Carol Blair (BA’64) is a testament to not only the value of providing research opportunities for undergraduates, but also the transformative experience of working directly with graduate students in the lab.
After she had changed her major from chemistry to the brand new (at the time) field of microbiology, she says, “I was given the opportunity to work as a lab assistant with John Stanton and Joel Dalrymple. (My duties were to capture snakes in the freshwater marshes east of Great Salt Lake, care for and conduct experiments with the snakes in the lab, prepare primary chick embryo cell cultures, assay infectious virus, etc.) John and Joel taught me so much and they enjoyed their work so much, and I enjoyed working with them so much, that I decided I wanted to pursue the academic life for the rest of my career.”
Together they worked with Professor Doug Hill, an expert on arboviruses, who made their research truly meaningful.
Blair, a Salt Lake City native, was an honorary Merit Scholar and was awarded the Principal’s Scholarship as top in her high school class. “The University of Utah was clearly the best for pursuing a degree in science,” following high school, she reports. After graduating with an honors program bachelor’s degree, magna cum laude, in 1964, she moved to Berkeley to enroll in the inaugural doctorate program of the Department of Molecular Biology at the University of California.
From Berkeley she traveled to Ireland to become a postdoctoral researcher at Trinity College, Dublin University, where she was promoted to Lecturer in the Department of Microbiology.
Eleven years after leaving Utah, she returned to the West to study arthropod-borne viruses at Colorado State University in 1975 and has evolved with this area of research ever since. In Colorado State, she served in advancing faculty and administrative positions including Department Head. Today, she is Professor Emerita in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Pathology.
Blair has many fond memories of the U: organic chemistry classes with the late Dr. James Sugihara; as a member of the Spurs honorary, ushering at Utah football games (even in the snow) and at basketball games with Bill "the Hill" McGill, the two-time All-American and top NBA pick credited with creating the jump hook.
“But my research and social activities with John and Joel have to be my favorites,” she says. “I still give a lecture to freshman microbiology students at CSU every fall semester … and the most important advice I give them is: get involved in research in your area of interest, even if you don't plan to pursue a career in research. It will help you understand how to evaluate information and evidence you receive from many sources and expand your learning beyond books and the classroom.
During these days of COVID-19, Blair, not surprisingly, sees things as a virologist. “I like to think I understand what we need to do and why we need to do it to get ahead of this pandemic.” She says she misses the personal, professor-student interactions that have always been the norm. “I won't say we told you so,” she remarks, referring to the professional sector she represents, “but moving forward, our government must be better prepared to recognize this type of infectious disease threat as early as possible and implement all available measures (and we have many) to control it.”
Carol and her husband Patrick Brennan, a Distinguished Professor at CSU, love the outdoors “and all its inhabitants (Carol learned this growing up in rural Utah).” In their retirement, they enjoy hiking and snowshoeing in the local mountains, as well as those in Utah where Blair’s career as a microbiologist and virologist first found fertile soil.
by David Pace
Rapid Response Research
Researchers identify a new coronavirus in Hubei province, China.
Saveez Saffarian flies to Barcelona, Spain, to present research on HIV at the New Concepts in Virology conference
The W.H.O. declares a global health emergency with 9,800 infected worldwide.
Saffarian presents a colloquium on SARS-CoV2 virus to the science faculty.
NSF announces RAPID research grants for COVID-19.
Vershinin and Saffarian submit preliminary NSF proposal.
Preliminary NSF proposal is approved.
NSF RAPID Research Grant approved.
Research paper on CoV2 virus reaction to the environment submitted.
On January 30, 2020, Saveez Saffarian traveled to Barcelona, Spain, to present HIV research at the New Concepts in Virology conference. “There was a lot of speculation about SARS-CoV2 in that meeting. Although, at the time, it was far less than it would become,” said Saffarian.
Upon returning to Utah, Saffarian was asked to present a colloquium on the SARS-CoV2 virus to his fellow faculty in the Department of Physics & Astronomy. During preparations, Saveez reached out to fellow faculty member Michael Vershinin for help. Vershinin and Saveez have been friends since 2010. “We often bounce ideas off each other. Just to get another opinion and a fresh set of eyes,” said Saffarian.
Vershinin and Saffarian dove deep into the scientific literature to learn as much as possible about corona and related viruses, such as influenza. Their focus was on presenting an overview of the SARS-CoV2 for the colloquium on March 5, 2020. “At the time, I did not immediately see a connection between my HIV research and the SARS-CoV2 virus,” said Saffarian.
On March 6, 2020, the National Science Foundation (NSF), announced a program of $200,000 Rapid Response Grants for non-medical, non-clinical- care research coronavirus research. The RAPID funding program allows the NSF to quickly review proposals in response to research on issues of severe urgency with regard to availability of data, facilities, or specialized equipment. Saffarian’s colloquium had turned into research opportunity.
Michael Vershinin recognized this research opportunity immediately. Much of the existing NSF research centered on the spread of influenza on an epidemiological level, with fewer answers about the actual virus particle and how climate and specific conditions affect it. “Our work is in the nanoscale,“ said Vershinin. “We can make a faithful replica of the virus packaging that holds everything together. The idea is to figure out what makes this virus fall apart, what makes it tick, and what makes it die.”
The speed of the NSF approval was impressive. Vershinin and Saffarian submitted their preliminary NSF application on Friday, March 6. Twenty-four hours later, they received preliminary approval, and by Monday, March 9, final approval was issued.
“This application of sophisticated physics instruments and methods to understand how the 2019 coronavirus will behave as the weather changes is a clear example of how our investment in basic research years later prepares us for a response to a crisis that impacts not only our society, but also the whole world,”said Krastan Blagoev, program director in NSF’s Division of Physics.
“You don’t just gain the insight that you want by looking at the virus on a large scale. Looking at a single virus particle is the key to being able to tease out what’s going on,” said the researchers. “Modern biology and biophysics allow us to ask these questions in a way we never could before.”
Saffarian and Vershinin are both members of the Center for Cell and Genome Sciences in the Crocker Science Center, where scientists who apply physics, chemistry and biology work alongside each other and can form collaborations rapidly—a key advantage in the fight against the virus.
Research Funding was provided by NSF under award number PHY- 2026657 for nearly $200,000.
11 billion years of history in one map: Astrophysicists reveal largest 3D model of the universe ever created.
(CNN) A global consortium of astrophysicists have created the world's largest three-dimensional map of the universe, a project 20 years in the making that researchers say helps better explain the history of the cosmos.
The Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), a project involving hundreds of scientists at dozens of institutions worldwide, collected decades of data and mapped the universe with telescopes. With these measurements, spanning more than 2 million galaxies and quasars formed over 11 billion years, scientists can now better understand how the universe developed.
"We know both the ancient history of the Universe and its recent expansion history fairly well, but there's a troublesome gap in the middle 11 billion years," cosmologist Kyle Dawson of the University of Utah, who led the team that announced the SDSS findings on Sunday. "For five years, we have worked to fill in that gap, and we are using that information to provide some of the most substantial advances in cosmology in the last decade," Dawson said in a statement.
Here's how it works: the map revealed the early materials that "define the structure in the Universe, starting from the time when the Universe was only about 300,000 years old." Researchers used the map to measure patterns and signals from different galaxies, and figure out how fast the universe was expanding at different points of history. Looking back in space allows for a look back in time.
The team also identified "a mysterious invisible component of the Universe called 'dark energy,'" which caused the universe's expansion to start accelerating about six billion years ago. Since then, the universe has only continued to expand "faster and faster," the statement said.
There are still many unanswered questions about dark energy -- it's "extremely difficult to reconcile with our current understanding of particle physics" -- but this puzzle will be left to future projects and researchers, said the statement.
Their findings also "revealed cracks in this picture of the Universe," the statement said. There were discrepancies between researchers' measurements and collected data, and their tools are so precise that it's unlikely to be error or chance. Instead, there might be new and exciting explanations behind the strange numbers, like the possibility that "a previously-unknown form of matter or energy from the early Universe might have left a trace on our history."
The SDSS is "nowhere near done with its mission to map the Universe," it said in the statement. "The SDSS team is busy building the hardware to start this new phase (of mapping stars and black holes) and is looking forward to the new discoveries of the next 20 years."