Ariel Anbar, a professor at Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, says he can trace his interest in science back to watching “Star Trek” as a child. “I was a science fiction fan as a kid and it has definitely played a role in my interest in science. My dad was a scientist as well,” he says.
Also a professor in ASU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Anbar was recently named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Professor, the first in ASU’s history. The appointment includes a five-year, $1 million grant in recognition of Anbar’s research and teaching, which centers on the Earth’s past and future as a habitable planet. HHMI recognizes professors who are accomplished research scientists working to change undergraduate science education in the United States, according to an ASU press release.
The grant will enable Anbar to build a suite of online virtual field trips to take students to about a dozen sites around the planet that teach about the evolution of life and the environment over time. “We would take students back to one of the field locations where we have some of the earliest evidence of life on Earth” he says. “We already have a virtual field trip to a place in Australia that has some of the earliest evidence of animals.” The grant will help fund technology development and personnel as well as travel costs.
Anbar, who was born in Israel, but came to the U.S. when he was 3 months old, was named an ASU President’s Professor in 2013 in recognition of his innovative online education endeavors, including the creation of “Habitable Worlds,” an online course that engages students through interactive activities similar to a video game. “It seemed obvious to me that if we’re going to design ways to teach things that are appealing to students, we have to go where they are,” he says. The course allows students to explore virtual spaces online in which they extract information and report back, giving them a hands-on experience rather than a typical lecture format. Designed as a science course for non-science majors, “Habitable Worlds” has been taken by more than 1,500 ASU students.
For many of the students taking the “Habitable Worlds” course, this could be the last science class they take during their formal education, and “we ought to make sure it’s a cool one,” Anbar says.
“It ought to be a course that teaches those students that science is more than a bunch of disciplines where they have to memorize facts.” Part of the problem with science education is that science is divided into disciplines as early as middle school where students are taking separate biology and chemistry classes, Anbar says. “That’s not the way the real world works. The problems that we’re interested in are not nice and tidy like that. Climate change or searching for life on other worlds, or something in biomedicine like curing cancer, are questions and challenges that cross disciplines and yet, we don’t teach it that way.”
Another of Anbar’s endeavors is a research project in conjunction with the Mayo Clinic to develop a new way for early detection of cancers that affect the bone. “We’re using a geochemical technique used by geoscientists to characterize the chemistry of water and rocks and applying it to blood and urine to develop a way to diagnose disease,” he says. “We’re bridging disciplines.”
Anbar, who has a bachelor’s degree in geological sciences and chemistry from Harvard College and a master’s degree and doctorate in geochemistry from California Institute of Technology, was recruited to ASU in 2003. One of the reasons he chose ASU was the value the university places on crossing disciplines. “ASU is one of the few places that does it well and prides itself on it. Most of my research (crosses disciplines). That’s what gets me up in the morning.”
Before Anbar and his wife, Marni, both originally from Buffalo, New York, moved to Arizona, they visited the Valley over Anbar’s spring break while teaching at the University of Rochester. They were here on a Saturday and decided to “check out a shul” online and discovered The New Shul. “We dropped in. They were only a year old at that point and we kind of fell in love with it,” Anbar says. “We’ve been there ever since.” The Anbars have two children, Nathaniel, 14, and Naomi, 10.