News and Updates


The Origins Project at Arizona State University awarded its first Postdoctoral Prize Lectureship to Adrian Liu of the University of California, Berkeley. The award, the largest of its kind in the world, is in recognition of Liu’s groundbreaking early career work in exploring the astrophysics of the early universe. It includes a $10,000 prize.

As part of the Origins Project postdoctoral prize lectureship, Liu will spend a week in Tempe in April and will deliver three colloquia and a public talk on his research. He will also take part in an awards ceremony and other Origins activities.

Liu is a Berkeley Center for Cosmological Physics postdoc currently working on 21 cm (hydrogen line) tomography measurements of the early universe. His research focuses on understanding how our Universe came to be what it is today by looking at how hydrogen is distributed in space and time.

“Adrian Liu is the perfect inaugural Origins Project Postdoctoral Prize Lecturer,” said Lawrence Krauss, director of the Origins Project at ASU. “Chosen from among 50 distinguished nominees from premier research institutions around the world, he stood out both for the quality of his research and for his superb ability to communicate it.”

“Adrian is already the recipient of prestigious fellowships in his field, including a Hubble fellowship,” Krauss added. “Moreover, he is exploring an emerging frontier in astrophysics that promises to shed light on the origin of all the cosmic structures we see today, from clusters of galaxies on downward, and thus to our own cosmic origin. And if that weren’t enough, he is a superb communicator. For example, he was the first person to get a perfect teaching score in the large courses he helped teach while a graduate student at MIT. It couldn’t be a better beginning for a world-class annual prize series focusing on Origins research.”

“It’s an absolute honor to be chosen for the Origins Project’s Postdoctoral Prize Lectureship,” Liu said. “In astrophysics our interests and goals are closely aligned to those of the Origins Project, in that we seek to understand how our Universe works, and where the awe-inspiring astronomical structures that we see today came from. I’m particularly grateful for the opportunity to share my work with audiences at ASU, who will see that rather than being a solved problem, the question of our origins is an exhilarating journey that continues to fascinate scientists today.”

“I’m trying to understand how our universe came to be the way it is,” Liu explained. “For instance, what was the nature of the first galaxies? In what ways are they different from what we see today? How did they form? One way to answer questions like these is to make really, really good maps of how hydrogen is distributed in our Universe. Once we have that, we can work backwards and figure out how our Universe came to be what it is today by studying how the state and distribution of hydrogen changed over our cosmic history.”

Liu graduated from Princeton University summa cum laude with a Bachelor’s degree in Physics in 2006. He then attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, obtaining his Ph.D. in 2012. His dissertation, advised by Prof. Max Tegmark, was titled “From theoretical promise to observational reality: calibration, foreground subtraction, and signal extraction in hydrogen cosmology.”

Liu has earned multiple teaching awards while a graduate student at MIT, including the Buechner Teaching Prize, the Henry Kendall Teaching Award and the Goodwin Teaching Medal.

The Origins Project postdoctoral prize lectureship is the largest of its kind in the world for postdoctoral researchers. The prize is an annual worldwide competition for the best junior scholar chosen from all countries in any field of study relevant to the Origins Project. Krauss noted that in its first year, the competition drew interest worldwide in fields including astrophysics, biology, geology, planetary science, history and medical engineering.

“Postdoctoral researchers are the young scholars who most often are behind the groundbreaking discoveries of tomorrow, but they are not often recognized until they are in more senior positions,” Krauss said. “We wanted to provide a significant world-wide recognition for this under appreciated community, who will become the leaders of the next generation, and at the same time bring these exciting scholars to ASU to interact with our faculty and students and perhaps forge long-term partnerships. In doing so we will continue to enhance the mission of the Origins Project to promote new forefront investigations of foundational questions, and also expose the university and the public to the most exciting research being done in the world today."

For more information on the award, go to:

(Skip Derra)



U.S. News & World Report today released the 2016 Best Graduate Schools rankings. Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration holds its rank among the top 20 graduate schools in the country.

The publication’s recently released list ranks ASU’s Earth Sciences program 20th among public and private graduate programs, making it the highest ranking science program at ASU. More than 100 earth sciences graduate programs were surveyed, with rankings based on the results of questionnaires sent to department heads and directors of graduate programs.

Tied for 20th, the rankings overall put ASU on par with earth sciences graduate programs at University of California, Davis and University of Chicago.


A self-described introvert, Kali Johnson isn’t necessarily comfortable on stage.

But that’s exactly where the 25-year-old Arizona State University student found herself – in front of a panel of judges during the Great SESE Pitching Competition. Johnson was pitching an idea for a student organization that will create support systems for ASU students who are also parents to help them succeed.

The competition, organized by ASU’s School of Earth Sciences and Exploration (SESE) with support from ASU’s Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, is one of a growing number of efforts across the university to encourage entrepreneurial thinking in ASU graduate and undergraduate students, including students who don’t necessarily see entrepreneurship as a career goal. Two winners – first place and audience favorite – were selected from undergraduate as well as graduate student categories, and won a total of $3,000 in prize money.

The idea for the competition is the brainchild of Lindy Elkins-Tanton, director of the School of Earth Sciences and Exploration. According to her, the traditional approach of educating students, especially those pursuing graduate degrees, leaves much to be desired.

“While we’re doing a wonderful job of training our students to be brilliant researchers, we need to start teaching them other useful life skills, such as the ability to pitch an idea, to speak compellingly to others, to negotiate and write budgets, etc., that will take our students to the next level,” she said.

Elkins-Tanton decided to tackle this problem. First, she enlisted the support of SESE faculty members and Mitzi Montoya, vice president and university dean of entrepreneurship and innovation at ASU. Montoya funded the two first prizes and found Elkins-Tanton pitching trainers to help graduate students hone their pitches and communicate their ideas effectively to the judges and the audience.

“Our graduate students then trained our undergraduate students, using the expert advice they’d just received,” she said. “The peer-to-peer mentoring was very effective in helping our incoming freshmen think about education and their college experience in a different way.”

Entrepreneurial spirits

Kali Johnson, a sophomore majoring in astrobiology and biogeosciences, first joined ASU in 2007 but had to drop out a year later because of health reasons. Determined to stay on path, she went on to get her associate’s degree in arts and worked in retail for a few years. Then came the turning point: She gave birth to her daughter.

“I didn’t want her to think that I gave up too easily on my dreams, so I came back to ASU to earn my degree,” she said. “However, I quickly realized that I needed more support in terms of information, networking and scholarship opportunities to finish my degree, especially as a young parent, and thought this was an opportunity to create something that will outlast my time at ASU.”

Johnson pitched the idea for the Proud Parent Scholarship Fund at the Great SESE Pitching Competition and won $500 as part of the audience’s choice award in the undergraduate category. Kevin Conklin, an astrophysics junior, won the first place and $1,000 to fund his venture: a weekly podcast called ASU Connections that aims to educate, entertain and attract people to scientific research and scientists at ASU.

“I decided to join ASU to earn my college degree after listening to a podcast featuring ASU planetary scientist and astronomer Jim Bell talking about the Mars Curiosity Rover and his involvement in the project, which blew me away,” said Conklin. “Through the ASU Connections podcast, I’d like to build a brand of educated people who take their science seriously but also like to have fun with it.”

Combining research and entrepreneurial ideas

According to Elkins-Tanton, while most undergraduate students focused on ideas that were inspired by academic disciplines, graduate and doctoral students pitched ideas for research projects on earth sciences-related topics.

Abhijith Rajan, a doctoral student of astrophysics at SESE and first prize winner in the graduate student category, proposed hosting a two-day Software Carpentry workshop at ASU that teaches students to be efficient software programmers and, consequently, better researchers. Software Carpentry is a nonprofit organization whose members teach researchers basic programming skills. Rajan hopes to launch the program in the summer and make it self-sustaining.

“We have identified local resources, including students in the department, who will teach sections to help make the program more affordable and, going forward, completely free for the department,” he said.

Jean François-Smekens, another SESE doctoral student who won the audience choice award in the graduate student category and a sum of $500, pitched an idea that turns a sulfur dioxide camera – digital cameras that monitor sulfur dioxide emissions during volcanic activity – into a practical tool for volcano monitoring.

Mitzi Montoya, vice president and university dean of entrepreneurship and innovation at ASU, views the Great SESE Pitching Competition as an example of a larger culture change underway ASU.

“At ASU, we are creating a pipeline of graduates who think differently,” said Montoya. “Programs like SESE inspire students to do something out of their comfort zone. This exposure to new ways of thinking and problem-solving helps develop an entrepreneurial mindset that is needed to succeed in any field. Programs like this show ASU’s university-wide commitment to fostering entrepreneurial and innovative ASU students in all academic disciplines.”

Image: ASU School of Earth and Space Exploration student Natalie Hinkel pitches her idea for The Science Bar Podcast at the Great SESE Pitching Competition.

(Iti Agnihotri)


Timmes to go on research leave to explore stellar explosions and cosmic chemical evolution

The Simons Foundation, which is dedicated to advancing math and science research, will give an Arizona State University astrophysicist the opportunity to spend a year away from classroom and administrative duties to pursue research interests.

This year’s group of Simons Fellows includes ASU’s Francis (Frank) Timmes, a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and ASU's director of Advanced Computing.

Timmes is an astrophysicist interested supernovae, cosmic chemical evolution, astrobiology, the gamma-ray astronomy, and high performance computing. His Simons Fellowship in Theoretical Physics award will let him focus on research for the 2015-16 academic year.

Timmes plans to use his academic year sabbatical to advance his research activities: (1) a NASA funded Theoretical and Computational Astrophysics Networks (TCAN) project aimed at exploring the internal structure and evolutionary histories of supernova progenitors; (2) an NSF funded Software Infrastructure for Sustained Innovation (SI2) project aimed at supporting the Modules for Experiments in Stellar Astrophysics (MESA) software instrument; and (3) within the Joint Institute for Nuclear Astrophysics – Center for the Evolution of the Elements (JINA-CEE), an NSF funded Physics Frontier Center.

“I am very excited about the opportunity provided by the Simons Fellowship. It will give me the time and flexibility to pursue leading-edge research with colleagues as research projects unfold,” said Timmes, who plans to visit the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at University of California Santa Barbara, as well as experts in nuclear astrophysics at Michigan State University and the University of Notre Dame.

Research leaves from classroom teaching and administrative obligations can provide strong intellectual stimulation and lead to increased creativity and productivity in research. The Simons Fellows program is intended to make leaves more productive by enabling the extension of sabbatical leaves from one academic term to a full academic year.

Simons Fellows are chosen based on research accomplishment in the five years prior to application and the potential scientific impact of the fellowship.

“I feel fortunate because very few organizations fund sabbatical research in Theoretical Physics,” Timmes said of the award. “I am grateful to the Simons Foundation for their support of our field.”

Timmes is one of only 14 scholars to receive the award for theoretical physics. Timmes accompanies professors from other top universities and colleges in the United States such as Harvard, Cornell and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to name a few. He is ASU’s first Simons Fellow.

The Simons Foundation is a private foundation based in New York City, incorporated in 1994 by Jim and Marilyn Simons. Its mission is to advance the frontiers of research in mathematics and the basic sciences by sponsoring a range of programs that aim to promote a deeper understanding of our world. The Simons Foundation Mathematics and Physical Sciences division, established in 2010, supports research in mathematics, theoretical physics and theoretical computer science and provides funding for individuals, institutions and science infrastructure, including the Simons Fellows.

Image: With his Simons Fellowship, Frank Timmes will conduct forefront research on stars using advanced computing instruments and tools.

(Nikki Cassis)



Infrared and visual images of the Martian surface taken by Arizona State University's THEMIS camera are mapping dust and rocks at the landing site for NASA's upcoming InSight mission to Mars.

NASA's next Mars space probe, a lander named InSight, is due to touch down on the Red Planet in September 2016 with a mission focused on the planet's internal properties. Its landing place has been chosen with help from a Mars-orbiting, heat-sensitive camera designed and operated at Arizona State University.

THEMIS maps of InSight landing ellipse, as seen in daytime infrared (top) and night.Working at nine infrared and five visual wavelengths, the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) on NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter has been in operation since early 2002. Its data have let scientists create a near-global map of Martian surface properties.

More recently, THEMIS has been surveying the rocks, sand, dust and surface materials across InSight's four candidate landing areas. NASA has now picked as the prime landing site one location in Elysium Planitia, a region where ancient lava flows cover the ground.

"To land a probe safely on Mars, you need to come down in a flat, smooth place," said Jonathon Hill, of Arizona State University's Mars Space Flight Facility, part of ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration. A staff member and doctoral student in planetary science, Hill has a day-to-day role in targeting specific areas of Mars for THEMIS to image.

"Picking a safe place," he said, "means the landing site can't be full of big rocks or covered in a thick layer of dust."

By measuring how quickly the ground cools at night or warms in sunlight, THEMIS can tell the proportion of rocks and dust on the ground and thus help paint a picture of what awaits the lander at the surface.

InSight (short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) carries two main instruments, a heat-flow probe and a seismometer, both being deployed using a robotic arm. The heat probe requires that the ground within reach of the arm be penetrable by the probe, which will hammer itself into the soil to a depth of three to five yards, or meters.

"InSight's mission planning team worked closely with us to find places with a suitable surface for the spacecraft to go," says Hill. Additional data and imaging came from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

While THEMIS' main contribution to NASA's site choice was its infrared data, THEMIS is also currently taking visual images of the entire landing site ellipse, which represents the target zone. The visual images each cover a smaller area, but have about five times sharper resolution than the infrared ones.

Scouting ahead is old story

Checking out a Martian landing site ahead of touchdown is a now-familiar role for THEMIS, said ASU's Philip Christensen. A Regents' Professor of geological sciences in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, Christensen is the designer and principal investigator for the THEMIS camera.

"Before NASA's Curiosity Mars rover landed in Gale Crater in 2012," he said, "THEMIS surveyed the surface materials at dozens of candidate landing areas scientists were evaluating." And earlier, he noted, "THEMIS selected the landing site for NASA's Phoenix Mars probe, which landed in 2008, by mapping the rocks and dust at numerous potential sites to find the safest one."

Unlike NASA's recent Mars landers, InSight is not a rover. Built using the same flight platform as the Mars Phoenix lander, InSight will touch down in one place and stay there for its entire mission, projected to last two Earth years.

But immobility means that if InSight came down in a location that's too dusty or rocky, it wouldn't be able to drive away from the landing site and find a better location. This raised the stakes on where it lands, and that's where THEMIS has played its part.

Said Christensen, "We're delighted to help find a good landing spot for InSight. And also to be helping scientists learn more about Mars, and deepen our picture of this intriguing world next door to Earth."

The School of Earth and Space Exploration is a unit in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. 




A fossil lower jaw found in the Ledi-Geraru research area, Afar Regional State, Ethiopia, pushes back evidence for the human genus — Homo — to 2.8 million years ago, according to a pair of reports published March 4 in the online version of the journal Science. The jaw predates the previously known fossils of the Homo lineage by approximately 400,000 years. It was discovered in 2013 by an international team led by Arizona State University scientists Kaye E. Reed, Christopher J. Campisano and J Ramón Arrowsmith, and Brian A. Villmoare of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

For decades, scientists have been searching for African fossils documenting the earliest phases of the Homo lineage, but specimens recovered from the critical time interval between 3 and 2.5 million years ago have been frustratingly few and often poorly preserved. As a result, there has been little agreement on the time of origin of the lineage that ultimately gave rise to modern humans. At 2.8 million years, the new Ledi-Geraru fossil provides clues to changes in the jaw and teeth in Homo only 200,000 years after the last known occurrence of Australopithecus afarensis (“Lucy”) from the nearby Ethiopian site of Hadar.

Found by team member and ASU graduate student Chalachew Seyoum, the Ledi-Geraru fossil preserves the left side of the lower jaw, or mandible, along with five teeth. The fossil analysis, led by Villmoare and William H. Kimbel, director of ASU’s Institute of Human Origins (IHO), revealed advanced features, for example, slim molars, symmetrical premolars and an evenly proportioned jaw, that distinguish early species on the Homo lineage, such as Homo habilis at 2 million years ago, from the more apelike early Australopithecus. But the primitive, sloping chin links the Ledi-Geraru jaw to a Lucy-like ancestor.

“In spite of lot of searching, fossils on the Homo lineage older than 2 million years ago are very rare,” says Villmoare. “To have a glimpse of the very earliest phase of our lineage’s evolution is particularly exciting.”

In a report in the journal Nature, Fred Spoor and colleagues present a new reconstruction of the deformed mandible belonging to the 1.8 million-year-old iconic type-specimen of Homo habilis (“Handy Man”) from Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. The reconstruction presents an unexpectedly primitive portrait of the H. habilis jaw and makes a good link back to the Ledi fossil.

“The Ledi jaw helps narrow the evolutionary gap between Australopithecus and early Homo,” says Kimbel. “It’s an excellent case of a transitional fossil in a critical time period in human evolution.”

Global climate change that led to increased African aridity after about 2.8 million years ago is often hypothesized to have stimulated species appearances and extinctions, including the origin of Homo. In the companion paper on the geological and environmental contexts of the Ledi-Geraru jaw, Erin N. DiMaggio, of Pennsylvania State University (SESE Ph.D. 2013), and colleagues found the fossil mammal assemblage contemporary with this jaw to be dominated by species that lived in more open habitats—grasslands and low shrubs—than those common at older Australopithecus-bearing sites, such as Hadar, where Lucy’s species is found.

“We can see the 2.8 million year aridity signal in the Ledi-Geraru faunal community,” says research team co-leader Kaye Reed, “but it’s still too soon to say that this means climate change is responsible for the origin of Homo. We need a larger sample of hominin fossils, and that’s why we continue to come to the Ledi-Geraru area to search.”

Cross Collaboration
The collaboration between ASU anthropologists and geologists began in 2001 when Kaye Reed and Charles Lockwood were new professors in the ASU Institute of Human Origins and School of Human Evolution and Social Change. They needed a geologist to join them as they started working in a new area closer to what was thought to be the depositional center of the “Hadar” basin.

According to Professor Ramón Arrowsmith in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, “They asked if I knew anyone who might be interested and I thought about it and I said that I could give it a try. So we started the first season in January 2002. We worked for quite some time, going 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2012, 2013, and 2015 so far!”

Erin DiMaggio, the first author of the paper on the geology, started with Arrowsmith working on this project in 2005. She did her Ph.D. on the topic and graduated from SESE in 2013.

While Arrowsmith was not onsite when the jaw was found, he heard the news soon after.

“About week after I had returned from being in the field with them, I received a phone call from Ethiopia early in the morning. I was worried that there was an accident or something, but actually it was Erin who was shouting and happy and said that they had found the mandible,” recalls Arrowsmith.

DiMaggio and Arrowsmith’s work was to build on the very little prior information to produce a structural and stratigraphic and temporal framework into which fossils of importance could be placed.

“The area is faulted due to regional extension pulling the Horn of Africa away to the east and Arabia away to the northeast from the rest of Africa, so we have to divide it into separate fault blocks and characterize each individually and then relate them temporally both by the basic logic of geology as well as by numerical and correlative dating of numerous volcanic deposits, known as tephra,” explains Arrowsmith. “The important point is that the sedimentary sequence represents a time period previously undocumented in the region, hence the opportunity of finding and documenting this mandible.”

The research team includes:
• Erin N. DiMaggio (Pennsylvania State University), Christopher J. Campisano (ASU Institute of Human Origins and School of Human Evolution and Social Change), J. Ramón Arrowsmith (ASU School of Earth and Space Exploration), Guillaume Dupont-Nivet (CNRS Géosciences Rennes), and Alan L. Deino (Berkeley Geochronology Center), who conducted the geological research
• Faysal Bibi (Museum für Naturkunde, Leibniz Institute for Evolution and Biodiversity Science), Margaret E. Lewis (Stockton University), John Rowan (ASU Institute of Human Origins and School of Human Evolution and Social Change), Antoine Souron (Human Evolution Research Center, University of California, Berkeley), and Lars Werdelin (Swedish Museum of Natural History), who identified the fossil mammals
• Kaye E. Reed (ASU Institute of Human Origins and School of Human Evolution and Social Change), who reconstructed the past habitats based on the faunal communities
• David R. Braun (George Washington University), who conducted archaeological research
• Brian A. Villmoare (University of Nevada Las Vegas), William H. Kimbel (ASU Institute of Human Origins and School of Human Evolution and Social Change), and Chalachew Seyoum (ASU Institute of Human Origins and School of Human Evolution and Social Change, and Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage, Addis Ababa), who analyzed the hominin fossil.

Research funding was provided by the National Science Foundation (BCS-1157351, BCS-1322017, and BCS-0725122 HOMINID grant), the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University, the George Washington University Selective Excellence Program, AAPG, SEPM, GSA, the Philanthropic Education Organization, Marie Curie CIG, Fyssen, and HERC/UC Berkeley.

Photo of Ramon Arrowsmith and Erin DiMaggio. Photo by: Matt Jungers

(Julie Russ)



Congratulations to SESE undergraduate student Carl Fields for wining top prize for best poster by an undergraduate student at the National Society of Black Physicists. Fields is an astrophysics major in SESE. For the past year he has been working with Professor Frank Timmes.



In case you were wondering about the 30-foot-high metal tower that suddenly appeared amid a patch of trees on the east side of Arizona State University’s Tempe campus – the one with an array of sensors and monitors attached to it – it’s not capturing data from your cell phone or laptop as you walk by. It’s a meteorological flux tower assembled by three ASU engineering students.

The structure is gathering information about the surrounding ground surface and atmospheric conditions – tracking changes in moisture, carbon dioxide, weather and wind speed and direction.

The sensing devices are detecting and measuring evaporation and gas and heat transfer processes between the soil and the ambient atmosphere.

The students will be using the data as part of larger projects to study how an area’s natural environmental footprint is impacted by the built urban environment – and vice versa.

They plan to move the tower over about a year’s time to several locations on three or four of ASU’s campuses to get readings in a variety of different settings.

(Joe Kullman)

Caption: Three ASU engineering students built a meteorological flux tower to study the interactions between the natural environment and urban development. From left, they are undergraduate civil engineering student Ivan Lopez-Castrillo, geological sciences doctoral student Adam Schreiner-McGraw and environmental engineering doctoral student Nolie Pierini. They are working under the guidance of Enrique Vivoni (at far right), an associate professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, and the School of Earth and Space Exploration. Photography by Jessica Hochreiter/ASU


Traveling over 11.3 billion miles at an astonishing 11 miles a second, the Voyager satellites are our farthest flung emissaries and the first human-made objects to travel beyond our solar system. Launched in 1977, the Voyagers 1 and 2 each carry messages that define humanity—everything from music recordings, pictures of Antarctic exploration, ballet dancers, and traffic jams. With Voyager 2 set to leave the solar system in 2015, it’s the perfect time to go back to the beginning of this project. ASU professor Jim Bell’s "THE INTERSTELLAR AGE: Inside the Forty-Year Voyager Mission" (Dutton; On-sale: February 24, 2015) is the ultimate guide and the first book to tell the whole story of the Voyager spacecraft and its scientific discoveries.

The Voyager mission was planned as a grand tour beyond the moon; beyond Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn; and maybe even beyond our solar system. The fact that it actually happened and that the satellites have been sending clear images of the outer planets and moons for nearly forty years makes this mission not only a success, but also humanity’s greatest mission of exploration ever. In THE INTERSTELLAR AGE, Bell reveals what drove and continues to drive the members of this extraordinary team such as Ed Stone, Voyager’s chief scientist and one-time head of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and Charlie Kohlhase, an orbital dynamics engineer who helped to design many of the critical slingshot maneuvers around the planets.

Bell also details the Voyagers themselves – from the instruments and nuclear reactors they carry, to the famous gold record with recordings of Brahms, Beethoven, and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” He also explains in fascinating detail how the engineers had to devise ways for the spacecraft to recognize problems on their own, and what will happen as the nuclear reactors on board run down.
When the first Voyager satellite left our solar system two years ago, it rekindled the media and America’s fascination with space, and the imminent departure of the second is bound to do the same. In this golden era of space exploration, Bell’s THE INTERSTELLAR AGE is an awe-inspiring story of the pioneers of this movement and their historic scientific achievements.

Bell is a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, an adjunct professor in the Department of Astronomy at Cornell University, and the president of the Planetary Society. He and his teammates have received more than a dozen NASA Group Achievement Awards for their work on space missions, and he was the recipient of the 2011 Carl Sagan Medal for Excellence in Public Communication in Planetary Science from the American Astronomical Society.



An interview with Scott Parazynski, ASU’S first Designated University Explorer

By Claire Topal, Senior Research Consultant, Center for Sustainable Health

When you have summited Mt. Everest and practiced medicine in space, you gain perspective that few can say they share. Reflecting on his experiences 29,000 feet above sea level on the world’s highest mountain, and orbiting the earth at 17,500 miles per hour, Scott Parazynski tells us what extreme settings clarify about health and healthcare.

On the big mountaintops of the world, the challenges of hypoxia and altitude-related illness are enormous. “If we can monitor and predict common problems,” Scott explains, “we could prevent the onset of high altitude pulmonary edema or cerebral edema. Technology could give us a critical lead in cases like this, creating enough time to turn the endangered person around now rather than waiting until they’re extremely ill and no longer mobile.”

“The sensitivity of the algorithm is the key,” he clarified, “whether it’s working in beat-to-beat variability, a dip in oxygen saturation, respiratory drive, or CO2 level. In other words, we need to measure things we can’t feel or see. New technologies help us determine—in the operating room, the ICU, and even the home (not just on mountaintops)—whether to keep pressing on as we are, or whether to make a change, before change becomes either too difficult, or a desperate life or death necessity.”

In space, the medical challenges may be a little different, but the opportunities that noninvasive technologies create are similar—and even more extreme. “When we go up into space, our muscululoskeletal system kind of goes on holiday,” Scott explains. “Zero gravity can make systems atrophy. That’s not so much of a problem while you’re still in space, but if you want to come back healthy, you need a cardiovascular reserve; your muscles and bones need to maintain strength and integrity. Monitoring of these systems is very important and manageable with quite simple devices.”

“The experience of space flight is actually a great model of accelerated aging,” Scott added. For me, this immediately conjured images of the mysterious “life force” balls of light from the 1985 Ron Howard film Cocoon. While practicing medicine in space unfortunately hasn’t revealed the formula for eternal youth, Scott notes that it does help us understand and predict long-term deterioration, not just immediate medical problems.

“In space, our bones thin, our balance systems change, and sleep disorders arise due to the lack of diurnal variability in daylight. There’s cardiovascular de-conditioning. If we can use monitoring systems to assess the well-being of astronauts, those would certainly be of benefit to seniors and post-menopausal women who are at a greater risk of osteoporosis and other things of that nature,” he explains.

Predicting problems before they occur and opening doors for prevention and early treatment sound great. After all, isn’t that the bedrock of the practice of medicine? Doesn’t it save costs? Yes. Every clinician I know talks a lot about how amazing it would be if we could find a way for the predictive and preventative tools at our fingertips to truly do their jobs. Sadly, health systems still don’t seem to make that vision a practical reality.

Why not? The human race has accomplished incredible feats in human space exploration, and now space tourism has even become a reality. Is healthcare really harder?

For Scott, it’s a question of prioritization. “We’re not organized. We don’t have the right mindset collectively. We need to align competing pressures on our healthcare system and take advantage of the motivation and drive of younger, connected populations. Unfortunately, we’ve prioritized hi-tech over effectiveness and quality.”

More data and more devices are definitely not the answer. “We need to be much smarter in the way that we look at the data we already have,” Scott counsels. Common standards for data sharing and mining provide one important piece of the better-healthcare-system puzzle.

Scott offers a glimpse into the ICU to illustrate the need for better integration. “There are typically dozens of very invasive monitors in the ICU that send all sorts of data to clinicians. In most cases, there is no way to integrate this data. As a result, it’s really hard to see the important inflection points that presage the downstream data outcome.”

While affordable, noninvasive biosensors are proliferating on the consumer market, data integration is an issue there, too. How do we understand all this information – the big picture – over time? Apps and tools that claim to help individuals do this are increasing, but healthcare needs to make this happen on a broader scale, too. And that looks a little different. “Systems need to find a way to compile all the data, anonymize it, and then sift through it to see if there were indicators five days ahead of a person’s massive myocardial infarction, for example,” explains Scott. “That way, we can be spring-loaded into action for the next 1,000 patients who head down the very same path, ideally preventing bad outcomes.”

In other words, it’s not about the technology; the key is how we use the technology and the information it provides. Scott warns that a misperception has evolved that unless we use all the scanners and the expensive genomic diagnostic tools that exist, we’re not getting (or providing) quality healthcare. But that’s really not the case. “Our priorities in terms of where we focus our resources are also skewed,” he says. “Our healthcare system is essentially organized around the last month of life, instead of preventative care.”

The implications of Scott’s observations are just as serious for costs as they are for health outcomes. “We won’t be able to afford a healthcare system in the future if we don’t do something drastic,” he warns. “The Affordable Care Act may not offer the perfect solution, but it’s trying to do some of the right things, which are to reward positive health outcomes and keep people out of the hospital. Hopefully, more incentives to reward the delivery of really good preventative care will reduce cost and give us a higher quality of life – and a longer life.”

This is where those biosensors that facilitate continuous and unobtrusive monitoring come in. They empower us to understand health patterns with greater sensitivity and frequency.

One area of particular interest to Scott—and Project HoneyBee—is in the realm of post-hospital discharge monitoring. “If we can check two or three days ahead of time if a person who had bypass surgery or was being treated for congestive heart failure was about to have more problems, we could get them in for evaluation or maybe even just remotely adjust medication to bring their condition back into greater equilibrium.” The result: healthier, happier people, and much lower costs for systems.

Across the breadth of medicine, whether the issue is endocrine, cardiac, or oncologic, being able to monitor people outside of the hospital and the ICU is critical to preventing the serious outcomes that result from reacting too late. “If we can get out ahead of problems,” Scott notes, “they’re much more easily managed, less costly, and you have better outcomes as well.”

The best-case scenario for Scott is if the healthcare system could embrace changes that are, well, already beginning to happen. More and more people are independently opting to wear biosensors, the goal being motivation toward healthier behaviors. “We already have a really engaged population, and I think adhering to this kind of healthy, monitored lifestyle is only going to become more of a trend. The healthcare system should support and integrate this – not ignore it and make it difficult for clinicians to engage.”

Let’s face it: we may have human tourists on the moon before the healthcare system gets things right. But let that motivate, not demoralize us. Space travel shows us that literally anything is possible, and fortunately we still have a little time left to turn the healthcare system around. Scott assures me that neither summiting Mt. Everest nor traveling hundreds of thousands of miles above earth are pre-requisites.

Image: Scott Parazynski and Doug Wheelock in orbit. Courtesy: NASA