APS Fellows

APS Fellows


Physics Professors Named APS Fellows

Two professors in the U’s Department of Physics & Astronomy—Christoph Boehme, Professor and Chair of the department, and Ramón Barthelemy, Assistant Professor, have been elected fellows of the American Physical Society (APS). The APS Fellowship Program was created to recognize members who may have made advances in physics through original research and publication, or made significant innovative contributions in the application of physics to science and technology. They may also have made significant contributions to the teaching of physics or service and participation in the activities of the society.

Election to the APS is considered one of the most prestigious and exclusive honors for a physicist—the number of recommended nominees in each year may not exceed one-half percent of the current membership of the Society. APS is a nonprofit membership organization working to advance the knowledge of physics through its outstanding research journals, scientific meetings, and education, outreach, advocacy, and international activities. The APS represents more than 50,000 members, including physicists in academia, national laboratories, and industry in the United States and throughout the world.

Christoph Boehme

Christoph Boehme

“I am profoundly honored by my selection as an APS Fellow. Receiving this recognition is an excellent opportunity to look back at my research career, starting with my first experiments as an undergraduate researcher more than 25 years ago. When I think about all the discoveries and inventions I have had the chance to contribute to, I realize that none of them would have happened without the collaboration, support, and collegiality of many others. These include my former research advisors, all the students and postdocs who have worked in my research labs, my colleagues at the University of Utah (both staff and faculty), and other institutions. I am very much indebted to all these wonderful people.”

Boehme was born and raised in Oppenau, a small town in southwest Germany, 20 miles east of the French city of Strasbourg. After obtaining an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering, and committing to 15 months of civil services caring for disabled people (chosen to avoid the military draft), he moved to Heidelberg, Germany in 1994 to study physics at Heidelberg University.

In 1997 Boehme won a German-American Fulbright Student Scholarship, which brought him to the United States for the first time, where he studied at North Carolina State University and met his spouse. In 2000 they moved to Berlin, Germany, where they lived for five years while he worked for the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin, a national laboratory. He finished his dissertation work as a graduate student of the University of Marburg in 2002 and spent an additional three years working as a postdoctoral researcher.

Boehme moved to Utah in 2006 to join the Department of Physics & Astronomy as an Assistant Professor. He was promoted to Associate Professor and awarded tenure in 2010; three years later, he became a professor. During his tenure at the U, Boehme received recognition through a CAREER Award of the National Science Foundation in 2010, the Silver Medal for Physics and Materials Science from the International EPR Society in 2016, as well as the U’s Distinguished Scholarly and Creative Research Award in 2018 for his contributions and scientific breakthroughs in electron spin physics and for his leadership in the field of spintronics.

He was appointed Chair of the department in July, 2020 after serving as interim chair. Previously, Boehme served as associate chair of the department from 2010-2015. His research is focused on the exploration of spin-dependent electronic processes in condensed matter. The goal of the Boehme Group is to develop sensitive coherent spin motion detection schemes for small spin ensembles that are needed for quantum computing and general materials research.

Ramón Barthelemy

Ramón Barthelemy

“When I started graduate school you couldn’t even ask the LGBT question in physics without ending your career,” said Barthelemy. “Although homophobia and transphobia are still rampant in physics, a few of us are lucky enough to ask the question and still continue in the field. It is amazing to get this recognition for my work considering the history of queer people in physics, from Alan Turing‘s death to the ending of Frank Kameny‘s astronomy career, and the inability of people like Sally Ride and Nikola Tesla to be public with all of their relationships. I am both humbled and full of gratitude to pursue funded work giving voice to queer people in physics and, importantly, changing policy.”

Barthelemy is an early-career physicist with a record of groundbreaking scholarship and advocacy that has advanced the field of physics education research as it pertains to gender issues and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT)+ physicists.

The field of physics struggles to support students and faculty from historically excluded groups. Barthelemy has long worked to make the field more inclusive—he has served on the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) Committee on Women in Physics and on the Committee on Diversity—and was an early advocate for LGBT+ voices in the AAPT. He co-authored LGBT Climate in Physics: Building an Inclusive Community, an influential report for the American Physical Society, and the first edition of the LGBT+ Inclusivity in Physics and Astronomy Best Practices Guide, which offers actionable strategies for physicists to improve their departments and workplaces for LGBT+ colleagues and students. He also recently published the first peer reviewed quantitative study on LGBT+ physicists which received national attention.

In 2019, Barthelemy joined the U’s College of Science as its first tenure-track faculty member focusing on physics education research (PER), a field that studies how people learn physics and culture of the community. Since arriving, he has built a program that gives students rigorous training in physics concepts and in education research, qualities that prepare students for jobs in academia, education policy, or general science policy. He founded the Physics Education Research Group at the University of Utah (PERU), where he and a team of postdoctoral scholars and graduate and undergraduate students explore how graduate program policies impact students’ experiences; conduct long-term studies of the experience of women in physics and astronomy and of Students of Color in STEM programs; and seek to understand the professional network development and navigation of women and LGBT+ PhD physicists.

In discussing Barthelemy’s election as a fellow to the APS, two of his mentors, Geraldine L. Cochran and Tim Atherton, commented on his work: “Barthelemy has provided an excellent example for how research on the educational experiences of people from marginalized groups can center the voices of the research participants,” said Cochran, Associate Professor at Rutgers University. “Indeed, Dr. Barthelemy was among the first—if not the first—in physics education research to use Feminist Standpoint Theory in his research.”

“Fellowship is one of the highest honors that that American Physical Society can bestow and is normally reserved for scientists much further along in their careers,” said Atherton, Associate Professor of Physics at Tufts University. “Ramón’s election is a signature of the incredible esteem in which his fellow physicists hold him and points to the significance of his work. This kind of work is necessary to transform the culture of physics to fully include LGBTQ+ people. As one of these people myself, and as someone who has not always been included by the academic community, I’m thrilled that Ramón has been given this incredible honor.”

Barthelemy earned his Bachelor of Science degree in astrophysics at Michigan State University and received his Master of Science and doctorate degrees in PER at Western Michigan University. “Originally, I went to graduate school for nuclear physics, but I discovered I was more interested in diversity, equity, and inclusion in physics and astronomy. Unfortunately, there were very few women, People of Color, LGBT or first-generation physicists in my program,” said Barthelemy, who looked outside of physics to understand why.

Other awards:
In 2022, Earlier he received the 2022 WEPAN (Women in Engineering ProActive Network) Betty Vetter Research Award for notable achievement in research related to women in engineering.

In 2021, Barthelemy received the Doc Brown Futures Award, an honor that recognizes early career members who demonstrate excellence in their contributions to physics education and exhibit excellent leadership.

He received the 2020 Fulbright Finland award but wasn’t able to travel to Finland to give his lectures until 2022.

In 2020, he and his U colleagues Jordan Gerton and Pearl Sandick were awarded $200,000 from the National Science Foundation to complete a case study exploring the graduate program changes in the U’s Department of Physics & Astronomy. In the same year, Barthelemy received a $350,000 Building Capacity in Science Education Research award to continue his longitudinal study on women in physics and astronomy and created a new study on People of Color in U.S. graduate STEM programs. Later, he received a $120,000 supplement to continue the work.

He also co-received a $500,000 grant with external colleagues Dr. Charles Henderson and Dr. Adrienne Traxler to study the professional network development and career pathways of women and LGBT+ PhD physicists in academia, the government, and private sectors. Lastly, Barthelemy was selected to conduct a literature review on LGBT+ scientists as a virtual visiting scholar by the ARC Network, an organization dedicated to improving STEM equity in academia.

In 2014, Barthelemy completed a Fulbright Fellowship at the University of Jyväskylä, in Finland where he conducted research looking at student motivations to study physics in Finland. In 2015, he received a fellowship from the American Association for the Advancement of Science Policy in the United States Department of Education and worked on science education initiatives in the Obama administration. After acting as a consultant for university administrations and research offices, he began to miss doing his own research and was offered a job as an assistant professor at the University of Utah.

first published @ physics.utah.edu

 

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Stolen Ivory

Stolen Ivory


Isotope data strengthens suspicions of ivory stockpile theft.

In January 2019, a seizure of 3.3 tons of ivory in Uganda turned up something surprising: markings on some of the tusks suggested that they may have been taken from a stockpile of ivory kept, it was thought, strictly under lock and key by the government of Burundi.

A new study from University of Utah distinguished professor Thure Cerling and colleagues, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, uses carbon isotope science to show that the marked tusks were more than 30 years old and somehow had found their way from the guarded government stockpile into the hands of illegal ivory traders. The results suggest that governments that maintain ivory stockpiles may want to take a closer look at their inventory.

Thure Cerling

“Due to the markings seen on some samples of the ivory, it was thought that quite a few samples in this shipment could be related to material held in a government stockpile in Burundi.”

Ivory’s isotope signatures

Cerling is a pioneer in the use of isotopes to answer questions about physical and biological processes. “Isotopes” of a given element refer to atoms of the element that vary in their number of neutrons, and thus vary oh-so-slightly in mass. A carbon-14 isotope has one more neutron than carbon-13, for example.

Some isotopes are stable and some are unstable. Unstable isotopes decay into other isotopes or elements through radioactive decay. Since the rate of decay is known for unstable isotopes, we can use the amounts present in a sample to determine ages. That’s how carbon dating works—it uses the rate of decay of unstable carbon-14 to determine the age of organic matter.

Sam Wasser

Around a decade ago, Cerling attended a presentation at the U by Sam Wasser of the University of Washington, who was studying the genetics of wildlife and using those tools to investigate the date and place of wildlife poaching. Cerling, recognizing that his expertise in isotope science might be able to add useful information, began an ongoing collaboration with Wasser.

In 2016, Cerling, Wasser and colleagues published a study that addressed a key question in the ivory trade: how old is the ivory seized by governments? Some traders have claimed their ivory is old, taken before 1976, and thus exempt from sales bans. And with the average size of ivory seizures more than 2.5 tons, researchers, governments and conservationists wonder how much of the ivory is recent and how much is coming from criminal stockpiles—or is stolen from one of several ivory stockpiles held by the governments of some countries in Africa.

“Governments keep their stockpiles for multiple reasons,” Wasser says. “They hope to sell the ivory for revenue, sometimes to support conservation efforts. However, they can only sell ivory from elephants that died of natural causes or were culled because they were problem animals. They can’t sell seized ivory because they don’t know it came from the country.”

With the combination of Cerling’s isotope data and Wasser’s genetic data, the 2016 study found that more than 90% of seized ivory was from elephants that had been killed less than three years before. It was a sobering result, showing active and well-developed poaching and export networks. The study seemed to show that little ivory from government stockpiles had ended up on the black market.

Marked tusks

But the 2019 seizure of ivory in Uganda showed something concerning. Some of the tusks sported markings that looked suspiciously like the markings that CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, uses to inventory stockpiled ivory.

Due to the markings seen on some samples of the ivory,” Cerling says, “it was thought that quite a few samples in this shipment could be related to material held in a government stockpile in Burundi.  We were asked to date samples from this, and three other recent ivory seizures, to see if some samples could possibly be from older stockpiles.”

To determine the ivory’s age, the researchers collected small samples from the tusks and analyzed them for the amount of carbon-14 isotopes in each sample. They were looking specifically for the amount of “bomb carbon” in the tusks. Between 1945 and 1963, nuclear weapons testing doubled the amount of carbon-14 in the atmosphere, so anything living that’s consumed carbon since then—including you—has a measurable carbon-14 signature. The amount of carbon-14 in a sample of ivory that hasn’t yet radioactively decayed can tell scientists when the ivory stopped growing, or when the elephant died.

Paula Kahumbu

The method takes some calibration, using samples from organisms living in the same area. Some of the samples came from schoolchildren in Kenya, through a program called “Kids and Goats for Elephants.” Because most families in rural Kenya keep goats the program, run by Cerling and Paula Kahumbu of WildlifeDirect, engages children in collecting hair samples from goats for isotopic analysis. The isotope data is useful for many applications, including fighting elephant poaching and, in this case, calibrating the bomb carbon decay rate for more accurate dating of ivory.

A consequential result

The researchers analyzed ivory from four seizures in Angola, Hong Kong, Singapore and Uganda. Genetic data ensured that they weren’t sampling two tusks from the same individual. The results of analysis from the Angola, Hong Kong and Singapore seizures were as expected – the results showed ages mostly around three years after the death of the elephant, with no tusks having been taken more than 10 years previous.

But the Uganda seizure, with the inventory markings on the tusks, showed something very different. Nine of the 11 tusks tested had been taken more than 30 years before, with the dates of death ranging between 1985 and 1988. Those dates are consistent with the age of ivory in the stockpile of the government of Burundi, which was inventoried and stored in sealed containers in 1989.

“My suspicions were affirmed,” Wasser says. “The bigger surprise was how near to 1989 the elephants were killed.” At the time Burundi assembled its stockpile, a condition of joining CITES, which assists governments in managing ivory reserves, was that the ivory to be stockpiled was old. The results suggest that that wasn’t the case, Wasser says, which would have violated conditions for Burundi to join CITES.

“The hope is that CITES will request the stockpile to be re-inventoried,” Wasser says, “including aging randomly selected tusks and secure the remaining stocks.”

Find the full study here.

 

by Paul Gabrielsen, first published in @theU.

Wilkes Climate Prize

Wilkes Climate Prize


1.5 Million Dollar Wilkes Climate Prize.

The Wilkes Center Climate Prize at the University of Utah recognizes and supports innovative projects that have significant potential to help address the impact of climate change. 

In addition to $1.5 million prize money, the awardees will receive access to resources from the Master of Business Creation program at the University of Utah and mentorship by Utah-based business leaders.

What are the goals of the prize?

  • Incentivize
    To incentivize novel, feasible, and scalable climate solutions.
  • Support
    To support the development of these ideas from the early stages to the implementation phase.
  • Inspire
    To inspire and support the innovators behind these projects as they launch and scale their companies.

Nomination Details

  • Nominations will be open to individuals, groups, or entities worldwide.
  • The Wilkes Center for Climate Science and Policy at the University of Utah will administer the prize. A panel of distinguished judges with backgrounds in science and industry to review nominations.
    The prize will be announced at the Wilkes Center Climate Summit in May 2023.
  • Sign up to receive updates about the prize and the nomination process asz they are released over the next few months.
  • Sponsors

The prize is supported by a cross-section of Utah-based organizations and industries.

Contributors include:

For more information visit The Wilkes Center.

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Hedgehog Signaling

Hedgehog Signaling


A cracker jack team of U of U undergrads works with principal investigator Ben Myers to break open a decades-old biological mystery of Hedgehog Signaling.

Corvin Arveseth

Corvin Arveseth, BS’21, can’t remember when he wasn’t fascinated by science and biology. So, when he came to the University of Utah and declared his majors in biology and biochemistry, he knew he wanted hands-on experience in research. “I didn’t know anything [about the] Hedgehog (Hh) signaling [pathway] until I read an advertisement put out by Ben Myers, [principal investigator at Huntsman Cancer Institute, assistant professor of oncological sciences at the University of Utah, and head of the Myers Lab] in a biology department newsletter looking for undergraduate researchers,” he says. “After reading some background information and meeting with Ben about the Hh pathway, I became intrigued with the work being done in his lab.”

The Hh pathway he’s referring to is akin to a master set of instructions for animal development and regeneration. It controls the formation of nearly every organ in the human body. Signaling pathways like Hh serve as molecular “telephone wires” from the cell surface to the nucleus. When cells in our bodies communicate with one another, signals are relayed along these molecular telephone wires, turning on expression of genes involved in growth, differentiation, or in some cases skin and brain cancers.

Corvin Arveseth and Will Steiner

The Hh pathway got its unusual name from decades-old genetic studies in fruit flies, where mutations in critical developmental genes led the flies to take on a bristly hedgehog-like appearance. However, versions of the Hh pathway operate throughout the animal kingdom, controlling development, stem cell biology, and cancer in many different contexts.

But even after many years of effort by labs all over the world, surprisingly little was known about how the Hh pathway actually works at a molecular level. Scientists knew that the signals conveyed by these molecular telephone wires were fundamental to human development and disease, but they didn’t know what the signals were, or how they were transmitted intracellularly. Consequently, health researchers’ ability to control Hh signaling in many diseases including cancer had been limited.

So, this is a story not just about a seemingly intractable research question, which is de rigeur in scientific circles, but how a team of largely undergraduate students in a four-year-old lab worked together under enormous odds to shake loose that answer. Myers says that that it was because of inexperience, not in spite of it, that the undergraduates in his lab were able to make these discoveries. These students’ fresh, undaunted determination to scientific inquiry, combined with a lack of preconceived notions and a willingness to learn, were key factors that enabled their groundbreaking discoveries.

Two papers, both with U undergraduates as first or co-first authors, were the gratifying result. PLOS Biology and Nature.com

 

Ben Myers

“It is a truly remarkable and inspiring collaboration that continues to this day, and I am so proud of how everybody was able to join forces and overcome so many obstacles created by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

 

Mysterious pathways
When Myers first set up his lab at the U in 2018, the key molecule in the Hh pathway that grabbed his attention was SMOOTHENED (SMO), a so-called “transmembrane protein” that spans across the cell membrane from the outside to the interior. SMO was known to be critical for transmitting signals from the cell surface to the nucleus. But what were the five or six steps between receiving the message and turning on gene expression? There was a “major disconnection about how this worked,” says Myers.

Nate Iverson

The twenty-five-year-old mystery was indeed tantalizing. It was “this interesting mystery coupled with the importance of Hh function,” says Arveseth, “in developmental and cancer biology [which] hooked me right away.”

Spearheading the project
Arveseth was the point of the spear for this project begun at the beginning of his sophomore year. But there were many others on the team, all of whom are “both incredibly smart, and also very kind and a lot of fun to work with,” according to Myers.

This includes Nate Iverson, a third year chemistry major with an interest in cellular signaling. “Having HCI in close connection with the University gave me greater access to research possibilities, and I was able to find an opening in the Myers lab studying Hh signal transduction.”

And then there was biology major Isaac Nelson, who worked tirelessly to produce a freezer full of carefully prepared, purified fragments of SMO for biochemical studies, only to hit a brick wall when he and Myers were unable to formulate a good hypothesis to drive an experiment.

Isaac Nelson

“It was only after starting up an international collaboration,” says Myers, “that the critical experiments snapped into view for us.” This led Nelson to send his samples to one of the lab’s new collaborators in Germany, and they used his samples to try an experiment that worked right away. In the midst of a raging pandemic, Nelson’s purified proteins helped to launch a new and entirely unexpected phase of the project, expanding the collaboration to include other scientists around the world.

“It was another scenario,” says Myers, “where everyone worked well together.”

Recent graduate Madison “Madi” Walker, BS’21, with a cell and molecular emphasis, was also part of the team. She is still working in the Myers lab studying another critical aspect of SMO signaling, namely the interaction between SMO and the enzyme G protein-coupled receptor kinase 2. Earlier, former undergraduate Jacob Capener, BS’20, assisted in the work.

Another critical member of the Myers lab team is Will Steiner, BS’21, who is currently collaborating with Arveseth and Nelson to purify SMO in complex with its binding partners in order to work out their atomic structures. He became interested in this area of research after taking the cell biology and biochemistry course at the U. “Biochemistry was particularly compelling and got me excited about the chemical reactions behind human physiology,” he says.

Madison Walker

It starts in the classroom
Rigorous courses were critical in preparing Myers’ undergraduate team for the hands-on research that led to their remarkable findings in the lab. He has nothing but kudos for the U’s curriculum. “Coursework before the lab experience [for undergraduate researchers] was very, very good here. In general, I’ve been lucky to attract motivated and curious students to my lab. They are inspired to push the research forward. They are all up to the challenge. And they have a great esprit de corps. They all work incredibly well together as a team to drive the science forward.”

That kind of correlated teamwork was not necessarily easy to enact under the circumstances. “Fortunately, we were able to finish the last key experiment of the first paper,” says Myers, in March 2020, just before the pandemic started to take hold and shut lab work down. He’s always believed that having undergraduates get a taste of cutting-edge research is important. They “shouldn’t have to work on something trivial… . What’s exciting about science is to push the boundaries.”

And yes, for Myers and the other senior members of his lab, including graduate students Danielle Hedeen and Aram Centeno, lab manager Ju-Fen Zhu, and former lab technician John Happ, “you have to be committed to helping everybody in your lab, even if they’re neophytes.” Clearly it’s been worth it. “And being a little bit of a neophyte is good,” he says, “because you don’t talk yourself out of doing experiments that are simple, unorthodox.”

Will Steiner

Asking the right questions
What Myers is trying to say, and seems to have proven over the course of the past three years and now the publication of two discovery-laden papers, is that their remarkable findings stemmed from the initial naïve view that the SMO protein didn’t fit the mold of other proteins as was previously assumed. He and Arveseth took a guess that SMO might be directly coupled to a critical intracellular signaling molecule called PKA. This was a rather wild idea, since there were few if any examples of transmembrane proteins that directly interacted with PKA. “It was a guess, how it might work, and a couple of months later: big discovery. Our initial guess was on the right track. There was a whole new unexpected thing going on but that made sense.”

Though early on the team suspected what they had discovered was important, “we didn’t know if we had a full explanation of how the system worked. We weren’t sure if it was the main event or an auxiliary event.” In the first paper, published in the journal PLOS Biology last year, they explained that: what they thought they knew, and what they weren’t sure about . . . yet.

But it was only after the pandemic was in full force that the team pivoted to the second exciting phase of the project, expanding to include Susan Taylor’s lab at the University of California, San Diego, one of the world’s foremost authorities on the PKA molecule the Myers team had implicated in their research.

Taylor and her colleagues had a critical insight regarding the SMO-PKA interaction which eventually formed the basis of a second manuscript, recently published in Nature Structural and Molecular Biology. “It is a truly remarkable and inspiring collaboration that continues to this day, and I am so proud of how everybody was able to join forces and overcome so many obstacles created by the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Myers. And his team is anticipating that even more exciting discoveries are on the horizon. Eventually, this work may lead to better drugs to treat some of the diseases that result from aberrant Hh signaling, including various skin and brain cancers.

In all, with the resulting two papers, the project turned out to be a “best case scenario that wasn’t planned,” and a lesson of how important it is to keep an open mind, which often leads to big discoveries.

Success is never final, however. And Arveseth, recipient of no less than ten scholarships and awards during his sojourn at the U, is now enrolled in the MD/PhD program at the Washington University in St. Louis, where he will focus on hematology and oncology. His colleagues are also pursuing their academic and research careers full-steam ahead. They, along with their mentor, Ben Myers are a testament to the notion that persistence in knowledge gathering pays off but that it must be paired and even driven by a relentlessly open mind.

The Meyers Lab

Concludes Myers, “To be honest, it comes down to the willingness to try new things and to have the ability to work together as a team. In reality, this would have been way too much for any individual scientist, even a highly trained one, to do alone.” You can follow him and his lab on Twitter @Myers_lab

Find the full study here.

 

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

Ethiopian Abattoirs

Ethiopian Abattoirs


Hooded Vulture

The decline of vultures and rise of dogs carries disease risks.

In the yards behind the slaughterhouses—also called abattoirs—of Ethiopia, an ecological shift is unfolding that echoes similar crises the world over. Species with a clear and effective ecological role are in serious decline, and the less-specialized but more aggressive species that have moved in to take their place are not only less effective, but are harmful to their ecosystem which, in this case, includes humans.

This is a story about vultures, feral dogs, rabies—and piles of rotting animal carcasses. Buckle up. But in the end, it’s about the power of conservation to keep ecosystems, even urban ecosystems, in balance, benefitting the people who live there.

“Carrion consumption by vultures is declining, and increasing by most other scavengers, but that increase is not sufficient to make up for the loss of vultures.” says SBS alumnus Evan Buechley, PhD’17, now with The Peregrine Fund, “So there’s a gap there. And what happens with that gap is a bit of an unanswered question, but that’s where the problem lies.”

The study is published in the Journal of Wildlife Management and is funded by the National Science Foundation, the University of Utah, HawkWatch International, The Peregrine Fund and the National Geographic Society.

Vultures are awesome

Worldwide, vultures are perfectly equipped to take care of the unpleasant remnants of death. Rotting carcasses can become hotbeds of disease, overrun by bacteria and insects. But vultures are an efficient clean-up crew. By eating carrion, they remove the carcasses and pass them through a highly acidic digestive system that wipes out disease-causing agents. And a diversity of vultures is better—some species are specialized to tear away hides and skin while others, coming in last, literally gulp down the bones.

 

Evan Buechley

“Carrion consumption by vultures is declining, and increasing by most other scavengers, but that increase is not sufficient enough to make up for the loss of vultures.”

 

But vultures have been in trouble in recent decades. They’re susceptible to poisons in the carrion they eat, whether that’s lead ammunition, the drug diclofenac, or poisons used against predatory animals. And with vultures producing relatively few chicks and taking a relatively long time to mature, it’s harder for them to recover from population declines.

Çağan Şekercioğlu, associate professor in the University of Utah School of Biological Sciences, showed that vultures were the most threatened group of birds (called an ecological guild, when the group uses the same or related resources) in 2004 when he conducted the first known ecological analysis of all bird species while in graduate school.

In 2012, Şekercioğlu accepted Buechley as his first doctoral student at the U. Buechley brought extensive experience working with vultures and condors. He and Şekercioğlu began a project tracking Egyptian vultures in eastern Turkey and the Horn of Africa.

“Evan led this project brilliantly and expanded it to the other vulture species of Ethiopia and the Horn,” Şekercioğlu says. “Despite the many challenges, he also decided to study the scavenger communities of the Addis Ababa abattoirs, to quantify the causes and consequences of vulture declines in the region.”

In 2016, Şekercioğlu and Buechley re-analyzed the ecology of all bird species. “We realized that vultures not only have the fewest species of any avian ecological guild, making them irreplaceable, but since that first analysis in 2004, they had gone downhill faster than any other group,” Şekercioğlu says.

Yes, there are other scavenger species that can take vultures’ place at the carrion table. But the loss of vultures, as we’ll see, can lead to human costs.

A white-backed vulture, a hooded vulture and a thick-billed raven.

Abattoirs’ feathered “employees”

At the abattoirs of Ethiopia, vultures are welcome partners. After butchering animals in clean conditions, the workers move the remnants of the carcasses – hooves, organs and bones, for example, to separate compounds. It’s a . . . unique sensory experience, Buechley says.

“It can be pretty stinky and pretty gross, by any objective measure.”

So abattoirs are grateful for the scavengers, including critically endangered white-backed, Rüppell’s and hooded vultures, that eagerly clean up the pile.

Study co-author Alazar Daka Ruffo, from Addis Ababa University, has interviewed abattoir staff members to see how they feel about the vultures.

“Some abattoir staff say half-jokingly, but not fully, that they see the vultures as employees of the abattoir,” says Buechley, reporting Ruffo’s findings. “They’re serving an important function. There’s intentionality behind the system.”

Other winged scavengers frequent the disposal piles, including crows, ravens, ibises and marabou storks. Four-legged visitors include packs of feral dogs.

“It’s an urban ecology situation where you have the human food supply meeting and really directly interacting with the wildlife food supply of scavengers,” Buechley adds. “It’s just a really complicated, kind of gross but fascinating system.”

With a research team including Rebecca Bishop, Tara Christensen and Şekercioğlu from the U’s School of Biological Sciences, Buechley set out to quantify the amount of carrion consumed by scavengers at six abattoirs in Ethiopia over five years, from 2014 to 2019.

Decline in vultures and rise in rabies

The team noted the types and abundance of scavengers that visited the abattoir buffets, and used this to extrapolate how much they ate. At first, vultures were eating more than half of the carrion in the disposal piles. White-backed, Rüppell’s and hooded vultures together ate an average of around 550 pounds (250 kg) of carrion a day.

But by the end of the five-year study, the number of Rüppell’s and white-backed vultures visiting the abattoir disposal yards decreased by 73%. Hooded vulture visits decreased by 15%. Over the same time, feral dog detections more than doubled.

A committee of hooded vultures.

“Although we can’t say for sure if the decline represents a population crash or if the vultures are being displaced by dogs and moving away from the abattoirs, either way this is really concerning,” says Megan Murgatroyd, Interim Director of International Programs for HawkWatch International.

“We know that the vultures are declining and we know that the feral dogs are increasing, but we don’t know exactly why,” Buechley says, adding that abattoir practices are also changing and that further studies will be needed to draw a cause-and-effect relationship.

Regardless, the vultures can ill afford the loss of abattoirs as a food supply. Rüppell’s, white-backed and hooded vultures are listed as critically endangered. “That’s the highest threat category before going extinct or extinct in the wild,” Buechley says.

The population of Rüppell’s vultures has declined by over 90% over the past three generations (approximately 40 years). White-backed and hooded vultures are doing a little better—but not by much. They’re estimated to have declined by 81% and 83%, respectively, over three generations.

“So it does seem that their disappearance from abattoirs is likely linked to a population crash,” says Murgatroyd. “Vultures need all the help they can get right now, and having to compete with growing dog populations is only making things worse.”

Other scavengers on the rise, including dogs, ibises and corvids (crows and ravens) couldn’t pick up the slack at the abattoirs. By 2019, scavengers were consuming nearly 43,000 pounds (around 20,000 kg) less carrion per year than they were in 2014, back when vultures were more abundant and dogs more scarce.

A chilling consequence of the rise of dogs may be a rise of rabies rates in humans. In the late 1990s, vulture populations in India and Pakistan crashed. Feral dog populations increased to take advantage of the uneaten carrion.

“They’re also disease vectors,” Buechley says, “and they interact really closely with people. And there’s been a link drawn between a big spike in feral dog populations and rabies in India.”

Is the same thing likely to happen in Ethiopia? Scientists haven’t yet drawn a link between vulture loss and rabies rise in that country. But Ethiopia already bears a heavy rabies burden with around 3,000 deaths from the disease per year.

“Unlike a lot of diseases which impact the elderly, rabies disproportionately affects young children, which are the most likely to be bit by rabid dogs,” Buechley says.

Fencing dogs out

The researchers provide a straightforward recommendation to help the situation: Use fences to keep the dogs out. And many abattoirs already have fences in place.

“But a pack of feral dogs is really persistent,” Buechley says. “It’s hard to keep hungry animals away from lots of food.”

An abattoir disposal pile with a kettle of vultures overhead.

The dogs can fight and dig their way through many fences, and maintaining or fortifying them may cut into the abattoirs’ profit margins.

“It’s a matter of weighing how important it is to keep the fences maintained,” Buechley says. “Improvement of these fences could really have a lot of benefits.” Those include potentially reducing the numbers of feral dogs, which reproduce quickly and whose population keeps pace with the available food supply. That in turn could help control rabies in humans and diseases in other animals, such as the critically endangered Ethiopian wolf, which are carried by the feral dogs.

And, counterintuitively, fencing out the abundant dogs could increase the rates of carrion consumption. Without the dogs around to scare off other scavengers, vultures could return in larger numbers to more quickly and efficiently clean up the disposal piles.

“That could lead to less smell, less groundwater contamination, fewer insects like flies that can breed on the carcasses,” Buechley says. “There’s a lot of potential benefits of investing in repairing the fences around abattoirs, which are found throughout Africa and elsewhere worldwide. We encourage abattoirs, local governments and international organizations to consider this when looking for solutions to waste disposal, human health and scavenger conservation.”

The results of the study show that the loss of specialist species from an ecosystem can’t always be compensated for by other species.

“The overarching point is that vultures are super important,” Buechley says. “If they decline, we expect there to be pretty profound ecological consequences and there may be increases in human disease burden. And so we should appreciate vultures and invest in their conservation.”

Find the full study here.

 

by Paul Gabrielsen, first published in @theU.

Nick Borys

Nick Borys


"I just wanted a more interesting job."

Nick Borys, who received his Ph.D. in Physics from the U, is now Assistant Professor of Physics at Montana State University (MSU) in Bozeman, Montana. He has had an interesting journey from receiving an undergraduate degree in mathematics and computer science at the Colorado School of Mines to leading an experimental condensed matter physics and materials science research group at MSU. The Borys Lab researches materials that consist of two-dimensional sheets of atoms and their potential applications in quantum technologies that use the quantum properties of light for sensing, secure communication, and computing.

Images from the Borys Lab

In the lab, Borys and his team perform investigations by studying how new material systems interact with light on very small length scales, very fast time scales, and ultra-cold temperatures. In addition to his research group, he co-led the team that established the MonArk NSF Quantum Foundry at MSU. Borys is presently a co-associate director of MonArk and runs its day-to-day operations at the university. MonArk is a multi-institute, multi-state team focused on developing and researching 2-D materials for quantum technologies as well as innovating new technologies to accelerate the pace of research on 2-D materials. Borys is also the instructor for an upper-division quantum mechanics course in the Department of Physics at MSU.

He was raised in the Rocky Mountain Front Range in Colorado and considers Longmont and the surrounding rural farming area his original home, because that’s where he attended middle school and high school.

Throughout his later school years, he developed a strong interest in computer-based technologies. He taught himself several programming languages, became proficient in many different operating systems, and of course, learned how to build his own systems. While studying at the Colorado School of Mines, he was certain that he wanted to be a software engineer and computer scientist, and he received a bachelor of science degree in 2004.

 

Nick Borys

“By my junior year, I was moonlighting as a full-time software engineer in the evenings while pursuing my undergraduate degree in the daytime. Looking back, I’m not sure how I managed both.”

 

Pivotal Experiences
During his undergraduate education, two pivotal experiences ultimately directed his interest to physics. He was working on a construction team, remodeling office space for a local software company. While installing rubber molding one day, the CEO of the company stopped by, and he and Borys began talking about computers and software. The CEO was delighted that Borys had taught himself programming languages, and he hired him on the spot as a part-time software engineer. Over a year, the part-time job transitioned to full-time, and the first company was purchased by another.

“By my junior year, I was moonlighting as a full-time software engineer in the evenings while pursuing my undergraduate degree in the daytime,” said Borys. “Looking back, I’m not sure how I managed both.” By the spring of 2004, he graduated with an undergraduate degree and three years of professional software engineering experience. He had a sense of what a software engineering career would be like, and he looked forward to pursuing the next steps in his career at a larger company.

But fate intervened when he took several courses in the Department of Physics just before graduation. Thanks to inspired teachers, he fell head-over-heels in love with quantum mechanics. “Unfortunately, it was too late to change my major, and I had to settle for just taking a few additional physics classes that allowed me to deepen my passion,” he said.

After graduation, he accepted a new position at Boeing to develop software for the military, but realized within six months that he missed thinking about physics. One day while talking with a colleague who was working on an interesting problem, Borys asked how he could get involved with such projects, and the colleague he told him to get a Ph.D., preferably in computer science or physics. At that point, Borys decided to attend graduate school and pursue a Ph.D. in physics.

The U and Favorite Professors
He wanted to study at the University of Utah first and foremost because of the program and the research. “I knew that I wanted to perform experimental work, and I remember being excited by the research efforts of Professor Jordan Gerton and Distinguished Professor Valy Vardeny,” he said. In addition to the research program, he was also enamored with Salt Lake City and the Wasatch mountains. Growing up in Colorado, he had a love for mountaineering and had just started rock climbing.  So, the University of Utah and Salt Lake City were an excellent fit.

He has fond memories of his classes with Professor Oleg Starykh, Professor Mikhail Raikh, Distinguished Professor Alexei Efros, Professor Eugene Mishchenko, and Werner Gellerman, Adjunct Professor of Ophthalmology & Visual Science. He also loved his conversations with Christoph Boehme, Professor and Chair of the Department of Physics & Astronomy, as well as Jordan Gerton. “All of these professors are excellent physicists, and my interactions with them motivated me to want to be their colleagues one day,” he said. “But undoubtedly, Professor John Lupton, my Ph.D. advisor, made the strongest impact on me and, on a near-daily basis, demonstrated how fun and exciting research could be. Without experiencing John’s passion, excitement, creativity, and professionalism, I am not sure I would have continued on the academic track. Working with him was inspiring and very formative for my excitement for scientific research in academia.”

Post-Graduate Career
After Borys obtained his Ph.D., he continued working in the same lab under the direction of Lupton, who had just moved to the University of Regensburg and offered Borys a postdoc position in his group as the rest of the graduate students finished their degrees. Lupton gave him significant latitude to work independently and help colleagues finish their projects. “The autonomy and independence of this period were great experiences for me, and by working with John and his vibrant team of students and postdocs, I continued to develop a strong passion for academic-style research,” said Borys.

As things wound down at the U, he began looking at national labs for his next position and landed a non-permanent scientist position at the Molecular Foundry at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. At the Molecular Foundry, he honed the skills he had developed at the U in optical spectroscopy of nanoscale systems and took the opportunity to learn several new experimental and fabrication techniques in the field of nano-optics. The experience deepened his love for academic-style research and gave him a great opportunity to develop a talent for mentoring younger colleagues and graduate students. After five years at the Molecular Foundry, he moved to MSU.

Value of U Education
Borys says the U gave him countless opportunities to develop his passion for physics into a career. The vibrant community of professors, especially his advisor, demonstrated how fun and engaging high-end science can be. “It was not my intention to become a professor when I entered graduate school,” said Borys. “I just wanted a more interesting job. But after seeing the interactions among the professors in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the U and the type of problems they were working on, I was hooked on the prospect of working in physics full-time at the professor level. They inspired me to pursue an academic career that allowed me to perform the same type of very creative and innovative research.”

Beyond his career, the friendships he developed with peers and colleagues during his graduate studies at the U are among his most cherished and valued relationships to this day.

Advice for students
“It is impossible that I did everything right, but I wouldn’t make major changes if I could do things over again,” he said. “All-in-all, I feel very fortunate to be a professor in a field that I love and in a geographic area that allows me access to my passion for the outdoors.”

If he could go back in time to his younger self, he would tell himself not to be afraid of changing directions in life and that hard work pays off. “Stay disciplined. Stay committed. Be sure to have fun. Enjoy the people with whom you work and all of their unique personalities and diverse backgrounds. Take a bit more time off for climbing trips and vacations with friends,” he said.

In his spare time, he gets outdoors as much as possible, especially enjoying rock climbing and skiing.

 

By Michelle Swaner, originally published at of physics.utah.edu.

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Construction Updates

Construction Updates


Construction is about to begin on the University of Utah’s new Applied Science Project. The project will restore and renovate the historic William Stewart building and construct an addition to the building on the west side, adjacent to University Street. Construction will start in early October.

Construction Timeline

This important project will provide new and updated space to serve the University of Utah’s educational and research mission. It will serve as the new home for the Departments of Physics & Astronomy and Atmospheric Sciences, focusing on aerospace, semiconductor technology, biotechnology, data science, hazardous weather forecasting, and air quality. Together, the two departments teach more than 5,600 students. See why the University of Utah College of Science is so excited about launching this project.

New construction will provide a 56 percent increase in experimental and computer lab capacity. There will be 40,700 square feet of renovated space in the historic Stewart Building and a 100,00 square foot new addition. The project will preserve and restore the historic character of the William Stewart Building while introducing a modern yet complementary design for the new addition. The new building’s exterior finishes will resemble the latest addition to the Crocker Science building next door.

Tree protection plans are in place, and the project team has taken steps to ensure the safety and preservation of Cottams Gulch, which will remain open and accessible during construction. In addition, the project team is working with Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theater leadership to ensure construction does not affect theater activities.

Cottam's Gulch

What to Expect - Construction Impacts

  • Project construction timeline: October 2022 – August 2024
  • Construction hours are 7 am – 7 pm
  • The installation of six-foot-tall construction fencing around the project site will begin the second week of October
  • The existing rock wall near the University Avenue sidewalk will be dismantled for the duration of construction and restored when construction nears completion.
  • Construction traffic will enter and exit the project site via University Street; Full-time road flaggers will be in place to assist with traffic safety and flow
  • Sidewalks directly east of the Stewart building will be closed; signage will be in place to direct pedestrians east of the construction zone around the Life Sciences building
  • Visit the Applied Science Project construction website.

 

Traffic and Pedestrian Map

Construction Map

 

Story by Lisa Potter, first published in @theU.

 

 

Applied Science Video


 

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Utah F.O.R.G.E.

Utah F.O.R.G.E.


The Utah FORGE Project

The Frontier Observatory for Geothermal Research

There is something deceptively simple about geothermal energy. The crushing force of gravity compacts the earth to the point where its molten metal center is 9,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Even thousands of miles out near the surface, the temperature is still hundreds of degrees.

In some places, that heat reaches the surface, either as lava flowing up through volcanic vents, or as steaming water bubbling up in hot springs. In those places, humans have been using geothermal energy since the dawn of time.

But what if we could drill down into the rock and, in essence, create our own hot spring? That is the idea behind “enhanced geothermal systems,” and the most promising such effort in the world is happening in Beaver County.

Called Utah FORGE (Frontier Observatory for Geothermal Research), the site 10 miles north of Milford is little more than a drill pad and a couple of buildings on Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration land. But it is the U.S. Department of Energy’s foremost laboratory for enhanced geothermal research, and the University of Utah is the scientific overseer. Seven years ago, the U of U’s proposal won out in a national competition against three of the DOE’s own national laboratories.

“If you have to pick the best area in the country to build an EGS plant, you’re going to be driven to Milford. DOE recognized that in 2015,” said Joseph N. Moore, a University of Utah Professor with the Department of Geology & Geophysics and the principal investigator for Utah FORGE.

Professor Joseph N. Moore

Among the advantages:

  • It’s in a known area of thermal activity. Nearby is Roosevelt Hot Springs, and a small nearby geothermal plant has been producing electricity for about 30,000 homes for years.
  • It has hundreds of cubic miles hot granite below the surface with no water flowing through it.
  • There is accessible water that can’t be used for drinking or agriculture because it contains too many naturally occurring minerals. But that water can be used for retrieving heat from underground.
  • It has access to transmission lines. Beaver County is home to a growing amount of wind and solar power generation, helping access to consumers.

DOE has invested $50 million in FORGE, and now it’s adding another $44 million in research money. The U of U is soliciting proposals from scientists.

“These new investments at FORGE, the flagship of our EGS research, can help us find the most innovative, cost-effective solutions and accelerate our work toward wide-scale geothermal deployment and support President Biden’s ambitious climate goals,” said Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm.

The idea is to drill two deep wells more than a mile down into solid granite that registers around 400 degrees. Then cold water is pumped down one well so hot water can be pulled out through the second well. One of those wells has been drilled, and the second is planned for next year.

But if it’s solid rock, how does the water get from one well to the other? The scientists have turned to a technology that transformed the oil and gas industry: hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking.” They are pumping water down under extremely high pressures to create or expand small cracks in the rock, and those cracks allow the cold water to flow across the hot rock to the second well. They have completed some hydraulic fracturing from the first well.

Moore is quick to point out that using a fracturing process for geothermal energy does not produce the environmental problems associated with oil and gas fracking, largely because it doesn’t generate dirty wastewater and gases. Further, the oil released in the fracturing can lubricate underground faults, and removing the oil and gas creates gaps, both of which lead to more and larger earthquakes.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm

The fracturing in enhanced geothermal does produce seismic activity that seismologists are monitoring closely, Moore said, but the circumstances are much different. In geothermal fracturing, there is only water, and it can be returned to the ground without contamination. And producing fractures in an isolated piece of granite is less likely to affect faults. The hope, he said, is that once there are enough cracks for sufficient flow from one pipe to the other, it can produce continuous hot water without further fracturing.

And it never runs out. Moore said that even 2% of the available geothermal energy in the United States would be enough the power the nation by itself.

This next round of $44 million in federal funding is about taking that oil and gas process and making it specific to enhanced geothermal. That includes further seismic study, and coming up with the best “proppant” — the material used to keep the fracture open. Oil and gas use fracking sand to keep the cracks open, and the higher temperatures of geothermal make that challenging.

“FORGE is a derisking laboratory,” said Moore, meaning the U of U scientists, funded by the federal government, are doing some heavy lifting to turn the theory of EGS into a practical clean-energy solution. He said drilling wells that deep costs $70,000 a day. They drill 10 to 13 feet per hour, and it takes six hours just to pull out a drill to change the bit, something they do every 50 hours. That early, expensive work makes it easier for private companies to move the technology into a commercially viable business. Moore said all of the research is in the public domain.

Moore said FORGE doesn’t employ many full-time employees in Beaver County at this point, but it has used local contractors for much of the work, and it has filled the county’s hotel rooms for occasional meetings. High school students have also been hired to help with managing core samples from the deep wells.

“They’ve collaborated really well with the town,” said Milford Mayor Nolan Davis. Moore and others have made regular presentations to his city council, and they’ve sponsored contests in the high school to teach students about geothermal energy. People in town, Davis said, are well aware that the world is watching Utah FORGE, and there is hope geothermal energy will become a larger presence if and when commercial development begins. “We hope they can come in and maybe build several small power plants.”

Davis also noted that the power from Beaver County’s solar and wind plants are already contracted to California. “We’d like to get some power we can keep in the county.”

 

by Tim Fitzpatrick, first published @ sltrib.com

Tim Fitzpatrick is The Salt Lake Tribune’s renewable energy reporter, a position funded by a grant from Rocky Mountain Power. The Tribune retains all control over editorial decisions independent of Rocky Mountain Power.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

 

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UCUR – STEM Abstract Workshop

If you are interested in submitting an abstract to the Utah Conference on Undergraduate Research (UCUR) or just wanted to learn more about abstracts, you're more than welcome to stop by in the library on October 6th from 4-5pm. We will be going over the basics of an abstract, and talk about what elements to incorporate in yours. We will also have time to work on your abstracts, and ask questions if you have any. If you have any questions about the abstract, feel free to reach out to Sarthak Tiwari at u1254813@utah.edu.