May 7-15, 2020 - Survey
Input from students, faculty, and staff is solicited.
- faculty and staff survey
- student engagement through SACs
May 22, 2020 - Summary
May 29, 2020 - Draft
Draft Strategic Plan available to stakeholders (UNID required)
May 29-June 5, 2020 - Comments
Comment phase for Draft Strategic Plan
June 2020 - Update
- Summary of comments available to stakeholders
- Preliminary Strategic Plan available to stakeholders
July, 2020 - Finalize
- Presentation to College Executive Committee for approval
- Strategic Plan finalized
Five for Five.
Michael Xiao brings home the U's fifth straight Churchill Scholarship.
Five years after the University of Utah became eligible to compete for the prestigious Churchill Scholarship out of the United Kingdom, the university has sported just as many winners. All of them hail from the College of Science, and all were facilitated through the Honors College which actively moves candidates through a process of university endorsement before applications are sent abroad. The effort has obviously paid off.
“These students are truly amazing,” says Ginger Smoak, Associate Professor Lecturer in the Honors College and the Distinguished Scholarships Advisor. “They are not merely intelligent, but they are also creative thinkers and problem solvers who are first-rate collaborators, researchers, learners, and teachers.”
The most recent U of U winner of the Churchill Scholars program is Michael Xiao of the School of Biological Sciences (SBS).
While early on he aspired to be a doctor, Xiao’s fascination with how mutations in the structure of DNA can lead to diseases such as cancer led him to believe that while it would be one thing “to be able to treat someone, to help others, it would be quite another to be able to understand and study the underpinnings of what you’re doing and to be at its forefront.” This is particularly true, right now, he says, with the advent of the coronavirus.
The underpinnings of Xiao’s recent success started as early as eighth grade in the basement of his parent’s house where he was independently studying the effects of UV light damage on DNA. To quantify those effects he was invited to join a lab at nearby BYU where faculty member Kim O’Neill, Professor of Microbiology & Molecular Biology mentored him through high school, even shepherding him through a first-author paper.
Since then Xiao has matured into a formidable researcher, beginning his freshman year in the lab of Michael Deininger, Professor of Internal Medicine and the Huntsman Cancer Institute, followed by his move to the lab of Jared Rutter, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator in biochemistry. With Rutter he studied the biochemistry of PASK and its roles in muscle stem cell quiescence and activation of the differentiation program. His findings provided insight into the role and regulation of PASK during differentiation, as well as a rationale for designing a small molecule inhibitor to treat diseases such as muscular dystrophy by rejuvenating the muscle stem cell population.
Early experience in a research lab is not only about engaging the scientific method through new discoveries but also about making academic connections that lead to auspicious careers.
One of those connections for Xiao was with Chintan Kikani now at the University of Kentucky. In fact the two of them are currently finishing up the final numbers of their joint PASK- related research.
The Churchill award, named after Sir. Winston Churchill, will take Xiao to Cambridge University beginning in October. While there, Xiao plans to join the lab of Christian Frezza at the MRC Cancer Unit for a master’s in medical science. After returning from the UK, Xiao plans to pursue an MD/PhD via combined medical school and graduate school training in an NIH-funded Medical Scientist Training Program.
Xiao is quick to thank his many mentors as well as SBS and the Honors College, the latter of which, he says, taught him to think critically and communicate well, especially through writing. Honors “was very helpful in helping me improve in a lot of areas,” he says, “that are important to my work and my personal life as well.”
Denise Dearing, Director of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Utah describes Michael Xiao as one who “epitomizes how early research opportunities are transformative and how they ‘turbo-charge’ the likelihood of creating world-class scientists. The School is first in line to congratulate him on receiving this extraordinary award.”
by David Pace
- First Published in OurDNA Magazine, Spring 2020
Karl Gordon Lark, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Utah, passed away on April 10, 2020, after a seven-year battle with cancer. A renowned geneticist, Lark uncovered fundamental aspects of DNA replication and genetics across many systems, from bacteria to soybeans to dogs. He came to the U in 1970 as the biology department’s inaugural chair with a vision—to build a research and teaching powerhouse in the desert. In just six years he recruited 17 faculty members from all biological disciplines, establishing an institution of scientific excellence.
“Today, the tremendous impact of Gordon’s vision and leadership are felt in the School of Biological Sciences, across campus and throughout the state of Utah,” said Denise Dearing, director of the school. “Gordon was responsible for the expansion of molecular biology—a new field in those days—across the U. He will be dearly missed.”
“The [University of Utah’s] nascent research community, in every field from molecular biology to community ecology, was built by Lark in creative, often wildly unconventional small steps,” wrote Baldomero “Toto” Olivera, Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences, in an unpublished essay for the Annual Reviews of Pharmacology and Toxicology.Olivera conducts world-renowned research on cone snail venom and pain management, and was recruited by Lark. “It is his guidance that makes me feel unconstrained in exploring unusual solutions to seemingly intractable problems.”
Lark was preceded in death by his first wife, Cynthia (née Thompson). He is survived by his four children, Clovis, Ellen, Suzanna and Caroline and his granddaughter, Willow. He is also survived by his second wife, Antje Curry, his stepdaughter, Tara, and her two children, Liam and Briar.
A life of inquiry
Curiosity and coincidence guided Lark’s lifelong pursuit of discovery. He was born on Dec. 13, 1930, in West Lafayette, Indiana, into a household that valued intellect. His father was physics chair at Purdue University and his mother was an artist and psychiatrist. Lark was precocious in his academic pursuits and enrolled at the University of Chicago a year after World War II ended at the age of 15. There, he met Leo Szilard, regarded as the father of the Manhattan Project but who had turned his attention from nuclear reactions to the newly emerging field of the molecular basis of life. Szilard suggested that Lark spend the summer at Cold Spring Harbor, a famous laboratory that helped develop the field of molecular biology. There, Lark met Mark Adams, a scientist from New York University who would become Lark’s mentor.
Adams studied phages, which are viruses that invade bacterial cells and take over various host functions to propagate themselves. He not only inspired Lark’s love of research, but also taught him how to organize effective undergraduate science education. In the fall, Lark returned to Chicago to complete his degree and had his first eureka moment—he discovered reversible changes in the physical structure of phage proteins. It would be about four more years before the field generally accepted that molecules could change a protein’s shape.
“To this day, I think it’s one of the best pieces of science I’ve ever done,” Lark reflected in comments to the U’s American West Center. “It was the bringing together of physics and chemistry and biology into one moment. I didn’t think of it that way at the time, but from then on I was hooked!”
Lark returned to Cold Spring Harbor in the summer of 1950 to work with Adams, and there he met his future wife and scientific collaborator, Cynthia. Lark completed his doctorate at NYU, spent two years as a postdoc at the Statens Serum Institut in Copenhagen, Denmark, and one year at the University of Geneva. On subsequent return visits, he met Costa Georgopoulos, a biochemist who discovered a new class of proteins called chaperones. More than 20 years after they first met, Georgopoulos would move to the Department of Biochemistry at the U.
“Gordon and I shared many old friends and colorful memories from our times in Switzerland,” Georgopoulos remembered. “Gordon’s nickname in the lab was ‘double-decker’ because his plentiful, high-rising hair resembled a double-decker bus.”
In 1956, Lark accepted a position at St. Louis University Medical School. Here, Lark had what he called his second epiphany—an experiment to show that in the absence of protein synthesis, replication of DNA stopped at a particular point on the bacterial chromosome. The experiment set the course of his research for the next two decades. In 1963, the Larks moved on to the physics department at Kansas State University where they focused their research on the process of DNA replication in bacteria. They pioneered how to measure the point when DNA begins replicating, how to track the progression of replication in living cells and developed the technique of measuring the size of cells before they begin to replicate. In 1965, the American Association for Microbiology honored Lark with the Ely Lilly Award, given each year to recognize landmark research in microbial physiology.
Building scientific and teaching excellence in Utah
In 1970, the U’s Robert Vickery recruited Lark to build a powerful new biology department in what would become the School of Biological Sciences in 2014. And build he did. During his time as chair from 1970-77, he hired 17 new tenure-track faculty, including Mario Capecchi who would subsequently become a Nobel Prize laureate, Raymond Gesteland and Ray White, who went on to establish new departments in the School of Medicine.
“As chair, Gordon was an unusually skilled administrator, combining a rare insight into the environment that different members of faculty and staff needed to succeed and the energy to provide it,” said Capecchi. “I was attracted to the young Utah biology department in part by Gordon’s support of long-term studies aimed at significant problems, but without the promise of immediately publishable results, quite different from the ‘publish-or-perish’ policies imposed at many other places.”
Lark also impressed the importance of teaching to the biology faculty, both by personal example and with innovative programs. In the department’s very early days, he hired one of the world’s most charismatic young science personalities, David Suzuki, as a visiting scholar to teach the introductory course in genetics. He implemented video recordings of well-taught introductory courses so they could be offered more frequently to more students. For several years as chair, he funded an annual program in which a prominent faculty member from outside the College of Science taught a course in their own area, designed for biology students.
“During Gordon’s final years after retirement and while battling cancer, he voluntarily and unpaid taught an Honors course for a general student audience. With biographical and autobiographical readings, he introduced the human sides of pioneers in the exciting advances of 20th century physics and chemistry, several of whom Gordon had known personally,” said Larry Okun, professor emeritus of biology. “He taught that course right through 2019, his own last fall semester.”
In Utah, the Larks turned their attention from bacteria to plant cells and tissues, particularly soybeans, for the next decade. In the early 1990s, disaster and serendipity struck—the Lark lab was destroyed while the building was under renovation. After a year of trying to salvage their work, they switched to studying whole soybean plants in agricultural fields, focusing on the genetics underlying certain traits, such as the ability of the crop to adapt to different climates. Overall, their laboratory identified genes that increased the yield of soybeans by 10%.
In 1996, tragedy and serendipity struck again. The Lark’s Portuguese water dog, Georgie, had died of an autoimmune anemia disease. Heartbroken, the Larks connected to a dog breeder, Karen Miller, to buy another puppy. When the time came, Miller gave Lark the $1,500 dog for free hoping to guilt him into studying the breed’s genetics.
It worked. Miller coordinated with Portuguese water dog owners from around the country to send Lark blood samples and X-rays of their pets. What became known as “The Georgie Project,” eventually identified genes that determine the size and shape of the head, thickness of the thigh bone, shape of the pelvis and characteristics of the lower foreleg.
A legacy that spans generations
Lark formally retired from the U as a Distinguished Professor in 1999, but his legacy in biology reaches beyond his direct collaborators. The next generation of biologists also feels his influence.
“The magnitude of Gordon’s accomplishments is hard to really capture in today’s world,” said David Grunwald, professor of human genetics at the U’s School of Medicine. “Individuals can have a big effect on an institution. They can either set a precedent that honors creativity, respect and excellence, or they can make everyone feel like a cog in a machine. Gordon built a place that engendered creativity.”
- by Lisa Potter
Delaney Mosier receives top College of Science award.
Delaney Mosier, a graduating senior in mathematics, has been awarded the 2020 College of Science Research Scholar Award for her cutting-edge work in the area of sea ice concentration, using partial differential equation models.
“I am humbled to receive this award,” said Delaney. “The College of Science is teeming with groundbreaking research, so it’s an overwhelming honor to be considered one of the top researchers in the College. I’m proud to be a representative of the amazing research going on in the field of mathematics.”
Delaney is also proud to receive the award as a woman. “I strive to be a positive role model for girls and women in STEM. I hope that by earning this award, I can inspire other women to consider working on mathematics research.”
In his letter of support for Delaney’s nomination, Distinguished Professor Ken Golden, who has served as her supervisor and mentor, discussed her research abilities, natural leadership skills, and mathematical prowess, indicating that Delaney is one of the most talented and advanced students he has seen in his 30+ years of mentoring.
The College of Science Research Scholar Award, established in 2004, honors the College’s most outstanding senior undergraduate researcher. The Research Scholar must be a graduating undergraduate major of the College of Science, achieve excellence in science research, have definite plans to attend graduate school in a science/math field, and be dedicated to a career in science/math research.
Studying the Behavior of Sea Ice
Delaney studies patterns in the behavior of sea ice in polar regions. She’s interested in how physical processes affect these patterns on a short-term basis and how climate change can affect them in the long-term.
The primary goal of her research with Dr. Golden is to understand better how and why sea ice is changing over time. Considered relatively low order, their model allows them to study intimately the details of the sea ice pack, which can provide insights that might not yet be apparent to the climate science community. Her work tries to answer one of the most important research questions of the modern age: Why is polar sea ice melting so rapidly and will it ever recover?
She has always been passionate about the environment and finds the project exciting because it incorporates mathematics along with studying climate. “My project is very dynamic,” she noted. “Each time I meet with Dr. Golden, we discuss something new to incorporate into our model or seek a new way to understand it. It’s thrilling to be a part of such unique and innovative work.”
She became seriously interested in math because of her 7th grade algebra teacher. “Mrs. Hein fostered an exploratory environment—I collaborated with my peers and was often challenged to explore the world of mathematics for myself,” she said. “I couldn’t get enough of it. To this day, math remains the one activity that I can completely lose myself in. Math challenges my mind in exhilarating and motivating ways.”
Mentors at the U
Delaney credits Dr. Golden with helping her pursue a variety of opportunities that have furthered her career as a mathematician. She also has praise for Dr. Courtenay Strong, associate professor of atmospheric sciences, and Dr. Jingyi Zhu, associate professor of mathematics, who have served as mentors and helped guide her research.
“My friend and roommate, Katelyn Queen, has been a wonderful mentor and inspiration to me throughout my journey,” said Delaney. “She is always willing to give me advice and support me in my endeavors. I have watched her excel in her first year of graduate school, and that has inspired me in moving forward.” She also thanks fellow students and her parents for their love and support. “My parents are simply the best,” said Delaney.
Her favorite teacher at the U is Dr. Karl Schwede, professor of mathematics. “I had Dr. Schwede for several classes and learned so much,” she said. “He has high standards for his students, which motivated me and helped me to retain the material. He is also supportive and helpful.”
When she isn’t studying or doing research, she loves to dance and listen to music. She was a competitive Irish dancer from ages 11 – 17. She is also an avid reader, especially during the summer.
Delaney will begin her Ph.D. studies in applied mathematics this fall. She hasn’t yet decided if she will work in industry, continue with climate research, or become a professor. “Whatever I decide to do, my goal is to use mathematics to have an impact on the world,” she said.
by Michele Swaner
"Professor Boehme is deeply knowledgable and committed to the research and educational missions of the department, and has served with distinction as interim chair this year," Trapa said. "Christoph has my full and unwavering confidence and support, as well as that of SVPAA Dan Reed, in leading the department forward."
Previously, Boehme served as associate chair of the department from 2010-2015. His research is focused on the exploration of spin-dependent electronic processes in condensed matter. The goal of his work is to develop sensitive coherent spin motion detection schemes for small spin ensembles that are needed for quantum computing and general materials research.
A child of the 1970s, Christoph was born and raised in Oppenau, a small town in southwest Germany, 30 miles east of the French city of Strasbourg. After obtaining an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering, and committing to 15 months of civil services caring for disabled people (chosen to avoid the military draft), he moved to Heidelberg, Germany in 1994 to study physics at the University of Heidelberg.
In 1997 Boehme won a Fulbright Student Scholarship which brought him to the United States for the first time, where he studied at North Carolina State University and met his wife Kristie. In 2000 Christoph and Kristie moved to Berlin, Germany where they lived for 5 years while he worked for the Hahn-Meitner Institut, a national laboratory. He finished his dissertation work as a graduate student of the University of Marburg in 2002 and spent an additional three years working as a postdoctoral researcher.
Christoph moved to Utah in 2006 to join the Department of Physics & Astronomy as an Assistant Professor. He was promoted into the rank of Associate Professor and awarded tenure in 2010, and promoted to the rank of Professor in 2013. Boehme received the U’s Distinguished Scholarly and Creative Research Award in 2018 for his contributions and scientific breakthroughs in electron spin physics and for his leadership in the field of spintronics.
UTAH BIOTECH COMPANIES RALLY TO FIGHT THE CORONAVIRUS
After a new virus, COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) was deemed a pandemic by the World Health Organization and then rapidly spread throughout the United States and other countries throughout the world, healthcare professionals and patients alike became vocal about the lack of testing kits available throughout the state and country.
In order to ensure that a greater percentage of the population would have accessibility to testing in the event that it was needed, the Food and Drug Administration announced a series of regulatory changes for laboratories and other diagnostic companies that gave already certified high-complexity laboratories (such as the ones found in hospitals or doctor’s offices) the ability to use their own tests to diagnose COVID-19, instead of the pre-authorized and distributed tests from the CDC.
BIOFIRE CREATED CORONAVIRUS TESTS IN TWO MONTHS
As a result, several Utah biotech companies stepped up to the plate, including Biofire Diagnostics, and it’s sister company BioFire Defense, who created a specific biological test used to help healthcare providers throughout the country screen for the novel virus. Partnering with the Department of Defense on the development of the test, BioFire managed to create the test and have it certified for use in as little as two months, a lightspeed feat just when patients across the world needed one the most.
“Part of that [shortened time frame] was because the FDA was amazing. They were so good to work with. My team was sending emails to the FDA in the middle of the night and they were getting responses within minutes. It was super impressive. And so I think that’s why the development time was super-compressed,” says Wade Stevenson, senior vice president of BioFire Diagnostics when discussing the timeline of the BioFire test. “The Department of Defense [also] provided us with some end-targets that supported the product that they wanted and they gave us some funds to help get there. The development work was done by BioFire Defense and then BioFire Diagnostics does most of the manufacturing.”
The BioFire test wouldn’t have become a reality without their hundreds of employees coming in to work on the front lines every day. “You can’t do research and diagnostics from home,” laughs Stevenson when asked how the company is handling the process while adhering to the new social distancing guidelines. “You also can’t fit production lines into anyone’s home. So we, as a company, had to take a hard look at who can do their job at home or not. Governor Herbert did claim BioFire an essential business, however.”
Essential, indeed. Throughout the country, and the rest of the world, BioFire’s diagnostic capabilities are capable of saving the lives of thousands of potentially sick patients. In fact, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio specifically called out another BioFire diagnostic tool, the BioFire FilmArray Respiratory Panels, in his plan to help curb the spread of COVID-19 in New York City. “First thing [healthcare providers] will do, or among the first thing that they will do, is to test you with BioFire,” said de Blasio in a televised March 9th press conference.
De Blasio went on to discuss how providers would use the BioFire respiratory panels to first screen patients for twenty of the most common respiratory viruses to determine if it could be something other than COVID-19. Only after a patient tested negative with the BioFire respiratory test would they be tested for COVID-19, which could save hundreds of tests for those who are likely positive.
“We will be adding COVID-19 to the [respiratory label] but that will take a few more months of development,” says Stevenson. “[When that is added] that will change the game because you can rule out COVID-19 right along with the 20 other cases of respiratory infection.”
Though the FilmArray respiratory panels are already available for purchase, the initial batch of BioFire’s COVID-19 tests was sent to the Department of Defense in mid-March. The company expects to have the test available on a clinical basis around the third week of April.
ARUP LABORATORIES PROVIDES TESTING CAPABILITIES TO UTAHNS
Additionally, to further help meet the need of sick Utahns, ARUP Laboratories, a nonprofit enterprise of the University of Utah, was one of the first non-public health laboratories to offer COVID-19 testing when the pandemic first hit.
“ARUP began working with an outside manufacturing partner back in January. As soon as the FDA issued their guidance in late February, ARUP was able to complete the validation of the test, and we began running tests on March 11,” says Brian Jackson, official spokesperson for ARUP Laboratories.
Between March 11-27th ARUP Laboratories revved up their testing capacity to run 2,400 tests per day. However, in order to preserve both testing capacity and rapid result delivery, ARUP is focusing initial testing efforts on Utah, and as of late March is not offering COVID-19 testing to hospitals outside of the state.
In an online press release, Sherrie Perkins, MD, PHD, and CEO at ARUP says that ARUP has faced challenges in sourcing the needed reagents and other supplies needed to run these tests at scale. And they aren’t the only ones, though BioFire manufactures their own reagents, they too are worried about meeting the demand for their products.
“Demand for the tests is going to be much greater than our ability to provide them,” says Stevenson. “We will very likely launch [the clinical COVID-19 test] under an allocation where we can only fill a [certain number of orders.]” And that’s a problem echoed throughout the entire diagnostic industry.
OTHER COMPANY SUPPORT AGAINST COVID-19
Though the lack of reagents is causing some uneasiness for healthcare providers and biotech companies throughout the country, there are a few other companies throughout Utah who are doing anything and everything they can to normalize the situation as much as possible.
On March 20th, Chris Gibson, CEO of the Salt Lake-based biotech powerhouse, Recursion Pharmaceuticals announced in a series of tweets that they would be partnering with a local “BioSafety Level 3” facility to do a series of experiments on “compounds and their efficacy against COVID-19.”
The Recursion team promised to share any discoveries with the scientific community and Gibson confirmed that the company would not be seeking profit on any discoveries that might be made. But it’s not just the biotech companies throughout Utah rallying around the doctors, nurses, and patients fighting on the front lines. In true tech-community spirit, the companies who make up the Silicon Slopes are working hard to do their part, as well.
In a town hall meeting just days after Gov. Herbert first put the guidelines in place in early March, Silicon Slopes members set up a community relief fund designed to help those in need. They plan to use their allocated funds throughout Utah to fund things like additional FDA approved tests for Utahns, the aquisition of medical supplies for healthcare and nonprofit workers, as well as additional public health and K-12 education efforts.
“One part of Silicon Slopes’ mission is to serve,” says Clint Betts, executive director for Silicon Slopes. “COVID-19 impacts all of us, so it’s important that we all play a role as we address this issue. By pooling our collective resources we’ll be able to come out of this in a lot better position than if we operated in our own siloes.”
Other tech companies in the area, such as Podium, are taking a more targeted approach to help restaurants who have been severely affected by the pandemic. In mid March, the Podium team released their “Text To Takeout” software that allows customers to directly text local restaurants to place, purchase, and pick up their orders. The software makes the process as safe as possible for all parties involved, which provides comfort to customers in a time of uncertainty.
But that’s not all. Other companies like Avii have offered their tax accounting software services to small businesses for free, Woodside Homes announced that they would be collecting PPE for healthcare workers, Nav is offering their expertise with small business finances to those in need, Walker Edison donated over 500 desks to students and workers now forced to work from home, Nearmap is offering their digital software to governments at no cost in order to help them plan COVID-19 relief, and Solutionreach came up with an innovative way to streamline the doctor/patient communication process. And this was all just within the last month.
“We recognize there is a lot of information circulating around COVID-19 and many healthcare organizations are left with no solution to reach out to their patients in a timely fashion with the proper information,” says Solutionreach CEO, Josh Weiner. “Allowing free use of our emergency messaging is just one small way we can continue to support the healthcare community during the COVID-19 situation.”
As the news continues to fill with depressing stories of grief, poverty, and a collapsing system, it’s so important to remember the companies, whether they be biotech or otherwise, who are putting everything into making this situation a little bit better for the rest of us. “There are so many stories of private companies that have approached us and offered their help,” says Betts. “Utah really is going to be a case study for how both the private and public sector can make a difference for the communities they serve.”