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Research: Providing Answers to the Things That Frighten Us

As large bags of candy spill off shelves and children’s costumes fill store aisles, it is impossible to ignore the fact that Halloween is around the corner! In an increasingly complex world, however, it does not take a holiday to remind us of frightening things. There are diseases not yet cured, environmental and societal threats not yet identified and questions not yet answered.

At NAU, the uncertainty is not a reason for fear; it is an inspiration and the foundation of our successful research programs. Our researchers are tackling the questions that frighten us, making new discoveries and developing unprecedented solutions.

One of the most recent examples was in August as Hurricane Harvey was approaching the Texas Gulf Coast. An interdisciplinary team of NAU researchers, led by Dr. Ben Ruddell, quickly determined how the hurricane could impact food and energy production. They could do this because of their first-of-its-kind data map showing the intersection of U.S. food production, energy production and water supply.

Dr. Paul Keim recently finalized work on a test to diagnose Valley Fever – a step that will reduce worry and bring faster treatment for the disease that threatens Arizona residents. Dr. Zach Lerner is investigating whether a robotic leg brace can help children with cerebral palsy walk.

Our graduate students have developed better methods to diagnose speech disorders in English-language learners, and created ways to teach Spanish through social media. Dr. Petra Williams is part of a group using virtual reality technology to better prepare students for the real-life challenges of physical therapy and medical care. Dr. Fatemah Afghah is improving frameworks that will reduce the number of false alarms for patients in intensive care at emergency rooms, and Dr. Julie Baldwin is identifying how we can prevent adolescent drug abuse. Dr. Viacheslav Fofanov is exploring ways to prevent and treat tooth decay in preschoolers, and Dr. Frank von Hippel is leading an effort to study effects of contaminated water in some areas along the Arizona-Mexico border.

Dr. Bruce Hungate and his team are measuring the economic value of biodiversity to help demonstrate its importance, and Dr. David Trilling evaluates the size and number of meteoroids close enough to pose a threat to life on our planet. Our Center for Ecosystem Science and Society has identified drought-quenching bacteria that protects plants from climate stress, and Dr. Benjamin Koch is leading the effort to understand how tracking bacterial movement increases antibiotic resistance. Dr. Brad Butterfield is studying which native plant species should be used to restore the Colorado Plateau after wildfires.

The excellence of our researchers and their work continues to draw in new resources to pursue these answers: last year, NAU received an estimated $46 million from federal agencies, non-profits, and other entities that invest in our pursuit of answers. We received another $32 million for public service opportunities that put our research into practice.

Our impact reaches far outside Arizona, as well. The World University Rankings recently put NAU in the top 10 percent of universities in the world for the number of times research is cited in others’ work. When our team members share the answers they find, that information fuels other discoveries.

There will always be questions we cannot answer and problems not yet solved, but our experts are hard at work to ensure Arizonans are informed and ready to challenge the things that frighten us. FBN

By Rita Cheng

For more examples of NAU’s research success, visit

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