Brennan Mahoney

Brennan Mahoney


“As a child I always seemed to have an interest in animals,” says Brennan Mahoney, HBS’20, “and  originally  I wanted  to  be  a   veterinarian!”     Fate, however, would intervene for this Sandy, Utah native.

When he was ten years old Mahoney’s father had a massive heart attack in the left anterior descending artery (LAD), what’s colloquially called the “widow-maker” because when it is blocked it often results in the patient’s death. His father survived thanks to the “herculean efforts,” of the medical team.

“The work of the doctors and how they treated my family throughout the period of his recovery,” he says, “… turned my interests in biology towards its applications in the field of medicine.” Mahoney’s father would eventually receive a heart transplant nearly two years to the date of the attack, and Mahoney would later enroll in pre-med at the University of Utah where, when he’s not studying, he enjoys playing the guitar and piano, cooking, hiking, (“This is Utah, of course,” he says) … and following Ute football.

The summer after his freshman year, Mahoney worked toward his certification as a nursing assistant (CNA) so that he could start gaining clinical experience. “I worked as a home health aide in many different contexts,” he explains, “but mostly dealt with people who had neurological disorders or injuries.” It was during this time that he met a client who, prior to his injury, had worked as a researcher, and the experience pushed Mahoney to look for opportunities in a neuroscience lab. At the same time, Mahoney also worked as a tutor at West High School in Salt Lake City.

Enter Sophie Caron, professor in the School of Biological Sciences who at the time held the endowed Mario Capecchi Chair, named after Utah’s Nobel laureate who holds joint appointments in SBS and Human Genetics at the U. Caron’s lab studies multisensory integration (MI), a process by which brains integrate sensory information into a comprehensive picture of their environment.

The Caron lab, 2020

“For the study of this,” reports Mahoney who graduated with honors last summer but continues working in the Caron lab as a technician, we “used a brain area known as the mushroom body of [the fruit fly] D. melanogaster as a model.” The Caron team characterized the connection of neurons from multiple sensory modalities using a technique known as GFP reconstitution across synaptic partners or GRASP for short. “With knowledge of the patterns underlining MI, this logic could be applied to more complex brains,” says Mahoney, including, potentially, the human brain.

The research culminated in a first publication for Mahoney and his undergraduate colleague Miles Jacob, also credited as a co-author. The article, which made the cover of the journal Cell Reports highlights fundamental differences in the way associate brain centers, notably the mushroom body, integrate sensory information and converge in higher order brain centers. The findings are built  on previous work from the Caron lab that described a pathway conveying visual information from the medulla to the ventral accessary calyx of the mushroom body. “[O]ur study,” reads the article abstract, “defines a second, parallel pathway that is anatomically poised to convey information from the visual system to the dorsal accessary calyx.”

It is these kinds of scientific findings that inspire a young researcher like Brennan Mahoney to keep going. His ambition, in fact, is to apply to an MD/PhD program where he can continue in research that can help health professionals practice the good work that he witnessed first-hand when his father was singularly under their care.

"The efforts of my father's medical team allowed him to live so that he could continue to raise me and my two brothers and continue to live a happy and full life to this day. I hope to be able to help people in that same capacity, be it through direct patient care or through the findings of my future research."

The School of Biological Sciences regularly grants the Research Scholar Award to deserving undergraduate researchers like Brennan Mahoney. You can support these scholarships through a donation here.

by David Pace

Jessica Stanley

Jessica Stanley


Jessica Stanley, undergraduate research scholar in the Clayton/Bush Lab), will tell you that one of the best things about being at the University of Utah isn’t biology (although she’s definitely keen on that), but MUSS. No, that’s not a kind of hair gel, it’s an acronym for Mighty Utah Student Section.

In 2001, average student attendance at University of Utah home football games was around 500 students per game. In 2002, the Alumni Association and Department of Athletics partnered to start the Utah Football Fan Club (the current MUSS). “When I came to Utah as an assistant in 1994,“ Utah Head Football Coach Kyle Whittingham is quoted as saying, “the student section consisted of four students and a dog. And the dog was a stray.” Not so now. MUSS has grown to 6,000 members and was named the nation’s fourth best student section by NCAA.com in 2014.

Outside of rooting for her favorite football team, Stanley, who studies birds and the parasites who live on them, can get downright technical, in a biological sort of way. When asked what she’d most like someone to know about her research findings to date she reports, that “there has been no correlation found between pectinate claw prevalence and parasite abundance. However we have found a correlation between claw length and mite load.”

Okay.

A Cottonwood Heights (Utah) native, Stanley studies the function of pectinate claws on cattle egrets. “We are trying to understand the function of the claw and how it may be used for removal of ectoparasites,” she says. At the 2019 Biology Retreat and Lark Symposium, she was one of 14 undergraduate scholarship recipients who presented research posters. “Most people know that avian families use preening as an anti-parasite behavior; however, most people do not know that scratching with the foot is also an important behavior,” she explained to guests at the event. “Scratching can be used to help control parasites in regions that are not easy to preen, such as the head. The pectinate claw (comb-link serrations) can be used to aid in parasite removal.”

Still trying to envision what a pectinate claw looks like? Stanley, who is a Senior, and hopes to attend veterinary school and work with large animal exotics, can help.

More about Jessica Stanley:

How has the scholarship funded by Ryan Watts (BS'2000; Denali Therapeutics) you’ve received assisted you thus far? What would you want the donor of your scholarship to know about how valuable the scholarship has been to you?

This scholarship has given me the opportunity to build my resume while learning the valuable world of research. It has helped me to understand the correct research methods and has taught me to think outside the box. This scholarship has also made me more comfortable talking with others about their ideas and how I can include their opinions into my work.

If you had to pick one action hero, historical hero, or personal hero of yours, who would it be and why?:  

I would chose my Grandfather Norman. He has taught me that hard work and family are all you need to have a great life. You do not need material goods to make you happy. You make your own happiness in this world and nothing can stop you from being what you want to be.

Outside of research and school, what are your Interests?:  ultimate frisbee