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.


 

CS Cancer Systems Biology
Cancer Systems Biology

Stream Leader: Dr. Fred Adler

Our team will collaborate to use our collective strengths in evaluating the biological literature, analysis and graphical presentation of data sets, mathematical modeling and simulation.

What is cancer?

  • A failure of the body’s control systems
  • Cells escape the systems evolved to regulate numbers
  • Tissues fail to stop cells that escape homeostatic control
  • The immune system fails to stop vagrant cellsCancer is an ecological and evolutionary process

What is systems biology?

  • A way to address multiscale phenomena
  • Link what happens within cells to cell populations
  • Link short-term changes to long-term outcomes
  • Uses a wide range of quantitative methods

Developed Skills Include: Data analysis; mathematical modeling; computer simulation

Find more about Dr. Adler and their research at https://faculty.utah.edu/FREDERICK_R_ADLER  

SC Surface Chemistry and Catalysis
Surface Chemistry and Catalysis

Stream Leader: Dr. Scott Anderson

Reactions occurring on surfaces are critical in many technology areas, including industrial chemical production, pollution remediation, semiconductor fabrication, and high tech materials production and applications. Catalysis is another type of surface chemistry, where the surface facilitates reactions of molecules that stick to it, but is not changed in the process.

One type of surface reaction this group studies is reactions of materials at high temperatures, which often determine the material performance. We are able study reactions on individual nanoparticles (NPs) over a temperature range up to ~3000 K – well above the range other methods can reach. The experiments are done in a custom-made instrument and there will be opportunities to learn about instrumentation, as well as the science of the surface reactions. We will be measuring chemical reactivity of different forms of carbon (diamond, graphite, nano-onions, etc) and of ultra-high temperature ceramics like HfC and ZrB2.

Students on this project will learn to work with the instrumentation, the physical principles behind the method, nanoparticle properties, and high temperature chemistry such as etching, oxidation, and sublimation.

Find more about Dr. Anderson and their research at https://chem.utah.edu/directory/anderson/ 

MB Making and Breaking Bonds
Making and Breaking Bonds

Stream Leader: Dr. Peter Armentrout

This 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.

Recent experimental studies performed in this group include:

  1. Reactions of actinides (both uranium and thorium
  2. Reactions of lanthanides (of atmospheric interest to the US Air Force
  3. Measurement of hydration energies of transition metal dications (solvation energies)
  4. Fragmentation energies of peptides, useful information for sequencing proteins in analytical mass spectrometry

Find more about Dr. Armentrout and their research at https://chem.utah.edu/directory/armentrout/

MS Molecular Systematics of Mushroom Species
Molecular Systematics of Mushroom Species

Stream Leaders: Dr. Bryn Dentinger/Kendra Autumn

This research program will give students the opportunity to work in the Mycology Genetics laboratory at the Natural History Museum of Utah. The data generated from this research will contribute to a project aimed at constructing the first complete molecular-based phylogeny of a newly described genus of fungi (Lanmaoa) in the mushroom forming family Boletaceae, thereby providing a baseline understanding of species diversity. Additionally, the results of this work will allow us to more precisely delineate species-level differences in a poorly studied group of economically important edible and putatively poisonous mushrooms.

Developed Skills Include: DNA extraction; DNA sequencing; PCR

Find more about Dr. Detinger and their research at https://dentingerlab.org/

FA Flagellum Assembly in Bacteria
Flagellum Assembly in Bacteria

Stream Leader: Dr. David Blair

The Blair lab SRI project concerns an important molecular recognition process in which a protein at the base of the bacterial flagellum, called FlhB, specifically recognizes only certain proteins in the cell and directs them to be transported through the flagellum itself, so that they can be incorporated into the growing flagellar structureThe rules that govern the recognition of appropriate cargo molecules are not understood, in spite of decades of study. Our aim is to characterize the interactions between FlhB and the various exported cargo proteins using biochemical and spectroscopic approaches.

Developed Skills Include: protein expression and purification; analysis of protein-protein interactions; NMR spectroscopy to characterize interactions in molecular detail

Find more about Dr. Blair and their research at https://faculty.utah.edu/DAVID_F_BLAIR

SP Spintronics
Spintronics

Stream Leader: Dr. Christoph Bohme

Find more about Dr. Bohme and their research at https://web.physics.utah.edu/~boehmelab/

PM Pollination Metagenomics
Pollination Metagenomics

Stream Leaders: Dr. Heather Briggs, 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

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. 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.

Over the course of the next year undergraduates working with 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 nativepollinators. Students will have the opportunity to learn basic molecular, microbiology, and field ecology research techniques.

Find more about Dr. Briggs and Dr. Steffen at https://science.utah.edu/sri/sri-team

BD Big Data for Climate Science
Big Data for Climate Science

Stream Leader: Dr. Tim Collins, Dr. Sara Grineski

Climate change is producing more severe heat waves, storms and floods. People’s access to protective resources, such as clean water and greenspace, is critically important in the context of climate change. Our team’s environmental justice (EJ) research has found disparities in the risks of climate change-related hazards/disasters and people’s access to protective resources, with communities of color, lower economic standing, and other socially disadvantaged statuses experiencing the greatest risks and the most limited access to resources at local, national, and international levels. Unfortunately, nearly all EJ studies rely on publicly accessible data about people, which are only available in aggregate or for coarse-scale geographic units.In this SRI stream, students will examine climate justice issues at an unprecedentedly fine scale and generate novel insights as part of our project team.

The project integrates big spatial data on climate change-related phenomena (e.g., heat, flood risk, air pollution, greenspace) with restricted-access “microdata” on the entire U.S. population, including individual people’s precise residential locations. We are conducting the project through the Wasatch Front Federal Statistical Research Data Center (WFRDC), located in the U’s Gardner Commons. Through the project, students will learn about environmental and climate justice research; master tools and techniques for integrating and analyzing spatial data from disparate sources on people and environmental conditions; acquire Special Sworn Status (SSS) to analyze the restricted-access microdata through the U.S. Census Bureau in the WFRDC; and contribute to advancing knowledge about climate justice issues. Students most likely to thrive in this stream will be interested in quantitative data analyses.

Find more about Dr. Collins / Dr. Grineski and their research at https://faculty.utah.edu/TIMOTHY_COLLINS and https://faculty.utah.edu/SARA_GRINESKI

CM Computation Methods for Hot Nuclear Matter
Computation Methods for Hot Nuclear Matter

Stream Leader: Dr. David Clarke

Atomic nuclei are made of nucleons, i.e. protons and neutrons. When a collection of nucleons gets extremely hot and/or dense, the nucleons melt into a plasma, the so-called quark-gluon plasma. Physicists have to research this plasma in detail in order to understand some of the hottest and densest systems in nature. Some characteristics of quark-gluon plasma can only be calculated using computational techniques. The computational technique our group employs is called lattice field theory. Lattice calculations generate random snapshots of these hot and dense systems, then perform statistical analyses on these snapshots. Generating these snapshots is highly computationally demanding, utilizing a significant fraction of the resources of the most powerful supercomputers in the world. Therefore we must always consider how to make our code more efficient.

Undergraduates working in this Stream will learn basic statistical analysis, learn how to write rudimentary scripts to analyze data, see basic ways to assess performance, and gain modest familiarity with concepts in modern physics. If they like, students will also have the opportunity to get familiar with Linux operating systems and object-oriented programming and to manage simulations on supercomputers.

Find more about Dr. Clarke and their research at

SB Social Belonging in STEM Classes
Social Belonging in STEM Classes

Stream Leaders: 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 that course. We have found at two different institutions, course-level belonging affects student performance in large general chemistry and introductory physics courses. Expanding upon these studies, we are interested in understanding the mechanism of how social belonging affects course performance and retention. One step in determining the mechanism is to explore the characteristics of the course that students use when describing their sense of belonging and belonging uncertainty. Our goal is to help instructors create course environments that support and encourage all students to reach their potential and continue to pursue careers in STEM or healthcare.

Undergraduates will be studying open-ended responses from the belonging surveys to determine characteristics students use to describe their course-level belonging in STEM courses. They will be developing themes or ideas from the student quotes. Qualitative research is collaborative, hence the student, while having their own project component, will be part of a qualitative-research team. You will learn about social psychology, inclusivity and equity, and qualitative-research methods.

Find more about Dr. Frey and their research at https://chem.utah.edu/directory/frey/research-group/

HW Human Wildlife Coexistence
Human Wildlife Coexistence

Stream Leader: Dr. Austin Green

Wild animals are under continuous pressure to adapt to new environments as more land surrounding protected areas is converted for human use and populations continue to grow. This highlights the importance of research that promotes human-wildlife coexistence on functional landscapes that combine both human use and conservationIt is critical that we understand how mammals occupy and navigate these functional landscapes, as they commonly function as ‘umbrella’or ‘flagship’ species because their natural rarity and large area requirements tend to place them under threat of extinction, and their use of multiple habitats makes it possible to protect other species. One way in which mammals may occupy urbanized landscapes and avoid the human ‘super-predator’ is by altering their behavior. Specifically, mammals may adapt how they use both space and time; adjust how they interact with other species; and change where and when they feed, sleep, and reproduce. In this stream, we will investigate how human influence alters mammalian behavior and space use in an effort to inform on-the-ground conservation initiatives.

In this stream, we will design and implement projects leveraging remote sensing trail cameras and large-scale fieldwork in both natural and urbanized landscapes, perform data analytics with Program R, develop ways to identify wildlife in photographs using artificial intelligence, and promote citizen science education and engagementThese techniques will help us answer questions with direct conservation implications, such as: How does varying levels of human disturbance affect wild mammal distribution, behavior, and community composition? What natural history and behavioral traits make species more or less susceptible to the effects of human disturbance? At what levels of human disturbance do wild mammal species begin showing behavioral responses, and how does this response vary by species? 
Find more about Dr. Green and their research at https://science.utah.edu/sri/sri-team or by checking out Wasatch Wildlife Watch 
AR Hallar Aerosol Research Team (HART)
Hallar Aerosol Research Team (HART)

Stream Leader: Dr. Gannet Hallar

This research group makes measurements of gases and particles in the atmosphere. We then look at the chemical & physical make up of those particles and gases, which helps us understand the source location and impacts. We make these measurements at the University of Utah, where we are continuously understanding our urban environment and a mountain-top Lab in Steamboat Springs, Colorado  & in the town of Alta, which help us understand the remote environment.  

Over the course of the next year undergraduates working with on this project will gain hands-on experience with aerosol instrumentation through work with a variety of instruments in the aerosol monitoring lab on the 8th floor of the William Browning Building. Students who are interested will also have opportunities to gain field work experience through set-up and maintenance of aerosol monitoring equipment, often deployed along mountain regions. Specifically, students will study wildfire smoke, dust storms, and calibrate aerosol instrumentation.  

Find more about Dr. Hallar and their research at https://hart.chpc.utah.edu 

VS Viral Suppressors of RNAi
Viral Suppressors of RNAi

Stream Leader: Dr. Sarah Hansen

The Bass Lab studies Dicer, an enzyme that cleaves double-stranded RNA and is important for normal cellular function. It also plays a role in defense against viruses that we don’t fully understand. In this project we are studying viral  suppressors of RNAi (VSRs) which are a group of proteins that inhibit Dicer function and can be found in many viruses (e.g., ebola, influenza A, SARS-CoV-2, and Zika virus). The questions we want to answer include:1. How do these VSRs inhibit Dicer?2. Are they inhibiting the same Dicer function or do VSRs from different viruses act with different mechanisms?3. Are other pathways in the human innate immune response effected (e.g., RIG-I, MDA5)?These questions are explored through biochemistry and cell-based experiments. It is a great project for students who want to learn the fundamentals of biochemistry research and learn more about a university lab environment.

Undergraduate students working on this project will prepare and test one VSR of their choosing from a list of proteins/viruses we want to study. They will have the opportunity to learn basic molecular biology and biochemistry techniques. Future directions of this project include work in human cells and I am willing to teach these techniques to an interested student.

Find more about Dr. Hansen and their research at

CB Cancer Biology
Cancer Biology

Stream Leader: Dr. Sheri Holmen

Melanoma is the most deadly form of skin cancer resulting from abnormal growth of melanocytes, the pigment-producing cells of the skin. 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 semester, undergraduates will use SnapGene software to simulate molecular cloning. Then, they will learn to design and synthesize a target gene, construct an expression vector, transfect cells, and characterize gene expression at the protein level by western blotting. These genes will then be tested functionally using various in-vitroassays 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.

Find more about Dr. Holmen and their research at https://uofuhealth.utah.edu/huntsman/holmenlab

CF Higher-Dimensional Chip Firing
Higher-Dimensional Chip Firing

Stream Leader: Dr. Selvi Kara

In this research stream, we will investigate unsolved mathematics problems in higher-dimensional chip firing games. These games are dynamical systems as they exhibit change over time. We will analyze their dynamics using tools from several mathematical fields such as combinatorics, linear algebra, and algebraic topology. We will start our investigation by studying various configurations of the chip-firing game and learn how to establish our findings rigorously using mathematical proofsOur goal is to prove new theorems that explain how these games behave over time. This research stream also offers opportunities to use programming languages such as Python.

Find more about Dr. Kara and their research at www.selvikara.com or https://science.utah.edu/sri/sri-team

VB Vector Biology, Surveillance, and Management
Vector Biology, Surveillance, and Management

Stream Leader: SLC Mosquito Abatement 

Salt Lake City Mosquito Abatement District (SLCMAD) serves a 180 square mile region of Salt Lake City proper and the western rural expanse that approaches the Great Salt Lake. We use a complex blend of custom engineering, aviation technology, droplet physics, physiology, molecular biology, ecology, and integrated environmental sciences to serve our area. Research in mosquito control is whimsical and complex, spanning topics in community ecology, population genetics, pathology, epidemiology, and fundamental principles like mosquito behavior. As a result, we are a learning agency that tries to develop modern, environmentally conscientious, and effective means of protecting public health. Our research is balanced with routine tasks, such as field population monitoring, molecular assay of virus, and mosquito rearing for study. We use our regular program elements to gain a nuanced understanding of mosquito population dynamics and habitat exploitation and in turn fuel an everchanging portfolio of research intended to both safeguard public health and inform practices used across the nation.

Over the course of the next year undergraduates working with SLCMAD will be involved in molecular protocols, collect mosquitoes in the field, and use mosquitoes in a variety of tasks, such as pesticide sensitivity tests, virus detection, mosquito identification, and research bioassays. Undergraduates will have the opportunity to learn basic molecular, toxicology, and field ecology techniques.

Find more about SLCMAD and their research at http://www.slcmad.org/

SO Synthetic Organic Electrochemistry
Synthetic Organic Electrochemistry

Stream Leader: Dr. Shelley Minteer, Dr. Henry White

Mission: To make synthetic organic electrochemistry mainstream through the invention of enabling, green, safe and economic new reactions, the demystification of fundamental electrochemical reactivity, vibrant partnerships with industry,education of a diverse set of scientists and engineers, and by engaging in community-wide education and outreach

Our stream will work on fundamental studies of electrocatalytic systems for synthetic organic chemistry reactions where we will utilize electricity instead of dangerous and expensive reagents for important chemical reactions.

  • Undergraduate researchers perform hands-on research in electroorganicsynthesis.
  • Participation in the entirescientific process (literature searches, experiment design, laboratory work, analysis, and dissemination of results)
  • Students rated the top benefits of this SRI stream as: learning laboratory skills, critical thinking, teamwork, and communication skills, which reflects the unique interdisciplinary and cooperative nature of the CSOE program.

Find more about Dr. Minteer / Dr. White and their research at https://chem.utah.edu/directory/minteer/research-group/ and https://chem.utah.edu/directory/white/research-group

PC Investigating Potassium Channels
Investigating Potassium Channels

Stream Leader: Dr. Shrinivasan "Cheenu" Raghuraman, Dr. Baldomero "Toto" Olivera 

Ion channels are proteins that are found in the cell membrane and allow the movement of ions across the membrane. They shape the physiological properties of different cell types. For example, they control the release of cytokines by immune cells, control the bioelectrical signals in neurons and cardiomyocytes which are important for cellular communication and proper functioning of the brain and the heart. All ion channels are made of multimeric subunits that assemble together to form a pore.  One of the largest and most diverse family of ion channels is the voltage-gated potassium-channel. Although there are limited number of subunits (encoded by ~70 genes), each subunit can combine in different combinations, resulting in an enormous array of homomeric and heteromeric subytpes. An example of different K-channel subtypes formed by two subunits is shown in the figure below. The function of different K-channel heteromers have remained elusive due to the lack of selective pharmacology to discriminate between the heteromers. Our lab discovered and developed conotoxins as pharmacological tools to study the properties of different K-channels. Conotoxins are used by cone snails for predatory purposes- they paralyze their prey by targeting various ion channels and receptors. In our lab, we have extracted and purified conopeptides from the venom of different cone snail species. In this project, we will use conopeptides and other marine bioactive compounds to study the properties and functions of different voltage gated K-channels. We will use a technique called two-electrode voltage clamp to study the properties of K-channels. Students will gain an understanding of different concepts from molecular biology, bioelectricity and biophysics.

(collaborative project With Wayne Potts lab) The global COVID19 pandemic has uncovered the need to understand and address the roles of immune cells in combating pathogenic attacks. While initial inflammation is essential to control invading pathogens, prolonged inflammation results in “cytokine storms” with unintended consequences and pulmonary complications. Current anti-inflammatory drugs are non-selective and are often contraindicated in patients with comorbities, highlighting the need to develop drug leads that are selective and superior to current anti-inflammatory drugs. We recently developed an in vitro drug screening platform to identify marine natural products with immunomodulatory properties and identified a library of conotoxins that modulate cytokine release. In the next phase of this project, our goal is to test these drug leads in animal models of respiratory distress. Using mice infected with influenza virus (H3N2 strain) as a model system, we will test the library of conotoxins in modulating cytokine levels. Students will be exposed to animal handling techniques, dissection skills, immunostaining and ELISA assays. In addition, students  will gain experience in testing drug leads using in vitro and in vivo assays that are essential for conducting pre-clinical trials.  

Find more about Dr. Raghuraman / Dr. Olivera and their research at https://faculty.utah.edu/SHRINIVASAN_RAGHURAMAN and https://faculty.utah.edu/BALDOMERO_M_OLIVERA

NN Neural Networks
Neural Networks

Stream Leader: Dr. 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.

Undergraduate students participating in this SRI stream will be introduced to machine learning and learn how machine learning tools are used in practice. Students will learn about the mathematics that forms the basis for neural networks and the optimization methods used to train them. They'll learn how to program in python and use packages such as scikit-learn and pytorch to analyze data. Working in teams, students will use neural networks to solve real-world classification problems like object recognition in images, detecting falsified financial transactions, and controlling for manufacturing defects. They'll also learn to effectively communicate and visualize results. 

Find more about Dr. Osting and their research at https://www.math.utah.edu/~osting/

FV Functional Validation of Potential Cancer Targets
Functional Validation of Potential Cancer Targets

Stream Leader: Dr. Gennie Parkman

This SRI Research Stream aims to understand more about the genetics of cancer, specifically melanoma, beginning with the effects of certain genes that are up or downregulated in BRAF mutant melanoma on proliferation, invasion, and migration in vitro. Through collaboration with the Huntsman Cancer Institute, this in vitrowork has tremendous potential to be translated into pre-clinical testing in in vivomodels.

In this research stream, we will conduct literature review and data analysis using publicly available data sets, such as the Broad Institute’s Project Achilles database, to ask “What genes may be important in melanoma?” We will then learn fundamental steps of molecular cloning in order to generate target genes and clone them into an expression vector. Then, we will produce cell lines expressing these genes and test them! Students will learn cell culture, as well as many molecular biology methods, such as mRNA and protein expression analyses, proliferation assays, etc., to functionally validate gene targets. If the results of our analyses are promising, these genes may be tested in established mouse models through collaborators at HCI.

Find more about Dr. Parkman and their research at https://science.utah.edu/sri/sri-team

DB DNA Barcoding
DNA Barcoding

Stream Leader: Dr. Rodolfo Probst

In this stream, we will test molecular protocols for barcoding species involved in symbioses (I am an expert on mutualisms between ants & plants, groups that we have many new species to discover and several unanswered questions about their interaction) but eventually apply our protocols to any groups of interest. While participating in this stream, you will learn molecular techniques (different DNA extractions, PCR, cutting-edge genetics, bioinformatics), evolutionary thinking, and biodiversity monitoring and on top of that, learn about symbioses! These techniques and analyses will help us recognize and catalog new species, know how they are genetically related and how their communities change over time. Plus, we will be able to understand how symbiotic organisms interact across areas (for example, Central America) and eventually conduct real-time barcoding in the field.

Find more about Dr. Probst and their research at https://science.utah.edu/sri/sri-team

AM Ant Mutualism
Ant Mutualism

Stream Leader: Dr. Joshua Scholl

In this stream we will study the Aspen sunflower, Helianthellaquinquenervisand its ant bodyguards (shown above). We’ll ask questions like, which ant species is the best bodyguard? Do the ants increase the plant’s reproductive success (more seeds)? Do the ants stay on the plant all day/season or just during certain parts of the day/season?

As part of this project, you will get outside and learn about the wonderful world of species interactions and capture ants using our state-of-the-art ant aspirator. You will also be introduced to basic plant identification and anatomy and experimental design. In the Wasatch Mountains we’ll apply these skills to conduct ant exclusion experiments and use a variety of ecological analysis tools to evaluate hypotheses. Important transferable skills that you can gain by participating in this project include competency in the popular R software (data wrangling and visualization), public speaking, writing, wilderness safety skills, and creative problem solving.

Find more about Dr. Scholl and their research at https://joshuapscholl.weebly.com or https://science.utah.edu/sri/sri-team

SE Seed Ecology
Seed Ecology

Stream Leader: Dr. Joshua Scholl

Our goal in this stream is to explore the environmental factors (e.g climate, elevation, urbanization, etc.) that drive seed ratios in seed heteromorphic species. For example, how does increased drought, a consequence of climate change, affect seed ratios? How do changes in seed ratios affect plant population growth? Seed heteromorphic species allow us to ask very exciting questions about germination ecology which in turn help us to understand and ultimately predict plant population dynamics in changing environments.

To answer these questions students will design and implement projects collecting plant species across environmental gradients (e.g. from SLC west to the Nevada border or from downtown SLC up into the mountains). We may also conduct germination and growth trials of the seeds we collect in a greenhouse. As part of this project, students will learn basic plant identification skills, plant anatomy, collect plants in the field, have the opportunity to conduct greenhouse and growth chamber experiments, and learn to use a variety of ecological analysis tools to quantitatively evaluate hypotheses. Important transferable skills that students can gain in this project include competency in the popular R software (data wrangling and data visualization), public speaking, writing, wilderness safety skills, and creative problem solving.

Find more about Dr. Scholl and their research at https://joshuapscholl.weebly.com or https://science.utah.edu/sri/sri-team

CS Complex Systems
Complex Systems

Stream Leader: Dr. Mikhael Semaan

From the intricate highway system of human vasculature, to the large-scale geological formation of mountains, to the individual motions of atoms and molecules, and so much in between... Can we detect and describe emergent pattern and structure? How do real-world systems process information? How do they absorb and dissipate energy to function? What do they have in common? All “complex systems!”

In this stream, you will develop and apply tools to understand a “candidate system” most interesting to you, tailored to your field. You will learn and build the rest of the skills needed as part of the stream.

Topic Outline

  • Nonlinear dynamics and chaos: How does simple complex?
  • Simulating and visualizing: Hidden order in chaos!
  • Symbolic dynamics and measurement: Producing noisy data
  • Modeling stochastic processes: From data model
  • Information theory and energy: How does the system function?
  • Project outcome: apply tools to student-chosen example system (molecular motors, neuron channels, information engines, disease dynamics...)

Skills Developed Include:

  • Programming literacy
  • Scientific computing (Python)
  • Model simulation and data genesis
  • Data science / visualization and statistics
  • Nonlinear dynamics and information theory

Find more about Dr. Semaan and their research at https://science.utah.edu/sri/sri-team

MA Underexplored Molecular Architectures
Underexplored Molecular Architectures

Stream Leader: Dr. Ryan Stolley

This SRI stream will uncover new chemical reactions to build never-before seen arrangements of atoms and use a variety of chemical, analytical and computational tools to uncover how these new groups of atoms behave; and to expand on this capability to build ever more complex molecules. In our lab students will learn the principles of organic chemistry and chemical experimentation and the instrumental tools for us to ascertain structure and function of organic molecules.

Skills Developed Include:

  • Rules of the physical world
  • Basics of reaction chemistry
  • Broadly applicable analysis methods
  • Navigating a busy lab environment
  • Project management

Find more about Dr. Stolley and their research at https://science.utah.edu/sri/sri-team

BN Biogeography of Nematodes
Biogeography of Nematodes

Stream Leader: Dr. Werner

This Research Stream will sample nematodes from pedestrian locations on campus to exotic locations across Utah, including deserts, mountains, and the Great Salt Lake. After field collections, we will process soil samples in the laboratory, and perform molecular genotyping to identify species abundance and diversity. Then, we will use statistical and computational methods to analyze their relatedness. By studying the biogeography of nematodes in Utah, we will better understand the diversity, evolutionary history, and limits of this remarkable taxa.

Undergraduates will have the opportunity to gain experience in field work, and learn methods in molecular biology and phylogenetics. There may even be the opportunity to describe and name new species. We anticipate that student results will eventually be published in a scientific journal.

Find more about Dr. Werner and their research at https://www.werner-lab.org/

UE Urban CO2 Emissions
Urban CO2 Emissions

Stream Leader: Dr. Kai Wilmot

To investigate relationships between urban CO2 emissions, population density, and a number of socioeconomic variables, we are combining satellite observations of CO2 with atmospheric modeling techniques for 113 major urban centers around the world. Ideally, our results will improve understanding of the role of cities in addressing climate change and point to possible development strategies that may be relevant to policymakers.

Over the course of the Spring 2023 and Fall 2023 semesters, undergraduates working with this project will consider and help analyze observed COdata and atmospheric transport modeling outputs for cities around the globe. Students will have the opportunity to learn basic techniques/approaches in atmospheric modeling and observation, will identify, read, and share literature related to climate change, emissions, and urbanization, and will develop preliminary skills in programing/coding.

Find more about Dr. Wilmot and their research at https://hart.chpc.utah.edu/kai/

PL Plant Light Sensing and Greening
Plant Light Sensing and Greening

Stream Leader: Dr. Chan Yul Yoo

Undergraduates joining our SRI research stream will grow various plant species under varying light conditions using LED light (red, far-red, blue, white light, and dark) and under various stressed conditions (drought, salinity, etc.) to understand the mechanisms by which chloroplast biogenesis is affected at the molecular and cellular levels.

Participants will learn a variety of basic molecular biology and cell biology techniques such as DNA/RNA/protein extraction, PCR, quantitative RT-PCR, DNA/protein gel electrophoresis, western blotting, and fluorescence microscopy. In addition, undergraduates will learn how to access various bioinformatics resources to search and analyze genes of interest from various organism.

Find more about Dr. Chan Yul Yoo and their research at https://www.biology.utah.edu/faculty/chan-yul-yoo/

PI Plant Immunity and Amino Acid Metabolism
Plant Immunity and Amino Acid Metabolism

Stream Leader: Dr. Heejin Yoo

This research team will try to elucidate the effect of individual amino acid for plant immunity especially during PCD. Additionally, we will try to do amino acid profiling using HPLC after exogenous application of specific amino acid to analyze amino acid dynamics. Combined outcomes will enhance scientific understanding of the role of amino acids for plant immunity and provide foundational knowledge to improve disease resistance of economically important crop species.

Undergraduates who register for this project will first learn basic mechanisms for plant immunity; Then, students will test the effect of exogenous application of individual amino acid for programmed cell death and elucidate underlying mechanisms using basic molecular biology technique and metabolic analysis.

Find more about Dr. Heejin Yoo and their research at https://www.hyoo-pbio.com/ or https://www.biology.utah.edu/faculty/heejin-yoo/

NEW STREAM COMING
NEW STREAM COMING

Stream Leader:

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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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 and College of Mines & Earth Sciences is committed to recognizing excellence in education, research, safety, and service. We have countless students, faculty, and staff that are deserving of recognition. Scroll down for full award descriptions.

Nominations can be submitted here and are due February 15, 2023. Questions can be directed to office@science.utah.edu. Members of both the College of Science and the College of Mines and Earth Science are eligible for the awards below.

Click here for the 2022 award winners!

Nominations

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.

 

 

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.

Safety award

Excellence in Safety

Awarded to a members of our College of Science community who go the extra mile to prioritize safety in the workplace. The individual receiving this annual award is someone who exemplifies a culture of safety, not through perfection or the absence of mistakes, but rather, through the recognition of areas for growth and the determination and drive to continually improve the safety of their work environment and of those around them.

College of mines and earth science Awards

Outstanding Faculty Teaching

Outstanding Teaching Assistant


Past Award Recipients

Posted in CoS

SRI Update

SRI Update


Many undergraduates major in science in the hope of doing research someday. The College of Science’s Science Research Initiative (SRI) is an innovative new program that puts students in a lab as soon as they arrive.

“The most consequential learning happens by doing, and that is especially true in the College of Science. Experiences in a laboratory-centered, team-based, interdisciplinary environment give students the skills to succeed and access opportunities in high-paying industries,” said Peter Trapa, Dean of the college. “The SRI offers incoming students, with no prior exposure to research, the opportunity to learn alongside their peers to gain hands-on, technical expertise, and learn directly from researchers as early as their first year at the U. The college’s exceptional faculty, world-class research facilities, and commitment to in-person experiential learning makes this unique program possible.”

Learning by doing.

Any student admitted to the College of Science can apply. During the first semester, the cohort of SRI undergraduates take a course that prepares them to work in a research lab. The course teaches principles of scientific inquiry, introduces students to the breadth of research in the College of Science, and breaks down the structure of a lab, such as the roles of graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and the principal investigator. After learning about the research projects, known as research streams, the students rank the labs they’d most like to experience. The program matches them to a SRI faculty scientist leading the project where they will work during the second semester. Then, SRI mentors help each student figure out a path forward, whether it be continuing with the research stream, switching projects, or even finding alternatives to lab-based research.

The SRI is led by three scientists and educators who specialize in diverse disciplines. Dr. Joshua Steffen, Assistant Professor Lecturer of Biology, leads a research stream that uses metagenomic approaches to understand generalist foraging behaviors. Dr. Ryan Stolley, Associate Instructor of Chemistry, leads a research stream building an underexplored class of molecules. Dr. Heather Briggs, Associate Instructor for the College of Science, leads a research stream focused on understanding how microbial communities in flower nectar impact the way pollinators interact with plants.

Students who participate in the SRI leave campus with more than a cool college experience; they will graduate with the technical expertise to rise to the top of a competitive job market.  A degree from the U is a pipeline to Utah’s STEM-based economy. Choosing to participate in the SRI is a fantastic path to a rewarding career and an opportunity to earn high-paying jobs in their field.

- by Lisa Potter

Joshua Steffen

“We want to give as many students as possible in the College of Science a research experience as soon as they get here, totally independent of grades or previous experience. We’re different than other research programs because we remove a lot of the barriers that typically exist to getting into a lab. It can be intimidating to talk with faculty. We have a structured program that navigates that for the student. It’s also about building community. Research opportunities are one reason why you come to a big university like the U, but it’s easy to get lost and it can be hard to develop a community. We’re also hoping that this can help students connect with peers and mentors that they can rely on.”

Heather M. Briggs

“There is often a disconnect between how we do science and how we teach science. At the SRI we empower students to work through hypothesis generation, experimentation, and interpretation. This holistic process encourages a deeper understanding of concepts in practice and allows our students to take responsibility for their own learning. The SRI experience provides a supportive learning environment that fosters self-generation of ideas and ultimately a continued interest in research science.”

Ryan Stolley

“SRI benefits students, but it’s also a great opportunity for faculty. We work with faculty to write SRI into the broader impacts section on grants. But also, most researchers will have an undergraduate researcher at some point—it’s sometimes a roll of the dice on how they perform. Now, we can have a structured program that has specific goals, outcomes, and it can train these students. And the faculty has the freedom to manage them as they want. We’d love to get excited researchers into the fold and pair them with students who are excited by the work they’re doing.”

Benning Lozada

A student majoring in biology who had previously worked in research labs. He applied to the SRI to get experience in a field he was passionate about.

“I wanted to get involved in research because it’s really important for graduate school. But it’s really difficult to do. You have to cold call or email professors and, often times, they don’t have a place for you. I think this program is really useful because the environment is more teaching focused. So, you’ll be able to learn the skills that you need to, if you want to eventually go out and do research in other areas. It gives you a good basis as to what research looks like, so that you’re prepared for that in the future. You don’t always get that training when working in labs.”

Nayma Hernandez

A third-year biology major who transferred to the U. “It was really hard to get into research where I transferred from because not every professor wants an undergraduate, and you’re not the only one trying. And here, well, as long as you’re in the program, you’ll be able to participate in research.

I think it’s always good to do some research, even if you don’t think you want to go to grad school. It’s always good to try something because you might end up liking it. I’ve had some students tell me that they changed careers because they ended up doing research and they’d rather do that. The SRI program gives you that initiative to actually start doing research.”

Give to the SRI

Demand for the Science Research Initiative is skyrocketing. More than 150 students have enrolled this year, and we are planning for 300 by fall of 2022.

Experiences in a laboratory-centered, team-based, interdisciplinary environment give students the skills to succeed and access opportunities in high-paying industries.
We know the majority of our students work at least part-time to make ends meet, and it is hard for many of these students to work in the lab instead of picking up hours at their jobs. Our goal is to remove this financial barrier by providing ongoing support for every science student who needs a scholarship.

If you would like to donate to the Science Research Initiative, the College of Science will match your donation dollar-for-dollar up to $50,000. Your donation can go further and help us provide this unique experience to more students. For more information please call 801-581-6958, or visit science.utah.edu/giving.

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