PBS’ 'Catalyst' shines the spotlight on Biodesign researchers’ stories

PBS’ 'Catalyst' shines the spotlight on Biodesign researchers’ stories

March 18, 2019

  • Carlo Maley will be featured on the March 27 episode of “Catalyst,” alongside an elephant and trainer duo from the Phoenix Zoo. Maley’s research at the Arizona Center for Cancer and Evolution involves studying the genetic makeup of elephants to understand why they are so cancer-resistant.

    Image credit: Arizona PBS

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  • Cheryl Nickerson attended the Barrett-Jackson auto show for her episode of “Catalyst”, airing May 22, featuring her intergalactic race against infections. She was able to ride in a new ZO6 Corvette driven by Formula One driver Richie Hearn for the show and draw connections between racing and her biomedical spaceflight research with NASA.

    Image credit: Arizona PBS

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  • “The combination of science and sports car racing came naturally for me,” Nickerson said. “I am enamored with speed, performance and torque!”

    Image credit: Arizona PBS

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March 18, 2019

Arizona State University researchers work all over the world, from Antarctica to Mexico, and Tucson to Pasadena. Now, a group of journalists and storytellers at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication is chronicling their research for a science documentary series for PBS.

“Catalyst” returned to Arizona PBS Wednesday, Feb. 13 for a highly anticipated second season, featuring host Vanessa Ruiz, a Cronkite professor of practice and former co-lead anchor for 12 News, the NBC affiliate in Phoenix.

The 13-episode series explores current cutting-edge research at ASU and is the creation of students at the Cronkite School. The show aims to serve the public, Executive Producer Steve Filmer said. He said while last year was a learning experience, this year will be a step in a new direction.

“We like to go to big, bold places if we can,” said Filmer, an award-winning television producer whose credits include ABC World News Tonight and Good Morning America. “We’re really trying to put more of the stories in the field and on location rather than in a safe and controlled environment. Doing stories on location is fun and full of challenges. It forces us to be spontaneous and it freshens up the show.”

Brain power

Biodesign researcher Diego Mastroeni was featured on the first season for his research on Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative brain conditions. His episode was filmed on location in his lab at the ASU-Banner Neurodegenerative Research Center at the Biodesign Institute. Mastroeni showed the “Catalyst” team the “brain bank,” a nickname for the storage area in Sun City where brains donated for medical study are held.

“I think it was a really cool way of talking to the public,” Mastroeni, an assistant research professor in the School of Life Sciences, said. “I had the opportunity to discuss some of the new and upcoming things in our research center, as well as the process going from the brain bank to examining tissues.”

During the tour of his lab, Mastroeni displayed a brain for the “Catalyst” team that he cut and analyzed on camera. He gave an overview of the various conditions he researches, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease, as well as his research for the U.S. Department of Defense. The interview highlighted his recent discoveries regarding the relationship between neurodegenerative damage and mitochondria.

In his lab, Mastroeni and his colleagues are working on developing targeted therapies that ensure cells have the necessary resources for sustaining functionality over time.

“We’re not only focusing on the diseased brain, but also potentially on helping the aging brain.”

This season, Mastroeni has been invited back to talk about the long-term side effects of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). His discussion of the implications of head trauma on emotional instability will air on March 27. The episode is themed around preventing concussions, and also features the team physician for ASU’s football squad.

Elephant in the room

Another upcoming “Catalyst” segment includes a visit to the Phoenix Zoo with Carlo Maley to discuss his studies of cancer rates among larger animals, such as elephants, rhinos and whales.

“It was a fun experience,” Maley said. “While we were giving treats to the elephant, we got up close to take some pictures. It was great to have the elephant in the segment, because she was a really compelling animal.”

“We’re looking at how nature has discovered ways of preventing cancer,” Maley, a professor in the School of Life Sciences, said. “Every cell in your body has some chance for becoming cancerous. Elephants have 100 times as many cells as humans do. They should be particularly susceptible to cancer, but there’s been a lot of selective pressure on them to prevent it.”

Ancestors of modern day elephants who were unsuccessful at fending off cancer had fewer chances to pass along their genes, leading to a high level of cancer resistance in elephants existing today.

Maley’s episode will air on April 10, and will discuss his role as director of the Arizona Center for Cancer and Evolution. It will also include a guided tour of the Biodesign Institute’s cactus garden, another source of inspiration for research, where mutations turn into crested displays that show how cactuses can live alongside cancer.

“I believe having public appearances in discussions and shows like ‘Catalyst’ as critical to what we do in science,” Maley said of his experience. “I think there’s a temptation to just bury ourselves in the science, but it's very important for us to engage with the community. We should really be serving the community as scientists, and its needs and interests.”

Canine cancer vaccination

Within the same episode, “Catalyst” will delve into Stephen Johnston’s research developing anti-cancer vaccines for dogs. Johnston, the director of the Biodesign Center for Innovations in Medicine and School of Life Sciences professor, received a multi-year $6.4 million grant from the Open Philanthropy Project to conduct a clinical trial with at least 800 dogs.

Johnston’s research is pioneering a potential pathway to stop cancer before it starts. The idea of using a vaccine to stop cancer in its tracks is a high-risk, high-reward use of funding. Johnston’s team already proved the vaccine’s safety in mice and dogs and now aim to study its efficacy. The vaccine, comprised of tumor antigens commonly spotted in cancers, takes a broad approach to cancer prevention.

If trial results are promising, Johnston and his team would like to adapt the vaccine for human use because dogs and humans face similar struggles in cancer. The way the disease develops, spreads and mutates in dogs closely mirrors human responses to cancer.

Molecular science in motion

In another “Catalyst” episode, producers took molecular biologist Cheryl Nickerson to the Barrett-Jackson auto auction in Scottsdale to draw a connection between biological “engines" and cars. Her segment will air on May 22, featuring her intergalactic race against infections.

Nickerson enjoyed immersing herself in “decades of automotive history,” while sharing her inherited love of high performance sports cars. She was raised in a family of scientists and educators who also loved sports car racing. At the auto show, Nickerson was able to film with the team from the Spring Mountain Ron Fellows High Performance Racing School, where she receives professional racing instruction. For the episode, she was also able to experience hot laps in a new ZO6 Corvette driven by Formula One driver Richie Hearn; a moment she called “icing on the cake!”

Nickerson explains the similarities between her team’s research and sports car racing: “They both demand laser focus, speed and precision.”

“Like racing, science is also very much a ‘team effort. Our research involves many individuals with different expertise and skill sets working together in a highly cohesive and organized fashion,” Nickerson said. “In our infectious disease and vaccine development research, we study both human and bacterial cells, which operate like molecular machines to perform activities. For example, they convert energy into mechanical motion like a car.”

Nickerson lamented the fact that there are limited opportunities for the public to hear about research. By partnering with PBS and “Catalyst,” she hopes to make science relatable, personable and understandable to the public, with the ultimate goal of helping inform their decisions and stimulate support and enthusiasm for research.

Testing for tuberculosis

Biodesign Institute researcher Tony Hu will also be featured in the May 22 segment. His research on tuberculosis nanotechnology will be featured. Tuberculosis is a deadly disease, historically known as “consumption” for its ghastly effects on those it afflicts. Diagnosis and treatment of it is still a crucial issue in developing countries around the globe.

Hu, an associate professor in the School for Biological and Health Systems Engineering, used his background in nanotechnology and diagnostics to develop a test to provide rapid test results for patients potentially affected by tuberculosis. Treatment administered in a timely manner can drastically reduce mortality rates, which are particularly fatal in children. As a matter of fact, the World Health Organization designated finding better tools for tuberculosis diagnosis as a top priority.

Stories of science continue

“Effectively communicating and sharing scientific discoveries with the public is a critical part of being a scientist – indeed it is our responsibility,” Nickerson said. “Science is central to every part of our world, our lives, our economy our security, our planet, and beyond – it is an investment in the future of our civilization.”

“Catalyst” is supported by ASU Knowledge Enterprise Development, which promotes interdisciplinary university research institutes and initiatives.

“Catalyst is a wonderful opportunity to share the latest discoveries and cutting edge research coming out of ASU,” said Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan, executive vice president of Knowledge Enterprise and chief research and innovation officer at ASU. “In season two, the ‘Catalyst’ team focuses a lens on how ASU scientists are looking at crucial topics from new perspectives such as — how have animals managed to overcome health problems that humans still face? How does space technology help us understand Earth environments? I invite you to watch another successful season and join us on this inspirational journey of discovery and impact.”

Each episode of the 30-minute show features four to five segments which attempt to demystify research by telling the stories of people in the labs and out in the field, spotlighting the pursuit of groundbreaking discoveries.

It will air every Wednesday at 9 p.m. on Arizona PBS, beginning on Feb. 13. Encore broadcasts will air Sundays at 2 p.m.

Students at the Cronkite School, the home of PBS, started working on the second season in late August. The production supports the state’s mission of promoting lifelong learning by filling the need for more discovery-related content on television.

Jim Tuttle, "Catalyst’s" post-production supervisor, said for every finished minute of film, it takes about 15 hours of production work to get the story ready for broadcast.

“Every story is a different animal but this is typical with a high-quality show,” he said.

Other stories in production include NASA’s Orion parachute test, ASU’s first study abroad journey to Antarctica and anti-cancer vaccinations for dogs.

This year “Catalyst” also enlisted two students from ASU’s School of Music, part of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, to create and score a new opening theme and end credits for the show.


Adapted from story by Marshall Terrill



Written by: Sabine Galvis

Marshall Terrill