2021 Research Scholar

2021 Research Scholar

For Karrin Tennant, recipient of the 2021 College of Science Research Scholar Award, the never-ending story of environmental science has plenty of plot twists. A member of the Anderegg lab in the School of Biological Sciences (SBS) which studies the intersection of ecosystems and climate change, Tennant has been busy working in the area of nighttime water loss in plants. The work tests a major hypothesis in the field and has the potential to greatly advance our understanding of plant physiology. The award is given annually to the College’s most outstanding senior undergraduate researcher. Tennant will be honored at the College Convocation May 6th and receive a $1,000 award, a plaque commemorating this achievement, and a one-year membership in the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which includes a one-year subscription to Science.

In his letter of support, Assistant Professor Bill Anderegg and Principal Investigator says, “Karrin has blown me away with her incredible independence, creativity, dedication, initiative, and intellectual maturity. Her Biology Honors research is incredibly exciting, eminently publishable, and on par with advanced and successful Ph.D. students I have mentored.”

Karrin Tennant

One of those plot twists includes nighttime transpiration through tiny pores known as stomata on the underside of tree leaves. Photosynthesis, the process by which green plants and some other organisms use sunlight to synthesize foods from carbon dioxide and water, clearly happens during the day. But why and how do trees like the Black Cottonwood in the Pacific Northwest, continue to draw H20 from the ground at night? "What's the ecological value of this happening?" Tennant asks. At night "can trees pull water from underground like a straw away from competitors?"

Answers to these questions have implications about how forests survive and thrive, especially during drought as the earth continues to warm globally. Tennant sees her work as multi-faceted ... and multi-disciplinary--narrative threads that tell the broader story of not only life systems, as in forests, but even larger systems, and not only ecological.

Tennant's minor in Ecology & Legacy Humanities, introduced to her by adjunct biology professor and Dean of the Honors College Sylvia Torti, extends the questions Tennant is addressing both in the field and in the lab. The intersection between biology and the humanities fosters empathy for the natural world that can inform public discourse as well as public policy that extends beyond scientific inquiry. This "leaning into the interdisciplinary," says Tennant, is what propels her learning at the University of Utah and what appears to be the foundation of an auspicious career later in forest ecology and related fields.

In the meantime Tennant pivots between a growth chamber adjacent to the SBS greenhouses and the lab downstairs. The samples she collects come from as many as thirty-five trees in various degrees of competition with each other for water. Using a Licor LI-6800 photosynthesis system which measures gas exchanges and fluorescence, she determines the flow of C02, O2 and H20 in and out of the leaf through the stomata. She and her team also conduct statistical tests using research software, initiating how the micro affects the macro of ecological systems.

A Texas native, Tennant was attracted to the U because of family in the area and, of course, the mountain environment. Along with her passion for science, she says, "they're what kept me here." Her ambition is to be a research professor someday, to "spread my knowledge and education as far as I can," and "to apply focused research to a much broader discussion."

That discussion has added to the story that Tennant is helping to author, and it seems to move with extraordinary balance and ease between more than one campus lab (she also works with SBS's Bryn Dentinger's fungi lab at the Natural History Museum of Utah), the forest field and the broad community contours represented by the humanities.

In her citation for the award, Dean Peter Trapa talked about Tennant's demonstrated "genuine wonder of the world around" her and her "thirst for knowledge." Her response to the award? "I am honored to be a woman in STEM and to follow the footsteps of other trailblazing female researchers."

by David Pace

Allergy Season

Climate Change & Allergies

William Anderegg

With spring around the corner, here's some bad news for allergy sufferers: Human-caused climate change has both worsened and lengthened pollen seasons across the U.S. and Canada, a study Monday reports.

The new research shows that pollen seasons start 20 days earlier, are 10 days longer and feature 21% more pollen than they did in 1990.

“The strong link between warmer weather and pollen seasons provides a crystal-clear example of how climate change is already affecting people's health across the U.S.,” said study lead author William Anderegg, a biologist at the University of Utah.

"Climate change is making pollen seasons worse across the U.S., and that has major implications for asthma, allergies and other respiratory health problems," he told USA TODAY.

Climate change, aka global warming, is caused by the burning of fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal, which release greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.

Allergies to airborne pollen can be more than just a seasonal nuisance to many. Allergies are tied to respiratory health and have implications for viral infections, emergency room visits and even children’s school performance, according to a statement from the University of Utah. More pollen, hanging around for a longer season, makes those impacts worse.

Climate change has two broad effects, according to the study. First, it shifts pollen seasons earlier and lengthens their duration. Second, it increases the pollen concentrations in the air so pollen seasons are, on average, worse.

Anderegg's research team looked at measurements from 1990 to 2018 from 60 pollen count stations across the U.S. and Canada, maintained by the National Allergy Bureau.

Although nationwide pollen amounts increased by around 21% over the study period, the greatest increases were recorded in Texas and the Midwest, and more among tree pollen than among other plants.

"Our findings are consistent with a broad body of research on pollen seasons, respiratory health and climate change," Anderegg said. "Other studies have also found increasing pollen loads in many regions and, in controlled greenhouse settings, that warmer temperatures and higher carbon-dioxide concentrations increase plant pollen production."

The researchers also found that the contribution of climate change to increasing pollen amounts is accelerating.

“Climate change isn’t something far away and in the future," Anderegg concluded. "It’s already here in every spring breath we take and increasing human misery. The biggest question is – are we up to the challenge of tackling it?”

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a peer-reviewed journal.


First published @ usatoday

Adam Madsen

Adam Madsen

Adam Madsen, BA’06 in Biology, was the quintessential student-athlete.

To be a student-athlete requires extraordinary talent on the field and in the classroom. This is particularly true with science degrees due to the rigorous curriculum.

Madsen grew up in the Uinta Basin area, living in both Roosevelt and Vernal, two small farming towns in northeastern Utah.

He graduated Valedictorian from Uintah High School, in Vernal, and excelled not just in academics but also in athletics. He was named Academic All-State in football, baseball, and basketball. In baseball, he was named Utah 3A State MVP, Region X MVP, and USA TODAY– Honorable Mention All-American. In football, he made All-State as quarterback, Region X MVP, National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame Scholar-Athlete Award, and was USA TODAY– Honorable Mention All-American.

After high school, Madsen went to Dixie State University in St. George with athletic scholarships to play football and baseball. At Dixie State he was named NJCAA Football Distinguished Academic All-American, team captain, two-time Dixie Rotary Bowl Champion, and three-time Western States Football League Conference Champion.

He earned an Associate of Science degree at Dixie, then transferred to the University of Utah to play quarterback for coach Urban Meyer and the Utah Utes. At Utah, he was named Scholar-Athlete in the Mountain West Athletic Conference in 2004 and was part of the undefeated and Nationally-ranked Tostito’s Fiesta Bowl Champions football team in 2005.

“I was a Pre-Med student at the time and in considering options, Utah was the best place to further my medical career pursuit and play football,” says Madsen. “The U had a strong reputation in my family, having grown up in Utah and having my mother and father both graduate from the College of Science in the 1970s,” says Madsen.

Left to right, Ty 10; Ally 7; Matt 5; Mya 12; and wife Marci

(Madsen’s mother, Zoe Madsen, earned a B.S. degree in mathematics and a minor in chemistry in 1975, and his father, Arthur Ace Madsen, completed a B.S. degree in Biology in 1976.)

“Being a student-athlete had several challenges. Football was basically a full-time job as far as hours per week it consumed,” says Madsen. “Weekends were mostly focused on football time as well. It wasn’t easy to juggle classes and make ends meet with football’s schedule.”

For Madsen to enroll in some upper-division biochemistry classes, he had to get special permission from team coaches, including Urban Meyer, since he would miss parts of team meetings during the week.

“On a typical day, I would have classes in the morning then have football practice from about 1 o’clock to 7 o’clock, then go directly to the Marriott library where I would stay until 11 o’clock or midnight,” says Madsen. “However, I would not trade my experience of playing football for anything! I learned so many valuable life lessons and made so many life friendships with players and coaches.”

At the U, Madsen’s favorite professor was Charles “Chuck” Grissom, a chemistry teacher who taught many of the upper-division biochemistry classes. “Grissom was available to discuss and answer questions, even with huge class sizes. Also, he showed he cared about students on an individual level,” says Madsen.

“I remember the Monday in class just after our Utah football team got the Fiesta Bowl bid, he brought bags of Tostito’s chips and let me help throw them out to the class. This was a small and simple thing but helped keep us engaged in his teaching.”

After graduating from the U, Madsen attended medical school at Des Moines University College of Osteopathic Medicine, in Iowa, and completed an Orthopedic Surgery Internship and Residency at Ohio University Doctors Hospital, in Columbus, Ohio.

Today, Madsen is an orthopedic surgeon in his hometown, Vernal, Utah. He practices general orthopedics including diagnosing and treating operative and non-operative injuries. He specializes in fractures, arthritis, partial knee replacement, sports medicine, ACL and ligament reconstruction, arthroscopic surgery, and foot and ankle conditions.

“My primary goal is to provide excellent orthopedic patient care to the people of this small-town community.” says Madsen.

His patients often include young student-athletes – much like himself at that age – who are striving to excel in the classroom and on the field.

Madsen and his wife, Marci, have four children: Mya, 12; Ty, 10; Ally, 7; and Matt, 5.

Are you a Science Alumni? Connect with us today!

Sloan Research Fellow


Assistant Professor of Chemistry Luisa Whittaker-Brooks is one of the recipients of the prestigious 2021 Sloan Research Fellowship, given to researchers “whose creativity, innovation, and research accomplishments make them stand out as the next generation of scientific leaders.”

The awards are open to scholars in eight scientific and technical fields: chemistry, computational and evolutionary molecular biology, computer science, Earth system science, economics, mathematics, neuroscience and physics. Candidates must be nominated by their fellow scientists, and winners are selected by independent panels of senior scholars on the basis of a candidate’s research accomplishments, creativity and potential to become a leader in his or her field. More than 1000 researchers are nominated each year for 128 fellowship slots. Winners receive a two-year, $75,000 fellowship which can be spent to advance the fellow’s research.

Whittaker-Brooks, a 2007 Fulbright fellow, earned her doctorate from the State University of New York at Buffalo before a L’Oreal USA for Women in Science Postdoctoral fellowship at Princeton University. Among other awards, Whittaker-Brooks has received a Department of Energy Early Career Award, a Cottrell Research Scholarship, a Marion Milligan Mason Award for Women in the Chemical Sciences and was named one of C&EN’s Talented 12 in 2018.

“I was very excited as this award is a testament to all the great work that my students have accomplished throughout these years,” Whittaker-Brooks said. “I am happy to see that their endless creativity and research work ethics are highly recognized in the field.”

Her research studies the properties and fabrication processes of nanomaterials for potential applications in solar energy conversion, thermoelectrics, batteries and electronics. She and her research group are also testing hybrid concepts to simultaneously integrate multiple functions, such as a nanosystem that scavenges its own energy.

The Fellowship is funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a not-for-profit dedicated to improving the welfare of all through the advancement of scientific knowledge. Founded in 1934 by industrialist Alfred P. Sloan Jr., the foundation disburses about $80 million in grants each year in four areas: for research in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and economics; initiatives to increase the quality and diversity of scientific institutions and the science workforce; projects to develop or leverage technology to empower research and efforts to enhance and deepen public engagement with science and scientists.

Since the first fellowships were awarded in 1955, 44 faculty from University of Utah have received a Sloan Research Fellowship.


first published @ chem.utah.edu

Cameron Soelberg

Cameron Soelberg

Cameron Soelberg, HBS’00

Honors science graduate, Cameron Soelberg, HBS’00, forged an adventurous—and rigorous—path as a student at the U. He continues to travel on a pioneering trail to this day.

Soelberg recently climbed to the summit of the highest point in Utah—Kings Peak at 13,528 feet—and has also lived and worked in Colorado, Illinois, New Hampshire, and New York.

“I think my personal history is a good example that your education and career don't need to necessarily move in a straight line from point A to point B, because your goals might change as you gain experience and that could launch you on a completely new path from what you had in mind originally,” said Soelberg.

When Soelberg first enrolled at the U in 1994, his intention was to pursue a Ph.D. and become a college professor.

After he completed his honors degrees in mathematics and physics, he stayed on campus to complete a Master’s Degree in Mathematics. While in graduate school, he was supported with a teaching assistantship in the Math Department and taught one or two courses each semester.

"After finishing the Master’s Degree, I felt like I needed some time away from school and decided to pursue an opportunity with a startup company in Colorado Springs. There I was involved in prototyping projects for the U.S. Special Forces, which was fascinating work,” said Soelberg.

In 2006, Soelberg took a job as a systems engineer with Lockheed Martin in Salt Lake City, developing biometric tagging and identification algorithms. “I enjoyed engineering and appreciated the quick learning curve and exposure to cutting-edge technology, but I wanted to broaden my horizons in the direction of business management, so after a year at Lockheed, I chose to leave Utah again to pursue an MBA at Dartmouth College,” he said.

While at Dartmouth, Soelberg became interested in investment banking. He completed an internship with Deutsche Bank in New York in the summer of 2008, between his first and second years of business school.

“The timing couldn’t have been worse as that was the start of the global financial crisis but witnessing it firsthand was an invaluable experience, and I was fortunate to receive a full-time offer to join the firm in Chicago after graduation,” said Soelberg. (He earned an MBA at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College in 2009.)

The first few years following the financial crisis were tough for investment banking, as regulatory changes impacted the industry, but Soelberg worked hard and was promoted to vice president and then to director and managing director. He spent a total of nine years at Deutsche Bank. In 2018, he joined the Global Industries Group at UBS Investment Bank and now splits his time between Chicago and Salt Lake City.

“My current position involves a lot of numbers and a keen understanding of the capital markets and valuation,” said Soelberg. “It’s not sophisticated or complex in the way that algebraic topology or particle physics may be, but it does require critical thinking and a high degree of accuracy. The most important contribution my University of Utah education has made is the rigorous way I was taught to analyze and attack problems. The scientific method (and mathematical proof, similarly) is a disciplined framework for progressing from a hypothesis or question to a well-reasoned and logical conclusion. I use this every day in my job, and I’m grateful for how well my learning at the U prepared me to succeed.”

Soelberg recalls many people and experiences from his undergraduate years on campus.

“Lab work in chemistry and physics especially stands out, mostly because I was so impatient that I could never do the experiments quite right, but I had good lab partners who kept me on track,” he said.

“In the Math Department, Jerry Davey really had an impact on me as a student. I took a couple of undergraduate courses from him and helped with an accelerated calculus series one summer as a TA,” said Soelberg. “He was a kind person and a great teacher. He also lived an interesting life that spanned multiple dimensions in mathematics, the military, engineering, and private industry. I’ve always thought of his career path as a role model for my own.”

“Within the Physics Department, I’d be remiss if I didn’t recognize Charlie Jui for all that he taught me in the pre-professional physics program as a freshman. I wasn’t always the most present or attentive student, but his love of physics and wry sense of humor has stuck with me, and I still enjoy seeing him on campus,” said Soelberg.

Soelberg also remembers studying in the Fletcher building (Physics) and the Cowles building (Math) after it was renovated. He was active in many organizations on campus, including a fraternity, and he held offices in student government and the Alumni Association.

“I think there are a couple of lessons I’ve kept in mind that could prove useful for current students. The first is that there will always be challenges, obstacles, and setbacks to overcome, no matter how or when you start out in life. Adversity creates opportunity. Being adaptable is one of the most important keys to success (and happiness),” said Soelberg.

“Second, I would say that no matter how difficult things may become, you are not alone in the struggle. There are many other people, both historically and in different parts of society today, who have faced grave difficulties and found ways to rise above their circumstances. Take comfort and inspiration in that realization and use it as a model for yourself,” he said.

Soelberg is already planning his next adventure—to run the Chicago marathon. “There’s always another mountain to climb,” said Soelberg. “Life’s challenges, and rewards, can be found anew each day.”

A solid educational foundation in mathematics and physics, and the Honors College, is an exceptional “base camp” from which to operate.

Connor, Annabelle, Hayden, Charlotte, Cameron, and partner, Amanda.

Soelberg has four children: Hayden (19), Annabelle (16), Connor (13), and Charlotte (10). Hayden is a freshman at the U, studying computer science. He’s enrolled in the Honors College and lives on campus at Kahlert Village.


Are you a Science Alumni? Connect with us today!

More Alumni

David Hillyard

Jeffrey Webster

Jim Kaschmitter

Doon Gibbs

Kurt Zilm

Stephen Nesbitt

Andy Thliveris: Remember the Undergrads

McKay Hyde

James Detling

Connor Morgan

Cottrell Scholar

Gail Zasowski Named a Cottrell Scholar

Dr. Gail Zasowski, assistant professor of the Department of Physics & Astronomy, has been named a 2021 Cottrell Scholar. The Cottrell Scholar program, run by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, honors early-career faculty members for the quality and innovation of not only their research programs but also their educational activities and their academic leadership. Each year, scholars are selected from a pool of candidates based on their research, education, leadership accomplishments, and proposed future work, as evaluated by panels of external experts.

"I'm honored to be on this list of amazing researchers,” said Zasowski. “This award will allow my group and me to try out a lot of very cool ideas, and I'm excited to be part of the really unique Cottrell Scholar community!"

Jordan Gerton, director of the Center for Science and Mathematics Education at the U and associate professor in the Physics Department, is a 2007 Cottrell Scholar. He was the keynote speaker at last year’s online annual Cottrell Scholar Conference, where he urged the “vibrant collaborative community of Cottrell Scholars to embrace their role as agents of change at their institutions.”

Zasowski, who joined the university in 2017, is an astronomer whose research focuses on understanding how galaxies produce and redistribute the heavy elements that shape the Universe and enable life in it. The 99.5% of Earth’s mass that is not made of hydrogen was actually forged in generations of stars over billions of years. This same “stardust” is responsible for most of what we observe in the Universe: from super-clusters of galaxies to stars and planets in our own galaxy. In order to understand the evolution of the Universe, we have to understand just how it has been enriched in the heavier elements (like carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen) by the stars and gas that reside inside galaxies.

"My research," said Zasowski, "takes advantage of our unique position within our own Milky Way galaxy to use the chemistry and ages of its stars, and of galaxies whose stars and gas share a similar history, to study galaxy evolution on scales that are too small to resolve throughout most of the Universe." Using a wide range of datasets, she and her group explore how and when the Milky Way's own stars enriched its interstellar gas, and how to best use the Milky Way to understand other similar galaxies.

Dr. Zasowski also serves as the spokesperson for the Sloan Digital Sky Survey's (SDSS) current generation, where she works to ensure a smooth, transparent, and inclusive functioning of the massive international collaboration of astronomers and engineers. Within the Physics Department, she is currently Chair of the Ombuds Committee and is looking forward to working with students, staff, and faculty on a student-mentoring initiative.


by Michele Swaner - first published @ physics.utah.edu

Diana Hulboy

Diana Hulboy


Diana Hulboy, BS’89, has lived science from the outside in … and back. The Utah native graduated from the University of Utah in biology with a minor in chemistry before tackling graduate school, a post-doctoral fellowship and a career in the biotech industry, most recently as Director of Technical Business Development at MED Chem 101, a research reagents manufacturer.

But it was when she came down with cancer herself that the arc of her life seemed to come full circle. It has been a journey not unlike the bicycle races and rides she participates in—the inner/outer cyclical game that’s not actually a game, but life itself.

Fresh out of Alta High School in Sandy, Hulboy was offered not one but two scholarships from the UofU. As an undergraduate, she recalls a large group of friends hiking with her to the top Mt. Olympus, then running down and not being able to walk the following day. During her freshman year in the dorms she hung out with new friends (rather than studying) and remembers the Challenger space shuttle exploding as they all gathered in the commons area in shock.

Hulboy studied under Professor Joe Dickinson, dissecting transgenic Drosophila melanogaster larvae and adults to examine aldehyde oxidase activity. Later she was employed as a technician in the lab of Ryk Ward where she participated in DNA extraction and RFLP analysis of blood from patients with familial hypercholesterolemia and rheumatoid arthritis.

Armed with her degree in biology and a minor in chemistry, Hulboy headed off to graduate school at the University of Texas Health Science Center, MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston where she continued her studies in molecular biology between 1989 and 1995 in the lab of Guillermina Lozano.

How SBS alumni make the transition from academia to industry is often a study in serendipity. Such was the class with Hulboy. Her research as a post doc at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee was elevated further in her studies of matrix metalloproteinase (MMP) expression and activity in normal and tumor model systems, and it was in her last year there, she says, that she attended the annual conference of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR).

“In the exhibit hall I chatted with the co-owner of a small company, BIOMOL Research Labs, that manufactured assay kits and reagents for researchers,” she recalls. “They were looking for a protease expert to round out their product line, so my postdoctoral work with MMPs was a good fit.”

In 2000 Hulboy joined BIOMOL, located outside of Philadelphia. Rob Zipkin, Ph.D., a medicinal chemist and the company’s founder, became her mentor for working in biotech. “It was my dream job for a decade,” she admits. During that time, BIOMOL expanded to a multimillion-dollar company that was sold to Enzo Life Sciences.

Eventually Hulboy would rejoin Zipkin at his new company Med Chem 101, LLC. Similar to BIOMOL’s ethos, she explains, “we follow the scientific literature to identify key reagents that would be useful for researchers.” In the case of Med Chem 101, the reagents are bioactive small molecule chemicals, peptides, and lipids that act as inhibitors, agonists, etc. “Many of them are drugs, but we sell them for research use only.”

It turns out that researchers use these compounds as tools to tease apart the signaling pathway they are studying. “What happens when they block one step of the pathway with an inhibitor?” Hulboy asks rhetorically. “Or what happens when they activate another step? This tells them about the components of each pathway, and how they are all related to each other. If only I’d known about these types of reagents during my academic research days! They would have made my projects much better.”

This work constituted a time in her life when the biology of the body was theoretical and lab-based, filled with hours and hours at the bench and then writing up results in academic journals eventually resulting in her PhD. But while science had always been a key part of her life and personality, it remained, appropriately, academic … until it wasn’t.

And so it goes with the applications of basic science in the “real world” and in health sciences in particular.

And so it goes, sometimes, when the researcher becomes the subject matter of that research. After being diagnosed with stage II/III breast cancer in June 2017, Hulboy underwent six months of chemotherapy, multiple surgeries including mastectomy, and two months of radiation therapy. She started writing a blog about her experiences:

My PhD and postdoctoral work (11 years) was all about cancer, and one of

my projects was on breast cancer (in mice). Although I know the subject of

cancer well, it's from a cellular and molecular perspective, not clinical, so

I've much to learn. It's both good and bad to have some knowledge: good

because the more I understand what's going on, but better I feel, even if

it's bad news; bad because I can go down rabbit holes of thought that I

otherwise wouldn't.

September 2017 at the top of Stickle Ghyll in England's Lake District in the midst of chemo and after a grueling but exhilarating hike.

 As with science, cycling has shaped who Hulboy is. And now dealing with COVID-19, cycling and other exercise have proven even more important. To avoid crowds, she has been riding and walking in a nearby historical cemetery that doubles as an arboretum, “and this in turn has inspired me to take up nature photography. Staying in touch with my friends through the sport app Strava has been wonderful.”

“My life partner, Liz Feeney, was amazing,” says Hulboy, returning to the subject of her recovery from cancer, “and being healthy (thanks to cycling), an optimist, and a scientist got me through it. It was terrifying, but the more I understood what was going on, the better I felt, so I learned about everything that was going on, and being in clinical trials and research studies throughout my treatment also helped."

Even as the subject of cancer research, Hulboy never lost her fascination with the scientific method and the ethic of empirical and peer-reviewed research. She says she was fortunate to be part of an I-SPY2 multi-institutional clinical trial which comprised three study 'arms': standard chemotherapy; standard chemotherapy plus Keytruda; and standard chemotherapy plus a PARP inhibitor, talazoparib. As part of that trial she was eligible for more frequent scans and bloodwork, “which was good because it meant more frequent analysis in case something went sideways.”

It’s been almost three years since Hulboy’s intense part of cancer treatment was completed. Since then she has been on tamoxifen, which interferes with the binding of estrogen to its receptors, the latter of which are abundant on her cancer cells. “I am healing all the time, though I do have some permanent side effects that limit my ability to exercise intensely, at least for now. I am determined to overcome them, and in the meantime, I can at least still ride my bike!”

Rigorous training, begun at the School of Biological Sciences, and personal adversity through her bout with cancer have given Diana Hulboy perspective as well as strength and optimism. And she is quick to share that optimism and perspective with current students at the U who may be struggling through this unprecedented time of pandemic: “Don't give up on going to the U--it is so much more than 'just' an education.”

by David Pace

Thomas Stucky

Thomas Stucky

On Feb. 18, the world held its breath as NASA’s multibillion-dollar Perseverance Rover landed successfully on Mars to look for signs of life—and to prepare for future human explorers. The robotic rover traveled 300 million miles in six months, a massive effort that all came down to “seven minutes of terror,” named for the hair-raising descent that happens too quickly for radio signals to transmit from Mars to mission control—in other words, the rover is on its own. The car-sized craft crashed through the Martian atmosphere at 1,000 mph enduring temperatures as high as 3,800°F. Its heat shield dropped, plunging the rover into a free fall before a “sky crane” lowered Perseverance into the 28-mile-wide Jezero Crater on Mars (illustration shown in the header image).

U alum Thomas Stucky (B.S. ’15) was one of the millions of people glued to NASA’s live stream of the harrowing landing. Stucky is a KBRWyle engineer at NASA’s Ames Research Center where he wrote software for robotic drill arms similar to the ones on Perseverance, then tested them on extreme Earth locations that resemble the Martian landscape. Now, Stucky works on a computer simulation of the landscape of Europa, a moon of Jupiter, that acts as a testbed for Europa lander autonomy. He sat down with @theU to talk about Perseverance Rover, NASA’s most ambitious mission in decades.

What was going through your mind as you watched Perseverance Rover’s entry into Mars?

Rendering of Perseverance Rover's Mars landing.

What went through my mind was my experience of the last time a rover landed on Mars: the Curiosity Rover in 2012. I was here at the University of Utah as an undergraduate, volunteering at a public watch party in the College of Science. I remember the dead silence that fell over an entire auditorium of people in wait of the heartbeat signal that indicated a safe landing. A silence that was punctuated with a ruckus of celebration moments later when mission control received the signal and confirmed Curiosity was safely on the ground. To see a room full of strangers all uniting and cheering for the accomplishments of a robotic explorer, and therefore the accomplishments of those who worked on it, was moving. It opened my eyes to the impact that space exploration can have on everyone.

Nearly a decade later, and several years of firsthand NASA experience under my belt, I watched this familiar sequence of events, but now with a new appreciation for the blood, sweat and tears that thousands of individuals from all around the globe had to contribute to make a mission like Perseverance a reality. Blood, sweat and tears that could all go poof at the slightest miscalculation.

What is Perseverance Rover’s mission on Mars?

Perseverance’s primary mission is to search for signs of ancient life that may once have thrived on a warmer Mars billions of years in the past. This is why it’s landing in the Jezero Crater at the site of an ancient river delta, which scientists think may have once flowed with liquid water. Due to the harsh radiation environment on the surface, it is unlikely that we’ll find current life without digging more than a meter underground. This ancient river delta may have deposited and preserved biosignatures in the form of organic molecules that we know are synthesized by life here on Earth. The landing site is also home to a number of steep cliffs, sand dunes, and boulder fields that will teach us more about Mars’ geological past. In astrobiology, biosignatures alone are not enough to prove life existed—the geological context that they are found in is needed to make conclusive statements about what sort of life may have once thrived there. For that reason, Perseverance is also equipped with a suite of scientific instruments to learn about Mars’ past climate and geologic history.

As if searching for ancients traces of Martian life and characterizing the geologic history of a planet wasn’t enough, Perseverance has a third objective as well; to conduct studies that will prepare for human exploration of Mars. There is an experiment on board that sounds right out of the movie, “The Martian.” It’s called MOXIE, or Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment. It’s a device that absorbs carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere and synthesizes it into oxygen, which is a crucial technology for future Mars explorers to produce both breathable air and rocket fuel. Perseverance also carries the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer to characterize Mars weather and gain a better understanding of the dangers that will face future human and robotic explorers alike.

The rover will drill into Mars’ surface to collect and store soil and rock samples. What can these tell us about life on Mars?

Lots of things! Rocks contain within them the chemical history of a world. They hold the key to understanding Mars’ past. Perseverance is equipped with a suite of instruments that will measure both the organic and geological chemical makeup of Mars rocks and their morphologies to answer questions like: “How warm was Mars?” “How wet was Mars?”; “How briny were its ancient rivers?” and the big one, “Did Mars’ ever harbor life?”

Inside NASA's Mission Control at in Southern California.

The instrument that may shed the most light on the question of life on Mars, is SHERLOC, or Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals. SHERLOC is designed to tell us what minerals and organic molecules are present in a drilled sample of rock. Not all organic molecules are considered biosignatures, but SHERLOC is able to show us the distribution of different molecules within a sample. For instance, a high concentration of organics in a particular region of a sample might suggest that an ancient microbial community once thrived there. Further analysis will have to be done to confirm definitively if SHERLOC detects biosignatures, which is why Perseverance’s robotic arm will be capable of caching promising samples for retrieval by another NASA mission down the line. These candidate samples that Perseverance will collect and store on board may very well contain conclusive evidence of life on Mars, but we will still have to wait and find out.

You develop software for robotic drills and test those drilling capabilities on Mars-like surfaces here on Earth. What are some challenges in remote drilling on another planet?

Drilling is all about paying attention to how the material affects the drill and adjusting accordingly. If you’ve ever used a hand drill on a piece of lumber, you know that you could encounter a change in the wood grain that jams the drill bit. If you get your drill bit stuck in a piece of wood here on Earth, no big deal. Just walk to the local hardware store and buy another, or pry it out of the wood. If the drill bit attached to your rover gets stuck while on Mars, then the whole mission is a bust.

The drill assembly on the end of Perseverance’s robotic arm holds nine drill bits, and among them is a coring bit that can extract half-inch diameter cylinders of Martian rock up to 2.4 inches deep. By acquiring a sample at this depth, Perseverance will be able to assess it for biosignatures of extinct life; however, future missions might need to dig even deeper into Mars in order to find life that may presently thrive meters under the surface protected from harmful radiation. The difficulty of drilling exponentially increases with drilling depth, which means tackling these problems is crucial to finding extant life on Mars.

How does testing technology on Earth help identify and address these issues?

It’s important that the rover’s own systems are able to monitor the drilling telemetry and make decisions in real-time on its own. A human operator on Earth could control the drill through sensors that read the motor torque and weight, but Mars is so far away that even light-speed communication is too slow for real-time control. Any drill telemetry that the operator sees are already 20 minutes old, and any fault they attempt to avoid has likely already caused damage to the system or resulted in a stuck bit. A stuck bit… on another planet… with no hardware stores… it’s every DIYers worst nightmare.

That is what my work at NASA has been about. I worked on a 1-meter-long robotic drill, which we tested on a variety of rocks at locales all around the globe that have landscapes similar to Mars. I learn about all the possible ways that a drill can fail, and how to teach the rover to recover any drill failure by using only the feedback and controls that a robotic explorer would have access to.

How did your time at the U influence your career path?

I started my journey at the U only being sure that I wanted to study physics. By the end of my undergraduate career, thanks largely in part to the wonderful faculty in the Department of Physics & Astronomy, what I gained was a newfound passion for space research. When I was a student, I volunteered at the Wednesday night star parties held at the South Physics Observatory on the roof of the physics building. I saw how stargazing changes a person’s perception of their world and their place inside of it. Sure it may make us feel small in size, but that’s important in a way. Like we have something to offer this great big universe: an understanding of itself. Although we all collectively inhabit a pale blue dot, our true, long-lasting imprint will not be in how far we expand or how tall we build, it will be in the lessons, both scientific and cultural, that we learn along the way.

by Lisa Potter first published in @THEU