Amy Davis, PhD’03

“I enjoy learning about how infectious diseases have shaped human history because I find it inspiring to frame my current work in a broad historical context,” says Amy Davis, PhD’03.

A Senior Director, Biochemistry Research & Innovation at Utah-based BioFire Diagnostics, LLC, Davis says she was “fortunate to be born into a world with antibiotics and large-scale vaccine production,” while reminding us that “these tools in humanity’s struggle against microbial pathogens have only been around for the last 70-80 years.”

With her work at BioFire whose systems have become the new standard for syndromic infectious disease diagnostics, what she calls her “obsession” with the history of medical science could not have converged at a more timely, and daunting, time. The coronavirus pandemic in the United States is currently emerging in a scorching third wave, and there is a herculean effort underway to bring a vaccine to market. This, of course, will require accelerated and accurate diagnostics, something BioFire’s co-founder Randy Rasmussen, also a PhD alumnus (’98) from the School of Biological Sciences, recently reiterated during a virtual COVID Salon sponsored by SBS in May of this year.

Davis, who earned her BS in biology with honors from Penn State, followed by a year as a Fulbright Scholar, recalls what first drew her to graduate school at the SBS. It was the “fabulous faculty, collaborative culture,” and, of course, the spectacular mountain setting. “My graduate education at the University of Utah taught me how to think critically, work diligently, shake off setbacks, and thrive on the pursuit of understanding,” she says. “I loved everything from the journal clubs to late nights in a quiet lab dissecting tetrads to ‘TA-ing’ for Joe Dickinson's Genetics course to planning the next experiment.”

She remembers that seeing the mitochondrial net phenotype for the first time in a yeast mutant she had isolated in a genetic screen was “pretty exciting!” She also remembers fondly Professor Janet Shaw. While studying the molecular mechanisms of mitochondrial dynamics in Shaw’s lab, Davis was taught by her “amazing mentor and friend…how to ask the right questions, how to write, how to present, and how to balance.”

That training, experience and mentoring have served Davis well. Following her graduation from SBS, she did a post-doc on the other side of the Rockies--at the University of Colorado, Boulder. There she was at the bench researching the biology of the yeast telomerase RNA, an essential core component of the telomerase ribonucleoprotein (RNP) enzyme that synthesizes telomeric sequences onto chromosome ends.

The call of the Wasatch Front, however, as well as that of the U’s Brain Institute, propelled Davis in 2007 back to Salt Lake City where she was manager and then associate director at the Institute for a total of six years. Following that she moved to the U’s Medical School for a two-year stint to help establish a research program development office.

A career in what’s been called “The Century of Biology,” especially as it relates to health, can take one on a circuitous route. Davis’ has been no exception. After spending 20 years in academic environments, Davis made the leap to work in industry. At BioFire she learned to work with dozens of complementary teams to translate research ideas in robust clinical diagnostic tools. To broaden her experience in the biotech space, Davis accepted a role at the start up IDbyDNA as VP of Operations. The company, also located in the U’s Research Park with BioFire, works in metagenomics technology to simultaneously profile tens of thousands of microorganisms and pathogens in any sample.

Emblematic of the extraordinary synergy Research Park was designed for, companies like BioFire and the newer IDbyDNA create opportunities for not only advancing medical technology but the careers of many University of Utah alumni. Davis later returned to BioFire as a Senior Director in research and development, where she is enjoying applying the perspective gained from operations roles to early-stage innovation projects.

To date, no other company has FDA-cleared and CE-IVD (European Union-cleared) marked assays for more pathogens than BioFire. Again, the timing of the company’s ascendancy has proven auspicious.

In the kitchen with the whole fam dam.

“As we are learning from COVID,” says Davis, “emerging pathogens (and emerging antimicrobial resistance of old pathogens) can challenge societies in significant ways. …The more we learn about the patterns of infectious diseases and human efforts to understand and combat their microscopic agents, the better we can prepare for present and future threats.”

While COVID has focused global attention on the threat of emerging viral respiratory pathogens, she says she hopes that this “reality check bolsters efforts to combat emerging antimicrobial resistance in pathogens that have been with us for centuries.”

Meanwhile, Davis continually returns to her passion for the history of medicine. She finds that her reading deeply informs her intense career at BioFire, providing perspective, inspiration and context for their work. And what exactly is on her bedside reading stand? The Mosquito by Timothy C. Winegard; the portentous sounding Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic by Matt McCarthy; and Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif.

From these historical tomes she is happy to base her advice to new graduates of the School of Biological Sciences, particularly telling during this pandemic time: “Take the long view and train for a career that will fulfill you ten, twenty, thirty, forty years from now.”

by David Pace

Dale C. Larsen, BS’59

Dale C. LARSEN


In the mid-1950s, when Dale C. Larsen (BS’59) first enrolled at the U there were only six Colleges on campus including the College of Letters and Science, and a two-year medical school.

Larsen was born and raised in Roosevelt, Utah, a small farming town in northeastern Utah. The drive to Salt Lake City in those days was long and tedious, often on dirt roads and narrow two-lane highways. 

But Larsen had a goal in mind. He wanted to earn a degree at the U and get into dental school. 

“I knew several people who attended the U and liked the idea of doing so myself,” he recalls. He knew a degree in biology or medical biology would ensure access to dental schools. 

After high school, Larsen first served in the Navy in Korea.  “During the Korean war I was an aviation aerial photographer in an air squadron. Around airplanes and in them a lot. I flew from three different aircraft carriers,” he says. 

When the war ended in 1953, Larsen returned to Utah and started attending the U.

“I lived in a basement apartment one block off-campus until I met my wife, Joni. After we got married, we lived in an apartment on about 1400 South and 200 East,” he says. (Today, that location is near Liberty Park.)
 
In high school and for a few years afterward, Larsen played saxophone in a Big Band dance orchestra. "The wife of the leader of the orchestra had a sister named Joni and I met her then and we were married in 1956,” he recalls. 
 

At the U, Larsen’s favorite professor was Stephen D. Durrant, who was an expert in vertebrate zoology and mammalian anatomy. "Durrant’s class on mammalogy was among the best courses I had in school,” says Larsen.

Larsen earned a bachelor of science degree, in Biology, in 1959 and promptly enrolled in dental school at Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri. He later moved back to Roosevelt, Utah, and held a private dental practice for 47 years. 


He and Joni had four children: Trudi, Troy, Todd, and Trent.                       

"Our oldest son, Troy, attended the U for one year and the youngest son attended a physical therapy program run by the University a number of years ago,” he says. Joni passed away in 2013.

Dr. Larsen, aerial photographer, Korean War

Larsen has enjoyed a life-long passion for aviation.

"I became interested in aviation as a child when I saw neighbor boys flying their model airplanes. Then in the Navy I was an aviation photographer. After coming home (from Korea) I got my private pilot’s license in 1958. Still flying now after 62 years,” he says.  
 
Larsen’s best advice for students is, “get a good education and stick to your goals.

$602 Million in Funding

Research Funding Tops $600 Million


Two years after achieving a $500 million funding milestone and with the added boost of funding for research related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Utah reports $603 million in research funding for fiscal year 2020, which ended June 30.

“We would like to express our appreciation to our donors, investors, government officials and research partners,” said Vice President for Research Andy Weyrich. “Their support drives critical research projects in medicine, technology, mental health, economic growth, social injustice, racial disparities and much more.”

The milestone comes in a fiscal year that saw the U invited to join the prestigious Association of American Universities, a group of 65 top-tier research universities in the U.S. and Canada. The U, along with Dartmouth College and the University of California, Santa Cruz, joined the AAU in 2019 as peers with the top universities in the nation.

The research funding milestone also comes amid a global pandemic and a proliferation of research related to the medical, economic and social aspects of COVID-19. Following seed grants totaling $1.3 million, funded by the Office of the Vice President for Research in partnership with the Immunology, Inflammation and Infectious Disease (3i) Initiative, U researchers in various disciplines secured additional external funding, which contributed to passing the $600 million mark.

“Our researchers are at the forefront of addressing the impact COVID-19 has on our society,” Weyrich said. “We’ve been awarded a significant number of research grants across multiple disciplines to support COVID research, including the social, psychological and economic impacts the virus has on our global community.”

 - First Published in @theU

 

 

Jason Allen, BS’01

Jason Allen knew early on of the opportunities the state’s flagship research university could offer him just an hour north of where he grew up in Springville.

“I had always wanted to attend the University of Utah due to its prestige within the state and nationally,” he says, especially due to the U’s stellar reputation in science and technology.

He wasn’t disappointed. Now a Physician and Medical Director of the Breast Imaging section in the University of Colorado Health South Region, this doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO) cut his teeth as a researcher in Dr. David Stillman’s lab with Dr. Leena Bhoite. “It was in his lab that I got great exposure to real ‘at the bench’ lab work as well as all the frustrations and excitement that go along with it,” he says.

Working in the Bioscience Undergraduate Research Program (BioURP) at the U was also formative for Allen, including the introductory summer course which he counts as “a great introduction to the program overall, [to] new people and some of the intricacies of basic … lab work.” He especially enjoyed working with Dr. Rosemary Gray and Dr. Janet Shaw, both of whom were “great mentors and significantly helped cultivate my interest in learning about the biological sciences.”

Additionally, the spring undergraduate research symposium “amply prepared me for the requirements of medical school, internship and [a] residency, and even now working in the field of medicine,” he recalls. It wasn’t just the technical know-how and scientific rigor of BIOURP that propelled him forward into his career; the public speaking requirements and likely the network were also useful to him as he prepared for professional school.

After graduating from Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences in 2005, Allen completed a residency in Radiology with the San Antonio Uniformed Services Health Education Consortium in 2010. Following that he began a career in the United States Air Force at David Grant Medical Center as a general radiologist teaching radiology residents. After four years there and nine years of active duty service, he separated from the Air Force and completed fellowship training with the University of California at Davis Hospital in Sacramento.

In the Centennial State Allen is the lead interpreting physician in the breast imaging section. “Our group provides radiology interpretation services and image guided interventions for the University of Colorado Health system, as well as a number of additional smaller hospitals in southern Colorado,” he explains.

It may seem like a relative straight line for Allen’s career path, but he knows as well as most who have successfully arrived at the top of their game that it requires hard work. “Study hard,” he reminds those at the U who are just beginning their academic and professional careers. “Accept challenges and learn from mistakes (both your own AND the mistakes of others).” Setbacks and failures, he concludes, “are stepping stones toward great success!”

Dr. Allen with his son Gavin at his school in the “Watch D.O.G.S” (Dads Of Great Students) program.

The current pandemic has been one of those setbacks for many, including Allen. “Covid-19 has caused our group and the hospital systems we provide services for to streamline our processes and has really pushed us to embrace the use of technology to enable us to communicate with patients and other medical providers in new ways,” he says. “Although it has significantly limited in person interactions, Tele-Health interactions have increased significantly and have enabled us to provide services that were once difficult or impossible to provide.”

It’s not just about work for Allen. A fluent speaker of Brazilian Portuguese, he says he enjoys the great outdoors with his family and his personal hobbies of camping, fishing, water sports and photography.

For Jason Allen, the University of Utah and the School of Biological Sciences was not only the portal for his early initiation into science and medicine, but it turbo-charged his career through early experiences in research, or as he puts it, “at the bench,” not only in the lab but in life.

 

by David Pace

Steve Mimnaugh, BS’73

Steve Mimnaugh and Jay Johnson

Most people get to live one life. So far, Steve Mimnaugh has lived at least three.

"I was always the new kid on the block," he says. From Seattle to Spokane, Washington, and from Wallace, Idaho where his father worked as a mining engineer, to Kearns, Utah, to survive Mimnaugh tacked through life as an extrovert, ending up in student government. His extroversion served him well as this biology alumnus advanced into a spirited life as an emergency physician, member of a rock-and-roll band and co-founder of the innovative and celebrated 'SPLORE (Special Populations Learning Outdoor Recreation and Education), a nonprofit founded in 1978 and dedicated to getting folks with disabilities out into white water rafting and other outdoor sports.

Diverse interests, especially as a young person, can make it difficult to get one’s footing. Such was the case for Mimnaugh, at least at the University of Utah where he moved into research during his undergraduate years, started a PhD, and haltingly applied to medical school three alternating years before being admitted to the U’s. There he was also elected class president. The deviations in his academic career seem to have had more to do with his personality rather than any kind of deficiency. In short, this self-described "granola cruncher" has been in a high evolutionary state his entire life, seemingly barreling through whole epochs in record, breathless time.

On the Green RiIver, Desolation Canyon

Being a biologist, evolution tracks well with Mimnaugh's start-and-stop, somewhat circuitous path. His impetus has always been the need to adapt to a changing environment whether it be particularly onerous (sometimes bizarre) medical emergencies in critical care, securing an audience for the fledgling band The Disgusting Brothers, or raising funds to execute outdoor recreation geared toward those with disabilities. Sometimes all three lives would overlap if not converge, but his time at the School of Biological Sciences was always propulsive with associations that included future Nobel Prize laureate Mario Capecchi who was on Mimnaugh’s graduate committee and especially mammalogist and anatomist Stephen Durrant who hired Mimnaugh as a Teaching Assistant. Even so, he says, “I was not driven by [the idea of] nebulous [research] problems to work on.” Neither did he groove on all the isolation of the lab while working endlessly, it seemed, on thin-layer chromatography, mammalian cell cultures, transmembrane ion transport, and THC as an anticonvulsant. Medical school was the answer.

His experiences as an ER physician, most recently at St. Mark's Hospital in Salt Lake City, was perfect for a restless soul who needed variety. It was also a deeply humbling experience, faced as he was regularly with society's most vulnerable populations and some of the, potentially, most humiliating circumstances a person might find themselves in at four o’clock in the morning. “I was no one's doctor, but everyone's doctor,” he says. This included physician to patients with complications of acute alcohol intoxication or to someone suffering from sequestration of rectal foreign bodies. “I got a reputation,” he said, for handling emergencies that required discretion and empathy as much as medical expertise. He also developed a reputation for a bedside manner that had a way of grounding each patient having a traumatic experience back into the collective story that is both familiar and deeply human.

Steve Mimnaugh, 1970s, While in medical school. Other founding members of the band include two other UofU alumni: Curt Crowther, BS'72, MBA'81 and Sam Falsone, BS'74.

While coy about comparing ER work with what soldiers go through in war, he admits to suffering from a kind of PTSD that he’s had to deal with after 35 years. “I never go to sleep without having bad dreams,” he says. Writing about his experiences, now that he’s retired, has helped, and based on a cursory reading of excerpts from his nonfiction manuscript subtitled “Behind the ER Curtain,” the arc and tone of his recounting is both hilarious and touching, deeply informed by science, especially the way evolution plays out in culture and our everyday perceptions of ourselves and of each other. It’s a narrative that promises to do for the reader what Dr. Mimnaugh has regularly done for a broad spectrum of “everyman” patient: it’s okay; we’re all in this together.

It is no surprise that Mimnaugh has a counterweight—more than one, actually—to the intensity of his professional career wearing a stethoscope. As an avid river-runner in the 1970s, he was approached by recreational therapist Martha Ham who explained that there was to date no codified way of getting people with disabilities like cerebral palsy, or spinal cord-injured clients who can't walk, swim, thermoregulate, or apply their own sunscreen safely down a river so that they could enjoy one of the greatest assets of living in Utah: the out-of-doors. Together they founded ‘SPLORE, which, he says, would not have been possible but for the work and love of thousands of volunteers who seemed to benefit as much from what was often a peak experience for them as 'SPLORE's clients. Both Mimnaugh’s life as a musician in an irreverent but beloved Disgusting Brothers Band and his charitable work are symbiotic. The Band whose sound has the passion of an acoustic campfire concert on a whitewater river trip—electrified and amplified--regularly plays its 60/70s favorites for fundraisers, benefiting organizations like Utah’s Hogle Zoo, the AIDS Foundation as well as, back in the day, ‘SPLORE.

The group proceeded to acquire coveted commercial permits on Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest land, as well as for sections of the Colorado and Green Rivers, permits that continue to be the backbone to the services still provided. “It was such an amazing thing,” he recalls referring to his clients with disabilities, “the excitement, awe and wonder… the laughs. They’re out there in the big wide world, not just group homes.” After forty years, eventually bringing 5,000 constituents per year into the wilderness, ‘SPLORE merged with the National Ability Center located in Park City but not before Governor Scott Matheson awarded Mimnaugh and his disgusting brothers who had joined the cause the Governor’s Golden Key Award.

Retirement for Mimnaugh seems to be wearing well for him. He recently married his long-time partner, Jay Johnson, an oncology certified nurse at Huntsman Cancer Institute. And his reading list these days ranges from Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments to the poetry of Mary Karr; and from Rituals for Finding Meaning by Sasha Sagan, daughter of the late science celeb Carl Sagan, to the cultural critique of Dave Rubin’s controversial Don't Burn This Book: Thinking for Yourself in an Age of Unreason. Then there’s Jared Diamond’s trans-disciplinary non-fiction Guns, Germs & Steel followed by his Collapse and Upheaval. “The universe is 13.8 billion years old,” this Disgusting Brother on the bass and rhythm guitar (as well as vocals) muses, referencing Diamond: “We're here, and in a blink of the eye we're gone."

But this much is certain, he concludes. “We’re good at celebrating stuff.” Perhaps that’s the embedded engine in Steve Mimnaugh for living multiple lives. You need more than one life to celebrate all of it.

by David Pace & Mathew Crawley