MAA Teaching Award

MAA Teaching Award

Kevin Wortman, an Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the University of Utah Department of Mathematics, has been honored with the 2022 Mathematical Association of America (MAA) Distinguished Teaching Award for the Intermountain Region.

Kevin Wortman

The award honors professors of mathematics whose efforts have been recognized as influential beyond their own institutions. Since 2004, Wortman is the fifth U mathematics faculty member to receive this MAA award. Previous U math faculty recipients include Don Tucker, Nicholas Korevaar, Peter Alfeld, and Anne Roberts. Wortman joined the U's Math Department in 2007.

The Mathematical Association of America, with more than 25,000 members, is the primary professional organization for teachers of undergraduate mathematics. The MAA Intermountain Region includes all colleges and universities in Utah and southern Idaho.

by Michele Swaner, first published @


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NSF Fellowship

NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

Kaitlin O'Dell awarded a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

“I feel so honored to receive such a prestigious award,” said O’Dell. “I never imagined I would receive the amazing feedback I got while I was applying for the fellowship. The research I plan on doing is groundbreaking work in numerical methods, so to have that recognized is beyond exciting! The fellowship is really going to allow me to focus on my research and hopefully give not only the numerical community—but the science and engineering community—a great way
to model high-dimensional equations.”

O’Dell’s work is primarily focused on the numerical modeling of high-dimensional partial differential equations. She and her team specifically are developing a particle method that will preserve the energy dissipation structure of the physical systems. Once the actual numerical procedure is developed and analyzed for validity, the team hopes to test it on many physical models to gain a better understanding of these higher-order systems. These physical models can range from materials science to fluids, mechanics, and engineering.

Kaitlin O'Dell

“I never imagined I would receive the amazing feedback I got while I was applying for the fellowship. The research I plan on doing is groundbreaking work in numerical methods, so to have that recognized is beyond exciting!"


She excelled at math as a kid, but it wasn’t until she began doing research as an undergrad that she realized how much she enjoys math. “I was able to do research on engineering topics that I was already familiar with and combine them with my two favorite subjects—numerical analysis and ordinary differential equations,” she said. “This really opened my eyes as to what I could be doing in the field of math and the broad range of research I could perform as an applied mathematician.”

O’Dell started out studying engineering at the University of New Mexico (UNM) because of her love for space and science. She enjoyed internships and had the opportunity to work at NASA Ames Research Center. However, she began to find that she was enjoying the math modelling aspect of engineering more than the actual engineering. She decided to switch her major to applied math during her senior year, and she began doing research with Professor Emeritus Deborah Sulsky on beam theory (a way of calculating the load-bearing and deflection characteristics of beams) as part of her honors thesis.

“Dr. Sulsky is an amazing mentor, and she’s very much the reason that I’m now doing a Ph.D. in mathematics.” After O’Dell graduated from UNM in 2020, with honors from the university and honors in mathematics, she decided to apply to the U because of the reputation of the Math Department and the fact that the graduate students seemed happy. “At the time I wasn't sure what I would research, but I found a project that I absolutely fell in love with, and now I couldn’t be happier,” she said. After she obtains her Ph.D., O’Dell would like to stay in academia, but she also envisions working in industry. “I’ll most likely apply to a wide variety of things and choose which I think will be the best fit for me.”

by Michele Swaner, first published @


Outstanding Post-Doc

Outstanding Post-Doc

Julie Jung has received an Outstanding Post-Doctoral Fellow Award from the College of Science.

Julie Jung spent much of her time in high school roaming greenhouses working for a wheat lab at the USDA. Since then, she has pivoted her research to ecology, having worked first with owls, songbirds, chipmunks and pollinators within New England's deciduous forests.

Following graduation with honors in Biology from Williams College, Jung found herself on a plane to Panama to do field work at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute as a graduate student in biology. There she spent the next several rainy seasons studying how red-eyed treefrogs escape hatch in response to snake vibrations.

Julie Jung

"I was so excited to have been peed on by a titi monkey while walking to lab."


"I was so excited to have been peed on by a titi monkey while walking to lab," she remembers. During the course of getting her doctorate from Boston University, Jung slowly grew into her role as a behavioral biologist.

As winner of this year's College of Science's "Outstanding Post-Doc Award," Jung has found a scientific home in the Werner Lab still studying the phenomenon of "phenotypic plasticity"—or how the same genotype produces distinct phenotypes depending on environmental conditions—but this time in nematodes.

Jung's NSF-funded research hopes to establish a general model of plasticity across diverse systems. The pivot from field to bench work has been jarring but only partial—as she and her lab members still get out to the Great Salt Lake to collect soil specimens.

Outside of research, Julie Jung loves to climb mountains and practice the salsa dancing skills she picked up in Panama.

by David Pace, first published @


NSF Fellowship

NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

Samantha Linn awarded a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

“Recognition from the NSF feels like a pat on the back from one of your greatest role models,” said Linn. “It means “well done,” but it also means, “keep up the good work.” I am grateful because the fellowship gives me more freedom to focus on research and continue my participation in organizations that I care a lot about, such as the Association for Women in Mathematics, the Prison Mathematics Project, and the Living Room Exchange of Mathematics.”

The fellowship provides three years of support over a five-year fellowship period for individuals working on a graduate degree who have demonstrated potential for significant research achievements in STEM or STEM education.

Linn’s research is focused on understanding randomness in various biological processes. In particular, she has spent time thinking about what is known as the “redundancy principle,” which is about the need of many copies of the same entity (think cells, molecules, or ions, for example) to fulfill a biological function. The redundancy principle states that while these copies may seem energetically wasteful, this redundancy is necessary for certain tasks to occur sufficiently fast. Such a task might be neurotransmitters, which we think of as random searchers, looking for postsynaptic receptors, which we think of as targets.

Samantha Linn

“Recognition from the NSF feels like a pat on the back from one of your greatest role models,” said Linn. “It means “well done,” but it also means, “keep up the good work.”


Linn has been working on characterizing what might be expected from the fastest searcher. “One advantage of my work is that the application doesn’t need to be solely centered on biology,” she said. “In fact, the questions I ask are often relevant to many areas of physics, chemistry, and sociology. There are many more questions to be asked, with specific applications in mind, so I’m sure this work will keep me busy for a while!”

Linn grew up loving math, and she spent a lot of her free time doing sudoku puzzles and other math games. It wasn’t until halfway through college that she became aware of the possibility of pursuing a career in mathematics.

Before moving to Utah for graduate school, she studied biomedical engineering at the University of Minnesota. She had planned to study medicine, but became concerned by the lack of math in her pre-med classes. With the help of mentors, she realized that she would be happier pursuing a Ph.D. in mathematics.

Samantha wasn’t sure where she wanted to go for graduate school—she had flights booked for graduate program visits, but everything was canceled at the last minute with the start of the COVID pandemic in March 2020. After participating in Zoom calls with at least 50 graduate students and faculty at various programs, she decided that the people in Utah were the happiest. She had never been to Salt Lake City until the day she moved here, but  it has worked out well. Linn likes the graduate program, finds it fun, and she’s very happy she made the decision to come to the U. After graduate school, she hopes to continue her research as a postdoc and, ultimately, have a career in academia as a full professor.

by Michele Swaner, first published @


Outstanding Undergraduate

Outstanding Undergraduate

Luis Rufino, a senior who will graduate with a degree in physics, has overcome many academic challenges at the U. His efforts were rewarded when he received the College of Science Outstanding Undergraduate Student Award.

“When I first heard the news, I was surprised because I didn’t feel I deserved it, even though I’ve worked hard,” he said. “Maybe I’m suffering from the imposter syndrome, and I’m still questioning my abilities, but winning the award gave me reassurance that I’ve been successful in achieving my goal of improving as a student.” As a freshman at Salt Lake Community College, Rufino didn’t have a promising start. When he transferred to the U, his GPA was low. He was worried that he wouldn’t be able to keep up or survive upper-division physics classes.

Pearl Sandick and Luis Rufino

“The number of research opportunities available in the department is amazing and critical to development as a student or researcher. Even if you decide not to pursue graduate school, you will be a stronger candidate in the job market after completing a physics degree at the U.”


“I knew that I wanted to attend graduate school, which meant that I had to improve in my physics classes and also get some research experience,” he said. “Throughout my academic career at the U, I’ve tried to do my best and still find time for research. A physics degree is already quite challenging and wanting to do research on top of that added another layer of stress and difficulty.” Rufino thinks that one of the most important skills he learned at the U was how to manage school, research, and everything else that life throws at an undergraduate. He’s also learned how to bounce back from failure, especially in research.

His research is focused on exploring new physics to describe dark matter—the particles that gravitationally bind galaxies and clusters of galaxies together. 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 today as the Standard Model was formulated nearly half a century ago and remains a focus of study for particle physicists. By itself, the Standard Model fails to provide an explanation for many important phenomena, such as the existence of dark matter in the universe.

Theoretical physicists have begun to think of a new group of particles that can potentially describe dark matter. These theoretical particles are called the Supersymmetric Standard Model, which suggests that a “cousin” or partner particle may exist for every fundamental particle in the Standard Model. One of these partner particles has the potential of being the mysterious dark matter particle.

Luis Rufino

But how do we find these partner particles? Whenever two particles interact with each other, they emit light and other particles. The same thing happens when two dark matter particles find each other. The light observed from these dark matter interactions can tell us about the dark matter characteristics. Rufino works on investigating the light originating from possible dark matter interactions from dwarf galaxies. He enjoys the research because it allows him to explore new ideas that have the potential to change much of what we know about physics.

He became interested in physics as a kid by watching pop-science movies, science cartoons, and superhero movies “I’d watch Jimmy Neutron, Dexter’s Laboratory, Spiderman, and Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, with Neil deGrasse Tyson,” Rufino said. “I have to give Neil deGrasse Tyson all the credit for my passion for physics. After the first or second episode, I was convinced physics was what I wanted to study, especially astronomy. Of course, now I’m more passionate about discovering new physics.”

His favorite professors in the department have been Dr. Tugdual LeBohec, Dr. Charlie Jui, and Dr. Pearl Sandick. He enjoys the way Dr. LeBohec incorporates history into a lecture before getting into physics. Dr. Jui empathizes with students in their struggles to master complex concepts. He remembers the late nights, the constant stress, and, sometimes, the nightmares that physics students experience. Dr. Jui’s ability to connect with students made Rufino feel at ease in taking his class.

Dr. Sandick has been the most influential person in Rufino’s life and academic career. “She is a person I strive to become, and I’m very grateful to have her as my research advisor,” he said. “The number of research opportunities that are available in the department is amazing and critical to development as a student or researcher. Even if you decide not to pursue graduate school, you will be a stronger candidate in the job market after completing a physics degree at the U.”

When he isn’t studying, he likes to run, play soccer, rock climb, and hang out with friends. Currently, he’s training for his second marathon.

After five years of endless toil, Rufino plans to take a gap year between graduation and graduate school. He wants to spend more time with the people he cares about and explore hobbies, such as working with leather goods, building mechanical keyboards, and playing video games. After his gap year, he will begin graduate studies at Syracuse University.

by Michele Swaner, first published @


Student Researcher

Student Researcher Award

Elijah Counterman has been rewarded for his excellence in research by winning the College of Science University Student Researchers Award.

“This is a great honor for me and comes with significant recognition for my mentor’s work and the work I’ve been fortunate to do with him,” said Counterman. “I feel extremely grateful to receive such an award!”

Under the guidance of Sean Lawley, Associate Professor in the Department of Mathematics, Counterman has been working on answers to some fundamental questions in the area of pharmacokinetics, the branch of pharmacology concerned with the movement of drugs within the body. Counterman has focused on the following question: if a patient misses a dose of medication, and they realize it the following day, should they take one pill or two to compensate for the missed dose?

Elijah Counterman

“The mathematical models are interesting because of their direct implication to medicine and the health and well-being of a patient,”


“These models use random variables to mimic the unpredictability and forgetfulness of human beings.” said Counterman. The models Counterman used were developed from some of the work of renowned Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős and others in the 1930s.

“I’m interested in the research because I plan to graduate from the U next spring and attend medical school in the fall of 2023,” said Counterman. “Questions such as these—where math and medicine/biology overlap—are extremely applicable and interesting. I want to make an impact in the math world as a physician researcher. Mathematics seems to be one of the least utilized, yet potentially revolutionary fields, in the developing world of medical research.”

Counterman says he has always enjoyed studying math. He excelled in the subject in middle school, which allowed him to take undergraduate math classes at the U as a sophomore in high school. By the time he graduated from Highland High School in Salt Lake City, he was more than halfway through the coursework needed to obtain a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. “I love math because of its magnificently wide range of applications as well as its ability to answer fundamental questions,” he said.

Counterman has praise for the Math Department, noting that the professors are supportive, approachable, and easy to talk to. He has enjoyed the relatively small class size and the different teaching styles. He is impressed with the department’s research opportunities, teaching excellence, and reputation of the faculty.

Counterman’s entire college experience at the U has occurred during the pandemic. He has found online classes difficult because he thrives on interpersonal and face-to-face instruction.

Outside of math, Counterman makes the time to play violin and guitar. He enjoys running, hiking, skiing, and occasionally writing poetry. He is very involved with his local faith organization and in serving the community through those efforts.

Counterman’s awards from the U and at Highland High School

  • College of Science University Student Researchers Award: spring 2022
  • Calvin Wilcox Memorial Scholarship fall 2022 - spring 2023
  • Dean’s List: fall 2021
  • Mathematics Departmental Scholarship: fall 2021 - spring 2022
  • Dean’s List: spring 2021
  • Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Program participant: spring 2021
  • Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Program participant: fall 2020
  • Dean’s List: fall 2020
  • Mathematics Departmental Scholarship: fall 2020 - spring 2021
  • College of Science Freshman Scholarship in Science and Mathematics: fall 2020 - spring 2021
  • Utah Flagship Scholarship: fall 2020 - spring 2024
  • Mathematics Sterling Scholar: spring 2020
  • Valedictorian: spring 2020 Highland High School
  • High School University Program Participant: fall 2017 - spring 2020
  • National Honors Society: fall 2018 - spring 2019
  • Academic All State (Cross Country 2019)

by Michele Swaner, first published @


Distinguished Service

Distinguished Service

Pearl Sandick

Pearl Sandick receives Distinguished Service Award.

Pearl Sandick, Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy and Associate Dean of Faculty Affairs for the College of Science, has received the Linda K. Amos Award for Distinguished Service to Women. The award recognizes Sandick’s contributions to improving the educational and working environment for women at the University of Utah. Amos was the founding chair of the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, was a professor of nursing, and served for many years as Dean of the College of Nursing and as Associate Vice President for Health Sciences. Throughout her career, Amos was the champion for improving the status and experience of women on campus.

“This is a great honor. I’m privileged to work with amazing students and colleagues who understand the value of a supportive community,” said Sandick. “I am really proud of what we’ve accomplished so far, and I’m excited to start to see the impact of some more recent projects.”

Sandick is a theoretical particle physicist, studying some of the largest and smallest things in the universe, including dark matter, the mysterious stuff that gravitationally binds galaxies and clusters of galaxies together.

Upon her arrival as an assistant professor in 2011, Sandick founded the U’s first affinity group for women in physics and astronomy. For the last two decades, the national percentage of women physicists at the undergraduate level has hovered around 20%. The percentage at more advanced career stages has slowly risen to that level, thanks in part to supportive programming designed to increase retention. The goal of the affinity group within the department is to foster a sense of community and provide opportunities for informal mentoring and the exchange of information, ideas, and resources. The group has also been active in outreach and recruiting. As of fall 2021, the group is now known as PASSAGE, a more inclusive group focused on gender equity in physics and astronomy.

Within the department and in the College of Science, Sandick has improved a number of processes, including writing an effective practices document for faculty hires, based in large part on research related to equitable and inclusive recruitment practices and application review. As Associate Dean, she worked with the College of Science Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee (which she currently chairs) to create college-wide faculty hiring guidelines, which were adopted in 2020. She was also instrumental in several other structural and programmatic initiatives to create a supportive environment in the department, such as the development of a faculty mentoring program and the establishment of “ombuds liaisons” to connect department members with institutional resources.

Through her national service related to diversity and inclusion, Sandick has gained a variety of expertise that she has brought back to the campus community. For example, she has given workshops in the department, the college, and across campus on communication and negotiation, implicit bias, conflict management, and mentorship.

Here are comments from women in the Department of Physics & Astronomy, who have participated with Dr. Sandick in activities sponsored by PASSAGE:

“Being part of PASSAGE has allowed us to connect with others who share similar experiences in the department. It has also helped us connect with people, both within the university community and at other institutions, who have served as role models and mentors.” –Tessa McNamee and Callie Clontz, undergraduates

"PASSAGE became a lifeline during the pandemic and continues to be so. It helps equip members with the tools that they need in various aspects of academia. Professor Sandick makes it her mission to guide us, especially in a time of crisis. I am personally thankful to her and to all of the group members.” –Dr. Ayşegül Tümer, Postdoctoral Research Associate

In addition to her research, Sandick is passionate about teaching, mentoring, and making science accessible and exciting for everyone. 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. As discussed earlier, 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.

- by Michele Swaner, first published at

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Staff Excellence

Staff Excellence

Vicki Nielsen

Vicki Nielsen, Accountant in the Department of Physics & Astronomy, has received a Staff Excellence Award from the College of Science.

“It’s an honor and very exciting to be selected by the College for this special recognition,” said Nielsen. “I’m humbled by the nomination. I’ve received kudos at other jobs but nothing compared to this extraordinary award. Excellence is a word I take seriously, and this a goal to which I will continue to aspire for the Physics Department and the College of Science!”

Nielsen came to accounting through a circuitous route—originally she graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theatre from the U in 1994. She was lucky enough to work and gain practical experience in Pioneer Theatre Company’s costume shop for several years as a student and after graduation. She had always wanted to experience living outside Utah, so she left to backpack across Europe. Eventually she returned to the states, moved to Oregon, and worked different temporary jobs. When she returned to Utah, two genealogy companies she had worked for before hired her to perform searches at the Family History Library for customers and professional genealogists. A close friend who worked in the accounting area in the Department of Physics & Astronomy told Nielsen about a secretarial job opening.

“This was 2006, and it was one of the first group interviews I had, which I found exciting and challenging,” said Nielsen. Once she was hired and began working as a secretary, she was offered part-time work in accounting and, eventually, full-time with payroll duties. “My supervisor at the time said she trusted me with those duties and that gave me confidence. All my work experience has helped me in becoming competent at meeting deadlines, getting tasks accomplished quickly and correctly, and finding fulfillment in helping people”

In her current role, Nielsen communicates with supervisors and new employees throughout the hiring process. She initiates student job changes through HR every semester and department job changes for the new fiscal year. She also works with HR in off-boarding employees to help with a smooth transition as they leave the U. She has frequent interaction with the  U’s office of  International Student & Scholar Services regarding work authorization for department employees.  In addition, she is involved with the department’s graduate program and has a general knowledge of all the business services provided in the Accounting Department.

Nielsen enjoys working in the department, and she values the inclusion and support she finds. She also respects the emphasis on and support for education. “I really love working with all the impressive people in the department who have such insight and drive,” she said. “In turn, I hope this is reflected in how I help people.”

by Michele Swaner, first published @


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