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Request Science Ambassadors


 

Request Science Ambassadors for your next event! Events we've worked in the past include:

  • Elementary and middle school STEM/STEAM Nights
  • Frontiers of Science lectures
  • Science at Breakfast
  • Scholarship award ceremonies
  • Involvement fairs

*Event date must be at least two weeks away from date of request.

Our Ambassadors are engaged, passionate leaders in the College of Science and they excel at getting folks of all ages excited about science and the University of Utah! For questions about the Science Ambassador Program, please reach out to Sam Shaw at sam.shaw@utah.edu.

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Please list the full time that you would like Ambassadors at your event, including set up and clean up (i.e. 3-5pm).
i.e. greeting guests, giving a presentation, doing demonstrations, etc.
Are you looking for specific majors? Transfer students? Research involvement?
Please confirm your understanding that, while we will do our best to send Ambassadors to your event, availability is not guaranteed.
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U Presidential Scholar

2022 U Presidential Scholar


Luisa Whittaker-Brooks

Luisa Whittaker-Brooks named 2022 U presidential scholar.

As an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry who organized a research program with national prominence, Luisa Whittaker-Brooks has been called a “trailblazing role model.” Whittaker-Brooks’ program focuses on the synthesis of organic and inorganic materials for energy conversion and storage, among other things. Whittaker-Brooks’ research results have appeared in premier journals of chemistry and materials science, and she has received numerous awards for her work, including being selected as a Department of Energy Career awardee, a Cottrell Scholar and a Scialog Fellow.

Four new associate professors have been named as Presidential Scholars at the University of Utah. Each of the scholars will be recognized as a Presidential Scholar for three academic years, from 2022 to 2025.

The annual awards recognize excellence and achievement for faculty members at the assistant or associate professor level, and come with $10,000 in annual funding for three years to support their scholarship and enrich their research activities. The program is made possible by a donor who wishes to remain anonymous.

The 2022 recipients are Ashley Spear, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering; Lauri Linder, associate professor in the Acute and Chronic Care Division of the College of Nursing; Luisa Whittaker-Brooks, associate professor in the Department of Chemistry; and Marcel Paret, associate professor in the Department of Sociology.

“I am so proud of the work these scholars are doing in the classroom, and in their field of study,” said Interim Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Martell Teasley. “As educators at the U, they are positioned to guide their students and impact our whole community. I’m excited to see what the future holds.”

 

by Amy Choate-Nielsen, first published @theU

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Sage Blackburn

Meet Sage Blackburn


Academic advisor, Sage Blackburn, recently joined the Department of Mathematics.

What was your previous job before you came to the Math Dept.?
I joined the U in 2018 during my freshman year as a peer advisor for the Academic Advising Center (AAC). It was there that I began to enjoy being part of the process that supported the learning efforts and experiences of undergraduate students. As I got closer to graduation, I began to consider a career in academic advising. With research and helpful advice from advisors from the AAC, I applied for a handful of positions and decided that the Math Department was a great fit for me!

Sage Blackburn

What are your duties in your current position?
I advise all math majors in their academic planning. I oversee the student groups USAC (Undergraduate Student Advisory Committee) and Pi Mu Epsilon, the national mathematics honor society. I also serve on the Undergraduate Awards and Scholarships Committees and the Awards Program Committee.

What do you enjoy about working with students?
I believe in the advisor’s purpose and enjoy helping students develop meaningful educational goals that are consistent with their personal interests, values, and abilities. I believe that as an advisor I am an extension of a student’s learning , so I strive to educate them outside of the classroom as they navigate college. I feel that advising is meant to give students an equal opportunity to success, allowing them to view their education holistically and incorporate it into their life.

Hours and/or days when you can meet with students? Where are you located?
I meet with students Monday through Friday virtually and in person. My hours are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and I’m located in the Advising Hive in the Crocker Science Center, room 240. Math advisors also have their updated drop-in hours on the Math Department website.

To get the most from an advising session, how should students prepare for a meeting with you?
I suggest compiling a list of your questions so that you won’t forget to ask something! We will discuss your degree audit in your appointment so it’s a good idea to generate and review your degree audit beforehand.

What was your undergraduate degree? Where did you receive it?
I received my undergraduate degree in political science with an emphasis in public policy here at the U in 2022. I am currently considering applying to graduate school, so wish me luck!

How did your parents decide upon your unusual first name?
My parents lived and worked in Lake Powell before I was born. Sagebrush is one of the most common and abundant plants that grows in the area, and my mom loved the smell of sagebrush, especially after it rains. She also liked the double-meaning of profound wisdom (thanks Mom!).

Anything else you want to add that we've haven't asked?
I love hiking, especially in Southern Utah. I know of some beautiful areas of the desert. If you ever need suggestions for hiking, just ask! Since I’m a recent graduate from the U, I know how difficult college can be to navigate. I would love to meet with you and assist in your college journey!

 

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

 

Crystal Su

Crystal Su


A new paper in Current Biology describes the development of a novel, synthetic insect-bacterial symbiosis.

The symbiotic bacteria express a red fluorescent protein that is visible through the insect cuticle, facilitating characterization of the mechanics of infection and transmission in insect tissues and cells. In addition, Su et al. engineered the bacteria to modify their ability to synthesize aromatic amino acids, which are used by the insect host to fuel cuticle strengthening. Correspondingly, insects maintaining bacteria that overproduce these nutrients exhibited stronger cuticles, signifying mutualistic function. The establishment of this synthetic symbiosis will facilitate detailed molecular genetic analysis of symbiotic interactions and presents a foundation for the use of genetically-modified symbionts in the engineering of insects that transmit diseases of medical and agricultural importance. The paper is titled “Rational engineering of a synthetic insect-bacterial mutualism.”

Red fluorescent proteins in a weevil.

Broader context
SBS Professor and Principal Investigator Colin Dale says, “the work described in the paper was catalyzed and conducted by Crystal Su, an extremely brave and dedicated graduate student in SBS, who took on this very high risk and transformative project and pushed through numerous roadblocks, doggedly refusing to take no for an answer.” Su engaged three additional labs–Golic, Rog and Gagnon–in SBS to assist with specialist techniques, highlighting the utility of interdisciplinary science and the breadth of talent and collaborative spirit that exists in SBS.

Dale views Su’s work as a “bucket list” accomplishment, “something I dreamed about while playing cricket games at Bristol University Vet School during my Ph.D. While Crystal dedicated six years of her life to bring this novel new biology to life, it’s also the product of foundational work by SBS graduate students in the decade prior, involving the identification, characterization, culture and development of genetic tools for proto-symbionts free-living bacteria that have the capability to establish stable, maternally-transmitted associations with insects.”

Synthetic Biology
Synthetic Biology focuses on utilizing engineering approaches to design and fabricate organisms (including associations and communities) that do not exist in the natural world. It can yield practical solutions for a wide range of problems in medicine, agriculture, materials and environmental sciences. In addition, it can be used to investigate the functions of natural systems, via replication and manipulation, as highlighted in the Su et al. paper. To understand its potential, it is useful to think of the contribution of synthetic approaches to other disciplines in science, most notably in chemistry, says Dale who also serves in the School of Biological Sciences as Section Head, Genetics and Evolution.

 

Read the paper in Current Biology
Read the article on Undergraduate Research in the Dale Lab

 

by David Pace, first published @biology.utah.edu

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Optical Spectroscopy Lab

Optical Spectroscopy Lab


Our Optical Spectroscopy Facility, located in 1164 and 1204 in the Thatcher Building for Biological and Biophysical Chemistry, offers a wide range of analytical instrumentation for the characterization of a variety of organic, inorganic, biological and environmental samples. Our facility is a primarily a user-based facility whereby researchers are trained on the care and handling of the equipment. In addition to providing training for new users, our staff is available to help users in the design of experiments and the interpretation of results. Users can schedule time using our online scheduling system after passing mandatory training.


Jasco J-815 Spectropolarimeter
Chiroptical spectroscopy has become one of most important techniques for the characterization of biomolecules, determination of absolute configuration and stereochemical analysis. The J-1000 Series Circular Dichroism (CD) Spectrometers provide both unparalleled optical performance and versatile flexibility.

>> J-1000-Series-Information

Hitachi U4100 uv-visible-nir-spectrophotometer
A solid and liquid sample measurement system with the capability of scanning from 175-2600 nm. The instrument has a wide range of scanning speeds, the ability to achieve a resolution of 0.2 nm, and a bandwidth selection range from 0.24-8.0 nm. Temperature controls are available.

>> U-4100 Information

Perkin-Elmer PE-343
The polarimeter is able to analyze optically active compounds. This polarimeter has a rotary range of ± 85° and contains a sodium spectral lamp with a spectral line at 589 nm. There are a number of integration times selectable from 0.1-100 sec. The sample cells have a path length of 1 dm and can hold up to 1 ml of sample.

>> Perkins Elmer Information

Air Pollution

Air Pollution


Smoke forecast, March 7, 1941.

Air you can chew: The history of Utah’s air quality

When Salt Lake City official George Snow said that the Wasatch Front’s air quality issues could not be solved “in a single day or year, not by a single group or group of persons . . . it will take a properly guided, united and continued effort to solve the problem”—it wasn’t in response to Utah’s torrential growth in recent years, nor was it during one of our recent inversions or smoke inundations from climate-driven Western wildfires. That quote is from 1917 and predates nearly everyone and everything that’s grown up in the Salt Lake Valley since then.

This quote shows that Utah’s air quality issues have been with us for a long time.

New research by Logan Mitchell, affiliated faculty in the U’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences, and Chris Zajchowski, who earned a Park, Recreation, and Tourism Ph.D. at the U in 2018 and is now at Old Dominion University, traces the history of air quality in Utah from the mid-19th century.

“It’s pretty clear that our air quality today is probably better than it has been at any time since about the 1880s,” Mitchell says. “We’ve been working on this for a long time, but we’re at a point in time when we really have an opportunity to make a big difference. And that’s really exciting.”

The research is published in the journal Sustainability.

The Wasatch Front shapes air quality—and vice versa
Yes, the Wasatch Front’s air today is sometimes gunky, gross and can be hazardous. But modern air problems pale in comparison to the noxiousness that poured out of smokestacks and chimneys a century ago when coal and wood burning was common and prevalent among homes and businesses.

Going back as far as the mid-1800s, early non-Indigenous explorers to the bowl-like valleys of the Wasatch Front noticed that wood smoke hung in the air, blue and hazy. Because the valleys of the Wasatch Front are shaped like mountain-ringed bowls, air pollution like smoke can settle in the valleys. In the winters, temperature inversions throw a cap of warm air on the cold valleys, trapping emissions and worsening air quality.

Early city planners understood the effect of the mountains on air pollution. If a smoky factory was built at the mouth of one of the Wasatch Mountain canyons, the canyon winds would blow the smoke through the valley. So, Mitchell found that in the 1890s factories were built on the valley’s west side. The legacy of that decision persists today: the west side of the Salt Lake Valley still bears much of the valley’s industrial activity and disproportionately exposes the majority-minority community to air pollution.

“We ought to be thinking, as we’re engaging in major development projects,” Mitchell says, “about what the environmental impacts and social impacts are, not just this year or next year or next quarter, but 50 or 100 years down the road.”

G. St. John Perrot and the sampling flasks used in the first aircraft sampling campaign to study SLC’s air pollution, 1919.

Learning about Utah’s air
Around the turn of the 20th century, Utahns spoke of the “smoke nuisance” which was also accompanied by soot. Measuring soot pollution was as easy as setting enamel jars outside that collected, in some parts of the city, 1000 tons of soot per square mile over the course of a winter. It’s an enormous amount of soot, Mitchell says. “That’s air that you can chew.”

Atmospheric scientists tried to learn all they could about the reasons for Utah’s air quality challenges. In 1919, “government smoke expert” G. St. John Perrot flew a biplane through Salt Lake’s “smoke bank” and gathered samples to test hypotheses about the temperature inversion phenomenon.

More than a century later, U atmospheric scientists are using similar methods. In an upcoming project called AQUARIUS, researchers will fly an airplane through the temperature inversion layer, studying the chemistry that forms aerosol particles from atmospheric gases. “The chemistry is not fully understood,” Mitchell says. “Somebody had that exact same study design literally a hundred years ago.”

Pushback
Mitchell and Zajchowski found that throughout the state’s history, records indicated a preference for business and industry to address air pollution without a need for government intervention. But sometimes when citizens pushed against industry, the industry pushed back.

In 1899 the first copper smelter opened in Murray, beginning a smelting and refining industry connected to Utah’s mining industry. But the smelter facilities had no pollution controls and emitted sulfur, arsenic and lead. Farmers near the smelters sued when their crops began to die from the toxic emissions. Smelter owners responded by funding research into farming practices and accusing farmers of “smoke farming,” or suing smelters for money instead of tending to their crops.

“They’re trying to say that the farmers are just bad at farming trying to pass the blame off on something other than their emissions,” Mitchell says.

Restarting the Geneva steel mill after a 13-month closure caused an increase in pollution, 1987.

In 1986 the Geneva Steel plant in Utah County closed down operations for 13 months during a labor strike. The closure provided an opportunity for a natural experiment to compare health outcomes in the area during the closure with times when the plant’s smokestacks were in full operation. Studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals showed that bronchitis and asthma hospital admissions for preschool-age children in Provo were halved during the idle year.

But a Geneva Steel-funded rebuttal study, not subjected to peer review before being released to the public, claimed that the difference in hospitalization rates was due to respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. This claim was false since the original studies had controlled for RSV rates. But, the authors write, “the disinformation effort to create misleading news coverage had the desired effect of creating an artificial controversy that muddled public understanding of the health impacts of air quality in Utah for years.”

Environmental stewardship and economic growth
In 1893, a newspaper article foresaw that Utah’s economic and social growth would be closely linked with its air quality.

“Factories that blacken the city with smoke can be as much a detriment as they are an advantage,” wrote the Salt Lake Herald-Republican, “for Salt Lake has as much to expect from the increase she will receive from persons who will select it as their residence on account of its pure air and cleanliness as it has to gain from factories.”

That interplay between environment and economy has been a persistent theme in Utah’s history, Mitchell says.

“The two are paired,” he says. “Some people will say that we haven’t done a good enough job one way or the other, but that effort to balance those two things has been there throughout our history.”

Today, the OneUtah Roadmap from Governor Spencer Cox continues addressing that relationship between environment and economy by including air quality as a part of the state’s sustainable growth and economic advancement plan.

Where we are now
What will be written about today’s chapter in Utah’s air quality history?

“We’re better positioned than we’ve ever been before,” Mitchell says. “But the question of how fast we solve these issues is up to us.”

Although Utahns have long known that air quality is a problem and that action is needed to solve it, the missing piece that we now have in our hands, Mitchell says, is clean energy technology, including zero-emission technology. “And where we’re at today is that we’re starting to see those technologies become in many cases the best option, the cheapest option.”

Because of those emerging and advancing technologies, Mitchell says that Utah’s air quality will continue to improve, even if the state doesn’t take action.

“We also have a historic opportunity to lead that conversation,” Mitchell says, adding that Utah is well-positioned to lead as a conservative state with a sizable technology industry and support from elected officials.

“We have a choice,” said Representative John Curtis recently, as reported by the Daily Herald. “We can do it here in the United States, or we can sit back, ignore the climate movement and watch the next industrial revolution take place outside of the United States. The world has sent a signal that it will buy clean energy technology. Will we sell it, or will we watch it be sold?”

Our moment in time also comes with worsening air issues due to climate change, including wildfires and increased ozone formation.

“So as we’re making progress on air quality, the climate impacts exacerbating air quality issues are getting worse,” Mitchell says. “There will be a lot of work to change the technology and the energy types that we use to get around and heat our homes. But I feel it’s an enormous time of opportunity.”

Read Mitchell and Zajchowski’s paper here.

The research is published in the journal Sustainability.

 

by Paul Gabrielsen, first published in @theU.

First Week of Classes

One more week before we are back in full swing! A few quick reminders for SRI students before next week:

  1. Make sure you have confirmed your participation + registered for the course associated (SCI 1500 for new students; SCI 2715 for those returning)
  2. Grab your SRI backpack either this week [CSC 214] or during your course section next week
  3. Keep an eye on your canvas page and let us know if you have any questions! Scholarship, class content, activities, timeline, etc. - we're here to help!

Ants of the World

Ants of the World


Seeing the world through ants.

Known affectionately as “Ant Man” in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Utah and beyond, John “Jack” Longino is part of a globe-spanning initiative called the Ants of the World Project that aims to generate the most complete phylogenetic tree of the ant family (Formicidae) to date.

Part of that project is Ant Course, a regularly-occurring field course on ant biology and identification. After three years of accommodating the pandemic, this year the group, involving multiple research universities, is convening in Vietnam August 1-13. During the course, the world’s ant identification experts get together to teach 24 students all about ants. Beginning in 2001, the course has been staged in the United States, Costa Rica, Venezuela, French Guiana, Peru, Uganda, Mozambique, Borneo, and Australia.

“These courses have become famous,” says Longino, “with generations of students being shaped and connected by their Ant Course experience.” The Ants of the World project, he explains, integrates teaching and research. The initiative funds three new Ant Courses in locations that are poorly known, training new generations of ant biologists while they learn about the ants of these regions.

 

John “Jack” Longino

"These courses have become famous," says Longino, "with generations of students being shaped and connected by their Ant Course experience."

 

“After a long delay due to COVID, we are finally offering our first Ant Course, in Vietnam,” says Longino of their field site in Cúc Phương National Park, just south of Hanoi. “I’m really looking forward to meeting this new group of students, interacting with Asian colleagues, and experiencing first-hand the ant fauna of Southeast Asia.” Situated in the foothills of the northern Annamite Range, the national park consists of verdant karst mountains and lush valleys with an elevation that varies from 150 meters (500 feet) to 656 m (2,152 feet) at the summit of May Bac Mountain, or Silver Cloud Mountain.

It’s all part of Ants of the World Project’s attempt to survey nearly all ant genera and just under half the described species using advanced genome reduction techniques. The result will be a comprehensive evolutionary tree of ants, out to the smallest branch tips.

The resulting data set will help researchers answer questions: Are there predictable patterns of intercontinental dispersal and diversification? Following dispersal to a new region, is there accelerated filling of morphological and climate space? How have biotas responded to climate shifts in the past? Can we predict how ants will respond to current rapid climate change?

Eurhopalothrix semicapillum, named for the hairy patches on its face.

Longino and Elaine Tan, a graduate student in the Longino lab, will be meeting up with 34 other ant specialists and ant specialists-to-be. Along with “Ant Man,” course faculty include the other principal investigators of the Ants of the World Project: Michael Branstetter (USDA-ARS), Bonnie Blaimer (Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin, Germany), Brian Fisher (California Academy of Sciences) and Philip Ward (UC Davis).

Ants of the World is a collaboration of four different institutions, including the School of Biological Sciences. Ant Course is organized and run by the California Academy of Science and is designed for scholars to share information and discover together the ants of a particular region. It applies ant biology to established areas of inquiry but also encourages students to ask new questions.

Zahra Saifee is a University of Utah intern who will be accompanying the team as a scientific communications specialist. She says of Ant Course, “it really is about the ants, what new species there are in [a particular region and] where species overlap. The team discusses their observations of what they’re doing with others across the world. The core is bringing diverse people to ‘nerd out’ about it for two weeks.”

A lot of the time in Vietnam, says Saifee, is set up just to explore and see what people will find. “Curiosity is at a premium, bringing observations to the group as a sounding board. People can bring to the group ‘rough drafts’ of research and ideas.”

This open-door approach to discovery was transformative for Rodolfo Probst, PhD, a member of the Longino lab who successfully defended his dissertation just this month. His 2013 Ant Course experience in Borneo connected him to a year’s work back east following his graduation from college before he settled into graduate school as part of Longino’s lab.

Ants are the focus of that lab’s research but it’s not just about ants. The research goals of the Longino lab involve “reciprocal illumination,” in which the latest evolutionary concepts of species formation, combined with the latest genetic tools, allow the construction of a detailed “biodiversity map” of ants. The patterns revealed in the map then inform general concepts of biological diversification.

The research has the additional benefit of allowing other researchers, like those students participating in Ant Course, to more easily identify ants. To this end, Longino helps curate a large on-line specimen and image database (Antweb.org), a major resource for ant researchers worldwide.

To study the way ants network can potentially speak to the design and character of larger eco-systems, Saifee suggests, making the study of ants more than a niche science. It propels one to look at the larger picture of life—not just its wonders, but its changes and adaptations. In short, its ecology and evolution. “There are a lot of different species [of ants] and how we organize data is key to new scientific discoveries,” concludes Saifee.

Making new discoveries about ants is important because, as subject models, they are on par with vertebrates and vascular plants as key taxa for ecology, evolutionary biology, biogeography, conservation biology, and public interest. Having a solid phylogenetic history opens entire new worlds of biological exploration, and has been achieved for vertebrates and many plants. With a little more effort, much of which is being addressed by the NSF-funded Ants of the World project, the same can be true for ants.

Ant Course in Vietnam is currently at the center of that ambition. Follow the Ant Course blog and on Twitter @AntsProject. Read the profile of graduate student Elaine Tan, who is accompanying Jack Longino to Vietnam here.

 

First published at biology.utah.edu