting. If the past is any guide, at least a few new candidates will emerge by mid-2015.

At this first meeting Christensen, together with several colleagues at other institutions, proposed a landing site in Margaritifer Terra that's rich in salts and clays, both good for preserving biosignatures. Another ASU Mars scientist, Steve Ruff, advocated a return to an already-visited site in Gusev Crater with hot-spring deposits. And ASU postdoc researcher Mark Salvatore presented the case for yet a third site, in Kashira Crater, also clay-rich and located in Margaritifer Terra.

NASA’s plan for bringing back Martian samples is ambitious, involving a trio of missions over many years. M2020 is step one: it will collect and store roughly 30 narrow cylinders of rock and soil, either on board or on the ground. In step two, an unmanned rocket would fly to Mars and deploy a "fetch rover" to get the cached samples and then blast them into orbit. Finally, step three would capture that Mars-orbiting package and fly it back to Earth.

(Robert Burnham)



Steve Semken, a professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, has been selected to receive an American Geophysical Union (AGU) 2013 Editors' Citation for Excellence in Refereeing for Eos, the weekly newspaper of AGU. This award recognizes Semken's contributions in maintaining the highest standard of scientific quality through the peer-review process.

One of the most important services performed for AGU is the conscientious reviewing of submitted papers. Scientific journals rely on members of the scientific community to provide accurate and conscientious reviews of submitted journal manuscripts. Because of the anonymous nature of the reviewing process, this service is also one of the least recognized.

In selecting Semken to receive the 2013 Editors' Citation for Excellence in Refereeing, the publishers of Eos publicly express their gratitude to Semken for consistently providing constructive and thoughtful reviews, which have been particularly valuable in maintaining a high quality standard.

An announcement is planned for publication in a future issue of Eos.



Each semester, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences selects one outstanding graduate from each of its academic units for the CLAS Dean’s Medal Award. This May, with more than 40 students graduating from ASU with bachelor’s degrees in earth and space exploration or earth and environmental studies, Amanda Orozco will be recognized as the Dean’s Medal recipient for the School of Earth and Space Exploration.

When Orozco began her studies at ASU in fall 2010, she started out as a biology major intending to concentrate on conservation biology. Four years later, the California native (graduate of Leland High School in San Jose, Calif.) has taken her love for nature down the environmental science route.

“I realized the Earth and Environmental Studies program through the School of Earth and Space Exploration was much more interesting to me than my original major, and could prepare me for more careers that I am interested in,” said Orozco, who plans to pursue a career in environmental consulting.

Orozco will graduate with a B.A. in Earth and Environmental Studies and a minor in Sustainability.
“I couldn’t believe how much I loved the geology classes that this major requires. At first I didn’t really understand why I was required to take such intense geology courses but now I am so happy I took them because it does give me a competitive edge compared to environmental science students from other institutions,” says Orozco, who has been accepted to the University of San Francisco for graduate school and will be starting a Master’s of Science in Environmental Management in fall 2014.
According to Orozco, it was her experience in Mexico through a program called UMB-WEST, short for US-Mexico Border Water and Environmental Sustainability Training, which helped her narrow her interests in sustainability to water resources management and environmental policy.

Under the joint mentorship of Professor Enrique Vivoni and several U.S. and Mexican research partners, UMB-WEST participants investigate hydrologic science in the Sonora region. Students collect field hydrologic measurements useful for water resources management, examine local water resources infrastructure, meet with local decision makers, and apply data analysis techniques to hydrologic modeling experiences. Each year, students participate in a two-week field campaign during which they deploy instrumentation, conduct field sampling, visit water infrastructure projects, and interact with local water managers.

Orozco has been supplementing her classroom education and field research experience with an internship offered by the Arizona State Legislature and ASU. She is currently a legislative research intern for the Arizona House of Representatives and works for the Committees on Energy, Environment and Natural Resources and Agriculture and Water.

“Through this internship, I am getting firsthand experience in the field of environmental and other public policy, which I believe is extremely valuable for any career surrounding environmental science,” says Orozco. “ASU has definitely prepared me for what is to come after graduation and I feel well-equipped to be going after a master’s degree and pursuing a career in environmental consulting. The entire SESE faculty has been very supportive of my interests and I am so grateful that I was part of such an awesome department at ASU.”

(Nikki Cassis)



The School of Earth and Space Exploration is proud to have many meritorious faculty and students. While this is an extensive list of honors, there are probably some deserving individuals who are not listed. Congratulations to all who received scholarships, grants and other honors.

Undergraduate awards
• Alumni Scholarship - Crystylynda Fudge
• Arizona Hydrological Society Herman Bouwer Internship - Anthony Ferrell
• CLAS Dean’s Medalist - Amanda Orozco
• Greeley Planetary Geology Scholarship - Miranda Hermann
• Ravi DeFilippo Geology Field Scholarship - Chadlin Ostrander
• Robert Dietz Field Camp Scholarship(s) - Anthony Castaneda, Crystylynda Fudge, Jamie Shaffer
• US Airways Scholarship - Ben Stinnett

Graduate awards
• 2013 Fall AGU Outstanding Student Paper Award - Mingming Li
• 2013 SESE Summer Ph.D. Student Research Award | Arizona State University Graduate College University Block Grant - Sandra Carolina Londono
• 2014 CLAS Graduate Excellence Award: Mingming Li, Gayatri Marliyani, Marc Neveu, Kate Potter
• 2014 NSF East Asia and Pacific Summer Institute for U.S. Graduate Students (Japan) - Emily Kleber
• 51st Annual Clay Minerals Society meeting (2014) Session co-Chair, Symposium on Geology and Health - Sandra Carolina Londono
• 51st Annual Clay Minerals Society meeting Session co-Chair, Symposium on Geology and Health, and travel grant to attend - Keith Morrison
• AAS Roger Doxley Travel Prize January 2014 - Michael Pagano
• Achievement Reward for College Scientists (ARCS) Scholarship for graduate research - Keith Morrison
• Astrobiology Winter School travel grants in January 2014: Luke Probst, Anusha Kalyaan and Prajkta Mane, Amanda Truitt
• Clay Minerals Society and Shell Corp. Student travel grant - Sandra Carolina Londono
• Colciencias #529 Scholarship for Doctoral Programs, Colombian Institute for Science and Technology - Sandra Carolina Londono
• Faculty for the Future Fellowship (Schlumberger Foundation): Ruirui Han, Gayatri Marliyani
• Fall 2013 ASU/NASA Space Grant for outreach and education research project at Camp Tontozona - Andy Darling
• First Place award for his oral presentation at the 49th Annual Clay Minerals Society Meeting: Mineralogical and geochemical variations in an antibacterial clay deposit (2013) - Keith Morrison
• First place award for his oral presentation on “Antibacterial minerals: establishing the mechanism” by the International Medical Geology Association for the 2013 MEDGEO conference where he also received a travel Grant - Keith Morrison
• GPSA travel grant - Marc Neveu
• GPSA travel awards (Spring 2014): Prajkta Mane and Curtis Williams
• GPSA travel awards (Summer/Fall 2013): Prajkta Mane and Curtis Williams
• International Medical Geology Association travel grant for MEDGEO 2013 - Sandra Carolina Londono
• JPL financial assistance to attend the Planetary Science Summer School - Marc Neveu
• LPI Career Development Award - Marc Neveu
• Meteoritical Society Student Travel Awards (Summer 2013): Curtis Williams and Prajkta Mane
• NAI Scholarship to participate in the 2014 Josep Comas i Solà International Summer School in Astrobiology - Marc Neveu
• NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowships 2013-2014: Prajkta Mane, Cameron Mercer, Karen Rieck, Curtis Williams, Nathan Williams
• NSF fellowship - Kim Ward-Duong
• Scholarship and travel grant to attend the 2014 International Summer School of Astrobiology in Spain - Divya Allu Peddinti
• Student stipend to attend the Workshop on The Habitability of Icy Worlds - Marc Neveu
• Ethnoscience and Geology Applied to Water Resources. Graduate and Professional Student Association GPSA. Graduate Research Grant 2013 - Sandra Carolina Londono
• Travel grant to present at the 6th Orogenic Lherzolite Conference in Marrakech, Morocco - Meghan Guild

Teaching awards
The help we receive from all of our excellent teaching assistants is invaluable for SESE’s teaching mission. The school employs about 40 graduate student TAs and about 10 undergraduate TAs each year. We would like to honor our top TAs who were nominated by students and faculty:
• Undergraduate Teaching assistants: Anthony Ferrell and Anthony Brokaw
• Graduate Teaching assistants (100-level): Chelsea Allison and Matthew Kellom
• Graduate Teaching assistant (upper division): Matthew Rossi and Mingming Li


The Student Success Center, a free on-campus tutoring facility for SESE and Physics students, opened recently with the goal of helping students with their academic needs by providing student tutors and group study spaces.

The Student Success Center is located in Physical Science F-wing, room 186 and is open Monday-Friday 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. SESE majors can use the space for study and meeting after hours and weekends if granted card access.

The Student Success Center offers TA office hours, pre-arranged study and review groups, and open study space. If students need additional support outside of the classroom they can meet with graduate teaching assistants (TAs) or participate in group study sessions.

The center offers free tutoring for a variety of physics courses and also provides students with an environment to engage in group study.
Tutors are available for the following SESE Courses: GLG 101, GLG 102, GLG 103, SES 124 and AST 112.

Tutors are available for the following Physics Courses: PHS 110, PHY 101, 111-114, 121, 122, 131, 132, 150, 151, 241, and 252.

Students will need to go to the center website to access the TA schedule to see when a particular TA is available.

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Keith Morrison, a SESE doctoral student, received an ARCS scholarship (second year) for his work on antibacterial clays. His work was highlighted on the ARCS National website.

He published a paper in the November 2013 journal of Environmental Geochemistry and Health on antibacterial clay research. The article was titled “Mineralogical Variables that Control the Antibacterial Effectiveness of a Natural Clay Deposit.” Morrison is concerned with the health risks due to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains. He is researching finding alternatives to conventional antimicrobials. His paper focused on an antibacterial clay deposit near Crater Lake, Oregon.


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Herschel discovers mature galaxies in the young Universe

New Herschel results have given us a remarkable insight into the internal dynamics of two young galaxies. Surprisingly, they have shown that just a few billion years after the big bang, some galaxies were rotating in a mature way, seemingly having completed the accumulation of their gas reservoirs.

When galaxies form, they accumulate mass by gravitationally attracting vast, external gas clouds. As the gas clouds are consumed by the galaxy, they fall into haphazard orbits. These disordered paths cause turbulence in the host galaxies, which can drive star formation.

To investigate the internal conditions of forming galaxies James Rhoads and Sangeeta Malhotra, both from Arizona State University, and colleagues targeted two young galaxies, known as SDSS0901 and the Clone. The light from both galaxies has taken 10 billion years to reach us across space. Thus, we are seeing them when they were comparatively young. Rhoads studies galaxy formation, galaxy evolution, the reionization of intergalactic hydrogen by early galaxies. Malhotra’s research ranges from properties of dust and gas in the (relatively nearby) interstellar medium to some of the farthest known galaxies. In recent years they have also collaborated on finding and characterizing galaxies in the cosmic dawn, when the universe was less than a billion years old. The current project focuses on a somewhat later time, the high noon of star formation in the universe – a time when the universe was about 3 billion years old, and when star birth in galaxies was much more active than it is today.

“The purpose of this project is to study the physical conditions of gas in those galaxies. We wanted to know: are they similar to the galaxies around us or is there some difference in their physical conditions,” says Rhoads.

The two galaxies they choose to study are average galaxies for that time in cosmic history. This means that they are about 10-20 percent the size of our Milky Way, which is considered an average galaxy in the present-day Universe.

Studying galaxies so far away is usually challenging because they appear too dim to study effectively but in this case, the researchers were helped by a cosmic mirage known as a gravitational lens. The two galaxies both sit behind intervening groups of galaxies, whose gravity warps space. As described by Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, this warping acts like a lens. Although it distorts the images of the young galaxies, it helps by magnifying their light, thus bringing them within reach of Herschel’s HIFI instrument.

The researchers used HIFI to investigate the infrared light of ionized carbon, which is emitted at a wavelength of 158 micrometers. This spectral line is produced in the clouds that surround star forming regions. HIFI showed the line was broadened into a double peak, and this allowed the motion of the gas to be fitted with a model.

“The two peaks represent two sides of a rotating galaxy. One side is rotating away from us and the other is coming towards us. The broadening of the peaks gives us an indication of the randomness of the motion on top of rotation,” explains Malhotra.

Firstly, the team fitted the overall rotation of the galaxy, and then the turbulence in the gas clouds. To their surprise they found that galaxy S0901 was extremely well behaved. Instead of turbulence, it was found to be in orderly rotation, much more akin to the majestic galaxies of today.

“Usually, when astronomers examine galaxies at this early era, they find that turbulence plays a much greater role than it does in modern galaxies. But S0901 is a clear exception to that pattern, and the Clone could be another,” says Rhoads.

The Clone, the second galaxy in their study, could also be fitted by an orderly rotation. However, because it was somewhat dimmer, the quality of the data was not so good. This meant that the data could also be fitted with a highly turbulent model, as conventional wisdom would expect.

“Galaxies 10 billion years ago were making stars more actively than they do now,” says Malhotra, "They usually also show more turbulence, likely because they are accumulating gas faster than a modern galaxy does. But here we have cases of early galaxies that combine the ‘calm’ rotation of a modern one with the active star formation of their early peers. This suggests first that these galaxies have finished accumulating their gas, at least for now. But it also seems that turbulence is not actually required to trigger that early, active star formation."

Malhotra acknowledges the preliminary nature of their study. “This is not the last word on this. We need a bigger sample to be sure of our conclusions,” she says.

But that bigger sample will not be investigated by Herschel. As predicted, the liquid helium coolant needed to keep HIFI and Herschel’s other instruments working ran out in April 2013. Instead the researchers hope to continue the work pioneered by Herschel using the Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA), a ground-based array of 66 radio dishes in Chile.

“It is mind-boggling that with Herschel/HIFI – admittedly with the help of gravitational lensing – it has been possible to study the internal gas kinematics in galaxies when the universe was only a few billion years old, and what we can learn about them this way. This pioneering work by Herschel is bound to be continued,” says Göran Pilbratt, Herschel Project Scientist at ESA.

Photo: The young galaxy SDSS090122.37+181432.3. It is distorted because of gravitational lensing. Credit: NASA/STScI; S. Allam and team; and the Master Lens Database (, L. A. Moustakas, K. Stewart, et al (2014).

(Nikki Cassis)


An article in Scientific American by Peter Byrne chronicles his experience with geologist Paul Knauth in Death Valley. Knauth led the reporter to an approximately 750-million-year-old cave; Knauth would like to find microfossils in the cave to add to the body of evidence that supports his evolutionary model. According to Knauth, life did not solely thrive in the seas during the Precambrian era. The surviving land-based fossils are most likely to be tiny and hidden in “geological time capsules,” such as the Death Valley cave, which has withstood volcanoes, glaciers and the clashing of continental plates.

Photo by Peter Byrne

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