Noriene Jee

Noriene Jee

Noriene Jee

Noriene Jee always dreamed of attending the U.

Born in Ogden, Utah, and raised in Davis County, Noriene Jee (BA’83 Mathematics) always knew she wanted to attend the U. While at Clearfield High, she made plans with a friend at Ogden High to apply to the university as roommates. Their plans worked—they both attended the U and are still close friends.

During her undergraduate years, Jee’s favorite math professor was the late Professor Emeritus William J. Coles, who taught a class in differential equations. “I really enjoyed the application aspect of differential equations,” said Jee. “Later I used the math he taught me during my work as a contractor for the Air Force.”

When she wasn’t attending classes or studying, Jee enjoyed skiing and playing golf.

After graduating from the U, Jee began her career working as a rate analyst for Mountain Fuel Supply, which became Questar Corporation (and was acquired by Dominion Energy in 2016). Eventually, she moved on to work as a reliability engineer for TRW Inc., a defense contractor.

While working at TRW she was able to earn a master's degree in statistics from Utah State University. When the defense industry took a downturn, Jee left the company and became a statistician for eight years for the Internal Revenue Service.

Later she returned to TRW, which was acquired by Northrop Grumman in 2002. She worked for Northrop Grumman for 17 years as a quality engineer. With her background in statistics, she was promoted to a quality manager position. By the time she retired, she had served as the Northrop Grumman mission assurance manager for a major program for the Air Force.

Value of a Math Degree

She is grateful for her education at the U. “The mathematics degree gave me the tools and useful skills to work as a reliability engineer and statistician,” she said. “Earlier in my career, statisticians were not as common as they are now, and my education gave me the skills needed to get jobs that provided better opportunities.”

In looking back at her college years, Jee has a few observations. “I didn’t appreciate the value of a mathematics degree as an undergrad. I thought I needed to be an engineer or something that had a descriptive title that led to a job. I took longer than I needed to graduate because I changed my major from engineering to mathematics. I should have just started with the math curriculum. I believe students know the value of a math degree better now since there are so many jobs that require a mathematics or a STEM degree.”

Fortunately, Jee’s daughter listened to her mother and followed a different route. She graduated from the U in 2020 with a degree in mathematics and is currently in a master’s program at Columbia University’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science. “People are impressed that my daughter’s University of Utah undergraduate degree gave her the path to go to Columbia,” said Jee.

Jee has two horses and she and her daughter love to go riding. For now, riding may have to wait since Jee is living in New York while her daughter studies at Columbia.

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Sarmishta Kannan

Sarmishta Kannan

In the entrance of the Eccles Health Sciences Education building.

For Sarmishta Diraviam Kannan, HBS’17, the journey to her “dream school” – the University’s School of Medicine – spanned about 25 years and some 8,780 miles.

Sarmishta was born in Tamil Nadu, India, which is located on the southern tip of the Indian sub-continent. In addition to the long history of the Tamil people, Tamil Nadu is famous for its temples, festivals, and celebration of the arts.

When Sarmishta was just nine years old, her family immigrated to the United States. They settled in Boston where her father worked for GE Healthcare. In 2008, the family moved to Salt Lake City, near the corporate headquarters of GE Healthcare, while her father continued his career with the company.

Sarmishta, who was then 12 years old and in junior high school, was still mastering English as a second language and adjusting to social norms and public education systems in America.

It was a difficult time for Sarmishta, but her “dream” was beginning to form.

Sarmishta graduated from Hillcrest High School, in Midvale, in 2013 with the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma.

“The IB diploma is a rigorous program, and I was the only one to take the higher-level courses in all three sciences of physics, chemistry and biology,” says Sarmishta. “It was through the IB program that I found my passion in the sciences, especially biological sciences, and completing the IB program prepared me well for college.”

Sarmishta decided to attend the U as an undergraduate because of the abundance of research opportunities and the Honors degree option in Biology which gave her the chance to perform long-term research that culminated with an Undergraduate Thesis. Plus, it put her in close proximity to the School of Medicine.

The “dream” was clear now and within reach.

“The Honors thesis requires involvement in research that finishes with writing a paper on a particular research project. That experience was valuable to me as I got the opportunity to be involved in a research project from start to finish,” says Sarmishta.

She worked with Dr. Kevin Jones at the Huntsman Cancer Institute to help discover the roles that lysosomes and autophagy play in alveolar soft parts sarcoma, clear cell sarcoma, and synovial sarcoma.

“In the Jones lab, it was fascinating for me to see how researchers used experimental data to understand cancer biology. So, I decided to pursue sarcoma research for my thesis,” says Sarmishta.

“I investigated the hypothesis that Alveolar Soft Parts Sarcoma (ASPS) and Clear Cell Sarcoma (CCS) morphology is attributed to lysosomes and that these cancers up-regulate autophagy genes using autophagy as a survival mechanism,” says Sarmishta.

“I learned to design investigations and troubleshoot various lab protocols to gather data and test the hypothesis. Critically analyzing the data supported the hypothesis that ASPS and CCS contain abundant autophagic lysosomes. However, it raised further questions indicating more research was necessary to better understand autophagy’s role in ASPS and CCS.”

“Writing my thesis taught me to build an evidence-based argument based on my data, critically analyze the work of others, synthesize new ideas for further research, and effectively communicate complex topics,” says Sarmishta.

Her thesis abstract was published in the 2016 University of Utah Undergraduate Research Journal. She also presented her thesis to Utah legislators at the Research on Capitol Hill event in 2017 and at Undergraduate Research Symposiums in 2016 and 2017.

After graduating with an Honors degree in Biology, she continued to work in the Jones lab as a full-time Lab Technician before starting medical school. She worked on various projects including writing a review manuscript on sarcomagenesis, titled Genetic Drivers and Cells of Origin in Sarcomagenesis, which was published in early 2021 in the Journal of Pathology.

She also worked on a project that focused on modeling synovial sarcoma metastasis in mouse models. Sarmishta was listed as a co-author on that paper and was published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine.

In the meantime, Sarmishta applied to the School of Medicine in 2019 and in 2020 and was accepted in 2020.

Finally, her “dream” was realized.

Today, Sarmishta is about halfway through her second year of the MD program at the University’s School of Medicine.

“It has been a very fulfilling experience so far! I am grateful to have the opportunity to follow my passion, learn about the human body, help and support people going through healthcare challenges. I am excited to start my clinical years where I get to rotate through various specialties in the hospital and apply all the knowledge I have been learning to patient care,” says Sarmishta.

In addition to school, she enjoys reading, painting, watching movies and singing.

In fact, Sarmishta is a classically-trained Carnatic singer. Carnatic music is a traditional system of music from India that provides a nearly limitless array of melodic patterns. It emphasizes vocal performance.

“I started singing when I was five and my parents enrolled me in Carnatic music classes in India. I continued my training after moving to the United States,” says Sarmishta.

“I perform publicly at the local Hindu Temple and at Indian festivals. One of my most cherished experiences was performing a Hindu song at the 6th Parliament of World Religions event, that was held in Salt Lake City.”

Sarmishta is scheduled to complete the MD program in 2024.

“A new dream is already forming,” she says.


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Ray Greer

Ray Greer

Peter Trapa, Jill Clements, Ray Greer

When Ray Greer, BS’86, was just 12 years old, his mother, Sandra J. Bromley, moved her young family from Texas to Utah. The year was 1976. Sandra 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.

Ray spent his teenage years in Midvale and attended Hillcrest high school.

“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!”

Ray 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. And the rest is history,” says Greer.

After receiving his math degree at the U, Greer went on to earn a Master’s of Science in Information Systems and Telecommunications from Christian Brothers University, a small private college in Memphis.

Honoring a Legacy
In 2000, after retiring from the U, Ray’s mother, Sandra, moved back to Texas for the remaining years of her life. She passed away in 2011. Shortly thereafter, Ray established the Sandra J. Bromley scholarship in the College of Science 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.”

The Bromley scholarship is designed to provide financial support to undergraduate students who are declared Science majors and who stay enrolled and make steady progress towards a science degree. The award covers full tuition for up to four years.

Four students currently hold the Bromley scholarship – Noel McAllister, Keegan Benfield, Michaela Fluck, and Dannon Allred. As part of his commitment to student success, Greer visits campus at least once a year to meet and encourage the scholarship recipients.

Dannon Allred, Michaela Fluck, Jill Clements, Ray Greer, Keegan Benfield, Noel McAllister

On the Move
Greer has more than 35 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,” says Greer.

In 2018, Ray was named as 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.

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.”


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Paul Watkins

Paul Watkins

As a boy growing up in Ogden, Utah, Paul Watkins attended summer programs at the U when he was in middle school. He enjoyed the experience and planned on attending the university because of its great reputation, affordability, and the fact that he could ride the express bus from Ogden to Salt Lake City.

When he began his freshman year at the U, Paul found that wanted to learn as much as possible to become a well-educated and well-rounded person. He was interested in so many subjects that it was difficult to declare a major.

At one point, he planned on a triple major in German, history, and philosophy, with an idea of going to graduate school in the humanities and teaching at either the high school or college level. In 1998, he graduated with a degree in German language and literature and a minor in history. He was one class shy of a completing a minor in philosophy, which he sometimes regrets not finishing.

Eventually, practical considerations set in, and Paul realized that he didn’t want to teach and that he needed to make a living. “Fortunately, I was good at math and physics, so this led me to the Electrical Engineering and Math Departments,” he said. He completed bachelor’s degrees in both mathematics and electrical engineering in 2003. He completed a master’s degree in electrical engineering in 2004. He worked on a Ph.D. in electrical engineering but did not complete the dissertation, opting for a job in industry instead.

Value of a U education

“My education at the U has made a huge difference in my life,” he said. “Without it, I wouldn’t have my career in electrical engineering. My studies in the humanities helped me to become a well-rounded individual, and my studies in the Math Department taught me to think critically. In my career, I have found that I’m constantly learning new things on the job, and I enjoy this. My education at the U gave me a solid foundation, which allows me to learn and understand a lot of technical content that I didn’t learn in a classroom.”

He was fortunate to receive departmental scholarships from the Math Department, which helped him complete his undergraduate degrees. “I’m very grateful to the Math Department. I try to contribute to the department’s Undergraduate Scholarships Fund every year to try to give back and pay it forward,” he said.

In graduate school, he won a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. He believes that having a math degree, in addition to an electrical engineering degree, played a huge role in receiving a fellowship. He is also grateful to a number of math professors who wrote recommendation letters for him.

Favorite professors at the U

Paul enjoyed his math studies and admired a number of professors in the Math Department, including Davar Khoshnevisan, Lajos Horvath, Alexander Balk, Nicholas Korevaar, Misha Kapovich, and Fletcher Gross, noting that all of them are super smart, experts in their field, and great educators.

His favorite professor was Anne Roberts. “I took multiple statistics classes from her. She took the time to get to know me, gave me very good advice on multiple occasions, and wrote recommendation letters for me. I am very grateful to her,” he said.

Paul is also indebted to Professors Neil Cotter and Behrouz Farhang of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department and Professor Emeritus Gerhard Knapp of the German and Comparative Literature Department for all their help and support.

When he wasn’t working on math or electrical engineering, he spent a lot of time studying in the library and playing chess. He took beginning racquetball and tennis classes and loved them, although he admits he was terrible at both.

Career highlights

His first job out of college was with a startup company, Slicex (short for Salt Lake Integrated Circuit Experts). The company had raised some venture capital and were trying to develop a product, and Paul found that his education at the U, especially his graduate work, had prepared him well. The work was very interesting, but the realities of being a startup also made the job stressful. A few times the company ran out of money. Eventually, the company failed.

Subsequently, he worked for several large companies, including T.D. Williamson, GE Healthcare, Moog Medical, and Cirtec Medical. While these companies proved more stable, they had other challenges. Often, they required significantly more paperwork than actual design work, particularly those companies in the medical field.

“My degrees in engineering and math have both been very helpful, and I’ve used statistics a lot in industry. My humanities degrees have also helped, as communication and writing skills are very important,” he said.

In his current position, he serves as principal engineer at Cirtec Medical, and the job is directly related to the work he was doing in graduate school. Paul works on medical implants for brain/computer interfaces and for neuromodulation, which refers to technology that acts directly upon nerves. Classes he took in graduate school that he never thought would be useful in industry, such as the physics of nuclear medicine and bioelectricity/electrophysiology, have come in handy.

Paul is still learning and his education at the U has benefited his family. “I share a lot of things I learned in college with my daughter,” he said. “We also spend a lot of time on campus, attending all kinds of events, like the Babcock Theatre, the Music Department’s Sundays@7 series, departmental open houses (the geology and chemistry departments put on great events!), the Physics Department’s star parties, and the Faraday Lecture series. These last two events have led directly to two science fair projects for my daughter. We are regular visitors of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, the Natural History Museum of Utah (NHMU), and Red Butte Garden. We’re also season ticket holders for the women’s gymnastics team. I’d like to give special thanks to Christy Bills, the entomology curator at the NHMU, for mentoring my daughter.”

Advice to students

If Paul could revisit himself as a freshman, he would tell himself to plan better. “Come up with a plan to make it through college, and try to take a manageable number of classes at a time,” he said. “Taking classes because you’re interested in a topic is fine but also have a career path in mind. And remember that internships and industry experiences are extremely important to prepare you for your career and complement your coursework. One important thing is to allocate plenty of time during your senior year for a job search and/or graduate school applications.”

As an undergrad, Paul took a class on Career and Life Planning from the Educational Psychology Department. Students took personality tests and interest surveys and investigated careers that were a good fit. They also interviewed people currently working in those fields. Paul highly recommends that current students take this type of class.

“Critical thinking skills are among the most important things you can get from your college education, and they’ll serve you well for the rest of your life,” he said. “I would highly recommend reading the book How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age by Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn.”

Paul believes that engineering or computer science majors should take a lot of math classes, too. “A math degree, in addition to your engineering or computer science degree, will help you in industry and in graduate school,” he said. He remembers that Professor Ken Golden once told a class that when an engineer also has a math degree it’s like they are an engineer on steroids. Paul also recommends obtaining a master’s degree because graduate school gives students a chance to study fun and interesting topics, and the master’s degree will be useful in a career.

When Paul isn’t attending campus events, he spends time birdwatching and volunteering for both HawkWatch International and the Raptor Inventory Nest Survey, both based in Salt Lake City.

by Michele Swaner, first published

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David T. Chuljian

Describing himself as one of the world’s few “quantum dentists,” David T. Chuljian, PhD’84 in Chemistry, has an unusual perspective on dental decay rates, and particle-hole interactions.

Chuljian grew up in Port Townsend, Washington, until age 14. His father, G. T. “Chuck” Chuljian, had settled there in 1947 and opened a dental practice near the Keystone Ferry Terminal.

“Port Townsend was a very sleepy town in the 1960s. During summer, our day would be chores in the morning, then off on our bicycles and returning for dinner after spending the day with friends,” says Chuljian.

“We owned a small beach cabin on Discovery Bay, so many of our bike rides ended there to go fishing, swimming, or beach walking. Grade school was mostly at a one-room private school, with teachers of varying quality.”

“I had a couple of good teachers in elementary school, one of which was extremely varied in his knowledge and interests and he taught us a wild mix of things for science class – how airplanes work, astronomy, ecology, you name it. Math and science were fun for me after that,” says Chuljian.

“Like many dentists, my dad hoped at least one of us would go into dentistry, and it was assumed that all five of us kids would go on to college,” says Chuljian.

“But the local high school was not very academic – kids in town expected to work at the paper mill after graduation – so my parents sent us to a church-run high school, Auburn Academy, near Tacoma.”

After high school, Chuljian enrolled in Walla Walla College, a private Adventist school in College Place, Washington. He earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1978. During his senior year at Walla Walla he applied to medical school and to various graduate schools around the country.

“At the time, the chairman of our chem department, Barton Rippon, was collaborating with some folks doing bioengineering type stuff, and he encouraged me to apply at Utah,” says Chuljian.

Remarkably, Chuljian did not actually apply to the chemistry department for graduate school.

“In fact, I applied to Utah’s bioengineering program. But my application packet somehow wound up at the chemistry department, where Jack Simons saw it before forwarding it to bioengineering,” says Chuljian.

“Jack then called me and asked if I was interested in interviewing in Chemistry as well as Bioengineering, and said they’d pay for my plane ticket. This seemed like a great deal, so I wound up doing both interviews on the same trip,” says Chuljian.

“As it turned out, Jack’s theoretical chemistry work was extremely interesting, close to physics which I also enjoyed. So, in the end, I went with the chemistry department.” Jack Simons later served as Chuljian’s research advisor.

However, after two years of graduate school, Chuljian’s research wasn’t progressing as he wanted and tenure-track jobs around the country were extremely limited in number.

“I’m reasonably intelligent, but not Einstein, and I could tell I wasn’t really cut out for an academic position in theoretical chemistry,” says Chuljian.

So, in 1980, he applied to dental school at the University of Washington in Seattle and started that program in fall semester 1981.

“Since I already had more than three years towards my chemistry doctorate, I worked on both degrees in parallel, coming back to Utah during summers and Christmas vacations, and working remotely, mostly finishing up papers. Of course, this was all pre-Internet so there were some real challenges.”

“I remember most of my Utah research group: Ajit Banerjee, Deb Mukherjee, Judy Ozment, Gina Frey, Jim Jenkins, Ron Shephard, Rick Kendall, and Hugh Jenkins. I haven’t seen most of them since graduating, although in 2005 Jack had a reunion in Park City and I saw several of them there,” says Chuljian.

Chuljian took a sabbatical during his senior year in dental school to finish up and defend his doctorate thesis in December 1984, then returned to Washington and finished up his clinical requirements and dental licensing exam in August 1985.

That same year, Chuljian moved back to Port Townsend and began working with his father as an associate in the dental practice. He later purchased the office in 1987 and his father retired in 1990.

Chuljian with one of many parrots he has rescued

“It was a standard small-town practice, doing everything including orthodontics and surgery since no specialists were available nearby. When I retired in 2017, I sold the practice which represented 70 years of family-owned dentistry, the oldest business in town I think,” says Chuljian.

Chuljian stays busy with a range of activities and interests, including forestry, flying, and rescue care of birds, in particular parrots. Over the years, Chuljian has rescued and cared for two African Grays, a couple of Amazons, several conures, and three Pionus species of parrots.

Today, Chuljian still resides in Port Townsend, which is no longer a sleepy bywater but has a vibrant arts and boating community. His typical day might include several hours working in his forest tracts, irrigating newly planted trees or removing invasive species, or milling lumber for the local animal shelter’s building projects. Or it could be a 10-hour day drilling and filling at the local public health dental clinic. He enjoys mountain biking, but when he qualified for Medicare he upgraded to an eBike!



Jim Hanson

Jim Hanson

Jim Hanson’s (BS Physics ’85) path to the University of Utah and college was different from most students. When he graduated from high school, Hanson had little interest in attending college and no clear goal as to what he wanted to do with his life. He worked odd jobs until he got tired of living out of his car.

Finally, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and trained as a jet engine mechanic. He was stationed in New Mexico for nearly three years. Although he was doing well, he still had no real direction until he was offered an opportunity to train as a flight engineer.

Flying meant a lot of training: physiological demands, understanding performance metrics, learning aircraft systems, and attending survival schools, but once he made the decision his life changed. He was assigned to a weather reconnaissance squadron whose primary duty was to monitor compliance with the nuclear test ban treaty. These missions took his squadron to all corners of the world. His squadron was nicknamed the “Pole Vaulters” because of the many Arctic missions that took them over 90 degrees north latitude. “Military flying was exciting enough by itself and being in the company of highly educated professionals opened my mind to so many new possibilities and opportunities that I had never considered,” said Hanson.

Although Hanson loved what he was doing, he realized that a university degree would open many more doors. He had family in Salt Lake City and was a Utah resident, so the U was the logical choice for his education when he left the Air Force. “Initially, I thought I could schedule my classes early or late enough and still manage a full day of skiing, but I quickly realized that if I wanted to get through college, I had to commit to studying and forget about skiing for a while,” he said.

Experiences at the U

His experiences at the U made all the difference. “When I look back, I realize my time at the U not only changed the direction of my life professionally, it fundamentally changed the person I would become later in life,” he said. “To see the doors that education opened for me and the opportunities that resulted from it has been remarkable. I’m eternally grateful for having received not only a valuable education but also for having developed an intense desire for learning that has sustained me and enriched my life.”

One of his favorite professors was the late Dr. Lynn Higgs, a physics professor, who also served as the Physics Department advisor. Hanson isn’t sure he would have graduated without Higgs’s mentoring. He particularly enjoyed the Introduction to Modern Physics course taught by Christopher Stone, who was a graduate assistant at the time. Dr. Stone is still with the department, serving as associate professor (lecturer). Hanson remembers that Stone had a gift for teaching matched only by his enthusiasm for the subject. Another favorite was the late Dr. Fritz Luty, who taught an optics course.

Being at the U felt like a new lease on life for Hanson after experiencing some difficult years. In retrospect, Hanson believes he had to learn things the hard way. “I appreciated my college experience a lot more when I was older than if I had started at the U right out of high school,” said Hanson. “Physics wasn’t an easy major, but I was much more focused on my studies having been out in the world and having seen the value of a formal education and, especially, the limitations for not having one.”

Navy Career

Following graduation from the U in June 1985, Hanson was offered a chance to become a naval officer. He was advised that it might be a year or more before he could attend Naval Officer Candidate School (OCS) so he continued taking classes at the U and even started a master’s program in electrical engineering before leaving for OCS in June 1986. He received his naval commission in September 1986 and spent the next four years at sea. He found being a naval officer, especially a junior one, was as challenging as anything he had ever done up to that point. “Whenever we were confronted with adversity or a crisis, which was fairly often, we told ourselves that it was just another chance to excel.” said Hanson. “Funny as the expression seemed at the time, I’ve realized that often I’ve learned the most when faced with adversity or failure.” He elected to transfer to the Naval Reserve at the end of his first tour at sea, primarily so he could complete the master’s degree he had started four years earlier.

After he completed the degree in 1993, Hanson accepted a civilian engineering position with the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) in Coronado, California. He was happy to be back in San Diego since he had spent much of his time there in the Navy. The Naval Air Station at North Island also had a great flying club, and Hanson gave countless airplane rides in the T-34B trainers to friends and co-workers. Later, he accepted a senior engineering position with the U.S. Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (now known as the Naval Information Warfare Systems Command (NAVWAR) in Japan. He had traveled to Japan many times during his military career, but actually living there was an unforgettable experience, and Japan remains one of his favorite places.

Sept. 11, 2001 and Retirement

September 11, 2001 became a defining moment for all Americans. For Hanson it meant returning to active naval service, where he served in various operational and senior staff positions, mostly overseas, for the next 13 years until he retired from the Navy after 28 years of commissioned service in 2014. During this period, Hanson received a Master of Arts degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the United States Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

Following his retirement, Hanson returned to full-time civilian employment in San Diego. As the propulsion and power team lead for the NAVAIR, he managed a large team of engineers, technicians, and contractors tasked with supporting naval aircraft.

Life as a Navy civilian was very different than being on active duty. “At times it seemed like managing civilians was a lot like herding a bunch of feral cats; it required a whole new set of management skills,” said Hanson. “Yet, I was truly fortunate to be associated with such highly motivated and gifted individuals and still maintain contact with many of them following my retirement.” His organization actively supported STEM (Science, Technical, Engineering and Mathematics) initiatives in the local San Diego area, and mentoring the next generation of scientists and engineers was one of the more rewarding aspects of his work.

Advice for Students

Hanson recently moved from San Diego back to Utah after a 30-year absence. As much as he loves the beaches and weather in Southern California, he is a skier at heart. He’s delighted to live within 15 minutes of Snowbasin.

Hanson believes there has never been a more exciting time to be a scientist, mathematician, or engineer. “A degree in physics gave me a solid foundation for every endeavor I pursued,” he said. “It also instilled in me the ability to think critically and reason effectively in all facets of my life.”

“Everyone hears that life is a journey and it’s true,” said Hanson. “At the end, it really is the journey you’ll remember. Enjoy the ride and make the most of it, maintain a sense of humor, and try not to take anything personally. Believe in yourself and never stop learning.”

Hanson spends time skiing, climbing, and trekking in far-flung parts of the globe. He has traveled to nearly 40 foreign countries and lived in several during the course of his military or civilian duties. One of his favorite places is Norway, where his grandparents immigrated from. Except for 2020, he tries to spend a couple months in Norway each year. He reads, mostly non-fiction. “What I read is not as important as why I read,” he said. “I think my studies at the U left me with an insatiable curiosity to explore and dig deeper, regardless of the subject.”

by Michelle Swaner first published at

Bert VanderHeiden

Bert VanderHeiden

Bert VanderHeiden’s (BS Physics ’82, MS Physics ’84 and Ph.D. Physics ‘88) first passions were swimming and water polo. In fact, he won the state championship in swimming in 1975, representing Kearns High School. He was also gifted academically—he excelled in math and was interested in the one physics course that was offered at his high school. The class planted the seed for his decision to major in physics.

When it came time for college, VanderHeiden had received a number of swimming scholarships from other universities. But he wanted a university with a strong science and engineering program, and the U fit the bill perfectly. He came to the U and never looked back. He’s proud to be a U alumnus and is even more proud of his wife and daughters, who are also graduates of the university.

“As a first-generation college student and graduate, having a physics degree has been life changing,” said VanderHeiden. “The degree has opened multiple opportunities professionally and provided a foundation for a career in areas that I found interesting and rewarding. Having a physics degree has given me an incredible amount of knowledge about the nature of the universe and the world around us.”

Favorite professors at the U

One of his favorite professors in the Physics Department was the late Dr. Gale Dick. He found Dr. Dick approachable, and he appreciated his way of encouraging students to ask questions until they fully understood the concepts. “I took full advantage of this opportunity to learn whatever I could from him,” said VanderHeiden.

While pursuing a master’s degree in physics, he worked as a swim coach for a youth competitive swim team. He still enjoys sports, and his competitive nature helped to push him through his education and career.

During grad school, he worked as a graduate assistant under the direction of Emeritus Professor Craig Taylor. VanderHeiden’s research focused on magnetic resonance to study semiconductor structure, with a primary focus on amorphous silicon. Amorphous silicon is a form of silicon that is non-crystallized and disordered, meaning that some of the atoms in its chemical structure resist bonding. Amorphous silicon is used in manufacturing thin films for coating a variety of electronic components and also can be applied to glass, plastic, and metals.

Hercules Aerospace and others

VanderHeiden (far left) and flight demo of innovative pulse jet engine.

While working on his Ph.D., a chance recruiting ad from Hercules Aerospace, in West Valley City, Utah, caught his eye. “Hercules was seeking a scientist to explore the possibly of using magnetic resonance in industrial applications. These were the same techniques I was using to study semi-conductors,” said VanderHeiden.

Over the next three years, he was able to continue his classes and research while working at Hercules. After he received his doctorate in 1988, VanderHeiden had an opportunity to do postdoctoral research in amorphous silicon at the National Laboratories. It was a tough choice, but he decided to stay at Hercules because he had been working on several other technical areas of interest for the company and felt the direct application was more suited to his work.

Hercules merged with Orbital ATK, which later merged to become Northrop Grumman. While working for these companies, VanderHeiden’s career progressed from an individual technical contributor to leading a large organization as the vice president of engineering and technology. Eventually, he served as vice president and general manager of operations and later was promoted to vice president of the military and launch segment. “I was fortunate to have a 36-year career working in a highly technical and focused company,” he said. “I had an opportunity to work on products, such as rockets and missiles to advanced aerostructures.”

VanderHeiden is a founding board member of the Utah Stem Action Center, where he served from 2014 to 2020. The center is a public and private partnership with a mission of promoting Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education by identifying and supporting best practices and leveraging resources across education, industry, government, and community partners to support economic prosperity.

Today, VanderHeiden is retired, although he serves as chief operating officer and a member of the board of directors for a startup tech company called North American Wave Engine Corporation. Wave engines are a class of aircraft engines that operate using pressure waves instead of rotating machinery. Intermittent combustion inside a hollow tube produces pressure waves that push hot gases and produce thrust. As a result, wave engines can operate without the use of any moving parts.

Advice for students

“A degree only starts your journey,” he said. “Remember to keep an open mind and understand your passions. Ask yourself what will keep you engaged and motivated. Will your long-term career goals keep you fulfilled, and will this journey fit you and your personality? Then aggressively explore various career options in academia and industry that fit your future.”

VanderHeiden’s life has taken him full circle now, allowing him to return to his love of sports. “I have more time to spend working out, playing water polo, and wake boarding at Lake Powell,” he said. He also enjoys boating, fishing, skiing, and traveling. “My sense of competition keeps me engaged in weightlifting competitions with my grandsons, even though they outdo me. My love of the water and the sky are still my greatest passions. I enjoy those evenings at Lake Powell, lying on the houseboat and looking up at the stars. I’m still inspired by this world and the universe.”

by Michelle Swaner first published at

Todd B. Alder

Todd Alder

Todd B. Alder contracted COVID-19 early on in the pandemic and today still suffers from residual effects. But being just a “long hauler” as opposed to the alternative is what he calls being “lucky.” Says Alder, “Like many of us (I am guessing), this virus has disrupted my life with family and friends, my law practice, and my ability to travel. But on the plus side, I am really enjoying the Zoom calls where I am wearing a dress shirt and tie on top and something very questionable on the bottom.”

It's a scenario of late that many of us find ourselves experiencing (working on Zoom, not necessarily being pant-less), but the light touch that this biologist-turned-patent-attorney has towards not only the pandemic but work and life itself is evident. And so is his generosity. In April Alder was a featured alum in the School of Biological Sciences’ BioLuminaries speaker series (on Zoom, of course). As a registered patent attorney and partner at Thorpe North and Western (TNW) in Sandy, Alder illuminated the circuitous path one can take as a biology student toward fulfillment and job security… not to mention the love of chihuahuas.

More on that later.

The Road Less Traveled

Alder points to his PhD advisor, SBS’s Gary Rose, as the mentor who gave him “great direction over the years, particularly when I was stuck.” At the time Rose’s lab primarily focused on the neurophysiology of electrosensory systems in electric fish. Alder took an alternate path to study neuronal mechanisms underlying temporal processing in the auditory midbrain, a subject related to Rose’s PhD dissertation from a decade earlier. It was Rose’s broad way of thinking about science, research and the labyrinth that is life and career that still benefits Alder today.

“My dissertation was very broad over some fairly diverse scientific disciplines. This would not have been possible without Gary's early influence in teaching that young graduate student to not only see the world in a different way, but to approach problems and question them in a different way as well. I will always be grateful to Gary for helping me to see that there are no isolated questions or problems in science, but that everything has a much broader context and, as Robert Frost wrote, ‘that has made all the difference.’"

That difference played out while Alder was at the U in a remarkably refreshing and surprising way. “I was recording from a neuron in the midbrain of an anuran amphibian,” he explains, “and I thought of a test to further understand how these particular neurons worked.” Normally, neurons are not held in a stable state long enough for the kind of procedure Alder was planning. “But I stopped the program that was making the frog calls and quickly wrote a section of code so the program could do the test.”

It was that recompiling of the code—and a few crossed fingers—that led to a startling discovery. Once he turned the equipment back on the neuron in question was still there. From that test Alder showed that the generally accepted theory explaining how a neuron differentiates between high and low pulse rates was wrong. It turns out that neurons do not accomplish this differentiation though energy integration. Instead, Alder found that neurons were actually counting the number of pulses that occur within the range of pulse rates to which the neuron is tuned.

“That was one of the most exciting days of my life,” Alder says, “and I have always been amazed that those very complex questions were answered with [a] test performed on one neuron (it was repeated of course).” Alder graduated from SBS with his PhD in 2000.

Tripping the Patent Fantastic

Over the course of seven years, the mixture of biology, neurophysiology, molecular biology, etc. actually led to a degree in law which in turn opened up many opportunities for Alder to work with some very diverse and fascinating technologies. Enter his work in patent law following a clerkship at TNW beginning in 2002.

A Utah native, Alder hasn’t moved far geographically (he still lives in Utah and received all three of his degrees, including his law degree, from the U). But career-wise and developmentally it has been a galactic trip. For this reason he is quick to remind up-and-coming biologists at the U that education is not, and should never have been, about getting a job. “If you really contemplate the principles you are learning and integrate them into your life, it will change you and the way you think. To me, that is worth so much more than what type of job your degree can get you.”

About dogs … and a bear

Perhaps because of his wide-ranging academic, research and now patent career, Alder’s interests, like his dissertation, are broad and diverse. He loves to rock hound, watch horror movies, study theoretical physics and philosophy, collect old books, and “seriously mess with door-to-door sales people.” (Hopefully, while masked.) “Oh, and I once goosed a black bear in the wild, which made him terribly grumpy. But that is a story for a different day... .”

Which brings us to another enduring interest of Todd Alder’s and that is his love of chihuahuas. One advantage of working from home non-stop, quarantined from everyone else, is that your pets become a fixture, a pain and, if cuddly enough, a kind of accessory for that dress shirt above that questionable garment immediately below.

You can watch a recording of the BioLuminaries lecture by Todd Alder and co-presenter Heng Xie (PhD’04) on SBS’s YouTube Channel here.


By David Pace

Are you a Science Alumni? Connect with us today!

Nikhil Bhayani

Nikhil Bhayani

“Every time I come to the U with my kids,” says Nikhil K. Bhayani, MD, FIDSA (BS’98), “I take them on a reality tour. I [recently] told my youngest son, ‘Let’s retrace my footsteps when I used to go from one of the lecture halls at Presidents Circle, to the Student Union. This is the way my day was like.’”

They ended up at the Pie Pizzeria Underground, a decades-long favorite haunt of students and faculty just west of main campus on 2nd South, famous as much for its densely graffitied walls as its provocatively named specialties like “Hawaii Pie-O” and “Holy Shittake.” “It really feels like a college campus,” says Bhayani of the U. “My son tells me that he wants to get pizza here [at the Pie] every day.”

Though born in Virginia, Bhayani considers Salt Lake City, where he was raised, home. His parents, both originally from India, married in New York City after Bhayani’s father had finished graduate studies at the University of Rhode Island.

“I always wanted to go to medical school,” says Bhayani who graduated in 1998 with a biology major and a chemistry minor. (His brother Mihir also graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in chemistry in 2000 and is also a medical doctor.) While an undergraduate he worked in a bioengineering lab run by Richard Normann, and later in one of the labs at the Moran Eye Center. He recalls fondly some of his fellow Indians, in particular Rajesh, Monica and Leena Gandhi, a few years older than he, but also graduates in biology who went onto medical careers in infectious diseases and cancer.

Bhayani later attended Ross University School of Medicine in Portsmouth, Dominica, and was awarded his medical degree in 2003. In 2006 he completed medical residency training at Mercy Hospital and Medical Center in Chicago where his brother currently lives.

Nikhil and his family now live in Texas where he practices medicine at Dallas-Fort Worth Infectious Diseases, an integrated health care network comprised of physicians, hospitals, case managers, community clinics, and managed care partners.

There he also enlisted as an Infectious Diseases and Epidemiology Physician Advisor at Texas Health Resources in Arlington. In 2016, Bhayani was named Physician of the Year by the Texas Health Arlington Memorial Hospital. Not one to rest on his laurels, he was hired earlier this year as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Internal Medicine, at Texas Christian University and the University of North Texas School of Medicine where he brings his undergrad U experience full-circle by teaching pre-med-students. Especially gratifying recently was when a graduating senior, also interested in infectious diseases, came to him to ask if he could “shadow” him for four weeks for one of the student’s electives.

In clinical practice, says Bhayani, who works long-term with patients who live with HIV and other infectious diseases, “the research is always changing what we do. You have to keep up with developing trends… . We get patients who are insured, who have steady jobs and who are a little more educated, so when they read about new medications they want to make sure they're getting the latest. In private practice you want to be at the top of your educated game. This motivates me to stay on top too."

In his administrative role as physician advisor, Bhayani oversees all infectious disease policy-making—like the use of antibiotics, what lab teams are going to be doing—at fifteen acute care hospitals under the umbrella of the Texas Health Resources system. With a large African immigrant population Dallas/Ft. Worth, also home to a major international airport, experiences emerging infectious diseases and thus needs intense anti-microbial stewardship, including CDC protocols and cooperation with the local health department. Bhayani is at the center of these various sector components.

As you grow up and become successful, always look back and reflect how you got there and give back to the community you were nurtured in.”

It’s an intense but meaningful career, and sometimes Bhayani considers what it would be like to return more to teaching and mentoring, the kind that he feels he got at the University of Utah’s School of Biological Sciences. “My dad always said, ‘As you grow up and become successful, always look back and reflect how you got there and give back to the community you were nurtured in,” says Bhayani. Even so, he never wants entirely to give up his clinical experience at what amounts to the largest nonprofit based healthcare group in the country, second only to Intermountain Healthcare based in Salt Lake City.

“As I reflect, who I am today is thanks to my parents and the University of Utah for giving me motivation and an opportunity to pursue higher education,” says Bhayani who with his wife of eighteen years, also originally from India where her parents still live, is busy raising two sons. This while trying to keep up with following the NBA, NFL and, of course, the Utes, which he loves.

“Most of the work is done by my wife,” Bhayani concedes. He refers to her as the “pillar of the house, that “she keeps everything going. Left to me it would be like college all over again.”

Pizza anyone?

In May 2021, after months of battling the COVID-19 pandemic, Bhayani was selected as Top Physician of the Year by the International Association of Top Professionals (IAOTP) for his outstanding leadership and commitment to the healthcare industry.


by David Pace

Are you a Science Alumni? Connect with us today!

Diana Montgomery

Diana Montgomery

“Perhaps my favorite experience at the University of Utah is when I started working in a biology lab for the first time and realizing I fit in and enjoyed the work and the people there,” says Diana Montgomery, BS’87 in Biology. “It certainly helped to solidify my career choice.”

While at the U, Diana worked in Allen Edmundson’s crystallography lab on Wakara Way. In addition to learning practical skills, Diana was included in the research publication, titled “A mild method for the preparation of disulfide-linked hybrids of immunoglobulin light chains” in 1987. The journal was Molecular Immunology. (Read the paper here.)

Shortly thereafter, Diana graduated from the U and moved to Baltimore, Maryland, to begin graduate school at Johns Hopkins University. Her advisor was Ernesto Freire, a well-known expert in biological thermodynamics. Diana completed a doctorate degree in Biology/Biophysics from Johns Hopkins in 1994 and conducted postdoctoral work at Northwestern University in the lab of Richard Morimoto and at the University of Massachusetts in the lab of Lila Gierasch.

Diana is now a Principal Scientist in the department of Pharmacokinetics, Pharmacodynamics, and Drug Metabolism at Merck, in Pennsylvania. She focuses on developing therapeutic proteins as new drugs, two of which are now FDA-approved products, tildrakizumab and bezlotoxumab.

Tildrakizumab (brand name Ilumya) is approved for the treatment of adult patients with moderate-to-severe plaque psoriasis in the United States and Europe. Tildrakizumab is a monoclonal antibody that selectively binds to the p19 subunit of IL-23 and inhibits its interaction with the IL-23 receptor. IL-23 is a naturally occurring cytokine that is involved in inflammatory and immune responses.

Bezlotoxumab (brand name Zinplava) is a monoclonal antibody designed for the prevention of recurrence of Clostridium difficile infections, which can be life-threatening. Bezlotoxumab works by binding to a specific toxin produced by the Clostridium difficile bacteria and neutralizes the toxin’s effects.

Merck is a multinational company and one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, employing some 74,000 people. In 2020 alone, Merck invested $13.6 billion in drug research and development.

Diana has 24 research publications with nearly 1,400 citations to her credit. Her recent work has focused on describing the effects of immunogenicity on therapeutic proteins. One liability of protein-based therapeutics is their tendency to elicit an unwanted immune response against themselves. One of the manifestations of such an immune response is the activation of B cells, which produce anti-drug antibodies that bind to therapeutic protein drugs and can reduce a drug’s therapeutic effects or be associated with safety issues. Therefore, an important part of therapeutic protein drug development is to characterize the tendency of a drug to elicit anti-drug antibodies and any potential effects on clinical pharmacokinetics, efficacy, and safety.

Reflecting back to her childhood, Diana recalls several key moments that motivated her to study science.

“My father was a mining engineer. He did some geology education while we were hiking, like what type of rocks were on the trail and how to recognize fool’s gold,” says Diana. “When we went camping, he’d explain the Pythagorean theorem with the triangles of the tent. It made math and science familiar to me.”

In high school, Diana developed an interest in molecular biology and biochemistry. She then chose to attend the University of Utah because it was a reputable research university which was close to home. (Diana grew up in Tooele, Utah, about 30 miles from the U.) Diana received an Honors at Entrance scholarship to begin her studies at the U, based on her achievements in high school.

“At the U, several classes in the Department of Biology (now School of Biological Sciences) were designed to encourage students to make and test hypotheses. This form of experimental-based learning was both effective and highly enjoyable,” said Diana.

“Professors like Gordon Lark and John Roth were fantastic. They made their lectures interesting and taught us how to think like a scientist and how to do science in the laboratory. I was lucky to be a part of that, but at the time didn’t realize it was so rare. I believe it is important for students to get a feel for doing science in introductory classes like these, rather than being exposed to it for the first time in graduate school. By the end of my undergraduate years, I was hooked on the scientific paradigm of hypothesis, design, experiment, and interpret. I have the U to thank for that.”

Diana and her husband, Hwa-ping (Ed) Feng have two children, Ellen and Nathan. Diana particularly enjoys gardening and reading. She also volunteers at a local food pantry and at animal-adoption clinics.

The College of Science and its four academic departments – Biological Sciences, Chemistry, Mathematics, Physics & Astronomy – now graduate more than 650 students each year. We are proud of our many alumni who live and work all around the world. Please share your stories with us!

Are you a Science Alumni? Connect with us today!