SRI Research Streams

SRI Research Streams


College of Science faculty are engaged in research across disciplines. SRI scholars will have the opportunity to interact with faculty and determine which research stream best meets their interests starting in the spring semester of SRI participation. Research can be performed for credit depending on a student's academic program, and scholarship opportunities are available.

Click on a tile to learn more about the stream.


 

PN Pollinator Networks
Pollinator Networks

Stream Leader: Dr. Heather Briggs

SG Seed Genetics
Seed Genetics

Stream Leader: Dr. Gary Drews

Seeds directly or indirectly produce 50% of the calories provided in the human diet.  In cereal grains, such as maize (corn) many of the calories are stored in a tissue called endosperm. Research in the Drews lab focuses on understanding the molecular mechanisms regulating endosperm development.  Using reverse genetic approaches in maize, the Drews lab has identified a collection of genes that are turned on in tissues that play essential roles during normal seed development.

The Drews lab research stream will focus on using genetic approaches to understand the function of the genes turned on in endosperm.  As a first step, the Drews lab has generated mutations in a series of genes of interest using the CRISPR Cas9 systems.  Initial analysis suggests that mutating single genes fails to reveal the function of genes of interest.  Students working with professor Drews will be involved in identifying and characterizing plants with multiple genes removed (double mutants).  Preliminary results suggest that eliminating redundant gene products results in profound seed developmental defects.

While working with professor Drews you will be introduced to the biology of plant reproduction and seed development, and modern approaches to genetics.  Undergraduate researchers will be taught a variety of key molecular biology research skills including, but not limited to, DNA extraction methods, PCR, and electrophoresis, and will be taught common computational approaches for evaluating DNA sequences.

AC Ant Cultivated Fungi
Ant Cultivated Fungi

Stream Leader: Dr. Bryn Dentinger/Kendra Autumn

Attine ants are fungus farmers who feed, weed, and eat their crop. There are two types of attine ants that each farm a different kind of fungus. Both fungi are found exclusively under agriculture by attines, but have close free-living relatives. The close evolutionary relationships of ant-cultivated fungi and their free-living relatives provide an opportunity for insight into the evolution of ant fungal crops and their association with their farmers. In particular, I am investigating defensive compounds produced by ant-farmed fungi. I hypothesize that the farmed fungi will possess a different complement of defensive compound-producing genes than their free-living relatives, due to the role of many defensive compounds in making fungi unpalatable to invertebrates, as well as evidence of reduction of defensive compounds in human-farmed crop plants. Students will contribute toward this effort by helping to sequence museum specimens of free-living relatives of the ant-cultivated fungi, and will learn DNA extraction, PCR, and DNA sequence analysis in the process.

EN Evolution of Neural Circuits
Evolution of Neural Circuits

Stream Leader: Dr. Sophie Caron and Chelsea Gosney

An organism must adapt to its environment to ensure the survival of the next generation. The ways in which neural circuits evolve to different environments is largely unknown. To understand how the brain changes in response to varying ecologies, we use the Drosophila olfactory circuit as a model. In this stream, students will have the opportunity to determine which odors are important for species with vastly different ecologies. Students will be working with four species of Drosophila: D. melanogaster and D. simulans, which can be found worldwide, and D. pseudoobscura and D. persimilis, which are native to the American West. Students will test which odors are important to stimulate egg laying between the varying species to begin to identify which pathways within the olfactory circuit are under higher selection.

DT Diagnostic Technologies, ARUP
Diagnostic Technologies, ARUP

Stream Leaders: TBD

The ARUP research stream will provide novice students with introductions to fundamental scientific principles in the context of clinically relevant diagnostic technologies. Students will be introduced to diagnostic assays, the dynamics of clinical testing, the process of developing and comparing new diagnostic technologies, and receive introductions to the challenges of interpreting data resulting from testing assays.  The ARUP research stream will provide students the unique opportunity of shared mentorship by both ARUP and SRI-associated research staff and faculty.

CB Cancer Biology
Cancer Biology

Stream Leaders: Gennie Parkman and Dr. Sheri Holmen

Melanoma is the most deadly form of skin cancer resulting from the abnormal growth of melanocytes, which are the pigment-producing cells of the skin. Despite novel therapies that have greatly advanced the landscape of melanoma treatments, once distant metastases are evident, patient prognosis is still quite dismal. Interestingly, Utah has the highest rate of melanoma per capita, thus making it an especially relevant cancer to study here. Utah’s melanoma rate has more than doubled in the past 17 years. Furthermore, according to Cancer Stats and Figures 2020, melanoma is the 5th most common cancer for males and the 6th most common cancer for females. To develop new treatments for melanoma, we must first understand more about the genetics of this heterogeneous disease.

Multiple screening efforts have led to the discovery of new genes that may be responsible for the initiation or progression of melanoma. However, these genes need to be functionally tested before we are able to truly understand their impact on this disease. Our research will employ molecular cloning methods to study these novel genes and their impact on cellular signaling pathways. Over the course of a year, undergraduates will learn to design and synthesize a target gene, construct an expression vector, transfect cells with the transgene, and characterize it at the mRNA and protein expression levels by RT-PCR and western blotting. These will then be tested functionally using various in vitro assays to gain an understanding of the gene’s effect on melanoma cell proliferation, invasion, and migration. By achieving a better understanding of the role of target genes and their contribution to melanoma, we will be able to identify therapeutic targets that may advance the outcome of melanoma therapies.

PM Pollen Metagenomics
Pollen Metagenomics

Stream Leader: Dr. Joshua Steffen

Utah is home to an astonishing diversity of native bee species.  Recent estimates suggest that over 900 bee species call Utah home including more than 100 at Red Butte Garden alone.  Compared with honey bees, relatively little is known about the vast majority of these native bee species.  To support native bees, and the plant species they pollinate, we need to gain a better understanding of their basic biology.

Most research describing the foraging behavior of bee species uses approaches that are quite labor-intensive or require specialized expertise.  We are developing and testing molecular approaches that allow us to more efficiently categorize the pollen, microbes, and fungi collected and distributed by pollinators.  Our research group will be employing a molecular approach called DNA metabarcoding to assay foraging behavior.  DNA metabarcoding has the potential to reveal all the species in an environmental sample based upon the DNA sequences that are present in that sample.  Over the course of the next year, undergraduates working on this project will test molecular protocols, collect native pollinators in the field, and use bioinformatic tools to provide accurate descriptions of the foraging behavior of native pollinators.  By gaining a nuanced understanding of foraging behavior we will be able to better inform practices used to support the health and diversity of plants and pollinators in native ecosystems.

UM Underexplored Molecular Architectures
Underexplored Molecular Architectures

Stream Leader: Dr. Ryan Stolley

Our lab focuses on developing new organic chemical reactions that have heretofore been ignored or alluded synthesis. In our lab you will get training on working in a synthetic chemistry laboratory, working with general and advanced analysis instruments, and building the knowledge base of fundamental organic Chemistry.

EC Electrosynthetic Chemistry
Electrosynthetic Chemistry

Stream Leaders: Dr. Shelley Minteer and Dr. Henry White

Chemists and engineers strive to develop safe, efficient, and environmentally sustainable chemical synthesis for the production of high-value molecules, such as those used in medical applications. Advances by electrochemists have demonstrated remarkable new means for improving product selectivity under mild reaction conditions. Unexplored realms of chemical synthesis are now attainable using electrons at the primary reactant.

Supported by the National Science Foundation Center for Chemical Innovation (Links to an external site.), chemists at the University of Utah and across the country are embarking on a collaborative project to employ the extensive knowledge of electrochemists, materials scientists, and physical chemists in using electrons to make new molecules.  The overarching goal is to deploy this exciting new knowledge to advance chemical synthesis.

Undergraduates participating in this SRI project will demonstrate how using electrons as reactants can make pharmaceutical synthesis greener, safer, and environmentally friendly. Students will work towards learning advanced electrochemical methods for carrying out chemical transformations.  Working as a team, they will participate in designing a research plan for developing a general electrochemical route for introducing chemical functionality into molecules, and then demonstrate the general application of their method in the chemical syntheses of a series of molecules.

The project will provide students with a working knowledge of many aspects of organic preparatory chemistry, the physical chemistry of electron-transfer reactions, catalysis, materials chemistry, and quantitative analytical measurements, providing a foundation for future advanced research in all areas of chemistry.  Biweekly meetings of the entire team with the project leaders (Profs. Minteer and White) will focus on discussion of individual student results and the overall progress of the team.

CM Crystallography and Molecular Structure
Crystallography and Molecular Structure

Stream Leader: Dr. Ryan Vanderlinden

The crystallographic X-ray lab collaborates with labs across campus to determine the three-dimensional molecular structure of their novel molecules. The method we use for molecular structure determination is called X-ray crystallography. When an intense x-ray beam is passed through a singular crystal a diffraction pattern can be collected that contains information about the relative position of the atoms that make up the crystal from which a structure can be derived. The information gathered from the structure determination is used for compound identification or to understand the structure-function relationship. An undergraduate research student that joins the Crystallographic X-ray Lab can expect to learn the fundamentals of x-ray crystallography: grow crystals, collect x-ray diffraction data, process data, solve structures and build models.

MB Making and Breaking Bonds
Making and Breaking Bonds

Stream Leader: Dr. Peter Armentrout

My group is focused on measuring thermodynamic information although we obtain kinetic and often dynamic information about chemical reactions as well. Using an instrument called a guided ion beam tandem mass spectrometer (GIBMS), We examine how reactions of cations and molecules change as a function of the available kinetic (sometimes electronic) energy. When the reaction is endothermic (requiring extra energy), we can measure a threshold for the process, which directly provides the thermodynamic information of interest. We have applied this technique to a range of systems, simple atom + diatom reactions (most recently of lanthanide and actinide elements), hydration of metal ions, up to fragmentation of small biomolecules.

SB Sense of Belonging in STEM Classes
Sense of Belonging in STEM Classes

Stream Leader: Dr. Gina Frey

Students in introductory STEM courses often have concerns about whether they will be academically successful in large university courses, but many have an additional concern that maybe “people like me don’t belong in this course.” This concern is called belonging uncertainty and is related to the insecurity someone feels because of their identities.

In our group, we are studying the effect that course-level student belonging has on student performance and retention in the course. We have found at two different institutions, course-level belonging affects student performance in large general chemistry courses. We are also finding a similar effect in introductory physics. To better understand these effects and what we as instructors can do to create a more inclusive classroom, our group is interested in understanding the mechanism of how social belonging affects course performance and retention.

S Spintronics
Spintronics

Stream Leader Dr. Christoph Boehme

The research of the Department of Physics & Astronomy's spin electronics group is focused on the study of spin-selection rules on electronic transitions in condensed matter. Spin-selection rules are quantum mechanical processes that allow the spin of electrons to govern the probability of electronic transitions such as spatial changes, i.e. electric current, or energetic changes, i.e. optical emissions. The electron spin is what gives an electron its magnetic moment. Thus, our work explores the connection between magnetic and electric properties of materials and the this could lead to new electronic (actually spintronic) devices applications such as spin-based quantum sensors and quantum memory.

MM Mathematical Modeling and Pandemics
Mathematical Modeling and Pandemics

Stream Leader: Dr. Fred Adler

In addition to disrupting about every aspect of normal life, the COVID-19 epidemic has brought unprecedented attention to the importance of mathematical modeling and data analysis. The tools needed to understand and predict this epidemic run the gamut from differential equations and large simulations, with methods coming from statistics and applied mathematics. Data are noisy and complicated, and raise many questions about the challenges of counting cases, tracking their sources, understanding viral spread, and quantifying stresses on the health care system and the economy.

We will access the vast quantity of available data, and use them to study the spread and genetics of this virus. Recent studies have shown that the spike protein, that lives on the outside of the virus and is critical for it to enter cells, has mutated in ways that might affect its ability to infect people.

Our SRI team will take an interdisciplinary approach to this aspect of the pandemic. Students will learn the skills needed to download and visualize genetic data using R and python, link these data with fundamental mathematical models of epidemiology, evolution, and the physics of viral entry. Working in teams, we'll investigate hypotheses about the causes consequences of viral evolution, and learn to effectively communicate and display these results to audiences ranging from scientists and decision-makers to the general public.

ML Machine Learning Using Neural Networks
Machine Learning Using Neural Networks

Stream Leader: Braxton Osting

The abundance of data created in science, engineering, business, and everyday human activity is simply staggering. This data is often complex and high-dimensional, taking the form of video or time-dependent sensor data. Machine learning methods allow us to understand such data, automatically identifying patterns and making important data-driven decisions without human intervention. Machine learning methods have found a wide variety of applications, including providing new scientific insights and the development of self-driving cars.

One machine learning method in particular, neural networks, has emerged as the preeminent tool for the supervised learning tasks of regression and classification. Loosely modeled after the human brain and the basis for deep learning, Neural Networks use composition to develop complex representations of data. In recent years, researchers using Neural Networks have made tremendous breakthroughs in topics as varied as image processing, natural language processing, and playing board games such as Go.

VS Viral Suppressors of RNA Silencing
Viral Suppressors of RNA Silencing

Stream Leader: Dr. Sarah Hansen

RNA sensing and RNA interference (RNAi) are essential mechanisms for antiviral defense in many organisms. RIG-I and other RIG-I-like helicases are a family of enzymes that can detect (RIG-I, MDA-5) or cleave (Dicer) “non-self” double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) such as dsRNA from a viral genome. Additionally, these helicases initiate a larger immune response from the cell. To combat these types of antiviral defenses, some viruses evolved to encode viral suppressors of RNA silencing (VSRs).  The mechanism by which VSRs target different components of the RNA silencing pathways is poorly understood. The goal of this project is to study a known VSR protein from Nodamura virus. Students will work with this protein and potential targets (RIG-I, MDA-5, LGP2, and Dicer) in vitro to determine how this VSR inhibits the RNA sensing pathway in human cells.

This project will allow students to work in a biochemistry laboratory where they will get to learn:

1) to clone, purify, and do experiments with proteins and RNA in vitro

2) to work with human and bacterial cells

3) to perform in vitro experiments, and collect and analyze results from those experiments

4) skills related to scientific writing and communication

Additionally, students will be immersed in the Bass Lab, including group meetings and sub-group meetings with Prof. Bass, so they can learn about graduate-level research conducted in the field of protein-RNA biochemistry.

BIOLOGY
 

CHEMISTRY
 

MATH
 

PHYSICS & ASTRONOMY

SCIENCE EDUCATION

Biological Data

The Science of Biological Data


Fred Adler

In an age when cross-disciplinary collaboration has become a buzzterm, especially in academia, Fred Adler puts his mathematical models where his mouth is. Multi-disciplinary work—in which academic silos are breached in the search for truth—is the hallmark of what Adler, who has a joint appointment in mathematics and biology, does.

His is the kind of work that will be supported by the new science building recently announced by the College of Science, dedicated to applied and multi-disciplinary work, and where most STEM students at the U will eventually find themselves for a time.

As Director of the Center for Quantitative Biology, Adler and his team have applied their data-driven tool kit to everything from viruses to animal behavior, and from biodiversity to infectious diseases. Who else can claim a lab’s subject models as varied as aphid-tending ants, hantavirus, and the Southern Right Whale off the coast of Argentina?

Math in Nature

The Adler group’s approach to research is driven by basic questions about how biology works. To bring together several threads of research, the lab began a study of rhinoviruses, the most common cause of the common cold, and how they routinely and rapidly change. The study uses mathematical models based on known interactions in the immune system and genetic sequences. “We hope to build detailed evolutionary models of this rapidly change set of viruses,” Adler reports.

He and his team are now looking at cancer in humans. There are, of course, hypotheses of how cancer takes over cells in the body and grows. But too many of these hypotheses are based on assumptions that cells behave as they do with complete information and clever plans for the future instead of the confusing world of a real tissue.

“However useful some of these [current] models are,” says Adler, “they are not based on a realistic assumption.” In fact, a prime contribution of the mathematical modeler is “to make sense of things from the perspective of what you’re modeling.” What access to information does the cell or organism have, is a central, guiding question.

Muskan Walia and Emerson Arehart

Part of how cancer behaviors may be better scientifically “unpacked” is through game theory but expanded over time and space and placed in a context of incomplete information between constituent parts.

Mathematical models, or more accurately, an ensemble of models later aggregated like political polls or weather models to predict the future, may be the answer. “We usually don’t get a simple smoking gun,” says Adler referring to complicated questions in biology, whether developmental, behavioral-ecological, immuno- or micro-biological. “With nine or ten big mathematical models running all the time you have a [more robust] hypothesis,” he says.

“All thinking is done using modeling,” Adler reminds us, “whether it’s through language or, in my case, mathematics.” The strength of the latter is that when mathematical modeling is added to the classical biologist’s models, it is “perfectly explicit about its assumptions. When you do the math right (and we always do), the logic leading from assumptions to conclusions is airtight ‘true.’”

This is important because a mathematical argument can’t be controverted. “If conclusions in biological research are wrong, it’s the assumptions that are wrong,” and the researcher can then pivot on those assumptions.

Modeling of this kind, of course, has proven helpful, most recently, in the study of Sars-CoV-19, the virus that has propelled the world into a pandemic. The coronavirus does not operate in isolation, but with other components through the human immune system.

This kind of work is animated not just by its predictive character using statistics—as in the case of artificial intelligence or machine learning (“We aren’t all cyborgs, yet,” Adler says)—but, it is predictive in a mechanistic sense in that it cares deeply about the more nuanced and open-ended “how,” the foundation of the scientific method.

Adler started out at Harvard as a pure mathematician, but by the time he arrived at Cornell University as a graduate student, he had discovered that he really enjoyed talking and collaborating with biologists. Stanford-based Deborah Gordon, a renowned expert on ants, which as he puts it, “achieve a lot of stuff fairly robustly through simple rules,” was one of them. He also found himself with David Winkler in upstate New York in a bird blind and observing the breeding and offspring-raising behaviors of tree swallows. The complicated models he built based on that research were never published, but Adler was hooked on life sciences.

Whether it’s modeling the lungs of cystic fibrosis patients looking for a transplant, determining that the changesnin Covid-19 are driven not just by mutations in the virus but adaptations of human immune response, or other “bench to bedside” medical science, Fred Adler has found a home in the mechanistic aspects, the “how,” of basic science.

How to synthesize his research over the past thirty years is the next big question. For now he will continue with modeling biological systems, their signaling networks based on the body’s own network of “trust” between components, and determining how those systems are corrupted… and maybe how to fix them.

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Donor Impact

Donor Impact


The Student Emergency Fund

Earlier this year the College of Science asked our supporters to help science students impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The response was overwhelming.

“Thank you for this generous scholarship. It will not go to waste. With the money I am receiving, I will be able to stay in school and not have to take any semesters off.”

 

Faculty, staff, alumni, and friends of the college came together to help our students in need, making 283 donations in support of the Student Emergency Fund. So far, the fund has supported 83 students in need with over $108,000 in scholarships, ranging from $200 to $4,000 per student.

“Words cannot begin to express my appreciation to have been chosen as a recipient of your donation. You have no idea how much relief I felt. I am very grateful that I can further pursue my studies.”

 

Students received help after facing issues like unexpected medical diagnoses and hospitalizations, caring for terminally ill family members, rapidly increasing drug costs for essential medications, and job losses due to the pandemic.

“I am so grateful for this support. I can’t wait to graduate and be able to pay it forward to others in need.”

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Theory Meets Intuition

Theory Meets Intuition


Will Feldman

Will Feldman, Assistant Professor of Mathematics, joined the Department of Mathematics in 2020. He studies mathematical models of physics and thinks about the things most of us take for granted, for example, fluid flow, water droplets, and flame propagation. These models are often developed by engineers or physicists using basic assumptions, but the resulting equations can be difficult or impossible to solve exactly.

“I’m interested in proving mathematically rigorous results for these models,” said Feldman. In his research, the results sometimes show the limitations of the modeling assumptions used to derive the equations. Other times, they explain the behavior of all the solutions of the equation without relying on special formulae. “And sometimes, the results are used to justify numerical computations, which are meant to approximate solutions of these equations,” he said.

One particular type of problem Feldman has studied is called “homogenization”—the study of the physical properties of complicated heterogeneous materials. The idea is to “average” or “homogenize” the complicated small-scale inhomogeneities in the material to derive simpler effective equations to describe properties at larger scales. For example, the ideas of homogenization theory can be used to study the shapes of water droplets on surfaces that have microscopic roughness, such as a plant leaf, a piece of glass, or a table top.

Water droplet on fabric.

“I like to work out these kinds of questions because I get to use both physical intuition and theoretical mathematical tools,” he said.
Feldman wasn’t always interested in mathematics. As an undergraduate, he thought he wanted to study physics or history. He started taking math classes because math was useful in studying advanced physics. “I had a lot of amazing math professors, and I started to like math a lot,” he said. “Eventually, I realized I could maybe study math and also bring in my interest in applications (especially physics). Basically, that’s how I ended up studying partial differential equations.”

Like many undergrads who study math, Feldman was worried he would need a special talent to succeed at math, but he had supportive and encouraging mentors, so he never got too discouraged. “I hope the experience of having good mentors has taught me to be a good mentor, too, and show my students I believe in them and the many interesting possibilities available in a career in or related to mathematics,” he said.

Before joining the U, Feldman received his Ph.D. from UCLA in 2015 and was an L.E. Dickson Instructor at the University of Chicago from 2015-2019. He was also a member at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) from 2019-2020. The IAS is one of the world’s leading centers for curiosity-driven basic research, based in Princeton, NJ.

In 2019, Feldman was awarded the John E. and Marva M. Warnock Presidential Endowed Chair for Mathematics by the University of Utah. He will hold the chair for five years and anticipates the funding will provide new and interesting directions for his research. He hopes to have a positive impact by training, mentoring, and supporting a next generation of mathematicians. “It was a great honor to be offered the Warnock Chair,” said Feldman. “I am obviously very proud to receive the award and grateful to the Warnock family and the university.”

As he moves forward in his research, he’s been thinking about problems involving interfaces in heterogeneous media. He’s also been wondering about transport equations and models of grain boundary motion in polycrystalline materials. He’s looking forward to discussions and collaborations with his colleagues in the Math Department, especially in the applied and probability groups.
Feldman and his wife are in the midst of raising two young children. He enjoys the great hiking in Utah and is looking forward to relearning how to ski and maybe starting new outdoor activities, such as climbing and biking. He enjoys cooking and has become obsessed (during the pandemic) with making a great cup of coffee.

- by Michele Swaner, first published at math.utah.edu

Warnock Presidential Endowed Chair

“A Presidential Endowed Chair at the University of Utah is one of the highest honors that we can bestow on a faculty member.” —Dean Peter Trapa

Presidential Endowed Chairs are crucial for the recruitment and retainment of the most accomplished faculty members. Through these philanthropic gifts, the faculty are able to further support their cutting-edge research and explore new areas in their field.

John E. Warnock, BS’61, MS’64, PhD’69, and Marva M. Warnock created a Presidential Endowed Chair for Faculty Development in Mathematics in 2001 through a gift of Adobe Systems stock.

For more information on a establishing a Presidential Endowed Chair, or other named gift opportunities, please contact the development team at 801-581-6958, or visit science.utah.edu/giving.

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Space Plants

The Future of Space travel


Ming Hammond

For humanity to push the boundaries of space exploration, we’re going to need plants to come along for the ride. Not just spinach or potatoes, though—plants can do so much more than just feed us.

“There’s a lot of promise, potential and hope that we can use the tools developed in synthetic biology to solve problems.” says Chemistry Professor Ming Hammond, “not just that you would find in space, but where you have extreme limitation of resources.”

A synthetic garden.

Synthetic biology is a field that engineers biological systems. In this case, the team is looking at plants as potential bio-factories. Every organism naturally produces countless proteins as part of its biological function, so why not engineer a plant to produce, say, a needed medication or a polymer that could be useful in future long-term space exploration missions?

“The benefit is that you can take seeds with you,” Hammond said. “They’re very lightweight. They grow and gain biomass using the CO2 that we breathe out. And if those plants can produce proteins on demand—we know that plants are able to produce anti-viral and anti-cancer antibodies on a large scale.”

LED lights and USB camera.

Synthetic biology is already established on Earth. But translating that same technology to spaceflight requires different considerations. Hammond and her team encountered many of these constraints when adapting their experiment to operate within the small (10cm by 10cm) CubeSat enclosure.

For spaceflight, the team decided to engineer plants to change color as they produced the target protein, and monitor the progress with a camera. It’s an elegant and innovative solution, based on a previously published method, but adapted for the constraints of a cube in space.

Final assembly.

“We had to take something that worked beautifully in the most carefully controlled conditions,” Hammond said, “and get it to work under very harsh and challenging conditions inside the plant cube.”

The plant cube was designed with the forward vision of preparing for plant growth studies on the moon, and is a technology development step towards that goal.

The entire experiment took 10 days and appeared to show successful protein production. The results from the team, including collaborators from NASA Ames and International Space University, were published this year.

10x10cm experiment enclosure.

It takes a lot of time and effort to put equipment in space, and Hammond appreciates the many hours of work that the team has put in. “We are a small but dedicated group of volunteers,” she said. “People worked nonstop to fix last-minute things that came up before launch. I’m just really proud of the effort everyone’s put in.”

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

Hammond and her family traveled to the NASA Kennedy Space Center to watch the Dec. 5, 2019 launch of her experiment, which was nestled within a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on a resupply mission to the International Space Station.

“At the launch of my experiment, we had a chance to see Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, the two astronauts that flew the first manned SpaceX flight on May 30, 2020,” she said. “It was an amazing opportunity to share the launch with my son, (6 years old at the time), and other family members. Of all the things I’ve done in science this, for them, is the one that probably inspires the most interest and awe.”

By Paul Gabrielsen

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The Frontier of Physics

The Frontier of Physics


The Standard Model of particle physics is the theory that explains how the most elementary particles interact with each other and combine to form composite objects, like protons and neutrons. Developed over the course of many decades, what we know as the Standard Model today was formulated nearly half a century ago and remains a focus of study for particle physicists. But by itself, the Standard Model fails to provide an explanation for many important phenomena, such as the existence of the dark matter in the universe.

The Standard Model

Today, physicists and researchers are on the frontier in the search for physics beyond the Standard Model, using connections between theoretical particle physics, cosmology, and astrophysics to help us understand the universe.

Pearl Sandick, Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy and Associate Dean of Faculty Affairs for the College of Science, is on that frontier. As a theoretical particle physicist, she studies some of the largest and smallest things in the universe, including dark matter, which is the mysterious stuff that gravitationally binds galaxies and clusters of galaxies together.

While regular matter makes up about one-sixth of the total matter in the universe, dark matter makes up five-sixths. There are compelling arguments that dark matter might actually be a new type of elementary particle. Electrons are an example of an elementary particle—they are the most fundamental building blocks of their type and are not composed of other particles. Other examples of elementary particles include quarks, neutrinos, and photons.

In August 2019, Sandick and her colleagues hosted a workshop entitled “The Search for New Physics—Leaving No Stone Unturned,” which brought together dozens of particle physicists, astrophysicists, and cosmologists from around the world to discuss recent advances and big ideas. “It was such a vibrant environment; I think it helped us all broaden our perspectives and learn new things. Though there’s a lot going on in the meantime, we’re already excited about the prospect of hosting a second “No Stone Unturned” workshop in the new Science Building.”

Recently, Sandick has turned her attention to another cosmological phenomenon—black holes—tackling the question of how their existence affects our understanding of dark matter and other physics beyond the Standard Model.

“Some of this new research makes use of the cosmic microwave background (CMB), which is leftover radiation from the Big Bang that we can observe today,” said Sandick.

“CMB measurements can help us understand the structure and composition of the universe, including how much is made of dark matter. The CMB also can provide hints about what other particles or objects existed in the early universe.”

Before the CMB was created, the universe was very hot and very dense. In this environment, the densest places would have collapsed to become black holes. The black holes that formed in this way are called primordial black holes (PBHs), to differentiate them from black holes that form much later when stars reach the end of their lives. Heavy enough PBHs would still be around today and could make up some or all of the dark matter, providing an alternative to the idea that dark matter is a new particle. Lighter PBHs probably are not an explanation for dark matter, but they would have had an important interplay with dark matter and other new particles.

Sandick, along with a U of U postdoctoral associate, Barmak Shams Es Haghi, have been looking into the many impacts of a population of light PBHs in the early universe. Recently, they’ve completed the first precision study of some spinning PBHs in the early universe, finding that current CMB measurements from the Planck satellite (an observatory operated by the European Space Agency) and future measurements with the CMB Stage 4 experiment at the South Pole and in the Chilean desert are sensitive to many important PBH scenarios. The Planck data already point to some more and less likely possibilities, while CMB Stage 4 will be an important step forward in understanding the life and death of small black holes.

In addition to her research, Sandick is passionate about teaching, mentoring, and making science accessible and interesting. She has been recognized for her teaching and mentoring work, with a 2016 University of Utah Early Career Teaching Award and a 2020 University of Utah Distinguished Mentor Award. In 2020, she also was named a U Presidential Scholar. Women are still widely underrepresented in physics, and Sandick is actively involved in organizations that support recruitment, retention, and advancement of women physicists. She has served on the American Physical Society (APS) Committee on the Status of Women in Physics and as the Chair of the National Organizing Committee for the APS Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics. She is currently chair of the APS Four Corners Section, which serves approximately 1,800 members from the region. In 2011, she founded a group to support women in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and continues to serve as their faculty advisor.

She earned a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in 2008 and was a postdoctoral fellow at Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg’s group (Weinberg Theory Group) at the University of Texas at Austin before moving to the University of Utah in 2011.

- by Michele Swaner, first published at physics.utah.edu

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Arctic Adventures

The Science of Salty Ice


BBC StoryWorks

BBC StoryWorks and the International Science Council present "Unlocking Science," which showcases how science is helping to solve some of society's greatest collective challenges. The University of Utah is the only institution in North America represented in the series, which showcases how science is helping to solve some of society's greatest collective challenges.

Jody Reimer

Counting on Mathematicians to Help Save the Planet

On a brilliant white ice floe floating in the Arctic Ocean, a group of people in bulky coats adjust to the biting cold, having been dropped off by helicopter. “All of a sudden, I turn around and there’s a polar bear and it starts running at us,” says Jody Reimer, recounting a moment of panic. “Luckily, the helicopter swooped back in to scare the bear off, but I had the adrenaline shakes for the rest of the day,” she adds, laughing.

You might expect such a nail-biting anecdote to come from an explorer, but Dr Reimer is a mathematician and lecturer at the University of Utah, as well as being part of a community that has swapped cosy classrooms for some of the Earth’s most inhospitable wildernesses, in a bid to use numbers to understand global warming.

Their adventures enable them to observe first-hand the processes driving change in the polar regions and validate their mathematical theories of sea ice and its role as a critical component in the Earth’s climate system.

A complex problem
The thickness and extent of sea ice in the Arctic has declined quickly since satellite measurements were first taken in 1979.

Sea ice is the Earth’s refrigerator, reflecting sunlight back into space. Its enduring presence is important to our planet’s future because, as more ice melts, more dark water is exposed which absorbs more sunlight. This sun-warmed water melts more ice in a self-reinforcing cycle called ice albedo feedback.

While sea ice decline is perhaps one of the most visible large-scale changes connected to planetary warming on the Earth’s surface, analysing, modelling and predicting its behaviour and the response of the polar system it supports is incredibly difficult, but mathematicians can help.

Kenneth Golden, a distinguished professor of mathematics and adjunct professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Utah, has built a unique sea ice programme over 30 years. Its combination of mathematics research, climate modelling and exciting field expeditions, has attracted students and postdoctoral researchers, including Dr Reimer, who are focused on using this type of science to help tackle the pressing challenges of a rapidly changing climate.

Factoring in animals
Dr Reimer has studied how polar bears and seals respond to changes in their frozen environment. While she used mathematical models to understand the interactions between these creatures and their habitat, she also took measurements and samples from bears in the Arctic, which was something she never expected to do as a mathematician. “They’re not totally sleeping when they are tranquilised; they’re groggy,” she explains. “One of them freaked me out because it seemed like it could wake up at some point.”

Their shrinking habitat means polar bears are walking on thin ice, but it’s hoped that studies like Dr Reimer’s will help experts understand how to protect the majestic predators.

However, it is the “mind-blowing” microscopic world of bacteria and algae that live in salty water pockets inside the sea ice that now excites her. This biological community and its habitat are influenced by changes in temperature, salinity and light, making it difficult to model accurately. In her current work, Dr Reimer constructs models to understand how these factors interact to determine biological activity within the ice. “Understanding how processes on these small scales contribute to macro-level patterns is critical to modelling the impact of a warming climate on polar marine ecology,” she explains.

Crunching the numbers on salty ice
It is the challenge of understanding how the microscopic structure of sea ice affects the behaviour of massive expanses of ice that interests Prof Golden. He has visited the Earth’s polar regions 18 times, braving the westerly winds known as the “Roaring Forties” to reach Antarctica by ship and narrowly avoiding plunging into icy waters while measuring sea ice. “One time I was visited by a massive whale about eight feet away, who could easily have broken the thin floe I was on with a casual flick of its tail,” he says.

Ken Golden

Prof Golden studies the microstructure of sea ice to calculate how easily fluid can flow through it. “Sea ice is salty. It has a porous microstructure of brine inclusions which is very different from freshwater ice,” he says.

Prof Golden has led interdisciplinary teams to predict the critical temperature at which the brine inclusions connect up so that fluid can flow through sea ice, and to develop the first X-ray tomography technique to analyse how the geometry of the inclusions evolves with temperature. “Understanding how seawater percolates through sea ice is one of the keys to interpreting how climate change will play out in the polar marine environment,” he explains.

Discovering this “on-off switch” has helped scientists better understand processes such as how nutrients that feed algal communities living in the brine inclusions are replenished.

The brine in sea ice also affects its radar signature, which affects satellite measurements of parameters like ice thickness used to validate climate models. These models are important because they predict future changes to our climate and are used by world leaders and scientists to come up with mitigation strategies.

Coming in from the cold
The variety of ice presents a challenge, but diversity among researchers, teachers and students creates the perfect environment for fresh ideas. In the US, just one quarter of doctoral degrees in mathematics and computer sciences were awarded to women in 2015, but schemes such as the University of Utah’s ACCESS programme are nurturing talented female mathematicians by helping them unlock opportunities such as mentoring and hands-on research. Expeditions to the Arctic not only give students an elevated experience, but ensure mathematicians are involved in cutting-edge research and solutions, alongside climate scientists and engineers.

When they are not battling blizzards, Dr Reimer and Prof Golden work on collaborative, interdisciplinary projects and co-mentor female undergraduate students as part of the ACCESS programme. After refreshing the mathematics component in 2018 to include climate change, Prof Golden has seen roughly triple the number of ACCESS students interested in taking a maths major or research placement than before.

Rebecca Hardenbrook, who is one of Professor Golden’s PhD students, says: "focusing on pressing issues like climate change attracts more of the people we want into mathematics, which is everyone, but in particular, women, people of colour, queer people; anyone from an underrepresented background.”

Rebecca Hardenbrook

Pooling resources
Hardenbrook joined the ACCESS program ahead of her first year as an undergraduate, spending the summer in an astrophysics lab, which opened her eyes to the possibility of doing research. "It was really life changing," she says, not least because she further decided to pursue a PhD in mathematics with Prof Golden after studying thermal transport through sea ice as an undergraduate.

She now inspires younger students on the ACCESS scheme as a teaching assistant, as well as modelling melt ponds, which are pools of water on the Arctic sea ice. These ponds play a decisive role in determining the long-term melting rates of the Arctic sea ice cover by absorbing solar radiation instead of reflecting it. As they grow and join together, they undergo a transition in fractal geometry, effectively creating a never-ending pattern that can be modelled by mathematicians.

Hardenbrook is building upon a decade of work on melt ponds by Prof Golden and previous students and researchers at the university by adapting the classical Ising model, which was developed more than a century ago and explains how materials can gain or lose magnetism, to model melt pond geometry. “I hope to make the model for sea ice more physically precise so that it can be put into global climate models to create a more accurate approach of addressing melt ponds, which have a surprising effect on the albedo of the Arctic,” she explains.

Adding to the big picture
Mathematicians have already solved the conundrum of how to define the width of the undulating marginal sea ice zone, which extends from the dense inner core of pack ice to the outer fringes , where waves can break the floating ice.

Court Strong, who is an atmospheric scientist and one of Prof Golden’s colleagues at the University of Utah, drew inspiration from an unusual source: the cerebral cortex of a rat’s brain. He realised they could use the same mathematical method to measure the width of the marginal ice zone as they do for measuring the thickness of the rodent’s bumpy brain, which also has a lot of variation. With the aid of this simplified model, the team was able to demonstrate that the marginal ice zone has widened by around 40% as our climate has warmed.

The university of Utah’s ACCESS scheme, including its hands-on research, immerses students in an interdisciplinary environment where maths is part of a bigger picture. It encourages cross pollination, where methods and ideas from seemingly unrelated areas of science can be used to solve problems when the underlying mathematics is essentially the same.

“When you’re presented with an unusual situation, you need different kinds of minds to look at a problem clearly and come up with solutions,” says Prof Golden.

The loss of sea ice seen in the Arctic has happened over just a few decades and continues at an alarming pace.

“We need all the good brains and different ways of thinking that we can get, and we need them fast,” he says.

This article has been reviewed for the University of Utah, National Science Foundation and Office of Naval Research by Elvis Bahati Orlendo, International Foundation for Science, Stockholm and Dr Magdalena Stoeva, FIOMP, FIUPESM.

Originally published by BBC Storyworks
Interview of Jody Reimer and Ken Golden by Dean Peter Trapa - Video

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Faraday Lectures

The Faraday Lectures


Creating Holiday Reactions since 1981

 

Join chemistry professors Janis Louie and Tom Richmond as they perform an extraordinary series of chemical experiments that educate and entertain audiences of all ages. This year, the event will be held live via zoom and will feature friend of the chemistry department, Tom Thatcher. Tom will discuss the experiments with Professors Louie and Richmond, giving viewers a behind-the-science view on how the experiments work.

The lectures are named after Michael Faraday, the discoverer of electromagnetic induction, electro-magnetic rotations, the magneto-optical effect, diamagnetism and field theory. Faraday served as director of the Royal Institute in London from 1825-1867 and enhanced its reputation as a center for scientific research and education. A gifted lecturer, he began presenting his Christmas Lectures for Children at the Royal Institute in the mid-1820s. With Faraday as their guide, audiences entered wholeheartedly into the world of science. In this tradition, the Department of Chemistry has given the annual Faraday Lectures since 1981.

Videos


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ACCESS Testimonials

 ACCESS Scholars Testimonials


ACCESS Class of 2018

The ACCESS program opened my eyes to the interconnected nature of all aspects of STEM and some humanities. This encouraged me to broaden my understanding of STEM concepts by taking a multidisciplinary view and by examining the same topic from many different perspectives. Aside from opening my eyes in an academic setting, ACCESS also connected me with a network of intelligent women in STEM who I am fortunate to have met.

 

The opportunity to meet strong-minded and dedicated women in STEM disciplines was so empowering. Amazing friendships were gained, class was intriguing every day, and the opportunity to explore various STEM majors was invaluable.

 

One of the most rewarding [elements of ACCESS] was engaging with a community of other young women, both inside and out of the classroom. I found that I could engage in enthusiastic discussions about classroom projects with my peers. I think that our mutual excitement, when it comes to science-related topics, really brought us together as a community and created a supporting group of friends who also understand some of the unforeseen challenges that come with studying science as a woman. I really enjoyed having the opportunity to talk to women who are members of the science or engineering faculty… hearing from them in class on the diversity of topics they study and getting advice from them one on one really strengthened my interest in many STEM disciplines. Ultimately, this exposure led me to realize I wanted to change my major to one I hadn't even considered going into ACCESS.

 

I really enjoyed getting a head start on my education at the U. It gave me time to adjust to becoming a college student and understand what it means to be totally in charge of my own education. It really helped me look at what I would like to do in the future and I made so many new life-long friends.

 


ACCESS Class of 2017

As a first-generation student, the [ACCESS] summer program helped me integrate more easily into college life and provided me with an incredible support system.

 

My research experience helped me to appreciate how science is used in the real-world, and helped me to step out of my comfort zone and explore areas I never would have thought of.

 

ACCESS Class of 2011

For my ACCESS research experience, I worked in an astronomy lab which mostly meant teaching myself how to program. After spending the better part of a month fixing a bug in my code, I thought there must be a better way! I started taking computer science classes, and I've been looking for better ways to write code ever since. I'm now pursuing a PhD in computer science and love it. I'm not sure I would have found my way here if I hadn't started working in that astronomy lab as a freshman, so thank you ACCESS!

 


ACCESS Class of 2010

Without ACCESS I probably would never have entered and remained in the field of engineering! At times it was difficult to attend classes with so few women or work in a male dominated field. ACCESS showed me that there were many other like-minded, strong, and intelligent women who were also passionate about science and engineering, and that I was not alone in my pursuits!

 

There are many opportunities that have had tremendous impact on my life… but the ACCESS Program was and is one of the most influential. The program, which introduced different perspectives and sides of the sciences in a very hands-on way, has helped inquisitive minds develop skills essential for success in STEM. I gained lifelong friendships with my fellow classmates and an even greater support network. I've never felt isolated being a woman in STEM. I've learned to find value in myself as a scientist and in others.

 

ACCESS Class of 2008

My research focuses on developing and utilizing biophysical analyses to establish the complex molecular pathways in immune and epithelial cell biology (PhD candidate, Rice University). ACCESS was the perfect foundation I needed to succeed as a woman in STEM.

 


ACCESS Class of 2006

I'm so grateful to ACCESS for the start it gave me. I never thought I would become a geologist. I started out as a physics major and quickly realized it wasn't for me. My academic success all started with ACCESS and especially with exposure to research during my first-year of college, without which I would not have gotten a position in an environmental engineering lab. This introduction changed my academic goals and set me on path for my future career. I graduated from the University of Utah with degrees in Geology and Geological Engineering and went on to become an NSF Fellow at the Ohio State University, where I graduated with a Master's degree in Geochemistry.

 

I graduated with Mathematics and Biology degrees from the U, earned a PhD in biology at the University of Washington, and started working in science policy. I have worked as an Associate Program Officer at the National Academies of Sciences, and currently am a AAAS Fellow, in a congressional office. It all started in ACCESS, a program that changed the course of my education and life.

 

ACCESS Class of 2002

I'm very grateful to the ACCESS program. I think the biggest thing I learned is that women are often doing much better than they think. During the ACCESS physics module, the instructor told us how females will get Bs, and think they are failing and drop out of the sciences. While males, in the same courses, will get Cs and think they are doing awesome!

 

ACCESS Class of 1997

I want to applaud the existence of programs like ACCESS and the strong individuals who put tremendous effort and patience into their coordination. If equal representation and continued innovation are of true concerns, these programs and their coordinators demand the utmost respect and investment.

 

College of Science Award Nominations

College of Science Award Nominations


The College of Science is committed to recognizing excellence in education, research, and service. We have countless students, faculty, and staff that are deserving of recognition. Nominate someone for an award using the form below. Scroll down for full award descriptions.

Nominations are due February 15, 2022. Questions can be directed to lindsey.despain@utah.edu.

Click here for the 2022 award winners!

Nominations

College of Science Award Nomination
Nominee Name
Nominee Name
First
Last
Nominator Name
Nominator Name
First
Last
You can also email your letter directly to office@science.utah.edu

Student awards

College of Science Research Scholar Award

Awarded to a graduating undergraduate senior for exceptional research contributions. Nomination must come from the nominee’s supervisor or mentor. Awardee receives a $1,000 prize, one-year membership to AAAS and a plaque presented at convocation. They will also be eligible to apply to give remarks at the College of Science convocation. Nominees must be:

  • A College of Science graduating student
  • Achieved excellence in science or math research
  • Have definite plans to attend a graduate program in a science and math research field
  • Be dedicated to a career in science or math research.

University Student Researchers Award

The Office of Undergraduate Research awards an undergraduate student researcher from each college. All students working with College of Science faculty are eligible, even if they are not majors in the College of Science. Nominees must:

  • Be enrolled as an undergraduate student at the University of Utah
  • Actively participating in research-related activities on campus
  • Record of sustained commitment to developing research skills and knowledge under the supervision of a faculty mentor
  • Evidence of independent and critical thinking
  • Positive contributions to the research culture of the College.

Outstanding Undergraduate Student

Awarded to a graduating undergraduate student who exemplifies the mission of the College of Science.  Nominations must come from the nominee’s supervisor or mentor. The awardee will receive $1000 and will be eligible to apply to give remarks at the College of Science convocation.

Outstanding Graduate Student

Awarded to a graduating masters or Ph.D. student who exemplifies the mission of the College of Science.  The award may recognize contributions in scholarship, education, community engagement, or enhancing equity and inclusion across the college. The awardee will receive $1000. Nominations must come from the nominee’s supervisor or mentor.

Convocation Speaker

Faculty and staff are encouraged to nominate an exceptional graduating senior to speak at the annual College of Science convocation. The student should have a unique perspective/experience and the ability to speak publicly at convocation. Final speaker decisions will be made by the convocation steering committee. Students can also nominate themselves; please upload your speech in the application.

 

Faculty Awards

Excellence in Research

To be awarded for outstanding research accomplishment(s) in the last 3 years. Tenured or tenure-track faculty at all ranks are eligible. The awardee will receive $2000.  Nominations must come from the department awards committee and be accompanied by a letter from the chair/director(s).  

Excellence in Teaching & Mentoring

To be awarded for outstanding teaching and mentoring, broadly defined, including contributions in the classroom or lab, or to the mentoring of students, postdocs, and colleagues.  Tenure-line faculty at all ranks are eligible.  The awardee will receive $1000.  Nominations may come from any member of the College of Science community (students, postdocs, faculty, and staff) and are active for two years.

Distinguished Educator

To be awarded for exceptional contributions to the educational mission of the college.  Career-line faculty at all ranks are eligible. Nominations of faculty who have gone above and beyond to foster community, provide engaged learning opportunities, or otherwise substantially enrich learning experiences are strongly encouraged. The awardee will receive $1000. Nominations may come from any member of the College of Science community (students, postdocs, faculty, and staff) and are active for two years.

Distinguished Service

To be awarded for exceptional service contributions to the college, a department, or the university, as recognized by the College of Science.  All faculty are eligible.  The awardee will receive $1000. Nominations may come from any member of the College of Science community (students, postdocs, faculty, and staff) and are active for two years.

 

Staff Award

Staff Excellence

For exceptional contributions in support of the college mission. Nomination is open to all staff members, including administration, academic affairs, advancement, and technical staff.  The awardee will receive $1000.  Nominations may come from any member of the College of Science community (students, postdocs, faculty, and staff).

 

postdoctoral award

Outstanding Postdoctoral Researcher

Awarded to a postdoctoral associate for exceptional contributions in scholarship, education, community engagement, or enhancing equity and inclusion across the college.  The awardee will receive $1000. Nominations must come from the nominee’s supervisor or mentor.

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