Jordan Herman, PhD’20

WWJHD?


Few encounter a fer-de-lance snake and walk away unscathed. While working in Costa Rica recent School of Biological Sciences (SBS) graduate Jordan Herman (PhD’20) moved closer to observe a toucan dismembering the green iguana it was having for lunch. When the bird took off and dropped half of it, Herman picked up the iguana’s tail and realized she had nearly stepped on the coiled and camouflaged pit viper at her feet. As the bird returned to finish its meal, Herman stood still, suddenly stuck between an intimidating toucan and the venomous snake. She escaped the dangerous situation by offering up the tail and backing away slowly.

For Herman, this moment earned her “a new appreciation for how cool and terrifying nature can be.”

Herman originally came to the SBS graduate program in 2014 from the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities. Her research has been focused on the fitness consequences that mockingbirds experience when they are co-exploited, how the co-occurring parasites interact with each other, and the roles that host defenses play in these species interactions.

Now a post doctoral fellow in the Clayton-Bush lab, Herman thrives in the outdoors and has always been captivated by birds. While working as a field assistant in the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador, she became hooked on parasitic nest flies and their endemic bird hosts. This interest, in turn, brought her to Argentina, where she worked on the effects of parasitic nest flies and brood-parasitic cowbirds on their shared host, the chalk-browed mockingbird.

Her passion for the outdoors extends to her adopted home of Utah. When she isn’t backpacking all over the Intermountain West, you can find her spending time in her Salt Lake City garden with her four chickens–Dotty, Penguin, Mungo, and Jerry. Currently, she and her partner Joey have also been treating themselves to sushi takeout from Sapa, a local Asian fusion restaurant where, she says, “you can still order mussel shooters!”

Outside of her research, Herman has also made a lasting impact in SBS where she is grounded in a close-knit community of biologists with wide-ranging research interests. As a mentor, she has soared by offering strong support and advice to those around her. “Jordan’s unwavering sense of self allows her to be a generous mentor,” explains fellow graduate student, Maggie Doolin (Dearing lab), “and one of the most consistent sources of truth and support I’ve encountered anywhere throughout my life. She is one-of-a-kind,” continues Doolin, “and I’m lucky to have had her welcome me to the SBS grad program for all things life and science.” When asked what the best advice Herman herself has received in graduate school, she replies, “Publish early!” You can find Herman’s publications in journals like Ecology and the Journal of Avian Biology.

Clearly an expert in field research, Herman uses her knowledge to give back to her community. “Given the amount of field research, field courses, and outdoor recreation that happens in SBS, our community has a major need for wilderness preparedness,” she says. This need gave rise to Herman’s involvement in developing the biennial subsidized Wilderness First Aid course which is available to students, faculty, and staff in the SBS. A future goal is to expand this program to more personnel across the College of Science.

Jordan Herman, PhD, is truly a force of nature. Next time you’re stuck between an intimidating toucan and a camouflaged pit viper, remember to ask yourself, WWJHD?:  What would Jordan Herman do? The School of Biological Sciences is indebted to Jordan Herman. She will always have a place here among the wide variety of birds and lifelong friends nestled at the base of the Wasatch Mountains.

 

by Andy Sposato

Andy is a graduate student in the Gagnon lab and co-founder of the LGBTQ+ STEM Interest Group in the College of Science.

Anna Vickrey, PhD’20

Anna Vickrey


Anna Vickrey who graduated from the School of Biological Sciences with a PhD in 2020 has always been fascinated with domestication, both the process and the "products" which include the plants and animals important to our lives and history as humans. "I became really interested in the morphological diversity present both in domestic breeds and natural species by going to a lot of dog shows," she says.

The Salt Lake City native also had chickens and pigeons, growing up, and spent time around wild bird species ("My mom 'rehabbed' wild birds out of our house," she reports). As an undergrad at the University of Utah, she became curious about how diversity is generated at the genetic level. "Naively, I was wondering if differences in morphology are generated by 'coding' or 'regulatory' changes to genes. In reality," she admits, "it’s more complicated than that!)." Fortunately for her, this was one of the questions that Professor Mike Shapiro was asking in his pigeon lab which she was able to join and where she continued working through her graduation last spring.

Vickrey keeps pigeons as pets, mostly American Show Racer and Archangel breeds, so the model subject of her research for the past several years is one she'd had a longstanding interest in. While in the Shapiro lab she studied wing color patterns in domestic pigeons. "Even though we know that color patterns are really important for animals in the wild (for things like camouflage and mate choice), there’s still a lot that’s not known about how patterns are generated at the genetic and molecular level," she says. "I also work on head crests, a type of ornamental feather structure--sort of a fancy feather-do--that are present in lots of pigeon breeds and wild bird species."

For each of these projects, she and her team learned some surprising things about the genes that cause these traits. For example, pigeons with a wing color pattern called "barless" also can have vision defects that are called “foggy vision” by pigeon breeders. "The gene that we found is associated with the barless color pattern is known to cause hereditary blindness in humans when the gene is mutated." And while the researchers didn’t expect to discover this connection, foggy vision in barless pigeons is caused by eye defects that are similar to humans with this type of hereditary blindness.

Hitting the books in the Shapiro Lab.

Staggeringly, there are over 300 breeds of domestic rock pigeon. Similar to dogs, these breeds can look extremely different from one another (think of the difference between a Chihuahua and a Great Dane) even though they’re all the same species. Also, the pigeons all over a typical city like Salt Lake are “ferals,” she explains, meaning they’ve descended from the same domestic species.

The School of Biological Sciences houses research on a huge diversity of topics. "As an undergrad and then a grad student I’ve always felt very lucky to have exposure to such diversity--everything from crystallography and protein biochemistry to rainforest ecology!" she says. Now with her PhD, it's clear to Vickrey that it's important to be a lifelong learner. Even while currently finishing up the projects in the Shapiro lab, "we're starting to get some really cool results looking at the bright red skin around the eyes."

In turns out that the color may be another trait that was hybridized into domestic pigeons from the African speckled pigeon. She and her colleagues will also be kept busy during the next few months looking for modifier genes that control head crest size.

And what are her plans long-term? "I want to stay on a career path that allows me to continue to communicate science while keeping me connected to science. I'm really interested in genetic counseling but I'm also looking at a science policy fellowship."

Clearly, Vickrey whose heroes include Marie Curie, the Polish and naturalized-French physicist and chemist who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity, is characterized by a diversity of inquiry she found so available at SBS. Indicative of that are other heroes of hers that she ticks off:  Latino artist Frida Kahlo, the author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (most famous for his iconic The Little Prince), and the late marine biologist Rachel Carson whose signature Silent Spring spring-boarded conservation and nature writing into the national conversation. All of these people, like Vickrey, possess determination, creativity, and passion.

Armed with her doctorate, Anna Vickrey will eventually land at her next formal adventure animated by scientific research and intense learning. In the meantime, her love of domesticated animals continues, an interest that threads through her inquisitive life before and during her time at the U, and now post graduation. Along with reading fiction and cooking, she will always enjoy trail running with her dogs. "I [also] go to a lot of 'animal competitions'" she says, looking for the right term to describe her enduring interest outside her research, "like quarter horse races and sheepdog trials."

 

 

2020 Churchill Scholar

Michael Xiao

Five for Five.

Michael Xiao brings home the U's fifth straight Churchill Scholarship.

Five years after the University of Utah became eligible to compete for the prestigious Churchill Scholarship out of the United Kingdom, the university has sported just as many winners. All of them hail from the College of Science, and all were facilitated through the Honors College which actively moves candidates through a process of university endorsement before applications are sent abroad. The effort has obviously paid off.

“These students are truly amazing,” says Ginger Smoak, Associate Professor Lecturer in the Honors College and the Distinguished Scholarships Advisor. “They are not merely intelligent, but they are also creative thinkers and problem solvers who are first-rate collaborators, researchers, learners, and teachers.”

The most recent U of U winner of the Churchill Scholars program is Michael Xiao of the School of Biological Sciences (SBS).

While early on he aspired to be a doctor, Xiao’s fascination with how mutations in the structure of DNA can lead to diseases such as cancer led him to believe that while it would be one thing “to be able to treat someone, to help others, it would be quite another to be able to understand and study the underpinnings of what you’re doing and to be at its forefront.” This is particularly true, right now, he says, with the advent of the coronavirus.

Michael Xiao

The underpinnings of Xiao’s recent success started as early as eighth grade in the basement of his parent’s house where he was independently studying the effects of UV light damage on DNA. To quantify those effects he was invited to join a lab at nearby BYU where faculty member Kim O’Neill, Professor of Microbiology & Molecular Biology mentored him through high school, even shepherding him through a first-author paper.

Since then Xiao has matured into a formidable researcher, beginning his freshman year in the lab of Michael Deininger, Professor of Internal Medicine and the Huntsman Cancer Institute, followed by his move to the lab of Jared Rutter, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator in biochemistry. With Rutter he studied the biochemistry of PASK and its roles in muscle stem cell quiescence and activation of the differentiation program. His findings provided insight into the role and regulation of PASK during differentiation, as well as a rationale for designing a small molecule inhibitor to treat diseases such as muscular dystrophy by rejuvenating the muscle stem cell population.

Early experience in a research lab is not only about engaging the scientific method through new discoveries but also about making academic connections that lead to auspicious careers.

Sir Winston Churchill

One of those connections for Xiao was with Chintan Kikani now at the University of Kentucky. In fact the two of them are currently finishing up the final numbers of their joint PASK- related research.

The Churchill award, named after Sir. Winston Churchill, will take Xiao to Cambridge University beginning in October. While there, Xiao plans to join the lab of Christian Frezza at the MRC Cancer Unit for a master’s in medical science. After returning from the UK, Xiao plans to pursue an MD/PhD via combined medical school and graduate school training in an NIH-funded Medical Scientist Training Program.

Xiao is quick to thank his many mentors as well as SBS and the Honors College, the latter of which, he says, taught him to think critically and communicate well, especially through writing. Honors “was very helpful in helping me improve in a lot of areas,” he says, “that are important to my work and my personal life as well.”

Denise Dearing, Director of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Utah describes Michael Xiao as one who “epitomizes how early research opportunities are transformative and how they ‘turbo-charge’ the likelihood of creating world-class scientists. The School is first in line to congratulate him on receiving this extraordinary award.”

 

by David Pace

 

- First Published in OurDNA Magazine, Spring 2020

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Ana Rosas

Ana Rosas


Every student’s story is one-of-a-kind, and Ana Rosas’ is no exception.

Rosas’ desire to become a doctor was deeply personal. She recalls her grandmother dying just one month after being diagnosed with untreatable and advanced liver cancer. “During my grieving, I thought about what, if anything, could have been done to prolong” her grandmother’s life. Was the late diagnosis due to her grandmother’s Hispanic heritage? Her community’s mistrust of physicians? Socio-economic barriers? “Though I was provided with encouragements,” she wrote in her recent application to medical school, including from select teachers at local Cottonwood High School, “I was also independently driven to learn and become equipped with tools needed to one day give back to my community.”

Ana arrived as a one-year-old in the United States with her mother and aunt, both of whom had been doctors in their native Colombia. But neither woman was eligible to practice medicine in the U.S. Instead, these two single mothers focused on raising their children. Being in a country that unexpectedly eliminated her career did not keep Ana's mother from sharing her expertise. Rosas remembers her mother conducting a hands-on anatomy class with a pig's head on the dining room table, even introducing surgical procedures.

At the University of Utah as a biology major intent on going to medical school, Rosas quickly realized that she didn’t have the same resources or opportunities, finding that she was on her own to navigate, for example, finding a lab to do research. She didn’t know anyone in the health sciences. Seventy emails later she landed in Dr. Albert Park’s lab at Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City where she worked with her team to better remove laryngeal cysts in infants. The learning curve was steep: literature reviews, in-text citations, and continually managing her share of “imposter syndrome” that started as early as high school where she was a minority. Her work with Park resulted in her presenting a poster at a national Otolaryngology meeting and a first authorship in a related prestigious international journal. “I have not had many undergraduates achieve so much in such a short time,” Park says of Rosas.

Now a senior at the School of Biological Sciences, Rosas has been busy working in not one but two labs. With Kelly Hughes she works with bacteria, specifically Salmonella, and focuses on identifying the secretion signal for a regulatory protein that is required for proper flagellar formation. “I mutagenize the protein,” she says, “by incorporating random amino acid substitutions at each amino acid position of the protein.” Along the way she looks for colonies that are defective. “This way I can send those colonies for sequencing and obtain data that can tell what amino acids are essential for the proper secretion of the protein” under study.

Her second lab experience with Robert C. Welsh in the School of Medicine's Department of Psychiatry brings Rosas' career ambitions back full circle to her heritage and her desire to give back to her community, which is often under-served by the medical profession and under-represented in institutions of higher learning. Using imaging equipment, she and her colleagues are developing a diagnostic and prognostic tool to determine where ALS (Alzheimer’s) patients are in the progression of the disease. Related to that is lab work of another kind. In the “engagement studio” at University Neuropsychiatric Institute (UNI) she is gathering feedback from minority groups to see what obstacles—from language barriers to mistrust of medical authorities–impact their participation in research. “We want to figure out what researchers can do to encourage their cooperation,” she says.

At the same time, while demonstrating that she’s not only successfully balancing on that once precipitous learning curve, Rosas has demonstrated that she’s clearly ahead of it. Currently she is treasurer of the InSTEM group on campus and has helped initiate the new Health Sciences LEAP program which does science outreach in high schools. “I want to help minorities like me,” says Rosas, “better navigate college for the first few years.”  Tanya Vickers who directs the ACCESS program for the College of Science, is most certain she will do exactly that, referring to Rosas as a “remarkable young woman.”

Rosas has indeed come a long way from anatomy lessons on her mother’s kitchen table. Applying to medical schools has provided the chance to reflect on her journey and, considering the barriers and uncertainty she first felt, that journey has proven to be an auspicious one.

 

by David G. Pace