Remembering Alan Rigby

Remembering Alan D. Rigby 1969-2024

On January 2, 2024 Alan David Rigby of West Valley City, Utah, passed away unexpectedly at the young age of 54. He was born on January 22, 1969 and spent his childhood in Taylorsville, Utah. After graduating from Taylorsville High School in 1987, Alan attended the University of Utah to study Environmental Earth Sciences. In the late 80s, Alan began working in the Department of Geology and Geophysics as an undergraduate, helping Thure Cerling study cosmogenic dating of the Lava Falls debris flow in the Grand Canyon. After graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1995, he continued his career at the U and helped to build and manage the Noble Gas Lab, which he did for many years. He was the best tour guide for visiting groups and was surrounded by the most intelligent and dedicated people. He thoroughly enjoyed his time there and created friendships that he treasured.

Here below, colleagues Thure Cerling and Kip Solomon reflect on their time with Alan.


By Thure Cerling

Alan began working in my laboratory as an undergraduate in the early 1990s; I needed someone to work on mineral separates for cosmogenic dating, a technique recently developed for dating Quaternary events. Always willing, always enthusiastic, I found Alan an ideal person for the sometimes tedious, but critical, job of obtaining pure olivine or pyroxene separates for 3He analysis.

In 1994, while Alan as still an undergraduate I had the opportunity to meet a US Geological Survey Grand Canyon rafting trip at Lava Falls.  Alan was an obvious choice for my companion on the trip. The scientific question was whether we could date the debris flows that resulted in this famous river rapids – one of the best known in the world.  Research trips in the Grand Canyon are generally in the winter months, and indeed our trip was in late February.

Our plan was to fly to St George, rent a car, then drive to Vulcan’s Throne on the northern rim of the canyon, and then hike down to the river, a drop of about 800 meters over a very short distance – about 1000 meters on the map.  We left Salt Lake City in a dual propeller plane, and climbed to our cruising altitude. “Alan”, I said, “isn’t that propeller slowing down?”.  Indeed, it slowed until barely turning, and we turned back to Salt Lake on the single right engine.  So we got my 4-Runner, grabbed two sandwiches from Crown Burger, and drove the six or so hours to Vulcan’s Throne, reaching the campsite on the canyon rim about 10 at night.  A cold night’s camping, a quick breakfast, and then a hike down the scree slope of volcanic cinder.  The trail switch-backed down the slope and each of us would send a cascade of cinders and gravel down the slope in front of us.  The lead person would find a safe refuge, at the edge or behind an exceptionally large boulder, while the following person made his way down, sending a skitter of gravel down towards the bottom.

Safely at the bottom, the USGS group had already arrived and sent raft across the river to fetch us.  We spent a few days at Lava Falls, collected sufficient samples for dating which fortunately could be put on the USGS rafts and taken downstream. But someone had to fetch the car at the top of the Canyon and that was Alan.  With Ted Melis, Alan and I hiked up the Vulcan’s throne trail where he could fetch the car and drive back to Salt Lake City; then Ted and I hiked back down to the river.  We were able to date the debris flows; the debris forming Lava Falls is about 3000 years old, and initially dammed the river to a depth of at least 22 meters, some 2 times greater than the drop today.

Alan came along on several other of those trips, always willing to make the long hike in and retrieve the car at the top.  Such a cheerful camper, willing worker in the lab and in the field.

In the later 1990s Kip Solomon and I were funded by NSF to purchase a noble gas mass spectrometer and set up a noble gas lab – Kip to work on the tritium-3He dating method for groundwater and me to work on cosmogenic isotopes.  We had to visit the MAP mass spectrometer lab near Manchester and Alan accompanied me to UK to discuss logistics with Mike Lynch, the MAP designer as these mass spectrometers were made individually.  Airfares were considerably less if we stayed over a Saturday night and so Alan and I arrived in Manchester early on a Saturday on a bleak November day.  What to do for the weekend – I suggested Hadrian’s Wall and so off we went in a rented car.  We explored Hadrians’ Wall for the day, hiking along the base, exploring Roman ruins, and thinking how miserable to be a Roman soldier uprooted from Italy and banished to the Scottish lowlands to protest a stupid wall in the middle of nowhere.  Wanting a good and early night’s sleep, we found a cosy English Inn in Haltwhistle at about 4 pm just as the sun was setting.  The expansive bar with low ceilings was empty except for the proprietor who assured us that he had plenty of room for us that evening — after all, it was November and the very very low part of the tourist season.  We checked the rooms, which were just above the bar, and they looked cosy and warm with a fireplace.  So we were just about to sign up when we noticed a newcomer in the bar —  all dressed in white with spangles and cowboy boots and an electric guitar.  “What’s that?”, we asked.  “We are having an Elvis Presley look-alike contest tonight — with music and you are welcome!”  Badly needing sleep, we declined!

After returning to Salt Lake, having decided to go with the MAP mass spectrometer, Alan became part of our team to set up the extraction lines and then the MAP when it eventually arrived in Salt Lake City.  He was a key part of the laboratory, running samples for the tritium-3He dating of groundwater, carefully monitoring the 1600 °C furnace for melting minerals and extracting cosmogenic gases for dating.

In all, Alan worked in our department for some 30 years. He was devoted to the department and was a key part of the day-to-day workings for many of us.

In one sentence: if you are on an airplane when one of the engine fails, you would be hard pressed to find a better seat mate than Alan Rigby!


By Kip Solomon

I first met Alan shortly after I returned to the University of Utah in 1993 as faculty member.  Alan and I immediately had common ground as we had both been undergraduates at the U and both had worked for Thure Cerling and Frank Brown.

When Thure and I received an NSF grant to build a noble gas system, Alan was the obvious choice to help build the extraction lines and operate the mass spectrometer.  Alan’s mechanical skills were evident as he bolted together and made leak tight more than 60 valves, hundreds of fittings, a 10 ˚K cold head, and associated high vacuum pumps.  When we were developing the helium ingrowth method for tritium analyses and needed an inexpensive metal container to store water under high vacuum for several months, Alan had a great idea.  Why not use copper floats used in toilet tanks?  These proved to be cheap, leak tight, and became known as the toilet tritium method!

Alan’s skills were utilized both in the lab and field.  When the Nature Conservancy asked us to investigate the source of water for the Matheson Wetland Preserve (near Moab Utah), Alan helped develop a system for installing wells using a portable jack hammer.  The wells he installed formed the basis for a graduate student thesis, field course for geological engineers, and most recently a cooperative project with the U.S. Geological Survey that redefined the water resources of the Moab Spanish Valley.

Alan became so well known to the local Swagelok dealer (Salt Lake Valve and Fitting) that they made several attempts at hiring him away from the University.  To my great fortune, and the University’s, Alan stayed at the University for his entire career.

In addition to his extraordinary technical skills, Alan was a people person who enjoyed interacting with clients of the noble gas lab, students, faculty, and staff.  His pleasant demeanor and patience became a huge asset to the lab as he interfaced with researchers and consultants who all wanted their samples run NOW!  Somehow, Alan was able to calm the crowds and answer their questions over and over regarding the specialized sample collections methods.

While I don’t recall ever seeing Alan angry, his love and empathy for his family and friends was clear as their problems became his problems.  Family was always Alan’s top priority as he worked through many challenges including the early passing of his father and health issues with his young children.  The well-being of his family was always on his mind and the topic of many lunchtime conversations over the years.  He has been an absolute staple in the Department for more than 30 years.

Harley Benz Distinguished Alumnus

2022 DistinGuished AlumnUS

February 29, 2024

Among the nation’s preeminent earthquake seismologists, Harley Benz MS’82, PhD’86, scientist emeritus at the US Geological Survey (USGS)’s Earthquake Hazards Program, first worked at the USGS in Menlo Park, California, and then, beginning in 1993, in Golden, Colorado.


With positions in the Branch of Seismology, the Branch of Earthquake and Geomagnetic Information, and the Geologic Hazards Team, he became the Technical Manager of the Advanced National Seismic System (ANSS) which oversees and coordinates seismic network operations throughout the US. In 2022 the Department of Geology & Geophysics recognized him with the 2022 Distinguished Alumnus Award.

In 2003, Benz was appointed ANSS Megaproject Chief, overseeing the National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC) which is the world’s pre-eminent seismic monitoring system. Benz also played a role in the modernization of earthquake operations within the participating seismic networks, after co-authoring “An Assessment of Seismic Monitoring in the United States,” the 1999 Congressional Report that led to the formation and funding of the ANSS. The success of ANSS was due in no small part due to Benz’ ability to engender trust and respect from the regional network operators who were essential to the program’s success, according to the commendations from his colleagues.

Benz is credited with helping to modernize USGS earthquake analyses, reporting procedures and facilities, in particular revising the data processing and operations at NEIC to become less labor intensive and more automated. Under his leadership, rapid notifications, web services and data feeds became routine as ways to rapidly disseminate earthquake information to government agencies, emergency managers, the media and the general public. NEIC now processes continuous data from more than 2,200 seismic stations contributed by more than 145 seismic networks across the globe.

Benz’ use of innovative communication products, especially ArcGIS StoryMaps, demonstrate his commitment to sharing earthquake science. The use of story maps to place complex events into tectonic and seismological context so that they are understandable to a broad audience has been equally groundbreaking in classrooms and newsrooms, according to Benz’ colleagues. (The story map created for the 2023 Kahramanmaraş, Turkey, earthquake sequence is one such example.)

Along with his mentorship of dozens of graduate students, postdoctoral students and early career scientists, Benz forged a number of international partnerships during his time at USGS. He aided in the development of the Caribbean and N4 networks and expansion of the Global Seismographic Network, and expanded ties with the nuclear test ban treaty monitoring community that analyzes global seismic signals through the International Monitoring System (IMS). High-quality digital data from each of these networks is now available in real-time for NEIC, as a result of his efforts.

A native of Georgia, Benz earned his BS in geophysics from the University of Kansas and has been involved in a broad range of research and applications in earthquake seismology. This includes imaging earth structure, earthquake detection, modeling of seismic sources, and near-real-time location and moment-tensor calculation to inform earthquake disaster response. Additionally, the range of his work extends to measurement and prediction of strong ground motion; seismic discrimination between natural seismicity and nuclear explosions; understanding earthquake swarms; induced seismicity and its implications for seismic hazard; seismic network operations; and generation and management of earthquake catalogs. His expertise and knowledge in these areas have informed his continual efforts to educate college students and the general public about earthquake hazards.

In addition to educating college students—most recently as an adjunct professor at the U during the 2021-2022 academic year—Benz has also been an exceptional leader in meeting USGS’s missions to quantify seismic hazards and to inform national, state, and local governments, private industry, and the general public about such earthquake hazards and their mitigation.

The Distinguished Alumni Award is given regularly by the Department of Geology & Geophysics. This past fall David Braxton MS’97 was announced as the 2023 recipient. His profile will appear in an upcoming issue of Down to Earth.

You can read the entire Geology & Geophysics Department magazine Down to Earth where this story originally appeared here.

Sizing Up Courthouse Crack

Sizing Up Courthouse Crack

February 29, 2024

Geohazards, due to the way they constantly change, are a source of useful research into landslides and how they happen.


^ Erin Jensen at the Courthouse Mesa. Credit: courtesy of Erin Jensen. ^^ Banner Photo: Erin Jensen in Courthouse Crack. Credit: Jeff Moore.

When landslides and slope failures occur in our built and natural environments, damaging property and threatening life, there’s a scramble to secure reliable assessments to prevent further damage. But what if there were ways to measure the character and instability of rock and soil beforehand and to predict potential disasters?

Recently, PhD student Erin Jensen used seismic resonance measurements to characterize the Courthouse Crack, a potentially hazardous rock slope near Moab, Utah that is part of the Courthouse Mesa. “It’s important to be able to see a site like this in person,” Jensen says, “and really appreciate the size and scale. I get to experience firsthand all the different mechanisms and influences that are happening at a particular site.”

Seismic resonance is an emerging technique within the field of geohazards and has allowed Jensen to collect more data on the Courthouse Mesa instability than can be obtained with traditional approaches.

Perhaps surprising to the uninitiated, structures like buildings, bridges, as well as natural rock formations like arches have natural vibration modes and are constantly in motion at their resonance frequencies. The new technique can help detect and characterize rock slope instabilities. Using sensitive seismic instruments has changed how researchers detect changes in slope stability and what those changes look like.

“Traditional techniques are easy to implement, and fairly inexpensive,” Jensen says. “But the main limitation is that they’re really only measuring the surface of an instability. They aren’t providing much information about the internal structure, or what’s going on at depth.”

Seismic monitoring not only bridges the gap between surface and subsurface techniques but does so without being structurally invasive, though it can be costly. In the end, Jensen used a combination of new and traditional techniques to create a clearer picture of the instability of Courthouse Crack as a whole.

The mother of invention
At sites like Courthouse Mesa, traditional methods include expensive means of drilling and field mapping which means measuring the cracks you can see, plotting it out on a map, and viewing the geometry of instability. Alternatively, generating field data with seismic resonance and then coupling the data with numerical models result in an improved picture of crack conditions, which Jensen then uses to describe the instability geometry and how the Courthouse Crack’s stability might fail. “The combination of new and traditional techniques,” Jensen says,  “generates an improved picture of landslide behavior and failure development.”

“We aren’t really concerned about imminent failure or any hazard to the public,” continues Jensen, specifically about Courthouse Mesa. “So it’s a really good spot to use as a field laboratory” and to use different seismic resonance techniques to understand work with rock slope instabilities and how they can be applied to different types of landslides, an obvious application for civil engineers, planners, and builders. Jensen’s work is a reminder that scientific inquiry is not just about discovering unknowns in the natural world but also about developing and refining new tools that have broader implications elsewhere. In this scenario, geological necessity has become the mother of invention.

With friends at Rainbow Bridge, Utah. Credit: courtesy Erin Jensen.

“I came to the U because I was interested in working with Jeff,” she says of Associate Professor Jeff Moore who is her advisor and leads the geohazards research group. His work focuses on the mechanics of processes driving natural hazards and shaping the evolution of bedrock landscapes. Utah is in fact a prime location for research into geohazards and understanding the instability of rock formations because of the abundance of natural rock formations found in places such as Arches National Park.

Jensen received her undergraduate degree in physics and civil engineering. Before coming to the U, she worked on a variety of landslide projects during her master’s degree work in geological engineering and with the US Geological Survey. At the U, she had an opportunity to develop and apply techniques that the geohazards group had been using for a decade. Before this, Moore and his group had used seismic resonance techniques to study natural arches and towers but had not yet applied these methods to large rock slope failures like those at Courthouse Mesa.

Jensen and Moore build on past studies in order to refine and move instrumentation forward by answering basic questions such as how the techniques of seismic resonance measuring can be used at other sites. Seismic resonance methods enable geohazard practitioners to better characterize and monitor potentially hazardous unstable rock slopes, especially those where invasive equipment cannot be installed, and again providing a potential service for developers and engineers.

Another benefit of the instruments Jensen is using is that she can continuously track seismic data to monitor how the site’s instability responds to temperature and rainfall changes. Jensen can use this data to check if the changes are associated with progressive failure of the rock slope. For this project, she used a single seismometer installed on the rock surface for three years and tracked the resonance frequencies of the landslide over time. What she found was that the Courthouse instability is particularly affected by thermal stresses created by heating and cooling, which causes the crack to open and close both daily and on a seasonal cycle. “We see a pretty big seasonal change,” Jensen says. “The Courthouse Crack opens and closes about fifty millimeters annually. It’s very slowly increasing and opening by millimeters per year.”

In the future, characterization measurements repeated in another season at the same site could be useful to observe the changes based on larger swings in temperature and climate. These measurements could also detect a continuing extension and failure of the cracked mesa. Coming back to the site several years later would be useful to observe changes in the overall geometry of the Courthouse Mesa.

Creating another technique in the toolkit of geological engineering is important for Jensen and her group because it helps mitigate outside risks. Her work, which is being published soon,  is instrumental in pushing the new technique for practical implementation and helps show how one can monitor landslide behavior. Conceptually, seismic resonance measuring can anticipate what kinds of other data and observations might be seen in other landslides.

Part of the project was stepping back from the site and doing conceptual and numerical modeling, such as testing out how frequency decreases with slope failure. This helps to predict how resonance frequencies will respond during progressive rock slope failures of different types. These models give new insights where field data does not exist, because instrumented rock slope failures are very rare.

Sometimes complex patterns of resonance frequency change before failure, and the models showed, for the first time, the expected form of resonance frequency change as ultimate slope collapse approaches. Field measurements like those at Courthouse Mesa are invaluable for establishing the new approach and understanding the limitations.

Erin Jensen’s work is taking her far afield from Utah. She is preparing for a postdoctoral fellowship with the US Geological Survey as part of the Mendenhall Research Fellowship Program. Her research will focus broadly on landslides in Alaska, as well as how landslides are affected by glacial retreat and climate change. <

By CJ Siebeneck

You can read the entire Geology & Geophysics Deptartment magazine Down to Earth where this story originally appeared here.

USEF 2024

From District Fair to Global Competition


What does it take to earn a spot at an International Science and Engineering Fair? 

The documentary series Science Fair, streaming on Disney + and Hulu, has one answer as it takes viewers on a journey with students around the United States and in Zimbabwe as they compete at their local science fairs, in the hopes of earning an opportunity to compete on a global stage at the Regeneron International Science Fair.

In short, you don’t start at the top. Rather, you follow an eligibility 'roadmap', beginning at your local school and district fairs. Students who advance through these fairs are then invited to participate in the University of Utah Science and Engineering Fair (USEF), an important step along the way to national and international competitions.

USEF is an annual science & engineering competition for students in grades 5-12 and is a reboot of the Salt Lake Valley Science and Engineering Fair now permanently hosted by the U’s College of Science. It’s also the first time since the COVID-19 that the fair will be fully in-person.

2018 Award Winner

Judging at the four-day event takes place on March 5, 6, and 7 at the U’s Crocker Science Center located at 1390 President’s Circle in Salt Lake City. The event culminates in an awards ceremony staged this year at Juan Diego Catholic School in Draper on March 8.

Participation in science events such as USEF stimulates students' interest in science and technology while simultaneously promoting the development of communication, decision-making, evaluation of alternative solutions, and critical thinking.

But you probably already know that, and USEF is pleased to showcase the inquisitive nature and scientific discovery of some of the best and brightest young minds from the Canyons, Granite, Murray, Park City, Salt Lake, and Tooele School Districts as well as the Salt Lake Catholic Diocese and all private, home school and charter schools within these boundaries.

“We are thrilled that the 592 students participating this year from eight school districts will be able to see the amazing science labs in the building,” says Jody Oostema, fair manager. “USEF’s numbers are finally getting back up to ‘normal’ after several years bouncing back from COVID,” she adds.

This year UCEF includes 470 projects and 592 students with 217 elementary division projects, 164 junior division projects, and 89 senior division projects. Additionally, there are 373 individual projects and 93 team projects slated to compete. Parents and family members are invited to view all projects 45 minutes before each judging session begins.

The full schedule can be found at

The event “brings together some of the most inquisitive young minds with working scientists and engineers who serve as judges,” says fair director Brenda Mann, “allowing the students to share the results of their hard work and foster discussion between the students and judges.”

2018 Award Winner

She adds, “As a research scientist and engineer [at Marinda Therapeutics], I am thrilled to see high school students from an increased number of schools participating at USEF this year. The high quality of these projects demonstrates the difficult questions or problems to which the students are looking for answers or trying to solve.”

“I can remember competing at this fair as if it was yesterday,” says Julia St. Andre, a former USEF competitor and science communication student at the U. “Among all the nerves and excitement of the day, what stood out to me the most was the incredible community within the fair. Between judging rounds, I spent the time talking and bonding with my fellow competitors, walking around to see each other’s posters. To this day, I remember how impressed I was by the variety of research and creativity I witnessed and the excitement we all felt at getting to share our work and form connections with students from across the state. USEF was a uniquely impactful experience for me, and I am so grateful for it!”

And that is what the Utah Science and Engineering Fair is really all about: looking for answers or trying to solve difficult questions or problems. Sharing one’s science project with other eager students is both challenging and fun. As for that international science fair documented on film, the senior division winners from USEF will be eligible to compete in the Regeneron ISEF.

As the world's largest pre-college science fair, Regeneron ISEF is held each May where more than 1,800 students from over 65 countries gather to display their independent research. USEF is an affiliated fair and will select five projects this year to travel to compete.

Visit the Regeneron ISEF website to learn more.


Read a re-cap of the Science Fair at KSL-TV.




2024 Sloan Research Fellow

Rodrigo Noriega, 2024 Sloan Research Fellow


The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has released the names of its 2024 Fellows. The prestigious list includes the U's Rodrigo Noriega, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry.

February 28, 2024

The Sloan Research Fellowship Program recognizes and rewards outstanding faculty who have the potential to revolutionize their fields of study. The two-year $75,000 fellowships are awarded annually to early-career researchers whose creativity, innovation, and research accomplishments make them stand out as the next generation of leaders.

The first Sloan Research Fellowships were awarded in 1955. Originally awarded in physics, chemistry, and mathematics, the fellowship program has expanded over the decades to also include computer science, Earth system science, economics, and neuroscience. Forty-six U faculty have now, since 1968, been awarded a Sloan fellowship, thirty-four of them from the College of Science – the most recent, before Noriega, being in 2021 to Luisa Whittaker-Brooks, also in the Department of Chemistry.

At the interface of spectroscopy and materials chemistry

Noriega and his team employ ultrafast laser spectroscopy tools to establish relationships between chemical identity, molecular-scale dynamic processes, and macroscale observables with the purpose of directing materials development. "We are particularly interested in molecular systems," says Noriega, "because they represent a seemingly boundless portfolio of materials.” But his lab takes a new approach to tuning their properties. “As a complementary avenue to synthetic efforts, our lab instead seeks to understand the manifold interactions within molecular environments — such as solvation and electrostatics which play critical roles in the charge transport, reactivity, and supramolecular assembly of functional materials.”

Dynamic molecular environments span a large range of complexity, and active projects in the group investigate a variety of chemical systems. These range from small reactive species in solution to electrochemical interfaces and large protein-RNA complexes, which they analyze with laser spectroscopies across the electromagnetic spectrum in combination with structurally- and composition-sensitive tools. “We are very appreciative of the strong investments on research infrastructure here at the U," says Noriega. “Having access to world-class facilities across campus in an engaging and collaborative environment has allowed us to tackle a wide variety of scientific questions.”

Some of these research efforts include their study of the role of electrostatics in molecular recognition by RNA-binding proteins, in work funded by the National Science Foundation. Also supported by the NSF, Noriega leads a collaboration with U colleague Henry S. White and Gregory A. Voth at the University of Chicago to study electrochemical systems where electron transfer reactions are coupled with phase transfer. Last year, Noriega with U colleagues Michael Grünwald and Ryan Looper received a $1 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation, funding studies of currently unpredictable aspects of the process of crystallization. He is also advancing the use of genetically-encodable tags for applications beyond fluorescence through an intramural 3i initiative grant with Ming C. Hammond and Erik Jorgensen. Besides research, Professor Noriega’s commitment to education was recognized in 2022, when the U awarded him an Early Career Teaching Award.

Before joining the chemistry faculty at the U in 2016, Noriega received a bachelor’s in engineering physics from Monterrey Tech (2006) in his native Mexico. He then moved to California where he earned his doctorate in applied physics from Stanford University, working with Alberto Salleo (2013). Noriega then worked with Naomi Ginsberg at the University of California Berkeley with support from a Philomathia Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship.

Noriega, who outside work enjoys soccer, running, biking and hiking, says his interest in the dynamic processes that connect structure and function in macromolecules stems from their versatility−from artificial optoelectronic materials to precisely evolved biopolymers present in living systems. "Their complex molecular conformations and strong interactions with a dynamic and often disordered environment pose exciting challenges to controlling their chemical behavior," he says. The Sloan Fellowship's two-year outlay of funding will help Rodrigo Noriega and his team of researchers to delve deeper into the nanoscale interactions that dictate macroscopic function in molecular materials.

SRI Stories

SRI Stories: A Year of Living Magically


“I get to create things that have never existed in the universe before, hold them in my hand and share them,” says Ryan Stolley PhD’13 an associate director of the Science Research Initiative (SRI) at the University of Utah, and adjunct assistant professor of chemistry.

“Teaching students and giving them an opportunity to explore the nature of the universe and share that magic is incredible.”

If it sounds like Stolley is some kind of magician, he is, and not just as an established chemist, but as someone who mentors STEM undergraduates through hands-on, first-year-and-beyond research experiences arguably without equal in the US.

Stolley was recently acknowledged as one of 2024's “Forty Under 40” by Utah Business magazine which annually celebrates the professionals changing the Beehive State’s business landscape in big ways — all before reaching the age of 40. In addition to his work at the U, he is principal chemist of Glycosurf, LLC a local chemical and personal care product company that has garnered national attention in the field of critical minerals recovery.

This year’s honorees “embody the essence of leadership, resilience and forward-thinking that not only propels their success but also serves as a catalyst for the evolution of the business landscape in the state as a whole."

A penchant for conjuring

^ Ryan Stolley. Credit: 2024 Forty Under 40 awards photographed by MANICPROJECT for Utah Business. ^^ Banner Photo above: In the lab. Credit Todd Anderson.

The “magic” of learning that Stolley has a penchant for conjuring settles in his undergrad mentees on the molecular level — not only in the lab, busy with several chemistry-related projects — but in the internal, still rudimentary mind and imagination of a young scientist. Stolley knows something about that mysterious transfer of knowledge in higher education where students are paired with esteemed mentors who not only share their scientific expertise but, critically, also teach their students how to learn, and even why.

Stolley is from Aurora, outside Denver where, as a self-described “latch-key kid” he was largely left to his own devices. “I got into a lot of trouble and got bad grades,” he says. In part because of his membership in the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, he enrolled in college where he played lacrosse and was a first team All-American. (In October, he was inducted into the college’s lacrosse hall of fame.) There he met Monte Helm (now at Metropolitan Community College-Kansas City) who made a measurable difference in the trajectory of Stolley’s life, first at Fort Lewis College in Colorado and then, with Helm’s assistance, through a post-doctoral fellowship at Pacific Northwest National Lab.

“Ryan’s curiosity and dedication to learning is inspiring, coupled with his natural gift for motivating and leading others, [he has been] propelled … to achieve remarkable accomplishments,” says Helm upon learning of Stolley’s Utah recognition.

Additionally, Stolley first met Cindy Browder, an undergraduate research mentor at Ft. Lewis. She would later earn her doctorate at the U in 2001 and is now on faculty at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. Both were “a big inspiration for my current position with the SRI," says Stolley, “trying to help students find purpose through science and personal mentorship.”

“Ryan seemed destined to succeed from my first interactions with him,” Browder says. “But Ryan should know how he shaped me and how I work with students. My mentoring successes, especially with students from historically excluded populations, are rooted in what Ryan taught me.”

Their mutual influence has indeed come full circle, especially evident as Stolley continues his research with 21 SRI students distributed across eight projects that vary from organic methods development to natural products synthesis to condensed matter physics. A handful of papers, both independently and in collaboration with multiple other labs at the U, are being developed and will hopefully be published by the end of the year.

A natural fit

This research is a natural fit for Stolley’s work as lead chemist at the award-winning Glycosurf which manufactures surfactants, substances that, when added to a liquid, reduces its surface tension, thereby increasing its spreading and wetting properties – the major ingredient in a variety of soaps. Founded in 2013, the company’s ambition is to expand its creation of a green glycolipid version of surfactants for a variety of applications, including soaps, lotions and products for critical mineral extraction/purification. “We have a ton of new partnerships and products in development,” he says. “Putting them through their paces and bringing them to scale is very exciting."

In the SRI labs where observers can view Stolley and his undergrads through the fishbowl architecture on the third floor of the Crocker Science Center, the choreography of the lab can seem frenetic and intense. Gloved and gowned, students in their first-year can be seen skirting around fume hoods and manipulating assays to uncover new reaction paradigms using under-explored or entirely new functional groups, exotic ligands for rare-earth element coordination and a variety of exotic conducting materials.

The dance embodied in this research progress, product development and partnerships is just the walk-up to those eventual “pay-days” when the mentor-researcher holds in his hand the aforementioned “new creations” to share with students. It’s at that singular moment where the magic is transferred to a new generation, not unlike what Ryan Stolley, still under the age of 40, experienced himself as a very young scientist first getting his start in Colorado.


By David Pace

SRI Stories is a series by the College of Science, intended to share transformative experiences from students, alums, postdocs and faculty of the Science Research Initiative. To read more stories, visit the SRI Stories page.

Rhodes Scholar Finalist

Rhodes Scholar Finalist: Eliza Diggins

February 27, 2024 |

The University of Utah is proud to announce that Eliza Diggins, a senior Honors student double-majoring in physics and applied mathematics, was selected as a finalist for the 2024 Rhodes Scholarship.

One of the oldest and most celebrated awards for international study in the world, Rhodes Scholarships provide tuition and living expenses for two or three years of graduate study at the University of Oxford.  Along with “outstanding scholarly achievements,” Rhodes Scholars must demonstrate “character, commitment to others and to the common good, and the potential for leadership in whatever domains their careers may lead.”

Diggins, who hails from Sandy, Utah, is a cross-disciplinary researcher in astrophysics and epidemiology. She is completing an Honors thesis titled “Constraining Modified Gravity Using Galaxy Cluster Dynamics” and has worked throughout her undergraduate career to couple mathematical and computational skills with observational data and statistical method. She plans to carry these skills forward in a graduate program in astrophysics, where she intends to investigate the dynamics of galactic and extra-galactic systems and become a more holistically skilled researcher, capable in both theory and observation.

In addition to excelling in her coursework, Diggins has contributed to research projects and labs run by College of Science faculty, Daniel Wik, associate professor of physics and astronomy; Frederick Adler, professor of mathematics and director of the School of Biological Sciences; as well as Melodie Weller, assistant professor, School of Dentistry. These faculty members celebrated Diggins’ “drive, scientific curiosity and collaborative nature,” “the tremendous energy and enthusiasm” she brings to her academic work, and her “ability to convey mathematically intensive and innovative research.” Along with her selection as a Rhodes Scholarship finalist, Diggins received a nationally competitive Goldwater Scholarship, an Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) award, a Wilkes Center Scholarship (awarded by the Wilkes Center for Climate Science and Policy in the College of Science) and a Thomas J. Parmley Scholarship for Outstanding Undergraduate Student from the Department of Physics & Astronomy. Finally, Diggins serves as the inaugural chair of the Physics & Astronomy Student Lecture Series and was selected to present her research at the American Society for Virology conference and to members of the Utah state government at Research on Capitol Hill (ROCH).

“Diggins’ research on the gravitational properties of X-Ray emitting intra-cluster medium and Modified Newtonian Dynamics (MOND), galaxy evolution, and plasma dynamics answers important galactic questions and will allow her to contribute to the scientific community in myriad ways, ensuring that she will contribute to the future of scholarship about not only our world, but our universe as well,” says Ginger Smoak, director of the Office of Nationally Competitive Scholarships. Smoak also celebrated Diggins’ community work and how it “aligned with Rhodes Scholarship values, including a commitment to others and to the common good.”

Diggins taught English to low-income immigrant adults through the Adult Education Program at Guadalupe School in Salt Lake City and facilitates a transgender friendship circle for Encircle, a local nonprofit committed to advancing the well-being of LGBTQ+ youth, young adults, and their families. Her community recommenders praised her as one of the “brightest, most authentic, and committed people” they had met and stated that “her dedication transformed lives.”

For Diggins, competing for the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship was “a difficult but illuminating experience.” She felt honored, she explained, “to meet and build relationships with the other Rhodes candidates, each of whom brought unique and interesting perspectives and qualifications.” Overall, she found the experience “instructive in forcing me to think very deeply about various aspects of my life.”

Per the Rhodes Trust, more than 2,500 students began the application process this year; 862 were ultimately endorsed by 249 different colleges and universities; 240 applicants from 90 different colleges and universities reached the finalist stage of the competition. Since 1904, the University of Utah has had 23 Rhodes Scholarship recipients, including Sabah Sial in 2023 (see

Diggins was advised throughout the Rhodes Scholarship application process by the University of Utah’s Office of Nationally Competitive Scholarships (ONCS) housed in the Honors College. ONCS staff members assist outstanding University of Utah students and recent alumni in developing competitive applications, preparing for interviews, and securing University endorsements for a variety of prestigious nationally competitive scholarships.

To learn more, see

This story originally appeared in @TheU

May 20 2024 — The U’s Marriott Library  announced recipients of the 2024 Alison Regan Library Thesis Award. Eliza Diggins was one of three. These students were chosen for their exceptional senior theses in the fields English, of physics and astronomy, and chemistry. Each student received $1,000 in recognition of their outstanding work. Read more about this honor in @ the U.

Measuring Black Carbon

Black carbon sensor could fill massive monitoring gaps

February 22, 2024

Black carbon is the most dangerous air pollutant you’ve never heard of. Its two main sources, diesel exhaust and wood smoke from wildfires and household heating, produce ultrafine air particles that are up to 25 times more of a health hazard per unit compared to other types of particulate matter.


^ The AethLabs microAeth MA350. ^^ Banner Photo above: Daniel Mendoza

Despite its danger, black carbon is understudied due to a lack of monitoring equipment. Regulatory-standard sensors are wildly expensive to deploy and maintain, resulting in sparse coverage in regions infamous for poor air quality, such as the greater Salt Lake City metropolitan area in Utah.

A University of Utah-led study found that the AethLabs microAeth MA350, a portable, more affordable sensor, recorded black carbon concentrations as accurately as the Aerosol Magee Scientific AE33, the most widely used instrument for monitoring black carbon in real time. Researchers placed the portable technology next to an existing regulatory sensor at the Bountiful Utah Division of Air Quality site from Aug. 30, 2021-Aug. 8, 2022. The AethLabs technology recorded nearly identical quantities of black carbon at the daily, monthly and seasonal timescales. The authors also showed that the microAeth could distinguish between wildfire and traffic sources as well as the AE33 at longer timescales.

Because black carbon stays close to the source, equipment must be localized to yield accurate readings. The microAethsensor’s portability would allow monitoring at remote or inaccessible stationary sites, as well as for mobile use.

“Having a better idea of black carbon exposure across different areas is an environmental justice issue,” said Daniel Mendoza, research assistant professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah and lead author of the study. “The Salt Lake Valley’s westside has some of the region’s worst air quality partly because it’s closest to pollution sources, but we lack the ability to measure black carbon concentrations accurately. Democratizing data with reliable and robust sensors is an important first step to safeguarding all communities from hazardous air pollution.”


Read the entire story by Lisa Potter in @TheU

Read the study published on Feb. 1, 2024, in the journal Sensors.


Read the full story by Sean Higgins at KUER 90.1.

Utah’s Warm Wet Winter

A warm, wet winter in Utah but don’t blame El Niño

February 22, 2024

For Jackie May, this winter’s rain in the Salt Lake Valley has led to a lot of second-guessing when it comes to taking the ski bus to the mountains.


She typically plans her work schedule around making time for snowboarding.

^ Michael Wasserstein. ^^ Banner photo above: Fog drapes the Wasatch Mountains near Cottonwood Heights as valley rain and mountain snow have been the standard storm pattern for much of Utah this winter, Feb. 20, 2024. Credit: Sean Higgins/KUER.

“Being down here, I'm like, ‘what am I doing? Should I go back to work?’” she said while waiting for the Utah Transit Authority ski bus at the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon. And then when I go up in the mountains, I'm like, OK, no, [winter] is still happening. This is how I want to spend my time.”

Although this winter has not had the same record-setting snowfall as last winter, not everyone is disappointed to see no snowbanks in the valley. I don't like to shovel,” said fellow bus rider Dianne Lanoy. “I do have a good car in the snow, but I don't like to drive in the snow. So, keep [the snow] up in the mountains.”

Even with more rain than snow at the lower elevations and a slow start to the winter, snowpack levels for this time of year are above average statewide. It’s also an El Niño year. That’s when warmer, wetter weather from the Pacific Ocean moves in and usually creates more precipitation.

But don’t go blaming El Niño for this winter’s wacky weather just yet. “El Niño or La Niña really means nothing for snow and precipitation in northern Utah,” says University of Utah atmospheric sciences Ph.D. student Michael Wasserstein. “Prior literature has shown that El Niño can produce lots of precipitation in Utah, or it can produce little precipitation in Utah … I don't think we can draw any conclusions about this winter's weather based on El Niño patterns.”

Wasserstein is the lead author of a new study that dives into why the Wasatch Mountains get so much snow. As it turns out, it’s all about a diversity of storm types and weather patterns.

Read the full story by Sean Higgins at KUER 90.1.

Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats Has Long Been in Flux

Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats has long been in flux

February 21, 2024

Salt crusts began forming long after Lake Bonneville disappeared, according to new U research that relied on pollen to date playa in western Utah.


Jeremiah Berneau. Credit: Chevron

It has been long assumed that Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats was formed as its ancient namesake lake dried up 13,000 years ago. But new research from the University of Utah has gutted that narrative, determining these crusts did not form until several thousand years after Lake Bonneville disappeared, which could have important implications for managing this feature that has been shrinking for decades to the dismay of the racing community and others who revere the saline pan 100 miles west of Salt Lake City.

This salt playa, spreading across 40 square miles of the Great Basin Desert, perfectly level and white, has served as a stage for land-speed records and a backdrop for memorable scenes in numerous films, including “Buckaroo Banzai” and “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

Relying on radiocarbon analysis of pollen found in salt cores, the study, published Friday in the journal Quaternary Research, concludes the salt began accumulating between 5,400 and 3,500 years ago, demonstrating how this geological feature is not a permanent fixture on the landscape.

“This now gives us a record of how the Bonneville Salt Flats landscape responds to environmental change. Originally, we thought this salt had formed here right after Lake Bonneville and it was a static landscape in the past 10,000 years,” said the study’s lead author, Jeremiah Bernau, a former U graduate student in geology. “This data shows us that that’s not the case, that during a very dry period in the past 10,000 years, we actually saw a lot of erosion and then the accumulation of gypsum sand. And as the climate was becoming cooler and wetter, then the salt began to accumulate.”

Read the full story by Brian Maffly in @The U