The ‘Rite Stuff

THE ‘Rite Stuff

A U planetary scientist helped analyze and name the heavenly culprit behind a raucous boom heard by thousands

Jim Karner has trekked almost annually to Antartica on expeditions looking for meteorites. The research associate professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics has probably seen and handled more cosmic debris than most will see in a lifetime. But on the morning of August 13, 2022, he—along with the rest of the northern Wasatch Front—heard one explode, for the first time.“That was really loud,” he remembers thinking as he stood in his driveway. “My immediate thought was, ‘Wow, that sounds like what people have described as meteorites exploding and breaking the sound barrier.’ ”

Within days, a piece of what would eventually be named the Great Salt Lake meteorite made its way into Karner’s hands, giving him and the U an opportunity to learn what secrets of space this chunk of rock brought with it to the Salt Lake Valley.

Read the full story by Paul Gabrielsen in U Magazine.

Information Engines Pay the Piper

Physicists sometimes get a bad rap. Theoretical physicists even more so. Consider Sheldon Cooper in the TV sit-com The Big Bang Theory:

: I’m a physicist. I have a working knowledge of the entire universe and everything it contains.
Penny: Who’s Radiohead?
Sheldon: (after several seconds of twitching) I have a working knowledge of the important things in the universe.

Mikhael Semaan

But a working knowledge of anything is always informed and arguably improved — even transformed — by robust and analytical “thought experiments.” In fact, theoretical physics is key to advancing our understanding of the universe, from the cosmological to the particle scale, through mathematical models.

That is why Mikhael Semaan, Ph.D. and others like him spend their time in the abstract, standing on the figurative shoulders of past giants and figuring out what could happen . . . theoretically. That Semaan is also one of the celebrated postdoctoral researchers/mentors in the Science Research Initiative (SRI), is a coup for undergraduates at the University of Utah who “learn by doing” in a variety of labs and field sites.

“The SRI is awesome,” Semaan says. It’s “a dream job where I can continue advancing my own research while ‘bridging the gap’ in early undergraduate research experiences, giving them access to participation in the cutting edge alongside personalized mentoring.”

Want to learn how to bake something? Hire a baker. Better still, watch the baker bake (and maybe even lick the bowl when allowed). And now that Semaan’s second first-author paper — done with senior investigator Jim Crutchfield of UC Davis, his former PhD advisor — has just “dropped,” students get to witness in real time how things get done, incrementally adding to the trove of scientific knowledge that from past experience, we know, can change the world.

Theory’s abstraction lets us examine certain essential features of the subjects and models we study, which in Semaan and Crutchfield’s case concern the first and second laws of thermodynamics. Is it possible to run a car from the hard drive of a computer? In the parlance of this brand of physics, the short answer is, “Yes, theoretically.”

Thermodynamics of Information Processing

From that question as a jumping off point, Semaan explains further. “The primary impact of our contribution is, for now, mostly to other theorists working out the thermodynamics of information processing. … [W]e suggest a change in viewpoint that simplifies and unifies various preceding lines of inquiry, by combining familiar tools to uncover new results.”

The physicist and writer C.P. Snow said that the first three laws of thermodynamics can be pithily summarized with, “You can’t win. You can’t even break even. You can’t stay out of the game.” Semaan elaborates on the second law, “the universe must increase its entropy — its degree of ‘disorder’ — on average…[b]esides offering an excuse for a messy room, this statement has far-reaching implications and places strict limits on the efficiency of converting one form of energy to another … .”

These limits are obeyed by everything from the molecular motors in our bodies to the increasingly sophisticated computers in our pockets to the impacts of global industry on the Earth’s climate and beyond. Yet in the second law’s case, there’s a catch: it turns out that information in the abstract is itself a form of entropy. This insight is key to the much-celebrated “Landauer bound:” stated simply, learning about a system — going from uncertainty to certainty — fundamentally costs energy.

But what about the converse situation? If it costs energy to “reduce” uncertainty, can we extract energy by “gaining” it — for example, by scrambling a hard drive? If so, how much?

Ratchet Information

To answer this question, previous researchers, including Crutchfield, imagine a “ratchet” which moves in one direction along an “information tape,” interacting with one “bit” at a time. As it does so, the ratchet modifies the tape’s statistical properties. That “tape” could be the hard drive in your computer or could be a sequence of base pairs in a strand of DNA.

“In this situation, by scrambling an initially ordered tape, yes: we can actually extract heat from the environment, but only by increasing randomness on the tape.” While the second law still holds, it is modified. “The randomness of the information in the tape is itself a form of entropy,” explains Semaan further, “and we can reduce the entropy in our thermal environment as long as we sufficiently increase it in the tape.”

In the literature, the laws bounding this behavior are termed “information processing second laws,” in reference to their explicit accounting for information processing (via modifying the tape) in the second law of thermodynamics. In this new paper, Semaan and Crutchfield uncover an “information processing first law,” a similar modification to the first law of thermodynamics, which unifies and strengthens various second laws in the literature. It appears to do more, too: it also offers a way to tighten those second laws — to place stricter limits on the allowed behavior — for systems which have “nonequilibrium steady states.”

Non-equilibrium steady state systems — our bodies, the global climate, and our computers are all examples — need to constantly absorb and dissipate energy, and so stay out of equilibrium, even in “steady” conditions (contrast a cup of coffee left out: its “steady” state is complete equilibrium with the room).

“It turns out,” says Semaan, “that in this case we must ‘pay the piper’:  we can still scramble the tape to extract heat, but only if we do so fast enough to keep up with the non-equilibrium steady states.” To demonstrate their new bound, the authors cooked up a simple, tunable model to visualize how much tighter the new results are with concrete, if idealized, examples. “This sort of idealization is a powerful tool,” says Semaan, “because with it we can ‘zoom in’ on only those features we want to highlight and understand, in this case what having nonequilibrium steady states changes about previous results.”

This uni-directional “ratcheting” mechanism may, in fact, someday lead to engineering a device that harnesses energy from scrambling a hard drive. But first, beyond engineering difficulties, there is much left to understand about the mathematical, idealized limits of this behavior. In other words, we still have a ways to go, even “in theory.” There are plenty of remaining questions to address, the fodder for any theoretical physicist worth their salt.

Complex Systems

However, far from being “only” a theoretical exercise, says Semaan, “these continued extensions, reformulations, and corrections are necessary for us to be able to understand how real-world, highly interconnected, complex systems,” like the human body, forest ecosystems, the planetary climate, etc., “exploit (or don’t) the dynamical interplay between energy and information to function. Since so many of the intricate systems we see in nature (including ourselves) exhibit non-equilibrium steady states,” he continues, “this is a [required] step to understanding how they [do this].”

Information ratchet system: At each time step, the ratchet moves one step to the right along the tape, and interacts with one symbol at a time. As it does so, it exchanges energy in various forms with its environment — signified by the T, aux, and λ bubbles in the picture. After running for a long time, the “output tape” generated by the interactions with the ratchet has different statistical properties compared to the “input tape” it receives. The information processing first and second laws are statements about the fundamental relationship between the energy exchanged with the environment and the information processing in the tape. Credit: Semaan and Crutchfield.

This is heady stuff, and the Southern California native is positively thrilled to be sharing it with young, eager undergraduates at the U through the SRI. Semaan is keenly aware of how critical the undergraduate experience in research needs to be to turn out future physicists. A son of Lebanese immigrants who both attended college in the U.S., neither were research scientists and no one he knew had studied physics. At California State University, Long Beach, where Semaan first declared electrical engineering as his major, he was “seduced into physics” through a series of exceptional and inspirational mentors. In the SRI, he hopes to carry this experience forward, and open new doors for undergraduate students.

It was the Complexity Sciences Center at UC Davis, when he applied to graduate school, that caught his attention because of its interdisciplinary nature and concern with systems in which “the whole appears to be greater than the sum of its parts.” The study of emerging systemic behaviors, helmed by Crutchfield, the Center’s Director, ultimately inspired both his PhD and his decision to join the SRI, working with students across the entire College of Science.

Following the third law of thermodynamics, Mikhael Semaan clearly “can’t stay out of the game” (nor would he want to), but one could argue he’s more than breaking even at it.

The release of this paper, titled “First and second laws of information processing by nonequilibrium dynamical states” in the journal Physical Review E is proof of that.

by David Pace

Bones of the Earth

“There’s always been this idea that my family has a relationship with the bones of the Earth,” says Kevin Mendoza.

The graduate student in the Department of Geology & Geophysics descended from the developers of the Nacia mine in Chihuahua Province. He recalls as a child his grandmother showing him jars of rocks from the mine given to her by her father, one of the only possessions she took with her when she immigrated to the states. A Ph.D. candidate in geophysics, Mendoza is the recipient of the 2023 University of Utah Teaching Assistantship Award: Pythonizing Geoscience Instruction. Mendoza received the award for his contributions to geoscience undergraduates. He used the assistantship to develop python programming-based core curriculum.

Mendoza joined the U after attending the University of California, Merced for his undergraduate degree where he double-majored in physics and Earth systems science. His passion for studying the deep Earth came both from his early geology lessons with his grandmother, as well as the active outdoor lifestyle his dad cultivated in him from an early age. “It was rare for any of my classmates to like even the more accessible activities like hiking, and for the Latinx students such as myself, [it was] completely unheard of at that time. I’m grateful both my parents encouraged exploration of what was then an unconventional hobby.” In high school, Mendoza was particularly passionate about gold prospecting, which he did almost every weekend in the nearby San Gabriel Mountains. He continued his wilderness ramblings in the Sierra as a park ranger in Yosemite National Park during college.


Although his ancestors have been students of the Earth for generations, Mendoza is the first in his family to study it academically. His background prepared him to do a different type of prospecting: for electrical fields within the Earth. His research under the late Philip Wanamaker operates in the niche field of magnetotellurics (MT), which uses natural underground electrical currents to study the structure of the Earth. MT is such a specific subfield of geophysics that there are only a handful of programs across the country, including at the U. “What I do is use solar wind and lightning to basically CT scan the deep Earth,” summarizes Mendoza. From the results of this “CT scan” he can measure the water contained in the geologic water cycle, which has important consequences for plate tectonics. One of the advantages of MT is that it is more sensitive than other techniques such as seismology. “In some situations, like looking for critical battery metals and hidden geothermal resources, MT is one of the best methods for exploring mineral structures.”

Mendoza’s data comes from monitoring the voltage and magnetic field in the deep Earth with sensors deployed on the surface. In the field, these sensors are set up by placing magnetic coils and wires stretching along cardinal directions, and occasionally a coil pointing upwards. These sites are left to collect data for a few months at a time before they are relocated. Since the equipment is portable and non-invasive, MT sites are placed virtually anywhere that’s interesting geologically.

One of the main challenges with MT is visualizing the high dimensionality of the data. While common to other fields, like data science and machine learning, it takes on a unique flavor within MT. Each MT station produces nearly four times more data dimensions than seismic stations do. Complex mathematics are needed to transform this data to usable geologic models. One of the models that Mendoza works with uses over 2.5 million parameters. Analyzing the data and models is only possible using cutting-edge supercomputing tools. As part of his dissertation, Mendoza plans to provide a massive Python codebase that will help other researchers explore similar datasets.

Putting carbon back underground

While his dissertation is focused on more fundamental aspects of plate tectonics across the western U.S., Mendoza believes these findings can have application elsewhere. “Two of the biggest challenges we face with climate change are how to transition to a carbon-free economy and how to put carbon back underground. The tools I’ve developed and am developing can directly help these efforts by monitoring how stable our sequestered carbon is, or assessing the likelihood that critical metals like copper, cobalt, and lithium are in rocks hidden by deep sediment cover. These efforts require the same 2D, 3D, and 4D geophysical modeling, visualization, and evaluation techniques I’m currently using in my own research.”

That codebase will also be helpful for industry, which is possibly the endgame for Mendoza.  Having briefly worked as a geotechnician after graduating with his bachelor’s, he understands that a career in academia is not a realistic or desirable path for every student. “My personal philosophy is that universities are hybrids between a job training program and a liberal education. So, we can’t just teach students general critical thinking; we also have a moral obligation to give them some tools so that they can come into the workforce ready.”

Mendoza knows from firsthand experience that mastering the science is only half the battle for many students from underrepresented backgrounds. He grew up in East LA where he learned how to reach across cultural divides from his Hispanic background to connect with others. “Learning to ‘go-between’ is a skill that’s essential for just having a community, and I think bringing that here made it really easy for me to understand when students are struggling,” Mendoza says. He asks himself questions like, How do you reach out to a student who’s not responding in a normal way? How do you make geology instruction more accessible? How do you engage students in the coursework? With this approach to teaching, Mendoza is able to connect with his students to enhance their experience and has earned multiple prior teaching awards in the process, including the National Association of Geoscience Teachers Outstanding TA Award, 2022.

Hidden curriculum

The obstacles for underrepresented students in academia don’t end after earning a bachelor’s; they just aren’t widely discussed. On top of regular classwork, first generation graduate students have to tackle the “hidden curriculum” within academia. This includes issues such as figuring out how to write a dissertation, what the college’s practices are, how to handle advisor conflict and other difficult-to-ask (and -answer) questions.

The overarching difficulty is determining what graduate school is supposed to look like in the first place, which Mendoza says is almost by design. “Grad school is very heterogeneous. Part of that is good because science looks different across disciplines, but that is [also] confusing for first gen grad students who don’t know how to navigate this unknown academic culture.” It’s a problem that is systemic, and not unique to the U.

To succeed in grad school, he says, “you can’t use the old paradigm, pushing boundaries like you did in undergrad and high school won’t necessarily result in the same success as a grad student. The cultural setting is different.” Even outside of academia, underrepresented scientists face many of these challenges. According to Mendoza, geoscience is the least diverse subfield of STEM. Nature Geoscience reported that the last 40 years has seen zero progress with respect to minority representation within geoscience. The United States Geological Survey has the poorest track record of minority employees of all the federal government agencies and is nearly half as diverse as the next ranked federal agency. The lack of diversity is mostly due to the niche nature of the discipline. Unlike, for example, computer science, there is a relatively finite employment pool. 

Kevin Mendoza has come a long way since his geology lessons with his grandmother’s Chihuahuan rocks, and it has informed the legacy he is now leaving with students familiar with the challenges he has faced. The teaching award is an acknowledgement that the paradigm can shift, that the Earth can move.


By Lauren Wigod
Science Writer Intern

Sandra J. Bromley Scholarship


Sandra J. Bromley Scholarship

Providing a Role Model for New Generations

Ray Greer. Banner Photo above: Dannon Allred, Ray Greer and his wife Jill, Michaela Fluck, Keegan Benfield, Eliza Roberts. Credit: Matt Crawley

The Sandra J. Bromley scholarship is a full-tuition scholarship for undergraduate students in the College of Science. It provides in-state tuition, up to 15 credit hours per semester, for eight semesters which allows each recipient to complete their degree. The program, now celebrating its 10-year anniversary, is funded by the generosity of Ray Greer, BS’86, in Mathematics.

Each year, a freshman student is selected as a new Bromley scholar, and rolls into the program, while a senior student graduates. This unique model provides continuous funding to the students and allows the College of Science to assist and monitor the students as they progress through their academic program.

“The Bromley scholarship is extremely valuable because it can serve a student throughout their entire undergraduate career,” says Peter Trapa, dean of the College of Science. “The cumulative effect for the student is truly profound. Each year we see the incredible results.”

In addition, Greer and his wife, Jill, host the Bromley scholars at least once a year on campus. The informal luncheon allows the students to report on their progress and discuss any problems or concerns.

“I have had the pleasure of meeting and getting acquainted with the undergraduates as they progress through their academic goals, and it is always a pleasure to see their progression and academic interest flourish over time. In all I have done throughout my life, this has been one of the greatest and most rewarding experiences I have had the opportunity to be a part of,” says Greer.

Role Model

When Greer was just 12 years old, his mother, Sandra J. Bromley, moved her young family from Texas to Utah. The year was 1976. Bromley was promptly hired at the University of Utah and enjoyed a successful career as a technical illustrator in the College of Mines and Earth Sciences under the direction of Frank H. Brown.

“My mother was the single greatest influence in my life,” says Greer. “She taught me the value of hard work and perseverance. She also insisted that college was not optional. It was like going from junior high to high school — you just did it!”

Greer enrolled at the U for fall semester 1981 and was initially interested in computer science and engineering. However, computer science was highly competitive at the time so available classes were scarce.

“Fortunately, Hugo Rossi, a math professor, convinced me that if I majored in mathematics I could get as much course work in computer science as I wanted,” says Greer.

For several years Greer worked through the rigorous mathematics major requirements. He persevered and completed his math degree in 1986.

Then, in 2000, Greer’s mother moved back to Texas for the remaining years of her life. She passed away in 2011. Shortly thereafter, Greer established the Sandra J. Bromley scholarship to honor his mother by providing a way for deserving students to earn a college degree.

“She worked hard to provide for her family, but her greatest regret in life was not attending college herself, hence the vision behind the Bromley scholarship,” says Greer.

“Her requirement was that she would support me as long as I didn’t quit school,” says Greer.  “That is why the Bromley scholarship requires continuous attendance.”

Solving Problems

Greer has more than 40 years of experience in logistics and transportation industries. He has held senior management positions for Greatwide Logistics Services, Newgistics, Ryder Logistics and FedEx. He served as president of BNSF Logistics, headquartered near Dallas, Texas, from 2011 to 2018.

“Math allows me to think critically about situations and problems generally. Not just numerically but logically, to find patterns and trends that point to likely outcomes,” he says.

In 2018, Greer was named CEO of Omnitracs, a leading company in onboard technology for the transportation industry. Omnitracs is an international billion-dollar company that provides telematic devices and logistics to support drivers and their organizations to be compliant, safe and efficient.

“Math is universal and most importantly it teaches you discipline and persistence to work a problem until it is solved. That process of critical thinking and problem-solving has served me well throughout my entire career,” says Greer.

In 2021, Greer sold Omnitracs and transitioned to advisory board work as well as becoming an operating partner for Welsh, Carson, Anderson and Stowe, focused on supply chain technology investments.

Ray Greer has high hopes and expectations for today’s college students. His advice: “Connecting with people — not apps and cell phones — will differentiate you from the competition.”

The Bromley Scholars

Eliza Robert

“I love the entire vibe of the university”

Eliza Roberts is the most recent recipient of the Bromley scholarship. A freshman at the U, she is pursuing a degree in applied math and physics, with an emphasis in astronomy and astrophysics. Being awarded this scholarship has made Roberts’ experience at the U even more valuable. “It has truly allowed me to focus more on my classes, and even take classes that I wouldn’t have taken otherwise,” she says. “With the scholarship, I don’t have to worry about the financial aspects of college like I was fully intending to, which means that I can explore my passions and dedicate my time to learning.”

In addition to her hard work as a student, Roberts works as a math tutor in the TRIO office at the U. One of her proudest accomplishments is receiving her Girl Scout Gold award, for which she focused on creating a safe backyard space for adults with disabilities. 

Roberts lives in Salt Lake City and makes the most of her time at the U participating in LEAP classes, a year-long learning community for entering University students, and even discovering top-secret study and nap spots on campus. “I love the entire vibe of the university,” she says. “I feel safe, valued, and free. I have been able to explore myself more than I have in years, and it has helped me figure out who I want to be.”

~Julia St. Andre

Dannon Allred
“Space is simply beautiful”

Dannon Allred was awarded the Bromley Scholarship in 2021 and just completed his sophomore year at the U. A passionate learner, he is studying physics with an astronomy emphasis. “Ever since I’ve been interested in science, I’ve felt a pull towards physics and astronomy,” he says. “There’s just a lot in astronomy that spikes my curiosity, there’s a lot that’s unknown, and [outer] space is simply beautiful.”

The Bromley scholarship has given Allred the opportunity to experience college without any financial worries and has allowed him to focus more of his energy on his passion for astrophysics. “Obviously one of the most daunting things about college is paying for it, and that’s a lot of stress that most students have to deal with,” he says. “I would say that’s what’s most impactful about the Bromely scholarship because it allows me to go through college stress-free in that aspect.” 

On top of his astrophysics studies, Allred has been involved in several research projects on campus. “In my freshman year, I was part of Dr. Boehme’s … lab as part of the Science Research Initiative doing research on Organic Light-Emitting Diodes (OLEDs) using spintronics,” explains Allred. “This spring, I did an introductory research project analyzing the spectral emission features of the Sombrero Galaxy with Dr. Anil Seth” who specializes in astrophysics. 

Allred’s hope is to complete a graduate degree in the field as well. Not surprisingly, when he’s not busy studying stars and galaxies far, far away, he loves astrophotography, admiring the universe through the lens of his camera.   ~ Julia St. Andre

Michaela Fluck
“Proceeding Into the Wilderness”

Michaela Fluck works in the Zelikowsky Lab, which researches neural circuits that affect stress, fear, and social behavior. “I’ve always been interested in neurobiology, since I was a kid,” she states. “I’ve had family members who’ve had strokes and other brain injuries.”

A biology major with a psychology minor, Fluck says the study of abnormal psychology is also a passion of hers. “Seeing what can go wrong with the brain and what’s behind [it] …  is super interesting as well.”

Fluck was inspired to become a doctor by her patients at Primary Children’s Hospital, where she works as a phlebotomist. “I want to become an advocate for patients,” she says, “and help people work through the difficulties of medicine. Kids tend to hate procedures no matter what, so helping them work through the procedures is honestly one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.”

Her favorite class was organic chemistry. “Not a lot of pre-meds can say that,” she jokes. Fluck also loved taking an acting class at the U which relieved the stress of being a STEM student and harked back to her time as an actress in high school, especially her appearance in the the late Stephen Sondheim’s epic musical saga about daring to venture Into the Woods~ CJ Siebeneck

Keegan Benfield
Who knew I could do that?”

As a Bromley Scholar, Keegan Benfield BS’23, was able to spend more time on scientific passions, such as research and projects. “The Bromley Scholarship and the U have helped shape me to be the best that I can be.” 

Along with his double majors in mechanical engineering and physics, Benfield focuses his time on humanitarian efforts, volunteering with Youthlinc and Real life programs. He’s the president of the university’s marksmen club, and has attended National Collegiate events at the National and Junior level.

Prior to graduation, Benfield worked in the Deemyad Lab, researching condensed matter physics. The Lab focuses on theoretical physics, especially the physics of matter at extreme conditions of temperature and pressure.

One of Benfield’s favorite classes was Introduction to Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. “It was an ‘ah-ha!’ class that was challenging and fun,” Benfield says. “I have learned and expanded my knowledge in ways that amaze me. Who knew I could do that?”

Benfield recently completed a summer internship at Cosm and developed educational programs for planetariums using Digistar 7, which features full-dome programs and production services, giant screen films formatted for full-dome theaters, premium-quality projection domes, and theater design services. He plans on getting a master’s or PhD and work in a national laboratory or research company.   ~ CJ Seibeneck


View a LIst of all Bromley Scholars (as of June 2023) and brief updates on their whereabouts

Nobel winner Capecchi discovers new brain mechanism

The pandemic and its aftermath have raised anxiety to new levels. But the roots of anxiety-related conditions, including obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorder (OCSD), are still unclear.

In a new study, University of Utah Health scientists discovered insights into the importance of a minor cell type in the bra in — microglia —i n controlling anxiety-related behaviors in laboratory mice. Traditionally, neurons — the predominant brain cell type — are thought to control behavior.

The researchers showed that, like buttons on a game controller, specific microglia populations activate anxiety and OCSD behaviors while others dampen them. Further, microglia communicate with neurons to invoke the behaviors. The findings, published in Molecular Psychiatry, could eventually lead to new approaches for targeted therapies.

“A small amount of anxiety is good,” said Nobel Laureate Mario Capecchi, Ph.D., a distinguished professor of human genetics at the Spencer Fox Eccles School of Medicine at University of Utah and of biology in the School of Biological Sciences. He is also senior author of the study. “Anxiety motivates us, spurs us on, and gives us that extra bit of push that said, ‘I can.’ But a large dose of anxiety overwhelms us. We become mentally paralyzed, the heart beats faster, we sweat, and confusion settles in our minds.”

“This work is unique and has challenged the current dogma about the role of microglia function in the brain”

Capecchi, who arrived at the University of Utah in 1973 did much of his early research, leading to his Nobel Prize, at U Biology where a permanent display of his original equipment involving gene-targeting is housed.

Read the full story by Julie Kiefer about this exciting new research by Utah’s Nobel laureate in U of U Health.

Geologist Brenda Bowen, to chair Department of Atmospheric Sciences

The College of Science and the College of Mines and Earth Sciences (CMES) are pleased to announce that Professor Brenda Bowen has agreed to serve as the next chair of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences (ATMOS).

Bowen is a Professor of Geology and Geophysics and Director of the Global Change and Sustainability Center (GCSC). She will continue as the Director of the GCSC while serving as chair and will replace John Horel who has been at the helm of ATMOS for five years.

“Brenda Bowen is an internationally prominent researcher and an experienced academic leader,” said Peter Trapa, Dean of the College of Science. “Bowen’s vision will guide the Department of Atmospheric Sciences in exciting new directions.” 

“As most of you know, Brenda is a dynamic leader on campus who has a collaborative vision of academics and research,” said Darryl Butt, out-going dean of the CMES to his colleagues. “I am really looking forward to watching the synergy between departments in our merged college structure as you all continue to break down barriers of academics and, as I like to say, make two plus two equal something greater than four.”

 Said Bowen who begins her tour as chair on July 1, 2023, “I am excited for the opportunity to serve as Chair of Atmospheric Sciences.  I look forward to leading ATMOS in a way that creates stronger connections between our departments and the College of Science as a whole. My goal is to build on the department’s leadership in advancing field stations and long-term field-based science, commitment to conducting and advancing community-based research with highly significant societal relevance, and dedication to training students for careers of the future.”  

An interdisciplinary geoscientist, Bowen explores the links between sedimentology, geochemistry and environmental change, particularly in extreme environments.  Recent work is focused on how surface process, groundwater flow and geochemical change impact landscape evolution in human-modified systems using field observations, satellite and airborne remote sensing and a range of lab-based analytical techniques including geochemistry and microscopy. 

In addition to her geologic research and teaching, Bowen works to facilitate interdisciplinary sustainability research, practice, and academic programs that address critical issues related to understanding global change and creating sustainable solutions related to energy, resources, climate and equity.

ATMOS is the leading program of weather and climate related research and education in the Intermountain West and is recognized internationally for its expertise in cloud-climate interactions, mountain meteorology, climate physics and dynamics, weather and climate modeling, and tropical meteorology. The department, which celebrated its 75th anniversary earlier this year, houses research and teaching endeavors that provide the knowledge and tools needed by society to address the challenges posed by hazardous weather and climate change in the 21st century. The department is a student-centered department with faculty who are dedicated graduate student mentors and classroom instructors. Several of ATMOS professors have won college or university-wide teaching awards. For more information, read the department’s 2023 magazine Air Currents.


Tinker Toy Rises

After months of earth-moving, the Applied Science Project gets some serious hardware.

Senior Risk and Safety Manager Carlyn Chester and flagman Alan. Credit: David Pace

These days pedestrians along University Street on the westside of campus are typically met by Alan, a bearded, sixty-something employee and certified UDOT flagger dressed in Okland Construction garb, including hard hat with neck sunshade that cascades to his shoulders and sometimes flaps in the wind. Alan’s here keeping order at the gated threshold to the construction site of the Applied Science Project and is happy to give you a fist bump as you walk to work along the detour they’ve put up. Armed with a push broom, and a mobile phone, he slows traffic for entering and exiting trucks, and lines up arrivals carrying everything from timbers to a porta-potty called “Honey Bucket.”

On the morning of June 7th, the team was preparing for the delivery of a giant tower crane, in sections, which will stand around 265 feet tall for a full year at the site like a giant Tinker Toy. A tower crane features a jib or “jib arm” as a horizontal beam used to support the load clear of the main support. It can typically lift 19.8 tons (18 metric tons).

“So these cranes are so big they need to have all these counterweights and stuff,” says Carlyn Chester BS’09, Senior Risk and Safety Manager at Okland Construction. She spells her name for us: “Like George Carlin [the late sometimes raunchy comedian] but with a ‘y’ . . . and I’m not a dirty old man,” she says with a laugh. Chester oversees all of the many Okland projects at the University of Utah.  The cranes need to be “strong enough to pick up those tower pieces,” she continues over the relentless beeping of a nearby steer loader pushing gravel.  “You need a crane to build a crane. You have to put in all the counterweights and footings . . . [There are] two big semis worth of materials just to get that crane set up tomorrow before the tower crane comes in.”

Credit: Todd Anderson

The gaping hole in front of the old Stewart Building—site of the new Applied Science Building—is squared off with wooden bulwarks holding up the sides (temporary) backed by a cement retaining wall (permanent). It looks like a neatly squared-off grave for a giant of sorts, two stories deep at the back and the sides sloping down the hill to a mere curb at the street. It’s a striking contrast to the bucolic Cottam’s Gulch with its brick path and towering hybrid trees to the north which will be a preserved historic asset to what will become the College of Science’s Crocker Science Complex.

“Did you find any bones?” we ask. Back in 2017 when the George Thomas Building was being retrofitted and expanded for the Crocker Science Center, Okland unearthed human bones that turned out to be the remains of old cadavers that had been discarded decades earlier by the medical school, originally located in the Life Sciences Building, another Okland project on campus.

“We found a couple of things,” says Chester. “The paleontologist people were here every single day when we were digging.” (It turns out the bones were from modern animals.)

Credit: Todd Anderson

Carlyn points at a boxy, hexagonal structure to the left where a temporary footing has been positioned in the bottom of it. The footing is inspected by a structural engineer “to make sure it’s level and plumb so that when we start building, [the tower crane is] stable. There’s so much science that goes into it and mathematics,” she says.

Meanwhile, Alan has ambled back to the street to talk to a truck driver who has just pulled up. When he returns, he and Carlyn pose for a picture together­–all smiles under their hard hats and neck shades that faintly remind one of Lawrence of Arabia’s. Alone, we ask Alan to “Flash the U” for us which he struggles a bit with. “My dad went to BYU,” he says sheepishly.

Bright and early next morning, Alan was back giving his signature fist bumps to passers-by. They stopped for a few moments to witness the newly arrived crane-to-build-a-crane with a synchronized telescoping boom as high (or higher) than one of those vertiginous, gut-wrenching rides at Lagoon amusement park north of here. Soon the semis arrived with tower segments which were off-loaded, rigged and then lofted off the ground vertically.

Even the rowdy fox squirrels in Cottam’s Gulch paused in a moment of awe as the Tinker Toy began to rise, a flash of yellow latticed steel against the summer sky.

By David Pace




Randy Irmis receives Fulbright Scholar Award

How we look at fossils,” says paleontologist Randy Irmis in a 2016 interview, is the most exciting thing happening in his field today. “There are a lot of new ways to look at fossils rather than just observing the bones themselves. We have lots of new imaging techniques for looking inside bones or skulls and doing three dimensional work.”

The Chief Curator and Curator of Paleontology at the Natural History Museum of Utah, and Associate Professor in the Department of Geology & Geophysics, Irmis recently received a Fulbright U.S. Scholar award.  He was one of two University of Utah professors to receive the honor, the second being Michael Yu, a member of the Department of Biomedical Engineering.

Irmis, who as a Fulbright will be associated with the Instituto Argentino de Nivologia Glaciolgia y Ciencias Ambientales in Mendoza, Argentina, has a whole lot more to say about dinosaurs, including molecular work in the field “looking at the composition of the bones and sometimes feathers or hair that was preserved. We’re learning a whole bunch of new things just by the way that we can image these fossils using very advanced techniques that we never would have dreamed of even ten years ago.”

In Argentina, Irmis will develop and teach a new field-based course on methods and approaches to interrogating the geologic record on how terrestrial ecosystems changed in relation to climate in deep time and collaborate with Argentine colleagues on a large-scale research project to understand how Triassic non-marine ecosystems in northwestern Argentina changed in relation to the regional and global environment between 250-215 million years ago.

Read the full story about both Fulbright awardees in @TheU.

U.S. Assistant Secretary visits U and Utah FORGE site

PHOTO CREDIT: ERIC LARSON, FLASH POINT SLC Alejandro Moreno and DOE officials in front of the drill rig at the Utah FORGE site.

Managed by the University of Utah, the Utah Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy (FORGE) hosted Alejandro Moreno, acting assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, for a two-day visit to the University of Utah and the Utah FORGE site, during which he learned about geothermal energy and the ongoing research in Beaver County.

Utah FORGE is a geothermal laboratory located northeast of Milford. The $218M project was awarded to the U’s Energy & Geosciences Institute after a three-year, five-way competition, and is the university’s largest-ever research grant. Along with the FORGE team, Assistant Secretary Moreno was joined by Lauren Boyd, acting director of the DOE’s Geothermal Technology Office, and several other officials from the department.

The visit comes about a month after FORGE announced that the drilling of its second highly deviated deep well has commenced. This second well will serve as the production well of a two well doublet, and will mirror the existing injection well, which was drilled between October 2020 and February 2021. The new well will be located approximately 300 feet from the injection well.

Like the injection well, the upper part of the well will be drilled vertically through approximately 4,550 feet of sediments at which point it will penetrate into hard crystalline granite. At about 5,600 feet, the well will be gradually steered at a 5-degree angle for each 100 feet until it reaches an inclination of 65 degrees from its vertical point. The total length of the well will be approximately 10,700 feet with the “toe” – or the end of the well – reaching a vertical depth of 8,265 feet. The temperature at this depth will be 440 degrees F.

Dr. Joseph Moore, the principal investigator of Utah FORGE, Research Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and adjunct faculty member in the U’s Department of Geology & Geophysics in , presented an overview of the project and answered questions from the Assistant secretary and others in attendance. Assistant Secretary Moreno was eager to learn more about the potential offered by the research in Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS), the progress achieved thus far, and its role in advancing the nation’s renewable energy goals.

Read further about Assistant Secretary Moreno’s visit to the U and the lab site in @TheU

2023 Outstanding Undergraduate Research Mentors

The Office of Undergraduate Research has created a faculty award to honor mentors for their work with students. The Outstanding Undergraduate Research Mentor Award, now in its inaugural year, is given to those who were selected by their college leadership and peers for their dedicated service to mentorship.

Of the 420 mentors across campus who worked with the Office of Undergraduate Research this year, two of the 2023 winners of the Outstanding Undergraduate Research Mentor Award are seated in the College of Science: Ofer Rog (biology) and Gannet Hallar (Atmospheric Sciences).

Dr. Ofer Rog’s research focuses on the complex regulation of chromosomes during meiosis. Dr. Rog and his assembled team of top-notch researchers have developed new methods, used innovative approaches, and carried out meticulous studies that are now revealing key elements of this complex process. The work conducted by him and his research group has provided stunning insights into the fundamental cellular processes explaining the origin and maintenance of different sexes, including our own. As Director Frederick Adler states, “Dr. Rog is also an extraordinary communicator with a dedication to helping colleagues and students find new ways to communicate.”

The Mario Capecchi Endowed Chair in the School of Biological Sciences (SBS), Rog was a catalyst in forming and managing the LGBTQ+ STEM interest group in the College of Science. The group seeks to create change in our campus community with an inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ individuals and allies.

You can read about Rog’s work with condensate illustration in a recent feature in SBS’s OUR DNA here.


Dr. Gannett Hallar has been successfully mentoring undergraduate researchers at the University of Utah since 2016. Her mentees participate in the Hallar Aerosol Research Team (HART) making connections between the atmosphere, biosphere, and climate. Her mentees have successfully received awards such as the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program and Wilkes Scholars. Her commitment to mentoring includes her role as a faculty fellow with Utah Pathways to STEM Initiative (UPSTEM), training in inclusive teaching and mentoring strategies.

As stated by Dean Darryl Butt, “Dr. Hallar is a world-class mentor. Her dedication to our undergraduate students comes naturally, but she is also very deliberate in creating a structure of experiential learning that is inherently unforgettable.”

Director of the Storm Peak Lab, the premier, high-elevation atmospheric science laboratory in the Western U.S., Hallar says the facility atop Steamboat Springs Ski Resort is “the perfect place, to have your head in the clouds.” The laboratory sits in the clouds about 40 percent of the time in the winter. “That allows us to sample clouds and the particles that make clouds at the same time. And from that, the lab has produced about 150 peer-reviewed publications.”